Our Wide Eyes Aren’t Naive
The 2016 Top 10 List

Two thousand sixteen was a lousy year in a lot of important ways, and many of those ways will spill over into 2017 and beyond.

I think it’s important to acknowledge this right up front, as I have for the past couple weeks, since I’m going to spend the rest of this column talking about what a tremendous year it was for music. For all the ways this year served up heartache and despair, the music was one thing 2016 got absolutely right. And while we shouldn’t ignore or stop talking about the ways this year repeatedly and viciously knocked us down, spending a little time discussing the good among the bad is healthy and important.

That might be the most pretentious introduction to a top 10 column I’ve ever written, but it felt like the right thing to say. There have been few years I can remember that were as rich, as full, musically speaking, as 2016. On the way to constructing this top 10 list, I created a top 25, and I swear any and all of them deserve end-of-the-year accolades. I had an embarrassment of greatness to choose from when putting this list together, and even now I’m toying with the order, not quite sure how to rank one masterpiece over another.

What ends up happening in years like this, as you will see, is that my personal taste ends up having more influence over the final selections than it does in a year when there are only a few clear favorites. It’ll be difficult, I know, for me to present this list and not seem hopelessly out of touch, but these are my ten favorites, and I can’t hide or deny that. To be fair, there is a critical consensus on the best album of this year, and that album appears in my list. But it’s not at number one, and the albums ahead of it are ones that virtually no one else is talking about. But they have enriched my life and improved my year beyond measure, so there they are, atop this list.

The rules are simple as always. Only original full-length albums released between January 1 and December 31 are eligible for this list, which means no live albums, no repackages, no EPs and no covers albums. Revisions are certainly possible, given the instantaneous nature of record releases these days – I’m posting this on December 20, which means there are still 11 days for something to come out of nowhere and surprise me. I’m less concerned about that this year than I would be in a less phenomenal year for music, since I doubt any of the 10 albums below would be shaken loose from this list that easily. But you never know.

For right now, though, here are my 10 favorite albums of 2016.

#10. Sarah Jarosz, Undercurrent.

It was a splendid year for albums by singer-songwriters of the folk persuasion, and of all of them I heard, Undercurrent is my favorite. Jarosz’ fourth album builds on the beauty of her first three, and offers her strongest set of songs, from the delightful and encouraging “Green Lights” to the dusty “Lost Dog” to the remarkable portrait of Jackie Kennedy (“Jacqueline”) that closes the album. There are no gimmicks here, no bells and whistles, nothing beyond Jarosz’ crystal-clear voice and equally clear songs, and that is all she needs. I’m glad to see Jarosz pick up some Grammy nominations for this album, since I think more people should be talking about it. Undercurrent is often so nakedly beautiful that I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it.

#9. Gungor, One Wild Life.

This one is cheating a little, since Michael and Lisa Gungor’s monumental One Wild Life trilogy began in 2015. But its two most impressive installments came out this year, and rather than choose between them, I’ve offered this spot in the list for the entire work. And it is quite a work: thirty-eight songs separated into three volumes, starting with the airy Soul and segueing into the ‘80s-inspired Spirit and the danceable prog concept album Body. Along the way the Gungors tackle heavy themes, from depression to unity to the poison of bad religion to, in all of Body, what it means to be human, and they do it with deceptively tricky and unfailingly melodic songs, played with giddy excitement. If I Am Mountain was Gungor figuring out what they are capable of, the deliriously ambitious One Wild Life is them taking these newfound capabilities out to play, and reveling in them.

#8. De La Soul, And the Anonymous Nobody.

My favorite of the two long-awaited hip-hop returns this year, edging out the similarly welcome Tribe Called Quest. It’s been a dozen years since De La Soul gifted us with an album, and they’ve never given us one like this before. Funded by Kickstarter and entirely created with organic instruments, And the Anonymous Nobody is simultaneously an old-school hip-hop revival (just check out “Pain,” as effortless a flow as you’ll ever hear) and a completely insane hodgepodge of ideas from outside De La’s already large comfort zone (I still don’t know what to make of the astonishing “Lord Intended”). Over all this, Pos, Dave and Maseo (and a massive complement of guests ranging from Snoop Dogg to David Byrne to Little Dragon) rap about their own legacy and, in the process, fashion an album worthy of that legacy. It’s so good to have them back.

#7. Regina Spektor, Remember Us to Life.

It took seven albums for Russian-born Regina Spektor to make something perfect, but with Remember Us to Life, she’s done it. Every song here sparkles with her unique energy, from the opening singalong “Bleeding Heart” to the closing heartbreaker “The Visit.” Her stories sparkle just as much this time, and she takes each one seriously, crafting them with a consistency that she’s rarely shown. “The Light” is one of the year’s most beautiful and hopeful songs, and epics like “The Trapper and the Furrier” and “Obsolete” practically glow with hard-won wisdom. Even the bonus tracks, like the stunning “New Year,” are wonderful. Spektor has been a singular voice for a long time, and on this album, she finally harnesses that voice to its fullest. It’s a gorgeous thing to behold.

#6. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker.

Unlike David Bowie’s Blackstar, which only made sense in retrospect after his death, Cohen’s swan song almost spelled out its finality in every note. For the entirety of the album, Cohen wrestles with mortality and searches for his lost faith, coming up empty again and again. Cohen spares nothing here, giving us an unfiltered peek into his soul, and it’s a difficult, bleak, dazzling listen. At 82 years old, his voice a low rumble, his body wracked with so much pain that he needed to record vocals sitting down at home, Cohen created one of his finest and most powerful records, and not long after gifting it to us, he left us for good. You Want It Darker is an uncompromising farewell, an achingly beautiful portrait of a man inches from death, sending dispatches back from an undiscovered country. Its existence is a miracle, its author a legend, and I will miss him like crazy.

#5. Beyonce, Lemonade.

This is the one we all agree on. Beyonce’s sixth album shattered all expectations, arriving suddenly as a storm, a fully formed musical and visual feast. To say that the music on Lemonade rises above anything Beyonce has ever shown herself capable of is an understatement. A conceptual piece about a woman discovering her partner’s infidelity, Lemonade manages to jump genres like hurdles while maintaining a remarkable thematic consistency and an emotional resonance. It’s an album that isn’t for me – it is specifically geared toward sharing and celebrating the experience of black women – and yet I haven’t been able to listen to the run of songs from “Love Drought” to the glorious “All Night” without tearing up. An album as important as it is magnificent, Lemonade’s journey from anger to disbelief to strength to reconciliation is one I am beyond grateful to have taken.

#4. Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger.

Paul Simon is 75 years old, but Stranger to Stranger conclusively proves that he remains one of the world’s finest songwriters. A beautiful collection of rhythmic wonderlands, guitar instrumentals and songs of deep meaning, Stranger is a giddily weird thing – there are songs featuring nothing but percussion, and a song arranged for microtonal instruments – but a stunningly creative one so late in Simon’s celebrated career. Best of all, it contains two songs – the title track and the astonishing “Proof of Love” – that stand among the finest and most indelible of his career. I have no idea how Simon is continuing this streak so late in his life, but here’s hoping he keeps it going as long as he can.

#3. Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution.

I bet the Grammy committee had no idea, when they awarded Esperanza Spalding the Best New Artist prize in 2011, that she would ever make an album like this. Spalding made her name as an acoustic jazz bassist, but on Emily’s, she rips up everything she’d become known for, delivering a loud electric soul-pop-prog album of staggering proportions. It’s an elusive record, taking time to sink in – the grooves are tricky, the vocal lines elliptical, the arrangements full and elaborate. But once it takes hold, it’s unshakeable. “Unconditional Love” is one of the best hum-along pop songs of the year, “Good Lava” an opening salvo of molten energy that will knock you flat, “Ebony and Ivy” a socially conscious powerhouse. She even reinvents Veruca Salt’s anthem from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “I Want It Now.” The top three this year all share a predilection toward defining their own careers on their own terms, and with this phenomenal album, Spalding personifies that ethos. She’s come into her own, and this album is unreal.

#2. The Dear Hunter, Act V: Hymns with the Devil in Confessional.

For a very long time, this album topped this year’s list, and I’m still not absolutely sure it shouldn’t be in the number one spot. I really don’t know of anything else like the Acts series, a six-volume rock opera in progress that nimbly incorporates a dozen different musical styles in the service of a complex story about identity and the choices that make us who we are. Casey Crescenzo, the band’s mastermind, has been telling this story for a decade now, planting clues and callbacks like a master, and Act V is perhaps his finest work. It’s spellbinding – like Act IV, this one takes you by the hand at the beginning and leads you through all 73 minutes with perfect confidence. Crescenzo works in dark blues, Michael Buble-style jazz-pop, full-on Broadway sweep and some of the most fitfully amazing lead guitar playing you’ll find anywhere, and he always stays on the right side of ridiculous, delivering an emotionally resonant climax to his story. The cumulative effect of all five Acts gives the final five songs here a force that I can’t explain in words. It’s like coming to the end of a particularly well-thought-out epic film, and hearing Act V brings new meaning to much of the previous four Acts. In many ways, the Acts series is one of the most impressive, remarkable achievements in modern music, and I cannot wait for the concluding chapter (whatever form it will take), and for what Casey Crescenzo does next.

