Somehow, the holiday season crept up this year on many of us still recovering from the presidential election and the losses of so many musical legends (RIP, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, et al).
Fortunately, there were still 12 months of incredible high notes hit by artists that I had the pleasure of enjoying, either as a casual spectator, devoted fan or feature writer/interviewer/reviewer.
Since my personal list of top performers keeps growing each year while the decade zooms toward 2020, I'll keep this intro fairly short and get right to the heart of the matter.
As I have indicated in past years, this purely subjective list formulated primarily from my stories published in either The Huffington Post or No Depression covers -- for the most part -- my favorite genres (rock, pop, folk, Americana). Of the four categories -- album release/premiere, concert, video premiere and interview -- the artists who talked a good game earned valuable bonus points in terms of overall ranking, but the best in other fields also received high marks.
With more responsibilities in my full-time job affecting how much time I could spend writing about my one true passion -- music -- I missed out on seeing a number of concerts or festivals, listening to hundreds of additional albums or conducting interviews with a few more intriguing musicians than I normally would have.
Scheduling conflicts or missed PR connections prevented me from seeing several prime contenders (sorry Garbage, Phantogram, the Pretenders, Stevie Nicks and Margo Price).
Yet some trends developed here that I hope will continue. Representing the opposite sex (from me) are eight fantastic frontwomen (including six among three groups), seven sensational solo singer-songwriters, two halves of two male/female duos and one-fab-fifth of an Alabama supergroup.
Not only was this list dominated by women, but also the emergence of more promising young talent meant discovering artists I never noticed before the calendar turned to 2016.
This Sweet 16 includes four acts that prior to this year were never on my radar and 10 artists I hadn't seen perform live. In 2016, that list was narrowed to four, including the artist of the year (add Denver to your first headlining tour, please).
So without further ado, let's drop the ball for 2016's final countdown (in descending order):
Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder holds up a notebook with a KOTO Radio sticker.
16 (tie). PEARL JAM and GRACE POTTER
Concerts: The Ride Festival in Telluride, Colorado, July 9 (Pearl Jam); Belly Up in Aspen, Colorado, Feb. 6 (Grace Potter).
Articles: Published July 10, July 12, July 15 (Pearl Jam); Feb. 16 (Grace Potter).
Unfortunately, neither released a new record or were one of my interview subjects in 2016 but it would be inexcusable to leave both artists out after watching them give the best concerts of the year, at least in my humble opinion.
Pearl Jam's 25th anniversary tour included a headlining stop at the Ride Festival in Telluride, and it was so momentous that Eddie Vedder and Co. were prominently featured in three articles I wrote.
In a year of personal firsts, I was finally introduced to the Seattle grunge rockers who made their Telluride debut in July, five months before they were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Vedder didn't waste any time professing his love for the gorgeous southwestern Colorado town. Sipping from a bottle of Italian wine, he mentioned the local radio station and showed his KOTO sticker that served as a reminder of his introduction to the Centennial State in the group's formative years, quoting Kurt Vonnegut to sum up his feelings on a night that included a majestic sunset while they were onstage: "It doesn't get better than this."
Maybe not, but in a year when a young woman in the front row in Telluride wore a Chicago Cubs jersey with the name VEDDER inscribed on the back, Pearl Jam later that summer played Wrigley Field and Vedder sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch of Game 5 of the World Series en route to the Chicago Cubs finally ending a 108-year drought, 2016 actually did get better for Vedder.
Grace Potter performs with her band at the Belly Up in Aspen.
Grace Potter's love affair with Colorado didn't start that long ago, but it certainly seems as intense as any major rock star living outside its borders.
And on a frigid winter night in the glitzy ski town of Aspen where beautiful people come to be seen and heard, she crushed it as a solo artist performing primarily with musicians who weren't part of her Nocturnal animal kingdom.
