The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs - Rolling Stone
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The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

Ahead of their final show, explore this beloved Canadian band’s sprawling catalog

During their 32-year career, spanning 14 studio albums and millions of records sold, the Tragically Hip have become synonymous with Canadian music. By filling their songs with national lore, singer Gord Downie, guitarist Paul Langlois, guitarist Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay have tapped into the Canadian condition in a rare way. “If you’re a musician and you’re born in Canada it’s in your DNA to like the Tragically Hip,” City and Colour’s Dallas Green told The Canadian Press.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that an entire country mourned when the band announced in May that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. “His status as an extraordinary Canadian creative force and icon is not to be understated,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Downie at a press conference the following month.

The band, known for their lengthy and raucous tours, told their fans they were doing it one more time – in their words: “This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.” After releasing their latest album, Man Machine Poem, in June, and playing shows across the country through July and August, they will take the stage for what is likely to be the last time together on Saturday, August 20th, in their hometown of Kingston. The concert will be televised and live streamed, following a national outcry after the tour sold out in minutes, and Trudeau will be among the attendees. Canada will get to say goodbye to its most treasured band, fronted by a poet who made a country proud, patriotic and fiercely grateful for the music. As a tribute to the group, we look back at 10 songs that define the Tragically Hip.

Tragically Hip 10 essential songs

“Highway Girl” (1987)

After forming in Kingston in 1984, the band started playing shows in and around Ontario. At a gig at the iconic Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto in 1986, then-president of MCA Records Bruce Dickinson was in the audience. The result was a self-titled 1987 LP that included the single "Highway Girl." A 1991 live version of the song included a fictional rant about a double-suicide – it proved to be more popular and garner more radio play than the original. Downie would go on to ad lib elaborate speaking sections for a number of the group’s future hits.

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“New Orleans Is Sinking” (1989)

The Hip's second album, 1989's Up to Here, spawned a number of hits including "Blow at High Dough," "38 Years Old," "Boots or Hearts" and one of the groups most iconic songs, "New Orleans Is Sinking." During shows, Downie again used the middle portion of the song to try out ad-libbed stories, as well as workshop ideas that later became Hip songs including "Nautical Disaster" and "Ahead by a Century." But the most famous version includes a bizarre story about Downie working as a cleaner of a killer-whale tank at an aquarium and was eventually released as a B side because of its popularity. In the months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, a number of Canadian radio stations temporarily stopped playing the song out of respect for the victims.

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“Fiddler’s Green” (1991)

The 1991 album Road Apples continued to build on the band's bluesy sound. In a 1991 interview with The Georgia Straight, guitarist Rob Baker shared how the album got its name. After the band suggested a number of ideas that their label deemed inside jokes, they countered with Road Apples, the slang term for horse droppings. "And of course they had no idea what road apples were in Los Angeles," Baker said. "They said, 'Oh, yeah! Songs that you wrote on the road! We love it!'" The song "Fiddler's Green" was written for Downie's young nephew Charles Gillespie, who had died of a heart ailment before it was recorded. The emotional ballad remained unplayed for 15 years, until 2006.

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“Fifty Mission Cap” (1992)

If there was an album that cemented the Hip's place in Canadian music history while simultaneously revealing the poetic depth of Gord Downie's storytelling, it was 1992's Fully Completely. The album went on to sell more than a million copies in Canada, and the songs remain among the group's best loved. "Fifty Mission Cap" tells the story of Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko, who scored the team's Stanley Cup–winning goal in 1951. Months later, the 24-year-old's plane crashed in the Northern Ontario wilderness and his body went undiscovered for 11 years – strangely, exactly as many years as it took the Leafs to win the Stanley Cup again.

