Back in May we marked the Georgia Straight’s golden anniversary by listing 50 of our favourite local albums from the past half-century. As you might expect, limiting our picks to one LP from each year meant that not all readers were pleased with the results. “Where the fuck is Nickelback?” all of Surrey wondered. “Why no 54-40?” asked others who hadn’t left the house since Expo 86 ended. “Bring me the head of Mike Usinger on a stick!” more than an angry few demanded.
We can’t help you with that last one, but Nickelback and 54-40—both of which Straight writers have proudly put on more than one lovingly curated mix tape—did make the cut this time around. In honour of this week’s Best of Vancouver issue, we decided to shine a spotlight on our picks for the 50 best songs to ever come out of this rain-soaked part of the world, this time with no one-per-year restriction.
The choices range from the snotty proto-grunge of Slow’s deathless “Have Not Been the Same” and the raging hardcore of D.O.A.’s “World War 3” to the perfect pop of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and, well, whatever the hell it is that Fake Shark does.
Your favourite Vancouver song might well be among the 50 entries below. If it isn’t, we know we’re sure as Christ going to hear about it.
Slow “Have Not Been the Same” (1985)
Best song to emerge from the grunge movement? (Which, as more than one savvy historian has noted, actually started incubating in the Pacific Northwest long before Mudhoney released “Touch Me I’m Sick”.)
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, obviously. But “Have Not Been the Same” is the runner-up, an aural amphetamine rush that swings like nothing out of Seattle ever did. There’s a very good reason Slow’s most immortal moment is first on this list.
Modernettes “Barbra” (1980)
The perfect pop-punk single? With John “Buck Cherry” Armstrong marrying his inner Chuck Berry to a Ramones-style slash-and-burn beat, this witty, giddy confection is almost certainly it.
Sweatshop Union “Thing About It” (2004)
Before rappers decided it was preferable to shout weird noises like “skrrt skrrt” and “scoo scoo” instead of lyrics, there was Sweatshop Union. At its socially conscious best on this record, the seven-person hip-hop collective explores how to escape materialism over jazzy guitar noodling and grunting bass riffs.
Sons of Freedom “The Criminal” (1988)
SOF’s collision of industrial brawn and jagged white funk could easily compete with the good stuff coming out of Manchester and California at the time. If the Sons never quite got what they deserved, a sold-out reunion in 2014 at the Imperial lent a nice epilogue to their story.
Fake Shark “Cheap Thrills” (2015)
It’s never quite clear whether Kevvy and company are celebrating the delights of “cheap thrills and a casual romance” or mocking the creatures of the night, but don’t let a little ambiguity bother you while you’re shaking ass to this ridiculous, greasy slather of sleaze-funk.
The Poppy Family “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” (1969)
With a simple change of lyric, Susan Jacks took her then-husband Terry’s likable-enough ode to Buddy Holly and turned it into one of the most enduringly lush slabs of romantic melancholia ever committed to vinyl. Proof that nobody could rain on the ‘60s quite like Vancouver.
Pointed Sticks “Out of Luck” (1979)
At its most charming, the first wave of punk gave a shot of amphetamine to the same combination of cowboy chords and tarnished innocence that kept Chuck Berry and the early Beatles in business. It’s the genius simplicity-with-a-twist that amazes here. See also: “Barbra” by the Modernettes.
Mother Mother “The Drugs” (2016)
The sound of a man unshackling himself from his chemical romance, only to discover that sometimes the things you substitute for your worst vices are just as dangerous—all set to some seriously triumphant-sounding alt-pop.
54-40 “One Day in Your Life” (1987)
There’s an almost irrefutable case to be made that 54-40 is Lotusland’s greatest-ever singles band, the gold-standard offerings starting during the indie years (“Sound of Truth”)< and continuing for decades on major labels (“Baby Ran”, “One Gun”, “Ocean Pearl”). Hootie and the Blowfish scored big with a cover of the quartet’s “I Go Blind”, but we’re naming “One Day in Your Life” as best in show, thanks to the hypnotic opening riff and cathartic trumpet-flourished finish.
Sweeney Todd “Tantalize” (1977)
This late entry glam-rock barnburner was written by departed Sweeney Todd founders Nick Gilder and Jim McCulloch, but sung by Gilder’s replacement, the then teenaged Bryan Guy Adams—aka Bryan “Yeah, that Guy” Adams. Too good to just give away, Gilder also included it on his debut solo album (You Know Who You Are) from the same year.
