It was a great year for old pros and newcomers, big pop stars and beloved cult stars, as well as a couple of not-yet-stars. As always, winnowing down a list that could have easily been double this length was tough — but it was also a pleasure, since it forced me to concentrate on what made this music the best of 2016. The following picks are arranged in alphabetical order.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, is going to tell us about his list of the 10 best recordings of the year. But first, he's going to pay tribute to some of the musicians who died in 2016, starting with Leon Russell, who died in November.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND")
LEON RUSSELL: (Singing) Whoa. How many days has it been since I was born? How many days till I die? Do I know any ways that I can make you laugh, or do I only know how to make you cry? When the baby looks around him...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Any summation of the year in music for 2016 becomes a roll call for the dead. It seems as though there's been a startling increase in the number of important music makers who've passed away. Some of these deaths were shocks in various ways. We had no idea, for example, so soon after the release of his very good album "Black Star" that David Bowie would die.
When I reviewed Leonard Cohen's album of new songs, "You Want It Darker," at the end of October, I said that its spiritually meditative music was like a living will. His age suggested that death might be imminent, but I couldn't know he'd die within days of the airing of that review.
The death of Prince seemed to momentarily shake the earth. How could a musician so vital, so present, so witty just vanish from daily existence?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UPTOWN")
PRINCE: (Singing) She saw me walking down the streets of your fine city. It kind of turned me on when she looked at me and said, come here. Now, I don't usually talk to strangers, but she looked so pretty. What can I lose if I just give her a little ear? What's up, little girl?
TUCKER: I know I'm not going to get to everyone, but other significant artists who died this year included Sharon Jones and Leon Russell, A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg and the Eagles' Glenn Frey, Maurice White and Merle Haggard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A LONESOME FUGITIVE")
MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) Down every road there's always one more city. I'm on the run, the highway is my home. I raised a lot of Cain back in my younger days, while Mama used to pray my crops would fail. Now I'm a hunted fugitive with just two ways - outrun the law or spend my life in jail. I'd like to settle down...
TUCKER: Turning to the living, I had no trouble coming up with 10 albums whose music provided me with reasons to be hopeful in a troubled year. There was amazing ambition on display from both Beyonce and Miranda Lambert. Beyonce's "Lemonade" wasn't just an album. It was a multimedia event full of power and assertiveness. Miranda Lambert filled the two dozen songs on "The Weight Of These Wings" with a passion that was often heartbreaking.
And speaking of heartache, it spilled over the edges of William Bell's remarkable comeback album, "This Is Where I Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS WHERE I LIVE")
WILLIAM BELL: (Singing) I was born in Memphis in a different world. Now that time has come and gone. I was just a little boy when I heard Sam Cooke singing a change is going to come. It touched my soul and let me know there's a promise of a brand new day. Then I left my home, started out on my own. This is where I live. This is where I live. This is where I give all my love, all my time, all my money, every dime. This is where I live.
TUCKER: I put two debut albums on my year-end top 10. The first is Margaret Glaspy's deceptively direct "Emotions And Math." The second is by The I Don't Cares, which is really a new act from two familiar voices - Paul Westerberg and Juliana Hatfield. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why their slashing yet playful album "Wild Stab" didn't make more of a splash.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN FOR ME")
THE I DON'T CARES: (Singing) When the loneliest eyes and the emptiest arms finally decided to meet with a head in a lap and a tongue tied in knots, then the loneliest eyes try and speak. You were born for me.
TUCKER: Kelsey Waldon's hardcore country album "I've Got A Way" was a model of throwback music that avoided nostalgia. I admired greatly the gritty yet alluring rhythm and blues of Maxwell's "BlackSUMMERS'night" and the hard-charging ambition of Car Seat Headrest's "Teens Of Denial."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FILL IN THE BLANK")
CAR SEAT HEADREST: (Singing) I'm so sick of fill in the blank. Accomplish more, accomplish nothing. If I were split in two, I would just take my fists so I can beat up the rest of me. You have no right to be depressed. You haven't tried hard enough...
TUCKER: Finally, two long-time favorites made my year-end list. Robbie Fulks' "Upland Stories" was a frequently magnificent achievement full of novelistically (ph) detailed compositions about how the world can let you down. And Bonnie Raitt's "Dig In Deep" did just what its title said. It bore down hard on the idea that people frequently try to be better than they are and come up short.
All in all, it was a sad year for music and an exhilarating one. New avenues of expression opened up for musicians just starting out, while some of the best veterans made being in it for the long haul sound like the most rewarding journey imaginable.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like my interviews with Billy Eichner, Fox News host Megyn Kelly or New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, or Dave Davies' interview about fake news, check out our podcast, where you'll find plenty of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ONES WE COULDN'T BE")
BONNIE RAITT: (Singing) It's hard to say now who left first. It used to seem so clear. You and I were tangled from the start. Somehow, the scales just fell away. Now I'm left standing here, blown open in the hole that was my part. I wrap the dark around me. There's no solace here tonight, just wishing in regret for company. My glass is raised for all the ways we tried to get it right, and I'm sorry for the ones we couldn't be. I'm so sorry for the ones we couldn't be. Looking through these photographs, searching for a clue, how you and I got tangled from the start. Not even... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.