During December writers in a variety of mediums (i.e. blogs, websites, and publications) commonly offer lists of the Best in a variety of genres including books, film and music. I enjoy participating in this tradition, but the commonality of the practice does not mean one’s choices must also be common. I love learning about notable art I may have overlooked and the best lists can illuminate these finds. As much as I have loved pop music historically, and as much as I will always relish a great hook and catchy melody theoretically, in practice I’ve mostly broken up with mainstream popular music. This past year Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Drake and Rihanna have dominated the commercial realm and the pop music discourse. Because of the extensive public coverage they receive I feel perfectly comfortable turning my attention to more obscure artists and less obvious music in my recap of the year’s best music.
In academic terms “popular” (as opposed to pop) music simply refers to broadly accessible musical genres that do not typically require formal training from its practitioners or its audience. Thus blues, country, folk, gospel, hip-hop, punk, R&B, rock and even jazz, (which has sadly drifted into commercial obscurity) are popular genres. Classical music falls outside of this realm because conservatory training is essential to performing it though there are rare exceptions. When music crosses over to a large audience, which typically happens through a combo of promotion and sales, it simultaneously becomes “pop” even if it is stylistically grounded in a tradition. Eminem is stylistically hip-hop but saleswise he represents big pop.
Pop music is a strangely diffuse/elastic term in the digital music era. The alleged digital democratization of music has actually created a chasm. Radio playlists are more rigid then ever limited the possibility of being exposed to new music that isn’t already earmarked. Since fewer risks are being taken music is more compartmentalized. You’re more likely to hear something off the beaten musical path on NPR or a podcast than a radio station. At this stage ballads, music recorded by singers over 35, blues, folk and jazz genres, and other such characteristics are dated and essentially mean automatic segregation. Brick-and-mortar record stores have been mostly displaced by streaming services, computers, MP3 players and smartphones. If you are not tech savvy and lack the financial means to constantly purchase and update these technologies regularly you have to work harder to discover new music made for and by adults.
Essentially the music I find myself appreciating most is popular music technically just not commercially popular music. Caveats aside, 2016 has produced some superb new music and music related content in other genres. The year has also seen the passing of many significant musicians, amplifying the importance of keeping our eats open for innovation.
2016’s Finest “Semi-Popular” Music for Adults:
Secular Hymns by Madeleine Peyroux (Verve, 2016): After years of struggling to find her own voice Peyroux has landed firmly in the eclectic pop territory that defines great singers like Ray Charles, Maria Muldaur, and Charlie Rich. Recorded in an English cathedral built in the 12th century Peyroux and her bandmates cook up a rich musical stew featuring inspired interpretations of songs by important American songwriters including Stephen Foster (“Hard Times”), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Shout Sister Shout”), Allen Toussaint (“Everything I Do is Gonh be Funky”) and Tom Waits (“Tango Till They’re Sore”). Peyroux has never sounded funkier or more full of life, and neither have the songs.
Son Little by Son Little (Anti-, 2015): Son Little (Alan Livingston) is a Philadelphia based singer, writer and musician whose eponymous album (released in October 2015) is “beyond category,” to quote Duke Ellington. Little synthesizes electric blues, gospel, and folk music, with elements of R&B and hip-hop into a highly personal sound. For people who find modern R&B too slick and traditional electric blues too old-fashioned he’s a revelation. More than an alternative he offers new possibilities. Most thrilling is “The River” a kind of erotic neo-gospel tune with a thrilling pulse and urgent vocal.
Sting Variations by Tierney Sutton Band (BFM Jazz, 2016): Tierney Sutton, and the Tierney Sutton Band, ranks easily among the most creative vocal jazz artists. Highly conceptual, she has shifted her focus from familiar pop and jazz standards toward transforming songs from folk music and pop music into jazz vehicles. The Band’s latest coup translates songs by Sting, including his solo work and songs from The Police, into surprising interpretive pieces that reveal their own elasticity and the flexibility of what constitutes jazz. Their dynamic reharmonization of “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” mash-up of “Fragile” with the bossa nova classic “Gentle Rain”, and the lullaby-like approach on “Every Breath You Take” are stunning. An endearing triumph from an innovative group of musicians.
Tillery by Tillery (Tillerymusic, 2016): Rebecca Martin, Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens are progressive solo jazz vocalists who pool their collective talents together on Tillery. They harmonize very seamlessly on a diverse repertoire that includes an endearingly romantic take on Prince’s “Take Me With U” and The Jacksons’ “Push Me Away” and originals. The spacious arrangements, played by an acoustic band (including Martin on guitar, ukulele, and charango; Parlato on charango; Stevens on guitar, and all three on hand percussion; and Pete Ende on piano and keys; Mark Giuliana on drums, Larry Grenadier on bass), have a haunting folk quality. Their vocal blends are consistently tuneful and their individual vocal qualities shine. A genre buster, rather than a predictable vocal jazz album, it is beautifully enchanted.
