Circles, Cells and Scandroids
How Klayton Scored Himself the Best Year Ever

Hands up if you thought, one month into the new year, that you’d be pining for the halcyon days of 2016?

I’m exaggerating a little, and I’ll spare you the “it’s already worse than I expected” rhetoric that’s been running through my mind for weeks. But it’s pretty bad out there right now, and while I’m trying to keep my head up, I’m taking more and more solace in music. I’m hoping this column becomes a refuge for me, a few hours a week where I can escape and think about something besides the world falling apart. I predict quite a lot of the music that will find its way into this space this year will have something to say about that world, though, so maybe nowhere is safe.

Anyway, while I’m looking back fondly at last year, this seems to be the perfect week to do something I’ve been meaning to find time for since early December. I spent all of 2016 preparing for it, in a way, and never got around to it. Which is odd, since my year was very much colored by this man and his music. A lot of artists had a good 2016, but in a lot of ways, the artist known as Klayton had the best 2016.

Don’t believe me? This week, Klayton, who records under many names but most prominently Celldweller, released his first album of 2017. It’s the fourth volume of his experimental Transmissions series, and if you stack that up next to the albums he released in 2016, it’s his tenth project in 11 months. And all that follows the November 2015 release of End of an Empire, the epic third Celldweller album, which arrived as a five-CD box set. That’s a ton of music in a short period of time, and Klayton shows no signs of letting up.

So who is this guy? I first heard Klayton when he was going by the name Scott Albert and calling his recording project Circle of Dust. The first Circle of Dust song I heard was actually “Am I in Sync,” recorded for a tribute to relatively unknown genius Steve Taylor. (Yes, the Steve Taylor who rocketed into the public consciousness in 2014 with Goliath, one of my 10 favorite albums that year.) This was 1994, and I was in college, having recently discovered the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Machines of Loving Grace. So I was absolutely primed for new industrial metal sounds.

Circle of Dust delivered that in spades. I have the self-titled Circle of Dust album and the much heavier follow-up, Brainchild, memorized from repeated plays. It was doubly exciting for me having been released into the Christian market, since it pushed at the boundaries of what could be done in that space. Like a lot of bands on R.E.X. Records, Circle of Dust sounded no different from the more mainstream acts, and in fact seemed to thrive on the idea of kicking against those inherent roadblocks with real-world lyrics and shrapnel-sized riffs.

I remember reviewing the final Circle of Dust album, Disengage, for Face Magazine in Maine, and then I lost track. Klayton went on to a short partnership with Criss Angel, of all people, and then for me, he disappeared. Fast forward 10 or 12 years, and I found him again, recording as Celldweller. And to say he’d grown by leaps and bounds would be to understate the situation massively. Where Circle of Dust stuck to one style, for the most part, Celldweller is a crazy melting pot, jumping from electro-pop to metal to ambient to dubstep to soaring balladry. It’s music without boundaries – on End of an Empire, Klayton even mixed in some punk and synthwave.

In 2016, Klayton took time to look both forward and back. He finally got the rights to re-release his Circle of Dust catalog, reclaiming the name for himself. Five of his 2016 projects were these old records, remastered with oodles of bonus material (including new songs and remixes), and packaged in gorgeous sets. And man, did they take me back. There’s no joy in Circle of Dust – it’s all pain and suffering, set to jackhammer guitars and very ‘90s electronic drums – but I was a pretty moody kid, so it all worked for me.

The self-titled album is good, though Klayton is obviously feeling his way. It was released twice, with different track lists, reportedly because Klayton was unhappy with his first stab at it, and the 2016 re-release is a mixture of both. Two songs (“Technological Disguise” and “Senseless Abandon”) from the first release don’t appear here at all, and opener “Exploration” is here only in a brand-new re-recording. Frankly, though, this is the best of all possible worlds, and the most enjoyable version of Circle of Dust out there. The sound is tinny, the guitars far away, the drums clicking and thudding, and the influence of Pretty Hate Machine on much of this is pretty obvious. But it’s a good first effort, and the bonus disc is excellent, containing the first new Circle of Dust song in 18 years, “Neophyte,” and some delightful old cassette demos.

The second album, Brainchild, is where it’s at. This is where Klayton decides to go full-on metal, and in the process comes up with his first classic, “Deviate.” It is by some measure the very best of the old Circle of Dust songs, the one even casual listeners can recall. The rest of Brainchild is good too, albeit much heavier than its predecessor (or its successor). The second disc here contains another new song, the fabulous “Contagion,” as well as that Steve Taylor cover and some revealing live cuts.

The next two could be called side projects – Metamorphosis was a remix album on which Klayton chopped up and processed his own tunes and those of metal band Living Sacrifice, and Argyle Park was a strange offshoot teaming Klayton with someone called Buka. Their one album, Misguided, is pretty fantastic, actually, a mish-mash of styles and lyrics cut with real pain. The re-release of Metamorphosis includes further remixes, and the two discs of bonus material with the new Misguided contain a wealth of goodness.

Finally, there is Disengage, the last of the original Circle of Dust albums. Recorded at a time of great upheaval, when Klayton was rejecting the Christian market altogether, Disengage is a bitter record with an unfinished feel to it. “Waste of Time” and “Mesmerized” are terrific, but there are too many instrumental interludes and remixes to consider this a full final album. The re-release adds two discs of excellent bonus content, including the striking acoustic number “Your Noise,” which fully reveals the bitterness of these sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed a peek behind the curtain at an album that has fascinated me since I first heard it.

