Every year, Maclean’s picks the best in arts and culture. To read more of our selections of what shone in music, television, movies, and books in 2016—as well as our annual Missed It List, capturing the items that went under the radar—go here.
BEST OF 2016: Adrian Lee gives his unranked list of the ten best albums of the year—and what solace we can find in them, in a year of disquiet.
What a time, Drake and Future exulted just one year ago, to be alive. What a difference a year makes. 2016 has brought the deaths of some of our most beloved figures and of innocents around the world, the kinds of tragedies that mark the churn of time but that have weighed heavy this year. And when a man who selectively redefines the meaning of truth, deploys racist and sexist rhetoric, scrambles the structures of basic decency, remains largely silent in the face of his supporters’ vitriol, and boasts of sexual assault becomes picked to lead the free world, it’s fair to feel like your equilibrium is off—like this is an alternate reality where the details are close to ours but are unnervingly just a little bit off.
So it’s no surprise that the music that resonated most in 2016, in some small way, offered us some lessons in how to go on in the face of uncertainty. Art is, after all, a reminder of the best of our lives, an assurance that there can be solace in beauty. It’s the “lifted, rough-tongued bell” that the poet Philip Larkin that draws you to the window and reminds you of who you are. And these lessons are useful moving ahead; for as often as people long for 2016 to be over, it’s not as if 2017 will offer a break in the forward progress of time.
There were the albums that burned and raved at close of day, that refused to go gentle into that good night. Kaytranada’s 99.9% was an ecstatic revelation, with the Polaris Prize-winning Canadian DJ proving himself to be a maestro in how he deploys both his trademark drums and his big-name guest artists, all contributing hooks and verses in the service of an album that turned heads everywhere I played it in the heat of a muggy summer. On Coloring Book, Chance The Rapper rejoices in his faith, mixing his lyrical somersaults with his soulful hard-hewn singing voice to produce as deeply Christian an album as you can put out without being marginalized in the mainstream. It’s an antidote for the year, partly an almost-Pollyanna call to remain joyful (“All you need is happy thoughts”), partly a rejection of smiling ignorantly in the face of the darkness (mourning how seasonal heat brings death tolls in Chicago on “Summer Friends”) as he urges us to go on (the swaggering “No Problem,” the gleeful “Mixtape”) empowered by faith (“Blessings”). (His trademark yawp might have been the sound of the year.) Anderson .Paak’s Malibu is a tour-de-force in exuberance, the product of a hustling artist rewarded by a Dr. Dre spotlight and taking full advantage of it with a forward-facing sun-dappled funk. Mixing the uplift of gospel and the urgent, groovy call of the dance floor, Paak’s versatile voice—ranging from gentle cooing to smoke-inhaled croak to rootsy croon to rat-a-tat rapping—makes this his own kind of strutting, off-kilter soul.
Other albums taught us about how to love—as sure a way forward as there can be in a time of despair. Carly Rae Jepsen’s B-Sides were far more than scrap-heap spinoffs; in eight songs, it’s a relationship in miniature, from the fire-blast feelings at first blush, to the hesitancy of giving oneself fully, to the regrets and mistakes, to the baleful notes of final goodbyes. (Fever, a Celine Dion-channelling, bike-stealing torch song that revels in the stupid things we do when we’re dumb in love, is one of my favourite songs of the year.) With Lemonade, Beyonce showed us that even the world’s most famous, most powerful people can feel heartbreak, wrap themselves to pettinesses, allow themselves vengeance, and agree to uncomfortable compromises; it taught us how we can forgive and move on while remaining forces of nature; it showed us that the personal can be deeply political; heck, it even showed us that musicians can make movies. And Rihanna’s ANTI, from its first song to the last, is a clear-eyed reflection of modern relationships in the Tinder age. These days, after all, admitting that you love too deeply or too soon is a sin; the fear of getting hurt is too great a risk, and so we encase our hearts in stone, to make us immune to hurt—and, circularly, love. In ANTI, threaded through with galloping verve, we see cracks appear in Rihanna’s swaggering carapace. It begs us to ask: if pop music’s most iconic ice queen can let herself feel, as she does in the raw, voice-cracking “Higher,” who are we to not allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of love? And after all, what is love without a leap, a gamble, the chance of losing everything deemed to be worth it? Suffocating your heart to protect yourself, ANTI teaches us, is no way to live. Love is worth the work, work, work, work, work.