I would not argue with anyone who considers Act V the best album of the year. In many ways, it is. But given the year that we’ve had, I felt compelled to choose something else.

#1. Marillion, Fuck Everyone and Run.

Of everything I heard this year, Marillion’s 18th album sounds the most like 2016 to me. It’s an angry, haunted, uneasy thing, dangling from a precipice and about to drop, staring at the oncoming storm and pleading with the townspeople to listen and evacuate. It captures the moment between Brexit and the Trump election, and what may have seemed bleak and paranoid a few months ago now feels prophetic. Fear is what brought us to this place, and the people who run the world (the people Steve Hogarth calls “The New Kings”) will use that fear to enrich themselves and control all of us. We didn’t listen, the storm is here, and Fuck Everyone and Run now feels like the most important piece of music anyone made this year.

Of course, it’s also a masterpiece in its own right. From its bold title to its structure – the bulk of the album rests on three long, subdivided pieces – this is unlike any Marillion album before it. “El Dorado” may be the best song that anyone released in 2016 – it’s about the ways money makes us worse, from the point of view of a man watching a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon of his pleasant English walled garden. Live, the band treats “El Dorado” like a piece of classical music, hushing applause and drawing the audience’s attention to the quieter parts, and when it arrives at its bravura four-minute climax, Hogarth spitting out lyrics about how “the wars are all about money, they always were, and the money’s wrapped up in religion,” it’s breathtaking.

Fuck Everyone and Run is the epitome of the Marillion Effect, meaning it sounds meandering and unfocused at first, but as you get to know it, it comes alive and inhabits your world like little else. The theme of the album makes itself known over time as well – that personal fears lead to global catastrophes if we don’t face them. In the more intimate pieces “The Leavers” and “White Paper,” Hogarth talks about his own fears of isolation, rootlessness, age and irrelevance, and extrapolates those into the first-person unease of “El Dorado” and the widescreen horror of “The New Kings,” perhaps the sharpest song of the year. (“Remember a time when you thought that you mattered, believed in the school song, die for your country, a country that cared for you?”) Musically, the band has never been more intricate, and has never followed the shape of Hogarth’s words more completely.

But there is hope here as well, in a gem of a song called “Living in FEAR.” It’s sequenced second, before the worst of the storm, and that’s on purpose, but it gives instructions on dealing with the world to come: “We’ve decided to start melting our guns as a show of strength, we’ve decided to leave our doors unlocked…” It’s not naive, Hogarth sings, and the rest of the rest of the album bears him out. It is facing the world with wide eyes, meeting it with love, tearing down walls instead of building them up. In the song’s joyous coda, Hogarth runs down a list of some of the most famous walls mankind has constructed to keep each other out, and dismisses them as “a waste of time.” It’s a bold act of defiance, and if we want to survive what’s coming, we need to live it.

In the coming years I think we’ll see more albums like Fuck Everyone and Run, taking stock of this new world and figuring out ways to navigate it. At the moment, I can’t imagine I will love or appreciate any of them as much as I do this one, from one of my very favorite bands. It’s been a tough year, and it’s about to get even tougher, and if music is one of the ways we’ll get through it, then Marillion is ahead of the curve, as always. Fuck Everyone and Run is brilliant, scary and utterly amazing, and is for my money the best album of 2016.

That’ll do it. Tune in next week for Fifty Second Week as we bid this year farewell together. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.

Honorables and Also-Rans
The Not-Quite-But-So-Close Top 10 List

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.

December Surprises
Late-Year Winners from John Legend and Kate Bush

Hard as it is to believe, my 2016 top 10 list will be published in two weeks.

Which makes this a weird time in the life of an obsessive, list-making music fan. By all rights, I should be done with my ranking, and I should be writing the column. But the anal retentive part of my brain (and let’s be honest, that’s most of my brain) continually reminds me that there are whole weeks left in 2016, and someone could release the album of the year during those weeks. There’s still time to upend my entire list. And if you don’t believe me, check out Black Messiah, the fantastic album from D’Angelo and the Vanguard that was released on Dec. 15 last year, a full nine days after this post will hit the web.

So rather than spend my time taking stock of the year in music, I’m spending it hearing every last thing I can, keeping an ear out for that late-breaking gem or that forgotten masterpiece. Much as I complain about having to revise the top 10 list (and to be clear, I don’t think I’m going to have to do that this year), I love these December surprises. I love being surprised any time during the year, of course, but I’m especially attuned to it in these final weeks, when I’m already thinking about sussing out the best of the best.

And to be fair, sometimes I can see the surprises coming. A new album from the great John Legend would be on my radar anyway, so when I saw one scheduled for Dec. 2, I cleared some mental space for it. Legend is one of my favorite singers – he’s in the old-school balladeer mode, like Nat King Cole, possessed of a velvety yet powerful voice that he uses to just sing the notes, rather than pirouette around them like an acrobat. He’s the opposite of the American Idol method of singer – for Legend, the songs are the bedrock, and it’s enough just to sing them.

I’ve been a fan since Get Lifted in 2004, but it wasn’t until Wake Up, his amazing collaboration with The Roots, that I was in forever. While I liked Love in the Future, Legend’s 2013 effort, I can see why some considered it too far along the pop spectrum. It’s a course Legend has well and truly corrected for his fantastic sixth album, Darkness and Light. Here is John Legend the serious songwriter, combining his sensual love songs with the more political sensibilities he exhibits as a guest on Real Time and other shows. It’s as strong a set of songs as he’s ever given us.

And he’s assembled a strong team to realize them. Blake Mills, who produced the second Alabama Shakes album, is behind the boards as producer, and Legend’s crack band includes bass (ahem) legend Pino Palladino, keyboardist Zac Rae, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and former Punch Brother Rob Moose on string arrangements. Brittany Howard of the aforementioned Alabama Shakes sings as only she can on the album’s title track, Chance the Rapper turns up on “Penthouse Floor,” and Miguel takes a spot at the microphone on “Overload.” But mostly, the focus is on minimal instrumentation and Legend’s astonishing voice.

That voice has rarely been better than it is on the opening track, “I Know Better.” A gospel-tinged mission statement for the album, “I Know Better” contains some of his most honest and open lyrics. “They say sing what you know, but I’ve sung what they want, some folks do what they’re told, but this time I won’t,” he croons at the start, then admits “Legend is just a name, I know better than to be so proud, I won’t drink in all this fame or take more love than I’m allowed.” The simple piano and organ tones shimmy into “Penthouse Floor,” with its unsinkable groove. Legend sings about protests in the streets, and the tendency of news media to ignore them: “They float above the city lights, forget the truth, inhale the lies, they see us reaching for the sky just in order to survive, maybe we should go to the penthouse floor…” It’s a glowing, danceable celebration of justice, and not even Chance the Rapper can ruin it.

There are few pleasures I would put next to hearing Legend and Brittany Howard trade off impassioned vocals. Man, “Darkness and Light” is good. The album never hits the heights of that song again, but it trades in subtler pleasures. My favorite is probably “Right By You,” written for his daughter Luna and sporting a slinky piano part that gets stuck in my head. The strings take center stage on pulsing pop song “What You Do to Me,” and on beautiful love song “Surefire.” Closer “Marching into the Dark” matches its swaying groove to lyrics about loss. Every song is strong, every performance top of the line.

Darkness and Light is my favorite kind of late-year surprise, the kind I’ll be listening to well into next year. John Legend remains one of the best singers we have, and with this record he’s put in a further bid to be taken seriously as an artist. It’s an easy bid to accept after just one or two listens to this thing. Hopefully it won’t get lost amid the end-of-the-year lists and rankings. It deserves some attention.

* * * * *

‘Tis the season for multi-disc live albums, and I’m buying more than a few, as usual. But there’s one I’ve been waiting for, and it’s at least as good as I was hoping it would be.

If I were the kind of person to keep a list of regrets, not seeing Kate Bush on her most recent tour would be on that list. Thankfully, she’s decided to give us a three-CD memento of that show in all its thematic glory. The album, Before the Dawn, is divided into three acts, like the live show – the first act strings various songs together; the second dramatizes The Ninth Wave, the second side of her monumental The Hounds of Love album; and the third recites all of A Sky of Honey, the second disc of her 2005 masterpiece Aerial. Together they tell a story, and even though there will be no visual accompaniment to Before the Dawn (for some reason), that story rings out loud and clear.

