March 29, 2021

Remembering the 1990s Canadian Scene


Buffalo NY, where I have lived since the 1980s, has always had a rich music scene. Greats like the Goo Goo Dolls and Rick James emerged from the area and went on to international stardom. In addition to our local scene, we also sit in close proximity to Toronto, ON, Canada. Toronto is a much bigger city, the most populous city in Canada, so they spawn more clubs and bands than Buffalo can. Still, we benefit from a lot of cross border musical activity. We are able to receive Toronto radio stations and it isn’t so far from us that we Americans can’t go for a concert or an overnight club crawl.

That worked for us really well in the early and mid-1990s. At that time, in the aftermath of the 80s but before the pop punk explosion, Toronto, and Canada in general, spawned some of the best bands of the era. Here in Buffalo, we could hear those bands before everyone else in the U.S. CFNY, the premier new music station in Toronto, is available on our radios. Canadian bands of the era, especially The Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, and Lowest of the Low, made regular visits to Buffalo clubs and colleges, gaining major followings that persist to this day.

Our proximity to Canada also meant that we heard and saw these bands well before they became famous in the U.S. Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies, and Sarah McLachlan, became well known throughout the U.S. and the world. Others, like Tal Bachman, only briefly shone but had a hit or two outside of Canada. Some, sadly, remained cult bands or never reached beyond their homeland.

Here are a list of bands that had the most impact here in the Buffalo area. My CD collection is jam packed with these bands, which says something of the impact they had in the area.

  • The Tragically Hip – Buffalo even has a mural dedicated to lead singer Gord Downie. I admit the one time I saw them live, just after their album Fully Completely was released, was underwhelming. They pissed off the crowd so much that there was nearly a riot. Don’t know what happened there.
  • Crash Test Dummies – they sang the “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” song where the lead singer just hummed the chorus in his deep voice.
  • Sarah McLachlan – she emerged a bit earlier and was a mainstay of the Lilith Fair scene.
  • Barenaked Ladies – they had a lot of whimsy in their music with songs like “Brian Wilson” and “If I had $1000000”. Fun fact: They perform the theme song for The Big Bang Theory TV show.
  • Moxy Fruvous – They were pretty weird. They often sang acapella, and had lyrics like “Once I was the King of Spain/Now I eat humble pie/Said I was the King of Spain/Now I work for the Pizza Pizza.” Odd but fun.
  • Blue Rodeo – they mixed country and rock and ended up sounding Americana before it was a thing. Canadiana?
  • Lowest of the Low – one of my personal favorites, they still play in Buffalo from time to time. Good time roots rock all the way.
  • Our Lady Peace – OLP, did well in the college music scene, especially the album Clumsy. There albums were a tad uneven which held them back from wider stardom.
  • LEN – pretty much a one hit wonder with the song “Steal My Sunshine”.
  • Tal Bachman – also a one hit wonder but that song, “She’s So High” is an awesome song.
  • Sloan – they didn’t really fit the rock and pop heavy scene and were more like the jam bands of the time. They did have a hit with slacker song”Undewhelmed” and I have seen them on the hippy festival circuit. I saw them just after Smeared came out and they were amazing. They knew how to jam. of course, I had a lot to drink that day so I’m am unreliable reporter.

There were more bands that were part of the 90s Canadian scene, like the Rheostatics or Matthew Good Band, that were great bands but never quite crossed the river into Buffalo. They might pop up on the local college stations, especially WBNY, but not in heavy rotation.

This was a great time to be in Toronto and Buffalo, musically. It was the epicenter of an amazing scene that broke big in the rest of the world. While Canada continues to produce great rock bands, there hasn’t been a Toronto or Canadian scene of this magnitude since that time. It was one of those moments when it all came together, like New York in the late 70s, London in the late 60s, or Seattle at roughly the same time.

Soon after, Pop Punk dominated the rock charts and R&B infused Pop took over the pop charts. Many of the Canadian bands faded into the background. Some continue to this day, making great music, but their heyday is long past.

But it was great while it lasted.

I have a playlist of 90s Canadian Bands on Spotify. Feel free to check it out and let me know in the comments if I missed any bands that were a big part of that scene.