One needs a little bit of black humour to get through a year like 2016. Pointless for me to regurgitate every ugly detail, every single huge loss in the music world, every disheartening regression we’ve witnessed both socially and politically. What’s done is done and I believe it’s safe to say we will all collectively breathe a sigh of relief when we turn the page on this year a few weeks from now. Never in the past have I heard such a loud and universal hate of a single year as 2016.

All of this being said, 2016 was an absolutely amazing year for new music and unless you were living under a rock or simply have no interest in new music, you will agree with me that this was an overwhelmingly rich year in that sense. A new Radiohead album, the long-awaited new Frank Ocean album, Michael Kiwanuka finally offering up his sophomore album, the return of Tribe Called Quest, both David Bowie and Leonard Cohen offering up final albums that rank amongst the finest of their illustrious careers… and that’s just for starters!

Here, I will list the 10 albums that truly rocked my world in 2016 and also mention a few others that are absolutely worthy of mention. In such a solid year for new releases, one has to take some time to really dive into these amazing albums so if you’re not familiar with some of these – check them out!

10. DONOVAN WOODS – HARD SETTLE, AIN’T TROUBLED

(Fontana North Records)

donovan-woods-hard-settle-aint-troubled

The Sarnia, Ontario-born Donovan Woods has one of my favorite voices and tones in music these days. His straightforward, country-tinged songs are honest and feature beautifully sparse arrangements that never overcrowd or take anything away from the power of his deceptively simple lyrics. “What Kind of Love Is That” serves as the perfect album opener with its probing and challenging questions and it is followed by one of the year’s very best songs, period, “On the Nights You Stay Home”. As a singer-songwriter myself, Donovan Woods is an incredible influence. A lesson in less-is-more, his albums have consistently been great since his debut, The Hold Up, in 2007. He also released an absolutely flawless EP this year titled “They Are Going Away”. He’s had CBC Radio on his side but the man’s audience will inevitably keep growing as he splits his time between Nashville and Toronto and is covered by the likes of Tim McGraw, Alan Doyle (Great Big Sea) and collaborates with Matt Anderson, Charles Kelley (Lady Anterbellum). You need to hear both. Now.

 

9. DAME D.O.L.L.A. – THE LETTER O

(Front Page Music)

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“I went from a puppy to a big dog”, raps Damian Lillard, a.k.a. Dame D.O.L.L.A. on his full-length debut album. He’s a basketball star, point guard for the Portland Trailblazers, but this is no novelty side-project. Lillard has an incredible flow and as the originator of his own “4-bar-challenge” online, he’s showcased his natural skills every chance he’s had. The album is chock full of confessional-type lyrics that paint a complex portrait of a young man juggling ambition, expectations, success, family and friendship. With collaborators such as Raphael Saadiq, Dupre and Lil Wayne, the album’s got street cred but it goes way beyond that. The message is one of hope and positivity and the beats and backing tracks are always hook-driven and addictive. The album came as a totally positive, happy surprise and it’s been my running partner ever since it came out. Oh, and in case you were wondering: D.O.L.L.A stands for Different on Levels the Lord Allows – there is no doubt about it, Damian Lillard is “Different” – and that’s a good thing.

 

8. JASON COLLETT – SONG AND DANCE MAN

(Arts & Crafts)

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I’ve been following Jason Collett ever since his third solo album, Idols of Exile, in 2005, was released to stellar reviews. The Broken Social Scene member never fails to impress on record, consistently releasing fantastic albums that stay with you through the years. “Song and Dance Man” is no exception. The title track and first single is just about the best description in song of the merciless life and journey of those workers in song who do their best to survive in an industry that finds itself in non-stop transformation. This verse alone says it all: “Pass the hat for pennies, kick-start some fans, if you can tweet something brilliant, you’ve got a marketing plan.” The album is probably his most consistent collection since 2008’s superb “Here’s to Being Here”. Other memorable songs: “Provincial Blues”, “Love You Babe” and “Staring at the Sun”. His arrangements are superb and his voice has never been better.

 

7. MOONLIGHT (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) – NICHOLAS BRITELL

(Lakeshore Records)

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Nicholas Britell’s piano and cello-driven score to the year’s greatest, most critically acclaimed film is nothing short of breathtaking. Though many of the cues are short, they never fail to evoke a mood and set a tone. A perfect companion for quiet brooding, reading or – as this reviewer is doing right now – writing. The soundtrack also includes the song Kendrick Lamar so brilliantly sampled to open last year’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Boris Gardiner’s “Every N****r is a Star”, Goodie Mob’s highly addictive “Cell Therapy” and 1963’s Barbara Lewis hit, “Hello Stranger”. The soundtrack goes way beyond your typical soundtrack and though frustratingly short, it is one of the most evocative film scores in recent years and is truly a modern classic. Watch for Britell to walk up the podium come Oscar night. He’ll certainly be among the nominees.

 

6. WE GOT IT FROM HERE… THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE – A TRIBE CALLED QUEST

(Epic Records)

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You will find this album on top of many year-end lists. Know that the hype is absolutely deserved. Following the passing of Phife Dawg, the surviving members Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad carried on and we can only thank our lucky stars they did. “We The People…” is probably the year’s most important hit single with its Trump-worthy chorus: “All you black folks, you must go. All you Mexicans, you must go. And all you poor folks, you must go. Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.” It says it all. The entire album is a hook-laden social critique and it never fails to engage and impress. Their live performance on Saturday Night Live a few weeks back was goosebump-inducing, here’s hoping they will carry on.

