The Best of 2016 (to MY ears)

Last year, I decided to resurrect this music column from an old work newsletter I used to help produce in the 90’s, and I posted a series of columns of my favorite releases of the year to Facebook.

This years’ list finds me continuing to discover little in the way of current music releases to stoke any passion or desire in which to listen.  For me, especially if you are an artist of color, you HAD to have something to say socially, politically, or consciously, in light of the times in which we live, in order to register in my mind -in other words, quoting Millennial black slang, you have to show you’re WOKE.  It’s ‘time out’ for frivolity, gratuitous violence and hyper-sexuality in the lyrics- and all of the other things that justify and reaffirm negative stereotypes; while not forgetting to be yourself, it is time to simply do better and be better.

We lost many musical stars (past and present) last year, many of them musical icons; this has created both a void and a need for new icons to step forward.  So far, precious few artists, in my opinion, have what it takes to take the baton, and move quality music forward to future generations.

Jumping off my soapbox and puttin’ my two cents back in my pocket now, here are my 16 top picks for 2016:



David Bowie- “Blackstar”  One of several of those aforementioned musical icons lost in 2016, album was released right around the time he died… too bad he didn’t get a chance to witness the love he received for this album, for it is a very good, bold ‘final’ statement – an edgy affair for a 69 year old, but coming from Bowie, you would’ve expected nothing less… check out “Girl Loves Me”…

Radiohead- “A Moon Shaped Pool”  This is a hauntingly gorgeous, delicately tense, superbly crafted album, as evidenced by the clip for album’s opening track “Burn the Witch” that I included here… this exudes a calmness I haven’t heard since the Cocteau Twins “Victorialand” or most of Harold Budd’s work, or early Durutti Column, but with a bubbling, almost ready to but never exploding sense of edginess to it… this is one I will anoint as a classic now, one to listen to again and again, discovering new subtle nuances each time.

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals- “Call It What It Is”  The reviews on this album from listeners told me what I already knew before I read them: he was gonna lose some of his mostly white fan base because of the title track, a protest song about police brutality in the Black community.  Where he was a great musician, a fine artist, now, in the eyes of some, he’s just another n-word, and his music suddenly sucks.  It didn’t before, and it doesn’t now.  If you’re familiar with his music, it’s a typical Ben Harper album, he’s reunited with the Innocent Criminals, and they did what they’ve always done-  produce quality music.  I applaud Ben for taking a stand; I’ll bet dollars to donuts you won’t hear a peep from Darius Rucker… check out the title track…



Myles Sanko- “Just Being Me”   Up ‘n coming talent out of London… has actually been around since about ’11… real acoustic Soul, with real instruments played by actual musicians in a traditional setting, and having a live feel, not like a combination of parts created individually in the studio… he’s been drawing comparisons to the likes of Gil Scott Heron, Bill Withers, and Gregory Porter, among others… check out the video for the title track below…

Childish Gambino- “Awaken, My Love!”  Can’t blame a man for expanding his sonic footprint… he may have alienated some of his fanbase, who were expecting another rap album… but rapper turned Soul/Funk artist (at least for this album), channeling his inner Funkadelic, Jimmy Castor, Prince, D’Angelo meets Lenny Kravitz… vocally, shows a pretty good range, although occasionally a little shaky in that upper falsetto region… check out the video from his performance of the single “Redbone” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon…

John Legend- “Darkness & Light”  The album begins with the following lyric: “They say sing what you know / I’ve sung what they want / some folks do what they’re told / baby this time I won’t…”  Something or somebody dun pissed off Mr. Legend…  it is society that’s done that to him… realizing for all the fame and fortune, that he remains who he is, and that makes him just as susceptible to all the things in life every other man that looks like him has to deal with… the album is produced by Blake Mills, who produced Alabama Shakes “Sound & Color” album, and is sonically similar (also includes a guest appearance from their lead singer Brittany Howard)…. He still manages to weave in moments of love and the requisite tales of sexual conquest between the social commentary… but this is his most important release to date… the song “I Know Better”, from which I pulled the lyrics, can be heard below.



Gregory Porter- “Take Me to the Alley”  Having caught this man at the ground floor, before his star began to ascend, having talked to him, taken pix with him, etc, I feel like I know Gregory….  His fourth full-length album and second for major label Blue Note is very good, like the others… but it finds him beginning to veer dangerously close to being mainstream, which is close to just ordinary (and he is an extraordinary talent)… the label is trying to break him to Urban Contemporary radio, enlisting the likes of Kem (and his signature “hey, girl”) and Lalah Hathaway to add vocals to a couple of his tracks… don’t get me wrong, he deserves to be massively successful, but not at the expense of dilution of his quality to appeal to a mass audience… and I fear he’s spreading himself a little thin… I’ve compiled an albums worth of tracks he’s done on other artist’s albums, so he’s in demand (and that’s a good thing)… I just don’t want him to flame out.  Check out the video for “Don’t Lose Your Steam”…

Norah Jones- “Day Breaks”  For her sixth album, Norah returned to her original roots as mellow jazz chanteuse, her music also being informed by pop, folk and country… while I could certainly appreciate her branching out into other areas musically, like alt-rock, this is where she started, and where I found her over a decade ago… and where I like her the best…. I would pay good money to attend if she, labelmate Gregory Porter, and her African-American jazz chanteuse bookend Lizz Wright went on tour together…. Here is “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love”… a track composed by Norah that incorporates the bass line from the Johnny Lytle classic “The Man”, the track used as a theme by the now-deceased legendary Chicago radio personality Herb Kent….

