2016’s best… in March

I know, I know it’s a little late in the game at this point for a Best Of albums list as we’re several weeks into March of 2017. I’m still so shocked by where the time is gone that I initially typed February into the title before I realized my mistake.

But since my last post, I feel like it’s time to do some catching up and to broadcast many of the thoughts I’ve had about the best of music from the last year. I get a lot of time to listen to albums these days since I’ve started working as a full-time news reporter with an equally full-time commute to match it. So it goes without saying, there’s certainly a lot of time for thinking.

But without further ado, let’s get into it. First up…

Honorable Mention: Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 3

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RTJ’s latest only gets an honorable mention on this list as it’s technical wide release occurred in January of 2017. The reason it gets a mention though is, as they’ve done in the past the duo of Killer Mike and El-P dropped their latest for free early on their website in 2016 as a “Christmas Fucking Miracle” to hip hop fans everywhere.

Not only did it make for a great gift for (some) of the whole family, but in a year marred by the passing of many beloved cultural figures and a Trump presidency it couldn’t have emerged at a more needed time. RTJ 3 is a mesmerizing, unrelenting sledgehammer of an album that’s political without being preachy, fiery with a greater maturity, and as cohesively strong as anything they’ve done to date.

Plus, despite the maturity it still knows when to be an absolute smartass. You’re gonna be seeing this one on the 2017 list no question.

10. Brent Cobb, Shine on Rainy Day

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In the last few years, super-producer and rising Nashville music icon Dave Cobb has had a massive string of hit albums with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Anderson East, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and the brilliant country music compilation Southern Family. Well if you listened thoroughly enough to Family, you might have also heard Cobb’s musician cousin Brent.

Much like Stapleton, Brent Cobb was originally more widely-known in music circles for writing songs that went on to large scale success with other country music artists. And also similar to Stapleton’s 2015 smash TravellerShine on Rainy Day is Cobb’s chance to finally shine the spotlight on himself.

Rainy Day is subtle, melodic, heart-wrenching and just oozes goddamn talent. Cobb hits the ground running from the first track, and whether he’s solo or going with a full band he’s unstoppably one of the best things happening in country music today.

Whatever he sings, I believe in every note of it.

9. Bonnie Raitt, Dig In Deep

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Listening to Bonnie Raitt is like going home again or sitting down for lunch with a long-unseen friend. Not just in the sense of reconnecting to the comfort of her music or the place it’s had in my life, but also in just how timeless her style and voice has remained despite the fact she’s now well into her late 60’s.

Even after 40 years of making music, Raitt still shreds like a Zen blues master on the guitar and sends chills up my spine with her husky rasp of a vocal. She hasn’t lost a step, and Dig In Deep just emphasizes that at every turn. Whether it’s covering INXS with “Need You Tonight”, breaking out the full blues brash, or bringing it down to the heart and soul of “Undone” or “The Ones We Couldn’t Be”, Bonnie Raitt is just as much a force still to be reckoned with as any time in her history.

The blues is still alive and well.

8. Butch Walker, Stay Gold

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Butch Walker first broke into my consciousness during a joint tour with Ryan Adams in which Butch was promoting songs that later became one of my favorite albums of 2015 Afraid of Ghosts. I felt like Ghosts showed Walker in a more vulnerable position, ready to ditch the uptempo rock n roll abandon in favor of a singer songwriter who could let his songs speak without a guitar workout to guide them.

And while Stay Gold does return to Walker’s more familiar center, it’s yet another reminder of why this is what Butch does best. Songs like the title track, “Irish Exit” and “East Coast Girl” are just unhinged levels of gleeful fun, while “Descending” with country starlet Ashley Monroe still shows the songwriter Ghosts put such an emphasis on.

Cause you gotta stay gold, pony boy.

7. Bon Iver, 22, A Million 

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Justin Vernon’s mysteriously titled (and mysteriously coded) return to the spotlight as Bon Iver after 5 years away on 22, A Million may have been as equally welcomed as rejected depending on who you ask. The record found Vernon taking the more experimental notions of prior release Bon Iver, Bon Iver and letting it become the main focus.

