The Great White North gave us Moosehead Beer, SCTV, and the McKenzie Brothers. All that’s great, but the country’s contributions to rock music are overwhelming and often under-reported.
Here are some of the best Canadian rock bands ever, and there’s more than a good chance that for at least one of them, you’ll say to yourself, “I didn’t know those guys were Canadian!”
Even if you don’t like their music, you’ll have a hard time denying that this Canadian trio consists of three of the greatest rock musicians of all time. Drummer Neal Peart alone has disciples worldwide who deconstruct every drumstick stroke the man ever played.
The band’s 1981 album Moving Pictures moved them into the mainstream with anthems like “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight” as well as the dystopian future fiction of “Red Barchetta.”
People think of Heart as a Seattle band since sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson spent some time there as kids. But Heart started in Vancouver in the mid-1960s. Ann joined them and later brought Nancy along, and by 1975, they had recorded and released Dreamboat Annie, the band’s first album.
Heart ruled 70s airwaves, then hit a rough patch in the early 80s. People wrote them off as has-beens until the smash hit “These Dreams” introduced them to a new generation.
3. Barenaked Ladies
Famous for their murderously catchy hooks and hilariously wordy songs, Barenaked Ladies started as a duo. Steve Page and Ed Robertson traveled around Canada opening for comedians almost as a novelty act.
Their musicianship shone through, though. They put together a band and shot to the top of the Canadian charts. They had a cult following in America until 1998’s “One Week,” which was a big hit.
Singing the theme song for the CBS show The Big Band Theory didn’t exactly hurt, either.
4. Arcade Fire
When you watch Arcade Fire play live, you would be forgiven for thinking this band is made up of ALL Canadians. It’s a large group of people from Montreal, to be sure, but they all work together to create something cool.
The band’s 2004 debut album Funeral, on indie label Merge Records, went gold and made it to number five on several Billboard charts.
They never looked back, growing in wisdom and stature when the great David Bowie took an interest in them in 2005.
5. Bachman–Turner Overdrive
After leaving The Guess Who in 1970, Randy Bachman kicked around Winnipeg before settling into a band with his brothers and Fred Turner. After one particularly successful live show, Bachman paid for the band to record a debut album, though the band was called Brave Belt then.
Voracious touring in the states pushed the band into the public eye. They changed to Bachman–Turner Overdrive to focus on the recognition factor of the Bachman name, and by 1974, their first eponymous album went gold.
Steppenwolf formed in 1968 out of a band called The Sparrows, which lead singer John Kay joined and then essentially took over. Kay was born in Germany during WWII, but his mother escaped with him to Canada, where he grew up.
Steppenwolf would pioneer a new rock sound, a take-no-prisoners rocking that got its name from the band’s first single, “Born to Be Wild,” where the term “heavy metal” was first used.
7. The Band
Four guys from Ontario and a drummer from Arkansas constituted The Band, one of the biggest rock groups of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Critics mentioned them in the same breath as the Beatles and the Stones.
They backed Arkansas rocker Ronnie Hawkins in the late ‘50s, eventually leaving him behind and playing their own stuff. Interest from Bob Dylan propelled them into national prominence. The music kept them in the public eye.
By 1974, the members of The Band had multiple side projects and personal grudges among themselves, and The Band was no more.
8. The New Pornographers
Formed from various singer-songwriters already big on the Vancouver music scene, The New Pornographers released “Mass Romantic” in 2000. The album didn’t make it onto any charts but received rave reviews.
With so many different performers, the band’s sound changes from track to track as different band members take turns on lead vocals.
They’ve never had huge sales numbers, but The New Pornographers have a devoted fan base and have appeared on dozens of TV and film soundtracks.
9. The Guess Who
Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, two Vancouver songwriters, eventually fell into a band formed by lead singer Chad Allan in the early 1960s. Those two songwriters would pen The Guess Who’s biggest hits, including “American Woman,” the first single from a Canadian act to reach number one on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Bachman left the group in 1970 due to health issues and a growing conflict between the rock n’ roll lifestyle and his burgeoning Mormonism.
The band continued, spawning more hits in the 1970s before more personnel shake-ups caused the band’s releases to fall off the music industry’s radar.
10. Cowboy Junkies
The Timmins kids—Michael, Margo, and Peter—formed a band in Toronto in 1985. They drafted childhood friend Alan Anton to play bass and set out to make a new sound, which they did.