Then there are the artists whose personal albums reflect their own struggle, the musicians whose stories present us a way forward. Country crooner Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, a remarkable debut for the long-gigging, hard-living 33-year-old from Nashville, is as scrappy as Price is. Her goals are straightforward (“I want to buy back the farm/and bring my mama home some wine”); her personal story gripping (a weekend in jail, a child who died in infancy, an affair with a married man). In one of the few genres left where authenticity issues remain an ongoing concern, the resilient Price’s hardscrabble story, sung in her world-weary voice and set to satisfying honky-tonk, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is poetry, not Loretta Lynn pastiche. Isaiah Rashad, arguably the second-most talented rapper on Kendrick Lamar’s TDE label, was nearly swallowed alive by addiction after his incredible EP Cilvia Demo. On his debut album The Sun’s Tirade, Rashad refuses to give in, diving into his own anxieties not for our sake but his, giving his stresses voice so he can banish them. The Chattanooga native’s affection for baleful Southern slurring is exemplified by the Outkast-invoking “Stuck In The Mud”, a title that’s both euphemistic (the spinning of one’s wheels) and literal (being dragged down by drugs). And after years of album-worthy mixtapes, Baton Rouge rapper-crooner Kevin Gates’s first true album, Islah—named after his daughter—is some of the most tender gangsta rap in recent memory. For one of the most honest rappers in the game—and one of the strangest, too—a first album where he raps or sings nearly every verse and hook is a tremendous bet on himself that pays off. Maybe we can’t learn much specifically from his own life story (which includes admissions of dating a cousin, among other oddities), but we can take something away from his confidence, and his songs’ unvarnished moments of earnest self-discovery.
But mostly, another year of phenomenal music is a reminder unto itself of how we can go on. It’s the lesson that A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank U 4 Your Service leaves us with. The mere fact that the influential, effervescent hip-hop group put out an album after 18 years of silence is incredible enough. The fact that it’s fresh and sparkles with Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s legendary chemistry is a blessing. The fact that it came after rapper Phife Dawg’s untimely death by diabetes, such that the album sounds like a wake where the guest of honour is delivering bars from inside the coffin, is a miracle. And its very existence—and its general excellence—is the kind of impossible dream fulfilment that rewards our staying alive and our staying strong.
Honourable mentions: Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP; Solange Knowles’s A Seat At the Table; Frank Ocean’s Blonde; David Bowie’s Blackstar; Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker; Nao’s For All We Know; Donovan Woods’s Hard Settle Ain’t Troubled; Drake’s Views; Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered.
BEST OF 2016 IN CANADIAN MUSIC: In another year that has affirmed Canadian music as some of the best in the world, Michael Barclay gives his list of the top 10 Canadian records of the year.
1. Kaytranada – 99.9%. The year’s weirdest success story also spawned the best record: 23-year-old bedroom-dwelling Haitian-Montrealer known for SoundCloud remixes pulls in up-and-coming international collaborators (Anderson .Paak, AlunaGeorge), almost-forgotten R&B and hip-hop artists (Craig David, Phonte), and new Toronto beatmakers (BadBadNotGood, River Tiber) and ends up creating the straight-up funkiest record to come out of Canada—perhaps ever, winning the Polaris Music Prize in the process. It draws from old school hip-hop, jazz fusion, Brazilian beats, Donna Summer disco, house music, DJ Shadow deconstruction, and anything else that sounds fantastic on the dance floor. Drake may have dominated the charts and the headlines, but Kaytranada made the infinitely superior—and much more fun—record.
