Mountains of the Moon, Earth to Heaven: The Best Music of 2016

This is the fourth year-end wrap-up I’ve written about music. My past discussions of particular songs or albums have tended to be lengthy, so this year I’ll try to assess items with brevity. While 2016 may not have seen as many inventive recordings as in 2015, the year had a proliferation of well-honed albums and stirring popular music. I’m breaking from my past habits by putting the best album of the year last, instead of first. A little suspense is a good thing. Read on.

The New Trend: The African American Confessional Aesthetic

            A number of albums by African American artists featured unfinished, one-take, or otherwise raw performances, as well as audio clips and short, spoken “interludes.” This aesthetic conveys spontaneity and the intensely personal nature of these works. Many of the works grapple with questions of sexuality, identity, and the place of African Americans in the U.S. during the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result, the recordings make the listener feel like a guest inside the artist’s consciousness.

The practice was not always successful. The interludes in Frank Ocean’s long-overdue Blond felt narcissistic and silly. On the other hand, Solange Knowles’s A Seat at the Table created the ambiance of a family affair, with unadorned arrangements and snippets of conversations (staged or real? I don’t know) that commented on the lyrics. Other albums featuring this raw aesthetic include Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered., Alicia Keys’s Here, and Common’s Black America Again. I am curious to see if more African American artists use this aesthetic next year, or if artists of other races embrace the format.

Best Individual Tracks of the Year

Aimee Mann, “Yesterday Once More,” from Vinyl: Music from the HBO Original Series, Vol. 1.2: HBO’s much-touted Vinyl, spearheaded by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, became a monumental flop, but the weekly EPs containing the show’s music were a lot of fun. Most EPs featured covers of obscure 1970s songs. The best performance was arguably Aimee Mann’s rendition of the Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More.” What was once a sappy song about nostalgia gains a measure of gravitas in Mann’s delicate, sad rendition.

Lily & Madeleine Jurkiewicz, “Hotel Pool,” from Keep It Together: The pop singer sisters from Indianapolis appeared on my radar with last year’s exquisite single “Hourglass,” which evoked the earnest structure and lyrics of a Carole King song. “Hotel Pool” continues the Jurkiewiczs’ dominance of the pop song form. Their portrait of weary travelers at a hotel is a touching declaration of romantic longing.

Esperanza Spalding, “Earth to Heaven,” from Emily’s D+Evolution: There were several standout tracks on Emily’s D­­+Evolution, but this rousing paean to agnosticism and putting this life before the next one — not the usual material for rock music — was the best. Spalding’s nimble vocal melody, interspersed with Earth-shaking bass riffs that would have impressed Lou Reed, fuses jazz with a serious rock aesthetic.

Maxwell, “Lake by the Ocean,” from blackSUMMERS’night: The renowned R&B singer is back from several years’ absence with this immaculately constructed love song. I’m not particularly sure what the central metaphor of the lake by the ocean represents, but Maxwell sings so earnestly, and the syncopated pulse of the arrangement so intoxicating, that I don’t care. He makes the abstract feel romantic.

Underworld, “I Exhale,” from Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future: The British electronic pioneers kick off their latest album with a stirring eight-minute dance track. The free-association lyrics and nursery-rhyme chorus make for a bizarre sonic experience, but the constant drive of the instrumentation is engrossing. This is club music from a nightmare, but an intoxicating one.

Jerry Williams, “Mother,” from Let’s Just Forget It: This peppy pop import from Britain bears some resemblance to Meghan Trainor’s doo-wop- and soca-infused music, but without the questionable gender politics. Singing with candid amusement, Williams portrays her narrator’s back-and-forth relationship to her mother. Teenage angst as rendered in pop music rarely sounds this earnest or sweet.

Sarah Jarosz, “Early Morning Light” and “Green Lights,” from Undercurrent: Freshly graduated from her conservatory, Jarosz has taken folk music by storm in the last three years, even collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Undercurrent, her expert new album, recalls the work of the Civil Wars as well as James Taylor. “Early Morning Light” and particularly “Green Lights” wear their traditional influences openly, but showcase Jarosz’s lyrical skill and meliflous voice. “Green Lights” in particular builds to a powerful musical conclusion and possibly borrows its central metaphor from The Great Gatsby’s green light. Love can drive people to pursue the things they can never capture.