In the midst of all this, Klayton continued to give us new music in 2016, under three different names. There were two Celldweller projects: the third volumes of his ongoing Transmissions and Soundtracks for the Voices in My Head series. Transmissions remains some of his most interesting work – mostly instrumental, ambient space music, with beautiful production touches. Soundtracks is more explosive, and for this third volume, Klayton gave us instrumental versions of the fifteen interludes on End of an Empire, as well as five new tracks.

But the two I really want to talk about are the pair of brand-new albums Klayton released near the end of the year. (Yes, after 1,200 words, we finally come to what I really want to talk about!)

First up, Klayton unveiled a new identity: Scandroid. Well, I say unveiled, but he’d been releasing singles as Scandroid for more than a year, priming us for the self-titled album. Scandroid is his ‘80s-inspired synthwave project, set in a sleek retro-futuristic city right out of Blade Runner. If you liked the soundtrack to Stranger Things, you will love this. Scandroid is full of tightly written synth pop and just bursting with vintage sounds. Tunes like “Empty Streets” (one of my very favorite Klayton songs) and the instrumental “Destination Unknown” feel like riding one of those Tron cycles through a glass motorway high above civilization.

I’m honestly a little bit in love with the Scandroid album – it’s definitely my favorite of his 2016 projects, and I’m excited to hear more from him in this guise. The only problem I have with the album is the note-for-note cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout.” It feels unnecessary, particularly when Klayton’s own material, from the killer “Salvation Code” to the chill closer “Singularity,” is so strong. This one is worth hearing, and I’m hoping for a second album this year.

Finally, Klayton closed the year by fully bringing back Circle of Dust. Machines of Our Disgrace is the first CoD album in 18 years, and amazingly, it recaptures the sound and feel of those old albums while updating them for the 21st century. It’s basically a metal record with electronic drums, taking the aggression of End of an Empire (itself the most aggressive Celldweller album) and amplifying it. The title track is an absolute monster, lurching forward on a thrash beat and a shredding riff, mixed in with the dialogue samples that have been a Circle of Dust trademark.

Machines refuses to let up, too. It’s an hour long, and it rarely pauses for breath. “Humanarchy” is a powerhouse, “alt-Human” a techno-metal beast, “Hive Mind” a mid-tempo winner with a great Nine Inch Nails-ish chorus. “Outside In” is the one moment of respite, a Duran Duran-esque anthem with a lovely melody. But then it’s back to the metal until the final track, an ominous instrumental called “Malacandra.” (This is the third Circle of Dust song named after planets in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy.) It’s a lovely and fitting way to end not only this wholly unexpected new Circle of Dust album, but Klayton’s remarkably prolific year.

The main result of this year is that Klayton now has three viable musical identities to slip between, and they’re all fantastic. He’s built up a cottage industry around his work, issuing everything on his own label and delivering anything he wants, whenever he wants. There’s no reason for him to slow down at this point, so I’m hoping for another productive year. If this long and winding ode is the first you’ve heard of Klayton and his many projects, get thee to his website and try some out.

Next week, a roundup of new releases, including Elbow, the Flaming Lips and a duets record from Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Looking for the Light
Pain of Salvation's Grand Ode to Perseverance

It’s been a hard week.

I expect I’ll have the opportunity to say that a lot over the next four years, and I promise not to take every one of those opportunities. But I’m worn down. I’m angry and sad and feeling helpless. I know there will be plenty to do, plenty of ways to stand up and be heard and make a difference, and I’ll be right there in it. But every day there’s a new reason to despair, to feel like there is a darkness descending on us all.

And so we persevere. And some of us write silly music columns to get through the week. It’s fitting, then, that the first album I have been breathlessly anticipating in 2017 turned out to be about living through difficult times, and what it takes to carry on. It’s no wonder that I’ve responded so well to it, given my frame of mind lately. In fact, I’m about ready to call it 2017’s first great record.

I’m talking about In the Passing Light of Day, the tenth album by Swedish band Pain of Salvation. You may not have heard of this band, but they’ve been one of the mainstays of progressive music for 20 years. They’re led by a golden-voiced savant named Daniel Gildenlow, and as of this album, he’s the only original member of PoS remaining. Pain of Salvation has always been his show, though, a vehicle through which he creates massive concept albums of deeply personal music. And he’s never created anything quite as personal as In the Passing Light of Day.

This is the first new Pain of Salvation album in six years, and if you’re wondering why, Gildenlow lays it out for you in his liner notes: he was hospitalized for months in 2014 with a flesh-eating bacteria threatening his life. During that time he had a hole in his back deep enough to expose his spine, and underwent a series of chemical treatments that eventually sent the bacteria into regression. He’s been recovering since, and looks remarkably thin but much healthier than you’d expect in the photos that accompany the album.

In the Passing Light of Day is all about those four months, and the recovery period after. Gildenlow sums up its theme in his notes: “I did learn a lot. I did not, however, learn that I need to spend more time with my family. I did not learn that I should spend less time in life worrying and stressing. I did not learn that life is precious and that every second of it counts. No, I did not learn these things, simply because I already knew them by heart. We all do. Our priorities do not change in the face of death, they just intensify. We get reminded of them. Suddenly, painfully, honestly, we remember how to live.”

