Canadian legend Gordon Lightfoot has a career that spans over six decades. He has released 19 studio albums, three live albums, and a whopping 47 singles. There are also 19 authorised compilations to date. With a back catalogue so large, where does one start? This is a top ten that includes his greatest hits, some hidden gems, and spans from his first album to his most recent release. No top ten could ever do this behemoth justice, but as a drop mimics the ocean, each song should represent his body of work. This list will also serve to describe Lightfoot himself, and the videos provided are live performances where possible.
Honourable mention: ‘Sundown’ (1974)
Lightfoot’s biggest hit to date is ‘Sundown’ from the 1974 titular album. It was the first and only to reach the Billboard top 100. ‘Sundown’ was, like all his records, recorded in his hometown of Toronto, where he lives to this day. As his highest-charting hit, it belongs on the list, but only squeaks in as an honourable mention as there are (at least) ten songs that can be ranked higher, proving that charts are never the measure of a song; Fan favour, however, certainly holds sway.
Number 10: ‘Early Morning Rain’ (1966)
‘Early Morning Rain’ is from Lightfoot’s 1966 debut album ‘Lightfoot!’ and has been cited by Lightfoot as still one of his personal favourite songs. Written while he was caring for his 5-month old son, he starts his career as he means to go on: tender, playful, and revealing a little bit about the human condition.
Number 9: ‘Summer Side of Life’ (1971)
‘Summer Side of Life’ is from the album of the same name which incredibly is his seventh album, less than seven years after the debut. The lyrics point to the naivety of the young soldiers going off to fight in Vietnam, while the music never hints at seriousness. Lightfoot, like many folk artists, did not do many protest songs but the ones he did were subtle and had meaningful commentary. The album is different in style from the preceding ones and includes electric instruments and backing singers. For this reason, the video is from the album rather than an unplugged acoustic live one.
Number 8: ‘Minstrel of the Dawn’ (1970)
Lightfoot released the album ‘Sit Down Young Stranger’ in 1970 after a record label change, and then confusingly changed its name to ‘If You Could Read Your Mind’. It included three singles, one of which was Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ before Kristofferson had even released it; this song, somehow, was not a single. The orchestration on ‘Minstrel of the Dawn’ is by legend Randy Newman and showcases Lightfoot’s almost unparalleled fingerpicking. If there is a “Minstrel of the Dawn”, there is no one more qualified than Gordon Lightfoot.
Number 7: ‘Old Dan’s Records’ (1972)
Do not be deceived by the date: ‘Old Dan’s Records’ is from Lightfoot’s ninth album, of the same name. The song is a touching tune about enjoying the music of a friend who has passed. Lightfoot has written many songs about grief and yet this is one of his most upbeat offerings. Once again, this was not a single. Lightfoot in interviews has often confessed that no one really knew what fans or radio stations would enjoy and were frequently surprised at what would gain popularity. This is no exception.
Number 6 : ’10 Degrees and Getting Colder’ (1971)
The album ‘Summer Side of Life’ contradictorily begins with a song that talks about the winter in Boulder, Colorado. ’10 Degrees and Getting Colder’ is a song about a hitchhiking musician and the folk he meets along the way. One gets the sense Lightfoot may be drawing upon his own experiences, especially when he specifies the musician plays a Martin guitar. Romantically, Lightfoot has always played the same guitar he bought on a Greyhound bus when he was young, you can see it in the video here.
Number 5: ‘Ode to Big Blue’ (1972)
His album ‘Don Quixote’ is possibly Lightfoot’s most concentrated album of quality songs. With Ry Cooder on mandolin, two songs about the sea, and a protest ditty this could be his most folk offering. ‘Ode to Big Blue’ is a ballad about the life of a whale. It is beautiful and engaging. The song draws the listener in to be interested in the battle scars of an ocean-bound mammal, which is no mean feat.
Number 4: ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ (1976)
This enduring ballad about the sinking of a bulk carrier could very well be top of this list as there is now not much between the next three tracks. Used in American schools as a perfect example of a ballad, the song tells the true story of The Edmund Fitzgerald being caught in a storm on Lake Superior and going down. The song is technical and full of facts although some of them adapted; It is wistful rather than maudlin despite the number of souls that were lost on the lake. This song is not folk but Canadian soft rock, a creative move that would continue into the ’80s. Readers will note that the bulk of songs on the list came before this one. This song deserves to be listened to on loop until all the details are absorbed and with the unchanging rolling sound of his guitar it is very easy to do this.
Number 3: ‘Beautiful’ (1972)
Coming in at number 3 is probably his most underrated song. Used in the soundtrack to the controversial road movie ‘Brown Bunny’ it is another song that travels without going anywhere. Another track from the album ‘Don Quixote’ and on the same side of the record as ‘Ode to Big Blue’ to boot. ‘Beautiful’ proves that one does not need to follow the usual song structure with choruses, verses, and a bridge, and this is by no means an outlier; many of Lightfoot’s songs are more like poems with rhymes and natural rhythms rather than the traditional form. This song is beautiful. Bob Dylan has made no secret that he is a big fan of Lightfoot and has covered several of his songs. Dylan even got star struck when he was chosen to induct him into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He once said when listening to Lightfoot songs one hoped they “would go on forever”, it is possible he was referring to this song.
Number 2: ‘If You Could Read my Mind’ (1971)
If you flip the record after hearing ‘Minstrel of the Dawn’, while you would miss some excellent songs, you would find this rhinestone. While Lightfoot rarely wrote about his personal experiences, this song is about his divorce from his first wife with whom he had two children; Perhaps this is why it is so brilliant. While the vocals are raw and emotional, the song composition itself is very careful and measured and uses subtonic chords; In short, it is both genius guitar playing and heartfelt lyrics. The song has been covered by Johnny Cash, it inspired the chords of a Duran Duran track, and part of it was used by Whitney Houston. It is everything all Gordon Lightfoot’s songs are: tender stories that reveal the human condition sung beautifully and backed with skilful guitar.
Number 1: ‘Oh So Sweet’ (2021)
Finally, some controversy. In position number one is a song from Gordon Lightfoot’s latest album. Written during lockdown by the now 82-year-old, ‘Solo’ came out in March to eager fans. He can still sing as well as he could in 1966 and if anything his guitar playing is now even better. Finally, ‘Oh So Sweet’ has given us the ballad of Gordon Lightfoot. It is a retrospective of a man with a 60-year career who is happy with the life he has had even with its twists. Gordon Lightfoot’s entire career can be seen in the lyric from this song “Wasn’t it good, wasn’t it bad? Or the best you ever had? But sometimes it was, oh, so sweet”. Gord is still Gold.