Gone were most of the guitars and folk-rock sentiments, replaced by an almost Kanye West-like lean towards synths, samples and a sense of struggle in one’s own skin. It takes time to grow into and listen to all the layers on 22, but I can tell you with the right ear and some patience it makes sense. Added kudos to Vernon for sampling one of the great under-appreciated Irish folk singers Fionn Regan on this record too.

6. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

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When A Tribe Called Quest rolled out their first record in 18 years in 2016 with We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, I was immediately intrigued enough to listen given the musical backstory as well as the hype behind their long-awaited return. As an utter newcomer still to both the rap and hip-hop world I was not at all familiar with Tribe’s musical past, but the story of it all was hook enough for me. And the hooks didn’t stop there.

We Got It From Here… keeps up hip hop’s reputation as music’s most blunt purveyors of truth. Whether political (“We The People”, “The Space Program”), pointed (“Kids”, “Melatonin”), or sentimental (“Lost Somebody”), folk music has a long way to go to reclaim its Woody Guthrie roots from the genre that’s taken Woody to the next level of protest.

Oh, and don’t miss “Solid Wall of Sound”. Wrapped in a slinky groove, an Elton John sample from Benny & The Jets and sinuous rapping lines it’s one of many standouts in this standout of a return.

5. Brian Fallon, Painkillers

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Following The Gaslight Anthem’s 2014 release of Get Hurt, the album received a less than stellar reaction from fans and critics. At one time my girlfriend and I claimed we were the only people who actually liked what that record did. But still, it raised the question: did frontman Brian Fallon and the rest of the band need some time apart?

Well take time apart they did, and that led to the Butch Walker-produced Fallon solo album Painkillers. It felt like the most faithful pursuit of Fallon’s original aborted solo effort with Molly & The Zombies, as well as a truly honest expression of the loss of Fallon’s marriage that didn’t quite hit an emotional resonance on Get Hurt. And while the Springsteen elements of Gaslight still shine through (A Wonderful Life”), a Lou Reed “Pale Blue Eyes”undercurrent of gentle ambition flies here too.

I think it was the best career choice Fallon could have possibly made for himself.

4. BJ Barham, Rockingham

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Speaking of Bruce Springsteen, American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham took a slice of Springsteen’s American storyteller dirge Nebraska and adapted it in 2016 into his own realm of lovers and losers on his first solo record Rockingham. Unlike Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem, Rockingham is less of a need for a break and more for a switch of tone.

It’s hard to imagine this aspect of Barham’s creativity meshing with his traditionally country-rock outfit American Aquarium, so what better place to let these songs breathe? As solo tracks songs on Rockingham are free to tell their stories with vague tracings of guitars, bass, banjo and brush drums giving the words their distance. It gives Barham free reign to become his characters and live out their stories for you in his world-weary growl, and that’s the best place to live within this record.

Its true folk music doing devastatingly strong work.

3: Hard Working Americans, Rest In Chaos

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I still consider Todd Snider to be one of the greatest artist recommendations I’ve ever been randomly granted. The lengthy catalogue of brilliantly strong music is one thing, and the on stage stories are CERTAINLY another (there’s quite a book that can fill you in on that in fact). But what I’ve also really enjoyed is Snider passing me an invitation into another genre of music: jam bands.

Of course Dave Matthews Band has helped me with that a lot already, but the Snider-helmed Hard Working Americans are right up there as well. With heavy hitters like Neal Casal, Dave Schools and Duane Trucks in tow, HWA went from a one-off covers album project debut into a full fledged, hard-hitting followup in 2016 called Rest In Chaos. This album not only rocks and knows how to jam, but are some of the closest lyricisms that touch on the collapse of Todd Snider’s recent marriage.

I mention it because I feel it fuels a greater passion here, and Rest in Chaos reaps the benefits.

