2016 was a terrible year for the world, but a great year for music.
Though we didn’t have the direct threat of Trump here in Canada, we did have growing anger at systemic inequality, police violence, and the ongoing subjugation of this land’s First Nations. That reflected itself in Canada’s best songs from Indigenous artists like Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red, as well as allies like Gord Downie.
These songs run the gamut from joyful to mournful, accusatory to celebratory. Take a listen and you’ll find hip-hop, house, folk, punk, noise, No Wave, post-punk, gospel, straight-up pop, and the final statement from a legend that probably deserves a genre name of his own.
These are Chart Attack’s 25 best Canadian songs of 2016
Kaytranada feat. Anderson .Paak, “Glowed Up”
In his Red Bull Music Academy workshop this year, Montreal producer Kaytranada described the force that brought him to so many of the most soulful names in hip-hop and R&B this year: “Swing recognize swing.” In 2016, that same swing made Anderson. Paak Kaytranada’s 2016 “damn, that guy’s everywhere” counterpart on the mic. The cross-directional current of swing brought the two together for “Glowed Up,” a song so full of soul and bounce that it seems to have just grooved itself into existence. – Richard Trapunski
A Tribe Called Red feat. Tanya Tagaq “Sila”
Tanya Tagaq’s voice is as expressive an instrument as there is in Canadian music: sensual, elemental, sorrowful, joyful, filled with the rage, sadness and joy of nations and generations. For a skilled and likeminded DJ trio like A Tribe Called Red, whose We Are The Halluci Nation was full of pitch-perfect collaborations, it’s golden raw material. “Sila” lives in the pit of your stomach and rearranges you from the inside. Absolutely earth-shaking. – Richard Trapunski
Gord Downie, “The Stranger”
As cathartic and celebratory as it was to see Gord Downie weeping and screaming his way onto 11 million screens in Canada during the final Tragically Hip concert, it was even more powerful that the CanRock figurehead, touring through brain cancer, dedicated his final act to Secret Path, a project designed to raise awareness of Canada’s cultural genocide (and money for reconciliation). He could have left as this generation’s Terry Fox, exemplifying white Canada’s favourite self-identifiers of endurance, stoicism, and survival. Instead he made this gorgeously hushed, emotionally devastating work that digs under Canada’s cultural amnesia through the story of Chanie Wenjack, the 12-year old boy who 50 years ago died attempting to walk 600 kilometres home from the residential school from which he escaped. – Richard Trapunski
Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
You could hardly imagine a more fitting way for Leonard Cohen to shuffle off this mortal coil than this title track from his 2016 swansong You Want It Darker. The great Canadian poet recites over one of his heaviest, most-indelible grooves, his usual backing vocals replaced by the choir from Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, the temple built by his own grandfather in Montreal nearly 100 years before. “Hineni, Hineni,” Cohen whispers, echoing Abraham in the ultimate sign of readiness to give yourself over to God. “I’m ready, my Lord.” May he live forever. – Richard Trapunski
The sophomore slump is every band’s worst nightmare. The longer the gap between albums, the harder it becomes to keep up the momentum without bowing to the pressure. Luckily, PUP ran a tour regiment much like Santa Claus runs his yearly one-night string of B&Es, so the fire never dwindled. Two years after their break-out debut, they stepped out of the van and showed us their Pathetic Use of Potential in the form of “DVP.” This hot-out-of-the-gate non-stop thrill ride gives you a true feeling of doing 180 down one of the most consistently grid-locked roads in their hometown of Toronto. Hardly pathetic, it set the tone for a sophomore jump later in the year. – Kyle McCreight
Andy Shauf, “The Magician”
When singer/songwriter Andy Shauf was growing up in Saskatchewan, his musician parents owned the local Radio Shack outlet. The shop functioned also as the town’s music store. “Stuff that didn’t sell came home with us,” he told Now: a bass, an electric guitar, half of a drum kit. He began a studio in their basement.
