Ten of the best albums of 2016
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Not unlike David Bowie's last album, this disc deals with Cohen facing death on Cohen's terms. Knowing that it was going to be his last didn't make it any easier for us to bear, but what a legacy he left.
No compromise for chart success was a hallmark sign of Cohen's discs, they were always laced with humour and the ability to take listeners on a voyage filled with linguistic delights.
Suzanne Vega – Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers wrote the book The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and this is one woman's salute, via a stage show, of a life writ large.
One listen will open a chapter of a writer we have forgotten, but whose story will make you investigate her more.
Van Morrison – Keep Me Singing
To be fair, Van hasn't quite shook off the "old grumpy' persona, but the experiments with skiffle and rock and roll seem over.
Whilst not a return to the Celtic Years, it's Morrison's best in years, with an impassioned selection.
Norah Jones – Day Breaks
What a wonderful bookend to her first album, an album I dismissed on its first listen.
It's chock full of cabaret jazz sounds, alongside the faux country. Her best yet.
Neil Young – Earth
Neil's back with a live (sort of) "angry old man" album railing as he does against super-powers, modified crops and the like.
Young is the barometer of the disenfranchised anti-Trump American voters
Various Artists – Songs of Separation
Ten female folkies on an island write and record an album in 10 days and it's outstanding and my Folk Album of the Year. For fans of The Unthanks, Eliza McCarthy and Katherine Polwart.
And the separation songs are not just about men and women.
Van Morrison – It's Too Late To Stop Now Vols. 2, 3 and 4
It's extraordinary that these have sat in the vault all of these years.
1973 was indeed a milestone year for Morrison. His backing band is incendiary night after night. What a wonderful legacy.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Not unlike Peter Sellers, Bowie had many faces.
It took his last album to shed those characters and reveal a man facing his own death, as only a rock artist of Bowie's calibre could – with dignity and grace.
Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
Ye gods! Even Jazz Journal liked this, but pointed out it wasn't a Jazz album, even if the songs were jazz standards.
My argument is – do we need another Michael Buble-type swing album? No! We want Bob to interpret these as only Dylan can and he croons with the best.
Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
Simon is now at the end of a long and stellar career, but rarely fails to find something new to say about the human condition.
Not unlike Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, we delight in interpreting Simon's lyrics. Clever and thoughtful.
Santana – Santana IV
Like the credo of The Blues Brothers, "We're putting the band back together", Carlos reunites the line-up of the 1969 band and whew! The Latin sound is intact, with all of the fire of twin percussion and Santana is pushed all the way making for his best album since………..well 1969.
Various Artists – Under Milkwood
Melvin Bragg once described this work by Dylan Thomas as, "It's a procession of humorous dialogue and anecdote, pathos and sharp observations and a parody of early guidebooks". This version, with a thoroughly updated musical bed, renders the work more accessible to a new younger market, with Rhys Ifans as First Voice and Captain Cat, is a wonderful alternative to the versions of Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins.
Shye Ben Tzur – Junun
This two-disc set is gloriously set up by Shye Ben Tzur, an Israeli-American poet/guitarist/flautist who has studied Sufi music for 15 years. Tzur does not possess the range of the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but he more than makes up for that by utilising the echo of the studio (a fort in Jodhpur) for his voice, making the tracks shorter for Western ears and having a 18-piece band which consists of a brass section that would not be out of place at a Hindu Wedding. Add in the multiple voices, string section and the ubiquitous Harmonium and a real feel of Bollywood makes for a joyous occasion, however crazy that might sound.
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Everything's Sacred
Now, in an album that reflects the ISB sound, James Yorkston (Scottish folk singer), Jon Thorne (bassist with Lamb) and Indian Sarangi player Sunhail Yusuf Khan come together in a wonderful meeting of the minds. The opening Knockentanz is a wild seat-of-the-pants jam in which it starts off slowly before becoming a raging torrent. Yorkston, with his Nick Drake voice, recalls the eccentric Scot Ivor Cutler (and regular on John Peel's show) with Little Black Buzzer. Eccentric, weird and often on my car CD player.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor's Guide to Earth
What ultimately lifts this album and separates it from the school of Americana or Alt-Country is Simpson's innate ability to incorporate the soul and memory of Stax records and the Memphis Horns. The inclusion of the Dap-Kings, coupled with some scintillating grungy guitar work, somewhere between Steve Miller and Neil Young, a string section that never veers into saccharine, and a pedal steel guitarist that doesn't sound like an assembly line musician from Nashville, all adds up to an exceptional album.
Dave Dobbyn – Harmony House
A wonderful return after eight years. Having the constraints of a major label signing behind him, financial security and being at peace with himself has allowed Dobbyn the time to hone his art even more (as if he needed it).