This is an album about remembering how to live. It’s dark and bleak in places, and so honestly and powerfully written that it moved me to tears, particularly the mammoth closing title track. Gildenlow exposes his soul as much as his spine here, and spares us nothing. “I was born in this building,” he begins on the opening track “On a Tuesday.” “It was the first Tuesday I had ever seen. And if I live to see tomorrow it will be my Tuesday number 2,119.” The song sets the scene – most of In the Passing Light of Day takes place in Gildenlow’s hospital bed – and the tone: “Will I change? I honestly can’t say, I have no promises to trade for the lord of come-what may, to provide me with another day, every promise that I make is a promise I might break…”

“Tongue of God” is extraordinarily frank, Gildenlow repeating “I cry in the shower and smile in the bed” while asking God to heal him with a kiss. “Meaningless” finds him calling out connection, sinking into loneliness, while the nine-minute “Full Throttle Tribe” balances details (“I turn the shower tap, turn it all the way up to burn this hole away”) with broader ruminations (“This has been my tribe, my family, this has been my flag and nation, this has been my creed, my legacy, now it’s only me…”) “Reasons” sinks to the bottom, awash in anger and recrimination.

He begins the long crawl back in “Angels of Broken Things”: “Fallen angels spread your wings, fly me across the seas of burning things, pills and needles, tears and stings, fallen angels save me from these things…” He decides he wants to live in the whisper-to-scream “If This is the End,” which slides into the 15-minute title track, possibly the best song Gildenlow has ever written. The passing light of day is our lives, here one second and gone the next, and he starts the song lamenting his own ephemeral nature: “You’re watching me slowly slip away, like the passing light of day.” He relives his regrets: “All those times when I failed you, all those times when I turned on you, I wish that I could take them back… because all those times are still here today, all those moments return today…”

But as the song continues, he’s made new, and it’s beautiful. His fear of death disappears, and his love of life returns: “All that matters is here today, all the thoughts that I think today, every word that we say today, every second alive today.” He ends the album accepting his own mortality: “And though I wish that I could stay, it somehow strangely feels OK, it is what it is, I’ll find my way through this passing light…” The song builds convincingly over its running time, and by the end, Gildenlow is giving it everything he has. The emotional catharsis is palpable.

I haven’t even mentioned yet what this album sounds like, so powerful are its lyrics and themes. It’s always a question – Pain of Salvation began with four very good yet unoriginal progressive metal albums, and then went crazy with Be, one of my favorite records ever. Be is a treatise on God and man, with song titles like “Imago (Homines Partus)” and “Lilium Cruentus (Deus Nova),” and its music aims to be all music, a hundred styles sitting next to one another. From there they embraced rap-metal on Scarsick and gritty ‘70s rock on the double album Road Salt, and went acoustic for Falling Home.

In the Passing Light of Day is billed as a return to their aggressive sound, and that’s partially true. “On a Sunday” begins with jackhammer riffs and explosive drums, and songs like “Reasons” are stripped-down metal. But there’s a lot more going on here, in the catchy vocal samples of “Meaningless” and the piano of “Silent Gold,” and especially in the operatic sweep and emotional power of the title track. This is a big-sounding album, although much of it feels raw and stripped back, and it’s louder than PoS has been in some time. But it’s reductive to call it metal, or even prog-metal. As always, the band adapts to the song, bringing to it whatever it needs, and this new Pain of Salvation is as nimble as the last incarnation.

We’ve seen a lot of final records, written with the knowledge that death is imminent. (The two most recent of note are David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker.) I’m not sure I know of many other near-death albums, ones written at the brink before stepping back from the abyss. In the Passing Light of Day is the best one I can think of, a moving, difficult and ultimately rewarding journey to the edge and back. It’s the year’s first triumph, and just the parable of perseverance I needed. I’ll be listening to it for a long time to come.

Next week, what I wanted to do last week. After that, a roundup of January’s new releases. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Living in Discworld
Where Love of Physical Media Meets Fear of Missing Out

I like shiny plastic discs.

This isn’t a new development. I’ve been buying physical media for as long as I’ve been buying music. For most of my life, I’ve had no choice – we only had vinyl records and cassettes, and then along came the shiny plastic discs, which I actually resisted for a while. But now we’re in the digital age, with downloadable music available at the click of a mouse, and for the first time last year, streaming emerged as the number-one way people experience music.

I’m saddened by this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I want artists to get paid. But I also want to experience music in the best way possible, and for me that means with the full context of packaging and with the best sound quality I can get. CDs are still the best way to do both. In this era of surprise digital releases and instant downloads, I’m happy to wait to have the best experience I can.

What that sometimes means is that I miss the excitement over a new release, and I’m finding lately that the time between a new album hitting the interwebs and the buzz dying down is getting a lot shorter. There are so many new distractions popping up all the time that the collective interest of fandom in any one of those things only lasts a couple days, or a week at most. By the time manufacturing has caught up and my shiny disc is in my hands, that buzz is all but gone.

As an example, I totally missed the excitement over the surprise release of Run the Jewels 3 on Christmas Eve. I’ve never been the biggest fan, but even I almost streamed this thing just so I could join in on the fun. I didn’t do that – I waited for the CD, and I’m glad I did. But at this point no one is asking for my thoughts on Run the Jewels 3. The moment has passed. The zeitgeist has moved on. (For the record, I like it. It’s a non-stop powerhouse of socially relevant anger with some surprising and elaborate production touches. It’s the best Run the Jewels yet.)

I also held out for Kid Cudi’s new one to arrive on CD, which turned into a more agonizing wait than I expected. The release date was pushed back a number of times, so while Cudi fans were shouting about this new record as his best in years, I was trying hard to resist the temptation to listen to the whole thing online. Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ finally hit stores last week, and I’m happy to agree with everyone who praised it. It’s prime Cudi, for the first time in a while.