The Mood That I’m In by Marlene Ver Planck (Audiophile, 2016): Marlene Ver Planck is an 83-year-old interpreter who first debuted in 1955 but the the clarity of her lovely voice and the astuteness of her interpretations is timeless. On this sumptuous ballads collection, the veteran interpreter, backed by a jazz trio with trombone, sax, and flute solos, sings to you with the perfect combination of melodicism, intimacy, wit and rhythm. The title track is a lovely declaration of amorous desire, and the “It Started All Over Again/Second Time Around” medley is delightfully autumnal. Whether you call it cabaret, jazz or a combination, it’s a masterpiece of adult sensuality.
Harlem on My Mind by Catherine Russell (Jazz Village, 2016): Catherine Russell is the best fuser of classic blues and swing jazz sensibilities in vocal jazz. Her latest Harlem on My Mind focuses on songs from or in the spirit of the Golden Age of Harlem Jazz. As always she is a swinging interpreter who emphasizes melody and lyrics with acute rhythmic finesse. She balances familiar tunes like a breezy horn spoked “I Can’t Believe You in Love with Me” and a balmy “The Very Thought of You”, with cheeky tunes like “You’ve Got the Right key but the Wrong Keyhole” a fun Louis Armstrong number she milks perfectly. Russell also brings fresh perspective to solid but lesser-known songs like “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” Like Ethel Waters and Maxine Sullivan she is a quietly confident interpreter who is one with her material and band, and performs with a masterful yet disarming ease.
Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter (Blue Note, 2016): Porter continues to be the deepest soul brother in jazz. Though he is an excellent interpreter, he is at his best as a composer of songs that allow him to tell his story. Take Me to the Alley he uses his commanding yet sweet baritone to sing about relationships (“Insanity,” “Don’t Be a Fool”), social values (“French African Queen”) and spirituality (the title track) seamlessly and sensually.
Live at Rosy’s by Sarah Vaughan (Resonance Records, 2016): In March Resonance Records issued Sarah Vaughan’s unreleased 1978 concert Live at Rosy’s recorded with her trio Paul Schroeder (piano), Walter Booker (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) at the New Orleans club. In addition to singing signatures like “Send in the Clowns” and “Poor Butterfly” she surprises with a playful version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” a lovely rendition of the ‘70s standard “Everything Must Change,” a swinging “A Lot of Livin to Do” (from Bye Bye Birdie) and hilarious patter. 34 years into her career her she has a slightly raspy patina but her falsetto flourishes and rhythmic instincts are as fresh as ever.
The Complete Trio Collection by Trio (Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt) (Warner Brothers/Asylum/Rhino, 2016): In 1987 country neo-traditionalist Harris, country legend Parton, and eclectic pop/rock star Ronstadt released their passion project Trio featuring three-part harmony interpretations of songs as disparate as Jimmie Rodgers’ “Hobo’s Meditation,” the 1950s rock and roll hit “To Know Him is to Love Him,” and Linda Thompson’s “Telling Me Lies.” Each was unified by rotating lead vocal duties and traditional acoustic string backing with limited drums. The result was an acclaimed and popular Grammy winning album that sounded more like it came from the 19th century than the late’80s. They followed it up in 1999, with Trio II, featuring songs from the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, and Neil Young, among others. Rhino Records has remastered and reissued them together with a third disc called Unreleased and Alternate Takes. The original 1987 and 1999 albums are excellent introductions to the interplay of bluegrass, folk, and country music. The third disc is a revelation: Their versions of the 1880 hymn “Soft and Tenderly” and Pops Staples’s “You Don’t Knock” are powerful country-gospel. In addition to these gems, and alternate takes, the sets collect previous collaborations in one place including “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Mr. Sandman.” The liner notes are informative and conversational, and the remastering is excellent. Re-listening to these tunes and the rarer material points to a time in country when more artists felt compelled to take risks.
Most Notable Music on TV:
As I discussed in August’s blog (“The other great musical of 2016”) the CW’s acclaimed musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the medium’s most innovative programs. The show’s creative team brilliantly translates contemporary narrative sensibilities, including irony and metacommentary, into a compelling form combining with the verve of Broadway with the accessibility of pop culture. The show’s second season premiered in October 2016 and is even bolder, brasher and truer. I am not alone in my praise: the show has been nominated for multiple industry awards and won two Emmys (for camera editing and choreography), Critic’s Choice, Golden Globe and Television Critics Association (TCA) awards for lead actress Rachel Bloom, and a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series-Long Form.
