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25 best Canadian albums of the year

Editorial Staff

This year has been particularly cruel for music fans. We've lost so many legendary musicians in the span of 12 months that it's hard to imagine those voids could ever be filled. On the other hand, alongside those losses came great gains, as we've witnessed the release of some truly incredible music, especially from Canadians.

In the list of 25 albums below, which was chosen with the help of CBC Music, CBC Radio 2, the Strombo Show and q, we highlight some of those artists, each one of them a potential legend in the making. Our criteria included full-length albums released this calendar year, focusing on primarily English-language, non-classical albums. A list of the best classical albums will be published Dec. 7 on CBCMusic, and ICI musique, our French-language counterpart, has also published its 50 best albums of 2016.

Scroll through the list of the best albums below, and let us know what your favorite Canadian release was this year @CBCMusic

25. Daniel Romano, Mosey

The most challenging thing about Daniel Romano's new album is how uncategorizable it is. Daniel's past records could be seen in many ways as genre-studies – mind you, heartbreaking, genius, emotional and honest genre studies, but albums that explored worlds of punk, folk, and Atkins-era Nashville country. With Mosey, he's made one of the finest yet strangest albums ever from this country. It comes out as a fusion of country music, '60s psychedelia, the first two Leonard Cohen records, and even snippets of minuets that could be owed to Bach. However, as always, he never lets the form dictate the meaning. His song are honest, plaintive, playful, severe and quite brilliant. Regardless of your favourite genre, you'll find something to love in Mosey – they're kind of all in there.

— Tom Power (@tompowercbc)

24. Majid Jordan, self-titled

The buzz surrounding Majid Jordan before the Toronto duo’s self-titled debut felt almost insurmountable. As part of the production team behind Drake’s 2013 hit “Hold On We’re Going Home” — on which they were also featured — Majid Al Maskati and Jordan Ullman (singer and producer, respectively) got the Drake co-sign of approval, eventually hitching to his OVO Sound label on Warner Bros. In summer 2015, after an excellent EP and mixtape from the duo, Drake premiered “My Love,” Majid Jordan’s first single from its upcoming full-length debut (and featuring Drake), on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1. By default, it soared.

But 2016’s Majid Jordan shines best when out from under Drake’s wing. “My Love” is the weakest song of the 12 gloomy, synth-laden tracks, sounding like the superstar lazily signed his name on it simply for effect. Strength lies in tracks like “Learn From Each Other” — a co-production with Illangelo that pulses with the promise of what Al Maskati and Ullman can deliver — and “Something About You,” a seductive, marching song wrapped around Al Muskati’s pleas that he’s ready. In the end, nothing was insurmountable for Majid Jordan — mainly because this full-length debut proved that the duo can successfully stand on their own four feet.

— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)

23. Shawn Mendes, Illuminate

The pop machine has given many artists transformations over the years, from Justin Timberlake swerving his ironclad boy band formula into a smoother R&B lane or Taylor Swift trading in her country twang for synth-pop anthems. Shawn Mendes has yet to undergo one of those drastic changes and maybe he never will. For now, Mendes’ second album Illuminate stays the course he set out on three years ago when he attracted a following covering songs on Vine. Mendes keeps the guitar close by as he brings anthemic choruses to life with the help of big drums and crisp production. The focus here isn’t to reinvent Mendes’ sound. Instead, it’s focusing on refining hooks and maturing his subject matter (as evidence on the mildly awkward “Lights On,” which proves that there are still some growing pains to work through). But with infectious hits like “Treat You Better” and “Mercy” here, it’s clear that Mendes is on the right path. Whether that takes him on a trajectory resembling John Mayer’s more than Timberlake’s is entirely up to him, but he has all the right tools to maintain his spot atop the charts.

— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)

22. White Lung, Paradise

For White Lung, 2016 has been a very good year. Not only is the band celebrating 10 years together, but its May release, Paradise, has proven to be a landmark effort among their four studio albums. It represents huge leaps and bounds made in songwriting, vocals and production, and it landed them among the 10 finalists to the Polaris Music Prize shortlist this fall. It is also the band’s most listenable release to date, displaying a new level of sophistication that singer Mish Barber-Way says was just waiting to be unearthed.

“The biggest misconception about our band is that we play punk music,” she told host Louise Burns on the CBC Radio 3 podcast in March. “We don’t. We just play pop songs really fast.”

