Next week I will be posting my 2016 top 10 list. But I thought I might start this antepenultimate column with a different kind of list. I’m sure you’ll figure out where I’m headed.
Robert Stigwood. David Bowie. David Marguiles. Alan Rickman. Glenn Frey. Abe Vigoda. Paul Kantner. Maurice White. Joe Dowell. Harper Lee. Sonny James. Lennie Baker. Joey Martin Feek. George Martin. Keith Emerson. Frank Sinatra Jr. Phife Dawg. Garry Shandling. James Noble. Patty Duke. Merle Haggard. Prince. Morley Safer. Mike Barnett. Muhammad Ali. Anton Yelchin. Scotty Moore. Michael Cimino. Elie Wiesel. Danny Smythe. Garry Marshall. Glenn Yarbrough. Kenny Baker. Steven Hill. Gene Wilder. Jon Polito. Bobby Vee. Leonard Cohen. Robert Vaughn. Leon Russell. Gwen Ifill. Florence Henderson. Ron Glass. Greg Lake. John Glenn.
This is, of course, an incomplete list of people we lost in 2016. This list just contains many of the musicians, actors and artists (along with two journalists and an astronaut) that have impacted my life. This is the worst year I can remember when it comes to well-known deaths – hell, 2016 took two-thirds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a band that helped shape my affection for keyboards in rock music. Not to mention some artists I truly thought were immortal: Bowie, Prince, Cohen and others. What worries me is that we have a couple weeks left for 2016 to continue making her mark. I hope I’m wrong.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ready for this year to end. Writing these final columns is a ritual that helps me take stock of the year and wash my hands of it. 2016 was a strange mix of happiness in my personal life and utter dread about the state of the world, and I’m not sure 2017 will be any different. Here’s hoping we all get through it. I’m ready to bid farewell to 2016 in my usual way – by talking about the best music of the year. My top 10 list is done (although I’m still not as confident in the order of it as I would like to be), which means I’m ready to talk about the honorable mentions.
I’d like to point out that there is no shame in this game. This year was very, very good, and the honorable mentions this year (and there are quite a lot of them) would make for a fine top albums list on their own. As usual, only new full-length original albums from this year are up for consideration. You ready? Here are the albums that came close, but didn’t quite make the top 10 list.
It was a good year for metal, all told, but as an old-school fan, nothing in that realm made me happier than the fact that three of the Big Four put out good-to-great records, nearly 30 years after their heydays. Megadeth led the charge with Dystopia, a killer slab of riffage and rage. Anthrax picked up the ball and ran with it with the release of For All Kings, their second album with the reunited classic lineup, and just a few weeks ago, Metallica gave us Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, the closest they’ve come to a classic since the 1980s. With Slayer’s Repentless last year, all of the Big Four are back to kicking ass, despite being in their fifties. Gives me hope as I get older.
While the reunited Nickel Creek didn’t put out an album this year, two of its members took well-regarded solo bows. Sean Watkins gave us the politically charged and dread-filled What to Fear, a powerful and dark piece of work, while his sister Sara Watkins offered hope and courage with her own Young in All the Wrong Ways. Chris Thile has an album with Brad Mehldau coming out early next year too. It’s a good time to be a Nickel Creek fan.
And it’s a good time to be a fan of the Choir, one of my favorite bands ever. They’re working on a new record for next year, but this year, they gave us a wonderful live album and DVD, and the two leading lights of the band explored their own music. Steve Hindalong issued his second solo record, The Warbler, a dusty collection of some of his best songs, while Derri Daugherty not only gave us a solo album, Hush Sorrow, but two records with his Americana side project Kerosene Halo. House on Fire is a full-throated country-folk-rock outing, while Live Simple is a collection of covers given a gorgeous once-over. Of course, neither Live Simple nor Hush Sorrow were eligible for the list this year, but I listened to them more than some of the records that ended up in the top 10, so I wanted to mention them.
Two of my childhood favorites made long-awaited returns this year with really good new albums. Peter Garrett, lead singer of Midnight Oil, left his political position in Australia and returned to music with a bang, giving us A Version of Now, his first solo album. Word is that Midnight Oil will reunite and tour next year as well, a show I will not miss for anything. And Human Radio, a little-known band from Minneapolis whose one album from 1990 made an enormous impact on my life, delivered the year’s biggest surprise by re-forming and recording their second album, Samsara, a mere quarter-century after the first. They’re a different kind of band now – more straightforward, less ironic – but they’re still fantastic.
I’m not sure I would consider Anohni’s Hopelessness to be overlooked, but I don’t think it got the attention it deserved, even from me. Anohni’s first album under that name is a paranoid political electro-noise cabaret elevated by her stunning voice, and contains some of her angriest material, and some of her saddest. Laura Mvula’s second album, The Dreaming Room, was certainly overlooked, even by those who loved her debut. A challenging follow-up, The Dreaming Room requires time to sink in, time to fully appreciate the beautiful melodies hidden in the out-there arrangements. It’s as great as her first, just in very different ways.