Front Line Assembly “Mindphaser” (1992)
For the complete early ’90s Vancouver cyberpunk experience, put the brain-zapping electro assault of “Mindphaser” on repeat while you read William Gibson’s Virtual Light from cover to cover. Dyeing your hair black and wearing bondage pants are optional.
Dan Mangan “Robots” (2009)
The beauty of “Robots” is the way that it’s anything but shiny and happy on paper, that having everything to do with lyrics such as “The fire in my eye is fleeting now/Your robot heart is bleeding out.” But even if you’re in the worst of moods, goddamn if you don’t end up singing your stupid head off to the song’s impossibly infectious back half. Sometimes it feels good to smile through the sadness.
Slowburn “Whatever” (1996)
The cynically noncommital lyrical sentiment is quintessentially Gen X (“I love you, I suppose”), and quite frankly the sonics are also strictly ’90s, splitting the difference between shoegaze and grunge. But when that chorus hits, it feels like the greatest song ever.
SonReal “Everywhere We Go” (2013)
Aaron Hoffman proves that the 604 can do hip-hop that’s just as worthy of the big time as anything coming out of the 6. And the video is a hoot.
Nickelback “How You Remind Me” (2001)
Nickelback may be more of a national joke than last year’s World Junior hockey team, but the band still manages to pack Rogers Arena on a Sunday night. That’s due in no small part to the pull of this track. With its pitch-perfect grunge vibe and just-emotional-enough chorus—supposedly about Chad Kroeger’s tumultuous love life pre–Avril Lavigne—it’s little surprise this record was nominated for a Grammy.
Pure “Anna Is a Speed Freak” (1994)
It’s like a ’90s-rock time capsule, complete with a big post-grunge guitar riff, lyrics rife with drug references, and a Floria Sigismondi video featuring a crowd-surfing waif in her undies. And holy shit, what a catchy tune.
Zimmers Hole “This Flight Tonight” (2002)
The first sign that Zimmers Hole’s reworking of a Joni Mitchell nugget will be a tad more molten than the original comes when singer Chris Valagao kicks things off with a guttural “Do you wanna get me a spit cup?” What follows is a metal maelstrom that makes Nazareth’s cover seem almost pastoral, the money shot coming at 1:57, which sounds scarily like a 747 landing at the gates of hell as the flight deck goes up in flames.
The Blue Shadows “Coming On Strong” (1993)
“Hank Williams goes to the Cavern Club” is how Billy Cowsill and Jeffrey Hatcher described their brief but miraculous collaboration as the Blue Shadows. This instant classic strongly suggests that the Everly Brothers were tagging along, too.
Bob Moses “Tearing Me Up” (2015)
Few can resist the lure of this track’s sultry guitar chords, rich bass triplets, and breathy vocals—and that includes Ellen DeGeneres, who, after hearing this song on her car radio, immediately booked the boys onto her talk show.
The Enigmas “Windshield Wiper” (1985)
In the wake of the great “Careless Whisper” scare of 1984, the Enigmas heroically took on the task of restoring the tarnished reputation of the saxophone and making it sound the way God always intended: like Mitch Ryder power-fucking the B-52s in the Sonics’ garage.
Dishrags “Past Is Past” (1979)
The revolutionary thing about punk was the way it was the great equalizer—anyone could form a band, including three scrappy Victoria teenagers who relocated to Vancouver as the Dishrags. Jade Blade, Dale Powers, and Scout were not only one of the city’s first punk bands, but—more importantly—one of North America’s first all-female punk bands. “Past Is Past” drips with disaffection, boredom, and proto-grunge attitude, which is another way of saying that, without the likes of the Dishrags, there would have been no Hole, L7, or Distillers. Respect.
Said the Whale “I Love You” (2013)
The West Coast’s indie ambassadors serve up a dose of surging power pop that will make you want to contact estranged siblings and dance the pogo, although not necessarily in that order.
Art Bergmann “Our Little Secret” (1988)
Yeah, “Bound for Vegas” is the obvious choice, but this anguished and complex exploration of incest shows off Art Bergmann’s immaculate pop songcraft alongside his profound capacity for empathy, something his crusty exterior can never quite conceal.
Hannah Georgas “Evelyn” (2016)
Queen of crafting electro-pop for intellectuals, Hannah Georgas masters her penchant for introspective lyrics. Oscillating between the nihilistic refrain of “Nothing really matters” and the hopeful “One day I’m gonna get there,” Georgas perfectly matches her emotional enquiries with brooding, arpeggiated synths.