2. Veda Hille – Love Waves. The Vancouver art-pop songwriter writes melodies that could sell a musical (which she’s done, frequently, to great acclaim), has the gall and the talent to rewrite and (gasp) improve her favourite songs by David Bowie and Brian Eno, employs many of Vancouver’s finest players, pens a plaintive ode to her young boy and reimagines the ordeal of Orpheus and Eurydice—in German, no less. Oh, and she’s wickedly funny when she wants to be. There’s no end to her insatiable curiosity—or her talent.
3. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker. Frankly, Leonard, I’m not sure we did want it darker; 2016 turned out bleaker than we could ever have imagined (and it’s not over yet). It was enough that Cohen left us with one final masterpiece before he died, but his death proved to be a gift that gave us reason to re-examine his entire catalogue in a year when we were grasping for a glimpse of any light through the cracks.
4. The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem. Gord Downie was a newsmaker of the year for staring down death and delivering a series of triumphs, but least discussed among them was the fact that the newest Tragically Hip album was alone a reason to celebrate. Written and recorded before Downie’s diagnosis, and co-produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, it was a reinvention that could well have turned over a new leaf in the legendary band’s catalogue—and still might. Downie claims it’s not the last we’ll hear from them.
5. Badbadnotgood – IV. Space-age bachelor pad music from a jazz band steeped in hip-hop and joined by guest singers, including Future Islands’ Sam Herring, Chicago MC Mick Jenkins and Toronto newcomer Charlotte Day Wilson (Kaytranada and Colin Stetson stop by as well). This band gets better with each record, and the permanent addition of saxophonist Leland Whittly pushes them even further.
6. Black Mountain – IV. If any rock record in the history of this country has a more powerful opening track than “Mothers of the Sun,” I’m not sure what that would be. A pulsing synth, a droning organ, a monster guitar riff, and the chilling vocals of Amber Webber and Stephen McBean keep us in suspense for more than three minutes before drummer Josh Wells kicks in to kick things into overdrive on what is an incredibly satisfying psychedelic rock record that never fizzles into pointless jam territory. McBean’s guitar solos are lyrical and evocative of Funkadelic great Eddie Hazel, but it’s Jeremy Schmidt’s keyboards that steal this show.
7. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid. “Lonely won’t leave me alone,” sings the Canadian expat who’s built a career as New Zealand’s top country vocalist. It’s impossible to feel alone in the presence of Neilson’s powerhouse voice, however: equal parts Patsy Cline and Mavis Staples, she’s capable of reducing an entire audience to tears—in the best possible way. Dedicated to her late father, the patriarch of a family band that toured Canada in her youth, Don’t Be Afraid is emotionally deeper than anything Neilson has done to date, which was well-executed but decidedly retro, bordering on kitsch. Not this time. She digs deep, and comes out on top.
8. TUNS – s/t. It’s never too late to start over. Veterans of Haligonian ’90s indie rock—Sloan’s Chris Murphy, Super Friendz’s Matt Murphy and the Inbreds’ Mike O’Neill—form this power trio, in which the three frontmen effortlessly weave their melodies and riffs together in joyous, harmony-rich, three-minute pop songs that twist and turn but never fall off the rails.
9. Jim Bryson – Somewhere We Will Find Our Place. On the surface, this Ottawa singer-songwriter (and sideman to Kathleen Edwards, the Weakerthans and Tragically Hip) writes pleasant, sad-sack Ontario folk-rock (one of my default favourite genres). But his interest in synths and experience doing production work on the side—as well as bringing in Broken Social Scene’s Charles Spearin as a collaborator, and Shawn Everett (the Grammy-winning Alabama Shakes engineer)—informs the expanded sonic palette heard here, which provide vivid colours to his tales of disconnection and ennui.
