It’s no secret that Canada has produced an abundance of talented and chart-breaking musicians throughout the years. But who is truly considered the best? When it comes to the best Canadian songwriters, it can turn into a highly debated and controversial topic. There are simply SO many people to choose from (especially when you’re narrowing it down to the top five!) So if your personal favourite didn’t make our list, don’t blame us! Today, we’re breaking down the top 5 prolific Canadian songwriters based on both expert opinions and the popular choices amongst the general public.
5. Alanis Morissette
Born in 1974 in Ottawa, Ontario, Alanis Morissette started her musical journey when she was just six years old. Her parents were teachers at military schools which caused them to move to Germany for a few years, but when Alanis moved back to Ottawa she started playing the piano and taking dance lessons. In 1981, she appeared on a few episodes of a children’s TV show which is where she made her acting debut. Alanis wrote her first song when she was just ten years old!
She recorded her first few demo tapes in 1989 (one of which got stolen during a robbery of her label’s record studio and was never heard) but ultimately released her first album, Alanis, in 1991. In 1995, she released her third album worldwide called Jagged Little Pill. This album was a huge shift for the musician as she learned to play the guitar and experimented with different sounds and song topics–moving away from the poppy sound her listeners were used to. Jagged Little Pill is still one of the best-selling albums of all time with over 33 million copies sold and it made Alanis the first Canadian artist to achieve double diamond sales. Throughout the years, Alanis has released ten albums and has acted in numerous TV shows and movies. And we think her award wins and nominations speak for themselves as to why she is on this list!
4. Neil Young
We couldn’t write this list without including Neil Young! Neil was born in Toronto in 1945 and got interested in music after listening to radio hits nonstop. After the divorce of his parents, Neil moved to Winnipeg with his mother where he started his music career. Neil played multiple different types of ukuleles at first before opting for the guitar. In the 60’s, Young bopped around from small band to small band before meeting Joni Mitchell (more on her later!) and going solo. Young did a tour in Canada in 1966 before making the move to Los Angeles.
After the move, Young hooked up with other musicians to form the folk band, Buffalo Springfield. After the band broke up in 1968, Neil signed a solo deal with Reprise Records and the rest is history! Neil has never been afraid to shy away from experimenting with new sounds and across the years, he’s shown what a great guy he is through his philanthropic work.
3. Joni Mitchell
And speaking of Joni Mitchell…Joni was born in 1943 in Fort Macleod, Alberta. She is a singer, songwriter, producer, painter, and is known as one of the most influential musicians of all time. While her main passion was painting as a child, Joni briefly played the piano before ultimately dropping out of school. She started to learn how to play the ukulele but because her earlier battle with polio left one of her hands weak, she had to improvise how she played. This alternative way of playing helped her approach her songwriting from a different lens than everyone else. Joni’s first paid performance was in 1962 at a club in Saskatoon that mainly featured jazz and folk musicians.
In 1965, Joni moved to the U.S. and started touring all over North America. Just three years later, she released her first studio album, Song to a Seagull. Since then, Joni has released 19 studio albums, won ten Grammys, has been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and her 1971 album Blue is considered one of the best albums ever released.
2. Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen was a Canadian musician, poet, and novelist born in Westmount, Quebec in 1934. He didn’t start his musical journey until high school where he studied music and poetry. In his teenage years, he was extremely involved in his school getting into photography, serving as the student council president, and even becoming a cheerleader! At this time, Leonard began to teach himself how to play the guitar and ended up forming a folk band that he called Buckskin Boys. In his college years, he really focused on his poetry and writing more than his music career. It wasn’t until 1967 that Cohen moved to the U.S. to pursue his music career after a lack of success in his writing endeavours.
His song “Suzanne” was recorded by Judy Collins and ended up becoming a hit. He then went on to write a number of other songs that Judy ended up recording and they would often perform them as a duet together on stage. After performing at multiple festivals and writing several popular songs, Leonard released his first studio album in 1967. In the following few years, he toured all over the world from the U.S. to Israel. Leonard is known as one of the best Canadian songwriters because of his background in poetry. He was able to effortlessly write about relatable and important themes from love to war to depression to loneliness to sexuality–Cohen wrote about it all. Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 just eight years before his death. He’s still considered one of the best musicians of all time and actually just landed a spot on Rolling Stone’s 2023 Top 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.
1. Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot is a folk/country musician born in 1938 in Orillia, Ontario. When he was a kid, he sang in a church choir where Gordon noted the choirmaster helped him gain confidence in his vocal range and taught him how to sing with true emotion. When he was a teenager, Lightfoot taught himself how to play the drums and piano. This is also around the time he started putting on concerts in his local community. He performed all throughout high school and taught himself how to play folk guitar. In 1958, he moved to California to study jazz composition and orchestration.
After moving back to California, Gordon was featured on numerous TV segments showing off his skills and played with many different bands. In 1965, Gordon released his first studio single and got a spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson which really boosted his popularity across North America. After releasing 21 albums, Lightfoot has been named one of the most influential songwriters of our time. He is also known as being one of the pioneers of the folk-pop genre that got its start in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Many people consider Gordon to be the #1 Canadian songwriter of all time and it’s not hard to understand why!
Become the Next Greatest Canadian Songwriter!
Now that you know more about some of Canada’s greatest musicians, think you’re ready to hone in on your talents? At Greater Toronto Music School we offer both voice and songwriting lessons in Toronto with some of the best instructors the city has to offer. During your songwriting lessons, you’ll work with highly experienced composers to help analyze music compositions and bring your passions to life. If you’re interested in singing, our Toronto vocal coaches can help widen your range and perfect your skills! If singing and songwriting isn’t your thing, we offer a wide array of music lessons in Toronto from percussion to guitar to violin and much more. Give us a call today to learn more about our voice, songwriting, or instrument lessons in Toronto!