I think some people are surprised that I like Kid Cudi, but he’s never quite what you expect him to be, and I appreciate that. Some of his left turns are more ill-advised than others, particularly his last one, a rap-free double album called Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven that sounded like a no-talent grunge band’s home demos from the ‘90s. (He even commissioned Mike Judge to resurrect Beavis and Butthead for several between-song interludes. Seriously, the album is almost impossible to listen to.)

Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ puts Cudi back on track with 87 minutes of hazy hip-hop reminiscent of his early Man in the Moon work. Most of these 19 songs (divided into four acts) are slow and patient things, and they feel like waking up after a weekend bender. Cudi gets cosmic as often as he gets earthy here, and there’s a renewed sense of purpose to the whole thing that suits him. Guest spots by Pharrell Williams and Andre 3000 certainly don’t hurt, but it’s Cudi’s singular vision of hip-hop that guides this album. The closing song, the six-minute “Surfin’,” is a delightful release of built-up tension, ending things on a joyous note.

I’ll also say that on CD, this feels like a true double album, with Acts I and II on the first disc and Acts III and IV on the second. There’s a hard break after Act II, an intermission of sorts, during which you have to physically get up and change the disc to hear the second half. It may just be nostalgia, but to me this enhances the experience, and also breaks up what is a very long record into manageable chunks. Thinking of Passion, Pain and Demon Slayin’ in four sides helps to process it.

As much as I like waiting for the CD, though, sometimes I have no choice but to pay for downloaded music. It always feels strange, like I’ve just bought air. Music without context feels unmoored to me, like it doesn’t exist in the world I inhabit. I expect that I’ll be forced to purchase context-free music a lot in the future, and maybe it will start to seem less weird over time. But I doubt it.

However, as I said, sometimes I have no choice. Case in point: Not the Actual Events, the new EP from Nine Inch Nails. I’ve been a Trent Reznor fan for a quarter-century, and I’m always interested to hear what he does next. So I had to buy this EP, but Reznor didn’t make it easy for me. It’s available in two versions – a vinyl edition, or a download with a “physical component.” I have no idea what that “physical component” is or means, but I believe Reznor when he says “the intention of this record is for it to exist in the physical world, just like you.”

So I sprung for it, and I’m interested to see what I get in the mail. What I got immediately was the most interesting 22 minutes of NIN music in ages. Not the Actual Events is an unpleasant piece of work, unsettling in ways Reznor hasn’t been since The Downward Spiral. In fact, the moment when he whispers “yes, everyone seems to be asleep” on “Dear World” provided me with my first NIN-related chill up the spine since those early, heady days.

There are more ideas in these five songs than on all of The Slip and Hesitation Marks combined, as much as I liked both of those records. Reznor and Atticus Ross (his longtime partner in crime, recently welcomed to full band member status) are intent on setting moods this time. Melodies are tricky and buried under oceans of sound, and sung through shiver-inducing filters. Reznor reaches for his baritone on the deep crawl “She’s Gone Away,” and the effect is both exciting and unnerving. And he unleashes full fury on the final track, an abrasive ball of steel wool called “Burning Bright (Field on Fire).”

Nine Inch Nails slipped into a rut so slowly that I barely noticed, and it took something like Not the Actual Events, something that hearkens back to works like Spiral and The Fragile while upending the formula with new twists, to show me just how routine Reznor’s work had become. I’m glad I heard it, even if I had to download it, and I’m now even more excited for the two projects he has on tap for 2017.

And hopefully I’ll be able to buy those on CD.

Next week, either what I was planning for this week or the first new records of the year. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

 

17 Reasons to Love 2017
Brave Heart, Friends, Brave Heart

“You’ve redecorated. I don’t like it.” – Patrick Troughton, The Three Doctors.

Hello and welcome to the new Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. You’re looking at the first major upgrade in this column’s appearance and functionality in probably a decade. I’m still getting used to it myself, but I think it’s quite an improvement, while still retaining the column-out-front-archive-in-back feel that I wanted when I started this thing. And those of you who like to read things on your fancy mobile phones should have a much easier time.

For me, not that you should care about this so much, it’s a lot easier. I write, do some light formatting and set it to post. That’s the whole process. You should have seen the HTML hand-coding mess I was working with before. I feel like I’ve stepped into the 2000s, just in time for the 2010s to wind down. As always, many thanks to Michael Ferrier, who put this all together without asking for money or anything. He’s one of my best friends in the world, and this is but one of the millions of reasons I’m grateful for him.

Anyway, we’re back. This is year 17 of this silly music column, and I always start the year off the same way: with a list of things to look forward to over the upcoming months. It’s harder this year. We’re less than two weeks from the dawning of Trump’s America, and it’s not the America I recognize. I feel like we’re seconds from impact, careening off a cliff, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

For me, solace has always come in the form of art, and music especially. That’s why I feel like this list is even more important this year. If nothing else, the fight against evil in 2017 is going to have a good soundtrack. If you need reasons to get out of bed, reasons to keep on keeping on this year, here are 17 of them that I know about. In fact, I didn’t even need to go outside the realm of music this year, so you can just count the next season of Doctor Who and Star Wars: Episode VIII as givens.

1. Pain of Salvation, The Passing Light of Day.

As always, we start with the albums that have names and release dates and are certain to appear. I’m predicting that this new one from Sweden’s unclassifiable Pain of Salvation will be the year’s first great album. It promises a return to their louder, more progressive style, but as it’s also the debut of an almost entirely new band (still led by certified genius Daniel Gildenlow), I imagine it could go anywhere and be anything. Which has been the band’s modus operandi for years. In the Passing Light of Day is out this week, kicking the year off right.

