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Adria Kain, Laura Mvula, Oh Pep!, more: 2016's hidden gems
By
Andrea Warner

Published

December 29, 2016

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This has been a rich, diverse, empowering year in music. Yes, it’s been marked by loss and struggle, resistance and protest, but it’s also been pretty phenomenal in terms of new releases, emerging artists and returning favourites.

However much we at CBC Music try to and want to cover everything though, it’s just not possible. We miss songs, or we want to cover things but we run out of time, or there are just limited resources. We’re a mighty team, but a small one, and we’re so grateful for this opportunity to share our hidden gems from 2016.

Scroll down for our salute to songs we loved this year that we think deserve some more time in the spotlight.

Adria Kain, ‘Sunrise’

 

Following up her Reverse Psychology EP from earlier this year, Toronto singer Adria Kain — who landed on CBC Music's 25 Canadian musicians under 25 you need to know list earlier this year — has released this calming, heliocentric ode. Kain has already impressed with her vocal talents on previous releases, but her voice is front and centre on this stripped-down track. A sinewy guitar and ambient keyboards provide the desired atmospheric effect as Kain's impressive vocal range and gospel-tinged delivery build a melodic vocal refrain into lyrics that express heartfelt and vulnerable devotion.

— Del F. Cowie (@vibesandstuff)


Isaiah Rashad, ‘Free Lunch’

Editor's note: strong language warning.

Two of my favourite rap albums this year were debuts by 25-year-olds. Isaiah Rashad, a Tennessee-born artist, is signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, the California label Kendrick Lamar calls home. While Rashad’s profile is lower than other TDE artists, such as Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, Rashad seems to complement Lamar the most, evoking the flagship artist’s early period, before his mind-blowing collisions of funk, rap and free jazz. “Free Lunch” is a head-nodding reflection on the art of doing what it takes to get your next meal ticket.

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)


Mick Jenkins, ‘The Healing Component’

Mick Jenkins came off of several critically acclaimed mixtapes to release his official debut this year, The Healing Component, which also features inspired production by in-demand Toronto jazz group BadBadNotGood (“Drowning”) and this year’s Polaris Prize winner, Kaytranada (“Communicate,” “1000”) — the artists forming a kindred relationship of sorts, all previously working on each other’s projects. Jenkins reinforces the idea that a rap album should spread a message. On The Healing Component, that message is spreading love and refusing to accept the status quo. “When the real hold you down, you supposed to drown right?/ Wait, wait, that don’t sound right,” he raps on “Drowning,” something we can all get behind in 2016. — JKG


Jef E. Barbara, ‘Sexe Machin / Sex Machine’

 

A bilingual, space funk, R&B break-up jam that is equal parts self-protective shrug, kiss-off and lament? Damn, Jef E. Barbara, I’m so glad you’re back. Barbara’s voice is still their trademark — clear, high, sweetly acidic — but on this track, their vocal performance is also a masterclass in great shade. You can hear the side-eye in every line, bouncing in sing-song fashion over plucky synths and guitars, layered beats and drum machines, and teasing organ. But the best part might be Barbara reiterating this beautiful triple entendre: “Well, in the end, I still have my staff and my crown,” they sing, proud, defiant, still standing after the heartbreak.

— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)


AlunaGeorge, Leikeli47 and Dreezy, ‘Mean What I Mean’

“Mean What I Mean” was my late submission for song of the summer. If anything, it’s definitely the consent anthem of 2016, a high-octane dance number driven by three incredible women, AlunaGeorge’s Aluna Francis and rappers Dreezy and Leikeli47. In an interview with BBC Radio 1 host Annie Mac, Francis explains that the genesis of this song was a result of a situation where “she denied a person’s advances, only to have them try to tell her she was just playing hard to get.” There are no games on “Mean What I Mean.” Instead, Francis, Dreezy and Leikeli47 trade verses, all as “re-enforcement to make sure we clear” that no truly means no. It’s the 2016 embodiment of girl power, complete with a desert-themed music video — recalling the Spice Girls or M.I.A. — that will give you all of the fuel you’ll need to fight off any and all unwelcome dudes.

— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)


Milk & Bone, 'Poison'

The first song Montreal duo Milk & Bone released after their stunning 2015 debut album, Little Mourning, "Poison" sounds a bit too moody for earworm territory — but just you wait. Working with Toronto producer Deebs on the track, Camille Poliquin and Laurence Lafond delivered a nearly four-minute trance, which eerily works its way into the depths of your memory until you're a prisoner of that hypnotic closing, "And I can't get you, I can't get you/ I can't get you off my head."

— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)


Lower Dens, ‘Real Thing’

This is a heartbreaker of a story-song, so clear and desperate and beautifully yearning. “I’m married to a terrific guy/ I’ll never need until I die,” Jana Hunter sings, her voice slinking in the shadows of a spare, restrained, pulsing, ’80s-style arrangement. “I want to be young/ I want to dance with an abandon/ and I don’t care about the real thing.” In a press release, Hunter said the lyrics were inspired by an old advice column in Out magazine about “a woman torn between her love for her husband and her desire to f--k around.” SSION’s Cody Critcheloe, who directs this music video, translates the conflict beautifully, with Hunter framed alone under soft, Vaseline lights for most of the four minutes, save for small cutaways to blurry bodies moving on the dance floor. “I love you, but it’s not enough,” Hunter sings to her reflection at one point. “But why?” asks a chorus of deeper voices. After a pause she answers them: “Maybe I just know there’s so much more.” — AW


Laura Mvula, ‘Show Me Love’

Laura Mvula's 2016 sophomore album, The Dreaming Room, yielded Radio 2 countdown songs in "Phenomenal Woman" and "Let Me Fall," yet there was another song from the album that also deserves more widespread recognition. At six minutes long and appearing halfway through the album, "Show Me Love" is The Dreaming Room's centrepiece. A heartfelt, malice-free reflection on the dissolution of Mvula's marriage, its slow-building baroque, orchestral intensity and emotional authenticity are undeniable. At one point, Mvula's soothing and soaring voice breaks, but it's at this vulnerable point that "Show Me Love" is arguably at its most powerful. — DC


Let's Eat Grandma, 'Rapunzel'

 

Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that the most deranged album of 2016 was made by a pair of teenagers. Let's Eat Grandma's debut record, I, Gemini, is a worthy application to join the annals of England's great musical eccentrics, from Brian Eno to Genesis P-Orridge. But it is also fabulously self-assured, nowhere more than on "Rapunzel": a Guillermo del Toro movie in five-and-a-half minutes. The song's elaborate structure and unconventional instrumentation demonstrate that Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton aren't just being weird — they're also bringing some serious skills to the table. It's a slow burn, but hold on for the payoff at 3:20. You'll be hearing this in a movie trailer in no time.

— Matthew Parsons (@MJRParsons)


Daniel Caesar, ‘Won’t Live Here’

Daniel Caesar was my favourite new artist of 2015. His seven-song EP, Pilgrim’s Paradise, explored soul, gospel, folk, indie rock and even featured a Kanye West 808s and Heartbreak cover that was better than the original (“Streetcar”). The Oshawa, Ont., musician has had no problems keeping up that momentum in 2016 while we await his full length debut by releasing three of the finest songs to come out of Canada this year. “Get You,” “Japanese Denim” and “Won’t Live Here” are all essential listening, but it’s the stripped-down live version of the latter that will shred your heart into pieces too small to ever put back together again. — JKG


BadBadNotGood, ‘Time Moves Slow’

Magic happens when the right voice meets the right song. That was the case with this hidden gem from BadBadNotGood, the Toronto instrumental hip-hop quartet whose 2015 pairing with rapper Ghostface Killah captured lightning in a bottle. In 2016 they conjured the magic once again with a smouldering, organ-led, break-beat heavy track called "Time Moves Slow."

The voice belonged to guest vocalist Sam Herring, lead singer of Baltimore band Future Islands. Herring flew to Toronto to lend his voice to the song. On the first day of recording, the boys of BBNG said as soon as they heard Herring's heartbreaking baritone through the control room speakers, they knew the perfect voice had met the perfect song. It really is magic.

— Pete Morey (@CBCPeteMorey)


Tim Moxam, 'Meant to Be'

I thought Tim Moxam was gonna be big this year. Like, really big. Like, "They’re playing this song again? Yes!" kind of big. As big as Moxam’s beautiful, bold voice. As big as the harmonies that accompany it. As big and broad as song. Strong, simple and so very, very singable, I expected to hear this song pouring out of vehicles, crooned around campfires and covered by buskers from coast to coast. I mean, it’s built for that. So I’m a wee bit disappointed in y’all.

— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)


Mild High Club, ‘Skiptracing’

Alex Brettin’s Mild High Club has mastered its loungy and psychedelic sound in two short records, the second of which was released on Stones Throw Records in August this year. Steeped in 1970s nostalgia, the album is a chilled cocktail of abstruse lyrics, swirling synths and fuzzy guitars. Its title track, "Skiptracing," couldn’t be a better opener, promising sunny, feel-good vibes, which the rest of album delivers with ease.

