Staff Top 10
Top Ten Canadian Rock Not-Quite-Smashes



one of the reasons I enjoy articles like Andrew Unterberger's meditation on Whatever: The 90s Pop Culture Box is that many of the one-hit wonders, almost hits, and album cuts that found a new life on radio are literally foreign to me. Not to the extent that they are to our friends across the sea, but there are plenty of songs and acts I'd never heard of before simply because they never hit Canadian radio and TV.

It would be slightly incorrect to say that these songs are what we got instead; I am going by subjective memory rather than objective fact, so these ten tracks are probably quite scattered in terms of time, success, and so on. I tried to avoid bands that had actual careers up here (I Mother Earth, Our Lady Peace—I even left off the Watchmen and Age of Electric), and my criteria were few and simple:
1. The bands are Canadian.
2. The songs were not huge smashes, although they probably lingered around various reaches of the Canadian charts, and their videos were definitely played semi-often on MuchMusic.
3. I enjoyed them, to some extent, at the time.
4. They'd all fit in perfectly on a Canadian version of Whatever.
Hayden - “Bad As They Seem”
Hayden Desser probably comes the closest to any of these acts of having a real career (except Treble Charger), with a couple of his more recent efforts even getting reviewed here. But with the possible exception of his eponymous contribution to the soundtrack of Steve Buscemi's Tree's Lounge (still his finest sad-sack moment), the only Hayden song that's poked even slightly into the mainstream was this oddball kind-of hit, Desser's low gravelley moan, acoustic guitar and harmonica lending some gravitas to a track that might be about being in love with the 16-year-old next door. Or possibly her mother.

Limblifter - “Ariel Vs. Lotus”
Like the other bands on this list Limblifter were basically just alt rock, but Ryan Dahle's compellingly tense delivery and ear for a good, oblique tune (the soaring “Ariel Vs. Lotus” is all about mopeds, mysterious cures and a girl) should have reaped him more rewards than barely putting out three albums and looking increasingly frustrated and sad on MuchMusic's Going Coastal.

Victor - “Promise”
Alex Lifeson from Rush, now most famous for punching up some bar during New Year's Eve with his son, was briefly notorious for this side project featuring a bunch of anonymous alt rockers plus Edwin from I Mother Earth. Given the supposed virtuosity of Lifeson, “Promise” was pretty standard for the time, and the only reason I have any fondness for it whatsoever is that it got played on TV a lot. And even then, there are those songs you used to like as a teen that you hear now and go “hey, that's pretty cool,” and then those that you hear and go “what on earth was I thinking?” I think you can guess where “Promise” falls.

The Gandharvas - “Watching the Girl”
The Gandharvas had a couple of decent low level hits from their Sold For A Smile album, but “Watching the Girl” was the biggest and most memorable, even if all that comes to me now is Paul Jago in a suit and a vague idea of the video’s color scheme. That’s the fun part of trying to research all these old Canadian semi-hits: aside from a few scraps from AllMusic and Wikipedia, there are no resources for this stuff. I can barely hum the catchy, lilting chorus to “Watching the Girl” right now, but I imagine it’s the kind of half-remembered tune that, if it ever came on at the bar, we'd all be able to sing along with.

Slowburn - “Hit the Ground”
This one stills lurks on my computer, although I'm not always sure why (especially considering some of the tracks on this list I don't have). The song is mostly about Chris Boyd's Stipeish vocals and the heavily distorted guitar atmospherics, pitched somewhere between Catherine Wheel (which was also Slowburn's original name) and 54-40 (no, they weren't just “I Go Blind” up here).

Pluto - “Paste”
This one, I admit, I cannot remember. I can remember what the album cover looks like, and the lead singer's face... that's it. But I can also remember loving it when it came out, part of the first Big Shiny Tunes compilation. Besides “Paste,” you could find tracks from luminaries like I Mother Earth, Bush X, Better Than Ezra, and, err, Limblifter's first kind-of hit “Tinfoil.”

See Spot Run - “Weightless”
This, sadly, I do remember. Because it's not very good. The singer has a kind of adenoidal drone he lends to the whole “wayyyyyyyyyyyyytless”/”payyyyyyyyyyynless” part of the chorus, which made this the closest thing I had to a guilty pleasure: I didn't actually like “Weightless,” but the damned refrain kept getting stuck in my head. They dressed funny, too, which combined with the earworm quality of “Weightless” meant I saw this video rather more than I'd like to admit.

Spookey Ruben - “These Days Are Old”
Pointless, insufferable post-Mellow Gold hipster eclecticism, the wordless chorus of “These Days Are Old” is only redeemed by the song’s video—especially the indelible moment with a pane of glass and Ruben in a bathtub. Without the video, it’s really just a guy with dreads warbling “wisdom” in painfully off-key fashion, that gets beat up a lot. In retrospect easily the worst of these songs.

Big Wreck - “That Song”
This, though, is fantastic. Sure, technically Big Wreck met and are from Boston, but singer/guiding force Ian Thornley is from Toronto and is back there now fronting the imaginatively titled Thornley. They thus get claimed as Canadian for Canadian Content purposes, and thus I think of “That Song” as one of the great homegrown singles from the late 90s, even if that's a tad inaccurate. I knew I was on board conceptually as soon as Thornley opens it up by singing:
So I always get nostalgic with that song
But in my room it's forced
It has to be in some car across the street
But it only gets better before launching into the massive chorus:
And those photos are great if I catch 'em with the side of my eye
But if I stare
It just turns into you and me
We're just standing there
Looking back on it, having a first line like that seems like a huge risk. It’d be all too easy to laugh and say that’d this would never be that type of song. That said, it still gets played on the radio every so often, and we still all sing along.

Treble Charger - “Red”
Treble Charger did have a career; you may have heard “American Psycho” or “Brand New Low,” both fairly big hits and used in everything from NHL 2002 to ads for that American Pie: Band Camp movie. But there were two Treble Chargers, and I don't mean pre- and post-fame; I mean Bill Priddle and Greig Nori. Actually it used to be both of them and a rhythm section, back when they were an underachieving indie rock band. Priddle was the more introverted of the two musically and sung the modestly amazing noise ballad “Red,” complete with abstract video and many of their other songs including their other peak, “Morale.” But eventually as the band underachieved, Nori moved to the forefront, and Treble Charger became a pop-punk band. Which I don't have a problem with in principle, but Nori's pop hits were so much blander (witness his older song ”Even Grable” in comparison). They probably should have called it quits after the transitional Maybe It's Me and gotten a new name. As it stands, those of us who love “Red” still wince a little bit at seeing the band's name.


By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2006-08-25
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