Canada often gets ignored for its contributions to the world of hook-laden, melodic punk rock due to the sheer mass of bands that have come out of the U.S., but in the 1990s and early 2000s, we exported a staggering amount of great pop punk records, and had a surprisingly large hand in shaping the genre’s rise to its eventually exhausting ubiquity on the radio and in TV and movies (sorry…).
While we’re still dwarfed by our neighbours to the south in terms of pop punk legends, the influence of these albums is still extremely palpable and prescient even today.
Here are some of the best Canadian pop punk records that not only helped define the genre, but Canada’s musical landscape as well. While Canada has been responsible for a wealth of great pop punk records, these are the ones that not only stand the test of time, but the ones you can plainly see have had an enormous impact on the evolution of the genre.
Propagandhi – How To Clean Everything
While the band have eschewed straight-ahead pop punk songwriting in recent years for a more “thrash metal meets hardcore meets your drunk uncle’s angry political rant” style, and they’re not too fond of their debut LP, How To Clean Everything remains possibly the most influential pop punk record to come out of Canada.
This little record proved that we could go toe-to-toe with the Southern California punk scene that was blowing up at the time, and we could hold our own, dammit! While bands like NOFX, No Use For a Name, Green Day and the Offspring were blowing up, Propagandhi was right there with them. Not only that, but they had a particularly fierce and in-your-face political stance that makes Green Day’s American Idiot look like a fourth grader’s essay.
With songs denouncing everything from nationalism and the militarization of religion to toxic masculinity and homophobia, Propagandhi were unabashedly political, so much so that it often lead to massive conflicts at their shows, especially in rural areas and the U.S., with fights often breaking out because the band would intentionally piss off racists and bigots in the audience. That kind of rhetoric was rare back in the early ‘90s, and they often paid the price for going against the grain. How To Clean Everything remains an incredibly important record for that reason alone, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s stuffed to the gills with great riffs and almost absurdly bubblegum hooks.
Gob – Too Late, No Friends
While they later dropped the crude humour and breakneck speed drumming in favour of more radio-friendly fodder, the debut album from Vancouver pop punk trio Gob was a fast-paced volley of snarky, bratty hooks that proved Canadian pop punk bands could be just as snotty as the Americans. It was this album that opened up a world of possibilities for the West Coast of Canada, resulting in the success of bands like Another Joe, and providing a great network of bands along the west coast, resulting in a ton of US/Canada crossover at a time where cross-border collaboration was key.
Not only that, but it’s just an absolutely terrific pop punk album. Too Late, No Friends is like Blink 182’s Dude Ranch on a bunch of benzedrine and vodka. It’s louder, messier, more brash, and offensive; it’s just rougher and rawer in every way. Songs like opener “Extra, Extra” are perfectly encapsulated bursts of adolescent angst and anger at furious speeds with golden hooks; it’s over in two minutes, and that’s absolutely perfect. This is also the album with fan-favourite “Soda,” which is actually a pretty cute love song wrapped up in start/stop punk riffs and bratty snarl.
What’s great about this record is that it doesn’t beat around the bush. It takes what’s good about pop punk and runs with it over 18 tracks of no-nonsense (or I guess, all nonsense?), energetic fun. It’s not the deepest, most profound album in the world, and some of the messages here haven’t aged well, but what Too Late, No Friends did was show that Canada could be just as outlandish and sloppy and debaucherous as our neighbours to the south.
The Weakerthans – Fallow
While it would be an incorrect judgement to label the Weakerthans as simply a pop punk band, their debut LP Fallow is undeniably a pop punk record at its core. While the four (and sometimes six) piece lead by former Propagandhi bassist John K. Samson would go on to mold and shape their sound into a more eclectic brand of indie rock, hushed, reverent folk, and off-kilter experimentation, back in 1997 they were just a pop punk quartet who happened to be politically motivated and very, very literary minded.
There’s no way around admitting that that tracks like “Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist” or “Greatest Hits Collection” are straight-ahead pop punk, albeit with much more of a bookish, “emotional” sensibility than a lot of their peers at the time. Fallow was an influential record because it showed that you need not colour inside the lines when making this kind of music, and songs like the somber and mournful title track, or the almost discordant, “Leash,” demonstrated that the Weakerthans were destined for more than just three chord bangers.
In a genre that often feels very “cut and paste,” the Weakerthans were a breath of fresh air because they broadened the idea of what pop punk was, and what you could do with it. You didn’t have to just write songs about getting wasted or being sad about girls; you could write songs about existential dread in a coffee shop in rural Manitoba, or the crushing reality of bitter living under hypercapitalism, and you could do it with flowery prose, too. The Weakerthans made it okay for you to take a chance, and take things seriously, and looking back, Fallow is pretty astonishingly ambitious debut LP.
