Take a journey with us into the bowels of some of the year’s most underrated - and overrated - records as we unpick them to find the musical gems of the year you might have missed - or follow the whole list over on Spotify.
Two of Canada’s most engaged and engaging artists combined this year for one of the years stand out tracks. The artists have long been friends and it made perfect sense to fuse Tanya Taqaq’s remarkable vocal talents with Tribe Called Red’s heavy beats and immaculate production chops.
“Sila” captures two artists at top of their respective games, brimming with a propulsive and infectious energy the track hits hard and often. Urgent, vital and addictive, it's an essential part of one of the years most remarkable albums.
- Ro Cemm
Having spent the last ten years sharing her vocal talents with others as a member of JUNO winners Chic Gamine or providing backing vocals for the likes of Royal Canoe and The Brothers Landreth, Winnipeg’s Alexa Dirks finally stepped into the spotlight herself under the name Begonia. Calling on past collaborators Matt Peters and Matt Schellenberg of Royal Canoe “Juniper” somehow manages to feed elements of Miseducation-era Lauren Hill through a Dirty Projectors' filter to produce a laid back soul-pop gem.
- Ro Cemm
Closing out Haley Bonar's peerless Impossible Dream, "Blue Diamonds Fall" is unquestionably the punchiest and most danceable track found on the album, a welcome respite from Bonar's unflinching reckoning with the transitions of growing up preceding it. The song's insistent chorus of "You can be whatever you like," could otherwise sound fairly cliched were this not 2016, but currently it offers us a shard of welcome and essential optimism as much of the world at large feels that same apprehension moving forward as we individually feel on the cusp of adulthood. It's a phrase that Bonar doubtless recounts to her own daughter time and again and it's one that we impart to our own children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and so on - and it's a notion we would all do well to keep in mind sailing into 2017's unknown and beyond, regardless our age.
The 1975's magnum opus has proved a polarising release, held up as a pop paradigm by some and left in the gutter by others, and with the gleaming chunks of chart-hopping glory inside, we'd probably fall closer to the former camp. “Somebody Else” and “Love Me” are certainly stunning, but behind the glitz Matty Healy & Co. conjure some of the most captivating sounds released in 2016. “Please Be Naked” slips coolly into “Lostmyhead” for ten minutes of perfect noise – the first blends Sigur Rós' pastoral touch with Erased Tapes-esque keys, but the second somehow tops it.
Healy's been vocal about the impact of My Bloody Valentine on his work, and during “Lostmyhead” it shows – it's a fuzzed-up barrage, with screeching guitars and toe-glaring FX piled high like monuments. It's easy to take potshots at a band of The 1975's stature, but putting some of the finest shoegaze and post-rock on the year on one of the best pop records of the year? Genius.
Los Nastys have been name-checked by their compatriots Hinds in numerous interviews with endless plaudits. The Madrileñas even covered “Holgrama” from Los Nastys’ 2014 Me Lo Encontre Así EP and have variously named them as the soundtrack to “all our Friday night teenage memories” and “the best band in the world”. The Madrid garage rock veterans - who’ve been doing it since their teens and still look about sixteen - make the most brilliantly scuzzy music you’ve ever heard, with live shows to rival any other guitar band in existence right now. So why haven’t they broken through into the UK? Our questionable appreciation of lyrics in a foreign tongue is probably a big part of it. “Hacienda” is one the angriest and brutal tracks on this year’s underappreciated Noche de Fantasmas con Los Nastys. It’s also a perfect introduction to everything that’s amazing about them.
“Woman” is the somehow still-beating heart of Angel Olsen’s incredible album MY WOMAN. Over nearly eight minutes it unpicks the intricacies of love, relationships and gender, moving seamlessly from yearning to defiance to heartbreak. Lengthy songs are often a symptom of writers not knowing when to press the stop button but “Woman” doesn’t waste a second nor does it outstay its welcome, if anything it could have been even longer. It contains lyrics that are poignantly fragile (“I’d do anything to see it all / To see it all the way that you do”) but forget about the folly of typecasting her as a winsome folk artist. On one of the most powerfully delivered lines of the year - “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman” - the way her voice moves around the words is something else, fully in control despite the heady emotion. With “Woman” Olsen transcends genre.
- Ed Nash
Little Simz turned in the last great album of 2016 - albeit a week too late to make the cut on our choices for the year’s best records where it surely would belong. It’s a work of depth and artistic progression for the 22-year old North London rapper inspired by Alice in Wonderland and feels even more cohesive than her debut record as she reflects on reality and accountability in love, life and the music world she’s now part of. “No More Worldland” is the album’s introspective final chapter showcasing Simz’ superior flow.
Lost in the overpowering self-doubt that comes when questioning what the hell it is you want to do, or even be, in life, "Can't Win" is PUP at their most volatile. The Dream Is Over is an album very much about losing ones place, and the uphill struggle that ensues. Here, there are no resolutions. You'll find no moment of clarity that offers reasoning or worth. Instead "Can't Win" simply takes that pent-up exasperation and lets it explode. A vehicle of expression, the track is a thundering venture along storming refrains, pummelling drumbeats, and despairingly questioning self-worth, transformed in the hands of the Toronto four-piece into a fist-pumping, head-shaking anthem of the most rousing kind. Feeling down and out has never sounded so energising.
Lyrically and sonically, "Juke Jam" is dripping with nostalgia. On the otherwise gospel-influenced Colouring Book, "Juke Jam" sticks out like a sore thumb with it’s mellow '90s R&B stylings. Luckily, it sticks out for all the right reasons. The tale of Chance discovering how love changes, from simply having chatting, buying sweets and skating at the rink to realising “what booties could do” and throwing all that old stuff aside for a bit of juking, it’s a melancholic slow jam about growing up.
Peppered with field recordings from a skating rink, and with a surprisingly sweet bridge by Justin Bieber, it’s an emotional little breather in a pretty hectic and excitable mixtape. It’s Chance taking a quick second to think about how he got to where he is.
Singer/songwriter Lauren Aquilina wrote an article about her own struggles with mental illness for The Independent’s Mental Health Awareness Week before dropping her debut album Isn’t It Strange? in the summer. Just a few months on from its release, in a post shared on her social media profiles, Aquilina further discussed her battle with depression and how this, her very first album would also be her last.
The ten tracks of Isn’t It Strange? discuss relationships, their breakdowns and her experiences with anxiety much like Aquilina’s previous work with her trilogy of independently released EPs. Album track “Hurt Any Less”, stands up to its contemporaries on Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION, and “How Would You Like It” cuts an ex- down to size with its empowering message. But it’s “Wicked Game” which reveals itself as the most poignant, urgent and necessary listen. Thinking about the track as more than just about a relationship gone sour, the game being played is something darker.
Written in Gothenburg with Swedish songwriter and producer Jonas Quant, “Wicked Game” follows the zeitgeist of so much great Swedish pop contrasting melancholy lyrics with upbeat production. The lyrics spell out Aquilina’s struggles and despite being masked by a string section, a quiet spoken-word verse is perhaps the most powerful moment on the entire record. Whispering Aquilina says “if only I could verbalise / what’s really going on / I internalise / and I don’t know why / but it’s taking its toll / I’ve heard that’s what the broken do”. 2016 has seen more musicians openly talking about their experiences with mental health and the music industry. While Aquilina has said that she will no longer release or perform music under her own name, she is still pursuing a career in songwriting with the backing of her team.