The top Toronto albums of 2016

Like our city, this year's list is eclectic and idiosyncratic, and its independent focus is a reflection of just how much local musicians are doing it for themselves.

No, Andy Shauf doesn’t qualify as local. He only moved here in April and made The Party in Regina. Yes, Tanya Tagaq does. She lives here now, and recorded Retribution at Revolution. And while we’d love to claim Hamiltonians Jessy Lanza and Junior Boys as our own, they’re just too far outside Toronto. Keeping that in mind, we present our top 10 Toronto albums of 2016 as voted by NOW’s music critics.   

1. The Highest Order: Still Holding (Idée Fixe)

Still Holding is perfectly imperfect, everything the opposite of those slickly produced albums conceived with radio play and festival circuits in mind. Warm tones, heartful lyrics, real performances that breathe and move are all on display here – and also were at their triumphant end-of-the-year show at the Baby G last weekend. The spacious, cosmic country shifts between slowly unwinding psychedelia and plucky laid-back country-rock, fuelled by Paul Mortimer’s twangy licks – a balance best showcased on fourth song I’d Ask You To Stay. Quiet instrumental Taking Off is a dark, surfy lullaby. And we can’t get enough of catchy Hardball. Throughout, Simone Schmidt, Mortimer, Kyle Porter and ­Simone TB sound playful but serious, allowing instrumental sections to unfurl at length before returning to Schmidt’s calm, intoned delivery of searching lyrics that evoke so much, with sweet grooves that always find the pocket. It’s comfortably and uniquely itself.

2. dvsn: Sept. 5 (OVO Sound/Warner)

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Toronto had a major R&B moment in 2016 thanks in part to producer Paul “Nineteen85” Jefferies and singer Daniel Daley, whose dvsn project reconfigured the harmonic warmth of 90s R&B with muscular rhythms of current pop and hip-hop. Their debut LP exalts and elevates voices, melodies and harmonies that are mirrored by a healthy sexual appetite in the lyrics. There’s a lightness in their approach to babymaking jams, in both form and subject matter. But it’s underscored by just the right amount of confidence and risk-taking, so Sept. 5th never sounds like it’s pandering to genre conventions.

3. PUP: The Dream Is Over (Royal Mountain)

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North America went gaga for PUP this year thanks in large part to their infectiously high-energy live shows. (See Homegrown Success Stories, page XX.) Of course the music matters, too, and The Dream Is Over goes for broke with boyish pop-punk sneering, boisterous riffs and rhythms, and angsty songs about getting fucked up and wanting to die, all of which landed it on the Polaris Prize short list in addition to NOW critics’ lists.

4. Tanya Tagaq: Retribution (Six Shooter)

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The now Toronto-based Inuk throat singer and experimental musician gets all the points for her constant fearlessness: politically, musically, publicly. She reaches deep inside and reflects back what she finds via mostly wordless wailing, growling, singing, moaning, huffing and puffing, alongside Jesse Zubot’s soundscapes and Jean Martin’s expressive drumming. Her live show will raise the hair on your arms and make you weep, and Retribution conveys that energy powerfully.

5. Bwana: Capsule’s Pride (LuckyMe)

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Originally conceived as a remix album of the sci-fi cult classic Akira, this free EP grew in depth and scope to become a mission statement for Berlin-based Toronto producer Nathan Micay. The nine-track Capsule’s Pride is often paced for a ravey late-night dance floor, but it’s also joyously and unapologetically geeky, evoking the intensely stylized high-tech futurism of the anime film, with car-chase rhythms, quiet ambient detours and playful melodic detail that creates an imaginative world all its own.

6. Weaves (Buzz)

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Weaves are like no one else, bringing together boingy rhythms, dotty intersecting riffs and Jasmyn Burke’s elastic vocals and careening melodies. It’s the sonic equivalent of ricocheting rubber bands, and that it all holds together so well seems like some kind of magic trick. But it does, and you come away stunned by the four-piece’s bold originality and colourful vibrancy.

7. Harrison: Checkpoint Titanium (Last Gang)

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A wave of dreamy electronic beat music has made the jump from SoundCloud to Toronto’s club scene. At the forefront is newcomer Harrison, who takes a less-is-more approach to mixing hip-hop, house and electro funk on his debut LP. He finds an easy medium between big room and bedroom while delivering a few solid pop gems along the way.

8. Drake: Views (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic/Universal)

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A commercial smash for the city’s biggest music star, Views owned summer thanks to its Caribbean-influenced pop hits. Surrounding those high points is some of the sharpest, most satisfying production work to come out of the 6ix. The deft blend of styles, moods, eras and genres is paired with memorable hooks and punchlines that continue to demonstrate that no one can make being bummed out all the time sound like a party the way Drake can.

9. Ice Cream: Love, Ice Cream (Bad Actors)

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Cool like the sweet treat they’re named after, the local duo of Carlyn Bezic and Amanda Crist released this intriguing minimalist electro-pop-funk gem in April. Gorgeous vocal melodies rise between stilted drum-machine beats, dystopian Moog-scapes and sounds drawn from free or cheap musical equipment, including boomboxes. Bonus points for writing a song, Veronica, about being in love with a mannequin. Let weird rule.

10. The Hidden Cameras: Home On Native Land (Outside)

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Joel Gibb has worshipped at the altar of perfectly crafted pop for more than a decade, and continues to do so on the Hidden Cameras’ seventh album – but with a soulful country twist. A loving ode to Canadiana, it mixes the group’s signature wit and camp into beautiful, achy balladry.

Honourable mentions: TUNS’ self-titled debut, LAL’s Find Safety, Blood Ceremony’s Lord Of Misrule, Jazz Cartier’s Hotel Paranoia and Donovan Woods’s Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled. | @nowtoronto

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