Home > Music, Reviews > Anything That Systematic Would Get You Hated: Ranking the Discography of the Tragically Hip

Anything That Systematic Would Get You Hated: Ranking the Discography of the Tragically Hip

Following Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip’s announcement last month that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie had contracted terminal brain cancer and that their tour this summer would be their last, the band’s new album Man Machine Poem (also presumed to be their last) was released on Friday, June 17th. Assuming that their recording career will end in step with their live performance career, this album release will complete a musical oeuvre that is among the most impressive in the history of Canadian popular music. This makes Man Machine Poem’s release an apt moment to engage in a critical evaluation and definitive (in one longtime listener’s view, at least) ranking of each album in the Tragically Hip’s 30-year career.

1. Phantom Power (1998)

Phantom PowerThe timing of this album’s release may bias me in its favour: it was the first new studio record by the band to come out after I joined the ranks of their devotees. But Phantom Power (the title is a bit of stage lingo referring to a lingering electric charge after unplugging equipment, but describes the album’s feel and spectral thematic thrust beautifully as well) is also tremendous, lyrically complex, touched by massive melodies and rich textures. Its tone modulates and builds up to its two affecting closers, “Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man” and “Emperor Penguin”, but its early stretch includes two of the band’s greatest anthems of ambivalent national seeking, the Cold War/hockey/marriage history micro-novel “Fireworks” and the ethereal “Bobcaygeon”, which captivated a wider audience beyond their usual core. An earlier generation of Hip fans swear by Fully Completely, but for me, it is Phantom Power above all.

Firework: “Bobcaygeon”. Everyone’s Favourite Tragically Hip Song.

Unplucked Gem: “Save the Planet”. Enervating and unnerving rock distillation of millennial social and political malaise, with flute solo.

2. Day For Night (1994)

Day For NightA serious and purposely uncommercial shift in style and subject matter at the height of their popularity, Day For Night demonstrated that the Tragically Hip would not be your run-of-the-mill stadium rock band. A shadowy statement of dark intent, the record is haunted by the creeping penumbra of totalitarianism, infused with suggestions of human cruelty and death. Downie’s lyrics are fixated on shipwrecks, blood, film noir, Nazi art looting, and tense, intimate negotiations. Densely allusive, the lyrics encompass art, philosophy and history, as well as exquisite tableaux of the mundane sparkling with black humour. Day For Night set the model for the subsequent twenty years of Hip albums, but few of its ancestors can approach its powerful, textured darkness.

Firework: “Nautical Disaster”. A vivid nightmarescape of soul-shaking seaborne trauma without chorus or rhyming scheme. One of Downie’s most blazing vocal performances. And who’s this Susan?

Unplucked Gem: “Titanic Terrarium”. A collection of Downie’s best wry jokes (“Growing up in a biosphere / With no respect for bad weather”) over a subtly magnificent soundscape.

3. Music@Work (2000)

Music @ WorkIt may only be my opinion that Phantom Power was the band’s creative peak, but it was unquestionably their commercial height. It’s wrong, however, to see its 2000 follow-up Music@Work as the commencement of any species of decline. It is, without a doubt, their most sonically textured work, the clearest evidence of the influence of the then-exploding Canadian (specifically Toronto-based) indie rock scene on Downie’s writing and the band’s still-evolving sound, of a piece with the singer’s first two solo records. It has more moments of roughly polished beauty than anything else the Hip have done, and its impact has only grown with acquaintance over the years.

Firework: “Lake Fever”. Deeply Ontarian but rousingly universal, this slow-waxing magic-hour anthem of cottage country tranquility and shaken assumptions, complete with Paul Langlois’ usual froggish backing vocals straining into mightiness, must have a place in the Hip’s top ten singles.

Unplucked Gem: “Toronto #4”. Elegant poetic expression of family loss. Possibly the Hip’s most ravishing, affecting three minutes.

4. Road Apples (1991)

Road ApplesThe apogee of the band’s initial blues-rock phase, Road Apples was always preferable for me to its much more successful follow-up. It’s little wonder that the Hip expanded the boundaries of their music from this point on, as the record makes it clear that they had exploited the form for more than all it was worth. From the killer opener “Little Bones” on, this is a relentless rock record dipped in Shakespeare and Canadiana, with slow-burn interludes like “Long Time Running” and the wrenching “Fiddler’s Green”. They branched out and got better, but Road Apples is pure, raw, nearly flawless rock n’ roll.

