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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Highlights from a Year in Music - 2016

Wow! New and revived music thrilled again this year with a string of live shows that began with Todd Rundgren at The Fillmore, Rickie Lee Jones at The Mystic and Justin Bieber at Staples Center, and continued with Peter Wolf at City Winery in Nashville, Joe Jackson at the refurbished UC Theatre in Berkeley, Jackson Browne at San Jose Civic, Peter Frampton’s sit-down living room concert at Herbst Theater, Tom Odell at Social Club SF, the stunning return of Yusuf/Cat Stevens at Davies Symphony Hall, and Kronos Quartet with Bruce Cockburn at KALW’s 75th Anniversary Party.

Here are a few recordings that made a mark this year (not necessarily in any order):

1.    David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia). This haunting finale from one of the greatest artists of his or any generation is a compelling reminder of the depth, soul and influence he aspired to and gave to others. Check out the “Blackstar” video and “Lazarus” can be added to the cannon.

2.     Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (Concord Records). Clever lyrics, challenging rhythms, and immersive sonic adventures only begin to describe this new collection by a songwriter still working at the peak of his talents. Hard to beat “Proof of Love” or “Cool Papa Bell.”

3.     Peter Wolf – A Cure for Loneliness (Concord Records). J. Geils frontman returned in high form with the Midnight Travelers for a soulful collection of fresh, poignant and rocking songs, including “Rolling On” and a souped-up bluegrass take on “Love Stinks.”

4.     Elton John – Wonderful Crazy Night (Mercury/Island). In a nod to his 1970s sound, this lively set burns bright especially on “Blue Wonderful” and “I’ve Got Two Wings,” and of course, T-Bone Burnett and Bernie Taupin both have a steady hand throughout.

5.     The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light (Warner Bros.). Producer Jay Joyce brought new electricity and verve to the evolution of this stellar band. Vocal arrangements soar over a deep driving core. Standouts include “City of Angeles,” “Colors” and “Signs of Light.” Video for "All We Ever Knew."

6.     Suzanne Vega – Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers (Amanuensis Productions). Inspired by the writings of McCullers, this album of poetic songs, written with the prolific Duncan Sheik, reminds how simple arrangements topped with Vega’s unmistakable voice and purity of tone wins every time.

7.     John Legend – Darkness and Light (Columbia). The contemporary pop/R&B master takes a break from his warm and fuzzy hit machine with the urgent “Love Me Now.” Besides the Chance the Rapper “Penthouse Floor” rap (rant?), spare arrangements and Legends’ indelible voice shine throughout.

8.     Dawes – We’re All Gonna Die (Hub Records). On their fifth outing, Dawes has stepped up their game opening with gritty riffs then turning to delicate melodies on a dime. The mix is rich and rewarding throughout with tinges of old school L.A. rock with modern moods. Standouts are “We’re All Gonna Die” and “Less Than Five Miles Away.”

9.     Shawn Mendes – Illuminate (Island). The young heartthrob of the moment has turned out a sophomore release to match his worldwide pop stardom. Filled with biting hooks, heart-on-the-sleeve pronouncements and fragile cries of love and agony, this is fun Top 10 pop. See hits “Mercy” and Treat You Better” or punchy “Honest.”

10.  Andrew Bird – Are You Serious (Loma Vista Recordings). Quirky, thoughtful and passionate come to mind with Bird’s latest offering. Thundering bass, natural percussion, and a reedy tenor pepper this album. Try “Roma Fade,” “Saints Preservus” and 'Valleys of the Young.” And who else whistles anymore?

Footnotes for further listening

Special mentions are in order for two pop traditionalists: Adele for “25” and Barbra Streisand for “Encores.”

David Crosby quietly released the pitch-perfect “Lighthouse” and Leonard Cohen’s final release “You Want It Darker” finds him at his best.

Rolling Stones’ “Blue & Lonesome” is a return to form with a solid romp in the blues.

Best retro find: Stanley Clarke's "Journey to Love" (Epic) from 1975; notably, cuts dedicated to John Coltrane.

Happy New Year!

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