Shuma, “Rano Rano,” from Sonca: This Belarussian collective combines trance electronica with traditional pagan and Slavic folk songs. Their videos and live performance use laser projections and modern dance to create an alien experience — the primeval resurrected on computerized steroids. “Rano Rano” is a standout from Sonca.

Eliza Hardy Jones, “Criminal,” from Because Become: Much has been written of the new Philadelphia Sound — the hazy electronic synthesizers enveloping stadium-rock guitar, as embodied by the War on Drugs and Kurt Vile. Ms. Jones, a pianist from Philly, embraces this sound on her single “Criminal.” The polysemous lyrics are opaque — this could be an abused woman’s denunciation of a lover, or it could be the story of a person falling into depression. Either way, Jones’s multi-tracked vocals reach operatic grandeur in the chorus, and the whole thing is a beautiful bit of pop arranging.

Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Anyhow,” from Let Me Get By: The liner notes to Let Me Get By describe the artists’ desire to write music that feels familiar — not derivative, but rather drawing from deep traditions of American folk and country music. “Anyhow” proves that Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks have succeeded in their goal. The song nails the Americana blend of improvisation and structure that the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, and others popularized.

Emalie Savoy, with the Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt, “Rusalka, Op. 114, B. 203, Act I: Lieblicher Mond (Song to the Moon),” composed by Antonin Dvorak, from A Portrait: Works by Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Weber, & Barber: Ms. Savoy has a marvelous soprano voice and turns this rendition of Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” into something as delicate as a lullaby. The most beautiful six minutes of music I heard all year.

Nick Cave, “I Need You,” from Skeleton Tree: Nick Cave’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics ostensibly describe a man appealing to his lover in a supermarket, but really deal with the death of his son Arthur. “Just breathe… just breathe,” Cave pleads. I took the song as Cave’s ode to his wife in the face of personal tragedy, but the song’s depiction of grief has universal resonance, beyond the Cave family’s troubles. The singer alternates between a need for isolation and a need for companionship — the central paradox of mourning — but settles on companionship. He can’t bear this pain alone.

Sunflower Bean, “Easier Said,” from Human Ceremony: I have a weakness for lo-fi, slightly muffled, chiming pop music. Maybe it’s retro-futuristic; I’m not sure. Yet this track played right to my weaknesses. Like Alvvays two years ago, Sunflower Bean creates an ambient soundscape with gentle yet non-stop percussion. The contrast of placidity and momentum is enchanting.

Aoife O’Donovan, “Detour Sign,” from In the Magic Hour: O’Donovan channels Bonnie Raitt and Alison Krauss’s collaborations with Robert Plant in this gentle song about failed love. At least, the music is gentle. The lyrics, with their extraordinary plays on color imagery (“blue” and “blew” in multiple contexts), convey despair in the face of a failed relationship, yet we hear endurance and strength in the singer’s voice. She is lifting up and away from the mess, even as she gives words to it.

Frank Ocean, “Nikes” and “Solo,” from Blond: Ocean’s latest album was a colossal misfire, but it had its moments. “Nikes,” which ponders status symbols and the death of Trayvon Martin, is an attention-grabbing opening track, while “Solo” is a vivid portrayal of a bad trip, laced with religious imagery recalling Ocean’s landmark song “Bad Religion.”

The Green and Pleasant Band, “The Magic Wood, Parts 1–5,” composed by Philip Henderson, from Philip Henderson’s From the Old World to the New World: The Green and Pleasant Band does a fine job with its performance of “The Magic Wood,” which evokes the searing string passages and spare arrangements of Arvo Pärt’s work.

Little Scream (Laurel Sprengelmeyer), “Love as a Weapon,” from Cult Following: Laurel Sprengelmeyer wanted to pay tribute to Prince on her latest album, and this urge is most apparent on the stammering, sexy “Love as a Weapon.” With its canon-like vocal samples, distorted guitars evoking St. Vincent’s style, and the bombastic synthesizers that kick in ¾ of the way through the song, “Love as a Weapon” is a fine monument to the Purple One. At the same time, Little Scream rocks as her own artist. So much fun to hear.