Having now interviewed Potter once and seen her perform three times in five years at three different venues (including as a Red Rocks supporting act for the Avett Brothers in 2011, but missing two headlining shows there), driving 3 1/2 hours on mountain roads is a small sacrifice worth making to catch my 2016 pick for best female rock musician.
Still touring behind her magnificent bit of Midnight madness with only her name gracing the cover of the 2015 album, Potter, like Vedder, also had some wine to celebrate the occasion.
After all, it took only 95 minutes to deliver a major Aspen-kicking.
Larkin Poe's Rebecca Lovell (left) and Megan Lovell (right) with Elvis Costello.
14. LARKIN POE
Album: Reskinned, released April 14.
Concert: Opened for -- and performed with -- Elvis Costello at the Paramount Theatre in Denver, April 11.
Interview: Megan and Rebecca Lovell, by phone, March 17.
Article published: March 28.
Previously interviewing them in 2014, the lovely Lovells, my favorite rock sister act of the year, don't exactly qualify as newcomers in my book, making a big enough initial impression with Kin to land on my Fab Fourteeners list.
But so much has changed since then. In 2016, Larkin Poe recorded five new tracks to go along with revamped versions of Kin and toured the world with Costello, once the bad boy of the new wave movement.
Having caught his act a couple of times, it was a real treat to see rock's royal raconteur graciously share the stage with the two twenty-something women in Denver, my first chance to witness their live performance. Though it wasn't as headliners, the darling duo never disappointed while doing double duty throughout Costello's Detour tour.
Speaking to the Lovells a couple of weeks before their appearance at the Paramount Theatre (and having seen the jam-packed Detour DVD that includes significant air time for Larkin Poe), I had an idea what to expect but it didn't make it any less wonderful.
The collaboration seemed as fresh as a ripe Georgia peach, even if they have played more than 100 shows together since first meeting in 2007. Now Larkin Poe, with Megan on lap steel and Rebecca on guitar, mandolin and violin, seem like old pros after leaving their comfortable nest in the Atlanta area for Nashville. If there's ever any self-doubt, they can just remember what Costello told them:
"He's given us advice in the past to not listen or not to feel too much pressure to know exactly what it is that you are," Rebecca Lovell said. "That all you really need to be is undeniable. That in the end all the really matters is how you move someone's heart, not necessarily how to define what it is that you do."
The Saint Johns: Louis Johnson (left) and Jordan Meredith.
They've been making music together for more than eight years under various incarnations, but these Florida transplants now living in Nashville finally arrived this year with their full-length album debut as the Saint Johns.
My pick for Americana's best male/female vocal pairing of the year fills a void since the 2014 split of the Civil Wars' John Paul White and Joy Williams. Their stunningly beautiful songs and voices seem made for each other, even if their relationship stays on a friendly, professional level (Meredith is married to Paper Route frontman JT Daly).
"Louis and I have a very ... there are a lot of things we don't agree on (he especially doesn't get her Kardashian infatuation), but when it comes to our sound and our style and what a Saint Johns song is, we're constantly on the same page," Meredith said.
Crushed Out: Moselle Spiller (left) and Frankie Sunswept.
12. CRUSHED OUT
Album: Alien Ocean, Sept. 30.
Interview: Email Q&A with Frankie Sunswept and Moselle Spiller in early December.
Video: "Rolling in the Moonshine" premiered on Dec. 8.
Article published: Dec. 8.
This husband-and-wife duo currently living in New Hampshire is a solid 1-2 rock 'n' roll combination that -- at least until this stage of the game -- has depended on each other to get the job done.
Sunswept's guitars and Spiller's drums produce a surf punk-folk/grunge-rock sound that's cool and unusual, and their latest record is out of this world. While trying to coexist with alien forces, these earthlings have worked hard to get noticed since meeting in Brooklyn in 2009 but have other outside activities -- including running a small kombucha company and seeking other artists to join their indie imprint, Cool Clear Water Records.