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“Wheat Kings” (1992)

This fan favorite was never released as a single on Fully Completely. "Wheat Kings" begins with the calls of a solitary loon and recounts the true case of David Milgaard, who was wrongly imprisoned for 23 years for the killing of a young Saskatchewan nurse. The slow, mournful song has been played around Canadian campfires since its release. Despite the many mentions of Canadiana on the album, MCA hoped Fully Completely would finally break the band in the United States. It didn't."Two weeks before the record comes out," said bassist Gord Sinclair in the book Have Not Been the Same: The Canrock Renaissance 1985-1995, "all the record company is saying is, 'It's gonna be big boys, look out!' Then the week after, no one returns our calls. That's the way it is." MCA cut American production of the album after two weeks.

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“Grace, Too” (1994)

In March of 1995, another son of Kingston, Ontario, Dan Aykroyd, stood in front of millions of viewers on Saturday Night Live wearing a shirt that read "Canada" and announced: "It is my honor to introduce to America my friends the Tragically Hip." The album was Day for Night, the song was "Grace, Too" and the sound was a deeper, darker Hip. "Nautical Disaster," also performed that night, helped make this the first of the band's albums to debut at Number One on the Canadian Albums Chart. That night, Americans got a taste of the band live and Downie's trademark prancing, gesticulating stage presence. "I surrender," he told MacLean's Magazine in 2009 of his approach to performance. "I throw myself on the altar of song and I see my own personal musical life in fast flashes of faces and names and colors and sounds and I get lost in the euphoria of standing up there."

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“Ahead by a Century” (1996)

Trouble at the Henhouse, released in 1996, again debuted at Number One on the Canadian charts, and stayed there for four weeks. "Ahead by a Century" is the band's highest charting single ever – and some of its lyrics were etched into the soles of the custom-made boots Gord Downie has worn on the 2016 tour. In 1996, the band was coming off a year that saw them perform for almost a half-million Canadians during their Another Roadside Attraction tour and open some high-profile international shows. "I liked it and I didn't like it, to be honest," Gord Downie told The Hamilton Spectator that year. "I definitely found it amusing that within the space of a month we opened up for the Led Zeppelin guys and the [Rolling] Stones. After doing the Stones, I couldn't help but think it was very fateful somehow – that some Jedi Master somewhere had decided that we needed this as the next stage in our education."

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“Bobcaygeon” (1998)

Bobcaygeon, from the 1998 album Phantom Power, takes its name from a sleepy cottage town in the Kawartha Lakes area of Ontario, a place to pick up groceries on the way to a cabin in the woods. The song is a staple of summer in Canada, a contagious tune that gets into your head and won't leave. But the lyrics hint at something more sinister – the Christie Pits riot of 1993, which saw clashes between parts of Toronto's Jewish community and so-called Swastika clubs: "That night in Toronto with its checkerboard floors/Riding on horseback and keeping order restored/Til the men they couldn't hang/Stepped to the mic and sang/And their voices rang with that Aryan twang." Count on Gord Downie to turn serious social commentary into a hummable little ditty.

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“My Music at Work” (2000)

With album after album enjoying Canadian success, the band wanted to try something different for their next record: writing together in a private train car while traveling all over North America. The idea was eventually scrapped, but the result was Music @ Work, which included the single "My Music at Work." Despite moderate domestic success for that single, Downie remembers a "generally misunderstood album that you love just the same as your other records."

The Tragically Hip: 10 Essential Songs

“Machine” (2016)

The Tragically Hip’s latest album, Man Machine Poem, is likely to be their last. Recorded before Gord Downie’s cancer diagnosis and produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and Dave Hamelin, formerly of the Stills, the album takes its name from a song on the group’s previous release, 2012’s Now for Plan A. The set lists on the Hip’s final tour have been changing for every show, but one of the most played has been Man Machine Poem closer “Machine,” a beautiful vehicle for Downie’s poetry and an apt summation of his artistic mission for all these years: “I write about words/I find treasure or worse /I watch the end of man/And I dream like a bird.”

In This Article: The Tragically Hip

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