The Age of Electric “I Don’t Mind” (1997)
The four Saskatchewan transplants in the Age of Electric had already proven they could write a killer radio-rock single (see 1995’s “Ugly”), but the dead-simple “woo-hoo-hoo” hook of “I Don’t Mind” might be the catchiest thing in their catalogue—and maybe on this list.
Mounties “Tokyo Summer” (2014)
Exotic Far East keyboards and cascading vocals are at the heart of a love song that works on multiple levels. “Tokyo Summer” not only captures the dizzying infatuation that comes with a new relationship, but also works as a breathless ode to Japan’s largest and most fascinating city. Never experienced the thrill of exploring Harajuku or Shinjuku, drunk on love during a humid August night? Start here for a good idea of what to expect.
Young Canadians “Hawaii” (1980)
Who among us, in rainy and perpetually soggy Vancouver, can’t relate to Art Bergmann’s classic lines “Let’s go to fucking Hawaii, get drunk in the sun/I wanna lay in Waikiki, get a tan on my buns”? How great is “Hawaii”, which starts with a killer guitar riff and then somehow, impossibly, gets even better? Well, let’s just say it narrowly edged out the YCs’ “Automan” for this list, which speaks volumes about its enduring genius.
Loverboy “Turn Me Loose” (1980)
From its utterly magnetic opening bars, pitting pregnant open synth chords against that fat bass line, the ’boy’s inadvertent hymn to S&M is a masterclass in big-time pop songwriting. That’s why you’re singing it in your head right now.
Spirit of the West “Home for a Rest” (1990)
Has the Commodore Ballroom’s legendary sprung dance floor ever generated more liftoff than it did whenever Spirit of the West swung into boozy anthem “Home for a Rest”? We think not, and only James Brown fans will argue otherwise.
Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers “Does Your Mama Know About Me” (1968)
Motown’s western ambassador delivers a soul ballad Smokey Robinson would have killed to have written. Tommy Chong and Tom Baird were the actual authors, however, which has some wondering whether Chong could have been another Burt Bacharach, were it not for the demon weed.
Herald Nix “Fugitive Kind” (1986)
The enigmatic Herald Nix recorded a hauntingly skeletal version of “Fugitive Kind” for his 1996 full-length Open Up the Sky, but the 1986 version from his Fugitive Kind EP is the one to track down. Swirling organ and an epically soaring chorus are the backbone of a roots-rock chiller made for sitting in abandoned farmhouses while a killing moon hangs in the sky.
Subhumans “Slave to My Dick” (1979)
“Fuck You” was more cathartic and anthemic, “Firing Squad” smarter and catchier, and “Urban Guerillas” darker and more menacing. But for nailing the absolute patheticness of the average male’s mindset in a caveman-stomp two minutes and 39 seconds, “Slave to My Dick” edges out everything in the Subhumans’ deservedly storied back catalogue.
Payola$ “Eyes of a Stranger” (1982)
Call the Police! Paul Hyde and Bob Rock roped in Bowie’s old mate Mick Ronson to produce the Payola$ No Stranger to Danger album, which in turn gave us one of the era’s better three-and-a-half-minute slabs of knock-off regatta de blanc.
Go Four 3 “Just Another Day” (1985)
Meaty bass, cavernous drums, a powerfully sweet girl-group vocal, and not a blues progression within miles—the ’80s sound a lot fresher and more innovative than we might remember when you give this one another spin. The band was poised for mega-success at one point, but, you know… Vancouver.
Yukon Blonde “Stairway” (2012)
It’s the combination of effortlessly infectious hooks and a deep yearning for home that makes “Stairway” the perfect accompaniment to that long, winding drive to the Okanagan.
The Grapes of Wrath “All the Things I Wasn’t” (1989)
The Grapes of Wrath’s shortest and most understated single is melodic and mournful and will probably make you want to put on an oversized coat and wander around the rain-slicked streets of Gastown.
The Evaporators “Hot Dog High” (2012)
If ever there was a figure who encapsulates the whimsy of Vancouver, it’s Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Celebrating North Van’s beloved Tomahawk Barbecue restaurant in this high-energy pop-punk bop, Nardwuar and his band invited a number of local notables—including Straight music editor Mike Usinger—to enthusiastically lurch around to the song’s bubblegum chorus for its video. Doot doola doot doo.