Adele, 25

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Now TECHNICALLY the album 25 had already come out by late November 2015, but it feels like Adele has remained such a part of our musical consciousness through 2016 (and into 2017) that she’s worth including one more time. Some might say that 25 is weaker than her prior albums, but I beg to differ towards the opposite. 25 not only continues to flash Adele’s startling consistency in her recorded work, but shows that she’s capable of adapting herself in ways that continue to adhere to the roots of her style.

And true, while I could see Adele play a simple instrument and croon beautifully on every record every time out, variation is the key after a point. Some fans might not see eye to eye with that, but I feel like 25 is her most appealing record to date that’s rife with hooks, piano lines, smoky sentiment, and that signature voice that could turn water into wine and back again.

And “When We Were Young”… one of the best songs in her whole catalogue. Take that to the bank.

1. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

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Much like several of the other artists I covered on this list, we conclude this Top 10 for 2016 with yet another musician who experimented by taking their sound to the next level. And no one better exemplified that within this past year than Sturgill Simpson and his Grammy-nominated record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Written on behalf of Simpson’s still newly-born son, Sailor’s Guide feels like an almost voyeuristic look at a father trying to prepare his son for the world he still has yet to experience. And I only say voyeuristic because it does feel like such a deeply personal reveal in a style that travels far from Simpson’s country rock familiars and lands deep into string sections and horn fills. And while some fans of Simpson have expressed relief to see him ending this period of his music, I’m just glad we got to witness how truly versatile Simpson is as a musician.

Look no further if you wish to see one of Nashville’s truly great last of the outlaws. And not at all a tough choice for this year’s #1 slot.

 

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2015: It’s The Greatest Hits Edition!

Well, it’s that time again. The Christmas decorations have been put away, the food and sweets have been consumed in exhaustive amounts, and the trash has all been swept out from another Times Square New Years Eve celebration. It’s January of 2016 now, and usually that’s the time people have prepared their quick-to-be-broken resolutions, trim the caloric leftovers caused by all those food and sweets, and prepare for the long road of despising much of the year ahead.

But enough about my intended plans.

These earlier days of the new year are also an excellent time to look back. To take a wistful glance at the greatest hits and a look at the best of what was in a 2015 with plenty of was nots. And when it came to music, while the content may not have quite been as strong as the year before, my choice for the Top 10 Albums of the Year was certainly still just as difficult.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter now, starting off with….

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10. Tobias Jesso Jr, Goon

2015 was a big year for the Canadian-born singer-songwriter, who rose from the ranks of several years of struggling obscurity to co-writing songs for Adele’s new album 25 by year’s end. But in between that the biggest springboard to Jesso’s newly risen star has been none other than his stellar solo debut Goon, which took Jesso’s recently learned piano wielding skills to wounded heights akin to the likes of John Lennon, Carole King and Harry Nilsson. And while not exactly blessed with the strongest of singing voices, Jesso makes up for that with a keen sense of winsome poetry, a touch of wry humor, and an embodiment of the soul of Brill Building songwriters past.

And if 2015 has been anything as we start off this list, it’s a great reminder that this generation of talent hasn’t forgotten the power of what made the musical past so potent. And for Jesso, well… talk about a hell of a year.

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9. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

I was first introduced to Jason Isbell back in 2013 with the release of Southeastern, and while it didn’t immediately capture my attention the album was ultimately a soul-destroying reflection on death, sobriety, and the burning up of the skeletons in Isbell’s closet. It marked the strongest solo album to date from the newly-clean and focused artist, and Something More Than Free came along this year as the next logical chapter in that train of thought.

The record doesn’t quite carry the dark potency of Southeastern, but being once again reunited with super-producer Dave Cobb and a brighter point of view has done nothing to slow the brilliance of Isbell’s creativity. He still writes with all the intricate lyrical nuance of one of the best country folk musicians in the business (i.e. a modern Kris Kristofferson in many ways), and has the acumen to jump from folk to blues and rock n roll and back again, with the vocals to match.

