Does anyone really remember the song “Lovin’ You Ain’t Easy” by Pagliaro? And does anyone need to be reminded of Mashmakhan's “As the Years Go By”? Those are two of the tunes dredged up by Bob Mersereau in his new book The Top 100 Canadian Singles (Goose Lane Editions, $35), his follow-up to 2007’s The Top 100 Canadian Albums.
Mersereau, a veteran East Coast music writer and CBC arts reporter, acknowledged in his earlier book, as he does with his latest, that such lists are bound to stir controversy and debate. Rage, even. He maintains, though, that it’s all good, and that the most important thing is just to get people talking about and listening to Canadian music.
That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s also the sort of excuse you’d expect from someone who arbitrarily chose the 100 songs himself. Mersereau, though, polled hundreds of people nationwide—most, but not all, in the music biz—and then ran the results “through a statistical formula” to come up with his final list. That formula isn’t revealed (and it might not make much sense to anyone but a statistician), but, apparently, it is allergic to Jane Siberry.
Regardless, each pick is accompanied with a short article explaining the choice, usually with an interview or interviews with those responsible for writing, producing, or performing the song. There are some nice nuggets of trivia to be mined here, and the book is interspersed with “celebrity” lists for those who must know what Trailer Park Boys’ Bubbles listens to as he cruises in his shopping cart. (One guess as to his number-one band.) A list of the top 100 French-Canadian singles (sans articles) is included, as Mersereau’s first book took more than a few critical hits for its inclusion of only four French-language albums.
As could be expected, the singles list is well-represented (some might say overrepresented) by the likes of such Canuck icons as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Tragically Hip, the Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Bryan Adams, Gordon Lightfoot, and Leonard Cohen. Trooper and Loverboy put in appearances, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Sloan gets three nods. A few of the chosen are double threats, i.e., two songs (formerly called the A-side and B-side on the old 45s) that were marketed as simultaneous hits by a record company, such as Young’s “Old Man” and “The Needle and the Damage Done” or The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.
Then the fun starts.
You’ll have to buy or steal the book to peruse the full list, but we will disclose the top 10 singles and leave it up to you to decide if record sales, talent, critical praise, radio play, novelty, or just the times themselves were the determining factors for placement. One thing is for sure, people remember the past fondly (or maybe it’s more indicative of the average age of those contacted for their selections): of the top 10 hits, three are from the 1960s, five are from the ’70s, and two proudly represent the ’80s.
Not one from the past quarter-century.
They are, in order from number one: “American Woman”/”No Sugar Tonight”, the Guess Who; “Heart of Gold”, Neil Young; “The Weight”, The Band; “Summer of ’69”, Bryan Adams; “Hallelujah”, Leonard Cohen; “Born to Be Wild”, Steppenwolf; “If You Could Read My Mind”, Gordon Lightfoot; “Takin’ Care of Business”, Bachman-Turner Overdrive; “Four Strong Winds”, Ian & Sylvia; and “Snowbird”, Anne Murray. There are some small mercies. Terry Jacks’s “Seasons in the Sun” (you knew you couldn’t outrun that one, didn’t you?) doesn’t make an appearance until number 50, and its antichrist, Rough Trade’s “High School Confidential”, actually made the list (at 26).
Well, there is the aforementioned absence of anything by Jane Siberry, one of the most intelligent and talented Canadian songwriters ever. Almost anything from her albums No Borders Here and The Speckless Sky could have made this list.
And even though Robbie Robertson is represented with a few nods from his days with The Band, not to have something from his solo efforts, such as (especially) “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” from his debut—with Daniel Lanois’s brilliant and semi-surreptitious production—is an offence in the eyes of whatever sky pixies to whom you pray.
Similarly, Joni Mitchell is represented by the usual suspects (“Big Yellow Taxi”, “Help Me”, et cetera), but there is nothing to reflect the genius she flirted with in her jazzy, orchestral experimentation represented by the songs of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, for example.
Too much to hope for, I know, but the inclusion of the more mainstreamish “In France They Kiss on Main Street” could have led more Canadians to consider the brilliance of “The Jungle Line” from that largely overlooked album.
Tom Cochrane gets props for “Life Is a Highway” (17), but to exclude his Red Rider days—“Don’t Fight It”, “White Hot”, “Lunatic Fringe”—is just short of insanity. Really.
You want more? How about four Tragically Hip tunes without one of them being “Nautical Disaster”?
And no matter what you think about Heart’s “Magic Man” and “Crazy About You” not making the grade (notwithstanding their hit status and the fact that the album Dreamboat Annie sold more than a million copies), how could “Barracuda”, the group’s drivingly insistent answer to Nazareth’s “This Flight Tonight”, crap out? And forget the Seattle angle: the group formed in Vancouver, was signed in Canada, and was eligible under Canadian-content regulations.
Downchild Blues Band deserves recognition just for slaving away in the anonymous blues arena for decades, but to overlook Richard “Hock” Walsh’s version of Big Joe Turner’s “Flip, Flop and Fly” is to commit an offence against the natural order of things.
The same goes for almost anything from Doug and the Slugs’ Cognac and Bologna, especially “Too Bad”, Chinatown Calculation”, and “Drifting Away”. I mean, sweet zombie Jesus!
Then there’s “Superman’s Song” from Crash Test Dummies’ The Ghosts That Haunt Me.
And the beautiful “Looking at a Baby” from the Collectors before they were even known as the Collectors (later to become Chilliwack).
Don’t get me started.
The voters, collectively, did show some themselves to be uncommonly united in one aspect of their choices, however.
Despite the group having sold more than 30 million albums, not one Nickelback song cracked the list.