The Rolling Stones, “Hate to See You Go,” from Blue and Lonesome: The randy old rockers still got it on this collection of blues covers. This track equals the energy of Little Walter’s original, as Mick Jagger’s forceful voice and virtuosic harmonica intersect to beg his lover to stay. The Stones play as freely as young artists, but with the tight instrumentation that comes from six decades of working together.

Joan Shelley, “Here and Whole,” B-side from her “Cost of the Cold” single: A delicate confection of a folk ballad, Joan Shelley’s “Here and Whole” is a meditation on different forms of love — parents, children, lovers, etc. NPR’s Terry Gross compared Shelley to the great, gone-too-soon Sandy Denny, and the comparison is an apt one.

Kerenza Peacock (violin), Huw Watkins (piano), and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Paul Bateman, “Dance: II. Second Movement,” composed by Oliver Davis, from Oliver Davis: Dance: Davis has composed a wonderfully romantic and moody waltz that would have been right at home on the Downton Abbey soundtrack. The piece is the standout amid an entire album of ballet music. A ballerina friend of mine is already determined to choreograph this song.

Lang Lang, with Jeffrey Wright and Lisa Fischer, “Somewhere (Dirty Boulevard),” from New York Rhapsody: Lang Lang’s latest album, New York Rhapsody, is a bit of a head-scratcher. The Chinese pianist covers everything from Gershwin to Jay-Z & Alicia Keys in his musical tribute to the Big Apple. This is not typical classical music. However, Lang’s iconoclastic approach to New York fulfills its potential on this track. At its core, this track is a cover of Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard,” a tale of poverty narrated by Westworld star Jeffrey Wright. However, Lang juxtaposes the Reed lyrics with the chorus from West Side Story’s “Somewhere,” composed by Leonard Bernstein and sung here by the amazing Lisa Fischer. Snippets of “Rhapsody in Blue” punctuate the song, as do electronic percussion and synthesizers. Lang’s piano laces the whole piece. This song is daring to combine Reed’s punk with Bernstein’s classicism, but the combination is sublime.

Alicia Keys with A$AP Rocky, “Blended Family (What You Do For Love),” from Here: In a year when racism and nativism surged into American discourse, it was reassuring to encounter works of art like “Blended Family,” which calls for acceptance and building a new family after a second marriage. Keys’s voice is gorgeous as always and compassion fills the lyrics.

MUNA, “Winterbreak,” from The Loudspeaker EP: The female performers of MUNA use vocoders and multi-tracked singing to atmospheric effect in this bit of elegant electronica.

Randy Newman, “Putin”: The mighty composer Randy Newman takes a break from jazz soundtracks and indulges his satiric side, writing his most scathing song in years. The intricate wordplay describing Putin’s manliness, female admirers, and plans for world domination would be right at home in a musical. During the final verse, as Putin hypes himself up to “lead our people to the promised land,” the listener stops laughing and realizes that Newman has perfectly captured the dictator of Russia.

The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) and Daft Punk, “I Feel It Coming,” from Starboy: Abel Tesfaye stretches his vocal abilities in impressive ways on this tender track, the standout from the Starboy album. Yes, this song deals with the same material — foreplay — as Bruno Mars’s recent “Versace on the Floor,” but Tesfaye avoids the juvenile male lust that suffuses the Mars track. Instead, he and Daft Punk croon beautifully about trust and growth. The old-fashioned touches, such as the muffled radio sound at the beginning and the chiming keyboards, feel sincere, whereas Mars’s 1980s tropes feel devoid of real emotion. I haven’t paid much attention to The Weeknd in the past, but this song convinced me that he is growing as an artist.

Records of the Year

Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs, “Best Kept Secret,” from Case/Lang/Veirs: This song plants a huge smile on my face every time I hear it. Laura Veirs’s ode to her best friend is a fine portrait in miniature, but its detailed understanding of friendship — the way we admire selfless companion, the way that a nighttime phone call can salvage a bad day — resonates far beyond Silver Lake, CA. Meanwhile, the elaborate, Bollywood-inspired string arrangements transport this winning song beyond the pop-rock category into classical crossover. The combination of music and lyrics made me feel joyful, so I regard the song as the most fulfilling listen of the year.