Make no mistake though, the fury, the energy, and the unapologetic edge of the band is still very present. Take the lyrics from “Kiss Me When I Bleed,” probably the most intense you’ll hear this year: “I will give birth in a trailer/Huffing the gas in the air/Baby is born in molasses/Like I would even care.”

The beauty of Paradise is that it is both accessible and a brutal awakening. It’s also exactly the kind of soundtrack you need on hand if you’re looking to close out 2016 with a bang and not a whimper."

— Andrea Gin (@andreagin)

21. Sarah Neufeld, The Ridge

In a year in which so much really and truly was terrible, I found myself feeling a lot of negative feelings. Not that there wasn’t some joy but the bad feelings — shock, anger, despair, sorrow, hopelessness — seemed to come consecutively, linger and run deep. Sarah Neufeld’s The Ridge allowed me to just feel. It reminded me that music can help us, me, vibrate somewhere in between the feelings that we already have names for and provide some sort of identity — even if only musical — to those that we haven’t quite pinned down yet. The space between shock and revelation, anger and inspiration, hopelessness and elevation was filled with the urgency of “A Long Awaited Scar”, the cardioversion of “Chase the Bright and Burning” together and the stunning beauty of “Where The Light Comes In.” In a year where self-care seemed more important than ever, The Ridge was the perfect soundtrack.

— Judith Lynch (@cbcjudith)

20. Gord Downie, Secret Path

An artist's job is to reflect society back to itself — to bring society to see, hear and feel its own true story, however appalling that story may be. Gord Downie's Secret Path tells the true story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in October of 1966 while running from a residential school in Kenora, Ontario. Chanie died because the unforgiving northern Ontario woods were, to him, less of a threat than the federally-funded institution attempting to teach him that everything about his home, his family and his heritage was wrong and had to change. Downie's songs and the accompanying drawings by Jeff Lemire stand as towers of compassion and truth, as does the clear and brutal 1967 MacLean's article that inspired them — Ian Adams' "The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack." That Downie has accomplished this as cancer threatens his own life is testament to the power of the truth he is telling. It may be more comfortable to pretend we haven't heard it, but art is patient. It will reflect this back to us for as long as it takes.

— Tom Allen (@CBCR2shift)

19. Repartee, All Lit Up

The Newfoundland four-piece fearlessly led by frontwoman Megan Warren had been building buzz and collecting accolades on the East Coast for a few years now, and with All Lit Up they finally exploded onto the national scene. It’s a collection of sparkly pop anthems, but don’t let the glittery package fool you. With lyrics like “nice girls can go home cuz there’s no room for those with no backbone” (“Nice Girls”) and the sarcastic dismissal of the idea that girls should “sit pretty, keep everybody happy” (the unbelievably catchy lead single “Dukes”), All Lit Up is a pop album with a riot grrrl’s sensibility.

— Raina Douris (@rahrahraina)

18. Jazz Cartier, Hotel Paranoia

Toronto rapper Jazz Cartier and his producer Lantz released two mixtapes within less than 12 months, a firm statement that their was a new challenger to the throne. “I am the prince of the city, I am the talk of the town,” Cartier raps on his latest, Hotel Paranoia, the hunger in his delivery fitting for someone looking to stake his claim at the top of a city that is currently experiencing a huge number of young princes looking to knock the crown off Drake’s head. On Hotel Paranoia, the rapper could easily fit into the larger “Toronto sound” template established by Drake and Noah “40” Shebib, but at the same time, Cartier finds his own path through his use of aggressive but melodic hooks, a cinematic but trap-heavy production style, his death-defying approach to live shows and, most importantly of all, that fierce vocal delivery. Lyrically, Cartier even distances himself from Drake’s uptown style, boasting, “I’m a downtown legend, everybody feels threatened,” just in case there was any mistaking his intent.

— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)

17. Clairmont the Second, Quest for Milk and Honey

While he is only 19 years old, Clairmont the Second is an old soul whose future looks extremely bright. There's a couple of reasons for that. Not only had the MC completed a number of well-received mixtapes (while still in high school), but his brother Cola is a member of well-regarded Toronto band the OBGMs and has been mentoring him musically since he was a child. It's the reason why Quest for Milk and Honey is overflowing with confidence and maturity. The 13-track affair finds the young MC rhyming with a wisdom beyond his years, discussing spirituality and exploring vulnerabilities while impressively presiding over the jazzy, soulful production entirely handled by himself.

