'Tis the season of year-end listing, of yelling at your colleagues that, no, the Weeknd did not have the best album of the year because clearly Tegan and Sara did. At CBC Music, we drill our year-end focus down to mainly Cancon — and our best albums of 2016 down to 25 — and we can’t possibly include everyone we want. But we can try.
With this list, we’ve kept it to the new: bands and artists who have either formed or put out their first works in 2016, and who have blown us away, either onstage or via album. From Charlotte Day Wilson to Old Soul Rebel to Not You: the 11 best new Canadian bands of 2016.
Charlotte Day Wilson
Charlotte Day Wilson is a 24-year-old singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist from Toronto. With CDW, she released one of the most engrossing, soulful and impressive debuts of the year. Wilson seemed to come out of nowhere in 2016, initially garnering critical praise for her standout collaboration on BadBadNotGood’s fourth album, IV, released in July. Her rich, weighty vocal delivery was exactly what the jazz quartet needed to fill in the space it's grown accustomed to leaving, which is often left to its own or, on instances like Sour Soul, filled in by rappers like Ghostface Killah. Wilson’s incredible performance on “In Your Eyes” was so head-turning that it even managed to overshadow Sam Herring (Future Islands), who impressively channelled his best Bill Withers on his vocal turn for “Time Moves Slow.”
The overwhelming praise perfectly set the stage for Wilson’s self-released debut, CDW, a completely self-made triumph of an album (she's also currently managed by Arts & Crafts, the Toronto label where she previously interned). Wilson’s six-song EP was self-produced — short of one track, “Where Do You Go,” which was helmed by another Toronto rising star, River Tiber — and it’s a smouldering, evocative interpretation of sounds of the past, from Stax Records to Serge Gainsbourg to Sade, taking elements of soul, jazz and gospel and imbuing them with an all new sense of potency.
— Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)
One of the newest on this list — the band’s debut EP, Misty, isn’t out until March 2017 — Not You’s members are familiar Halifax faces: Nancy Urich (Dog Day, the Burdocks), Stephanie Johns (the Stolen Minks, Moon), Rebecca Young (Soaking up Jagged, Pastoralia) and Meg Yoshida (Bad Vibrations). The shiny new four-piece played its first show in August 2016, packed the Seahorse Tavern at the Halifax Pop Explosion in October and will open for Wintersleep’s second, nearly sold-out hometown show in the new year. Not You self-describes as making slippergaze, which seems to translate to sweet-and-hazy '90s indie rock featuring dreamy harmonies and lowercase song names. The show is tight and the mood is nostalgic — get thee that Not You EP when it arrives.
— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)
Frantic, irreverent and immediate, Weaves produces the kind of winking art-rock that invites you in only to slap you in the face for being so gullible. The Toronto quartet broke out this year with a self-titled debut that showcased singer Jasmyn Burke’s spastic vocal attack — equal parts Karen O. and tUnE-yArDs — along with the group’s wind 'em up to blast 'em up away dynamic. Listening to tracks such as “Coo Coo,” “Tick” and “Candy,” one gets the feeling the group wrote some great pop songs, blew them up, then warped and reconstructed them. It’s a feeling both familiar and uncomfortable, yet undeniably charming.
— Jon Dekel (@jondekel)
It’s pretty easy to spot rising talents in the Canadian music scene. Just a peek at the long stretches of collaborators on artists’ releases and soon you’ll quickly spot the common threads. Take a look at the work of BadBadNotGood, Kaytranada and even Drake, and you’ll see this name: Tommy Paxton-Beesley. The Toronto producer and singer-songwriter, who goes by the name River Tiber, found his own profile bubbling up to the top in 2016 with his debut album, Indigo, a moody, ambient collection of sounds that’s a personification of his city’s chilly late-night vibes. Flexing his myriad skills on this album, especially his captivatingly emotive voice, Paxton-Beesley proved that in just a short period of time, he has become one of music’s best secret weapons. But in 2017, River Tiber will be a secret no more.
— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)
Right now, there are two things that are really exciting about Allan Rayman: first, his music, which is electrifying; second, that we don't really know a lot about him. The singer, songwriter, producer and director has a lot on his mind and, so far, he's let his music (and the arresting films that he creates for it) do the talking for him. He has a new album coming out in early 2017, which will no doubt deliver on the electrification. If it blows up big the way it should, then maybe, just maybe, we'll hear more from the man himself.
— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)
Jean-Michel Blais started playing the family organ when he was nine years old. By 11, he was beginning to compose original material, and by 17, he began his classical training at the Trois-Rivieres Music Conservatory. In 2016 and at 31, Blais released his debut album, the now Polaris longlisted II, a 28-minute collection that was the result of two years of improvisation. Inspired by artists like Chilly Gonzales and Philip Glass, Blais's compositions can be as poignant as they are playful, mixing together accessible melodies with experimental flourishes. His first single, "Nostos," begins with a simple, catchy melody before building into a soaring mix of ethereal keys and electronic production, a small sample of the virtuoso on display on II. —JKG
Old Soul Rebel
I saw Old Soul Rebel open for the great Adia Victoria earlier this year, and their live performance was astounding. Chelsea Johnson and Lola Whyte make Southern-inspired blues rock that’s unlike almost anything else coming out of Vancouver. They have just one EP to their credit, but it’s a blistering and bold effort that only hints at the power the pair brings to the stage. “Lose Control” will make you think of Alabama Shakes and lead singer Brittany Howard in the best way possible, and it’s probably a good idea to get familiar with them now so that next year you can be like, "Oh totally, I’ve known about Old Soul Rebel forever."
— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner)
Winnipeg’s Alexa Dirks used 2016 to step outside her Juno Award-winning group Chic Gamine and stake vocal claim on another project — this time solo, as Begonia. With her showstopping voice, Dirks blends acoustics and synths for her own brand of gospel. Her first EP, Lady in Mind, comes out March 2017, and while the first single, “Juniper,” claimed No. 1 spot on the Radio 2 Top 20 in October, new single “Out of My Head” is the track we’re really coveting. While Dirks uses the four hand-clapping minutes to free herself from ghosts past, we’ll hang onto this track until we get the full release next year. — HG
Canadian producers are continuing to make their mark globally on music with progressive, collaborative, beat-oriented projects, demonstrating their sharp curatorial prowess. While you may be aware of Montreal's Kaytranada and his Polaris Music Prize-winning effort, 99.9%, there's plenty more where that came from. Take, for instance, Toronto producer Harrison. On his '80s-infused full-length debut Checkpoint Titanium, out this year, Harrison imbues his musical approach with malleable soulful, electronic grooves that inquisitively meander beyond their starting points. Harrison's layered and intricate keyboard compositions are the foundation of his work, exhibiting his ability to translate his past inspirations firmly into the present. Collaborating with a close circle of featured guests and vocalists like Halifax native Ryan Hemsworth, Toronto rap wunderkind Clairmont the Second and Young Guv, a.k.a. Ben Cook of F--ked Up, Harrison charts his own assertive, yet eclectic path to the future.
— Del Cowie (@vibesandstuff)
This band kind of came out of nowhere for me a few weeks ago and quickly became a daily go-to. Lanikai is the new pop project from former Imaginary Cities co-founder Marti Sarbit, and the band’s self-titled EP shimmers and bounces, sunlight reflecting off the Pacific Ocean. The first single, “I’m Glad,” soars and swells as an incredible piano line marches up and down the song’s spine. There’s something small, hopeful and urgent about Sarbit’s voice as she sings, “I’m glad to know that you are here” over and over, moving the line from affirmation to declaration, mantra to revelation, the glow of brass and strings filling the sky behind her words, the warmth of a thousand sunsets spilling out into our hearts. — AW
Ayo Leilani has been creating queer-friendly spaces within Toronto’s hip-hop scene since 2009, when she co-founded the arts collective (and unofficial record label) 88 Days of Fortune. She’s also been part of rap/electro group Above Top Secret for the past six years. But in late 2015, Leilani dropped her first single under a new moniker, Witch Prophet — and it was fire. Featuring Stas THEE Boss (of the now defunct THEESatisfaction), the track was included on Black Lives Matter Toronto’s fundraising mixtape, and became the opening number on Witch Prophet’s October 2016 mixtape, H.P.B. — the first set of songs Leilani has released under this new name. “Do we keep moving forward?/ And backward?/ And forward?” asks Leilani on “Pearly Gates,” spinning her own truth on a cut from Mobb Deep’s 2006 track of the same name. H.P.B. is only four songs long, but you can revel in the intersection of its soul, R&B and hip-hop nods for days. Despite such a short offering, Witch Prophet’s voice has taken a strong hold on 2016. — HG