Radiohead, “Burn the Witch,” from A Moon Shaped Pool: On the other hand, the song that best captured 2016 was Radiohead’s disturbing “Burn the Witch,” which describes a society breaking down. Citizens shuffle along, ignoring the chaos around them, while leaders promise solutions by killing scapegoats. Radiohead wrote this song before the age of Trump and Brexit, but the piece feels relevant, painting a terrifying picture of where we could wind up, if we indulge our worst instincts. Check out the brilliant music video, too, which uses childlike cartoon characters to terrifying, subversive effect.

Best Soundtracks

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival: Jóhannsson’s extraordinary work for Arrival combines harpsichord, post-minimalist orchestral arrangements, and samples of human voices to create a decidedly alien, cerebral soundscape. Appropriate for a movie about talking to extraterrestrials!

Justin Hurwitz, La La Land, with lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (plus John Legend, Marius De Vries, and Angelique Cinelu on “Start a Fire”): If Jóhannsson captured my imagination, Hurwitz captured my heart. His gorgeous, lush orchestral score for La La Land paid homage to classic musicals while providing totally new music. There are no pastiches of past hits; rather, this is a new work in an old genre. “Someone in the Crowd” and “Audition” could become musical theater standards.

Best Albums

My list comes in two segments. The first bloc consists of 18 exemplary albums, in no particular order. The second bloc consists of the 10 finest albums I heard this year, from Number 10 to Number 1.

Cyrille Aimée, Let’s Get Lost: The French-born, Brooklyn-based, and widely acclaimed jazz singer Aimée has recorded a winning collection of songs. With such spare instrumentation, the focus remains on Aimée’s voice, which exists in the blurry space between alto and soprano that defines so much classic jazz music. She sings with aplomb in French, Spanish, and English, and even dips into rock music on the final track, “Words.” As a humorous bonus, Aimée kicks off the album with a tempo-shifting cover of Stephen Sondheim’s “Live Alone and Like It” from the Dick Tracy movie, of all things.

Lily & Madeleine, Keep It Together: I’ve praised these sister-songwriters previously, so suffice to say that their latest album is about as good a pop album as one could ask for.

Aquarius Chamber Choir, conducted by Marc Michael De Smet, Arvo Pärt: Magnificent Magnificat: Pärt’s religious convictions motivated him to write some of the most powerful compositions in the minimalist canon, pairing a few melodic and harmonic lines with drones underneath. This album showcases his choral music, with which I was not familiar, but now regard as quite beautiful.

Brian Bromberg, Full Circle: Bassist Brian Bromberg has recorded a winning collection of songs ranging from early hot jazz to 1940s-esque jump blues. Great fun.

Little Scream (Laurel Sprengelmeyer), Cult Following: No way around it: This is a weird record, but I don’t mean weird as a criticism. It’s fun to hear a funk record that is so out-there as this one. Yes, Laurel Sprengelmeyer wanted to pay tribute to Prince, but the elements of Prince’s “Minnesota Sound” here are embedded within her own realm of eerie synthesizers and sonic experimentation. Sprengelmeyer’s voice anchors the collection with aplomb. Yes, she can scream, and she does it well.

Shuma, Sonca: This album made me a fan of Belarussian folk electronica (although the band Shuma might constitute the entirety of that genre).

Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), 22, A Million: Looking at Vernon’s lyrics, for some reason I thought of Cubism. The pieces are there to form the shape of a song, but the words jut out or contrast in odd ways, so that the thing being described becomes opaque. In short, I have no idea what Vernon’s talking about. Yet the conviction with which he sings (or autotunes) is palpable. This album is a work of spiritual longing, and the electronic experimentation makes for a singularly bizarre listen. The album manages to be inaccessible on a logical level, but engrossing on an emotional and aural level.