The first disc is where the hits live, if Bush can be said to have hits. Her material has always been on the delightful side of odd, dramatic and powerful and quirky, and here she focuses on her most widescreen songs. She opens with “Lily,” from 1993’s The Red Shoes, and her superb band gives this one the expansive treatment it always deserved. My main quibble with this album is the mastering – it’s so low that the sweeping nature of these tunes is muted. Perhaps that’s a limitation of the live recording, but I can’t understand why it would be. Judicious use of the volume knob will fix most of the problems, but it’s a shame that music this loud, with so much nuance, is mixed so quiet.

The first disc is great, Bush slipping back into these songs as if no time has passed, but it’s in the second and third disc that the story emerges, and the show takes flight. The Ninth Wave has always been a curious thing, spinning the tale of a woman marooned at sea and imagining her family, saying goodbye to them in her mind. Here the 26-minute piece is extended to 42 minutes, with dialogue and new pieces of music, and it’s amazing. “Under Ice” remains chilling (no pun… yeah, you’re not buying it), “Watching You Without Me” is still sad and lovely, “Hello Earth” an ambitious epic, and “The Morning Fog” a jubilant finale. It remains Bush’s most poignant and successful conceptual piece, and here it’s realized perfectly.

And that it leads into A Sky of Honey is beautiful. Having been through a traumatic experience, slipping into an extended suite about an idyllic afternoon, a peaceful and glorious hour-plus about just being, is a healing balm. It describes Bush as she is now, settling into middle age, her days of struggle behind her, happy and grateful for what she has. She stages A Sky of Honey as a dialogue between herself and the unnamed painter that captures the perfect afternoon for her. The painter is played by Jon Carin, who has performed with David Gilmour, and he gets a new song (“Tawny Moon”) to himself. A Sky of Honey is now an hour long, and while it isn’t the most melodically interesting piece of music Bush has penned, its peaceful and contented vibes carry it forward.

Bush ends the third act with a pair of encores: “Among Angels,” the lovely last track from her most recent album, 50 Words for Snow; and the classic “Cloudbusting.” Both conclude the story of the show with hope and delight. As Bush receives what I can only imagine are standing ovations at the end of each of the acts, she seems surprised at the crowd’s reaction. Perhaps she’s forgetting that she’s Kate Bush, and that not every performer lavishes such attention on the concept and meaning behind their shows. Before the Dawn is fantastic, and even though the album only renews my wish to have seen the show, I’m glad it exists. I’m glad Kate Bush exists, too, and I hope we hear more from her soon.

* * * * *

That will wrap up the new reviews for the year. Next week, some honorable mentions. A week after that, the top 10 list. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

In the Bleak Mid-Winter
Comfort and Joy from Christmas Music

Christmas is my favorite time of year, and I expect that to be doubly true this year.

I don’t know about you, but I could use some good tidings of comfort and joy. It’s been a hard year, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get easier anytime soon. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to heading east and being with family and friends, eating home-cooked meals, giving gifts, even just sitting alone in rooms full of Christmas lights. And then I’m looking forward to bidding this year adieu, because I’ve kind of had it with it. (We lost Florence Henderson on Thanksgiving and then Ron Glass, the immortal Shepherd Book, a few days later, just to add to the ever-growing list of death I wrote about last week.)

If you know me, you know I love Christmas music most of all. You also know that ordinarily I have a rule: no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, and then only until Christmas day itself. This has traditionally been my protest against the “Christmas creep” in stores and everywhere one looks, and also a way of making myself appreciate the music more. But this year I broke that rule, and I did so for a couple of reasons. One, my girlfriend loves Christmas more than I do, and started blasting the carols weeks ago. Two, I’m in the band at our church, and we’re practicing Christmas songs already. But three, and probably most importantly, I needed it, like I need a warm blanket on a cold night.

So I’ve been indulging in the Bing Crosby and the Frank Sinatra and the Sufjan Stevens Christmas box sets and that glorious Noel album my friends in the Choir put out in the ‘90s. I’ve been listening to more recent favorites, like Timbre’s extraordinary Silent Night and Aimee Mann’s Christmas record. I even pulled out Made in Aurora Vol. II, a local holiday compilation that I contributed to, and was struck again by how terrific it is. Basically, it’s all Christmas all the time in my house right now, and it’s helping.

As usual, I picked up a few new Christmas albums this year, and I’ve been alternating between them and old favorites. I usually don’t expect too much from new Christmas albums, but this year’s batch is a tasty one. Let’s start with the weakest of them, although it’s still pretty good: Christmas Party, by She & Him.

I’m not sure even M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel expected their novelty collaboration to still be going eight years and six albums later, but here they are with their second Christmas collection, five years after their first. The sound remains the same as always – Ward’s guitar-based old-time arrangements supporting Deschanel’s pleasant yet limited voice. There’s a hint of karaoke to what they do, but I expect that they’re aware of it, and they’re just having a good time. And Christmas Party, barring a couple sad-sack tunes, is a good time.

I read a piece last year about the Christmas canon, and how it is no longer expanding. The last Christmas song that truly entered that canon, this author suggested, was Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” released back in 1994. As if to prove that theory right, Ward and Deschanel start their album with a low-key version of it, and it sounds like a classic. Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth is on drums, Jenny Lewis sings backing vocals, it is as hipster as hipster can be, and yet it never sounds ironic to me. It’s just a good song performed well, like most of this album.

Other highlights include their renditions of “Winter Wonderland,” the Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka” and the delightful “Marshmallow World,” popularized by Bing Crosby in 1950. The album ends with a shuffling take on “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” otherwise known as “The Chipmunk Song,” and as played and sung straight here, it’s quite a nice tune. The benefit of making your second Christmas album is that it forces you to go deeper, to mine songs that many may not know. She & Him certainly do that here, and they offer a wistful and sweet Christmas music diversion. Looking forward to hearing what they uncover for their third such effort.

Also on her second Christmas album is Sarah McLachlan, whose voice was made for this sort of thing. Wonderland is exactly what you might expect, particularly if what you’re expecting is something that is often heart-stoppingly pretty. For Wonderland, McLachlan worked with her usual team of Pierre Marchand and ex-husband Ashwin Sood, but brought in a group of superb Canadian jazz performers. You can hear them in full glory on opener “The Christmas Song,” that old Mel Torme chestnut. This rendition features gorgeous piano playing by Jerome Beaulieu and fleet-fingered upright bass work by Philippe Leduc. McLachlan rarely gets to sing over something so nimble, and she makes the most of it.

The rest of the record follows suit, and is often just the prettiest thing you can imagine. “White Christmas” is here, performed just on guitar and trumpet, McLachlan filling in the spaces with her voice. She’s accompanied by an orchestra for takes on “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silver Bells,” as well as on a song that was unfamiliar to me, the lovely “Huron Carol.” Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright turn up to sing, and Harris especially sounds marvelous on “Away in a Manger” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” Canadian rock band Half Moon Run provides instrumentation here too.

The album closes with my favorite carol, and one of my favorite all-time melodies, “O Holy Night.” McLachlan has actually improved as a singer since her ‘90s heyday, and she does the song sweet justice. There’s nothing about Wonderland I don’t like. It’s like curling up under the covers on a snowy night.

For a more uncomfortable experience, there’s Dark Sacred Night, the first Christmas album by David Bazan. Just the existence of this thing is a surprise, given Bazan’s feelings on Christianity in general, and it’s that tension that illuminates his versions of songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silent Night.” This album was recorded at home, sparsely and in pieces, for sporadic single releases for more than a decade. That doesn’t make it any less compelling – Bazan is often at his best when he’s at his most naked, as he is here.

The album opens with an original, “All I Want for Christmas,” which turns out to be “peace on Earth.” Bazan sings that phrase on repeat over a mournful piano, and drives his point home with a strummy take on John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” He’s alone with his guitar on “Away in a Manger” and a faraway, sad take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Bazan writes his own third verse, which finds him “sipping Christmas whiskey and wondering if I still believe,” turning this carol into the lament of a grieving doubter. It’s powerful stuff.

Similarly, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day becomes, in Bazan’s hands, a dark exhortation to be the change we want to see. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, we’re only what we sow and reap, if we ever are to get along then we ourselves must right the wrongs,” he sings, and these are actually the original lyrics – Bazan only added his own world-weariness to them. Bazan’s “Silent Night” is vicious and unflinching, taking aim at violence done in the baby Jesus’ name. When he does “O Little Town of Bethlehem” straight, it’s almost a surprise. He performs it with as much reverence as he does Low’s magnificent “Long Way Around the Sea,” from their Christmas album.

