As Mac pointed out in this retrospective playlist/post he put out earlier this year, you can never definitively distill an artist down into one succinct slice. To truly get a sense of the scope and breadth of the Dears’ career, you could start by picking up the recently released boxed collection of their first three records, but that would only give you a snapshot of their twenty-plus year career.
You’ll undoubtedly uncover gaps in this suggestion of twelve definitive Dears songs, but that’s part and parcel of why endeavouring to make a career-spanning playlist like this is as much fun as it is challenging. It has the ability to spark discussion and debate, which is something the Dears do very well. Feel free to point out what’s missing and what should have been left off the list. Most importantly, put on your headphones or crank up your speakers and get set for the singular musical stylings of a national treasure: here come the Dears.
“Thrones” from Degeneration Street, 2011
There’s no more fitting an introduction to the royal highnesses of Canadian indie music than this 2011 single from Degeneration Street. Anchored by a full-throated, impassioned performance from Murray Lightburn, a multi-fretted guitar attack from returning alumni Robert Benvie and Patrick Krief, “Thrones” harnesses the grandiosity of their earlier work and chisels the Dears’ songwriting lean to get rid of any bloat. “Thrones” is pure rock catharsis at its best.
“Lost in the Plot” from No Cities Left, 2003
“Lost in the Plot” will inevitably go down in history as Murray Lightburn’s masterpiece, just as every Dears record will be measured against its parent album, No Cities Left. The grind and grit of humanity never sounded sexier than when Lightburn, channeling a hopeless romanticism, croons “Our love / Don’t mess with our love / Our love is so much stronger” before shredding the chorus to pieces with his guttural howl.
“Sinthtro” / “Ticket to Immortality” from Gang of Losers, 2006
The opening couplet to Gang of Losers is technically two songs, but for me, “Sinthtro” and “Ticket to Immortality” are united as a singular, atmospheric whole. Scaling back on the ornate, orchestral opulence of No Cities Left, “Ticket to Immortality” signaled that the Dears could rock out with the best of them, while “Sinthtro” set the tone for the record’s prevailing outsider mentality.
“I Used to Pray for the Heavens to Fall” from Times Infinity Vol. 1, 2015
On earlier records, Murray Lightburn’s lyrical challenges always seemed directed at individuals or cliques (see “Ticket to Immortality”), but when he opens “I Used to Pray for the Heavens to Fall” with the line “Whose side are you on?” it feels as though the Dears are taking on the very fabric of the universe itself. There’s skill and style in the way the song switches gears through the exalted chorus. It’s definitive Dears desolation shot through with a single ray of hope and promise, like a beam of sunshine breaking through dark storm clouds.
“Summer of Protest” from Protest EP, 2002
The Dears never sounded more experimental and politically charged than on the Protest EP. “Summer of Protest” has been described as “… a track that manages to meld the bassline from Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” with the orchestral sweep of Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely”” while managing to retain the band’s signature style and sound. Writing an EP may have afforded the Dears freedom to push themselves into uncharted territory, which leads to…
“No Hope Before Destruction” from Protest EP, 2002
…a wickedly mournful piano ballad torn to shreds by Lightburn’s broken-speaker distorted vocal performance. Nothing the Dears released before or since has come close to the beautiful mess of perfection that is “No Hope Before Destruction”.
“Where the World Begins and Ends” from End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story, 2000
A lot of the focus gets paid to Lightburn’s melancholic lyricism, but this under-appreciated instrumental from the band’s debut long-player balances the woefulness with a jazzy sense of optimism. It is an expressive, extended interlude that showcases the Dears’ ability to generate narrative and emotional arcs that elevate their albums from being mere collections of songs into cohesive statements.
“Berlin Heart” from Missiles, 2008
In many ways, Missiles sounded like the Dears firing ideas into the dark. Whittled down to the core of Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak, it’s arguably the band’s least appreciated and most challenging record to get into. It’s no surprise the arrangement often prompted comparison to a seminal Radiohead song, but while “Berlin Heart” took the edge off the album’s rougher cuts, it still requires listeners to handle it with caution.
“No Return” from Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique EP, 2001
“No Return”’s intro always make me think of weekday afternoon soap operas. That delicate piano motif ties into the grand, majestic sweeping title of its parent EP, Orchestral Pop Noir Romantique, and further cements the Dears as the country’s best autumnal musical auteurs. No matter what time of year you listen to a Dears record, you’ll feel a chill in the air around you, caused by the shivers they’ll send down your spine.
“You and I Are a Gang of Losers” from Gang of Losers, 2006
A love song that starts with the line “Every single one of us is getting massacred” only helped fortify the Smiths comparisons being lobbed at the Dears. But where every single human interaction Morrissey ever sang about ended in death, despair, and desolation, “You and I Are a Gang of Losers” captured the joyful union of Murray Lightburn and Natalia Yanchak, whose relationship and marriage anchors the Dears to this day. The song marked the point where the Dears went from being a gang to a family…
“Someday All This Will Be Yours” from Times Infinity Vol. 1, 2015
…A family whose influence never came across as clearly as it did on the two-part Times Infinity series. Often reading like a letter written to an adult child while they’re still in infancy, “Someday All This Will Be Yours” is both an apology for the shit world humanity will inevitably leave Lightburn and Yanchak’s children, and an acknowledgement that, for better or worse, their offspring will always be identified by their parents’ musical legacy.
“Taking It to the Grave” from Times Infinity Vol. 2, 2017
The Natalia Yanchak-led first track from Times Infinity Vol. 2 is an odd creature. Part minimalist techno, part chaotic, full-on apocalyptic opera, it was one of many standout tracks on the Dears’ last studio record, and a signpost of where the band may venture sonically in the future. Anyone thinking the band had one foot in the grave was clearly mistaken; now into their third decade as a band, the Dears show they have plenty of surprises left in store.