This all helps make sense of Shauf’s 2016 Polaris-shortlisted orchestral pop masterpiece The Party, which introduced the world to the songwriter’s singular voice. He played nearly every instrument on the album himself. It sounds like the work of a kid who’s grown up in a music store, someone who’s developed an acute sense of each instrument’s individual power and how they fit together. That mastery makes itself evident at track one. “The Magician” is classic, high-production, thoroughly composed folk pop, as if pulled from the session tapes of one of the Greats. Maybe a new Great. – Chris Hampton
Un Blonde, “Staying In Line”
Until recently, Jean-Sebastien Audet was defined by his restlessness, recording and releasing album after album of genre-jumping music like it just leaked right out of him. Now approaching 20 and relocated from Calgary to Montreal, the singer/songwriter recorded an album defined by its patience. Meditative, fractured folk that somehow falls somewhere between Joni Mitchell, D’Angelo, and a one-man gospel choir, “Staying In Line” repeats the album’s title “good will come to you” like a mantra. Relax, be in the moment, and trust in yourself. – Richard Trapunski
In a year when dancehall-inflected pop hits ate up the North American charts, it’s a bit disconcerting how few actual dancehall artists broke through themselves. Drake’s original version of “Controlla” featured Popcaan, and he took some heat for leaving him off the official versionthat zillions of people streamed from VIEWS. That’s probably the version we’d include here if it hadn’t been totally scrubbed off the internet, but “Controlla” is pretty undeniable regardless. I think I heard it at every park, patio, and BBQ this summer. It was eclipsed by “One Dance” and “Work,”but this is the one that launched a thousand knock-offs. May 2017 be the year Popcaan gets his. – Richard Trapunski
Tasha The Amazon, “Picasso Leaning”
This past summer, Tasha The Amazon’s “Picasso Leaning” topped Toronto hip-hop charts on Spotify, which might’ve been a bit of a surprise because it didn’t gain traction on whatever platforms mainstream hip-hop proliferates in Toronto these days. It wasn’t on the radio. This was strictly one for the playlists: for the headphones and the house parties. But once you found it, you found it.
When so many emcees get by on filmsy, heavily-stylized flow, Tasha runs over the beat like a jeep. And she produced it too. – Chris Hampton
Clairmont The Second, “A Declaration”
In a Toronto scene always looking for the next kid to hype to infinity, I’m still not sure how Clairmont The Second stayed so under-the-radar this year. The 19-year-old raps with the confidence and charisma of Chance The Rapper, while producing all his beats himself and directing most of his own videos. “A Declaration” is a demand to be taken seriously, for his name to be spelled correctly, for the world to stop sleeping on a guy who has nothing but potential. It’s pretty convincing. – Richard Trapunski
Lido Pimienta, “Agua”
“Agua” is inspired by Lido Pimienta’s days swimming in La Guajira where, like many other parts of the world, there is currently a water crisis. Pimienta’s dreamy electronic canto-al-agua (chant to the water) is liquid and fluid. It flows between Colombia, Canada and the United States, where First Nations communities face similar water crises. According to the UN, roughly 10% of Earth’s population lives without access to clean drinking water. Let this song remind you that water, absolutely essential to human life, is subject to the same political and economic interest that elevate some humans above others. – Richard Trapunski
The title track from Vallens’ 2016 debut is a smoky gothgazer inspecting notions of consent. Cutting through a stilted and cinematic Badalamenti-type vibe, Vallens frontwoman Robyn Phillips recounts all of the usual retorts: “she was dressed like she wanted it,” “but he’s such a good guy,” “smile more,” and “you’re pretty good…for a girl.” It is dark and painful territory, but its mission is lit by an important declaration: “When I say so, I mean so/ When I say no, I mean no.” – Chris Hampton
Tanya Tagaq, “Rape Me”
As Justin Trudeau spent 2016 photo-op-ing his way through reconciliation, Tanya Tagaq (herself a residential school survivor) growled Retribution, seething with a wordless snarl at climate change, cultural genocide, disregard for First Nations communities, sexual assault, and the ongoing Canadian crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. But as anger permeates other parts of the album, her closing cover of Nirvana’s “Rape Me” sobs instead of screams.
“I thought I was going to be more aggressive with it,” she told Carly Lewis at The Globe and Mail. “But when I recorded the cover, I was just so sad. I’m devastated that this is how we live. It came out very soft. I am in mourning of all the women who have been taken.” After an album of righteous anger and love and sex and pain, you feel that sorrow nearly as sharply as she does. – Richard Trapunski
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Under Your Always Light”
Anishinaabe musician and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls “Under Your Always Light,” the lead single from her powerful collection f(l)ight, “a love song and a battle cry.” It is an escape narrative — part of many nations’ storytelling traditions, she tells me. It is a vision of freedom. When experience in Canada is one where there’s always a target on her, she is escaping into Indigenous land and her own Indigenous body. It is a song of tremendous violence, but Simpson delivers her story-song gently, at just a whisper, while its warm trance grows slowly thicker around her words. When it blooms, it has become dance music. It is also a celebration. – Chris Hampton
Jessy Lanza, “It Means I Love You”