Dark Sacred Night ends with another Bazan original, and this one is the most difficult to listen to. It’s called “Wish My Kids Were Here,” and it spins the tale of a man separated from his children on Christmas (“They live with their mom in Alabama and I live with my girlfriend in Nashville, Tennessee”), and his struggle to make it through the day. “So I go awhile and fake a smile and drink and drink and drink,” Bazan sings, and it hurts. If you’re looking for a warm and nostalgic Christmas record, this would not be it. But if you want something that challenges the idea of what a Christmas record should be, Dark Sacred Night is strong and arresting, like all of Bazan’s work.

My taste in Christmas music runs more toward the joyous, so it’s no surprise to me that my favorite of a good lot this year is from Josh Garrels. An imposing figure with a powerful voice, Garrels writes lovely songs that explore faith and beauty. The Light Came Down is his first Christmas album, a mix of new takes on traditional songs and originals that depict the birth of Christ in poetic language. The opening title track is one of those, as Garrels sings “the light came down, cast the darkness away” over stirring strings and martial drums. The song so encapsulates everything I would expect from a Josh Garrels Christmas number – there’s a falsetto section, and a choir, and everything – that you may wonder where he goes for the next 14 songs.

Thankfully, the answer is “pretty much the same place.” Garrels sings “What Child is This” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “O Holy Night” like the hymns they are, set in absolutely gorgeous foundations of guitar and strings. His elastic voice takes old classic “The Virgin Mary Had One Son” dancing, and simply electrifies “Gloria,” another swell original. Like his masterpiece Love and War and the Sea In Between, Garrels ends The Light Came Down with a suite of songs that lay out his vision of the meaning of Christmas, which includes “Silent Night” but also a stunning version of the Brilliance’s “May You Find a Light.” It’s such a beautiful song, and I’m glad someone of Garrels’ caliber noticed it and ran with it.

The album concludes with a pair of hymns. Garrels simply shines on “O Day of Peace,” a song that wraps up all that has come before in a lovely bow, and his own “Come to Him” is a perfect coda. The Light Came Down is everything I thought it would be, and is the most hopeful thing I have heard in a long time.

And really, that is what I need from my Christmas music – a sense of hope, of love, of peace, particularly now, particularly this year. I’m not sure that my days will be merry and bright, but listening to this and other Christmas records this week has made them considerably merrier and brighter. I hope that for all of you as well.

Next week, the last reviews of the year. Can’t believe we’re here already. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Good Grief
Music as Therapy and Remembrance

Am I ready to talk about music again?

I’m not sure. The past two weeks have felt like an extended wake, like swimming through grief. I know that sounds melodramatic, but two weeks ago, I thought I knew what the country I live in and love was. We were basically good, caring people who would see the racism and xenophobia proffered by one of our candidates and we would certainly, certainly not choose to side with it. We were conscious of our place in the world, and conscious of the harm such a vote could do it. We were mostly kind to people, looking out for one another, and sure, there were plenty of people stuck in a time of old prejudices and hatreds, but that wasn’t most of us. Most of us would stand up against that.

And now I just don’t know. We’re clearly not who I thought we were, and it hurts to find that out. With every white supremacist and anti-gay activist added to the cabinet, with every policy-level discussion of a national registry of Muslims, with every step closer to unthinkable horror, I’m just not sure what America is anymore. I’m sure some of you think this is hyperbole, and those of us asking these questions should just calm down. But this is real grief, and it feels like something important has been lost. I’m actually terrified of where we will go in the next four years.

So am I ready to talk about music again? I’ve had difficulty concentrating on anything but my sadness and anger lately, as those who know me can attest. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two weeks angry, and trying to push on through. Music always helps with that – if I can have an outlet, a way to let some of those emotions out without inflicting them on anyone else, it’s like therapy. I’ve been listening to Marillion’s FEAR a lot lately. It sounds prescient to me now, like it predicted this storm. We’re living for the new kings, indeed.

And there’s a new Metallica album out. I’ve been a metalhead since I was 14 years old – my first real obsession in that realm was …And Justice for All, which I still have memorized. The Big Four (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer) occupied a huge chunk of my developing brain, and I’ve kept track of all of them. Perhaps coincidentally, all four of them are now riding late-career-defining albums, thrashing like it’s 1988 again. Metallica is the last of the four to step forward with something new, and the one I worried about the most. Sometime in the ‘90s they lost their own plot, paving the way for Nickelback with slower singalongs and doing whatever the hell that was with Lou Reed. (The less said about Lulu the better, honestly.)

It would take a lot to come back from all that, and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, the band’s 10th album, gives it everything it can. It’s 77 minutes long, split up over two discs (for some reason), and it features some of their loudest and fastest material since the ‘80s. The first disc is tightest – listening to “Hardwired” and “Atlas Rise” back to back helps me scream some of that shaking rage out. “Moth Into Flame” does it for me too, Lars Ulrich and Robert Trujillo locking into a killer groove. The second disc is a little harder to get through – the more progressive tendencies come out here, with long songs that stick to a slower tempo. Songs like “Here Comes Revenge” and “Murder One” blend into one another, and take too long to say too little.

But like all classic Metallica albums, this one ends with its heaviest piece. “Spit Out the Bone” is pure snarling fire, its lyrics imagining a mechanical dystopia in which humans are chewed up and discarded. This is exactly what I needed right now – the metal heroes from my past giving me something scary and relevant to shout along with. Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is not exactly a healing balm, but it’s Metallica’s most convincing slab of anger in years, and right now, I’ll take it.

* * * * *

Honestly, though, if people would stop dying, that would help me with the being less sad thing.

It’s only been a couple weeks since Leonard Cohen left us, and that wound is still raw. His You Want It Darker is destined for my top 10 list this year, and is a completely new experience now that he’s left us. Since Cohen’s exit, we’ve also lost Leon Russell and Gwen Ifill. My parents had Russell’s Carny on LP when I was growing up, and it was one of the first albums I heard. The cover still makes me think of my mom’s basement, where the turntable lived. He was one of a kind. And Gwen Ifill, well. My previous chosen career has lost one of its brightest lights.

And just a couple days ago, Sharon Jones died. I owe my Dap-Kings fandom to Jeff Elbel, who introduced me to Jones and her authentic old-school soul. I knew Jones had been struggling with cancer for a while, but she seemed on the rebound. Her loss, at a mere 60 years old, is a massive one for fans of real, down and dirty soul music. She kept that flame alive like few others. Last year Jones and the Dap-Kings put out what will likely be their final album, a Christmas platter called It’s a Holiday Soul Party. In her honor, I broke my rule about not listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving, and spun it three times. It remains wonderful. I’m going to miss Sharon Jones like crazy.

Add these names to a list that includes David Bowie and Prince and Alan Rickman and Merle Haggard and Keith Emerson and Lemmy and Gene Wilder and George Martin and so many others. And of course, that list includes Phife Dawg of the immortal A Tribe Called Quest. Tribe’s influence on the evolution of hip-hop in the ‘90s can’t be overstated, and like a lot of people, I figured their legacy was set in stone with Phife’s passing. Little did we all know that, like Bowie and Cohen, Phife spent his last days working on what he knew would be the last album of his life.

And now it’s here – Tribe’s sixth and final effort, blessed with the year’s best title: We Got It from Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. I’m not sure what kind of posthumous hodge-podge I was expecting, but this is a full-blooded Tribe album, one that sounds quite different from anything they’ve done, but still stands with their best work. Phife and Q-Tip sound like they’ve spent no time apart since 1998, falling into their easy and impressive lyrical camaraderie. Eschewing the more modern method of file-swapping across long distances, We Got It from Here was recorded all at Q-Tip’s house, and you can feel the energy – the emcees dart around each other, finishing each other’s thoughts, rolling and tumbling together. Everyone involved knew this would be the last dance, and they made the most of it.

Even the guest stars, like unofficial Tribe member Busta Rhymes, are on fire here. The list includes Anderson Paak, Andre 3000, Jack White, Talib Kweli and Kendrick Lamar, and they all seem honored to participate. This is a typically socially conscious Tribe album, addressing the state of the world with trademark ferocity. It’s interesting to hear a song like “We the People,” which must have been written before Trump’s election, but feels so much scarier now. “All you black folks, you must go,” Q-Tip sings, taking on the persona of a racist dictator. “All you Mexicans, you must go, and all you poor folks, you must go, Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways…” Phife laments “the fog and the smog of news media that logs false narratives of gods that came up against the odds…”

Phife’s impending absence is mentioned more than once, too, giving this album a hollow, ghostly feel. “Lost Somebody” is Q-Tip’s goodbye letter to his friend (“No more crying, he’s in sunshine”) and is a tough listen for those who grew up with this team. (Can I mention how absolutely amazing Q-Tip is here? He makes the case for himself as one of the best and most interesting rappers alive, spitting fire when he has to and spreading tenderness when he can.) The album ends with a song called “The Donald” that has nothing to do with Trump – it’s a reference to Don Juice, one of Phife’s many names, and the song is a final tribute to him. “We gon’ celebrate him, elevate him, give him his and don’t debate him, top dog is the way to rate him,” Q-Tip raps. The final words on the album are, fittingly, Phife Dawg’s name.