10. Hidden Cameras – Home on Native Land. In the last 15 years, Joel Gibb’s Hidden Cameras inspired Arcade Fire’s debut album, brought a queer aesthetic into a strait-laced indie scene, and went full-on electro on their last album. Here, however, Gibb goes full-on country, which suits both his songwriting and his voice. He throws in a few covers—including a take on “Dark End of the Street” that places the soul song in a closeted context, and a joyous romp through “Log Driver’s Waltz” with Feist, Rufus Wainwright and Mary Margaret O’Hara—but it’s his originals that serve as a reminder of his unique talent.
Michael Barclay’s full album list, Canadian and otherwise, can be found here.
Ten more for your playlist (songs not included on albums above):
A Tribe Called Red – “R.E.D.”
BEST IN CANADIAN HIP-HOP IN 2016, NON-DRAKE EDITION: It was another excellent year for Drake—an album that set Billboard chart records and brought him his first number-one single and a slew of Grammy nominations will do that. But Canadian hip-hop and R&B was plenty fertile if you look past the Six God. Adrian Lee highlights nine Canadian hip-hop or R&B artists whose work in 2016 are worth celebrating—none of whom are Aubrey Drake Graham.
Plaza. So he doesn’t want to be compared to the Weeknd. But if that were the case, maybe he shouldn’t drape himself in the same secretive branding exercise and similar gauzy, hazy sounds. All this to say: his debut EP One is terrific, a less debauched Abel who may prove to be just as able.
River Tiber. A lightyear leap forward from his ambient-verging-on-sleepy EP, River Tiber’s debut LP Indigo is phenomenal—tonally moody and murky and melodious, a kind of ultramodern blues that does a lot with a little. The multi-instrumentalist’s ethereal voice has become a perfect, baleful match. This is music for speeding through a highway tunnel at 2 AM.
PartyNextDoor. OVO’s second-billing star—who probably could’ve called it a year after writing Rihanna’s “Work”—appears to have acquired his boss Drake’s predilection for bloat: PND’s sophomore album, P3, was meandering and overlong. But it featured some incredible moments, from the stripped-down soca-tinged “Not Nice” to the sparse, yearning “Come and See Me”. And its opening song, “High Hopes,” leaves the listener with, well, high hopes for his instincts; even though it’s a seven-minute ballad, its slow burn does come with a worthwhile payoff.
Tory Lanez. His much-hyped album I Told You was a letdown: its skit-heavy concept was a millstone around its neck, and the enormous chip on his shoulder became grating on a long-play. But his standout tracks this year—which include a remix of “Controlla” that was so good it caused Drake to lash out—established him as a star that can make any crowd turn up.
Tasha The Amazon. Like the woman warriors that her name conjures, her ferocious eight-track EP Die Every Day goes hard across heavy, skittering production, with Tasha roaming the plains, spears up. Like the massive online corporation that her name has nothing to do with, I’m looking forward to the arrival of my next delivery.
Dillan Ponders. It’s rare to find a drug rapper that’s as blunt as they are blunted. But Toronto’s leading light-upper eschews pleasant buzz for hallucinogenic trap and sharp bars. His summer EP You’re Welcome 2 found him spitting croaky, localized verses over big-name beats (“I don’t tell lies/I ain’t on my John Tory”); his next mixtape Acid Reign, which comes out Dec. 28, should be worth the listen.
Roy Woods. Saddled with a listless lead single, Woods’ debut LP Waking At Dawn shouldn’t be judged by the inert Gwan Big Up Urself. Instead, he shines when he channels Michael Jackson’s slashing vocals (“Switch”) and when he sounds as hollowing as the feelings he’s expressing, as on “Menace”.
Jahkoy. Signed to Def Jam, the Jeremih-channelling R&B singer has found his stride by decamping for lush Los Angeles, which earned him a Schoolboy Q verse on his EP Foreign Water and an easy, breezy sound. Eschewing rapping for singing, he’ll be releasing a full LP in 2017.
Pryde. The Filipino rapper from Brampton, Ont. brings a curlicuing flow and free-wheeling lyricism to the table, which has been missing ever since taking a break to care for his mother, who passed away in 2015. His I Don’t Belong Here EP introduces a level of introspection, its first song a painful depiction of his mother’s death.