Kerenza Peacock (violin), Huw Watkins (piano), and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Paul Bateman, Oliver Davis: Dance: While the repeating arpeggios are straight out of a minimalist Philip Glass score, the rest of Davis’s work on this album recalls Romanticism — lush string arrangements and flowing melodies, with precise piano counterpoints. I hope someone sets this music to choreography soon.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Maurizio Benini, with ensemble, Leoncavallo: Zazà (Opera Rara): Ruggero Leoncavallo’s obscure opera Zazà receives a sterling full recording from the Opera Rara company. As David Karlin explains in his review of last year’s Opera Rara staging, the show depicts backstage romance at a music hall. The recording captures the raucous energy of that live performance. I agree with Karlin that Ermonela Jaho does a fine job singing the lead female role, the spurned lover Zaza. The soaring brass leitmotif that we hear at the start of the overture and repeatedly in the score sticks in one’s head for some time.

Voxare String Quartet, Cristina Spinei: Music for Dance (all music composed by Spinei): Female composers in classical music still do not receive the attention they deserve, so it was great to see a record devoted entirely to new music by Cristina Spinei. “Meet Me Under the Clock,” an ethereal dance for marimba and cello, is stunning, the highlight of this vibrant album.

The San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Mason Bates: Works for Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti, Mason Bates: Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (Live): I first hard Bates’s “Liquid Interface” on NPR seven years ago; at last, a recording has been released on Works for Orchestra. While it’s not quite as revolutionary as I remembered (I’m older and have heard more classical repertoire), “Liquid Interface” is still impressive, cinematic in its melodramatic passages while remaining perfect for the concert hall. Works also features Bates’s spirited “Alternative Energy.” Both suites are concerned with technological advances and the simultaneous decay of Earth’s environment, so that blend of optimism and dread permeates the soundscape. Another fine Bates recording, Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, premiered this year. It’s a gonzo version of Saint-Seans’s “Carnival of the Animals.” Where Saint-Seans was placid and elegant, Bates is frantic, depicting a range of fantastical creatures.

The Rolling Stones, Blue and Lonesome: The Stones sang the blues on their early records, when they were twenty-somethings in awe of African American bluesmen. These early recordings are kind of goofy when heard today. The Stones really came into their own when they began writing new music inspired by the blues. Fifty years later, the Stones have outlasted every major rock band of their era. They have seen, smoked, snorted, and lived everything that a rocker might encounter. These experiences have made them ready to engage the blues with a survivor’s mentality — the authenticity that Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and so many masters brought to the blues. For this reason, there is no goofiness about Blue and Lonesome, only fiery performances. It’s a thrill to hear.

Sting, 57th & 9th: “Inshallah” tips toward Sting’s bad habit of pretentiousness, but overall the songs on 57th & 9th are excellent. The first four tracks, particularly “50,000” and the climate change anthem “One Fine Day,” have fantastic wordplay and propulsive guitar riffs. The closer, “The Empty Chair,” is a poignant meditation on death. Sting is acknowledging that he is growing older, but he’s not going out quietly.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree: It’s a cliché that great art comes out of suffering, but such is the case with Nick Cave’s latest release. The death of his son hangs over every track, as Cave broods about God, death, and anguish. Yet the songs move from pitch-black despair toward gentle optimism when heard in order, so there is definitely an emotional narrative to the material. I hope Cave can find peace in real life.

Tedeschi Trucks Band, Let Me Get By: With any luck, this album will catapult Susan Tedeschi, former Allman Brother Derek Trucks, and their ensemble to stardom. They invigorate roots and country music, much like Amy Helm, who released a great album last year and with whom TTB is touring. I particularly enjoyed one track on this album that includes a Bollywood-inspired raga — not the usual material for country rockers!

Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger: Somehow this engaging album didn’t receive a single Grammy nomination. (I’m looking at you, Album-of-the-Year-nominee Justin Bieber.) Much like Sting’s 57th & 9th, Stranger to Stranger isn’t Simon’s best album, but it’s a quality entry in his catalogue. The wacky “Wristband,” which recalls Birdman in its story of being locked out of a theater, and the wistful “Horace & Pete” are the standout tracks.

Solange Knowles, A Seat at the Table: At last, Beyoncé’s little sister has stepped out of her shadow and released a wonderful album. Solange tackles arguably bigger themes than Beyoncé does on Lemonade. While Beyoncé touched on black politics and identity in “Formation,” most of that album focused on love and infidelity. Solange devotes the entirety of her album to blackness, the Black Lives Matter movement, and racial identity in modern America. It’s a deep record and a beautiful one musically.