Incognito- “In Search of Better Days”  35 years in the game, and still going strong for this Jazz/funk outfit… the best thing about that fact is that founding member Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, using a constantly changing rotation of musicians and singers, has never changed the sound of the group – you can still hear the Earth, Wind & Fire and Roy Ayers/Ubiquity influences in the music… just goes to show that when you have a good formula, there’s no need to change it…. Check out the video for “Love Born In Flames”, which also features the incomparable bassist Stuart Zender, who rose to prominence as part of Jamiroquai…



Common- “Black America Again”  This brotha has never failed to deliver the goods, and once again comes through spittin’ the knowledge needed to get through to this generation of knuckleheads… I wonder if they’re listening?… more than anywhere else, the hometown needs someone to get through… Common mixes it up some, it’s not ALL serious, he throws in some sexy Robert Glasper-sounding stuff in there too… some have criticized that aspect, but frankly, not everybody is gonna go for constant commentary without it coming across as preachy to them…now me, I’m looking for it- love/sex songs are a dime a dozen.  Check out “Letter to the Free”…

Kendrick Lamar- “untitled unmastered.”  When I first saw this drop, I thought ‘this must be a heat check’ by brotha Kendrick, to see if he could throw just anything out there up against a wall and see if it sticks… it was presented as untitled and unmastered, so I figured unfinished… demos…  there are some fully realized tracks and some unfinished ideas… overall, not a masterpiece, but as I said last year, when I anointed his “To Pimp a Butterfly” as his magnum opus, he will probably never exceed that effort… to my ears, the jazzy “untitled 05”, and “untitled 06” where he drops a rhyme over a bossa nova rhythm are standouts… no-one could seem to post an accurate clip from the album to You Tube, so there is no clip to provide here.  Take my word for it, get it… Pimp Pimp, Hooray!



The Frightnrs- “Nothing More to Say”  This release is a study in triumph and tragedy… the debut album for this NYC quartet (they’d released three independent EP’s prior), and the first reggae release on the Daptone label… the album is an excellent study in classic Rocksteady, the important bridge between Ska and Reggae, and early 70’s Reggae… Sadly, it will be their only album as the original lineup, as lead singer Dan Klein died of complications from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) just before the album’s release… as the story goes, he went to see labelmates Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings perform the night before he passed – of course, Sharon Jones herself was battling a second round of cancer, and she would pass later in 2016, as well… to say the Daptone label had a tough year would be an understatement… if we don’t hear from The Frightnrs again, they have left behind some great music… but here’s hoping they come back with a new vocalist.  The video for the title track of the album is included below – it includes footage of Dan Klein prior to his diagnosis as well as afterwards…

Stephen “Ragga” Marley- “Revelation Pt II: The Fruit of Life”  This follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning album “Revelation Pt I…” finds Marley again fusing reggae and hip-hop into a mix of tracks that’s about evenly distributed between the two genres, and often blended together… he continues to further the musical empire started by his legendary father- in fact, his son Jo Mersa is part of the next generation of Marley offspring to begin recording music… check out the video for “Scars On My Feet”, which is a Nyabinghi meets Trap track featuring Waka Flocka Flame…



Tim Bowman Jr.- “Listen”  Second album from young artist, the nephew of Vickie Winans, and son of smooth jazz musician Tim Bowman… envelopes much of his message in urban Soul textures – his single “I’m Good” has a great message, without feeling you’ve been preached to, but just talked to, and very funky too… I’m liking what he and Mali Music are  doing to promote the Kingdom message… here’s the video for “I’m Good”…



Sturgill Simpson- “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”  Major label debut from Kentucky native, following up on 2014’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”, Sturgill steps a little further away from the conventional sound of Country, covering a Nirvana song, employing some Muscle Shoals-sounding horns, and even the Dap Kings make an appearance… the album is an open letter to his newborn son (so we’ll soon have something in common), and has enough diversity in its’ tracks to keep someone like me, who isn’t a big fan of Country music, interested… check out the video for “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”…

Dierks Bentley- “Somewhere On a Beach” (song)  While on my anniversary trip to Beaufort, SC last year, happened to catch the video for this song, which depicts an ordinary looking, overweight, anxiety medicine-taking guy attracting the hot woman in the bar, their resulting love affair, and all the surprised looks and eventual thumbs up he receives for his sudden fortune… the story of everyman… haven’t listened to the rest of the “Black” album, but I like this… Here’s the video…


What I’m looking forward to in 2017

I’m hopeful for more quality music to arrive this year than in recent years – early releases I’m aware of so far that I anxiously await are Thievery Corporation “The Temple of I & I, which may be out by the time this is posted; the second major release by the ‘Organic Moonshine Music’ queen, Valerie June called “The Order of Time” was supposed to be out already, but was pushed back to March 10th; the new Depeche Mode album “Spirit” drops  a week later… once these drop, as well as other interesting releases to my ears hit shelves, I’ll provide reviews for them here.  Other major releases for the early part of the year are arriving from Nickelback, Ed Sheeran, J.J. Hairston, and Charlie Wilson.

The biggest event by far for 2017 will be the Centennial celebration of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald.  Celebratory events are already occurring around the country; to commemorate the April 25th landmark, there will be some releases from various artists- one I know is on the way is from violinist Regina Carter; there will be several others.


By maestrotjd

I'm a music head. A classically trained violinist/violist literate from chant to Chopin to Copland, Soul man, aging Punk, Classic rocker, Alt rocker, Church choir man, House head, Techno, Industrial guy, almost Rasta, Ska & Rock Steady baby, Junglist, Dubstep to Two-step to Chicago old school steppin', Lounge & Exotica, World Fusion, Latin & Bossa Nova dude, Jazz man from Swing to Bebop to Acid, Trip hop and Hip hop, ya don't stop, a lil bit Country, Gospel, and everything in between. These are my musings (or ramblings).

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