Sunswept is frank about the challenges facing them professionally, though, offering, "In all honesty, I think that being a duo has been more difficult for us than a help. ... I'd like to have standup bass, saxophone, and lap/pedal steel in our touring band. We never chose to be a duo, we worked with what was possible to make our music and move forward. In the future, I will be looking to expand our touring band for the first time, which is very exciting."
They tell vivid stories of their own on camera, too, and the far-out fable for "Rolling in the Moonshine" proves fact isn't stranger than science fiction in my favorite music video of the year. While anticipating the chance to see them on tour for the first time, I wait anxiously for the sequel.
Heather Masse (left) and Roswell Rudd. (Photo by Craig Paulson)
One of the three gorgeous voices of my favorite musical trio can do no wrong, whether she's with or without the Wailin' Jennys.
The Jennys, near the top of my 2015 list after their marvelous concert appearance that March, were on touring hiatus for much of this year with hopes of making their first record since 2011's Bright Morning Stars. Yet the multitasking Masse, while raising a family, has stayed busy with other projects, most recently lending her alluring alto to two songs on Red House Records' holiday compilation Christmas on the Lam.
August Love Song was certainly her baby, though, including the track "Love Song for August," written for her son who was born in 2012.
Masse's versatility is clearly visible on my pick for most adventurous album of the year. It includes freewheeling jazz numbers, time-tested American Songbook classics and other appealing originals she made with Rudd, an 81-year-old award-winning jazz trombonist.
Though she called herself "a little bit of an outsider in the jazz world," despite previously delving into that genre and studying jazz voice at New England Conservatory, Masse seemed at ease singing their improvised arrangement of enduring classics by George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.
Masse credits the man she met at A Prairie Home Companion on Valentine's Day 2009 for making the experience as unflappably comfortable as an Ella Fitzgerald scat.
"Roswell has a way of kind of pulling things organically out of you," Masse said.
With "Weightless," Liz Longley is the only solo artist on back-to-back year-end lists.
The native of Pennsylvania who graduated from Berklee College of Music and eventually moved to East Nashville has perfected the art of practicing patience as she develops into one of folk-pop-rock's most promising singer-songwriters.
Longley's career took off when she signed with roots label Sugar Hill Records and proceeded to release two breathtaking albums in consecutive years. Her self-titled debut helped place the songwriting award winner among my top 15 artists of 2015, so it only makes sense that she returns, earning the distinction as the only solo artist on back-to-back year-end lists.
Only 28, Longley has been through enough heartbreaking breakups that she probably has enough material to draw from to put out a box set. But her work with Band of Horses bass player and producer Bill Reynolds is her best yet, as she finds a robust solution to ease the pain. And through it all, she keeps her cool, even when her cellphone continues to cut out in the midst of an interview to discuss the album.
Before resorting to email to finish the interview, Longley said about Weightless: "We spent three months working on it, which is to me just a complete luxury. We tried any idea that we had. ... There was a lot of experimenting and testing things out and really not settling for anything until we felt the song was at its most emotional point."
Maybe it should've been called Worth the Weightless.
Sierra Hull performs at RockyGrass in 2015.
OK, it may seem like a stretch to include Hull's performance and chat from 2015 in an article recapping 2016, but seeing her perform for the first time was under unusual circumstances. With the opportunity to interview one of Americana's best young mandolinists in my neck of the woods, it was requested that I hold off publishing my in-depth feature until the album release -- which was still six months away.
That ended up being a blessing in disguise as the onetime wunderkind generously spent more than 90 minutes in a backstage tent analyzing her musical upbringing, from the moment she was a 9-year-old prodigy performing with Sam Bush until present day. The then-24-year-old sounded excited after her early afternoon RockyGrass set to discuss the album she made with producer Bela Fleck.
There was a lot on Hull's weighted mind that day, and the singer-songwriter -- my most revealing interview subject -- opened up about the difficulties she experienced after deciding to move forward from her bluegrass background to start working on the new album in January 2013.
