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Book Reviews

The Best Stories Behind the Top 20 Canadian Rock, Pop and Folk Songs

by Jim Brown

There are few things more central to music criticism than list making. In the introduction to his new volume, music critic and biographer Jim Brown suggests every reader should have his or her own list of Canada’s best songs, and debates about their relative merits should lead to a culture of storytelling about homegrown music. In this spirit, Brown has compiled his own list of the best 21 (20 plus a bonus track) Canadian songs.

My natural inclination is to focus on the song choices, which include well-known favourites such as “Heart of Gold,” “Both Sides Now,” “You Oughta Know,” and “Suzanne.” But other than mentioning that the list skews older – with only six out of 21 songs coming from the past 30 years – I’ll resist the urge. This is because the focus of Brown’s book is actually the careers of the artists behind the songs.

Brown cobbles together material from magazines, websites, memoirs, and personal accounts, but the resulting profiles only skim the surface of their subjects. Yes, the reader learns who the subject of Paul Anka’s “Diana” is and what Bryan Adams was actually doing in the summer of ’69, but without more detail about the songs themselves – their inspiration, composition, and importance – the information is unsatisfying and incomplete.

If the reader accepts the premise that these are indeed the 21 top Canadian rock, pop, and folk songs, and is content with brief, general biographies of the artists who made them famous, this book will prove adequate. But given that Brown’s title promises “the best stories” behind the songs, many readers will find themselves wanting more.