Firework: “Cordelia”. So many of Road Apples’ rockers spit hot fire, but it’s hard to top this one, with its loud-quiet transitions and central King Lear metaphor. Cracks your spine like a whip.

Unplucked Gems: “The Last of the Unplucked Gems”. A bit of an obvious choice, but a great bassline from Gord Sinclair and zen simplicity from Gord Downie: “I’m kind of dumb / But so are you”.

5. Fully Completely (1992)

Fully CompletelyThe seminal Tragically Hip album, with multiple hit singles establishing the loyalty of a generation of Canadian rock fans. It’s certainly quite good (I love the sound of Johnny Fay’s drums in particular) but just below the upper echelon of the band’s work, to my mind. There’s some filler but there’s also some greatness, namely “Courage” (Downie’s tribute to hard-drinking, bar-fighting writers and the pitfalls of masculine identity), “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” (cruising, paranoid northern rural noir), “Fifty Mission Cap” (hockey death mystery and cultural commodification) and “Wheat Kings” (an acoustic ballad on prairie society and the David Milgaard case). If the Tragically Hip are to be remembered by posterity for one album only, it’s difficult to argue for any candidate other than Fully Completely.

Firework: “Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)”. Whiplash tick-tock riffing rhythm and Downie’s canny instinct for the mot juste and the anthemic melody make this not just an album but a full discographic highlight. Wonderful, profound lyrics in the bridge as well.

Unplucked Gem: “Wheat Kings”. Far from hidden, but a late-album cut with a complexity of cultural imagery and detail that far outstrips anything they had done prior to it.

6. In Between Evolution (2004)

In Between EvolutionAlthough the Tragically Hip’s recordings from the second half of their thirty-year run always have something worthwhile to offer, you’ll notice them crowding towards the bottom of this list. The mid-2000s were a relatively solid period for the band, however, and this album in particular included some sharp meathooks. It blows through the doors with the breathless opening salvo of “Heaven is a Better Place Today” (another dead hockey player song, this one about Dan Snyder, and the twinned euphemisms common to both sports and death) and “Summer’s Killing Us” before acquiring a more strident political dimension redolent of the midpoint of the George W. Bush Administration: “Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park” figures a depressed zoo-bound super-predator as a stealth metaphor for belligerent American interventionist power, “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” obliquely criticizes flag-waving warmongering musicians like country star Toby Keith, and “If New Orleans is Beat” anticipates the denuding of the great historic city on the Mississippi (with which the band shared a long history) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another record that has only grown in my estimation over time.

Firework: “Summer’s Killing Us”. Maintains such a breathless see-saw riff-rhythm that Downie’s emphatic “whoo!” comes out as an exhausted “whew!”

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Josephine”. An album without ballads ends with this lovely tune about paintings and teenage daughters with one of lead guitarist Rob Baker’s most nicely-attuned run-off solos.

7. Up to Here (1989)

Up To HereThe reputation and importance in terms of breaking the Tragically Hip gives this smart, skilled but fundamentally basic blues-rock album a bit of a boost in this list. There are some superb examples of the genre on Up to Here, the singles “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans is Sinking” obviously but also the woody stomper “Boots or Hearts” and “38 Years Old”, a storytelling ballad that approximates later, greater such narrative songs like “Wheat Kings” in embryonic form. Up to Here is hypercompetent at the gutpunching bluesy modern rock that made the band’s name (indeed, this is the album that made that name) but it suffers just a bit compared to the exploratory ambition of their later work.

Firework: “New Orleans is Sinking”. The Tragically Hip’s “She Loves You” breakthrough, and an indelible, serpentine Southern gothic kick-up. SWIM!

Unplucked Gem: “Boots or Hearts”. You can’t dance to much Hip, but you can dance to this. Shuffle and handclaps perfection.