"Some of the feedback I was getting (from management and her label, Rounder Records), I just didn't agree with 100 percent. It was the first time I had ever dealt with that. ... At this point, I would hope that I wouldn't have to deal with that as much. ... I had to get away from it. It was like a dark kind of time, musically speaking."
It turned out well for everyone involved. NPR Music not only called Weighted Mind "a stunning coming-of-age" record, but it also was nominated for best album -- in the folk category -- at the upcoming Grammy Awards. Talk about a Hull-uva way to end the year.
Willie Sugarcapps (from left): Anthony Crawford, Savana Lee, Grayson Capps,
Will Kimbrough and Corky Hughes.
I had become a big fan of Kimbrough, an Alabama singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist, after seeing him open for Allison Moorer and play electric guitar in her band, at the Soiled Dove (then in Denver's LoDo district) in 2000. I didn't catch him again until the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, when he was a member of Emmylou Harris' crackerjack outfit. So when I heard he had formed an Alabama supergroup that amalgamated the names of several key players, there was no way I was going to wait another decade to see him perform.
Willie Sugarcapps -- which also includes co-founder Grayson Capps and Corky Hughes -- was a personal highlight at AmericanaFest in 2014, and a number of the songs the rocking quintet performed that night landed on their 2016 album.
Interviewing Kimbrough and the welcoming husband-and-wife team of Lee and Crawford (who also perform as Sugarcane Jane) from Willie Sugarcapps, my pick as best roots group of the year, was a special treat, even if Capps missed the conference call (enjoying a European vacation) and Kimbrough was on his cell during a drive through Mississippi to his home in Nashville.
He summed up the album's title track in one succinct paragraph:
"It hit me that the idea of paradise for me is where you take the music with you and wherever you go, you can find a little bit of ... a moment of paradise. Especially singing with my friends in the band. I don't take it for granted how much joy it brings to me."
Dorothy Martin is frontwoman of Dorothy, which includes guitarist DJ Black, drummer Dylan Howard and bassist Gregg Cash.
Dorothy is indeed a band, but it wouldn't exist without the striking presence of a badass, opinionated frontwoman from San Diego.
Dorothy (the band) is loud, proud and accessible, its heavy metal music and Martin's voluptuous vocals finding their way into territory once off limits for mainstream entertainment like hit TV shows and pro football videogames. Dorothy's "Wicked Ones" even made it into the season finale of Dancing With the Stars in November, undoubtedly helping Laurie Hernandez and partner Val Chmerkovskiy earn the coveted Mirror Ball Trophy.
Though the four-piece group was the opening act on a head-banging night that featured Lita Ford and Halestorm, it was Dorothy that attracted a long line of followers at the merch table after an explosive 30-minute set that included "Raise Hell," the hot as Hades number Martin & Co. performed on Conan in November.
Expect more exposure for Dorothy in 2017, when a headlining tour throughout the country begins shortly after the new year. And the refreshingly honest Martin to hone her skills as a singer-songwriter after collaborating with edgy musicians such as Linda Perry.
"I don't know anybody in my family that's musical," Martin admitted. "So I'm probably not naturally gifted. I had to work my butt off to get in the groove of the margin of professionalism that I still have to work at it constantly."
Sounding fully grounded, Martin pulled out the best line of the year, one she heard from an acquaintance that should serve her well in the future: "When everything's loud, nothing is."
Formerly a member of the Great Unknowns, Becky Warren is my pick for songwriter of the year.
As a music lover first and a part-time reviewer second, one craves for magical moments like these. A publicist pitches a project from an artist unfamiliar to you, and her story sounds so intriguing that you bite. She overnights a copy of the CD with a personal note and it only takes one listen to reach the conclusion: With this incredibly moving record, Warren is my pick as songwriter of the year. Whether you play War Surplus once or 50 times, it sticks with you long after the music stops.
Formerly a member of the Great Unknowns, Warren wrote a concept album about the horror of war and how it can tear families apart in such a personal way, that it seemed like a story she knew so well, even if the lyrics were connected to two fictional characters.
