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10 singers and bands on this Canadian’s ‘Eh’ list

Canadian singer k.d. lang shown performing in Sydney in 2020.Cole Bennetts/Getty

Interviewing Gordon Lightfoot a few years ago was a big deal for this writer. It wasn’t because of Lightfoot’s artistic accomplishments and success, large as those loomed. Rather, it was because for Canadians, or at least Canadians of a certain age (of which I am one), Lightfoot is more than a musical artist; he is something of a national cultural institution, a stature that was germinated by “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” the song he wrote to commemorate Canada’s 1967 centennial. Lightfoot may be singular in that regard, but I think it is fair to say that Canadians feel a particular connection with and pride about many homegrown musical artists. I know that I do, and that I’ve continued to feel that way even though I’ve now lived more than half of my life in the United States. So in honor of Friday’s national holiday, Canada Day, here are some of the artists, both famous and not so much, who over the years have made the most indelible impression on this fellow Canadian.

Gordon Lightfoot

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The folk music of Gordon Lightfoot was a constant presence for Canadians who grew up during the heyday of AM radio eclecticism, and his hits — ”If You Could Read My Mind,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” “Early Morning Rain,” “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” among them — are likely imprinted on their brains. Northern song: “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”

The Pursuit of Happiness

A Canadian band with a quintessentially American name, the Pursuit of Happiness produced a distinctive brand of hard pop that lived up to their moniker via an abiding concern with its personal consummation and, more importantly, the roadblocks that get in the way. Band leader and songwriter Moe Berg articulated those complications and frustrations, beginning with the band’s first hit, “I’m An Adult Now,” and on through five albums of music anchored in an irresistibly hooky power-pop sound. Northern song: “Gretzky Rocks”

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k.d. lang

My first exposure to k.d. lang was a performance at an annual Fringe Festival in my hometown of Edmonton in the early 1980s, when she was still “k.d. lang and the Reclines.” It was, as her debut record’s title puts it, “a truly western experience,” but one that was decidedly different from anything else then passing for country music. She made three records under that band name and then, beginning with the marvelous “Ingenue,” left behind the twang for various iterations of torch classicism, which according to her was her musical home all along. Fine with me: She could sing the phone book with that voice and I’d listen. Northern song: “Big Boned Gal From Southern Alberta”

The BandDavid Gahr/Magnolia Pictures

The Band

It is arguably the case that the Band invented what came to be known as “Americana” two decades after they started making wide-scope music that pulled in rock ‘n’ roll, and soul, and blues, and country. If so, it was a Canadian band that invented it, or a four-fifths Canadian band, who even called themselves “the Canadian Squires” for a cup of coffee. The radio waves carried them into my consciousness about the time that singles were being released from their eponymous second album, but what really lit a fire under me was the live ferocity of “Rock of Ages.” Northern song: “Acadian Driftwood”

Corb Lund

The Hurtin’ Albertan writes what he lives, which, when he isn’t making music, is ranching in southern Alberta. Lund has a peculiar genius for translating the details of that way of life into songs that convey exactly what he’s talking about to just about any city slicker. The vehicle that delivers those songs is a rangy version of roots music, incorporating everything from straight country and western to cowboy to rockabilly to blues, something that Lund has labeled “Agricultural Tragic.” Northern song: “Long Gone to Saskatchewan”

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Joni Mitchell shown at Madison Square Garden in New York City, in 1998.Nancy Siesel/New York Times/file

Joni Mitchell

For quite some time, my familiarity with Mitchell was limited to what I heard on the radio — ”Big Yellow Taxi,” “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris” — until I finally started listening to her records and realized what I’d been missing: a folk, and then beyond-folk singer/player/songwriter triple threat. It took a while, but better late than never. Northern song: “Raised on Robbery”

The Blue Shadows

Formed by Billy Cowsill (yes, of that Cowsill family), Vancouver band the Blue Shadows’ tenure was brief — they called it quits after releasing two albums in the early 1990s — but they came up with a sound like no one else had. The band described it as “Hank goes to the Cavern Club,” and while that captures its essence, it doesn’t fully account for their marvelous, ever-present harmonies, which channeled the western side of the Everly Brothers. It was country-pop in the finest sense of the term. Northern song: “Let the Cowboys Ride”

Cowboy Junkies

I had already moved stateside when Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies broke out with “The Trinity Session” in 1988, and the narcotic spareness of the record — the musical opposite of the Blue Shadows aesthetic described above — hit me like a thunderbolt. Here was a band that somehow managed to combine Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” and Waylon Jennings’s “Dreamin’ My Dreams” without anything sounding out of place. Thirty-plus years later, they’re still in Canada, still exploring their singular sound, and I’m still a fan. Northern song: “[Expletive], I Hate the Cold”

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Tamara Lindeman, who performs as The Weather Station, in Toronto in 2021. ANGELA LEWIS/NYT

The Weather Station

Tamara Lindeman, a.k.a. The Weather Station, has traveled some distance from the sparse folk of her early work, and every record she makes is a changeup. Genre is a secondary concern for her, she says; the important question is “what is this record trying to be?,” and each has answered that question with a different sonic character. The constant is her singular lyrical approach — prose poems that capture interior moments, passing thoughts, snippets of interaction, to captivating effect. To these ears, for the past decade she has been making some of the most interesting music coming from north of the border. Northern song: “Subdivisions”

The Sadies

Offering a species of dark, minor-key folk that incorporates everything from psychedelic country to garage to surf and spaghetti, the Sadies have been making music with the same lineup almost from their beginnings in 1994 (a lineup recently disrupted by the untimely death of Dallas Good a few months ago). During that time, they’ve not only issued a slew of albums but engaged in countless collaborations; the list of who they’ve made records with includes Jon Langford, John Doe, Neko Case, Andre Williams (twice), and the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie (under the stupendous name Gord Downie, the Sadies, and the Conquering Sun). They might just be my favorite Canadian band of them all. Northern song: “Another Season Again”

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Stuart Munro can be reached at sj.munro@verizon.net