2. The Flaming Lips, Oczy Mlody.

I also have high hopes for the return of the Lips, also slated for this week. They’ve become such a scattered bundle of ideas lately that whenever Wayne Coyne and company get their act together enough to create a solid body of new work, it’s exciting. They’re taking an average of four years between each one these days, but the last two were quite strong, if quite bizarre. Miley Cyrus is on this one, furthering one of the weirdest musical relationships I’m aware of.

3. Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau

Chris Thile is the mandolin genius behind Punch Brothers, and one-third of Nickel Creek. Brad Mehldau is one of the most exciting pianists on the jazz scene, whether he’s playing solo or with his trio. Separately they’re incredible musicians, so this meeting of their minds is a thrilling prospect. Their styles are remarkably different, so I’m interested to hear how they meld what they do into a cohesive whole. The two-disc album contains covers of Elliott Smith and Gillian Welch tunes, too, in case you weren’t excited enough. It’s out Jan. 27.

4. Elbow, Little Fictions.

Is there a more consistent band in the world than Elbow? They’ve staked out their territory, playing slow, patient, glorious art-rock over six previous albums, and this seventh one doesn’t seem like it will change their identity. The first two singles have been classic Elbow, soaring and melancholy, rising on the one-of-a-kind voice of Guy Garvey. History tells me this one’s going to be fantastic. It’s out Feb. 3.

5. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway.

Andrew McMahon is the piano-playing songwriter behind Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate, and his debut three years ago as Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness saw him stripping back all the grandiose guitars and relying on pianos and keys. It was marvelous, and the three songs I’ve heard so far from this follow-up are equally marvelous. I wish more pop records sounded like McMahon’s. This one hits stores on Feb. 10.

6. Ryan Adams, Prisoner.

Ryan Adams used to be the kind of songwriter who would put out three albums in a year, but it’s been three since we’ve heard a new batch of his songs. (I’m not counting his full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989, good as it was.) Prisoner aims to rectify that with an ‘80s-inspired vibe, and the tracks released so far could have come from a Tom Petty session from 30 years ago. Here’s hoping this is as good as Adams can be when he puts his mind to it. Prisoner is out Feb. 17.

7. Grandaddy, Last Place.

Just the fact that this album exists and we’ll get to hear it soon is exciting. Jason Lytle’s orchestral-indie band broke up 11 years ago, gifting us with a grand finale called Just Like the Fambly Cat. Now we’re on the verge of Grandaddy’s return, and if you remember them fondly, the first single from Last Place should get that tingly feeling on the back of your neck going. The new Grandaddy album (I can’t believe I get to type that phrase) is out on March 3.

8. The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir.

The last time Stephin Merritt gifted us with dozens of new tunes at once, the result was 69 Love Songs, the album that took his Magnetic Fields to a new level of popularity and respect. This new album follows a similar path, including 50 songs (one for each year of Merritt’s life) over two and a half hours, arranged as an autobiography of sorts. Merritt is one of the wittiest and sharpest songwriters alive, and I’m jazzed to hear him sink his teeth into something huge and significant again. This beast is out March 3, and with Grandaddy out the same day, March 3 gets my vote for most exciting release date of the year right now.

9. The Shins, Heartworms.

This fifth album by New Mexico’s favorite jangle-pop sons was just announced, along with a pre-release single that’s, you know, OK. But I have faith in James Mercer, particularly because the first three Shins albums were so solid. I wasn’t a fan of Port of Morrow, and I’m hopeful that Heartworms, five years in the making, will outdo it in every way. The new Shins is out March 10.

10. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Damage and Joy.

Another reunion I never thought I would live to see. It’s been nearly 20 years since the brothers Reid dropped new music on us, and ten since their seminal noise-rock band reunited, but here we are. Damage and Joy is 14 new songs, led by the pretty good single “Amputation,” and here’s hoping it’s good enough to spark an entire new generation of fans. We’ll see on March 24.

11. Aimee Mann, Mental Illness.

A new Aimee Mann album is always cause for celebration. Mann remains one of the finest songwriters working today, and her ninth was preceded by an anti-Trump song called “Can’t You Tell” that approached our president-elect with more sensitivity than he deserves. Whether the album contains more along these lines is anyone’s guess at this point, but I’m so ready to pony up for another dozen or so Aimee Mann songs, whatever they’re about. Look for it on March 31.

12. A new Choir album and tour

Now we get into things that will most likely come out next year, but have no definite details. Most important to me is news that the Choir is making a new album. They’re perhaps my favorite band in the world, and they’ve been on a hot streak lately, culminating in Shadow Weaver, their 2014 late-career masterpiece. While the new one may or may not come out in 2017, the Choir does plan a tour behind a new remaster of their amazing Wide-Eyed Wonder album from 1989, playing the whole thing from top to bottom, and we’ll get singer/guitarist Derri Daugherty’s new solo album this year as well. Every year’s a good year to be a Choir fan, but this one looks to be something special.

13. Two new Nine Inch Nails albums.

A couple weeks ago Trent Reznor dropped an EP called Not the Actual Events. It’s an unpleasant affair, slinky and unsettling, noisy and uncompromising in ways Nine Inch Nails has not been in a long time. As a palette cleanser for two major new projects this year, it’s a beautiful statement of intent. I’m always on board for new Reznor music, and it sounds like we’re about to get a lot of it.