Does this help with the grief, to look it right in the face? I think so. I connected with the likes of Cohen more than with Phife, but listening to both of these final statements has been illuminating. Both men knew they were pushing out the boat for the last time, and swam through pain to complete one last bit of beauty. That’s the best we can hope for – to add as much beauty as we can to the world, and to stare down death while doing it. Grief is good, grief is healthy, but after a while, grief fades to a dull ache, and life moves on. Those who came before us can inspire us, but we’re the ones who have to do the work, and we have a lot to do.

Next week, Christmas music.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

There is a Crack in Everything
That's How the Light Gets In

I don’t have a lot for you this week.

It’s been an emotionally exhausting seven days for me, and for a lot of us. I’ve gone through a period of deep sadness followed by one of fiery anger, and while both are not now quite as overwhelming as they’ve been, I’m hoping to hang on to those emotions and channel them into something good. To me this has always been about more than politics, more than left and right. It’s been about who we want to be as a country, and what we will accept. The grief comes from realizing that we’re not who I thought we were.

But understanding that doesn’t mean accepting it. This may be who we are, but we can still stand against it, still decide for each one of us what we will accept, and what we won’t. For me, the deep divisions and racially motivated hatred that have been brought to the fore and legitimized by this election process are things I will not accept, and I know I need to work harder at fighting them. We are not who we thought we were, but I am who I decide to be. We all are.

The week began with the most horrific election result of my lifetime, and in the middle of all of that – as if it were not already emotionally wrenching – we lost Leonard Cohen. Others will eulogize Cohen better than I will, but I have unfailingly found him an incisive and powerful writer, one of the finest lyricists I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve always responded to his struggles with faith and mortality. His voice, even before the ravages of age turned it into a superhuman rumble, has always spoken with deep authority and power, and he has used that voice to expose the heart of what it means to be human, more times than I can count.

It strikes me that the bloody 2016 began with David Bowie delivering his final album, and as it lurched to a close, Leonard Cohen gave us his last record, the incredible You Want It Darker. Like Bowie’s Blackstar, it’s an album that takes on new and heartbreaking resonance in the wake of its author’s death. It’s a portrait of a man ready to see what lies beyond, and wrestling with the idea that it might be nothing. It’s a bleak and difficult and mesmerizing record, and I’m so grateful it exists, particularly now. I’m going to miss Leonard Cohen in ways I probably don’t even realize yet.

I know it’s been quoted too many times since his death, but the chorus of “Anthem” remains among my favorite Cohen lyrics, and it’s a sorely needed sentiment now:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

As the long and exhausting week wore on, one of my good friends who has been dreading the exact result we got posted his own words about light. He’s fond of calling himself “the night” and affecting a dark and miserable persona online, although those who know him know that he is one of the most encouraging people alive. What could have been an excuse for him to grow even darker and lash out at the world turned into an opportunity to inspire, in the strangest way: he posted the Oath of the Green Lanterns. (Like me, he’s a huge comic book nerd.)

If you don’t know the oath, here it is: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight, let those who worship evil’s might beware my power, Green Lantern’s light.” It is, as he says, a cheesy saying from a lesser-known superhero. But somehow I found it impossibly moving that he posted this, and followed it up with his desire to seek hope. “I am the light,” he said. “The world has enough night.” I’m tearing up just thinking about it. The election may have shown us who we are, but this is who we can be, if we want to.

The world has enough night.

We’re the light.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Voice of Hope
Tom Chaplin Crawls Back to the Light

Today is election day, and I’m so anxious about it I could chew my own arm off.

I long ago swore off being political in this space. But this election – the most important of my lifetime, easily – goes beyond politics to me. It’s a question of which America we want to live in, one governed by fear or one striving for unity and hope. The idea that we might, with one vote, choose to rocket backwards into a darker age has kept me up at night, shaking. As a certain late-night host said, I feel like I’m waiting for the x-rays to come back, dreading the news. I’ll be very happy when this dread-inducing cloud of unknown is gone, whatever the outcome.

As for that outcome, I’m going to take my cue from my good friend Mike Ferrier. Here is Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Here is Donald Trump’s speech from the Republican National Convention. If you ignore all the nasty rhetoric, the scandals (trumped-up and otherwise), the sinking sense that our national discourse has tunneled straight through rock bottom, and just focus on the two candidates (also ignoring third-party candidates, since they cannot win) and their visions of and for the country, the choice is stark and clear. Which of these speeches reflects the America you see around you? Which one reflects the America you want to live in?

In closing, please vote. It’s so, so important, this time more than ever. Voting is your voice. Please use it.

* * * * *

I had this whole segue here about voices, tying my voting plea into the two albums I have this week, each led by an instantly recognizable voice. But that’s weak and flimsy and I know it. Really, I just don’t want to talk or think about the election anymore, and would rather talk about two records I like. Hope you will indulge me, and you won’t in any way think I’m trivializing or minimizing this election. This is a silly music column, after all, so let’s talk about music.

It will be hard for me not to discuss voices, though, especially in this first case. Tom Chaplin is the voice of Keane, and is still, for my money, one of the most underrated singers working. I’ve seen Keane live half a dozen times, and each time I’m blown away by Chaplin’s power and control. He’s able to sing any melody thrown at him, even ones that demand incredible range and contain tricky intervals, with seeming ease. Dismiss a song like “Love Is the End” as fluff if you must, but that sucker is hard to sing, and Chaplin makes it sound natural.

Keane in general is often ignored as an artistic force, simply because they write straightforward songs with plain-spoken lyrics. Their hearts are always on their sleeves, and always wide open, and this has led to many writing them off as a Coldplay knockoff, or a lightweight pop act. I’ve always heard them in a different way. Keane’s songs are melodically astonishing, making full use of Chaplin’s voice, and beneath that plain language lies genuine emotion. Their high water mark, 2006’s Under the Iron Sea, is basically their Rumours, a series of songs written by pianist Tim Rice-Oxley about Chaplin – his drug problems, his unreliability as a friend and bandmate – and then sung by Chaplin as if that were the most common thing in the world.

Turns out Chaplin’s addictions only got worse, to the point where he nearly died in early 2015, following the start of the band’s current hiatus. He sought help, and slowly put his life back together, writing songs as he did. He then joined up with Aqualung himself, Matt Hales, to record those songs, newly sober and with a new outlook on life. The result is The Wave, a record of inspirational anthems and beautiful laments, one that traffics in that same simple language to deliver a sweeping, soaring, hard-won optimism.

By themselves, the lyrics on this album won’t win any awards. “It’s such a beautiful world, so why do I feel so down,” he asks on first single “Hardened Heart.” “Hurting everyone I know, bringing everybody down so low, stuck along a road of sadness with nowhere to go.” Two songs later he’s dealing with his pain: “The undercurrent is stronger today, this time it’s different I’ll keep it at bay.” He lets it all go on “Bring the Rain”: “Spring, spring, a new beginning, till the earth is fit to burst and springing into life.” He repairs his bridges on “Solid Gold” (“You’ll never be lonely, never lonely, not again, I’m letting you in”) and reaches out to others, secure in himself, on “Quicksand”: “If you crash land in the quicksand, I will pick you up, I will pull you out.”

But you can tell, in every line, that Chaplin means these words from the bottom of everything he is. These are simpler songs than he gets to sing with Keane, but he sings them as if his life depends on it. Just listen to his performance on the great “I Remember You,” one of the more guitar-driven, upbeat pieces here. He just nails it, taking that melody to school while the bass and guitars dance behind him. I’ll be forever grateful that Chaplin and Hales found each other, because that pristine Aqualung production keeps the voice front and center and builds gleaming structures beneath it. Hales brings his electronic edge to a couple of these songs, most notably “The River,” but for the most part he keeps it grounded in piano and guitar. Just listen to “Bring the Rain.” That thing is pretty much perfect, and Chaplin takes his best swing and connects.

Throughout The Wave, Chaplin sounds refreshed, renewed, clear-eyed and hopeful. I’m overjoyed by that, and not just because he owns one of my favorite voices. This year has given us plenty of reason to despair, and The Wave is an album-length reason to celebrate. Its tales of healing and redemption are sorely needed – or, at least, I sorely needed them, and I’m so very glad to have them. Chaplin could have ended up yet another casualty of the bloody 2016, but he didn’t. He crawled back, he forced open the door and walked out into the sunlight, and he’s written down his tale, and then sung it to the skies. The Wave is a liberating album, and I’m glad that it exists.

