10 essential songs by the Tragically Hip

Along with the terrible news of Downie's illness came the inspirational announcement of a final concert tour. While we look ahead to that, and all the conflicting emotions it will encompass, we're also taking a moment to reflect on our favourite Tragically Hip songs.
Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. (David Bastedo)

Like so many music fans, we're reeling from the news that musician Gord Downie, the Tragically Hip's lead singer-songwriter, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

With 14 Juno Awards and nine number 1 albums in Canada, the Tragically Hip has been a mainstay of this country's music scene for more than three decades; it's a member of our musical family.

Along with the terrible news of Downie's illness came the inspirational announcement of a final concert tour. While we look ahead to that, and all the conflicting emotions it will encompass, we're also taking a moment to reflect on our favourite Tragically Hip songs.

There's a canon's worth of material from which to choose, and revisiting all of this incredible music, it's easy to understand why Downie is a songwriter who brings people together. He's a hockey lover with a poet's heart, bitingly funny and unfailingly gentle in his observations; an artist who never gets lost in his own mythology. Rather, he shows us our common ground and makes us glance up above, the sky same but different to all of us depending on where we stand and how closely we choose to look.

If you're not so familiar with the Hip, this is also a perfect introduction to the band's songs. It's also a great time to acknowledge how lucky we are to live in a time of a songwriter like Gord Downie and a welcome opportunity to celebrate the man and his genius.

'38 Years Old' (1989)

Skimming through the lyrics to any Hip song, you will quickly realize that Gord Downie's lyrics read very much like the words from a Canadian textbook, whether it's true stories that belong in a social studies reader, or beautifully crafted tales that could expand your mind in a creative writing program. This song is a beautiful work of historiographic metafiction, based on a jailbreak from the Millhaven Institution in Kingston, Ont., in the early '70s. It takes a special kind of writer to set a scene, tell the story, and then take you inside the mind of a character in four minutes, but that what Downie has done here, and it's also why he is one of Canada's great writers.

— Kerry Martin (@OhHiKerry)

'Nautical Disaster' (1994)

A song that doubles as a dream and a reflection on the atrocities of war — particularly Canada's role in WWII — "Nautical Disaster" is one of the finest examples of Gord Downie's brilliant songwriting. The song itself developed out of extended jam sessions of "New Orleans is Sinking," but it turned into so much more. It perfectly showcases the band's uncanny skill (but even more so Downie's) at myth-making while also telling a Canadian story, and stands besides other canonical classics like "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and "The Northwest Passage."

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)

'Bobcaygeon' (1998)

This song contains one of the most beautiful lines ever written: "I saw the constellations/ reveal themselves one star at a time." Gord Downie sings this lyric twice in "Bobcaygeon," once near the beginning, wistful, leaning more heavily on the tragedy of this romance, the unknown of the day breaking and saying goodbye to this safe haven. At the end, he's fortified and sure, returning home and his love affirmed, unfolding a whole universe just for them.

— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)

'It's A Good Life if You Don't Weaken' (2002)

Gord Downie's artistic chops shine through beautifully in the first single off the Hip's 2002 album In Violet Light. "It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken" is infused with Downie's brand of Canadian philosophy (he managed to mention skates) and certain reassuring truths that many of the Hip's songs contain without being trite: "Find somewhere to grow/go somewhere we're needed/find somewhere to grow." The song was a perfect choice for the band to play during a commanding performance for Queen Elizabeth II in October of 2002.

— Nicolle Weeks (@nikkerized)

'Wheat Kings' (1992)

A song that starts with the call of a loon may seem too Canadian at first, but Downie's nuanced lyricism delicately tells the true story of a wrongfully convicted Winnipeg man in a way that never feels as though you're stepping into a full Heritage Minute.

"You can't be fond of livin' in the past/ 'cause if you are then there's no way that you're gonna last," sings Downie, amidst references to our parents' prime ministers, the Paris of the Prairies and the CBC. The patriotic name-dropping binds everyone together during concert sing-alongs, but there's nothing like the gut punch that the line "Wheat kings and pretty things/ let's just see what the morning brings" lands after the dust settles.

— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)

'Fifty Mission Cap' (1992)

A storytelling rock 'n' roll anthem about a legendary Canadian hockey mystery? That's a recipe for one of the most Canadian songs ever written. It doesn't matter if you've never watched a game of hockey in your life, you'll remember the story of Bill Barilko by the time Gord's done singing. How many lyrics these days just wash off you? Gord Downie has a way of pulling you into every line of this song. By the last verse, you're already singing along about Bill Barilko without knowing how the story ends. It's poetry, Canadian history, and rock 'n' roll perfectly done, all at the same time.

— Alex Redekop (@AlexRedekop)

'Fireworks' (1994)

Maybe it's because I used to walk home "the long way" with a boy I liked in Grade 5, but there's just something so universal and yet specific about this phenomenal little tune. It's emotional and poignant but also funny and so very Canadian. "You said you didn't give a f--k about hockey/and I never saw someone say that before/you held my hand and we walked home the long way/you were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr," so perfectly captures the heady, all-consuming first days of falling for somebody. The music is urgent and upbeat, hearts racing alongside each other aiming for some shared future that's bigger and brighter. It looks like fireworks. It looks like love. — AW

'Ahead By A Century' (1996)

Here is a pastoral scene, a tree, golden light, the tilting of clouds and hands. New beginnings, with their illusions. Trying to make an impression, trying to catch someone far ahead. This is no dress rehearsal, love, this is our life. Then the fever dreams, then the doubt, those questions coated in innocence slowly turn to subtle panic. Golden light turns to rain. What if this won't be? No! This isn't some dress rehearsal — this is our life! And disappointing you is getting me down. And that Downie's tale of heartbreak and bewilderment is accompanied by a bouncy, hummable tune, is the Hip at its best.

— Brad Frenette (@bradfrenette)

'Grace, Too' (1994)

The Tragically Hip's 1994 release Day For Night was a runaway success for the band. It went platinum six times in Canada, landed them performances on Saturday Night Live, and even had them playing shows with the Rolling Stones. A lot of this is due to the strength of "Grace, Too," which was the first single out of the gate for this album. When I was 16, I worked construction and listened to this song every single day for four months. There's something about the consistency of this song, the build, conflict, and resolution, that kept me going from dawn till dusk.

— Kerry Martin (@OhHiKerry)

'Scared' (1994)

This acoustic gem is gentle, devastating and sly. Downie's twisty narrative offers up shifting points of view, crafting vignettes that seem disconnected until the perfect choruses that change just enough, just a little, with each iteration, until the end, fragility giving way to something stronger and more determined. "OK, you made me scared/ you did what you set out to do," Downie sings, his voice gaining momentum and attitude, before the final kiss off, "I got to go/ it's been a pleasure doing business with you." — AW


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