The Top Ten

10. Joshua Bell (violin), Stephen Isserlis (cello), Jeremy Denk (piano), and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, For the Love of Brahms: The Brahms compositions on this album were written under the influence of, in tribute to, or in obsession with the Schumanns (Mr. and Mrs.). The celebrated Bell and Isserlis, masters of their instruments, play the selections with a suitable degree of passion, with fine accompaniment by Denk and the world-class Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. While I heard many fine classical records this year (see the ones above), this was one of the two best in terms of sheer execution.

9. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate: There have been a number of talented soul musicians in recent years (Solange, Leon Bridges, etc.), and we can now count the British singer Michael Kiwanuka among them. Kiwanuka shares the political and identity interests of the African American confessional artists I mentioned earlier in this article. Unlike Frank Ocean, who opted for an amateurishly unfinished aesthetic on his album, Kiwanuka has opted for elaborate production values and sound mixing. The resulting album, produced by Danger Mouse and featuring searing string and choral arrangements, is operatic in sound. (The orchestrations also recall Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi’s 2011 Rome concept album.) The minor-key melodies on Love & Hate are grim, but the narrators of Kiwanuka’s songs pursue hope despite their troubles. Hear the resilience in “Black Man in a White World,” or the longing in “One More Night.” Love & Hate evokes Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in the best way possible.

8. Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop, Love Letter for Fire: Folk singers Sam Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, and Jesca Hoop join forces for a suite of eclectic (and eccentric) love songs. Several tracks, including “One Way to Pray” and “Every Songbird Says,” brilliantly combine folk with classical music, as the cello part sometimes echoes and sometimes provides a counterpoint to the vocal melody. Perfect brainy music for a rainy day.

7. Lake Street Dive, Side Pony: This conservatory-trained soul group writes infectious songs. The musicians’ energetic performances and unconventional instrumentation (e.g., upright instead of electric bass) make for a winning combination. Rachel Price, the lead singer, has the voice of a goddess. I look forward to listening to this album again when the weather gets warmer, because for some reason it makes me want to dance on a porch in the sunlight. (As an aside, check out the hip-hop-influenced track “Can’t Stop.” The repetitive, clipped brass and percussion at the start of the song recalls Nigerian musician William Onyeabor’s “Body and Soul.”)

6. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool: Despite the guitars and keyboards, I don’t consider A Moon Shaped Pool a rock album. It’s really a classical album. Consider the fiery strings of “Burn the Witch,” which match the intensity of Bartok’s String Quartets. Or consider “Daydreaming,” which uses minimalist piano that recalls Arvo Pärt’s iconic “Spiegel im Spiegel.” Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, et. al. have once again reinvented their sound, fusing the electronica they indulged on The King of Limbs with a broader orchestral pallet. I only wish that Radiohead was touring with an actual string section!

5. Jordi Savall et. al., Granada Eterna: This one was a total surprise that I found in Spotify’s weekly list of new releases. The prolific viol player Savall specializes in medieval and Renaissance music. Here, he collaborates with early music collectives La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI to recreate the religious music of medieval Granada, Spain. However, the musicians do not focus exclusively on Christian sacred music. Rather, they capture the religious diversity (and Muslim occupation) of Granada, performing Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim songs. The resulting album enables the casual listener to appreciate the diversity as well as the sonic similarities of Granada’s religious music. My favorite track was King Alfonso the Wise’s “Pero que seja a gente,” a fast dance from his Cantiga de Santa María, but really there are no weak songs on this album.

4. David Bowie, Blackstar: So much has already been written about Blackstar — its sudden arrival, its creator’s shocking death, the song written in Nadsat and Polari, Donny McCaslin and Maria Schneider’s freaky jazz arrangements, and the poignancy of the final track — that it’s hard to make a new claim about the album. Let me just say that it’s a perfect swansong for David Bowie, but one that came too soon.

3. Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution: Esperanza Spalding’s jazz-fusion concept album about black women in academia is the smartest album of the year. Spalding is equally comfortable with spitfire rapping and sung lyrics, and she continues to amaze with her virtuosic bass playing. Here, she goes electric, whereas much of her past work was acoustic. The album compresses the distance between jazz, pop, and experimental music: Spalding’s fluttering vocal melodies pay tribute to the early works of Joni Mitchell; her fretless bass work recalls Jaco Pastorius; and on “Rest in Pleasure” she borrows the repeating vocal sample (“ha … ha … ha…”) from Laurie Anderson’s iconic “O Superman (For Jules Massenet).” One song, “Ebony and Ivy,” borrows its title from Craig Steven Wilder’s history book about racism in U.S. universities. Spalding wears her intellectualism openly; she has written an unapologetically smart album about unapologetically smart fictional characters. I loved every minute of Emily’s D+Evolution and recommend it not only to jazz lovers, but also to teachers working with minority youth. The lyrics are genuinely empowering.

1 (tie). Neko Case/K.D. Lang/Laura Veirs, Case/Lang/Veirs: As in 2014, I couldn’t choose a single best album. This time, I split the difference — the best original album and the best cover album. Case/Lang/Veirs is the best original album, a meeting of minds between folk singers Case and Veirs and country-rock icon Lang. This album is another classical crossover, like A Moon Shaped Pool and Love Letter for Fire; the string arrangements are integral to most of the songs, although strings are probably used to the most atmospheric effect on “Atomic Number,” “Best Kept Secret,” and “Song for Judee.” The dueting of Veirs’s voice and the cello part on “Judee” is sublime. The songs cover a tremendous range of topics — friendship, identity, travel, drug abuse, young love, mental illness, nature — making the album another intellectually rich record, like Emily’s D+Evolution. To my mind, this supergroup recalls the Traveling Wilburys, not in sound per se, but in its perfect synthesis of distinct artistic visions into something new. I hope this is not the last album from Case/Lang/Veirs.

As for the best cover album, that titles definitely goes to…

1 (tie). Aaron & Bryce Dessner, Day of the Dead: The latest benefit album from AIDS charity the Red Hot Organization, Day of the Dead is a monumental work of music. I mean that literally: The album consists of five CDs, or ten vinyl LPs, or nearly a gigabyte of music. Aaron and Bryce Dessner, brothers and core members of The National, spent several years producing this gigantic Grateful Dead tribute album, recording a few songs at a time, as musicians became available. Historically, I haven’t been a big Dead fan; there are great Dead studio albums and concert recordings, but their drug use frequently made for sloppy playing. (Yeah, I know, you had to be there, but still…) This album prompted me to reassess the Dead’s legacy. Hearing (mostly) sober musicians sing the lyrics of Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Robert Hunter, et. al. made me appreciate for the first time the range and imagination of the Dead’s music. Day of the Dead is the album for people who don’t like the Dead or casual fans who need a reason to dive deeper into their catalogue.

The musical experimentation on Day of the Dead is quite extraordinary. In Terry Riley’s rendition of “Estimated Prophet,” Riley dismantles the song into vocal clips and looped samples, using his phase-music technique to remake the song. Mumford & Sons, while not as avant-garde in their techniques as Riley, rework “Friend of the Devil” into something unrecognizable. They have kept the vocal melody intact, while transposing it to a new key, but the instrumental accompaniment has been completely rewritten, so that the harmonies (and dissonances) of the piece are new. The War on Drugs kick up the tempo and remove the banjo from “Touch of Grey,” so that it becomes a stadium-rock anthem. This is the Kit (Kate Stables) restores the grandeur of a Scottish ballad to “Jack-a-Roe,” banishing memories of the Dead’s cheesy disco-rock version. ANOHNI and yMusic turn “Black Peter” into a work of chamber music. Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth fame unplugs his guitar and turns “Mountains of the Moon” into a delightful children’s song. The National performs “Peggy-O” and “Morning Dew” in their minimalist, percussion-reinforced manner. We get three versions of “Dark Star.” Luluc saves “Till the Morning Comes” from itself: The Dead performed it as a randy sex ode, but Luluc turns it into a poignant love song. And so on. This is a six-hour album; there is much to discover. As with all great music.

Cover Image:
“Day of the Dead” Album Cover (4AD Records/Red Hot Organization, 2016), accessed Jan. 11, 2017, http://dayofthedeadmusic.com/assets/img/DOTD-share.png.

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