 

5. YOU WANT IT DARKER – LEONARD COHEN

(Columbia Records)

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The man was one of, if not the greatest, poet rock and pop has ever had. His last two studio albums “Old Ideas” (2012) and “Popular Problems” (2014) won him several new fans and his gift showed no signs of fading. “You Want It Darker”, his 14th studio album, was produced with the help of his son, Adam, and the musical arrangements are the richest and fullest he’s had in years. The use of a Montreal synagogue’s choir on the album opener sends shivers down the spine and it’s only one of several instances where the album takes his sound to places it’s never been before. There are conflicts in the words, mixed feelings about what awaits him on the other side yet treaty’s words seem to be his final thoughts about it all: “It’s over now, the water and the wine. I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” You shall be missed, Leonard.

 

4. A MOON SHAPED POOL – RADIOHEAD

(XL Records)

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Radiohead’s output has never failed to confound expectations. Yet it seems almost pointless to have any expectations when it comes to this band other than: It will be challenging, it will be emotionally charged and it will be brilliant. From the haunting, menacing strings of the opening track and single “Burn the Witch” to the folky foundations of “Desert Island Disk” to the haunting guitar motif of “Present Tense”, the album simply transforms the moment or room it’s played in. Yorke’s voice has never sounded better and ever since 2007’s (almost ten years already!) “In Rainbows”, he’s somehow sounded more human than ever. He was never the creep or the subterranean homesick alien, though he may have felt that way, he was always us.

 

3. GOODNIGHT CITY – MARTHA WAINWRIGHT

(PIAS Records)

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It took Martha Wainwright a long time before releasing her official full-length debut album, 2005’s eponymous release, after releasing several Eps and singles. When the floodgates opened with that debut album, she single-handedly raised the bar for singer-songwriters, male and female alike, and has never ceased to amaze ever since. Like her mother, aunt and father before her and, of course, brother Rufus, she is a lyricist that likes to open up her diary to her listeners making her albums often feel like a voyeuristic experience. Memorable line from the album’s opening track and lead-off single, “Around the Bend”: “I used to do a lot of blow, now I only do the show”. On this album, she invited a few writers (including her cousin Lily Lanken and aunt Anna McGarrigle, Beth Orton, Michael Ondaatje) to contribute and collaborate. Husband, bassist and arranger Brad Albetta is back at the controls along with Thomas Bartlett, it’s arguably the most pristine sounding album in her collection thus far and her vocals? Well, they’ve always been incredible but listen to “Look Into My Eyes” and prepare to be floored. Incredible.

 

2. LOVE & HATE – MICHAEL KIWANUKA

(Interscope Records)

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If you’re anything like me, you’ve many times wondered over the last few years: “What on Earth happened to Michael Kiwanuka?” 2012’s “Home Again” was such a stellar debut, I kept waiting for the announcement of a new album. Well, it was well worth the wait. Drop the needle on this gorgeous and timeless album and it opens like an epic film score. This is a much bigger, broader canvas than anything found on the debut album. Michael makes you wait some more, he doesn’t sing until five minutes into the opening track. “Did you ever want it? Did you want it bad?” he sings. His voice is as evocative and spine tingling as ever and by the time you reach the second track, “Black Man In A White World”, you know you’re listening to an album for the ages, one that will transcend fashions and genres. One could criticize the length of a few of the tracks, but they are like little movies that take you on a journey. And what a beautiful, heartbreaking and powerful journey it is. An instant classic!

 

1. BLONDE – FRANK OCEAN

(Boys Dont Cry Records)

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I kept hearing people pining for a new Frank Ocean album and though I’d liked a few tracks on 2012’s “Channel Orange”, I must admit I was a little miffed at the overwhelming amount of praise and universal acclaim it received. Well, when “Blonde” (or “Blond” as it’s spelled on the cover) was released this past August, I fell in love. The list of collaborators is intense (from Pharell Williams, André 3000, Beyoncé to Jamie XX and James Blake) but the true star is Frank Ocean. It is an album that, much like Kiwanuka’s and Radiohead’s, needs your full immersion in order for you to truly appreciate it. Sure, you can pull out singles like “Pink + White” and “Self Control” and enjoy them outside the context of the album, but the full experience can only come from listening to the album from A to Z like you’d watch a film. The sexual ambiguity of lyrics such as “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight…” send shivers down the spine and Frank’s soulful flow is pure magic. I will admit this though: I am not a fan of the Chipmunk-like vocal effect he uses here and there, but the beauty of the overall finished product outshines any reservation I might have. There are more great things to come from this unique talent and this much-anticipated album is without question one of the finest albums of 2016.

 

Honourable Mentions:

In a year that was so overwhelmingly great in terms of new albums, I simply had to mention these incredible albums:

BLACKSTAR – DAVID BOWIE
A SEAT AT THE TABLE – SOLANGE
22, A MILLION – BON IVER
AWAKEN, MY LOVE! – DONALD GLOVER
99,9% – KAYTRANADA
I LIKE IT WHEN YOU SLEEP FOR YOU ARE SO BEAUTIFUL YET SO UNAWARE OF IT – THE 1975
WALLS – KINGS OF LEON
WALTZED IN FROM THE RUMBLING – PLANTS AND ANIMALS
ARTSCIENCE – ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT
FAMILY DINNER VOLUME TWO – SNARKY PUPPY
BLUES AND BALLANDS – BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO
JUNK – M83

Check out the “2016 year in review” special section right here!

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About The Author

Max Comeau
Blogueur - RREVERB

Intensely passionate about music, Max is in constant search for new sounds yet he never tires of his idols whom he calls his “Pillars”. A musician himself, he released, as singer-songwriter, an album with The Calm in 2007 and, this past June 2015, released his first solo album, “You”. Max has also written a few plays and adaptations which he staged with his theater troupe in the early 2000s. He is thrilled to be part of the RREVERB team to further explore the great classics, as well as the newer classics-to-be, whether ‘en français’ or in English.