14. The third Fleet Foxes album.

I know, we’ve been hearing about this for years, but it sounds like it’s actually coming this time. It’s been nearly six years since Robin Pecknold’s spiritual folk band issued their second album, the fantastic Helplessness Blues, and I’ve almost forgotten what a revelation their woodsy harmonies and timeless songwriting were. Almost. I’m ready for more.

15. A new Gorillaz album.

This actually looks like it will happen this year too. Damon Albarn has long been one of the most elusive figures in popular music, taking Blur to the brink of psychedelic noise, taking on strange projects like Monkey and Mali Music, and, with Gorillaz, embracing hip-hop and dance beats while not compromising his odd pop sensibilities. It’s been six years since we’ve heard from his fictional band of miscreants, and that’s too damn long.

16. A new Arcade Fire album.

Speaking of unpredictable, there’s this group. After Reflektor, their dance-pop Talking Heads-esque epic from four years ago, it’s up in the air where Arcade Fire will go next. As always, though, I’m fascinated to find out. It looks like we should be able to hear this thing sometime in spring or summer.

17. U2, Songs of Experience.

And finally, the most tenuous of the lot. Yes, this was on last year’s list, and yes, I honestly expected it then. I hope we get to hear the follow-up to Songs of Innocence sometime in 2017. (Update: It looks like they’re taking more time with it, to address our new Trumpian reality.) I will always be a U2 fan, and hence will always be interested in what they do, but I’m actually giddy for this album since its predecessor (yes, the iTunes album) was the best thing the band had done since Achtung Baby in 1991. Songs of Innocence recaptured an old fire, aiming for sounds that could sit nicely next to their classic work, and if they can retain that fire while moving into more modern waters, it will be a joy to hear.

There’s more, of course – I didn’t even talk about highly anticipated new albums from Beck and Sigur Ros, for instance – but that should do as a starter set. And of course, as the year goes on, I expect many, many more announcements and releases, and hence many, many more reasons to love this year. There are already a few things out that we haven’t discussed, like the surprisingly strong new Kid Cudi album, or the wondrously weary new Bill Mallonee record, or Brian Eno’s new ambient piece. While I expect 2017 to suck beyond measure in so many ways, I’m hopeful that the music will help get us through it. Let’s find out.

Next week, we circle back to an old-school musical monster who had a hell of a 2016.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Fifty Second Week
And Farewell to 2016

This is Fifty Second Week.

And thank God, it means that 2016 is over. I’m writing this two weeks in advance, so I have no idea what fresh hells this year visited upon us on its way out. (Update: Yeah, George Michael died. Good lord.) I’m just glad it’s done. Begone and good riddance, 2016. I don’t have the highest hopes for 2017, of course, but at this point I am willing to take my chances.

At any rate, welcome to my annual end-of-the-year tradition. If you don’t know how this goes, let me tell you. I buy and hear a lot more music than I can find time to review in this column, so every year I round up a stack of 52 albums I didn’t get to for one reason or another and I review them here. The catch is that I give myself 50 seconds to write about each one. I time myself, and when the buzzer goes off, I stop, regardless of whether I am in the middle of a word or a sentence. It’s an enjoyable game for me, and it allows me to clear a backlog of CDs that perhaps do not deserve the full in-depth treatment.

I hope you find this as much fun as I do. If you’re ready, I’m starting the timer. This is Fifty Second Week.

Anderson/Stolt, Invention of Knowledge.

Who would have thought that it would take a meeting of the classic prog minds to get Jon Anderson back into this mode? This album is comprised of four long tracks, three of them subdivided, and sounds like Yes from back in the day, with a modern twist. Roine Stolt deserves accolades for this.

Aphex Twin, Cheetah.

Talk about coming out of a hiatus strong. Richard D. James took a decade or so off from recording as Aphex Twin, but in recent years he’s been pumping out the material, including this strange yet magnificent little EP. No one makes electronic music quite the way James does.

The Avalanches, Wildflower.

It’s been 16 years since this Australian sound collage group released their debut album. This second record sounds for all the world like no time has passed. This is fun, danceable stuff, constructed entirely from samples, and is one of the most welcome comebacks of the year.

The Bad Plus, It’s Hard.

I could have sworn I reviewed this. The Bad Plus return to covers in the best way, taking the piss out of songs like Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” while still remaining respectful to their source material. I adore this record.

Garth Brooks, Gunslinger.

For some reason, Garth Brooks keeps making new records. There’s nothing on Gunslinger you haven’t heard him do a million times, nor is there anything that justifies its existence. It’s another foray into modern stadium country for a guy who used to genuinely rebel against that stuff.

Cheap Trick, Bang Zoom Crazy Hello.

Cheap Trick keeps making new records too, even though they haven’t changed a lick. This new one sounds like the last one, but if you like this band’s brand of hard rocking melodic power pop, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

Colvin and Earle.

You know how you never really think about how well two voices and styles will go together until you hear them? And then you can’t imagine how you missed it? Yeah, that’s what this is like. Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle run through covers together and turn in something that brings out the best in both.

Common, Black America Again.

Again, I really intended to review this. Common’s first really good album in a long time takes aim at racism and life in black America, and it’s powerful, uplifting and quite good. I’m thrilled with his John Legend collaboration, and his song from 13th, which closes this record.

Bob Dylan, Fallen Angels.

I can understand being curious about an album of Sinatra standards covered by Bob “I’ve been gargling with sandpaper” Dylan. But who wanted a second helping of this? Sure, his croak brings a new dimension to these songs, but it’s a barely listenable dimension.

Brian Eno, The Ship.