— Del F. Cowie (@vibesandstuff)


16. DVSN, Sept. 5th

Like many of the acts affiliated with Drake's OVO Sound label, DVSN have cultivated an air of mystery around them with minimal interviews, scarce autobiographical details and shadowy photo shoots. What is left is the music and, given the pedigree of the participants, the album's strength is no surprise. Producer Nineteen85, known for helming Drake's phenomenally successful ""Hotline Bling"" among other tracks, and Toronto R&B singer Daniel Daley comprise the duo's take on sensual '90s R&B. More than a deferential retread, DVSN's adventurous production navigating differing moods and tempos and Daley's aching, soulful voice find the duo putting a firmly 21st century twist on a sound that is primed for revival.


15. Donovan Woods, Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled

2016 was a busy year for Donovan Woods. As if releasing a full length record wasn’t enough, he then released an EP They Are Going Away back in September. Woods, who may have once considered himself the songwriter’s songwriter, has now more than proven with his full length that he has so much more to offer. Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled is an incredible selection of songs about heartbreak (“We Never Met”), 21st century issues (“On The Nights You Stay Home”) and despair (“They Don’t Make Anything in That Town”), among other topics. But what makes his music special is the arrangements, where he can take that sad song and create such a nice groove you might have a second take on what the song is actually about. He also cites his rap group that he formed with friends as a teenager that helps give him some of the lyrical genius in terms of how/where he places the emphasis on words and phrasing in his songs. We all know how much 2016 sucked, and as Woods once said in an interview, “life is full of horrible shitty things,” but at least we have an artist like him that will sing the sorrows of the people.

— Matt Fisher (@MattRFisher)

14. The Weeknd, Starboy

As with everything Weeknd, Starboy goes hard into fetish. And is all the better for it. The object, in the case of this latest entry, is Michael Jackson — specifically Off The Wall era Michael, at his most deadly. The result is an album which pulls no punches when it comes to its pop ambitions. More than coming out party Beauty Behind the Madness, Starboy lays out its objective early and never wavers. Though produced by an impressive array of big name producers — Daft Punk, Max Martin, Diplo, Frank Dukes, Ben Billions, to name a few — the album has a sonic cohesiveness which feels zeitgeist-baiting if not entirely urgent. It’s the necessarily airey neon hit in a year defined by dark, depressing missives.

— Jon Dekel (@jondekel)

13. Drake, Views

Views is the most successful album of Drake’s career. It’s also one of the worst reviewed. The thing is, it’s exactly those parts of Views that people hated the most that made it his biggest album to date. It was too long (it really was), but those 20 tracks made it become the most streamed album ever (more tracks equals higher streaming numbers), a method his one-time cohort the Weeknd recently adopted on Starboy. Critics laid into Views for being self-absorbed and overwrought, even claiming it was too wintery for a summer album, but that’s basically like saying the album is “too Drake.” The thing is, Views also contains a lot of the things that Drake fans have proven, time and again, to love. There’s the answering machine confession as trope (“U With Me”), the hyper local Toronto references (“Weston Road Flows”), the unapologetically jealous narrator (throughout), the Future guest spot (“Grammys,”), corny lines (“Got so many chains they call me Chaining Tatum”), zeitgest capturing pop (“Hotline Bling” and “Once Dance”) and the jacking of popular underground flows, which here also includes patois (“Controlla,” “One Dance,” “Too Good”). On top of that, the production alone makes it one of the most enjoyable albums of the year, with OVO stalwarts Noah “40” Shebib, Boi-1d and Nineteen85 combining for 18 of the 20 credits. It may not be the Drake album we wanted, but it’s the Drake album we deserved for turning his solipsism into success in the first place.


12. BadBadNotGood, IV

Toronto jazz nerds BadBadNotGood have earned a reputation as modern hip-hop’s reliable backing band: producing bedrock odes to the soul tracks the genre built its foundation on. On IV, the boys of BBNG finally step up their original game, rising their songwriting to a level that puts them on par with their collaborators. Whether grooving lush orchestration on Charlotte Day Wilson featuring single “In Your Eyes,” smoothing out Muscle Souls soul on “Time Moves Slow” or straight up flexing on instrumentals “Cashmere” and the title track, the album flows with the charm usually reserved for the genre’s greats. All of which makes IV the go-to hip dinner party album of 2016.