Warren, now based in Nashville, has actually been there, done that. And my hope is to one day see her perform while letting her know -- like I'm guessing so many others -- how strongly this album has affected me.
You don't have to be an antiwar activist or have a connection to someone who has been personally affected by post-traumatic stress disorder to feel for the characters presented through Warren's songs, some of which are bona fide rockers. She was passionate enough about the subject that it comes across loud and clear.
"I hope that this record helps bridge that civilian-military divide for people just a little bit," Warren said.
"Mission accomplished," a Grateful Nation replied.
As a member of I'm With Her in 2015, Sara Watkins (left) joined Sarah Jarosz (center) and Aoife O'Donovan at RockyGrass.
Another child prodigy who started playing with heralded Americana group Nickel Creek at the age of 8, Watkins is one of the most seasoned professionals of any of the interview subjects on this list. She's also one of the most collaborative.
So when the world-class fiddler (Americana Music Awards' instrumentalist of the year) decided to go her own way and make her first solo album in four years, it was a significant announcement that turned out to be a major accomplishment, with a raw, revealing song like "Move Me" showing another side of herself.
Now 35, Watkins already has an extensive musical career to reflect upon, and spent ample time doing so on this album that included a stellar lineup of guest artists (Jon Brion, Jim James, among others). Yet the former playing partner of Chris Thile and her older brother Sean Watkins added to her introspection in a 45-minute interview that's my pick as most thought-provoking of the year.
While calling the making of this album a case of "positive disruption," Watkins explained: "The ways that I worked through identifying what my feelings and my goals for myself and for who I want to be and how I want to live were I processed this mishmash of feelings through writing songs. Largely it's how I process and problem-solve my own life and the world around me. So I learn from that, you know. It's like therapy in a way."
The Pretty Reckless (from left): Mark Damon, Jamie Perkins,
Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips.
Along with the aforementioned Dorothy and Halestorm, this solid band led by Taylor Momsen, the best frontwoman of the year, brought me back to the land of fist-pumping, bone-jarring, teeth-rattling, hard rock. But when I was in my teens worshipping groups like the Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult, the females most often associated with the artists were the backstage groupies.
Of course, that changed for the better long before 23-year-old Momsen burst onto the scene, but her confident presence as leader of the Pretty Reckless ups the ante for others to follow in her footsteps.
Who You Selling For, the follow-up to 2014's Going to Hell that's my pick for best mainstream rock record of the year, is a robust 51 minutes, 46 seconds long. While running rampant over all the familiar bases, it also scores with the surprising title track that shows Momsen's vulnerable side.
The change in direction -- both on the record and during one of the best mainstream rock concerts of the year, when the song was performed live for the first time -- was pure heaven. Momsen and her Reckless crew just earned their angel wings.
The Accidentals: Savannah Buist (right), Katie Larson (left) and Michael Dause.
3. THE ACCIDENTALS
Album: Parking Lot, June 1.
Interview: Band members Katie Larson, Savannah Buist and Michael Dause by phone, July 25.
Concert: Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, on Aug. 21.
Article published: Aug. 9.
Ah, the beauty of youthful exuberance. It's a wonderful thing, to be sure, but when you have brains, musical talent, enthusiasm and the ability to connect with a growing fan base through the monster method of social media and viral videos, there's no telling how far you can go.
Facebook actually introduced me this year to the maturing members of this charming trio. Then suddenly, they were involved in my favorite group interview of the year, a lively 42-minute discussion that covered the rigors of the road in a van they named Black Betty, the growing pains expressed in a 250-page yearlong journal and the anticipation of celebrating March 21, 2017, the one and only day in their lives they'll share the age of 21 together.
Their seventh-song self-produced EP was just as fun as they were, and the energetic noontime performance they gave in Lyons this summer was one of the best of the fest, a mix of their own kick-ass tunes with powerfully delivered covers of Jack White, the Beatles and Rush.