Limblifter “Tinfoil” (1996)
Not content with membership in one massively popular Vancouver rock band, the Age of Electric’s Ryan and Kurt Dahle just had to start a second one so they could continue to conquer radio in the year between AOE LPs. “Tinfoil” has baffling lyrics, but its bombastic guitar hooks need no translation.
Skinny Puppy “Dig It” (1986)
Puppy wrings maximum fear and loathing out of a robotic drum-machine beat and minimalist power chords, crafting a classic that no self-respecting rivethead would even think about leaving off that all-important Halloween-party playlist.
Rascalz “Northern Touch” (1998)
Kardinal Offishall, Checkmate, Thrust, and Choclair all guest on what is inarguably one of the most important records in the history of Canadian hip-hop. As Seth Rogen told Nardwuar, “If you’re a Canadian rap fan, it’s our ‘Stairway to Heaven’, basically.”
Nasty On “The Ship That Died of Shame” (2002)
Gorilla-thump drums, sheets-of-distortion guitar, and hyper-amphetamine vocals come together with brute-force results in this rawk-revival epic. When singer Jason Grimmer repeatedly howls “Is this what you wanted?/Is this what you need?” halfway through, the only smart thing is to duck and cover.
D.O.A. “World War 3” (1979)
Everything that made D.O.A. one of the greatest punk bands this planet has ever seen is packed into one viciously perfect song: razor’s-edge guitar, dangerously inventive drumming, and a vocal attack that conveyed pure shock-and-awe outrage. Crazily—given the high-stakes pissing matches currently taking place around the world—“World War 3” once again resonates today.
Swollen Members “Lady Venom” (2000)
Cracked.com memorably mocked Swollen Members’ phallocentric moniker, suggesting that it’s what the crew settled on after rejecting such names as Tha Erecshunz, Mornin’ Wood, Hard-Onz, and Da Penis MCs. Laugh all you like, but don’t even try to deny that Prevail and Mad Child absolutely kill it on this mashup of hard-rock grit and Middle Eastern melody.
Carly Rae Jepsen “Call Me Maybe” (2011)
Carly Rae Jepsen’s breakout single is a sonic s’more: sweet, gooey, probably not especially good for your health, and utterly irresistible.
And, unlike follow-up clone “I Really Like You”, it stands up to repeat playings.
Bachman-Turner Overdrive “Let It Ride” (1974)
It’s not the anthem that “Takin’ Care of Business” was, but “Let It Ride” has got what every rock kid wanted in 1974: cheery Doobie Brothers jangle, ZZ Top–style blues bluster, and guitar parts that suggest Randy Bachman could have given Jeff Beck some competition, if he hadn’t been so focused on, um, takin’ care of business.
Copyright “Transfiguration” (1996)
If there were any justice in the world, Copyright—the band vocalist Tom Anselmi and guitarist Christian Thorvaldson formed after Slow’s implosion—would have been as big as U2. Has any local singer ever sounded as ominous or as openhearted as Anselmi does on this spectacular recording?
Doug and the Slugs “Too Bad” (1980)
Warehouse-party favourites Doug and the Slugs never quite captured their considerable live magic on record; for some reason, the studio environment upped the ham ’n’ cheese quotient in their songs at the expense of the grit. That’s true of their biggest hit, but the throwback doo-wop of “Too Bad” is an undeniable earworm nonetheless.
Sarah McLachlan “Into the Fire” (1991)
It’s no doubt perverse to talk about Sarah McLachlan’s squandered talent; after all, the Nettwerk headliner probably sold more units than any Vancouverite this side of Bryan Adams. But if she hadn’t gone on to become Queen of the Empaths, she might have made more records like this simmering, near-psychedelic exploration of ecstasy.
Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck “One Ring Jane” (1969)
When you stop to think about it, there’s not much to this male wish-fulfillment fantasy—but given the lysergic rush of the rhythm section and the nearly out-of-control guitar solos, who’s got time to stop and think? More summer-of-sex than Summer of Love, “One Ring Jane” remains a perfect period piece.
Secret V’s “Waiting for the Drugs to Take Hold” (1980)
Back in the day, the Secret V’s were something of an also-ran in Vancouver, the kind of band perpetually billed fifth on all-ages shows at the Arcadian Hall. On the last-laugh front, the group produced a sombre, midnight-reverie masterpiece that’s right behind Slow’s “Have Not Been the Same” as the greatest song to ever come out of Vancouver. Try not to lose yourself in the sadness when singer Bruce A. drones “I went and exceeded the recommended dose.”