My picks for five of the top music events of the year include: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature; San Diego singer-songwriter Andra Day’s breakout year; the bar-raising debut of the Desert Trip festival in Indio; the upscale KAABOO Del Mar festival’s second year; and Beyoncé's dominance (or close to it) of the music industry, traditional and social media and, seemingly, much of the Western world.
Sadly, 2016 was also a year that saw an inordinate number of music legends and near-legends pass away. Their ranks included David Bowie, purple wonder Prince, Canadian poet-turned-musician Leonard Cohen, country music giant Merle Haggard, Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, soul vocal dynamo Sharon Jones, Earth, Wind & Fire mastermind Maurice White, Oklahoma-bred troubadour Leon Russell, Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, Emerson, Lake & Palmer singer, bassist and guitarist Greg Lake, jazz-blues luminary Mose Allison and famed Beatles producer George Martin, among others.
The toll also hit directly in San Diego.
The past year saw the passing of at least three area-based artists who made an indelible impact, here and beyond. Each was a vital force any community would have been proud to claim as its own: blues vocal dynamo and social crusader Candye Kane, Chicano music pioneer and community activist Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez and tireless jazz saxophonist and promoter Joe Marillo.
The loss of so many creative forces was numbing. However, those seeking solace from music that both enriched and entertained had many options - on record and in concert - provided by a broad array of artists. But when it came to albums, 2016 mirrored 2015 in at least one key way.
Namely, Adele’s “25, " which sold a remarkable 6 million copies in this country alone in the first month after its release in October, 2015. By this September, it had passed the 10 million mark and was the top-selling album of 2015 and 2016, beating out Drake’s “Views,” Beyoncé's “Lemonade” and the most recent releases by Twenty One Pilots, Rihanna, Arianna Grande, The Weeknd, Coldplay and Shawn Mendes.
Adele also had the fourth most profitable tour of 2016, earning nearly $160 million for 102 arena concerts. (Beyoncé, whose tour hit 49 stadiums, was the year’s top concert draw, grossing more than $260 million for 40 shows.)
“California,” the 2016 album by the revamped Poway-bred pop-punk band blink-182, was the only album by a San Diego area act to top the national Billboard charts this year.
Earlier this month, “California” earned blink the first Grammy Award nomination of its career, making the veteran trio one of at least eight past or present San Diego who to be nominated this year. Grammy winners will be announced Feb. 12.
As in previous years, narrowing down the choices for my favorite albums and concerts of the year proved a daunting task. If my 16 picks in each category were doubled or tripled, there would still be more worthy contenders than could fit.
What these 16 share in common, no matter their style, is a degree of qualitative excellence achieved by artists constantly striving to push themselves and their music forward.
Best 2016 San Diego concerts
3. Chris Stapleton: May 1, Humphreys Concerts by the Bay
5. Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson: July 27, San Diego Civic Theatre
6. Lyle Lovett & His Large Band: July 9, Humphreys Concerts by the Bay
7. Jose James: April 2, The Loft@UC San Diego
10. Dave & Phil Alvin: Jan. 22, AMSDconcerts
11. Anoushka Shankar: April 17, Balboa Theatre
12. Leon Bridges: Sept. 21, Humphreys Concerts by the Bay
13. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: Sept. 22, Humphreys Concerts by the Bay
14. Bon Iver: Oct. 26, Copley Symphony Hall
15. Seu Jorge: Nov. 30, Balboa Theatre
16. Julia Holter: Jan. 28, The Irenic
Best Albums of 2016
1. David Bowie, “Blackstar” (ISO/Columbia): The shape-shifting English music icon knew he was dying of cancer when he made this remarkably edgy and stirring album. Released Jan. 8, just two days before his death at 69, it obliquely and overtly explores issues of mortality with rare insight and keen wit. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else who would playfully sing on their final album: Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now.
The wonderfully futuristic music on “Blackstar” was jointly created by Bowie and the envelope-shredding band led by jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin. At least in hindsight, the haunting results boldly point to an unexplored world that lays beyond.
2. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker" (Columbia): Like David Bowie, this legendary Canadian singer-songwriter was also aware of his own impending demise, or at least sensed it, when he made his final album. The lyrics on his aptly titled swan song could be a eulogy. And when the 82-year-old Cohen declared, in his inimitable croak of a voice, Here I am ... I’m ready my lord, you believe him.
3. Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool” (XL): This English band has made a career out of bravely pushing against convention into new musical territory. Its latest album, which features the London Contemporary Orchestra, sounds deceptively tranquil on the surface. But what lurks beneath is disquieting, ominous and ultimately captivating.
4. Anderson .Paak, “Malibu” (Steel Wool / Obe): In songs that explore the secular and the sacred, this 30-year-old Afro-Korean singer and rapper from Oxnard deftly mixes old-school soul and funk with fiery hip-hop. He’s also a powerful drummer.
5. Esperanza Spalding, “Emily’s D+Evolution” (Concord): Produced by longtime David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, the latest album by singer and jazz bass phenom Spalding draws from funk, prog-rock, neo-soul, rock power trios, jazz and the genre-blurring mid-1970s work of Joni Mitchell to paint a heady aural kaleidoscope.
6. Paul Simon, “Stranger to Stranger” (Concord): Most other rock legends in their seventies are content to revisit their past glories. Not Simon, who pushes himself to explore new vistas on this audacious album, which was five years in the making. He also utilizes some of the one-of-a-kind, 43-tone scale instruments created by iconoclastic composer Harry Partch, who lived and worked in San Diego for the last years of his life.
"He had a totally different approach to what music is and had to build his own instruments so he could compose on a microtonal scale,” Simon noted earlier this year. “That microtonal thinking pervades this album.”
7. Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth” (Atlantic): A concept album based on a sailor’s letter home to his wife and newborn son, country-music maverick Simpson’s third and most ambitious release is alternately feisty and contemplative. The presence on five songs of the brass section from the late Sharon Jones’ band, The Dap Kings, helps “Sailor’s Guide” hit the sweet spot between country, rock and classic 1960s soul. It’s an album steeped in tradition, but just as eager to extend and subvert it.
8. Chance The Rapper, “Coloring Book” (self-released): Wildly ambitious, the third mix-tape from this Chicago hip-hop dynamo achieves a depth and breadth unequaled by any of his contemporaries in 2016. Whether collaborating with a gospel choir and a live band or sharing vocal duties with D.R.A.M., Kirk Franklin and Kanye West. Chance (real name: Jonathan Bennett) draws from rap, funk, jazz, gospel, spoken word and more with consistent verve. If he’s this good at the age of 23, how much better might he be a decade from now?
9. Anoushka Shankar, “Land of Gold” (Deutsche Grammophon): The theme of displaced refugees is the inspiration for the latest album by this former Encinitas sitar virtuoso, who learned her instrument from her legendary father, the late Ravi Shankar. On “Land of Gold,” Anoushka Shankar expertly blends India’s Hindustani and Carnatic classical-music traditions with element of electronica, jazz, minimalism and more, with vocal cameos by both Sri Lankan rap star M.I.A. and English actress Vanessa Redgrave.
10. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service” (Epic): The first album in 18 years by this pioneering New York hip-hop trio is cause for both celebration and sober reflection, since group co-founder Phife Dawg (real name: Malik Taylor) died in May, six months before “We Got It’s" release. It’s a triumphant, if bittersweet, return from Tribe, whose founding members hold their own on this 16-track release against such Tribe-inspired artists as Anderson .Paak, Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Even before Elton John and Jack White show up for their cameos, it’s clear this musical Quest had richly paid off once again.
11. Sara Watkins, "Young in All the Wrong Ways” (New West)
12. Various Artists, “The Hamilton Mixtape” (Atlantic)
13. Corrine Bailey Rae, “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” (EMI / Virgin)
14. Bon Iver, “22, A Million” (Jagjaguwar)
15. Miranda Lambert, “The Weight of These Wings” (RCA / Vanner Records)
16. Margo Price, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter" (Third Man)