— JD

11. Tegan and Sara, Love You to Death

The success of Tegan and Sara never hinged on the intricacy of their guitar parts or experimental keyboards or even the slicked back synths that garnered them radio play last year on their seventh studio album, Heartthrob. The thread that ties it all together, from early hits like “Living Room” and “Speak Slow” to Heartthrob’s breakout, “Closer,” are the twins’ ability to pen and execute a great melody. Love You To Death is filled to the brim with those memorable gems like the bubblegum bursts of “Boyfriend” and “Stop Desire” to the more sweeping emotional arches of “100x” and “White Knuckles.” Here, they build on that clean pop sound they switched to on their last album, one that would go on to influence the sounds of artists like Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen, and it’s that polished space that lets the hooks shine. It doesn’t really matter what Tegan and Sara will sound like next because, as long as their precise sense of songwriting stays front and center, they are bound to succeed.

— ML

10. Tanya Tagaq, Retribution

Tanya Tagaq's personhood is often packaged in fragments in the media — musician, Inuk, woman, feminist, seal hunt defender, throat singer — when in fact it's her kaleidoscope wholeness that informs her art. She doesn't get to leave pieces of her identity behind, she can't shed her skin or deny her experiences. And Tagaq is never more fully realized than Retribution, her stunning new album which reasserts and reaffirms other aspects of her ratio, that of advocate and agitator, someone who uses her voice, body and art to challenge the patriarchy, white supremacy and colonization. Retribution is a record about rape, and it is her most provocative and remarkable yet. Specific and literal, conceptual and metaphorical, Retribution's thematic complexity is paralleled in the music itself, which is as ferociously metal- and punk-influenced as it is artful, amorphous and visceral. Retribution is exquisitely demanding and intricate, but it’s also Tagaq at her most personal.

— Andrea Warner (@_andreawarner)

9. Wintersleep, The Great Detachment

The first thing you hear on The Great Detachment is Loel Campbell on drums, punching his way to the space where bandmates Paul Murphy and Tim D’eon catch up to start “Amerika.” It’s a bold hand-clapper of an opener, and in February 2016 was a declaration: Wintersleep was back. The Yarmouth-bred, Montreal-based band has always been a tight (and tight-knit) group, and with this sixth album, the three core members are more coiled than ever, having worked with veteran producer Tony Doogan for 11 songs that suggest the band has aged, but has not softened.

With sing-along, dance-ready tracks like “Santa Fe” and “Spirit,” Wintersleep doesn’t let The Great Detachment lull, even when the band slows down (slightly) for songs more rooted in the Wintersleep family tree (“Metropolis,” the Geddy Lee-featuring “Territory”).

“I don't think I'll ever really feel like we've made it,” Murphy told me in July, before the band performed in its adopted Halifax hometown for the first time since this album was released. If anything, The Great Detachment proves Wintersleep’s long past that milestone.

— HG

8. River Tiber, Indigo

Indigo may be River Tiber's first LP, but I've been following Toronto's Tommy Paxton-Beesley for a long time. First, he grew up in my neighbourhood. Second, he's been putting out mostly instrumental EP's and I've been playing them on The Signal for a while now. Earlier work concentrated on guitar. That's what he studied at Berklee College of Music. But on Indigo, Paxton-Beesley steps up to the mic and what a voice he has. Truly a triple threat, not only is he a kick ass player (guitar, cello, trombone, drums and bass), he's a wonderful producer and the voice is the icing on the cake. His soulful voice adds so much warmth and feel to his highly polished and sophisticated arrangements and beats. Wistful and melancholic, Indigo works well in the dark. He's been working with Drake and BadBadNotGood. The next offering could send his career into orbit.

— Laurie Brown (@lauriebrown)

7. PUP, The Dream is Over

By now the backstory of The Dream is Over is well known: Boy screams; boy shreds vocal folds; boy's doctor says "the dream is over"; boy ignores advice and, with his three friends, releases the best Canadian punk record of the year. But what's lost in the boy's (Stefan Babcock) story is how this record single-handedly made pop-punk cool again. After the Good Charlottes of this world managed to suck every last ounce of punk out of the genre, here come PUP with an album that injects the essence of mayhem back into the dying corpse of melodic punk. From snotty opener "If This Tour Doesn't Kill You, I Will" to the rousing finale of "Pine Point," this album delivers on every fist pumping front. Turn this one up loud and follow Stefan's lead — ignore his doctor and scream along.

— Mitch Pollock (@mitchellblack)

6. Hannah Georgas, For Evelyn

A tribute album to Hannah Georgas’ 98-year-old grandmother brings out some of her best writing yet. Her third full length album, For Evelyn, is a great example of the results that can come for songwriters when they push further and deeper than previously explored. For Evelyn has moments of darkness, self-doubt and clarity all wrapped into 11 independently beautiful songs. Sonically the record includes songs that make you want to cry, some to jump around on the dance floor to and others that bring on self-reflection. Vocally, Georgas seems to have become even more confident, her voice more captivating more than ever. The result is an album most artists could only dream of creating at some point in their career.