Jessy Lanza expanded her already deep pool of influences on Oh No beyond the breathy minimalist R&B of her debut and it paid off in big ways. “It Means I Love You” wraps pitch-shifted vocals around a groove cribbed from Foster Manganyi, leading to a BPM-speeding build up that pulls your body in directions you didn’t even will it to go. It’s disorienting and addictive in its placelessness. It doesn’t sound like Hamilton, or even really like the Jessy Lanza we’d come to know, but it fires all the right neurons. The kind of song that could go on forever and you wouldn’t really mind. – Richard Trapunski
River Tiber feat. Daniel Caesar, “West”
When wunderkind producer River Tiber and Toronto soul upstart Daniel Caesar released “West” at the beginning of the year, the young singer-producer told The FADER it was about “leaving and trying not to look back.” He was remembering the first time he flew to California; he was thinking about the Led Zeppelin song about the same. It is about the magnetism of the Coast. “West” becomes a state of mind; shorthand for opportunity and success. The song — its sun-kissed and woozy R&B — is a dream of what lies ahead. – Chris Hampton
BADBADNOTGOOD feat. Charlotte Day Wilson, “In Your Eyes”
Toronto instrumental hip-hop and jazz combo BADBADNOTGOOD invited former classmate and knockout soul singer Charlotte Day Wilson for their retro-tone love song “In Your Eyes.” Wilson glides gracefully over BBNG’s golden-era funk bed — its swooping strings, chorus singers, and flute arpeggios. Every touch on this track is virtuousic. It could have been made in 1976, at the height of symphonic soul, but I’m thrilled music like this, that’s this good, is happening now. – Chris Hampton
Above Top Secret feat. Lido Pimienta, “Bang”
Toronto hip-hop trio Above Top Secret and Colombian-Canadian singer Lido Pimienta collaborated to rework Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang.” Draining the archetypal torch song of its camp and romance, “Bang” is now a bigger, more urgent cry. Broader and bloodier than Sinatra’s. It’s a siren signalled for the victims of systemic violence — Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and police brutality alike. It screams: this is an emergency. It requires action. – Chris Hampton
Weaves, “One More”
Weaves’ self-titled debut album is already glowing and pulsing with unstable nuclear energy, but the Toronto art pop band’s “One More” is an explosion. Its wild, high-concentrate surf-punk is blasted out like a cartoon laser beam, the kind that dematerialize everything in their path. If only we could harness its power, Earth’s energy crisis might be solved. – Chris Hampton
Duchess Says, “I Repeat Myself”
Sciences Nouvelles brought Montreal’s Duchess Says, five years quiet, back to our collective attention and back also in our grimy basement punk shows, screaming in our faces as they deliver their holy message. “I Repeat Myself” is a three-wave sampler — cold, no, and new — employing touchstone analogue synth sounds while also thinking about circularity and repetition and programatic behaviour. A reminder in case you’ve forgotten: we’re not much better than robots. – Chris Hampton
New Fries, “90 Yr Old Girl”
Never has a song that tells you to “relax” been so whiplash-inducing. And never has whiplash felt so good. It sounds like it’s about to collapse, but then you realize they’re in total control: relax, take charge, hold back, go in. This is everything New Fries does in one tight package. It’s funky, noisy, and I think a little sexy? Toronto knows, now everyone else should know. – Richard Trapunski
Heathers are a trio of women making heavy music in Montreal, which means, unfortunately, they’re more than used to being described as a “female” band as if that’s a genre. When they sing “gender is just a guise” in “Gethen,” they’re adapting an Ursula K. Le Guin novel examining the role gender plays in a theoretical ambisexual world, but their experiences are far from sci-fi.
After hearing it on the Pentagon Black paper compilation in March, I described the exact moment this song cemented its place on my best of 2016 list: “The song’s tension-building post-punk riffs suddenly hit overdrive and the blood drained out of my veins, replaced by nothing but distortion. I no longer breathe oxygen, just guitar tone.” I’ve been living in tone ever since. – Richard Trapunski
Guelph-based WHOOP-Szo have developed a sound that forms a triangle between psych rock, grunge, and folk. “Bmaadiziwin,” from Citizen’s Ban(ne)d Radio, is exemplary, travelling to each pole across the five-minute epic. Its name is an Ojibwe word that means “a healthy way of life.” And “Bmaadiziwin” is a journey: evolving slowly, circling back, stretching hills and valleys, revealing more with each step. – Chris Hampton
WTCHS, “You Own Your Bones”
Two years in hiding, new personnel, and a finished album totally scrapped, “You Own Your Bones” signalled a new WTCHS — no longer purveyors of trendy cave pop, now, full-grown post-rock monsters. It’s a spiny, lumbering behemoth, quaking the ground beneath your boots. Hamilton’s Eschaton lends their horns, every scorching blast like dragons’ fire. Proof that small beasts left alone grow wildly. – Chris Hampton
Carly Rae Jepsen, “Higher”
Do you know when Carly Rae Jepsen releases a b-sides album that is still somehow one of the best pop records of the year? And then, you know how people still think it’s okay to not pay attention? What are we doing not allowing her to be our Queen of Planet Earth?
“Higher” immediately throws you on the Nürburgring race track in a Formula One car. The track explodes into a galaxy of synths, a tidal wave of electronic drums, all the while breaking the sound barrier and possibly any mind unable to grasp how a song can release this much serotonin into your brain. – Ryan Parker