I do maintain that Isbell’s live performances surpass his albums overall, but Something More Than Free marks the continued strength of passage of an artist coming up from the darkness and back out into the light. And I for one, am ready to hear each story all along the way.

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8. Gary Clark Jr, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

When Gary Clark Jr hit the scene with his 2012 debut record Blak and Blu, it was a revelation to the world of blues. Hailed by the likes of Alicia Keys and other such luminaries, Clark’s mixture of blues, R&B and soul seemed like the next recipient of the scepter as older artists of the craft such as BB King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton have either died too soon or started to slowly fade into the sunset (with King unfortunately passing away this year).

And while some have called Clark’s blues credentials less than “authentic” because of his genre-ranging style, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim laid some of those unjust criticisms to rest (at least from my perspective). Clark brought his sound closer to the bone on this one with the gospel of “Church” and the croon of “Our Love”, while still showing how much he could shred on tracks like “Grinder” and “The Healing”. It may not have come in at number 1 on this list, but it is the latest in some of the finest work that young blues still has to offer this world.

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7. Glen Hansard, Didn’t He Ramble

In 2015 there were certainly a number of surprises that ranked on this list, and while Glen Hansard was right up there he wasn’t the most unknown to me by any means. In 2007 the Irish-born former street musician and member of The Frames was brought to prominence when he and Marketa Irglova starred together in the John Carney music film Once, and probably broke a few million hearts in the process with the tender wrenching ache of breakthrough single “Falling Slowly”.

This time around Hansard went solo with the gentle grace of Didn’t He Ramble, and while some longtime fans didn’t necessarily agree with some of the instrumentation present, in my opinion it was impossible to ignore Hansard’s usual penchant for songwriting as well as sheer accessibility. “Grace Beneath The Pines”, “Paying My Way” and “Stay The Road” kept that highway to the heart lines wide open, while “Wedding Ring” and “Lucky Streak” painted those same lines with a lighter brush of charm along the way.

It’s music like this that keeps my heart searching for just a little more. Just a few more stories please, as long as they’re as good as this.

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6. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts

This year featured a lot of wonderful music, wonderful songs, and as I just mentioned in that Glen Hansard bit a moment ago, a lot of stories. But none perhaps more beautifully poignant than Butch Walker’s emotional masterpiece Afraid of Ghosts.

Inspired by the death of Butch’s father Butch Sr, Walker’s traditionally pop-rock oriented sound took a broad left turn into a lo-fi, bare bones mosaic of textures the likes of which Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska might certainly appreciate. And with Ryan Adams at the helm producing the kind of sound his own records lack for currently, Walker couldn’t have found a better set of companions to take this cathartic journey alongside.

As a result, Ghosts shines with the kind of magic that’s as deeply prolific as it is personal, and shows off the deepest and darkest light of Walker’s creative career after his more than 20 years in the industry.

Thankfully (much like a story we’ll get to later), Butch Walker stepped out from behind the shadow of the producer’s chair to give us this. It’s deeply sad that it comes from this place of remembrance and eulogy, but Ghosts is undeniably relatable and immersive all the same. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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5. Wilco, Star Wars

In the years since becoming a Wilco fan (around the Sky Blue Sky era), I began to slowly wish for an album that could be as diverse and bizarrely odd-rocking as staples Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. Sure, Sky contained the kind of roots-rock and quieter moments that lead man Jeff Tweedy could pull off in his sleep, but after muddy retreads Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love it felt like the band was past due for a record that felt… more cohesively dynamic. More sure of the direction it wanted to take.

Then in June of this year, the group rediscovered that spark with the surprise release (and curiously titled) Star Wars. And while it isn’t a Yankee or Ghost (or an intricate concept album about Luke Skywalker and the Sith Empire), it was a shot of electricity hearkening back to the band’s knack for exploration. From the moment “EKG” and it’s opening clatter of explosive instrumental defibrillation kicks in, Star Wars is an adventure of Lou Reed-esque Velvet Underground psychedelics, caffeinated jitter-rock, and lyrics that dash from off the wall to that same quiet still Wilco has made it’s specialty amidst all the tumult.

