The Bestselling Female Musician from Canada
Think of a musician from Canada who's sold bucketloads of records and the sad fact is most people will nowadays think of the likes of Justin Bieber or the very outspoken Canadian Robin Thicke. But Canada's also had rather more wholesome musical success stories, and one of the very best is Shania Twain, from Ontario. Her early life was far from idyllic, with Twain's family struggling for money to the extent that an eight year old Shania sang at bars to help make ends meet. And it was from this less than ideal foundation that Twain started to love music. Early on her vocal talents were improved by Toronto-based coach Ian Garrett, but in 1987 her mother and stepfather died in a car accident and she returned home to support her family with her music.
In the 1990s, when her siblings had moved out, Twain put together a demo tape that proved talented enough to get her signed up to Mercury Nashville Records. Her first album, self-titled, was released in 1993 and initially had only so-so sales (but her later success allowed it to go platinum years down the line). Her second studio album, The Woman in Me, was a different story. The single Any Man of Mine became her first number one, with three more singles from the same album achieving the same level of success ((If You're Not in It for Love) I'm Outta Here!, You Win My Love, and No One Needs to Know). The album's phenomenal success meant it achieved diamond status by 2007 (with 12m sales to boot), and won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album and the Academy of Country Music award for Album of the Year.
Twain's third album, Come On Over, continued her success and hit a high point of number two on the Billboard 200 (staying on the charts for an impressive two years). Come On Over sold an incredible 40 million copies around the world, and became the bestselling album of all time by a female artist, and the bestselling country album the world had ever seen, as well as winning a quartet of Grammys. Her next album, Up!, was released in 2002, and the year after Twain performed at the Super Bowl XXXVII halftime show. Up! charted well in multiple countries, particularly Germany, where it went quadruple platinum. After this came her Greatest Hits album and something of a sabbatical, until Now (her fifth album) came out in 2017, entering the Billboard 200 in the top slot. All that adds up to a substantial net worth of around $400m.
The Best Female Songwriter from Canada
Number four on our list of underrated musicians from Canada is Joni Mitchell (née Anderson). Her musical career began in Saskatoon (Saskatchewan), singing at nightclubs. But it wasn't long before Mitchell graduated to venues in Toronto before moving to the US in the mid-1960s and touring. Frustrated by the trend of clubs only allowing songs to be played by specific performers, Mitchell decided to write her own. Tragically her poverty meant that when she gave birth (having been abandoned by the baby's father) she had to give the child up for adoption, a secret she alluded to in various lyrics. Happily, the pair ended up reunited in 1997.
In 1965 Mitchell travelled to the USA with Chuck Mitchell, whom she married and with whom she performed at coffee houses. When they divorced in 1967 she embarked upon a solo career in New York City. In the late 1960s Mitchell began to write music for notable stars including Tom Rush, Judy Collins, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. In 1968 Mitchell's first studio album, Song to a Seagull, was released and a promotional tour helped stir up interest in a second album (Clouds). Radio loved her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, which had a more pop/rock feel and sold over half a million copies. It was also her first album to go gold. Her fourth album, Blue, hit the top 3 in the UK, and her sixth, Court and Spark, added more of a jazz feel to Mitchell's back catalogue.
More albums followed, some receiving a more mixed reception, and in 1983 Mitchell began a world tour covering Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and ending in the USA. As her career progressed she continued to experiment with new sounds such as synthesizers and drum machines, with songs taking on a more political theme. In 1994 she released her fifteenth album, Turbulent Indigo, which proved her most popular for years, and followed this up two years later with the Hits compilation. Mitchell's creative body of work has earned her nine Grammy Awards, and Rolling Stone magazine described her as one of the greatest songwriters ever. Her lyrics struck a chord with female audiences in particular, and her defiant desire to control her own musical destiny is one that many artists appreciate and respect.
The Most Poetic Musician from Canada
Born in Westmount in good old Quebec in 1934, Leonard Cohen is seen by some today as a bit old hat, but this underrated Canadian musician was not only a singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist, he put together an impressive and influential body of work during his long career. Artists from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain were admirers of this creative, political, and poetic musician. In 1967, after failing to make the impact he wanted to writing novels, Cohen began to wander down a musical road. His early forays as a folk singer-songwriter saw him pen Judy Collins' hit Suzanne, just the first of his songs she covered. Good receptions at folk festivals enabled him to sign a record deal, and in 1970 Cohen toured in America, Europe, and Canada, with a second tour in 1972 in Israel and Europe.
The 1980s was Cohen's musical heyday, with the release of his seventh studio album Various Positions, backed up by a European and Australian tour that was the Canadian musician's biggest tour in his career to date. Various Positions featured the song that would end up being Cohen's best known, but Hallelujah actually achieved relatively little success upon its initial release. However, time has been kind and the resurgence of Hallelujah has seen it appear in numerous forms in modern media, perhaps most famously covered by John Cale on the soundtrack of Shrek in 1991. In 1988 Cohen released his eighth album, I'm Your Man, which hit number one in multiple European nations, achieved his greatest success in the USA, and made this Canadian musician a bestselling artist on the international stage.
