From Bowie to a 'New Breed,' Berklee Artists Climb 'Best of 2016' Lists

Bryan Parys
December 22, 2016
Esperanza Spalding
Donny McCaslin and David Bowie
Composition professor Jeffrey Means
Indie soul band KING
The band Lucius
Guitarist Jeff Parker
Anna Wise '10
The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra performing live to the film 'Varieté'
Multi-Grammy-winning artist Esperanza Spalding '05 made the top 50 in 'Rolling Stone' and on other lists for her cerebral sophomore effort, 'Emily's D+Evolution.'
Donny McCaslin's ‘88 (left) dynamic work as bandleader for David Bowie's (right) final album, 'Blackstar,' helped push the album to the top of many "Best Albums of 2016" lists.
Jeffrey Means, assistant professor of composition, was cited in the ‘Boston Globe's’ Top 10 classical music list for his conducting work with the sinfonietta Sound Icon.
R&B trio KING, comprised of Berklee alumnae Anita Bias ’07 and Paris Strother ’08, as well as Strother's sister Amber, made 'Pitchfork's' Top 50 for their debut, 'We Are KING.'
Alumni band Lucius deepened their infectious indie pop on their second album, 'Good Grief,' which clocked in at No. 22 on 'Paste's' Top 50 list.
Guitarist Jeff Parker '90, most known for his genre-bending work with post-rock band Tortoise, released two albums in 2016, both of which made the 'New York Times' Top 10.
Singer-songwriter Anna Wise '10 snagged a Grammy in 2015 for her work on Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' and continued that work on Lamar's latest, 'Untitled, Unmastered.'
The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra’s performance of 'Varieté' topped the Boston Society of Film Critics' Best Rediscoveries list.
Holly Andres
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Peter Larsen
Michael Jackson
Mike Spencer
Pamela Gentile

As the end of the year brings its mix of frenzy and joy, one of the simpler pleasures for the music lover is taking stock of the year in music and combing through “best of” lists. 2016 was a banner year for Berklee artists contributing to albums that made strong showings in those “best of” lists from some of the country’s most respected music journalism authorities.

Securely at the top of that pile is David Bowie’s Blackstar, an album that surprised many, first for its out-of-the-blue release, and then for its quick turn into an icon’s final testament when he passed away two days after it was released. Donny McCaslin '88, Bowie’s bandleader, drove the album’s cosmic, jazz-inflected energy, which prompted widespread critical praise, cementing the record firmly as some of the best work in the Starman’s legendary catalogue. Major music news outlets agreed, and the album has been named the No. 2 album of the year by Rolling Stone and the New York Times, No. 5 by NPR, No. 4 by Pitchfork, and No. 1 by Paste Magazine.

Listen to McCaslin speak about working with David Bowie '99H:

Making strides as artists in their own right, Berklee artists also charted well across different lists. Multi-Grammy-winning cellist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding '05 followed up her past work with a headier, more frenetic jazz-pop exploration in Emily’s D+Evolution, and made the Top 50 list for NPR (No. 28), Pitchfork (No. 30), and Rolling Stone (No. 48). This January, Spalding will be a headliner at the Panama Jazz Festival, founded by Danilo Pérez '88, artistic director for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute; earlier this year, Spalding performed at the Dominican Republic Jazz Festival.

Watch the video for 'Born Again Teen' by Lucius:

Lucius, fronted by indie rock sirens Jess Wolfe ’07 and Holly Laessig ‘07, as well as instrumentalists Pete Lalish ‘05, Dan Molad ’04, and Andy Burri ’09, nabbed the No. 22 spot from Paste, for its second full-length album, Good Grief. Indie soul outfit KING, two-thirds of whom consist of alumnae Anita Bias ’07 and Paris Strother ’08, landed on Pitchfork’s Top 50 at No. 37 for their impressive full-length debut We Are KING. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Parker ’90, known for his experimental work on the borders of jazz and post-rock, released two records this year—A New Breed and Slight Freedom—both of which made Nate Chinen’s Top 10 list in the New York Times.

Listen to KING's track "In the Meantime":

Other notable albums with Berklee contributors include vocal contributions by Anna Wise ’10 to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered (No. 16 and 36 on Pitchfork and Paste, respectively), and Bill Frisell ‘77 and visiting artist Ben Street’s contributions to jazz drummer mainstay Andrew Cyrille’s Declaration of Musical Independence (No. 5 on Chinen’s New York Times Top 10).

In the classical world, conductor Jeffrey Means, assistant professor of composition, was listed in the Boston Globe’s Top 10 in classical music for his conducting role in Hans Abrahamsen’s “Let Me Tell You,” and “Schnee.” Additionally, the Boston Society of Film Critics placed the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra’s performance of Varieté at the top of their Best Rediscoveries list.

Watch the official video for Jeff Parker's "Cliche" from his genre-bending album, New Breed:

Overall, this is just a small sampling of the innovative new work put out by the larger Berklee community, as is reflected in many Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations Berklee alumni and students received this year. Best-of lists continue to abound as 2016 makes its final ticks on the yearly clock, and we hope that this roundup kickstarts your own personal list of favorites.