* * * * *

Speaking of voices I will never tire of, there’s Hope Sandoval.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t predict the return of Mazzy Star three years ago, or how good their reunion album, Seasons of Your Day, would be. It captured their unique style – part southern drawl, part shoegaze-y ambience – perfectly, in a way that no other band has been able to imitate. A big part of that style is Sandoval, whose shy-girl voice is the perfect complement to the band’s Patsy Cline-meets-Slowdive sound.

Sandoval’s solo work is always closer to Cline, but her third album with her band the Warm Inventions, Until the Hunter, strikes that balance nicely. Once again, Sandoval works with My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O Ciosoig, and for the first time as a solo artist she lets these songs breathe and stretch out. Opener “Into the Trees” is a nine-minute dirge, floating on menacing, droning organ notes while Sandoval’s breathy voice floats out and around them. “Let Me Get There” is a sloppy two-chord bar band number that Sandoval sings with Kurt Vile, and the band rides that loping groove for seven and a half minutes.

Around these experiments we get more of what Sandoval does best – pretty acoustic pieces. “Day Disguise” is a sparse meander, her guitar delicately pirouetting beneath her while her voice draws you in. It’s absolutely gorgeous. “Treasure” brings the full band in behind her, but barely makes any more noise. Tender strings caress “The Hiking Song.” The album never really rises above a whisper, but it’s a sun-through-the-trees-in-autumn kind of whisper. It is an album of details, of tiny moments instead of sweeping gestures. It’s a finger to the lips, a quiet walk through the trees, and even the full-band blues of the closing song, “Liquid Lady,” doesn’t break the spell.

Hope Sandoval is unlike anyone else I know, and she makes albums of uncommon patience and reverence. Listening to one of her works is like stepping into another universe, like listening to some strange intersection of Twin Peaks and the Cowboy Junkies. Whether or not Mazzy Star continues, I hope Sandoval (see what I did there?) keeps making these strange, sprawling, lovely little records for many years to come.

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That’s it for this week. Again, please vote. Next week, a new president-elect, and a couple new records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The October Project Part Last
Opening Acts, Main Events and Tributes

It turns out that the (temporary) cure for pre-election stress is to see Marillion play. Twice.

It’s been four years since Marillion played Chicago, and nearly two since I drove more than a thousand miles to Montreal to be part of my first Marillion weekend. That’s long enough to nearly forget not only how amazing the band is live, but how extraordinary the vibe at a Marillion show is. I have never, in my entire concert-going life, felt the kind of reciprocal love I feel at this band’s shows.

It’s that love that allows them to create a difficult masterpiece like their new album, Fuck Everyone and Run, and play two of the longest, angriest and most challenging pieces on stage to a warm reception. The first of the two Chicago shows ended with the best rendition of “Three Minute Boy” I’ve ever heard – the first half a comedy routine, the second half a reverent audience singalong – and the second ended with a full reading of “This Strange Engine,” possibly my favorite of their longer songs. Both nights were magical. Thank you to Jeff Elbel, my constant concert buddy, for making the first of those nights possible for me.

Anyway, I told you that story to tell you this one – Marillion’s opening act for the Chicago shows was John Wesley, a longtime friend of the band and their fans. I know Wesley mainly from two places: his similar opening stint for Marillion in 2004, and his time with Fish, Marillion’s former singer. But I was again impressed, as Wesley took the stage alone, electric guitar in hand and programmed drum and bass tracks at the ready, and proceeded to play like a one-man King’s X. His set was loud and riff-heavy, often in tricky time signatures. Much of it was taken from his new album, A Way You’ll Never Be, which in turn takes heavily from Steven Wilson’s work with Porcupine Tree, a band Wesley has also played with.

And as riff-monster guitar albums go, A Way You’ll Never Be is pretty great. Wesley plays with a power trio here, just bass and drums, and fills out the rest of the sound himself. The album is front-loaded with its longest songs, including the what-time-signature-is-this-beast-in title track and the slower, more ominous “To Outrun the Light.” The album gets gentler – but only a little – on tracks like “The Silence in Coffee,” and instrumental “Unsafe Space” gives Wesley further chances to show off his soloing prowess. The record does get wearying by the end, since there’s no variation in sound throughout – Wesley was terrific in a half-hour opening slot, but over an hour, I find myself wishing for more than he offers. But if you enjoy songs based around big riffs, give this a shot.

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I’ve had even less time lately to listen to music and form thoughts about it, so I’m going to burn through a few I should have mentioned by now. Just keep in mind that you’re reading thoughts from only a couple listens, and I reserve the right to change my mind as I get to know these records better.

I’m certainly looking forward to knowing Lady Gaga’s Joanne better than I do now. If you think of her primarily as a walking marketing effort, then her fourth album is a weird one – it’s stripped down, more rock oriented, less shocking and more concerned with strong songwriting. Gaga poses in profile on the front cover, wearing subtle makeup and a light pink hat. It’s a far cry from, for instance, appearing as a half-woman half-motorcycle monster, as she did on Born This Way. None of this record announces itself in the way that Gaga usually does. In a lot of ways, it’s the opposite – the antidote, if you will – to her last one, the overcooked ArtPop. Where that one felt like an army of producers propping up an image, this one feels like a singer getting some friends together and making some music.

And if you think of Gaga as a singer and a songwriter, Joanne is a sigh of relief, a balm, a rousing chorus of “At Last.” It’s much more organic, in the vein of a KT Tunstall album, with a bluesy bent. It lasts all of 39 minutes, a modest running time for Gaga. It’s named after a deceased aunt, and the lovely acoustic title track is dedicated to her. There are certainly moments of electronic music – the refrain of the groovy “John Wayne,” for instance – but they’re in service to these songs, not the reason for them. And the songs are stronger than they’ve been in some time, and they suit that belting, all-systems-go voice. Gaga proved her vocal bona fides on her surprisingly good duets album with Tony Bennett, and she makes great use of that instrument here.

Sure, there are Lady Gaga-style shocking moments, like the masturbation ode “Dancin’ in Circles” (which sounds quite a lot like one of her influences, Madonna), but most of the record is straightforward rock-pop. Her contributors here include double-take names like Josh Homme, Kevin Parker and Josh Tillman, and songs like “Million Reasons” sound like they were recorded live. I’m less convinced by the slower tunes – “Angel Down” has its heart in the right place, but gets a little sappy – but more than drawn in by off-center tunes like the country-leaning “Sinner’s Prayer.” I’m glad to see this album doing well, because I’d hate to trap such an interesting musical presence in the “shock me” box. If Gaga can do this – can just make an album of songs that she likes, and put them out on a disc – and succeed, she’ll be around for a while. And that’s a good thing.

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Speaking of career longevity, here’s a new album from Jonatha Brooke.

If you don’t know her name, I won’t be surprised. Dismayed, but not surprised. Brooke is a singer and songwriter from Massachusetts, and I fell in love with her work in 1997, when I heard her excellent second solo album, 10 Cent Wings. That album includes “Because I Told You So,” which is forever enshrined in my very short list of very favorite songs. Brooke’s career is a repeated story of writing fantastic songs that everyone who hears them would like, and then not getting famous off of them. She didn’t get famous as one-half of The Story in the early ‘90s, 10 Cent Wings didn’t make her famous in the late ‘90s, and her unbroken string of terrific albums since then has not done the trick either.

So I don’t have high hopes that her tenth album, Midnight Hallelujah, will do it either. But it’s really, really good. Brooke writes solid pop songs in the vein of Aimee Mann and Suzanne Vega, and her powerful voice sends those songs straight to the heart. Just listen to “Light Years,” on this new album. It’s a hell of a melody – it takes no breaks, spins out a simply glorious tune atop Brooke’s piano, delivering both the hope and sadness of the lyric. There are no frills, no bells, no whistles, just superb songwriting, as always. That’s Brooke’s calling card, and it’s all over Midnight Hallelujah.

The surprise this time is “Mean Looking Jesus,” written with Eric Bazilian of the Hooters. Over a dirty rock riff, Brooke takes aim at those who use Jesus to judge and condemn, and it’s the loudest and angriest I’ve ever heard her. The rest of the record is standard (meaning awesome) Jonatha Brooke, well-written and strong and pretty. It’s really quite wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier that she is still making music. If you don’t know who she is, try this album out. My bet is you’ll want to hear everything she’s done, and I’d highly recommend doing exactly that.

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It’s been 13 years since we lost Elliott Smith.

