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.