The last works of two giants, the channeling of a blues legend and invigorated statements from a pair of pioneering bands. That covers just some of the best recordings of 2016.
As with the past few years, this Critic’s Pick selection of the year’s finest albums has not been ranked. All are presented here on equal footing. All are worthy of your time and attention as this bleak year draws to a close.
David Bowie: “Blackstar”
Here’s the real deal on “Blackstar.” You can read all kinds of sentimentality into its release a matter of days before Bowie’s unexpected death. But none of that really matters when we consider how wondrous the music is. It’s warm and assuring at times, dissonant and unsettling at others. Bowie kept us all guessing until the very end.
Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker”
Same goes for “You Want It Darker,” except that fleeting mortality has been a favorite Cohen topic for decades. But the music on “You Want it Darker” sounds almost liturgical at times. Its songs are ruminations on God, death and love, both spiritual and earthly. Taken as a whole, it flows with a whispery, sage and ultimately peaceful assuredness.
Sturgill Simpson: “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”
Versailles-bred Simpson turned out to be the prime country music rebel in 2016. For his third album, he continues to sing with the outlaw drawl of Waylon Jennings. But the songs sail quickly beyond familial confessionals into brassy jaunts that culminate in the funkified rant “Call to Arms.” Nashville should view the record as a battle plan being drawn.
Various artists: “God Don’t Never Change — The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson”
“God Don’t Never Change” is a fearsome Americana tribute to the gospel blues of the itinerant preacher known as Blind Willie Johnson featuring Tom Waits, Blind Boys of Alabama, Lucinda Williams, and, on a stirring “Jesus is Coming Soon,” the unexpectedly wild Cowboy Junkies singing against a recording of Johnson’s doomsday tenor.
Drive-By Truckers: “American Band”
The music is electric, urgent and unvarnished, and the lyrics compose an extended reality check. Forget the jingoism that the title implies. “American Band” sits mortified at the country’s ailing divisions and turns to the same basic rock ’n’ roll that the Truckers have used through much of its career to defuse Southern stereotypes and hypocrisies.
Brad Mehldau Trio: “Blues and Ballads”
Jazz piano titan Mehldau returns to the trio format, but not entirely to jazz — at least not in terms of repertoire. “Blues and Ballads” downshifts so Mehldau can explore the gorgeous melodic flow in a generation-spanning song selection that runs from Cole Porter to The Beatles. Exquisitely performed, this is the prime chill-out record of 2016.
Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Viers: “case/lang/viers”
A regal summit of three masterful vocalists and song stylists, “case/lang/viers” was the most underrated musical diversion of last summer. The songs mesh lang’s elegant longing and Case’s ambient crooning (“Honey and Smoke”), celebrate otherworldly harmony (“Supermoon”) and honor dark, restless folk tradition (“Georgia Stars”).
California Guitar Trio: “Komorebi”
As stylistically daring as ever, the CGT cut “Komorebi” quickly but captured a tone of astonishing clarity and warmth. You hear it in originals like “Cherry Trees” and the album’s title tune. But the repertoire stretches to tunes by the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the gorgeous “Spiritual” with luscious, wordless vocals from Petra Haden.
Rolling Stones: “Blue & Lonesome”
This overdub-free look at the Stones, peeled back to their blues roots, is one of the most logical and learned statements ever by a vanguard band with nothing left to prove. The Stones don’t sound youthful, but they do seem remarkably invigorated, with an immediacy that reflects the roots-savvy sounds that got them rolling in the first place.
The Jayhawks: “Paging Mr. Proust”
Having tried the full reunion bit a few years ago with mediocre results, Gary Louris returns to the role of lone Jayhawks frontman. What happens isn’t just a vindication of previous albums made under his stewardship. What we hear is a mix of Americana smarts, drive and harmony that makes the Jayhawks a band of purpose and vision again.