Cowboy Junkies played a role in pioneering the alt-county sound, pairing it with a folk music sensibility. Their first album Whites Off Earth Now!! was recorded in the family garage, but the second, The Trinity Sessions, blew up, gaining the band critical acclaim and a number five Billboard single.
The band still plays, but The Trinity Sessions remains their legacy, as it was named by the Polaris Heritage Prize the best Canadian album of the 1980s in 2015.
Could you have 80s rock without these Calgary kids? “Working for the Weekend” was an MTV staple back in the days when that network played music videos and became somewhat of a de facto anthem for Gen Xers everywhere.
“Hot Girls In Love” was ridiculous fun but not as big a hit, but lead singer Mike Love sang “Almost Paradise” with fellow Canadian Ann Wilson and scored a huge hit. We all remembered Loverboy fondly then. They ended up as one of the biggest-selling bands of the 1980s.
It’s apparently cool to hate on Nickelback and seemingly has always been. But they were one of the biggest-selling acts of the ‘00s.
They started in 1995 and recorded an album themselves in ‘96, paving the way for a record deal.
They were consistent hitmakers for the first decade of the 21st century and have, to date, sold more than 50 million albums. Not bad for a band the critics can’t make up their minds about.
13. The Tragically Hip
With one of the best band names in all of rock music, The Tragically Hip started doing their thing in the mid-80s in Ontario. Though they would come to be known as the most Canadian band ever, they started out playing college gigs.
They recorded 13 albums, nine of which topped Canadian sales charts. The Juno Awards—the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys—heaped awards on The Tragically Hip, a small sample of which includes:
- Most Promising Group of the Year
- Entertainer of the Year
- Group of the Year
- Album of the Year
- Best Rock Album
- Best Single
They disbanded after lead singer Gord Downie’s death from brain cancer in 2017.
14. Crash Test Dummies, A Canadian Rock Band
Crash Test Dummies landed on the list of polarizing acts. Think about this—do you know anyone who says, “Those guys? Meh”? No, you don’t, because people absolutely love or despise Crash Test Dummies.
Engendering those strong emotions means the Winnipeg quintet did something right. They had a few big hits in the 90s and seemingly faded away, but Brad Roberts’ rich baritone voice was distinctive, and the subjects the band sang about were unusual and, at times, unusually touching.
15. Simple Plan
Play pop punk, and you’ll have difficulty getting respect for it. That seems an unfair yet hard-and-fast rule, and Simple Plan has faced it. They even called their second album Still Not Getting Any, as in respect or good reviews.
But the Montreal band sold records, so somebody liked them. They continue playing, often as a mainstay on the Vans Warped Tour, and they act as philanthropists through their Simple Plan Foundation, which focuses on teen issues.
Sum41 is a skate punk outfit that puts a smile on pretty much anybody’s face. They hail from a small town outside Toronto, and their first two albums went platinum, indicating that the group sold well.
Their live shows are legendary for high energy and good times, and the band members have cultivated a hard-partying, hotel-room-trashing image. However, they take their musicianship pretty seriously.
Sum41 continues recording and touring.
17. Tegan and Sara
These identical twins from Calgary were born in 1980 and had a record deal before the end of the century. They’ve released nine studio albums and continue to tour like crazy.
Tegan and Sara have toured with niche groups like Gogol Bordello and Hot Hot Heat, but also with some heavy hitters:
- Ben Folds
- Bryan Adams
- The Killers
- Neil Young
- The Pretenders
- Rufus Wainwright
- Ryan Adams
As a Toronto band with a theremin player, Metric has a lot going on. The indie rockers started playing together in 1998 and have released seven studio albums, raking in armloads of Juno Award nominations and wins.
Lead singer Emily Haines drives the band with her old-soul voice, and she’s used it on side projects with other rockers like Broken Social Scene and The Crystal Method.
19. Honeymoon Suite
It’s tough to justify putting a one-hit wonder on this list, but “New Girl Now” was a massive hit in 1984 for this Niagara Falls band. They followed up with several more albums and enjoyed success and popularity in Canada but never recaptured the attention of American audiences.
Toronto gave the world Rush, but it also spawned another hard rock power trio in Triumph. Rik Emmett, Mike Levine, and Gil Moore met for a jam session in 1975 and immediately knew they had something.