These self-proclaimed "massive nerds" are going places, all right, having spent the latter part of this year in an Asheville, North Carolina recording studio preparing for a full-length album release in 2017.
Whatever happens after that is wavy gravy because, with heads firmly screwed on straight, they already have five years of memories to cherish.
"That's the experience I'm gonna grow old with," Buist offered. "I'm gonna have this experience of working with people who are incredibly professional, incredibly creative, incredibly intelligent and I'm just so lucky to be able to say that I did that."
The Accidentals certainly didn't happen by accident.
Lucius: Holly Laessig (left) and Jess Wolfe.
On a list including four dynamo duos, Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe -- the lively ladies of Lucius -- were the perfect pairing of the year.
And in terms of concerts, 2016 saved two of its best for last.
Not only that, the co-founders, lead vocalists and leaders of the four-piece indie pop band were a true double threat, their terrific sophomore release becoming my favorite alternative pop-rock album of the year. With songs like "Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain," "Madness" and "Gone Insane," these two of an enigmatic kind -- duplicating their hairstyles and wardrobe like some twisted twin sister act -- are so crazy-good.
With singing voices that come together like a singular sensation, they put their heads together for a show that's twice as nice. And only six days after the presidential election, Wolfe took a moment after Lucius' inventive cover of "Uncle John's Band" to address the insanity spreading like the plague beyond our country.
"A lot of crazy things going on in the world," she said. "We're not gonna preach politics right now. I think we have had enough. I think we all need a break, and what a wonderful thing to come together and have music to help heal us and soothe us and support us through such difficult and trying times."
With that out the way, the doppelganger divas went on to finish the show that bears repeating because the line for a second helping starts here: Play it again, Lucius. Play it again.
Six months after her full-length, major-label debut, Maren Morris appeared on "Saturday Night Live."
1. MAREN MORRIS
Album: Hero, June 3.
Interview: By phone, May 26.
Article published: June 3.
Just when I thought I was out of the business of listening to country music, this diminutive flamethrower came to the rescue and pulled me back into her raging bonfire.
From the time I received an advance copy of Morris' adrenaline rush of a record on March 31, tunes such as "Sugar," "Rich" and "Once" kept smoldering inside my head. While there were other possible contenders in the race, Hero was my runaway winner for album of the year. More Morris? Yes, please.
What's so refreshing about my pick for artist of the year, though, is that she doesn't write, sing or record typical country songs. Otherwise, how could this '90s baby in her '80s Mercedes, who became Nashville's latest It Girl in a matter of months after the release of her full-length, major-label debut, attract the attention of Alicia Keys for a marvelous genre-bending CMT Crossroads episode that premiered Dec. 2. Eight days later, Morris was on Saturday Night Live.
That's heady stuff for someone who moved to Nashville at age 20, humbly beginning her career as a struggling songwriter. It only took this Texas tornado six years to become an overnight success. The fact that the Music City continues to broaden its scope proved to be a blessing.
"I feel like it's changed so much, especially in the last year," Morris told me a week before she unleashed her record to the world. "And not just with women being on the radio. Even men like Chris Stapleton having his voice come through on the radio finally is so refreshing for me as a listener to hear because, you know, we needed more diversity. So for me to be a small piece of that conversation, I feel very humbled by it because I am a country radio listener. So I'm excited that the landscape of it is changing for the better and to be a part of it."
Four Grammy nominations later, along with Billboard's Women in Music Breakthrough Artist award, a CMA award for best new artist and appearances an the Ryman, the Grand Ole Opry and all over late night national TV, Morris not only is part of the conversation but the talk of the town in country music's capital.
And when she embarks on her first headlining tour in February, the rest of the country will be listening as well.
Now more than ever, America needs a true red-white-and-blue hero we can write home about. In all her glory, Maren Morris is the story of the year.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of 2016's Sweet 16. Publicity photos courtesy of the artists.