Most Notable New Books on Music:
Two superb memoirs released this year illuminate the different ways music can shape our sense of self in our respective families.
In Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues and Coming of Age Through Vinyl (Beacon Press, 2016) music critic Rashod Ollison artfully details the solace and meaning of soul music and gospel provided for him during a difficult childhood in Arkansas. His father lovingly introduced him to the pleasures of classic soul but left a void by abandoning him, his mother and his two sisters abruptly. These trying circumstances increased pressure on his mother, who struggled financially and emotionally, and had to constantly move the family around. Ollison also contended with homophobic bullying and social isolation. Fortunately, his love of literature and music sustained him, helping him gain clarity about his family, his community, and himself.
Legendary singer Carly Simon grew up in a privileged East Coast family surrounded by parents, uncles, siblings, and friends whose confidence and expressiveness dwarfed the shy Simon who had a was physically awkward and had a lisp. During dinner her mother suggests she sing to overcome her lisp, and as detailed in Boys in the Trees: A Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2015) an emergent musician was awoken. Rather than reflecting on her whole career Simon tells a suppler story. She outlines her family roots, describes her gradual breakthrough in the folk and rock music scene, and reflects on her complex marriage to ex-husband James Taylor, ending her story around 1983. The candor and vulnerability of her best compositions defines her literary approach as well.
BEYOND MUSIC media favorites:
Non-Fiction: Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year American Lost its Mind and Found its Soul (Random House, 2016) is an insightful, meticulously researched, and tightly organized oral history of the 1969-70 period. It easily ranks among the more essential chronicles of a period when progressive movements transformed the nation culturally but struggled to convince a broad swath of culture progressive politics. Bingham’s interviews with a range of first hand participants from the antiwar, black power, women’s rights, and counterculture movements, including actors Peter Coyote and Jane Fonda, activists William Ayers, Daniel Ellsberg, Ericka Huggins and musicians like Stephen Stills, as well as photojournalists and former government agents present a complex and comprehensive view of the sociopolitical magnitude of this pivotal year.
Essay collection: Acclaimed novelist (Salvage the Bones, Where the Line Bleeds) and memoirist (Men We Reaped: A Memoir) Jesmyn Ward, taking inspiration from James Baldwin’s seminal The Fire Next Time, gathers some of America’s finest poets, essayists, memoirists and scholars to address race in the 21st century on in the wide ranging collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Beyond the diversity of genres itself lies the joyful eclecticism of perspectives assembled. Highlights include Kiese Laymon’s loving depiction of his Grandmamma and the music of OutKast; Emily Raboteau’s visual essay on urban campaigns to increase civic awareness; Kevin Young’s hilariously acerbic takedown of faux-black Rachel Dolezal; and Edwidge Danticat’s “Message to My Daughter,” not to mention Ward’s reflection on the complexity of her DNA. Ward has assembled is a rich and colorful symphony of voices with great potential to transcend the era.
In Moonlight, a spacious, lyrical meditation on identity, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins presents one of the most complex and breathtaking portraits of African American male subjectivity ever filmed. The narrative vocabulary of American films has historically confined black men to a narrow range of stereotypical roles. By comparison, Moonlight provides a refreshingly intimate portrait of black malehood through focusing on the experiences of Chiron a young man who is navigating a complex mix of race, class, and gender social forces alongside other younger and older men in his community. Jenkins, cinematographer James Laxton, and composer Nicholas Britell employ a rich assortment of cinematic visual and aural techniques to tell a lean but purposeful story. The film is anchored by stellar performances from a gifted trio of actors, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who play Chiron at different ages, as well as excellent supporting performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Andre Holland.
Notable 2016 Musician Deaths (a selective list)
Mose Allison (jazz)
Ernestine Anderson (jazz/R&B)
David Bowie (pop/rock)
Otis Clay (R&B)
Leonard Cohen (pop/rock)
Natalie Cole (jazz/pop/R&B)
Glenn Frey (pop/rock)
Merle Haggard (country)
Bobby Hutcherson (jazz)
Sharon Jones (R&B)
Billy Paul (pop/R&B)
Prince Be (hip-hop)
Leonard Russell (pop/R&B)
Toots Thielemans (jazz)
Maurice White (pop/R&B)
Buckwheat Zydeco (zydeco)
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