Next up are two bands I wouldn’t have believed would earn honorable mentions in a year this good. They just made killer albums. The Head and the Heart made two records of homespun folk music before reinventing themselves this year as Fleetwood Mac with the great Signs of Light. In a year that needed as much hope and joy as possible, this one delivered. And Weezer finally made a new album that even diehard fans of their first two have to admit is pretty damn good. Their fourth self-titled effort is a song cycle about summer, with an undercurrent of heartache and sadness wrapped up in jaunty, delightful pop numbers.
Ray Lamontagne surprised with his trippy Ouroboros, a listen-to-it-in-order suite drowning in electric guitar and reverb. It’s quite a left turn for Lamontagne, and this style suits his unique voice well. Speaking of reverb, English trio Daughter offered an early favorite this year with Not to Disappear, a quiet, searing piece of work that, like others on this list, should have garnered more attention. And speaking of not getting enough attention, the meeting of Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen and Rostam of Vampire Weekend resulted in a gorgeous album, I Had a Dream that You Were Mine, that I didn’t even review. Trust me that it’s been in regular rotation – the songs are lovely, and Leithauser has honed that unconventional voice of his into a stunningly effective instrument. This is one for late nights and darkened rooms.
In the no-surprise category, Shearwater plugged in the ‘80s synths and made another terrific record with Jet Plane and Oxbow. There really isn’t any style I wouldn’t pay to hear Jonathan Meiburg sing, and this upbeat keyboard rock is no exception, particularly when the results are as good as “Quiet Americans” and “Radio Silence.” And just last week, John Legend returned with the album he’s been hoping to make for years, Darkness and Light. A more soulful and minimalist effort, Darkness and Light showcases Legend’s extraordinary voice in songs of hope and love. His song for his daughter, “Right By You,” is one of the highlights of 2016.
Which brings us to what I call the elevens, and no, that’s not a Stranger Things reference. In an alternate universe not too different from this one, these six albums are on the top 10 list. They’re all so good that if anyone were to suggest that my actual top 10 picks were lacking and that any of these should be on the list instead, I would not argue. These are the best of the best of the albums that weren’t quite the best, if that makes any sense.
First is Lauren Mann, a relatively unknown Canadian songwriter whose third album, Dearestly, may be the most joyous of 2016. From its opening trilogy about new beginnings and beautiful places to its gorgeous closers about honest love, Dearestly is proof that Lauren Mann should be a household name. Get it from her website here.
After years of wandering a wilderness populated by unlistenable garbage, Radiohead finally made an album I love again. A Moon Shaped Pool is their quietest, most acoustic effort, and their most emotional in a long, long time. Of particular note is “True Love Waits,” a song that waited more than 20 years to find a home on a studio album, and this version – stark, bare except for dueling pianos – was worth every minute. It’s the final grace note on a record that moved me more than I can adequately express.
There were a couple of long-awaited hip-hop returns this year. One of them made it onto the top 10 list, but the other one – A Tribe Called Quest’s tremendous We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service – is just as worthy. A tribute to the departed Phife Dawg, and containing the last verses he recorded during his life, this album stands proudly with Tribe’s best, and caps their legacy perfectly.
I’m not sure what to call Anderson Paak, except underrated. He is soul, he is pop, he is hip-hop, he is all those things intertwined with a sense of the dramatic and a mind for killer arrangements. His second album, Malibu, sounds like Stevie Wonder might have had he been born in 1986, and is a top-to-bottom wonderama of old-school and new-school sounds. Anderson Paak sounds like the future to me.
I’ve been a Cloud Cult fan for years, and I haven’t given them their due in this column. Hopefully I can start making up for that by lauding their fantastic new album, The Seeker. A companion piece to a film of the same name, The Seeker is a conceptual suite about looking for the infinite and finding it in the finite. It’s vast and intimate, with instrumental passages connecting one great, hopeful, heart-on-sleeve song after another. If 2016 has left you in need of something legitimately inspiring, this is an album you need to hear. It’s beautiful.
And finally, from light to darkness, and full circle to the start of this column. We lost David Bowie in January, and since then it has felt like the world has been spinning out of control. A few days before his death, Bowie granted us one last masterpiece. Blackstar is dark and enigmatic, churning and uneasy, and when it was released it didn’t make much sense. The missing puzzle piece that gave Blackstar its shape and its power was Bowie’s own death – he turned his final days into one last glorious performance, on his own terms. This is a difficult record to listen to now, even more so than it was before its author left us, but it’s a stunning one. Bowie’s life was his art, and with Blackstar, he made his death his art as well.
There isn’t much left to say this year. Come back in seven days for the top 10 list. Let’s see this thing out together. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.