8. World Container (2006)

World ContainerProduced by mainstream shiny-rock maven Bob Rock, World Container was a modest commercial comeback for the Hip, who had faded from their position of prominence in the changing youth music market in Canada since the end of the 1990s. It’s certainly the Hip album most at ease with the stadium-rock milieu that was always their dominant métier, and purpose-builds big, broad songs like “In View”, “Yer Not the Ocean”, and the title track for that setting. Enjoyable as it can be for the band to embrace their concert identity on a studio album (“Family Band” is a hugely likable literalization of this identity), this embrace comes with a cost to their art. Bob Rock encouraged Downie to move away from the renowned literary obscurity of his lyrics into more intelligible expressions. This results in some of Downie’s most direct and personal songs (“The Lonely End of the Rink” reminisces on his youth as a top hockey goalie prospect and his memories of a distant father) but doesn’t so much open his creative possibilities as narrowly channel them. In opposition to many other efforts from the 2000s, World Container struck me as strong at first and then faded in my estimation with the passage of time.

Firework: “The Lonely End of the Rink”. A bit too direct? Sure. But the core metaphor of the natural solitude and isolation of the goaltender on the ice reflecting a similar cold distance with his father is beyond solid. Some great guitar work from Baker, too.

Unplucked Gem: “Family Band”. The embrace of old-fashioned riff rock bears juicy fruit late in the album. It repeats the stop-and-powerfully-restart trick from “Little Bones” to maximum effect, and Fay’s timekeeping is merciless. Plus: “One day I’ll make some honest rock n’ roll / Full of handclaps and gang vocals”. A worthy goal.

9. Man Machine Poem (2016)

Man Machine PoemLoose, adventurous, and wonderfully unfamiliar, Man Machine Poem doesn’t pummel the listener with stadium anthems but beguiles them with melodic surprises. The influence of producer and Broken Social Scene supremo Kevin Drew is writ large on what is likely to be the Tragically Hip’s last record (and confirms the reverse influence of the Canadian rock giants on the Pitchfork-approved indie collective’s music which was always a matter of no small suspicion on my part). Like many an indie rock record, and like much of the Hip’s better post-millenial output as well, Man Machine Poem feels like a musical work that will reveal itself more fully and truly only over time. How painful it will be not to receive more gifts like this from the band, but how glad we are to be given one more.

Firework: “In Sarnia”. Canadian place-name in the title. Check. Low-end noodling exploding into moving grandeur. This is a song I’ll love for years, that much is clear.

Unplucked Gem: “Here, In the Dark”. The most Hipesque track on an album that often seems to purposely eschew anything overly Hipesque, with a great arhythmic chorus with Downie wordspilling compellingly. Complex, menacing final minute as well.

10. Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)

Trouble At The HenhouseSharing Day For Night’s dusky textures, Trouble at the Henhouse is hardly as distinguished a release, a valley between the late ‘90s peaks that top this list. It does, however, feature two dynamite anthemic singles, the grand “Gift Shop” and the sublime “Ahead by a Century”, as well as the excellent “Springtime in Vienna” and the spookily epic “Don’t Wake Daddy”. It’s the rare Hip record that peters out into relative insignificance, however; usually the band sequence in a strong deep cut or two in their albums’ latter halves, and certainly nearly always end on an up note. But not here, where the murky dirge “Put It Off” plods off into the distance.

Firework: “Ahead by a Century”. One of the eternals, this coming-of-age ballad could be made the new Canadian national anthem without facing serious opposition.

Unplucked Gem: “Flamenco”. Doggedly down-tempo, this is nonetheless a sneaky melodic charmer, with one of Downie’s sharpest digs: “Maybe a prostitute / Could teach you / How to take a compliment”.

11. In Violet Light (2002)

In Violet LightFor some time my personal selection as the weakest Tragically Hip release since their debut, the Purple Heron Album has revealed its peculiar delights over time and risen in the rankings as mixed-bag late-period releases piled up behind it. “’It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken’” is a good, if not all-time great, single, although “Silver Jet” might be the worst thing the band ever put out to radio and Hugh Padgham’s production is weirdly thin, tinny, and generally unworthy of the artistry on display (the dull commercial font on the cover is the visual match to those sonics). The sheer quality of Downie’s writing and the increasing adventurousness of his vocals reveal themselves with deeper acquaintance, and the top-notch pair of “Dark” songs are both for the annals. Even this far removed from their best, the Hip are still very good.