— MF

5. Basia Bulat, Good Advice

On her fourth standout record, Basia Bulat sounds like she’s singing with a knowing wink and a smile. Heartbreak may have motivated Good Advice, but the Toronto native clearly doesn’t let it get the better of her, or her sound: each song lights up with layers of organs and synths and bright backup vocals, expertly nurtured by producer and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James. Still, Bulat fearlessly digs deeper than ever before to write an honest account of every emotion that exists in the orbit of heartbreak: the end-of-your-rope patience and pleading in “Let Me In”; the “come-back-or-don’t” ultimatum in “Infamous”; the pretend pick-me-ups we tell ourselves to get through the day in “La La Lie.” It’s all truth, set to a shimmering soundtrack — everything you could want in 2016.

— Emma Godmere (@godmere)

4. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

“I'm not interested in posterity, which is a paltry kind of eternity. ... I'm not interested in an insurance plan for my work."

That's what Leonard Cohen said to Adrienne Clarkson in 1966. He made it very clear he was not in the poet's game to be remembered, but I am not sure I believe him. If he had no interest in poetry that would be timeless, that would fearlessly and dependably address the truths of love and sex and God and dirt and food and bliss and pain and desire long after his time was over, why did he work at it so diligently? Why was he so good at it?

One song on his final album, You Want it Darker, released just weeks before his death, after a career spanning fifty years, is "Leaving the Table":

I don’t need a reason for what I became.
I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and they’re lame.
I don’t need a pardon. There’s no one left to blame.
I’m leaving the table. I’m out of the game.


Sorry, Mr. Cohen. That's the trouble with fearlessly facing life and death as if you don't mind being forgotten: It tends to get you remembered.

— Tom Allen (@cbcr2shift)

3. Andy Shauf, The Party

Concept albums can do a couple of things: they can over-exaggerate otherwise minute details of life to exhausting lengths, or they can transform an everyday situations into a work of art and beauty. Andy Shauf’s The Party not only succeeds at the latter, it resets the parameters of what it means to write a truly beautiful album, redefining what it means to create a concept album. Shauf manages to take the little details of a party — the heart-to-heart conversations between friends, the anxieties between strangers conversing for the first time, the mixing pot of personalities in one room — and turn them into a study on socializing, written by a wallflower, for anybody to enjoy. It's hard to recommend a single track to start with, so just let the record do the job. Turn it on, drink it in its entirety and get to know one of Canada's finest songsmiths and storytellers.

— Kerry Martin (@ohhikerry)

2. Kaytranada, 99.9%

Over the past few years, Montreal's Kaytranada has graduated from redefining the dance floor with his cool-breeze Soundcloud remixes into a bonafide go-to producer for cutting edge, high profile acts. On 99.9%, he took his already heady synthesis of musical styles and developed a cohesive framework in which to insert tightly curated collaborations from a wide swath of musical envelope pushers who, like Kaytranada, often blur genres in their work. The album features a stellar lineup of progressive left-field stalwarts like Little Dragon, 2016 critical darling Anderson .Paak and Toronto's BadBadNotGood. 99.9% also exhibits Kaytranada's most notable trait of bringing attention to the overlooked, coaxing standout performances by Toronto rising artist River Tiber, comeback kid Craig David and reconfiguring forgotten Brazilan obscurities on "Lite Spots."


1. A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation

We Are Halluci Nation challenges a history of cultural genocide in the most urgent political statement in music this year. Born from the words of late activist John Trudell — Halluci Nation, "a tribe that they cannot see." — the album is a celebration of inclusivity, catapulting their electric pow wow dance party into a full-blown cultural movement. A Tribe Called Red are three Indigenous DJs, Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill and Bear Witness, who have united voices from across the world (pan-Africa, South America, Iraq), alongside the likes of Saul Williams, Shad, Tanya Tagaq, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and author Joseph Boyden. Their collective expression seeks truth and reconciliation, not just a connection between people, but all of life.

This message of understanding carries forth through the album's cover, which is the same as the patch stitched into their jean jackets: "500 years and still drumming; Our DNA is the earth and sky." It's a concept album with a beginning, middle and no end.

— Colton Eddy (@coltondaniel)

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