Reset – No Limits
Part of me really wanted to include Simple Plan’s debut album here instead, because it’s inarguably much more well-known, and infinitely more successful, but when it all comes down to it, Simple Plan were just a more mainstream and marketable Reset. It was like Reset with all of the good bits stripped out it – streamlined and nicely wrapped up for the masses. Also, it was Reset who not only ignited a fire in the Quebec punk scene, bringing francophone pop punk music to a much larger following, ultimately being responsible for the evolution of hyped as hell bands like the Sainte Catherines, and arguably, the ska and punk themed festival Pouzza Fest.
What Reset brought to the table was different than what was happening in other parts of Canada in the pop punk scene – and not just because of the Francophone influence. Reset really blurred the line between technical punk and pop punk, with songs that weren’t as straight-ahead as some of their cohorts. Their albums had a rough and kind of warped edge to them, and there were glimpses of metal and hardcore in their riffs, but they wove it all together with catchy as hell hooks and anthemic choruses when they needed to.
Reset never broke through to the mainstream, and it seems like masterminds Pierre Bouvier and Chuck Comeau saved all of that gloss and bubblegum for their next project, Simple Plan, which quickly broke through to commercial radio and MTV in the pop punk explosion of 2002. While it never found the success it probably deserved, Reset’s No Limits stands as a cult classic that even the most die-hard anti-mainstream “purists” will say was pretty good.
Sum 41 – All Killer No Filler
This record is our Enema of the State, it’s our Smash, our Dookie. This is the album that really put Canadian pop punk on the map, and not just in the dark, nepotism-laden recesses of small-town scenes and message boards, but commercially. Like, on MTV, and on the radio and in American Pie movies and stuff!
While it’s true that there actually IS some filler on this record, and some would argue that Does This Look Infected? is the better album, or that it holds up better, there’s no denying that this was the harbinger of Canada’s mainstream pop-punk success. It opened the floodgates for all the Hot Topics, patched up jean jackets, and spiked wristbands to come pouring in, and we let it wash over us like sweet, angsty summer rain.
While it wasn’t until the following year that pop punk blew up as a cultural phenomenon, it was Sum 41 that marked the beginning of the end in a way. They had broken through to the popular channels not because pop punk in Canada was a huge marketing machine yet, but because All Killer No Filler was such a wonderfully written – and catchy as hell – record. It was a foot in the door that ushered in the hundreds of copycat bands.
Fifteen years later, though, it still largely holds up. Straight-ahead pop punk bangers like “Summer” are undeniable earworms, while you can still see the crossover appeal of more middle-of-the-road radio fodder like “In Too Deep,” or “Fat Lip,” even if the latter’s quasi-rap verses are pretty much cringe central. This record wasn’t just successful because it hopped on a trend, it was successful because it was a solid damn record that came along at the perfect time.
Avril Lavigne – Let Go
While it may seem out of touch or even completely unnecessary to include Avril Lavigne’s debut album here, it’s undeniable that this brought pop punk firmly into the mainstream, blurring the lines with it and straight-up pop music, and making it more of a cultural movement than a genre. It also laid some of the very important groundwork that paved the way for the success of female fronted pop punk bands in the mainstream, moving away from the “sweet and quiet” singer songwriter trope, resulting in the rise of female-driven punk-influenced pop music, with the later success of Canadian artists like FeFe Dobson, and Skye Sweetnam being a direct result.
This is an album that is, to say the least, divisive. It’s celebrated as a highly successful album, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of “pop punk purists” argue that it’s not really a pop punk album. Why? Because it features more down-tempo ballads as well as the straight ahead bangers? Well, yeah, so do a bunch of pop punk records – Sum 41’s “In Too Deep” is hardly vicious. Because it’s “mainstream” and made by a “sellout”? First of all, hard to sell out on your debut album, and furthermore, what was she selling out from? The rampant dick and fart jokes, stories about drinking, lamenting not getting girls, and shitty, entitled adolescent teenage boy attitudes found in a majority of pop punk at the time? They’re hardly arguments worth taking seriously.
When this album came out, it got a lot of flak, and it all seems rather like nonsense as the years go by. You know what this album’s crime was? It put a girl front and centre in a genre that still has a problem with female representation, and it was successful as hell. I’d chalk a lot of the initial hate for Avril’s first album up to jealousy from little punk boys who were pissed that a girl doing what they were doing was so much more successful. You can blame the “machine” and the “industry” all you like, but it’s not like other pop punk bands weren’t industry manufactured or groomed. What is undeniable is that this album was a huge influence on young girls; girls who finally saw someone they could identify with in this kind of music. These were girls who weren’t yet old enough, or maybe experienced enough with alternative music to go digging for the wealth of great female punk bands in Canada that the mainstream was ignoring.
Regardless of her career post-Let Go, this is an album that still holds up in a big way. I listened to this not too long ago on a CD in my friend’s kitchen, and we were both blown away by how catchy it still is, and how much better it holds up than something in a similar league, like Simple Plan’s 2002 debut, or anything Good Charlotte has ever done. As far as the mainstream capitalizing on the pop punk trend goes, this album does everything right, and manages – with the exception of a few missteps – to stay pretty timeless.