In 2016, what stood out in music

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2016-2

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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: a broader look at music and some of the best work of this past year.

As we say goodbye to 2016, we also finish our week-long series on the best of arts.

Jeffrey Brown is our guide once again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of all the popular art forms we have talked about this week, delving into the huge and diverse world of music necessarily means touching on just a slice of the large pie.

Two music critics are here to help us with some of their own best of the year.

Ann Powers of NPR and Mikael Wood of The Los Angeles Times.

Welcome to both of you.

Ann, let’s just start with — a few albums really dominated the year. We might as well start there.

ANN POWERS, NPR: Absolutely.

Well, Beyonce’s “Lemonade” was a multimedia phenomenon with the visual side, a wonderful album and people talked about it all year, very political album.

Right next to that was David Bowie’s “Blackstar” as equally lauded and celebrated. Of course, we lost David Bowie this year. So it was an interesting mix of a young artist at the top of her game and an elder making a final statement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mikael Wood, let’s start to fill out your list here. Give us a few of your — what stood out for you.

MIKAEL WOOD, The Los Angeles Times: Beyonce and Bowie are both on my list.

You have also got the young country singer Maren Morris, who was doing a lot of interesting things, sort of taking country into an old-fashioned way, but also making it very contemporary at the same time.

You had a couple of great hip-hop records from Kanye West, who everybody knows, of course, but a younger rapper too from Chicago called Chance the Rapper, who made a sort of gospel rap record that’s very personal, but also sort of clearly situated in his hometown and all of its various struggles, really interesting record.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Ann, I made you start with the ones everybody knows. But fill out a little more of your top five list or so.

ANN POWERS: Well, speaking of country singers, there’s a wonderful young singer out of Nashville, Margo Price, who made a very traditional country record called “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” with contemporary verb and voice. And that’s one of my favorites of the year.

JEFFREY BROWN: That has a good title, too, right, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.”

ANN POWERS: Yes. She is a Midwest farmer’s daughter.

And Jack White’s record label Third Man put it out. So, it is country and cool.

I really love Chance the Rapper, which Mikael mentioned.

Also, Beyonce’s sister Solange Knowles released a very beautiful, introspective album called “A Seat at the Table” that again reflected the political moment in a very different way. If Beyonce was forceful and out there, Solange was quiet and thinking and meditating and dreaming. And that was actually NPR Music’s number one record of the year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mikael, so we’re talking. I want to bring in performances. We’re talking mostly about recordings.

But is there a performance or two that stood out for you this year?

MIKAEL WOOD: I think Beyonce at the Super Bowl was — just sort of blew everybody…

JEFFREY BROWN: She’s inescapable, isn’t she, in this conversation, right?

MIKAEL WOOD: Oh, she’s the essence of inescapability.

I mean, think of it like this. It wasn’t actually’s Beyonce’s Super Bowl this year. It was Coldplay’s.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s right.

MIKAEL WOOD: And all anybody remembers is Beyonce, which shows you how she stole the show.

I think Adele’s tour as well. I saw her here in L.A. And what an interesting tour. In a year when pop was technologically forward-looking and engaged with politics, here comes Adele with just a super old-fashioned show.

I saw her in the same week that I saw Barbra Streisand. And the two had some very — real similarities. She’s standing on the stage with a sort of small orchestra. She wears one dress throughout the night. There’s very little spectacle. She’s just standing there singing these incredible songs and making a huge impact with all her tens of thousands of people who came to see her, just an outlier, but also so interestingly old-fashioned.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann Powers, some performances you saw?

ANN POWERS: Well, actually, along similar lines to Adele, I think the Dixie Chicks’ comeback was a huge story of the year, again, not a technological, futuristic show, but a triumphant return of a band who had, of course, been somewhat banished from country music after their lead singer, Natalie Maines, had made some remarks about then President George W. Bush.

They have come back, roaring back. I saw them play here, a hometown show, tens of thousands of people, mostly women, singing along. And of course, the Dixie Chicks, because I got to mention her again, brought Beyonce on at CMA Awards to do Beyonce’s song “Daddy Lessons,” and that was maybe the televised moment of the year, really just a super women power moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — Mikael, I will start with you on this — that when you think about trends in the music world, and, again, Beyonce, we will have to mention her, because this continuing evolution of the distribution of music, she was part of that this year, but other people, too.

MIKAEL WOOD: Yes.

No, streaming, this — 2016 was the year that streaming became the dominant sort of way that people are experiencing music, at least young people. And you saw that with record after record, whether it was Kanye, whether it was Beyonce, whether it was Rihanna, whether it was Drake.

People were finding out about music and listening to it, engaging with it through streaming. We will sort of see where that takes everything. We will sort of see what that does to the way people listen.

But there was just absolutely no doubt that that was the dominant distribution model this year. And, also, it leads to all kinds of interesting conversations about, you know, various exclusives. The singer Frank Ocean, for instance, you could only go to one place to hear his record, which just sort of changes the whole economy of pop music, which I think is going to be huge in the next few years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ann, finally, just the one thing you alluded to with the passing of David Bowie, but this was a year in which a number of major musicians, major stars were lost.

ANN POWERS: Absolutely, Bowie’s death at the beginning of the year.

Of course, the greatest musician of my generation, Prince, died this year, and we’re still feeling that. Leonard Cohen, we lost, and many others, the soul singer Sharon Jones, Guy Clark, Merle Haggard here in the country world in Nashville.

But one great thing about when we mourn these singers is that we also celebrate and archive their work. And we’re seeing that. There is more David Bowie material available online than ever before. So, though he is lost, his music lives on. And we are preserving it as fans. And that, to me, is a great legacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, music of the past and of 2016.

Ann Powers of NPR, Mikael Wood of The L.A. Times, thank you both very much.

ANN POWERS: Thanks so much.

MIKAEL WOOD: Happy to do it.

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