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Best albums of 2016 by artists over 50

Published Dec. 12, 2016

A year ago, I compiled a year-end list of 2015's best pop albums and songs, as is my duty as a critic. And like a lot of critic lists, it skewed pretty young: Kendrick Lamar, Carly Rae Jepsen, Courtney Barnett, the Weeknd.

Then I got an email from a 60-something reader in Clearwater named Richard Levine, who wrote that in the interest of musical exploration, he listened to every artist I listed. A couple, he liked. Most, he didn't.

"This is not a statement about your choices or the opinions of others," Levine wrote. "It might, however, indicate that the music industry has left behind some (or many?) older listeners."

You know what? He has a point. Pop music is, almost by definition, geared toward young listeners, and it stands to reason that would be reflected in most year-end best-of lists. But veteran artists also release new music, and it too often gets overlooked in a culture that tends to celebrate the new.

So as I sat down to pick my favorite albums of 2016, I made a side list of the best by artists over 50. This turned out to be a strong year for older acts; albums by Sting, Steven Tyler, Barry Gibb, Van Morrison, Metallica, the Pretenders, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen all merit a listen.

But start with these five.

1 David Bowie, Blackstar: The iconic singer's death just two days after Blackstar's release retroactively reframed the album as the final, haunting vision of a genius on his deathbed. But Blackstar is no maudlin swan song. Crooning across a dark sea of swirling, atmospheric guitars and discordant saxophones, Bowie lays down his final manifesto with beauty and authority.

2 Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger: Stranger to Stranger is a defiantly — and delightfully — weird album, woven with global influences and instrumentation. Simon, 75, is wryly clever as always, and songs like Proof of Love and Cool Papa Bell will get stuck in your head. But what will really kick-start your brain is trying to figure out what instrument made the rusty bwowww at the intro to The Werewolf. (It's an Indian folk instrument called a gopichand, FYI.) This is the work of a musical omnivore who felt like feasting in the studio.

3 Britta Phillips, Luck or Magic: With her debut solo album, the 53-year-old alternative singer (Luna, Dean and Britta) blends alt-country, '70s folk and new wave dream-pop into a collection of mood music for grownups. Half of Luck or Magic is covers (the Cars' Drive, Dennis Wilson's Fallin' in Love), but it's all molded to the same warmth and intimacy Phillips brings to her originals, like the seductively groovy Do It Last.

4 Bob Mould, Patch the Sky: "I'm very conscious of the voices in my head ... I can play the victim, or get on with life instead," Mould, 56, snarls on Patch the Sky. The Husker Du singer-guitarist put together an album that deals with the passage of time and loss of love and life, yet feels as urgent as any punk album this year. Hands Are Tied and Losing Time practically explode through your earbuds.

5 Allen Toussaint, American Tunes: The legendary pianist died in November 2015, weeks after completing American Songs, and as with Bowie's Blackstar, it's hard to separate the mourning from the music. But the spotlight his death brought to this posthumous release was not undeserved. The album presents rich, stately arrangements of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Professor Longhair that reflect New Orleans' musical legacy without wallowing in it. Toussaint's closing take on Paul Simon's American Tune is a tender farewell.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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