The master of ambience returns to the ambient with this lovely, droning cloud of a thing. The title track is the best kind of endless and formless, and even the Velvet Underground cover that closes things out can’t set this record off track.

Enuff Znuff, Clowns Lounge.

On the one hand, it’s great to hear Donnie Vie singing old-school EZN power pop again. On the other hand, I know this is archival material propping up a band that is a shadow of its former self, and on the tracks where Chip sings, you can really hear how far they’ve fallen.

Brian Fallon, Painkillers.

If you expected a solo album from the voice of the Gaslight Anthem to sound like anything but the Gaslight Anthem, you’re going to be disappointed. But if Fallon’s band’s variety of fist-pumping heartland anthem gets your motor running, this will work for you. I’m somewhere in the middle.

Fates Warning, Theories of Flight.

More solid sorta-progressive sorta-metal from this long-running band. The longer songs here are the most convincing, as always. Jim Matheos remains a fine, fine guitar player, despite the sometimes uninspiring material he plays.

Field Music, Commontime.

I have this strange inability to remember Field Music albums, even half an hour after I’ve played them. I know this is another platter of tricky yet tuneful progressive pop, and yet I’m struggling right now to remember a single song, or think of a single thing to say about it.

Future of Forestry, Awakened to the Sound.

This is a genuine surprise. A string-laden atmospheric record from a band that often traffics in U2-style rock dynamics, this is one hell of a fine production, hampered only by a quiet mix. I love this record and would whole-heartedly recommend it.

Heron Oblivion.

I bought this one on a recommendation from my awesome record store. This band lives in a place halfway between shoegaze and stoner rock, and that’s a fun place to spend an hour. They’re patient and space-y and worth your time.

Hope for the Dying, Legacy.

Fourth album from one of my favorite metal discoveries. These guys play insanely intricate material with a backing synth orchestra, and the sound is grand and expansive and really impressive. This album is no exception.

Eric Johnson, EJ.

The “Cliffs of Dover” guitar guru goes acoustic for this lighter collection of ditties. There are some cool covers here, and Johnson’s originals are very pretty. There isn’t a lot more to say – if you like acoustic guitar, this is quite nice.

Mark Knopfler and Evelyn Glennie, Altamira.

A very brief but very pretty soundtrack from Knopfler, a guy I could listen to for months without feeling bored. I wish there were more of this material, but what’s here is pleasant and dramatic. Glennie’s percussion is just the perfect seasoning.

Look Park.

Despite the band name, this is a solo record from Fountains of Wayne’s Chris Collingwood, the guy who sings most of the band’s songs. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – character studies with a sweet sense and a wide open heart. It’s good!

Bill Mallonee, Slow Trauma.

I’m starting to worry about Bill Mallonee. He still writes the same kind of folk-rock songs he always has, but his prodigious output lately has become more depressed and sad. This record is one of his saddest, and since he called his new one The Rags of Absence, I’m not expecting it to be any happier.

The Mavericks, All Night Live Vol. 1.

I just love the Mavericks. They’re one of the best country-Cuban-swing bands around, or they would be if there were another one. This live album features some of their best tunes, and the voice of Raul Malo (a Roy Orbison acolyte) brings them all home.

Meshuggah, The Violent Sleep of Reason.

Man, this is brutal. Meshuggah steps away from the cleaner and more technical metal they’ve been doing lately to return to pure pummeling. Getting through this whole record is an ordeal, but an awesome one.

Buddy Miller and Friends, Cayamo Sessions at Sea.

This slight but fun set pairs the Nashville legend up with the likes of Richard Thompson, Lee Ann Womack, Lucinda Williams and Shawn Colvin, and the results are pretty much what you’d expect. Which is not a criticism in any way.

The Orb, Chill Out, World.

Yes, the Orb is still kicking. This album contains some of their most ambient material, and is an hour-plus of soothing, otherworldly sounds. I’m glad they’re still around and still making lovely electronic prettiness.

Over the Rhine, Live from Nowhere Else.

I got to see Over the Rhine this year. They’re a spectacular live band, and this two-CD set from their recent shows at Nowhere Farm in Ohio is proof. Every song is wonderful. I remain so enamored of Karin Bergquist’s voice that I would listen to her sing anything.

Jack and Amanda Palmer, You Got Me Singing.

Aw, this is so cute. Amanda Palmer sings with her dad on these 12 tunes from her childhood, from Leonard Cohen’s title track to “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” to the wonderful “I Love You So Much.” It’s adorable.

Periphery, Periphery III: Select Difficulty.

Apparently they selected “very difficult.” Periphery is a stunningly talented technical metal band, and this record is one of their best, combining full-on power and speed with atmosphere. It’s their fifth, which makes the title strange, though.

Phantogram, Three.

At least this actually is this electro-pop band’s third album. It’s also their best, making the leap into fully produced radio-ready pop but also sticking to their independent guns. “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” was one of the year’s best mopey pop tunes.

Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.

A justly lauded old-school country record, Price’s debut is in the vein of Loretta Lynn, who she homages with the title. But she also homages the Beach Boys with the same title, which is kind of awesome, and tells you what you need to know about where she’s at musically.

Prophets of Rage, The Party’s Over.

After all that buildup, this mash-up of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill landed with a damp splat. There isn’t much here that points to a bright future for this side project, and this EP makes clear that it really is a side project.

Queen, On Air.

How I love Queen. This collection brings together all of their sessions for the BBC, spanning from 1973 to 1977. It’s always great to hear Freddie Mercury sing, but the real treasure of On Air is how tight this band was in the ‘70s. Live they were unstoppable.

