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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.

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.”

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