It’s the type of album that takes the muscle of the past and breathes the life of where the band is now into it’s every ligament. And coming from this sole perspective, it was eagerly missed.

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4. The Lone Bellow, Then Came The Morning

In 2013, a little country-folk trio out of Park Slope in Brooklyn started to come out of the woodwork of the still-newly relevant folk scene popularized by the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers with their initial self-titled debut. And while they’ve progressed and started to show the world their electrifying stage persona, the comparisons might still remain but Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist have begun to forge into a realm entirely their own with 2015’s Then Came The Morning.

With The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner at the production helm as opposed to well known Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock, the shiny folk-based residue of their first LP was replaced by instrumentation that wiped off the polish in favor of something more organic and…. flavorfully ornate. Morning edged much further towards bigger sounds in retro rock, country and gospel while splitting singing duties between all three vocalists this time around, and as a result the band looks poised to take their success onward and upward in 2016. All while helping to define a little “Brooklyn country” along the way.

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3. Adele, 25

With powerhouse albums 19 and 21 already under her belt since her debut in 2008, Adele Adkins had already easily reached the echelon of mononym status reserved for the likes of Prince, Cher, and Sting. And while she may not have made any doves weep with envy (yet), one had to wonder if the third time would still be the charm with this past year’s release of 25.

Well luckily, despite a four year wait the British balladeer had no plans of settling into a slump. Buoyed by the strength of monster singles “Hello” and “When We Were Young” and backed by strong co-writers Tobias Jesso Jr, Bruno Mars, Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, Adele once again owned every note to come out of these 11 tracks. Whether it was wrapped in jazz, stripped to the nuts and bolts acoustics, or soaring on gilded wings into the highest heavens, 25 was one of the most impressive this year simply because of how controlled every ounce of it’s strength was. Rarely do albums come along that feel so perfectly grasped, and as usual Adele makes no question when it comes to owning her music. In fact, she doesn’t own it…. she dominates every fiber.

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2. Ivy, Beck & Neill, Live at Rockwood Music Hall

This year offered several boosts to the Brooklyn country music scene, and arguably one of the best was the debut of Ivy, Beck & Neill’s Live at Rockwood Music Hall. It was the first proper recording for the band (and the only live album on this list), and ranks in this high for good reason.

Featuring a sparsely acoustic backing band, the trio of Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Neill dazzle the New York City room with twining harmonies and as much sense for gleeful energy as gorgeously dusky gloom. Listening to Ivy and Neill sing together is like finding the kind of blues-folk collaborative spark Melissa Ethridge and Natalie Maines would be jealous of, and when you add on the band’s talent for songwriting and a rare kind of chemistry to go along with it… well, as IB&N’s song “Texas” goes, you got all you really need.

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1. Chris Stapleton, Traveller

Going into the category of both my biggest surprise of the year as well as biggest breakthrough, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is a powerhouse album of country music that reminds me of why I’ve never lost faith in the genre. Despite the presence of so-called “bro country”, despite the nasal goose-honk vocalizing, beer swilling, tractor riding mainstream stereotypes that litter today’s excuse for the charts…. Chris Stapleton flies in the face of it all. And not only that, he’s written with great success for many of these artists as he’s had notable collaborations with the likes of Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker with plenty still to spare.

Thankfully, Stapleton finally stepped out from behind the shadows of ghostwriting this year to deliver a debut that had all the heart and soul of what made old school country music so relevant in the first place. Plus, unlike his “peers” from today’s industry Stapleton brings to his writing a sense of gritty hard soul with a killer voice to match scenes of whiskey, women, religion, having the blues and getting stoned. Not to mention having his extremely talented wife Morgane alongside to harmonize, which is just icing on the cake.

