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The year-end list hardest to write has always been the “In Memoriam,” but 2016 is a special one for the breadth of our musical losses. The following is not inclusive, as death truly had a field day this year, taking artists of all genres—Merle Haggard and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey among them—yet it is indicative of the level of talent and influence left behind.
1. David Bowie
We should have all known what a clusterfuck of a year 2016 would turn out to be when it was announced on Jan. 10—just two days after the release of his 25th album Blackstarour favorite albums of 2016 (one of )—that our favorite space oddity, our brilliantine diamond dog, our towering Thin White Duke … was gone.
For nearly 50 years the man born David Robert Jones but known as David Bowie (and Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane, etc.) challenged us, and himself, by shape-shifting across genres, mediums, sexualities and more. He wasn’t perfect—as his run of late ’80s and ’90s albums prove—but he never stopped trying.
You could be anything you wanted to be, he tried to tell us—a rock star, a film star, a fashion plate, an alien, even all of them at the same time—as long as you put your mind to it.
While he was alive, he made other rock stars look tame and vapid in comparison. Now that he’s gone, will there ever be another fit to fill his platform spaceboots?
2. Phife Dawg
As one of the fellow architects of A Tribe Called Quest, Malik Izaak Taylor aka Phife Dawg might not have brought politics to hip-hop, but he perfected its flow while expanding—along with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad—its sonic palette.
From 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm to this year’s We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (another of our favorite albums of 2016), ATCQ released only six records, but the group’s influence has never been more pronounced than in this decade.
And in the age of Trump—which Phife Dawg warned against in the raps recorded prior to his death all the way back in March—his vision and passion will be missed.
Rumors about Bowie’s health had circulated for a while. Phife Dawg struggled with diabetes since 1990. Prince Rogers Nelson, however … well, until the very end, few people had heard the whispers about any nasty business, especially drugs, at all.
So his death in April was a shock and, when it was finally revealed that he had died of an overdose of fentanyl, you could hear a collective sigh of disappointment.
How prosaic—a rock star of such trailblazing talent succumbing to one of the worst clichés in the playbook. His music, though, that’s a different story. Whatever clichés reside in his 39 studio albums are there because they originated with him. One day it will be great to hear them again, but for now they are on hold.
Unlike Bowie—whom I’ve been listening to non-stop since January and who turned his own death (and therefore life) into a subject of exploration and celebration—I haven’t quite forgiven Prince. It still hurts to hear him—that swooning falsetto, the ’80s drum thwacks, that sexuality (that’s all you’ll ever need)—without contemplating the enormous void he’s left behind.
4. Leonard Cohen
Bob Dylan turned music into poetry. Leonard Cohen was a published poet who turned to music but remained first and foremost a man of letters. This is not to suggest that he was not “musical”—his ’60s/’70s folk melodies and his menacing ’80s synthetic modernization and his later amalgamation of them both were always compelling.
Yet when one thinks of Cohen, one drifts towards the deep (and later ragged) voice, or the words. Especially the words.
From his 1967 debut to this year’s You Want It Darker, Cohen has essayed love in all its permutations, politics, spirituality, the afterlife, you name it. Even if you don’t think you know his work, you know it: “Hallelujah,” the closest the modern world has come to its own “Amazing Grace,” has become a hymn for the ages covered by nearly everyone. And there are too many more to mention.
If you’re unfamiliar with his work, and have a bent for gentle folk romanticism, try Songs of Leonard Cohen. If you want a modern vision of dystopia, you can’t go wrong with 1988’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future. And if you want a lesson in how to look death coldly in the eye, his swansong You Want It Darker might give you a glimpse into the inevitability that awaits us all.
5. Sharon Jones
Though her career didn’t take off until 2002, Sharon Jones didn’t waste any time feeling sorry for herself. She was nearing 50 when, with her band The Dap-Kings, she released her debut, and she put out six more records in 13 years (including 2015’s It’s a Holiday Soul Party).
She was retro, for sure, and proud of it. She worked so hard that she came to be known as the Female James Brown. And she kept on keepin’ on until she couldn’t. Cancer will do that to you.
Yet Jones made her mark and became a standard bearer for all those middle-aged dreamers who wonder if their chance has passed them by. Take a listen to 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights or 2014’s Give the People What They Want. Then get out there and do it, already. Sharon Jones has got your back.
6. George Michael
Honestly, 2016, fuck you. Having already filed this article, you gave us a Christmas surprise that truly makes us wish we could return the gift. Yet here we are again—another bright light taken from us way too soon.
Yes, the photogenic frontman from Wham! and solo glory peaked in the ’80s, and though he never scaled the heights of “Faith,” “I Want Your Sex” and “Freedom! ’90” again, every single one of his records has something worth hearing, and all of them share what Michael gave most generously to the world: that smooth, expressive and soulful countertenor.
He also, as a friend remarked upon learning of Michael’s passing, was “into scruff—the grooming trend, not the app—way before anyone else.”