It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Smith was perhaps the best songwriter of my generation, a shy and withdrawn genius who was slowly coaxed out of his shell, found the light too bright and killed himself. His story is tragic, and his songs – often gentle outpourings of depression and self-loathing – a fitting soundtrack. Smith left behind half a dozen albums of gorgeous, heartbreaking music, and it’s often difficult to listen to now, save for the fact that it is also beautiful.

It’s a testament to those songs that even now, 13 years after his death, people are still singing and playing them, and tribute albums like the just-released Say Yes are still being made. This latest, from American Laundromat Records, brings together luminaries like Tanya Donnelly, Amanda Palmer, J Mascis, Juliana Hatfield, Lou Barlow, Waxahatchee and Mark Kozelek, all fans, and lets them run with Smith’s tunes. As you might expect, the renditions are largely faithful, but just having the chance to revisit these songs is worth it.

My highlights list includes Donnelly’s opening “Between the Bars,” the quite excellent Julien Baker’s late-night lope through “Ballad of Big Nothing,” and Hatfield’s perfectly straight take on the amazing “Needle in the Hay.” Amanda Palmer makes “Pictures of Me” her own, while Jesu and Sun Kil Moon do their thing on “Condor Ave.” I was also impressed with several of the artists I’ve never heard, like Tomo Nakayama, who delivered a strong take on “Miss Misery,” and Adam Franklin, who dug deep to find the XO gem “Oh Well, Okay.” All in all, this is a fine tribute to a songwriter I miss a great deal, still. These songs are his legacy, and these reverential versions do them justice.

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That’ll do for this week. Next week, Tom Chaplin makes his solo bow and Hope Sandoval returns. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The October Project Part Four
Leonard Cohen Wrestles with Death

I love comics.

I always have. My grandfather used to take me to the Franklin News store in the center of my old hometown and pay for comics for me. Usually Spider-Man, since he was my favorite – even at 10 years old, I identified with the shy and nerdy Peter Parker. But I really started to love the sequential arts when I found Casablanca Comics in Windham, Maine, just down the street from the college I attended in the early ‘90s. It was there that I first discovered that comics could be (and often were) more than men and women in capes punching each other for ridiculous stakes. There were comics for adults, comics that tackled weighty themes and came complete with healthy helpings of sex and swearing.

I was 18, and this was exactly what I was looking for. I’d read Sandman, and I’d dabbled in Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, but that was about it. It was that latter one – Hellblazer, the story of magical con man John Constantine – that really led me into the next 20-plus years of reading grown-up comics. But I truly came aboard that title in 1993, when Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon started their epic run. I’ve been collecting and reading comics for most of my life, and I have rarely seen a writer and artist sync up so completely as Ennis and Dillon did on that run of issues.

And when it was over, they launched their joint magnum opus, Preacher. A rowdy, irreverent and gleefully nauseating romp through America on a quest to find God, Preacher remains one of my favorite books from the ‘90s. The characters were richly drawn by both Ennis and Dillon, and the art, while certainly lingering on some of the more disgusting aspects of the tale, remained sympathetic to characters like Arseface, making him a tragic figure instead of an object of ridicule. With Preacher, Ennis and Dillon painted on a wide canvas, taking on difficult questions with a shoot-from-the-hip attitude. It’s a hell of a book.

We lost Steve Dillon this week. He was only 54 years old, and died of complications from a ruptured appendix. The bloody 2016 took a little time off, but now it appears to be back to work, and this one hurts. Dillon’s art was instantly recognizable, and I still associate it with my college years, when I began digging into an art form I cherish to this day. I owe him a lot. Rest in peace, Steve.

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It’s fitting that we begin this week’s column with a eulogy, since death moves between every note and line of the only album I have on tap, Leonard Cohen’s astonishing You Want It Darker.

Cohen is 82 years old now, and every time he makes a record, it may be his last. He’s always been obsessed with death, but You Want It Darker is the first one in which I feel that knowledge, that preparation for his own mortality, everywhere. It almost didn’t happen – Cohen began recording last year with Patrick Leonard, but a severe back injury halted the sessions. Cohen’s son Adam stepped in, and ended up producing six of the nine tracks on the album. Cohen expresses his gratitude in the liner notes, and I can’t help but add my own. You Want It Darker is the most captivating album of Cohen’s late career, a stunning meditation on faith from a man with nothing to lose.

For his entire career, Cohen has grappled with God, with his religious upbringing and his doubts and questions and longings as an adult. This album is a frank testament from an old man about to come face to face with whatever awaits him, and here he wrestles with faith like never before. The music is typically stripped down – pianos, organs, thumping bass, minimal drums, and Cohen’s low growl of a voice. He speaks this album more than sings it, his aging vocal cords thick and rumbling, the microphone close enough to pick up every whisper, every nuance. When he sings, as he does on the hymn “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” his performance is compelling in its messiness, its imperfection, its raw honesty.

And in the same way, Cohen’s words this time are as brave and open as his voice. The album’s title is fitting – many of these are dark songs with powerful images, Cohen cutting right to the bone. In “Leaving the Table,” he sings of lost love, but equally of his own impending death: “I don’t need a reason for what I became, I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and lame, I don’t need a pardon, there’s no one left to blame, I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game.” “Traveling Light” performs the same trick, over a subtle electronic blues and his trademark choral backing vocals. “I’m traveling light, it’s au revoir, my once so bright, my fallen star,” he sings. “I’m running late, they’ll close the bar, I used to play one mean guitar.”

And with death closing in, Cohen wages an internal battle with the stories of God and the afterlife, and whether he believes them. “Treaty” is about loss of faith, and is as direct as Cohen ever is: “I seen you change the water into wine, I seen you change it back to water too, I sit at your table every night, I try but I just don’t get high with you.” The chorus finds him admitting “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time,” and wishing for a more concrete agreement with God. “I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be,” he sings. “Only one of us was real, and that was me.”

“It Seemed the Better Way” finds Cohen looking askance at the gospel, turning it over in his mind and trying to balance its message with the dusty reality of his life. “It seemed the better way when I first heard him speak, but now it’s much too late to turn the other cheek,” he says, admitting that “it sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today.” The song is chilling, giving us a crystal clear glance at Cohen’s inner monologue. And at its end, he keeps his true feelings inside: “I better hold my tongue, I better take my place, lift this glass of blood, try to say the grace.” It’s the most broken and painful beauty, and it catches me up short.

Nothing here is quite as powerful, though, as the album’s first and last songs. The title track opens things with a bleak pulse, and with Cohen contrasting himself with God: “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game, if you are the healer, I’m broken and lame, if thine is the glory, mine must be the shame, you want it darker, we kill the flame.” It’s stunning stuff, particularly the repeated Hebrew phrase “hineni hineni” (“here I am”), followed by Cohen’s “I’m ready, my lord.” This is the closest he has come to saying “I am about to die,” and the remainder of the song (and in truth, the album) dissects the questions he hopes to have answered when he does.

Closing track “Steer Your Way” is the most powerful thing here, particularly if it is Cohen’s final statement. He is speaking to himself throughout, steering past crumbling monuments to things he once believed, headed toward a last destination. “Steer your way through the ruins of the altar and the mall,” he sings, equating religion and commercialism. (He goes deeper in that direction in the chorus: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap,” an amazing single-line excoriation of our economic wars.) “Steer your way through the pain that is far more real than you, that has smashed the cosmic model, that has blinded every view,” he sings, as strings sway beneath him. “And please don’t make me go there, though there be a God or not,” he pleads, knowing that the end is near. “Year by year, month by month, day by day, thought by thought.”

It’s utterly compelling. If you have followed Cohen through his journey, the cumulative impact of You Want It Darker is astonishing. He knows this may be his last turn around the sun, and like David Bowie at the beginning of this year, he has crafted what may be his final statement, a dusky and clear-eyed powerhouse of a record. Listening to this album is like eavesdropping on Cohen’s darkest thoughts, his most existential inner battles. If this is his last, he is leaving us with a masterpiece, thoughtful and painful and strangely beautiful. Cohen’s contemporary Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature a few weeks ago, and at the time I suggested Cohen’s name as a possible future candidate. You Want It Darker is not only a stunning possible capper to a long and poetic career, but further proof that if anyone deserves such an honor, it is Leonard Cohen.

May this gorgeous, difficult goodbye not be the final statement it appears. My life, and the world, can always use more Leonard Cohen.

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Well, I thoroughly failed to give that album a brief review, didn’t I? Next week, an epilogue to the October Project with a bunch of (I promise) short takes on new records. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The October Project Part Three
Four Men and Their Music

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature this week, which of course has led to a lot of conversations about songwriting within my circle.