In closing I’ll say this much, Chris Stapleton’s coming out party performing with Justin Timberlake at the CMA’s earlier this past year was just the overdue match to light the hot streak he was already on. And if you don’t believe music can save your soul, just put on Traveller and it’s closing track “Sometimes I Cry”.

Something tells me, you might just change your mind.

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Adele’s “25” Paints a Delicate Tapestry of Beauty, Anguish and Ultimate Grace

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As anyone with most anything resembling a pulse has heard about these days, Adele Adkins (or just Adele for short) has a new album on the way. It’s called 25, drops worldwide tomorrow, and is her 3rd numbered LP since 2011’s 21 and 2008’s 19. And while that may seem like a limited stat sheet on paper, Adele has been a titanic figure in music that makes the concept of a smash hit pale by comparison.

She’s racked up awards both here and at home in Britain, has spent record-breaking amounts of time on the Billboard charts, and has been ranked again and again as one of the greatest female vocalists in all of music. So I suppose it goes without saying that with these thoughts in mind, there’s been a certain level of expectation surrounding the imminent release of 25. Even to the point that the very music industry itself seems propped up by the notion of sending out about 3.6 million units that are going to hit the sales chart like wildfire.

So… you know, no pressure or anything.

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From my perspective, I worry about saddling any album with that kind of high bar before it’s even had a chance to be widely heard. Firstly because there’s easily a chance that it could fail to be that Golden Goose to fans and retailers, and secondly because it just seems highly presumptuous to label anything as the “best of it’s decade” (which I’ve already heard once). Looking back on noteworthy albums from musical history, it often takes several decades before we look back on that art as the proper masterpiece that it ultimately turned out to be. Point being, so much of everything we create deserves that time to grow it’s own wings before we fly it too close to the sun.

And as it is, 25 doesn’t need the help. Four years down the line a lot may have changed in Adele’s world, but the cornerstones of what’s made her a superstar have only gotten stronger with the lacings of maturity and time. The power of heartbreak and nostalgia are still as present as ever, but more within a photo’s frame and less directly inside what drives the current state of her songwriting. She’s had a child and gotten to a happier place in her life since 2011, so while the terrain may have changed and there isn’t exactly a “Chasing Pavement” or “Someone Like You” on this record… 25 still doesn’t lack for it’s fair share of soulfully gripping potency.

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Despite becoming meme-worthy on the internet, “Hello” is the type of soaring, brood-y balladry that Adele’s made into an art form, while “River Lea” is vulnerable introspection made slinky gospel, “All I Ask” is a perfectly pleading piano bar serenade, “Million Years Ago” is stripped down Parisian-esque sentiment, and “When We Were Young” might just be the brightest and most tightly constructed gem on the entire record. It’s a song that’s pure sepia; flipping through dog-eared scrapbooks as easily as brilliant hooks on the way to a swan-like swoop of vocal triumph. It’s a theme that emerges time and time again to be “just like a movie” on 25 that never stoops to predictability or becoming cookie cutter.

Instead, whether it’s with creations as familiar as the bluesy soul that first brought her to prominence or as far off as the type of vividly swaying pop that made Taylor Swift’s 1989 such a success, Adele’s 25 is one of the greater examples of an artist delivering on expectation with some of the strongest and most consistently gorgeous material of her career. And that’s certainly no easy task given the high marks set by 19 and 21, but she accomplishes it with a level of control and ease that’s practically astonishing.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised by now, but it’s hard not to be when you witness someone who’s not even at their artistic peak yet continue to deliver such powerhouse precision. That doesn’t come along often per generation, and while I’m still not going to anoint 25 as one of the best of the decade, I will sit back and enjoy it as one of the best of 2015.

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“Hello, it’s me”. It certainly is Adele, and after four years…. what a way to make a statement.

Welcome back.

Notable songs: “When We Were Young”, “All I Ask”, “Million Years Ago”

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