Ra Ra Riot, Need Your Light.

I keep buying this band’s records, and I’m not sure why. This fourth one ditches the violins that had been their trademark for synthesizers, and it’s fine and good, but I can’t really remember it. Their songs remain just pretty good, never slipping over into great.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Getaway.

I suppose it’s telling that the strongest album the Red Hot Chili Peppers have made in many years still didn’t inspire me to review it. I’m so far over their sound that even this, the most adept record since maybe Californication, just sat there for months, forgotten.

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau, Nearness.

I would buy anything from either of these jazz masters, so an album of duets is right up my alley. To their credit, Mehldau and Redman didn’t stick to the obvious, instead creating a tricky and difficult listen, but one that rewards repeated dives through.

The Rolling Stones, Blue and Lonesome.

I kept hearing about this, and despite not being a fan, I gave it a try. Damn. It’s really, really good. The band sounds on fire here, tearing through a set of old-time blues covers with abandon. Mick in particular sounds great, which I would not have expected. If this is the last Stones album, it brings their career full circle in the best way.

Sleigh Bells, Jessica Rabbit.

I remain surprised, four albums in, at how many different variations on this duo’s guitars-and-drum-machines sound they manage to find. I liked this record, probably more than any they’ve made, because it is so varied.

Solange, A Seat at the Table.

Her sister got all the ink this year, but Solange Knowles made a strong, stirring third album, tackling race in America over soulful grooves and some fascinating interludes. Not sure it adds up to more than the sum of its many parts, but it’s a real surprise.

Colin Stetson, Sorrow.

My favorite new saxophone player tackles a reinterpretation of Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Yes, this is for real, and yes, I love it. It’s off-putting in all the best ways, and continues a streak of strange, beautiful projects from Stetson.

Sting, 57th and 9th.

Sting puts away his lute at last and returns to his rock roots. Considering his age and his mellowed sensibilities, this is actually pretty good. Some of it rocks convincingly, and “Inshallah” is one of his most affecting songs. Not great, but still worthy.

The Sword, Low Country.

A collection of acoustic outtakes from The Sword’s absolutely batshit High Country album. This is pretty good, and serves to drive them even further from their stoner rock roots. I love it when bands go nuts like this.

Chris Taylor, Never Ending Now.

Taylor is an unjustly obscure singer-songwriter, and this, his umpteenth album, is a full-on double record. It’s remarkably consistent, a through-and-through work of art, and it deserved a full review. Take this as my unabashed recommendation.

Chris Taylor, Reimagine.

And if you buy Never Ending Now, you get this collection of re-recordings from throughout Taylor’s career for free. That’s a deal you shouldn’t pass up. christaylor.bandcamp.com.

They Might Be Giants, Phone Power.

TMBG’s third album in less than a year is another gem. Their second collection of Dial-a-Song ditties, this one sports a killer cover of “Bills Bills Bills” and so many clever, melodic moments that it would make most other pop bands jealous. Keep ‘em coming.

Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones, Little Windows.

If there’s any release this year that I wish were longer, it’s this one. Teddy Thompson, son of Richard, melds his deep voice with Jones’ lush one, and they spin out one lovely duet after another. All ten of these songs together will only run you 25 minutes, though. I want more!

Devin Townsend Project, Transcendence.

At this point, Devin has so perfected his ambient metal style that an album that rocks, dives and swerves like Transcendence does just feels pretty normal for him. It’s very good, don’t get me wrong, but there aren’t any surprises here, except maybe the amazing Ween cover.

Various Artists, Day of the Dead.

Five CDs of Grateful Dead covers curated by the guys in the National? Could this have any more going against it? But it’s really nice stuff, for the most part. As expected, it’s too long and too bloated, but the gems here are strong, and it turns out to be a nice tribute.

Various Artists, George Fest.

This set documents a September 2014 concert honoring the late George Harrison, and it’s pretty wonderful. There aren’t very many obvious choices here, and the best ones are the most unexpected, like Weird Al singing “What Is Life.” It’s terrific.

Jack White, Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016.

There’s very little new here, but it’s fun to have all of White’s various acoustic pieces (studio, live, etc.) in one handy place. White is always enjoyable, and this collection proves he doesn’t need distortion to be entertaining.

Joy Williams, Venus Acoustic.

If you were pleasantly shocked by the danceable grooves of Williams’ post-Civil Wars solo album, Venus, you will be equally pleasantly shocked by how lovely these songs are in her more stripped back, acoustic style. Williams’ voice is a treasure, and she sings the hell out of these sparsely arranged tunes.

Brian Wilson and Friends.

Wilson’s No Pier Pressure tour found him teaming up with a bunch of young ruffians, like Nate Ruess and She and Him and Kacey Musgraves. That this live album is as much fun as it is anyway is a testament to the songs and to Wilson’s very Wilson-esque arrangements.

Xiu Xiu, Plays the Music of Twin Peaks.

What a weird one to end on. Noise masters Xiu Xiu perform a reverent tribute to Angelo Badalamenti’s score to Twin Peaks, music that is seared into my brain from my teenage years. This is such a strange project, but they clearly love this music, even when they make it weirder, and it works.

And scene. As always, I’m grateful for all of you who read this column, no matter how regularly. I love writing it, and I don’t want to stop. So I’m not gonna. When we return, we’ll rush right into year 17. That’s a lot of years. Might be time for a new look. We’ll see.

OK, g’wan, get outta here, and take 2016 with you. Happy new year, everyone. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

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.

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‘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.

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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.

a column by andre salles