And yet, the Tragically Hip have never really managed to break through south of the 49th Parallel. Sure, some border cities with access to Canadian radio have throngs of fans; Buffalo, NY, Detroit, MI, and places in the northern US plains, perhaps, but that’s about it. The band sells out enormous hockey arenas in Manitoba, but has trouble filling a 400-person club in Washington, DC. You’d think this would bother the band, or confuse music fans in the United States, who might like to know what they’re missing, but for the most part, you’d be wrong. The Hip seem to have made their peace with their massive celebrity status in Canada only, and United States fans have typically met the band’s music with a polite but passive indifference.
Until recently, that is. With the band’s lead singer Gord Downie facing terminal brain cancer, the band embarked on a farewell tour of Canada this summer. Their final show, in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, was livecast around the world, and finally — finally! — interest was piqued. If an entire nation, including its respected prime minister, show up or tune in for a rock concert, there must be something to it.
Of course, that leaves a lot of music fans who aren’t familiar with the Tragically Hip wondering where to begin. Really, there’s no bad entry point when it comes to getting started with the Hip, but here are ten of their best to get you going.
# 10 – Wheat Kings
Decades before Making a Murderer captivated US audiences, the story of David Milgaard going free after serving 23 years in prison for a rape he did not commit was big news throughout Canada. The Hip’s “Wheat Kings,” from their 1992 masterpiece Fully Completely, is an acoustic ballad retelling this horrible miscarriage of justice amid the beauty of “the Paris of the prairies.” The beauty of the song’s guitar line and melody belies the seriousness of the song’s content, but the overall somber mood it creates reminds us that we should maybe “wait and see what tomorrow brings.”
# 9 – Blow at High Dough
Released back in 1989, “Blow at High Dough” was one of the band’s first big hits, and it’s easy to see why. The electric guitars rage over a driving beat, and Gord Downie sounds like a would-be rock star giving it all he’s got. The track is more raw than their later work, but the potential is coming through all the seams. As for the title, it’s a hokey, countrified saying about not getting ahead of oneself, but clearly, the Hip had it all planned out well.
# 8 – Grace, Too
1994’s Day for Night featured more of a rock noir sound, and “Grace, Too” was one of the album’s biggest singles. It starts off in a dark mood, with lots of bass and guitar lines high on the neck, and the melody is a somewhat repetitive one, but it’s Downie’s voice that’s the most compelling on this track. As with most Hip songs, the lyrics are cryptic and open to interpretation, but Downie’s yelps toward the end let you know that whatever the song is about, it’s pretty intense.
# 7 – The Darkest One
It’s a straightforward rock song, but that’s what makes “The Darkest One” so appealing. Best of all is the logic in the lyrics: “The wild are strong, and the strong are the darkest ones.” Really, you could put that to any melody and it would be powerful, but sung in Downie’s rising voice over the band’s heavy guitars and upbeat 4/4, it positively smolders. After a few listens, it’s easy to understand why this one is such a tremendous fan favorite. If you’re watching the video for the first time and you’re a hockey fan, pay close attention: that’s Don Cherry delivering buckets of chicken.
# 6 – Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)
First things first. American audience want to know who the heck Hugh MacLennan is, and you really can’t blame them. As most Canadians know, MacLennan is a celebrated Canadian author who wrote several novels that are more or less required reading north of the border. Downie wrote “Courage,” the leadoff track on their practically perfect Fully Completely album, after reading MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night. It’s a huge draw for the literary crowd, of course, but the tune is one of the band’s more radio-friendly ones, complete with a pop hook, a singalong chorus, and a groove that won’t quit.
# 5 – New Orleans is Sinking
In the long, tense wake of Hurricane Katrina, “New Orleans is Sinking” has taken on new meaning like a city taking on water. The Hip’s 1989 single from their Up to Here album is actually about a steamboat named The New Orleans, and despite the fact that it was one of the band’s earliest hits, it still holds up as one of their biggest. That’s for good reason, though: the furious guitar riff carries throughout the song, and Downie’s voice is at once youthful and instructive, building from a calm baritone to a fully passionate blast. The original recorded version is stunning, but there are also some terrific live renditions during which Downie spins yarns during the musical bridge. The most popular of these is about working as a cleaner of a killer whale tank, and it crosses the line from live music to near-genius performance art. Most bands wouldn’t be able to pull something like that off, but Downie and the Hip do it effortlessly.
# 4 – Nautical Disaster
“Nautical Disaster” is haunting, told from the point of view of someone who survived the horrific event described in the song’s title. It starts of with a slow burn, but in about a minute, the guitars come loud and full, the snare drums crack, and when Downie starts singing about being “in a lifeboat designed for ten and ten only,” it’s enough to send shivers down your spine. He almost makes you feel as badly for him for surviving and dealing with the aftermath as you feel for the “4000 men [that] died in the water.” It’s a beautiful song because of its subject matter, but it’s also a flat out rocker that grabs you right in your emotional core.
# 3 – Fifty Mission Cap
Leave it to a Canadian band to write a brilliant rock and roll song about a hockey player. The title of “Fifty Mission Cap” may reference an army-issued head covering that would get worn out after more than four dozen flight missions, but the lyrics tell the tale of Bill Barilko, a Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman (or defenceman, to use the Canadian spelling) who scored the team’s Stanley Cup clinching goal in 1951. He disappeared a few weeks later in a plane crash, and the Leafs didn’t win the Cup again until 1962, which was the same year his body was discovered. The lyrical content is fascinating, to be sure, but the chorus, which has some of the catchiest hooks that the band has ever written, really puts it over the top. The driving beat is a real headbanger, and really, it’s a wonder that the NHL hasn’t done more to incorporate this Hip gem into their marketing and promotional efforts. Still, it’s an outstanding and truly Canadian song. You may be a little amazed that you’re rocking out to a song about a hockey player, but it won’t stop you.
# 2 – Bobcaygeon
It’s a meandering tune with no real chorus, and while that isn’t all that unusual for the Hip, the song doesn’t sound like anything especially remarkable upon first listen. But give it another chance, and then another — this is one that gets infinitely better on repeat. “Bobcaygeon” tackles pretty serious subject matter, which has never scared off Downie and the boys; there are lots of references to anti-Semitic tensions and riots that took place in Toronto in the early 1990s. It’s mid-tempo but not quite a ballad, with ringing guitars and steady drums, the kind of slower track on an otherwise rocking album that makes you sit up and take notice. This one is poignant and lovely, highly polished with enough gruffness to keep it rough around the edges.
# 1 – Ahead by a Century
The band’s biggest hit in their native land doesn’t even sound like a typical Tragically Hip song, with its gentle acoustic strumming and its subdued tones. The Hip are a straight up rock band, but on “Ahead by a Century,” the guitars don’t even fully plug in until after the two minute mark, and even then, the folky sound dominates. Still, the track has a mellow and sweet percussive groove, and even though the chorus is just that one “you are ahead by a century” line, it really sticks. And although Downie is just getting nostalgic about his youth, you can really apply a phrase like that to just about anything. Plus, the line, “No dress rehearsal — this is our lives” takes on a new poignant meaning in light of Downie’s recent diagnosis. It’s the last song they played at their farewell concert, and it tops our list because it’s everything a great rock song should be: catchy, profound, and expertly crafted.