I’ve read passionate arguments both for and against treating song lyrics as literature, and I think if you consider them poetry, a good case could be made. Dylan, it seems to me, is perfectly poised to make that case, since his lyrics usually feel divorced from his music in a way that, say, Elvis Costello’s don’t. Dylan songs often consist of repetitive chords designed as delivery vehicles for the words, and it’s those words for which he will be remembered.

Of course, this led to several conversations about favorite songwriters. I’m not sure why, but I’m always surprised when Glen Phillips doesn’t show up on anyone’s lists except mine. Maybe it’s that he fronts a band called Toad the Wet Sprocket, who had a couple hits in the ‘90s? I don’t know why Phillips isn’t taken seriously as a writer, because he fits all the criteria one might imagine for such a list – he’s literate, insightful, simple without being simplistic, pointed when needed, open-hearted and honest.

I’ve been a fan of his writing since Toad’s seminal album Fear, and I’ve kept up with his splendid solo career. I was overjoyed at the Toad reunion, but I’m just as happy to have a new solo album from Phillips. It’s called Swallowed by the New, and it’s mostly as pleasant as the autumn twilight, while offering a fresh and optimistic look at life’s smaller moments. Many of these songs fall neatly into the folk tradition, maintaining the distinction between Phillips’ softer solo material and Toad’s more amped-up sound, but there are a few exploratory detours as well – the dark “Unwritten” rides a pitter-patter groove and a storm-cloud atmosphere, while “Held Up” gallops off in a bluesier direction.

For the most part, though, Swallowed by the New offers delicate meditations that act as healing balms. Songs like “Amnesty” and “Grief and Praise” and the lovely “There’s Always More” are like gentle encouragements to keep going, keep looking up, and Phillips’ oblique spirituality adds a wider scope to these little songs. There’s nothing on Swallowed by the New that will change your mind about Glen Phillips, but these 11 songs are fine additions to what was already a fine catalog.

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Eleven years ago, Mike Doughty issued his best solo album, Haughty Melodic. It was a clean break from the trip-hop soundscapes of his band, Soul Coughing, and from his acoustic songwriter roots – it was a beautifully produced pop album bursting with colorful melodies and memorable moments, thanks in no small part to his creative partner in that endeavor, Dan Wilson.

Since then, fans of his unique beat-poet voice have been waiting for him to equal it. He’s come closer in the last couple years than he ever has – 2015’s Stellar Motel is strong and diverse, and its follow-up, the just-released The Heart Watches While the Brain Burns, keeps the streak going. Neither of these albums quite measure up to Haughty Melodic, but I think this is about the best we can expect to get from Mike Doughty, and it ain’t bad.

The Heart Watches is a more consistent songwriter album than Motel, meaning it sticks to a particular style for most of its running time. These are groove-driven pop songs, performed on guitar and synth by Doughty (with some drumming help by Pete Wilhoit), danceable beats with acoustic strumming and keyboard flourishes. Doughty takes that limited yet instantly recognizable voice for a spin down familiar avenues, firing off nonsense words because the consonants sound good colliding together. His writing is strong here, as it was on Motel – “There Is a Way Out” is one of his hookiest pop tunes in years, and single “I Can’t Believe I Found You in This Town” is a double-time delight.

This is going to sound like a half-hearted compliment, but it’s not meant as such: The Heart Watches also doesn’t overstay its welcome. Where Motel jumped all over the map, this album centers on what Mike Doughty does best, gives us just over half an hour of it, and then gets gone. The result is the first Doughty album that has left me wanting more in a very long time.

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Speaking of leaving me wanting more for the first time in a while, here’s Conor Oberst.

Omaha, Nebraska’s most famous son, Oberst began his career as the sole member of Bright Eyes, his folksy songwriter project. The first Bright Eyes songs were recorded with little more than Oberst’s guitar and voice, but over time – like you do – he expanded his reach. Bright Eyes ventured into mammoth concept albums and electronic noise, and Oberst’s solo career has seen him paint on vast canvases with the Mystic Valley Band. The last Bright Eyes album, 2011’s The People’s Key, could barely breathe under the layers of sound.

All of which makes Ruminations, his new solo record, so refreshing. Written in the months following a bout of laryngitis that led to the cancellation of a tour, the songs on Ruminations sport just piano, guitar and harmonica, and were played and sung live by Oberst on his own. He channels his hero Bob Dylan here, writing simple songs that exist for their lyrics and then leaving them alone, unadorned. Oberst keeps his voice in the low register, never slipping into his trademark emotional screams. Even so, there’s an honesty to this album that hasn’t been in evidence for quite a while, and that alone makes this worth hearing.

The songs aren’t anything special, but I have a fondness for material like this from Oberst. As ever, he keeps the chords easy and the lyrics difficult, name-checking Christopher Hitchens and Sylvia Plath in the same verse and admitting to spreading his anger “like Agent Orange.” Like the earliest Bright Eyes material, these songs sound like streams of consciousness, like they poured forth in a torrent, like the world’s most literate man is just making them up as they go. After years of over-thinking and over-working his material, Ruminations marks a fresh start for Conor Oberst – he could build up in any direction he chooses from here. I’m interested to see which way he goes.

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And now I am about to flush all my remaining credibility by giving a longer and more considered review to Geoff Tate than to Conor Oberst. Such is life.

Longtime readers know of my nearly 20-year love for Queensryche, which began with Operation: Mindcrime, the first concept album I ever heard at the tender age of 14. I followed them through their surging popularity in the early ‘90s and their fall from grace after that, despite thoughtful albums like Tribe and American Soldier. I suffered through the band’s acrimonious split with singer Tate, and through the weird period when there were two Queensryches, one led by Tate and the other featuring the other founding members and phenomenal new singer Todd La Torre.

And I cringed a little when Tate, who lost the rights to the name of the band, re-christened his project after Queensryche’s most famous album, Operation: Mindcrime. Tate’s Operation released the first part of a planned trilogy of albums last year, The Key, and it was… you know, fine. Where Queensryche with La Torre has embraced its metal roots, Operation: Mindcrime has taken up the progressive storytelling part of the band’s work, but The Key was largely forgettable groove-rock, Tate struggling to hold my attention for the full 48 minutes. I figured this was just the sad, slow petering out of a voice and a songwriting style I have loved since my teen years.

But hold on, because the second chapter of that trilogy, called Resurrection, is considerably stronger. In fact, I’m rather surprised at how much I like it. Part of the reason is that Tate has fully embraced his prog-rock tendencies here, leaving any sense that he’s supposed to be fronting a hard rock band behind. Some of Resurrection rocks, for sure, but most of it is concerned with texture and movement, particularly the five longer tracks at the end. Tate has also dropped all pretense that Operation: Mindcrime is a band – he’s the only consistent presence song to song, and he invites guests like Megadeth’s Dave Ellefson to contribute.

The concept drives the album, but not much happens, truthfully. In The Key, we met our main character, a web developer who has fallen into possession of something called (you guessed it) “the key,” which could revolutionize the internet. Or something. At the end of the first album, our hero is buried alive and left for dead, and in Resurrection, he, you know, is resurrected. At the end he’s ready to fight his enemies for possession of the key, which I am assuming will be the subject of the third album in the trilogy. So these songs are largely just motivational epics, with titles like “Taking on the World” and “Invincible,” detailing our hero’s physical and mental return.

But this album contains the best music of Tate’s solo career (for that’s what this is, a continuation of his solo career). The album is structured in an interesting way, beginning with four preludes (lasting a total of five minutes) that set the mood, moving into five catchier normal-length tunes and concluding with five epics that hover around seven minutes each. It eases you in and leads you carefully into the more challenging material, and takes that challenging material seriously – “A Smear Campaign” and “Into the Hands of the World,” the two longest songs, let their arrangements breathe and develop, Tate’s keyboards snaking in and out between guitars by mainstays Kelly Gray and Scott Moughton. (Those keyboards sound cheap and tinny more often than not, unfortunately, which is just a matter of taste.) These songs are downright weird, in a way I didn’t expect, and far more interesting (even when they stumble) than anything on The Key.

Even the more compact numbers, though, like “Miles Away” and “Healing My Wounds,” pack more of a punch this time. Resurrection is a strange album, a sign that Geoff Tate may have entered the deliriously fearless stage of his career, doing whatever he wants regardless of his audience. He plays saxophone here, pretty well, more than once. He flirts with self-parody by inviting also-ran singers Blaze Bayley and Tim “Ripper” Owens to sing on “Taking On the World.” Resurrection is a good title for this album, as its reckless oddness has reawakened my interest in Tate and his Operation: Mindcrime project. There was more here than I thought, and I’m now fascinated to see what he does next.

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Speaking of next, we’ll delve into new ones by Leonard Cohen, Jonatha Brooke and Lady Gaga next week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles