Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Music of 2016, Album of the Year: Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker; Plus My Picks for the Top Ten and Top 50 Albums of the Year



Photo courtesy of Leonard Cohen

I don't know what it was about 2016 that caused such a plethora of quality music, just like the way that the article on Christmas releases quickly got out of hand with the quantity, I had to pass on more good records than ever before just to get down to a top 50 of the year. My choice for album of the year appears directly below. Following that is my top ten.

So how did I choose the top 10, you might ask? The one thing that each album in the top 10 has in common is that each has the goods to be the album of the year, if not for the Leonard Cohen LP. Which is not necessarily saying that one album is better than another. End of the year lists like this one are highly subjective; they only reflect the preferences of the writer. In my case, these are the records that drove me wild the most this year.

Forty more albums follow to complete my top 50, and the remarkable thing about each of these forty albums is that any one of them could have placed in my top ten.

A lot is being written about what an awful year 2016 was and I will grant you that we lost far too many musicians too soon. I will try not to pontificate except to offer one observation. In 2016, it seemed to me, that all forms of media (conventional, internet, and social media) combined with politics to create an environment so toxic that the only sane choice would be to vacate or disconnect. Realistically, we've lived through worse and the right approach might just be to, in the current parlance, double down on what we do best. And so, before we stick the proverbial fork in this year and declare it done, take a few more minutes and enjoy the good side of 2016. I wish everyone a happy, healthy, and peaceful new year.

Album of the Year: Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
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It's not because he died. That in itself wouldn't make this the album of the year, but make no mistake, Leonard Cohen's recent death gives an eerie context to his final work, released approximately six weeks before. Cohen wasn't just an old guy working at the top of his form, but at the age of 82 he had been surpassing himself with each release.

When you listen to You Want It Darker you hear no less than a stunning achievement, even for Cohen who was used to operating in the stratosphere of words. Yes, he was a poet, but he was also a lyricist, decidedly not the same thing, but he often blurred the distinction between the two. On top of that, he had a deep and resonant voice with which he delivered his lines like no one else could. Sometimes he spoke, sometimes he sang, and sometimes he did both at once, all to maximum effect. With the assistance of his son Adam, he also had the benefit of ideal production in terms of musicians and backing singers. I won't attempt a detailed analysis of this album here, but in the title track he makes peace with his maker and says that he is ready for what comes next.
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord
You can't multitask when you are listening to Leonard Cohen; don't try. Play it, preferably on a good system at a healthy volume, and prepare to be blown away by Cohen's staggering achievement. Read an account of the making of You Want It Darker in Rolling Stone.
Listen to: "You Want It Darker", "If I Didn't Have Your Love", and "Steer Your Way".

The Top Ten albums alphabetically by artist:

William Bell - This Is Where I Live
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In the 1960s, William Bell was not only an R&B singer at Stax Records in Memphis, but he was also a songwriter, producer, and he is credited with being one of the architects of the Stax sound. This is Where I Live answers the question of what it would sound like if one of the classic Stax artists made a record today with the best producer, musicians, and material. In the early days of Stax, Bell's success was mainly on the R&B chart. Rock fans might know him for co-writing (with Booker T. Jones) "Born Under A Bad Sign", which was recorded by Cream.

Bell has a strong and appealing voice that sounds somewhere between Arthur Alexander and Robert Cray. It sounds so good in fact, that you would never suspect that he is now in his seventies. The voice is sweet and soulful with just a trace of world weariness. Bell has a first rate band backing him with excellent production by John Leventhal and a good set of songs. All but two tracks were co-written by Leventhal with songwriting partners Bell, Marc Cohn, and Rosanne Cash. There's a new version of "Born Under a Bad Sign" and a track written by Jesse Winchester. The backing on this album is deceptively simple, bass, drums, keyboards, and exquisite guitar. I don't think Leventhal gets enough credit either for his production expertise or his guitar work, which is phenomenal. I love everything about this record, Bell's voice, the material, the arrangements, the musicianship and the production.
Listen to: "The Three Of Me", "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge".

Melissa Etheridge - Memphis Rock and Soul
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Many artists have trekked to Tennessee and have come back with a Memphis album. But when Melissa Etheridge went to Memphis, something extraordinary happened. It was like a switch got turned on inside her and twenty-eight years into her career, it sounds like she was born to sing this music. Memphis Rock and Soul is comprised entirely of songs from the catalog of Stax Records, and I would have to say that the only time these songs have sounded this good was when the original versions were new. Etheridge sings The Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and many more. This one knocked me out on first listen and continues to do so with every spin.
Listen to: "Respect Yourself", "I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)", and "I'm A Lover".

Norah Jones - Day Breaks
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In advance of Norah Jones' latest album Day Breaks they released a video for "Carry On", a track that features her signature sound, that combination of jazz, country, and blues that gave her debut album its so well loved vibe. Although a couple of tracks sound like that, what strikes me most is that Day Breaks is otherwise a jazz album, perhaps the most jazz that Jones has ever put on a record.

Day Breaks has a stellar cast of musicians surrounding Jones including Brian Blade on drums, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ. Also appearing on Day Breaks are two more members of the Brian Blade Fellowship Band, Chris Thomas on bass and Jon Cowherd on organ (Cowherd played the beautiful organ solo on "Carry On"). Some of New York's finest session musicians also appear, including John Patitucci on bass, Tony Scherr on guitar, and Pete Remm on organ, among others. Of the twelve songs on Day Breaks, nine are Jones originals. The others are covers of songs by Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, and Neil Young.

With its multiple Grammys and sales in the millions, Come Away With Me afforded Jones such a large audience that she has been able to retain a loyal and adventurous following throughout her career. Day Breaks is her sixth album and being that it just came out in October, it may be too early for pronouncements, but I'm liking this as much as anything she's done since her first.
Listen to: "Burn", "And Then There Was You", and "Carry On".

Willie Nelson - For The Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price
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For the Good Times, A Tribute to Ray Price may be the best album that Willie Nelson has ever made. There are three huge reasons for this. 1) Willie sounds great. On this record his voice sounds as strong as I've ever heard him, giving no hint that he is 83 years old. 2) The Time Jumpers back Nelson on half the tracks. They are a supergroup featuring Vince Gill, Paul Franklin, and many others, and they are one of the best purveyors of country music and western swing you could ever want to hear (see their own album in the next section). The backing on the rest of the album is equally impressive. The musicianship is not only first rate, but the orchestration by The Nashville String Machine is phenomenally good. All of the above is a testament to the powers of producer Fred Foster. 3) These are new versions of twelve songs that Ray Price made famous. The quality of the songs are through the roof. The selections represent the cream of country songwriters including Harlan Howard, Bob Wills, Hank Cochran, Rodger Miller, and Kris Kristofferson, to name a few. Nelson was briefly a member of Price's band and he wrote two of these songs and co-wrote another. Some of the hits crossed over to the pop chart; you may know them even if you don't normally listen to country music: "Heartaches by the Number", "Make the World Go Away", and "Night Life". The songs which you may not know are incredible, too. Chris DeVille writing in StereoGum said, "'Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me' is a weepy, string-laden shuffle that communicates more pain and beauty in under three minutes than most musicians can muster in an entire career." That is so true, times twelve.
Listen to: "I'll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)", "Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me", and "Make the World Go Away".

Madeleine Peyroux - Secular Hymns
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I've been listening to Madeleine Peyroux for a long time; I've bought her CDs, I've seen her in concert, but in all the years I've never connected with one of her records the way that I have with Secular Hymns. It sounds intimate, it sounds live, it has excellent musicianship, the arrangements and production are perfect. It is an extraordinary recording. The album is all cover tunes and even though the first track sounds comfortably familiar, not all that many of the songs are well known. "... Peyroux intimately renders tunes by seminal blues artists (two penned by Willie Dixon and one by Lil Green), the classic gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the under-the-radar dub star Linton Kwesi Johnson, three renowned contemporary composers (Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Allen Toussaint), the 19th century composer Stephen Foster (considered to be the first great songwriter in America) and ending with a traditional African-American spiritual."

I love the eclectic song selection. "Hard Times Come Again No More" is the same song that Mavis Staples covered so well on the Stephen Foster tribute album, and Peyroux's version compares favorably. Secular Hymns is so named because it was recorded in a 12th-century church located in the rural English village of Little Milton. When Peyroux played a concert there, she so loved the acoustics and the way that her voice reverberated, that they decided to come back to record an album there. Even though you don't hear them on the record, the townsfolk were invited to a free show in the 200 seat church; thus the live feel of this recording. I think that the quality of the sound is what grabbed me the first time I put this on. Peyroux's vocals have never sounded better and musically the trio sounds amazing. It has a superbly selected setlist and I just can't say enough good things about Secular Hymns.
Listen to: "Got You On My Mind", "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)", and "Hello Babe".

Chrissi Poland - Waking Hour
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I have been mightily impressed by the artistry of Chrissi Poland since 2008, when I first encountered her performing at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC. Released mid-year, Waking Hour offers eight original compositions by Poland. There are a number of styles here, and most of the songs have a soulful side. The one thing that never fails to delight when I play this album is that songs like "Shaky Man" have the unique quality of sounding like classic soul records of the sixties while seeming new at the same time. "Dawn" even takes this one step further by adding the sound of a gospel choir. "Angel Weep For Me" is a Chrissi classic that gets its definitive treatment on Waking Hour.

I had the good fortune to catch the Waking Hour release show at NY's Joe's Pub, a show that included the musicians who played on the record. They are some of New York's best including Matt Beck, Will Lee, Doug Yowell, Oli Rockberger, and co-producer Jamie Siegel. I had the further good fortune to catch Poland's solo performance and to hear these songs played on electric piano, adding another dimension to the experience. Poland is a consummate songwriter, singer, and musician. See the full review.
Listen to: "Dawn", "Silhouette", and "Angel Weep For Me".

Bonnie Raitt - Dig In Deep
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This has everything you could want from a Bonnie Raitt album, she's in great voice, the material is excellent, and the music is loaded with guitars, especially the slide guitar which has become her trademark. Dig in Deep has the funkiest blues-rock guitar heard since the early days of Little Feat. In fact, when this band plays full bore the music threatens to invoke the very spirit of Lowell George himself. See the full review.
Listen to: "Unintended Consequence of Love", "I Knew", and "The Ones We Couldn't Be".

Carrie Rodriguez - Lola
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Before I sat down to write this article, I gave another listen to each of the albums in my top ten; I love them all. While listening to Chrissi Poland I had a realization, which I expanded on while listening to this. Essentially, the thought is that I feel remarkably lucky to be aware of this fine music upon its release, and I feel that it is my sacred duty to share this joy with as many listeners as possible. It's the gist of why I do what I do. Back in March, when Carrie Rodriguez released her fifth album Lola, I described it as a work of bilingual beauty that you don't need to speak Spanish to appreciate. Here is a part of that review.
Producer Lee Townsend had lots to work with in the creation of this album. In addition to the inspired set of songs, we have Rodriquez's violin and her vocals; I love both her tone and the way that she delivers a song, whether it be in Spanish or in English. Recorded in Austin, the album has extraordinary sound quality and some first rate musicians. I've mentioned that the guitar work drew me in on first listen. This group of musicians, dubbed The Sacred Hearts for this project, featured guitar work by Luke Jacobs on pedal steel, David Pulkingham on nylon and electric guitars and Bill Frisell on electric. I've been hearing Frisell more and more in recent years; he's rapidly becoming one of my favorite guitar players. In addition I have been a fan of bassist Viktor Krauss for a long time; he's done some exceptional work both as a solo artist and as a producer. Brannen Temple rounded out the rhythm section playing drums and percussion.

Lola is a beautiful, bilingual, piece of work that succeeds on every level. This is music that lifts my mood whenever I play it; I am loving it.
See the full review.
Listen to: "Perfidia", "The West Side", and "Si No Te Vas".

Rumer - This Girl's In Love (A Bacharach & David Songbook)
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This is an album that Rumer's audience has been awaiting ever since it was announced about this time last year. The can't-miss concept is that Rumer, with the sweet voice that is often compared to Karen Carpenter, endeavored to record selections from the songbook of Burt Bacharach and Hal David as a tribute to their timeless pop legacy. The resulting album, This Girl's In Love just landed in our players a few weeks ago, and it is everything that was expected.

The record was produced by Rumer's husband Rob Shirakbari. He is also a composer, her band's music director and keyboardist.

The Bacharach /David catalog is so rich with pop hits that perhaps the most daunting aspect of this project was selecting the songs. This might have been as simple as something that looks like Dionne Warwick's Greatest Hits or perhaps The Best of Bacharach and David, but this record does not play it safe or simple. Sure, many of the big hits are here, songs like "The Look of Love", "Close to You", "Walk on By", and the title track (it really works with the gender changed), etc. Rumer makes it, I think, more interesting by including some less well known numbers like "A House Is Not a Home", "Balance of Nature", "Land of Make Believe", and "The Last One To Be Loved".

On second thought, maybe the song selection is not the most daunting aspect. There's the arrangements (which are all impeccable), and then there's the vocals. I can't imagine the pressure of competing with not only the iconic originals, but all the great cover versions that have been done over the years. I don't even want to think about how many times "The Look of Love" has been covered. Rumer has touched on this music before with some previous b-sides and bonus tracks. Looked at in this light, the concept of This Girl's In Love was really a no brainer. All I can say is that Rumer pulls it off beautifully.
Listen to: "One Less Bell to Answer", "This Girl's In Love With You" and "Are You There (With Another Girl)".

Svetlana And The Delancey Five - Night At The Speakeasy
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The realization that I mentioned above about my "sacred duty" really hit home as I listened to Svetlana And The Delancey Five. It was not only the feeling of being blessed to be able to hear this when it came out, but with each track I kept thinking that if I could somehow get every music lover around the world to hear this, the implications of the potential audience and the cumulative joy factor are almost unthinkable. Last January I wrote in part, "It is a rare and wonderful thing when an album contains excellent versions of familiar songs side by side with new original songs that sound as good as, if not better than, the classics. Night at the Speakeasy, the stunning debut from Svetlana and the Delancey Five, is just such an album."

I went on to invite the reader to listen to "All I Want" saying that everything you need to know about Svetlana and the Delancey Five is right there in that song. And it's true. And yet, as good as it is, "All I Want" only hints at the delights you will find as you listen to this album. One of said delights has guest artist Wycliffe Gordon, whose tremendous work on the trombone is only eclipsed by his vocal talent; he sounds like a modern day Louis Armstrong. See the full review.

Just before this went to press, producer Guy Eckstine reported that Svetlana's album received "#1 'Best of 2016 Jazz/Vocal Album' from Classicalite! Pretty heady competition alongside Norah Jones, Cyrille Amie, and Kurt Elling!"
Listen to: "All I Want", "Under A Blanket of Blue", and "Sometimes I'm Happy (Sometimes I'm Blue)".

The Next Forty alphabetically by artist:

BWB - BWB
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This is excellent smooth jazz, and no that's not an oxymoron. BWB is guitarist Norman Brown, saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and trumpeter Rick Braun, a jazz supergroup if you will. This, their third album, features some inspired soloing on their respective instruments.

Mairead Carlin - Songbook
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Mairead Carlin is a member of Celtic Woman and Songbook is her debut solo album, a thing of beauty. She has a gorgeous voice and a delicate touch that sounds glorious, with production that is spot on perfect. Her cover choices are inspired, interesting, surprising, and ultimately fulfilling. I think I'm in love with this record. FYI - The download of this album contains 14 tracks. The CD only has 12, omitting "Streets of London" (a beautiful cover of the Ralph McTell song) and "Be My Love", I would consider both tracks to be essential.

Eric Clapton - I Still Do
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Dear Eric Clapton: All the music you've played, all the music you've heard, and everything you've learned has made you one of our most cherished musicians, songwriters, and singers. Don't say it's over. Seventy is the new fifty. This album is too good to be your last.

Judy Collins & Ari Hest - Silver Skies Blue
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It's a rare treat when two musical artists take time from their individual careers to work together. It went so well when Ari Hest joined Judy Collins for the title track of her duets album that they decided to go all in on an album and tour. Silver Skies Blue is the happy result. See the mini review.

Dexys - Let The Record Show
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The former Dexys Midnight Runners do an album of covers, roughly divided between reverential Irish tunes and pop mega-hits that my friend still likes to call "mom-jeans karaoke". I love it. See the full review.

Luther Dickinson - Blues & Ballads
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This might be the best Americana album I've ever heard. Luther Dickinson explores a range of folk/blues, which draws together elements of country and gospel. The joy of this album is in no small part due to the contributions of players like singer and musician Sharde Thomas. The only thing better than listening to this record was seeing them live. See the full review.

Dion - New York Is My Home
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Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band (the house band for Conan O'Brien's late-night show) backed Dion and produced one of the finest sets of blues-based rock & roll that I've heard in a long time. Vivino's guitar work sounds like Mark Knopfler on early Dire Straits records. It's hard to believe that this is the same Dion who once gave us "Run Around Sue" and "Abraham, Martin, and John" in the sixties. For good measure, Paul Simon sings with Dion on the title track. See the full review.

Tinsley Ellis - Red Clay Soul
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Red Clay Soul has a lot of good things going for it, the songs, the musicians, and the production. But the main event is the incredible guitar work by Tinsley Ellis on every track. With the Allman Brothers recently hanging it up, Ellis is one of the southern rock guitarists most deserving of a listen. See the mini review.

Dori Freeman - Dori Freeman
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Dori Freeman is a brilliant singer-songwriter from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia that is part of Appalachia. Her tone, clarity, and confidence can be heard in her voice, and her sense of melody defines her songwriting.
Teddy Thompson's production and participation brought out the best in her original compositions that forge a link between rock, folk, country, and blues that is pure Americana. See the full review.

Vince Gill - Down To My Last Bad Habit
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Dear Dave,
I was going to offer up track two as a 'Name That Tune' but his voice is so identifiable and this is the title track from his latest album. So just have a listen, and note the incredible guitar work, as well as how ear friendly the entire production is. Gill's accolades are well warranted but I don't think he gets enough recognition for his extraordinary guitar skills.

Kree Harrison - This Old Thing
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This album is so good it would be a crime if it didn't find its audience. I worry because I feel like I haven't heard the name Kree Harrison since this was released. She hasn't been in the news, which is probably a good thing. Maybe it's me, maybe I should listen to country radio, but I think if this spawned multiple hit singles or expanded beyond CMT as it should have, I would know it. See the full review.

Gary Hoey - Dust & Bones
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If you're not getting enough guitar in your diet, I've got just the thing, Dust & Bones by Gary Hoey. He is an amazing guitarist, playing blues-based rock. Hoey doesn't shred just to show off, he does it in the service of some very worthy tunes.

Griffin House - So On and So Forth
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I ran across Griffin House several years ago on NoiseTrade. His songs stayed with me, so this year I picked up his latest CD and went to see him in concert, both excellent decisions. Griffin is a masterful songwriter with a friendly and comfortable voice. So On and So Forth has an easy-going production style and is always a joy to listen to. In concert he explains the meaning of the album title and that Griffin House is not a band, it's his real name.

House of Waters - House of Waters
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This is a totally unique meld of jazz and world music as played on hammered dulcimer, six string bass, and drums. Even if you don't think you are into jazz or world music, you need hear this. See the full review.

Sarah Jarosz - Undercurrent
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I had been hearing the name Sarah Jarosz for a while now, and so the opportunity to spend some quality time with her music finally arose earlier this year when she released her fourth album. "Undercurrent captures the process of personal evolution and discovery as well as the inspirational nature of change." Jarosz is a singer-songwriter and native of Austin, Texas now based in New York City.

Jealous of the Birds - Parma Violets
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Naomi Hamilton, a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and poet from Portadown, County Armagh in Northern Ireland records under the name Jealous of the Birds. Stylistically she is all over the map, with songs that are very lyrical and highly poetic. I was going to say that I especially like the more electric rock songs, but they are all good; some of the softer songs seemed to have an almost ethereal quality. See the full review.

Shannon LaBrie - War & Peace
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Shannon LaBrie's second album covered a lot of ground including some intensely personal songs. War & Peace has a phenomenal sound, anchored by LaBrie's vocals and a very talented group of musicians, especially the lead guitarist. "It's Political" should have been the song of the year for 2016. See the full review.

Lang Lang - New York Rhapsody
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I am quite fond of this most unusual record. A collaboration between classical pianist Lang Lang and producer Larry Klein, New York Rhapsody is essentially a love letter to New York played out in many musical genres with plenty of guest artists. "The centerpiece of the album is a performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue featuring Lang Lang and multiple Grammy-winning jazz legend, Herbie Hancock in a two-piano version conducted by John Axelrod with the London Symphony Orchestra." Read a complete description at langlang.com.

Aaron Lewis - Sinner
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You would never know it by listening to Sinner, but Aaron Lewis is not a career country singer, he is best known for being the frontman of hard rock group Staind. On Sinner, Lewis is all about old school country music, complete with a guest appearance by Willie Nelson. Sinner debuted at #1 on the Billboard Country Chart without benefit of airplay.

Lydia Loveless - Real
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I've seen her music described as cow-punk. I don't know about all that, but on Lydia Loveless' fourth album Real I hear some of the most high quality and intelligent rock music ever. The musicians in her band all excel, especially the electric guitarist who plays every texture from jangly to crunchy, which works perfectly with Lydia's vocals.

Loretta Lynn - Full Circle
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Loretta Lynn doesn't have to play it "old school", she is the very definition of old school. There is no hint of it in her voice, but Lynn at 83 is well into the sixth decade of her career. Full Circle offers fourteen tracks that trace her development from coal miner's daughter to successful country star, including some new versions of her early hits.

Bruno Mars - 24K Magic
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Bruno Mars' third album 24K Magic contains nine more reasons why Mars has basically owned the pop chart for the last few years. "Uptown Funk" crossed over to so many demographics that its follow-up became unstoppable. 24K Magic is modern day R&B/Pop that will surely live up to its name.

Brad Mehldau Trio - Blues and Ballads
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This is pure jazz, unhurried and articulate. With all the pop, rock, country, blues, folk, etc. that I've been listening to lately, it took me a good five minutes into track one to decompress and tune into the slower pace of this piano trio. I very much enjoyed this album in its entirety. It's a nice place to escape to, a respite from the fast pace of the world we live in. See the mini review.

Jess Morgan - Edison Gloriette
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Jess Morgan is a folk artist from Norwich, England; her singing, musicianship, and song-writing are truly something special. On her fourth album, Edison Gloriette, her songwriting has progressed and it seems to have a wider perspective. I'm loving the sound quality that she has achieved on this one. Morgan's acoustic guitar and her voice both have a fuller, more resonant sound. Edison Gloriette has more production elements too, such as keyboards, backing vocals, and the like, expanding the aural pallet that Jess uses to bring her songs to life.

Lorrie Morgan - Letting Go Slow
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Letting Go Slow is Lorrie Morgan's twelfth album and another set of highly listenable country tunes. Although she does a fine job with it, I don't think an established country singer like Lorrie Morgan needs to revisit Bobbie Gentry's hit song "Ode to Billie Joe". On the other hand, I am absolutely thrilled that Morgan also covered Kristina Train's "Spilt Milk" on this album. Train, who was working in relative obscurity, is a terrific singer-songwriter, and here's hoping that Morgan's excellent cover becomes a hit.

William Michael Morgan - Vinyl
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The thing that sets William Michael Morgan apart from other deep voiced country guys is the extraordinary songwriting and outstanding musicianship. Vinyl, which is the name of his latest CD, has out of this world guitar work and some superb violin.

Maren Morris - Hero
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Hero is the debut album from Maren Morris. It is bold, smart, and her sound is somewhere between Gretchen Wilson and Kasey Musgraves. Like Musgraves, Morris is one of the new breed of country singers who participate in the writing of their own material. See the full review.

Van Morrison - Keep Me Singing
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Collectively, we owe a debt of gratitude to Van Morrison for the fact that he is still at it, as he enters the sixth decade of his career. Only Morrison could create an album like this. If you haven't yet allowed yourself the pleasure, put on Keep Me Singing and slip away into Van's world.

O'Connor Band - Coming Home
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The O'Connor Band plays acoustic music of the highest order. It's mostly violin, acoustic guitar, a batch of superb songs, and some most excellent vocals, which are split evenly between fiancés Forrest O'Connor and Kate Lee. Violinist Mark O'Connor may be best known for his genre-bending recording projects with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and others. Although this is ostensibly blue grass music, and they do put the proverbial pedal to the metal on one cut, this is the least blue grassy blue grass album I've ever heard. And that may or may not be why I love it so. The O'Connor Band is a fine family band and I'm still kicking myself for missing their recent concert at the Sellersville Theater.

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen - Hold My Beer Vol. 1
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I've listened to this album a bunch of times to double check my conclusion, and I am here to state unequivocally that Hold My Beer Vol. 1 by Randy Rodgers and Wade Bowen is one of the best country records I've heard this, or any other year. Whoever said that "country is the new rock" may be onto something. I get the same jolt of energy and enjoyment from good country records like this that I used to get from rock music (and still do, sometimes).

The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome
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The good news is that the Stones' celebrated their 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, and now they kick off the 6th decade of their career with an album of blues that sounds amazingly like what they started out doing. The bad news is that in these 12 covers there is no hint of the musical development that took place over the last 5 decades during which the Stones' owned the title of world's greatest rock and roll band. If you like this, your next move should be to buy, if you don't already have it, the Stones' first album England's Newest Hitmakers (1964).

Sting - 57TH & 9TH
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It's been hard times for Sting fans these last ten years. I tried to like the three classical albums released by the Deutsche Grammophon label, but found that two of them failed to hold my interest and the third one came out and promptly disappeared without a trace. It was even worse seeing the television performance of a song from The Last Ship, Sting's failed Broadway musical. 57TH & 9TH is Sting's first rock album in twelve years. Listening to this one was sweet relief, a set of songs that bears comparison to his Police and solo careers.

Tedeschi Trucks Band - Let Me Get By
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The Tedeschi Trucks Band has perfected a mixture of blues, rock, and soul that sounds as if Bonnie Raitt joined a Marvin Gaye recording session with the Allman Brothers as his backing band. All that and they take the occasional excursion into jazz. I would pay money just to hear Derek Trucks play the guitar, especially his slide. They serve up two full discs of that magic on their 2016 release, Let Me Get By.

Teddy Thompson & Kelly Jones - Little Windows
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Being that I started following his parents Richard and Linda Thompson in college, it seems funny now to say that I've been a fan of singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson for a long time. I've loved the way his take on rockabilly filtered through his British sensibility. And he plays some mean guitar, too. His collaboration with singer-songwriter Kelly Jones is full of happy exuberance, lots of guitar, and the album is filled with original country-pop gems of the highest order. The album is called Little Windows and based only on what's in the grooves, it feels like these two are in love.

Tanita Tikaram - Closer To The People
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Tanita Tikaram has been one of my favorite artists since the late eighties. Her deep voice and phenomenal songwriting won me over in short order. Tikaram's career was so successful in the UK and Europe that for the past twenty years or so she's been able to pursue her interests, only stopping to record whenever the spirit moved her. Being that each of her two previous albums came after a seven year wait, the four year interval that produced 2016's Closer To The People seems relatively speedy. The cause for celebration is ten new Tikaram originals.

The Time Jumpers - Kid Sister
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No longer Nashville's best kept secret, The Time Jumpers are a bonafide supergroup of Nashville's finest musicians who get together on Monday nights to play the music they love, old-school country and (especially) Western swing. Other than Vince Gill and maybe pedal steel master Paul Franklin, you have probably never heard of the other eight members unless, that is, if you are in the habit of reading the fine print on country albums. If you drop the virtual needle anywhere on this recording, you will hear the best of the best. Note: The Time Jumpers also recently played on the latest Willie Nelson album (see Top Ten, above) and they also backed John Oates (Hall and Oates) on his Christmas single, sounding, uh, perfect.

Trashcan Sinatras - Wild Pendulum
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Although it is probably not by intention, Trashcan Sinatras may, in fact, be Scotland's best kept secret. They write and perform beautiful pop gems, exquisite song craft with a mixture of acoustic and electric instruments; the sound leans toward lush, sort of like the Moody Blues without the grandiosity. With six albums to their credit, the first three came during the band's first ten years, and the latest three have been spread over the last twenty; the most recent of which is Wild Pendulum, released this year. The Sinatras, on this album, offer up twelve new opportunities, or rather reasons, to become a fan.

Robin Trower - Where Are You Going To
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Robin Trower first found fame as a member of Procol Harum in the sixties. Since going solo in the early seventies, this album represents Trower's twenty-first album. When he first went solo, he made a series of albums on which he had the guitar chops to warrant his many comparisons to Hendrix. On Where Are You Going To Trower has clearly come into his own as a songwriter. Trower sings and plays something that is all too rare these days, rock music that is totally free of affect. This is feel good music for the head as well as the heart. Trower must be living right, your ears will pick up no clue that the man is 71 years young.

Lindsey Webster - Back To Your Heart
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Smooth jazz had a resurgence this year. Lindsey Webster was a large part of why, with jazz vocals of a sort that hasn't been heard since Sade. Last month, Webster released her third full length album, Back To Your Heart. In her four year career (so far), she has achieved quite a bit of chart success. It's easy to see why. See the full review.

Bob Weir - Blue Mountain
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Bob Weir has always had a thing for cowboy songs; he used to make them part of the Grateful Dead's live repertoire. That's probably because he left home at age fifteen to become a cowboy on a ranch in Wyoming, and he's had a hankering to make a cowboy album ever since. Blue Mountain is that album. These are the sort of songs that the cowboys would sing to each other around the campfire to make their own entertainment. See the full review.

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