The Future was Cohen's next album, and the title track was reportedly a response to the LA riots of 1992. In 1994 he entered five years of seclusion at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, becoming ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk with the name Jikan. This didn't end his musical creativity, such as Dear Heather (1994), which was a collaboration with Anjani Thomas, and reflected a more optimistic note both personally and musically for Cohen. Partly to make good losses due to the criminal acts of a former manager, Cohen embarked on a world tour from 2008 to 2010, with appearances at the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Pyramid Stage at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival. A second world tour (amid more album releases) came in 2012-3, and his final album You Want It Darker came out in 2016, just a month before his death (his posthumous album Thanks for the Dance was released in 2019).
The Ever Evolving Bryan Adams
For people born in the early 1980s mention Bryan Adams and the first thought is automatically the single (Everything I Do) I Do It for You which reached the number one spot in no fewer than 19 different countries. The British particularly loved it, with the track staying on top of the charts for an almost unbelievable 16 consecutive weeks, a UK record (no mean feat for the country that produced The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Queen). But there's a lot more to this talented musician from Canada than one of the world's greatest ever number one hit singles (although that's not a bad feather to have in one's cap).
Hailing from Kingston. Ontario, Bryan Adams is the son of a British (and then Canadian) army officer. His father became a diplomat, and this travelling lifestyle saw the budding musician from Canada exposed to various cultures and countries from around the world. A 12 year old Adams left school to form his first band (Shock), using money his parents had saved for his college to buy a grand piano. Influenced by a broad range of music, including T-Rex and Tina Turner, he joined Sweeney Todd at 15 as a vocalist, leaving it a year later to form what would prove a very successful writing partnership with Jim Vallance.
Come the 1980s, Adams released his self-titled debut album, co-written with Vallance, and it went gold in Canada. But it was album three, Cuts Like A Knife, that made his name and featured hits such as Straight From The Heart (a top 10 single). After this album Adams continued his success, performing alongside the likes of Journey and Supertramp. His fourth album, Reckless, has perhaps his best known singles (excepting (Everything I Do) I Do It for You), Run To You and Summer of '69. Reckless was also notable for every single breaking the top 15 in the USA. Adams went on to co-write two tracks for Under a Raging Moon, Roger Daltrey's sixth album, but his greatest success on the international stage was undoubtedly his 1991 theme for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (Everything I Do) I Do It for You was a smash around the world. After this, more success came with 18 til I Die, Adams' seventh album which reached number 2 in Canada (and topped the album charts in the UK), while his eleventh album (11) was top 10 in eleven countries, and his 2019 fourteenth album Shine a Light topped the charts in the musician's native Canada.
Neil Young: the Most Tempestuous Musician from Canada
And so we come to the final entry on our list of world-shaking musicians from Canada, and that means it's time to look at Neil Young. Born in 1945 in Ontario (Toronto), Young took an interest in music in the 1950s and 1960s, and enjoyed an eclectic mix including the rock and roll of Elvis Presely, R&B country, and even the likes of Britons Cliff Richard and the Shadows, while Johnny Cash proved another musical inspiration, this time in country. Young's earliest foray into making music himself came with a plastic ukulele, but from this humble start great things would happen.
Young's first band, The Jades, was formed in High School. He later formed The Squires, with whom he performed live hundreds of times. After leaving the band Young met Joni Mitchell, and had his first great success as a songwriter, penning Flying on the Ground is Wrong for The Guess Who. Young's eclectic musical tastes were reflected when he formed Buffalo Springfield, which defied conventional genres and had influences of rock, country, folk, and more. After a couple of successful but tumultuous years the band split, which led Young to embark upon a brief solo period in his career before becoming one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Once again, the band was full of creativity and success but also interpersonal tensions that saw Young leave and embark on an acoustic tour of the USA in 1970.
In 1972 Young released Heart of Gold, the only number one hit single in a prolific career. The pattern of commercial success and personal struggles continued though the years, perhaps most epitomized by his time with The Stray Gators when Danny Whitten was falling to drug abuse and ended up ODing. Having fallen out with many a band and performer, Young was also able to reform with multiple individual musicians and groups from the mid-70s onwards in addition to creating new solo work. The 1980s saw him embark upon a particularly experimental approach, with rockabilly covers mixed with 80s synthesizers, and he enjoyed a career resurgence in the 1990s. Always willing to try new things and capable of both performing and composing great music, Neil Young's one musician from Canada who has had a tempestuous global career, but has never been accused of being dull.
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And that brings us to the end of our top five underrated musicians from Canada. We've looked at highly regarded singer-songwriters and creators of some of the bestselling singles and albums the world has ever seen.