Firework: “The Darkest One”. A breezy cruiser with a slick riff, it’s the best of the record’s three singles. Plus the music video is a Canadiana classic, featuring the two Gords helping the Trailer Park Boys steal an engine out of a pickup truck, who then tussle with Don Cherry when he shows up to deliver fried chicken.

Unplucked Gem: “The Dark Canuck”. A six-minute-long, beats-to-the-floor modest rock epic in three movements, this is among the Hip’s most arresting album-closers.

12. We Are the Same (2009)

We Are The SameThe band’s second collaboration with Bob Rock also represented the end of the creative relationship. Although it’s more likely that this had more to do with the Hip’s desire for continued variety in collaborators, perhaps they saw that Rock’s emphasis on straight-ahead clarity in music and words wasn’t doing their output as many favours as they might have thought. We Are the Same is hardly a failure. There are several fine songs, at least one classic tableau of detailed empathy (“Coffee Girl”), and some ambitious turns. But this band has honestly been much better than this, and not only earlier in their career, either. Half-assed album cover, too.

Firework: “Coffee Girl”. There’s a touch of creepy middle-aged man watching young women in public to this, but it’s an infectious and beautifully observed portrait of a type outside of Downie’s personal experience, with Beck and Cat Power shout-outs.

Unplucked Gem: “The Depression Suite”. Bob Rock may have over-polished the Hip’s sound, but he did oversee this spectacular, rambling, rousing, ambitious, strings-assisted suite. Downie pulls disparate strands from Farley Mowat’s books, the isolation of urban capitalism, and the corporatized transformation of New Orleans for tourist profit into one of his most comprehensive pictures of modern malaise and the vital comfort of fellow-feeling. A great musical moment, and maybe their last on record.

13. Now For Plan A (2012)

Now For Plan AMade with prominent Canadian rock producer Gavin Brown, Now For Plan A makes very little impression of any kind, it pains me to say. Maybe it will grow with long-term acquaintance, and some of it is kind of nice (“About This Map” and the title track are low-key efforts with unsounded depths, I feel). But with this album coming after the similarly middling (by the band’s high standards) We Are the Same, a long-running loyalty to the Tragically Hip’s continued release of new material was tested. Cheeky album cover, mind you.

Firework: “Man Machine Poem”. A title track for the album that follows this one (how eccentric!), it’s lyrically minimalist but massively sung by Downie and full of productive tension.

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. That reliable Hip standby, the killer album closer. Also a classic slice of Hip Canadiana, with Downie delighting in squeezing the remote northern indigenous community’s mouthful of a name into a rock lyric, although just mentioning the place, with its crippling and largely disavowed social problems, is a laudable act of social justice.

14. The Tragically Hip (EP) (1987)

The Tragically HipThis EP debut really barely represents the Tragically Hip as we came to know them at all. Downie is listed as co-writer on only half of the songs, with Sinclair and Baker sharing credit in a three-composer triumvurate. Canada’s future rock poet is vocalist only on both of the EP’s singles, including its best song, “Last American Exit”. Sinclair’s misbegotten “Evelyn” may be the biggest mistake they every committed to tape, and the EP concludes with a couple of jokey semi-novelty songs. Only the unremarkable “Highway Girl” made it onto the fan-voted 2005 Yer Favourites compilation from this EP, and even that was only due to the legendary “Double Suicide” live version. It’s generally unaccomplished, but then they were pretty young at the time. Only hints of what is to come can be discerned here, but it can be safely enough dismissed as simple juvenilia.

Firework: “Last American Exit”. Road trip blues-rock with a soaring chorus and an undercurrent of classically Canadian knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Nicely done, Other Gord.

Unplucked Gem: “I’m A Werewolf, Baby”. A silly tune, fairly terrible but still a definite oddity in the band’s oeuvre. Pretty fun, even if it’s an extended joke, and you’ve got to love Downie’s improv reply to Langlois’ repetition of the title phrase: “Not you too!”

Side releases worthy of mention: Live Between Us, the much-bootlegged band’s only official live album, recorded on the Trouble at the Henhouse tour in Detroit; Gord Downie’s brilliant, pure indie solo records, especially Coke Machine Glow and his energetic collaboration with the Sadies, And the Conquering Sun; “The New Maybe”, one of their most achingly gorgeous songs ever, from the Yer Favourites best-of album.

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