A year later, Triumph released a record that did well in Canada, but their third release, 1979’s Just a Game, brought them massive success. Harmonies and terrific guitar playing made the band great to listen to, and they were well-known for their live shows.
They released their last studio album, Edge of Excess, in 1992.
21. Finger Eleven
Formed in an Ontario high school, Finger Eleven’s first show ever was in 1990. Six years later, they released a major-label album and began earning a reputation as road warriors due to their extensive touring.
Their 2007 single “Paralyzer” put them on the charts and in the conversation about who from Canada rocks hard. They continue touring and playing the festival circuit.
The members of the Ontario prog-rock band Saga were relatively established as respected Canadian musicians before they ever joined up to play their first show in 1977.
“On the Loose” broke big for them in the US in the early 80s, thanks largely to a presence on MTV.
Though the band has dealt with personnel turnover throughout its career, they have soldiered on, enjoying enduring fame in Europe. They sell out shows regularly even into the 21st century.
23. Three Days Grace
The band released an eponymous debut album in 2003, and these three Ontario boys were on their way. The heavy guitar tone and driving rhythms of “I Hate Everything About You” helped the album reach number nine on the Canadian Albums Chart.
Despite only one Juno Award win, they’ve been nominated 12 times, which is no small feat.
Three Days Grace released their seventh studio album in 2022.
24. Blue Rodeo
The phrase “Canadian country” brings up one name and one name only, and that's Toronto’s Blue Rodeo.
Formed in 1984, the band would go on to win 12 Juno awards and collaborate with the cream of Canada’s musical crop, including acts like The Tragically Hip, Cowboy Junkies,Burton Cummings, and Sarah McLachlan, to name a few.
Many a Mile, the band’s 16th studio album, dropped in 2021.
25. Broken Social Scene
More of a musical collective than a band, Broken Social Scene started in Toronto in 1999. Following a similar model to that of The New Pornographers, BSS never has the same number of musicians in it from project to project—they’ve appeared as a sextet, but they’ve also played shows with 19 people on stage.
Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning formed the group and added drummer Justin Peroff and two guitarists: Charles Spearin and Andrew Whiteman. This is the core group, and members of other Canadian acts regularly appear with them.
BSS is as indie as indie rock gets.
26. Skinny Puppy
The band started as a synth-pop side project for Vancouver musician Kevin Crompton, but the group’s experimentation with sampling and other electronic media, coupled with a dark sound, kick-started the industrial genre.
Even a cursory listen to “Dig It” evokes Nine Inch Nails, and you can picture a young Trent Reznor seizing upon the song and the sound.
27. April Wine
Formed in Nova Scotia in 1969, April Wine made a name for themselves with their music, but a scandal made them famous. And it wasn’t even their scandal.
In 1977, they played two Toronto shows opening for The Rolling Stones, where Mick and the boys were supposed to make a live record. If you remember your rock history, that’s when Keith Richards got himself arrested for drug possession, and Mick was supposedly sleeping with the prime minister’s wife.
April Wine got associated with all of it, so the band name was in the press. Americans ate it up, and sales skyrocketed. The 1980s were the band’s heyday.
28. Theory of a Deadman
Mainstream rockers Theory of a Deadman was formed in 1999 in British Columbia. They owe their success to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger, who heard their demo and signed them to a deal.
They’ve won a slew of awards and have their devoted fans but haven’t reached the sales level of Nickelback. Some argue that the Kroeger-fronted outfit overshadows Theory. But they still rock pretty hard.
Theory of a Deadman released Say Nothing in 2020.
29. Hot Hot Heat
Victoria, BC rockers Hot Hot Heat enjoyed about a ten-year run, forming in 1999. They drew heavily on New Wave influences as they moved from a hardcore rock sound to something more accurately described as “dance-punk.”
While they had some success in the US, in Canada, they were revered, winning awards and charting often. They released a self-titled album in 2016, definitively calling it their fifth and final album.
Top Canadian Rock Bands, Final Thoughts
Canada has a reputation for producing nice folks. Some of these Canadian rock bands are even nicer. But all of them have left their marks on the sounds of western civilization.
Folk sounds, dance-pop, hard rock, and even skate punk sounds have washed over the world from up north, and there’s no sign that places like Toronto and Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary will slow down in sending good music out over the airwaves.