— Amer Alkhatib (@ameralkhatib)


Norma MacDonald, 'Company'

No, this isn't some recently uncovered tape from a dusty treasure trove of lost country classics. But it is beautiful, and Norma MacDonald's liquid silver voice and lonesome, tender lyrics are the stuff of tear-soaked nights full of moonshine and moonlight. Rather than give us another sad music video to unspool our hearts, MacDonald and crew give us puppets. Why puppets? Frankly, I partly think it's just because I'm that lucky. I love puppets. But what director Daniel Ledwell and puppeteer Jenn Grant (yes, that Jenn Grant) achieve here is emotionally complex and wistful without veering into maudlin in the way one might be tempted with pesky human subjects. — AW


Tor Miller, ‘Surrender’

I could honestly pluck any song from New York singer-songwriter Tor Miller’s debut record, American English, for inclusion in this list. Don’t hate him because he was born in 1994, or because he can craft a beautiful, hooky pop song about crust punks. He can channel Tom Waits with ballads about Washington Square Park, or match any young heartthrob on the pop charts with bombastic pop songs like this one, “Surrender.” Just don’t pay attention to the dancing.

— Jeanette Cabral (@JeanetteCabral)


Matt Holubowski, ‘L'imposteur’

 

A "young man [who] makes old music" is the simple descriptor found when you look for information on Montreal's Matt Holubowski, but his music tells a deeper story. His lyrics paint a far richer picture than those initial few words. A voice with intrigue that has garnered acclaim from such artists as José Gonzales, and a penchant for beautiful songwriting that rivals the likes of Patrick Watson, Albert Hammond Jr, and Louis-Jean Cormier, among many others. If you love hearing stories, you'll dig Holubowski's music instantly. And if you champion Canada's ability to flex its bilingualism in song, please champion this amazing talent.

— Kerry Martin (@OhHiKerry)


Joey Purp, ‘Cornerstore’

Chance the Rapper brought the spotlight to Chicago this year, but it’s his burgeoning crew of collaborators that made for an exciting closer look at the city’s vibrant music scene. From Jamila Woods and Noname to Saba and Joey Purp, Coloring Book wasn’t the only stellar record to come out of the Windy City. The latter two artists paint the most vivid picture of their childhoods in a crime-filled neighbourhood on Purp’s iiiDrops cut, “Cornerstore,” a soaring track that’s equal parts heart and heartache. If you were a fan of Chance’s “Summer Friends,” definitely give this track a spin. — ML


Nomadic Massive, 'Keep Pushin'

 

One of my favourite tracks of 2016 has been "Keep Pushin'" off Nomadic Massive's June release, The Big Band Theory. From its seductive electric piano intro to its horn interludes that provide commentary like a soulful Greek chorus, this glass-half-full song became my personal forcefield against the year's many disappointments. "Victim songs don't ever change a thing," sings Meryem Saci over the perpetual motion of a Latin rhythm, "See me rising, see me go/ see me do my thing and never let go." Has positive thinking ever sounded so good? Before you can answer that question, Nantali Indongo bursts into the song with her rap verse — intoned in a dancehall-infuenced patois — and there's no looking back.

— Robert Rowat (@rkhr)


The Darcys, ‘San Diego, 1988’

The Darcys made an album that was the perfect antidote to a cold, brutal winter. Centerfold is full of sunny, shimmery synths, syncopated drums and soaring choruses that evoke long hot days on the beach and even longer, hotter nights in the club. While the lead single, “Miracle,” is an easy fix to the winter blues, I much prefer “San Diego, 1988,” a slightly darker song with an incredible hook that takes us to a time and a place I think we’d all rather be right now. — JKG


Oh Pep!, 'Crazy Feels'

 

Melbourne duo Oh Pep! released Stadium Cake at the beginning of the summer, and while dancier singles "Bushwick" and "Doctor Doctor" are also frequent repeats in my house, no song has captured my heart this year quite like "Crazy Feels." The slow tumble into the strings and drums may have been enough, but listening to Olivia Hally quietly sing "You gotta do what you have to do to make it easy for you" over and over again breaks me to pieces each time. — HG

More to explore:

11 best new bands of 2016

Making Noise: 10 artists who shaped 2016

2016: in memoriam

CBC Radio 3's top 103 songs of 2016

25 best Canadian albums of the year

The 20 most unforgettable music videos of 2016