David Bowie (January 8, 1947 – January 10, 2016)
To say that David Bowie had a monumental impact on the direction of popular and avant garde music is not only somehow an understatement, but it fails to encapsulate the full cultural magnitude and the deep impact of the man that fell to earth.
As a performer who challenged racism and sexism openly, early, and often, as an individual who championed identity as a sacred tapestry to be embellished with delirious joy and somber reverence, as a person intent on thumbing his nose at gender roles, rock star poses, and political pacification alike, Bowie did as much good socially as he did musically. The consummate artist, Bowie ended his long odyssey on this planet with one of his finest works ever, the dense yet smirking album Blackstar, released just two days before his death.
The value of an unflinching and exemplary life like his, consumed in creative impulse and in staring down the future, even under the weight of a fast-approaching death, cannot be overstated. It’s reassuring to think of all the young folks, especially, who must have connected with Bowie and his music for the first time this year. — James Courtney
Phife Dawg (November 20, 1970 – March 22, 2016)
This year, Phife Dawg, real name Malik Taylor, would have celebrated the 25 year anniversary of the release of one of the greatest, most influential hip-hop albums of all time, The Low End Theory. For Phife, it was his breakout work with the Queens rap collective A Tribe Called Quest, proving himself the 5-foot assassin who assaulted you with insightful, insanely quotable lines.
Phife will be remembered as one of the brilliant lyricists we lost in 2016, but to many, he was also a representative of the fundamental humanity at the core of all good hip-hop. His words were thoughtful but unpretentious, his music substantive and truly original. That’s why he connected to such a broad group of people — from all corners of the music and hip-hop communities to the goofy Atlanta traffic reporter who threw Phife lyrics into an entire segment about the morning commute in honor of the dearly departed.
A Tribe Called Quest was in the process of recording its first album in 18 years when Phife died this spring. By fall, they’d released their final opus, and Phife’s voice, recorded before his passing, permeates the record. Even when he’s gone, Phife’s on point. — Michael Barajas
Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016)
Merle Ronald Haggard earned the kind of titles you’d expect of a master troubadour with a checkered past — the poet of the common man, the bard from behind bars.
Haggard, who spent some of his formative years in and out of penal institutions (including San Quentin, where he watched Johnny Cash perform), sang a great deal about prison. His velvet-voiced croon was a departure from the wiry drawl of Hank Williams or the grit of Cash. With an impossibly beautiful voice, Haggard spoke hard truths — about alcoholics or men forced to live “on the wrong side of the law.” In the process, he became a voice for the displaced, a champion of true country blues singing about hobos, trains, jazz, working class folks and down-in-the-dirt criminals doing what they can to scrape by. His disdain for politicians made him one of country’s iconic dissenters.
When asked about what inspired his songwriting, Haggard once said, “There is a restlessness in my soul that I’ve never conquered, not with motion, marriages or meaning … [It’s] still there to a degree. And it will be till the day I die.” It was that restlessness that made Haggard, in Bob Dylan’s words, “as deep as deep gets.” Thank God for that restlessness. —MB
Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)
As a Millennial, I missed out on the majority of Prince’s ascension to stardom in the late 1970s and mid-80s. It wasn’t until Musicology in 2004 and his mind-boggling, rain-filled Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, that I came around to Prince’s raw talent (how did he not face-plant on that water-soaked stage?!) and somehow even rawer sexual magnetism (seeing co-workers flock TVs to take in the Purple One's majesty during his impromptu visit to The View was especially enlightening).
When he passed on April 21 of this God forsaken year, mourning fans left purple flowers in front of his Paisley Park residence and the First Avenue nightclub he immortalized in the film Purple Rain; purple lights lit up bridges, skyscrapers; clubs and radio stations played back-to-back hits spanning his 40-year career; The New Yorker referenced Purple Rain with an understated tearjerker of a cover. SA mourned collectively at Paper Tiger, Brass Monkey, Alamo Drafthouse and a Stars and Garters tribute show, because obviously.
Prince knew how to laugh off a Chappelle Show skit, how to electrify audiences, how to throw the best shade and how to get listeners to feel, emote and get through this thing called “life,” in thigh-highs, assless chaps, lace, and the tightest of Lycra, no less. He was ethereal and ephemeral, and there will be no one like him for a very, very long time. —Jessica Elizarraras
Emilio Navaira (August 23, 1962 – May 16, 2016)
I stopped short of writing “Emilio Navaira III.” Don’t need it. Emilio is Emilio, and I know there is some dude out there in the music world who shares the same name, but he won’t ever get close to the significance this Emilio had in the genre he belonged to. Scratch that — genres.
In the Tejano world, Navaira became a solo star after shining for years with David Lee Garza & Los Musicales, then became second only to Selena in the ’90s, the heyday of Tejano. When he crossed over to country, he entered the Nashville charts and left an indelible mark (1995’s Life is Good is a gem), but eventually his thirst and rock ’n’ roll spirit (he loved the Beatles, ZZ Top, Nirvana, Eagles, etc.) took the best of him, ending in a series of alcohol related brushes with the law.
But only Emilio could have miraculously recovered after hitting some highway barrels with his tour bus, going through the windshield and landing head first on the pavement. SA showed its love for him when, at age 53, he died at home, unexpectedly in May (heart attack, after having a bike ride in the nearby park). But it is important to remember that it was Mexico (specifically, Monterrey) where people couldn’t have enough of him and where he performed for the last time five days before his passing.
“I play a lot in Mexico because Mexico loves me,” he told the Current in 2012. “But on this side, Tejano is kind of down, slow. That’s scary.”
His legacy was cemented long before his death, but his talented sons (Diego and Emilio IV, from The Last Bandoleros) will strongly continue the Navaira groove for years to come. Emilio was a natural star born with an incredible voice (when singing in English, he always reminded me of a young Elton John), but he was also so San Antonio — humble and real. That’s why we loved him. — Enrique Lopetegui
Juan Gabriel (January 7, 1950 – August 28, 2016)
Only Juan Gabriel could have taken seven years off without recording an album and remain Mexico’s top pop figure.
Before and after dealing with legal issues with his label, he wrote hundreds of classics deeply instilled in the country’s DNA, but he also fed countless artists who earned a living simply by covering his hymns. Yes, he was cheesy and corny and his poetry will never be seriously considered by Stockholm’s Nobel Committee. But his sense of melody was superb, while his artistic open-mindedness allowed him to jump from romantic pop to rancheras and even rock without ever sounding opportunistic. His wit left him off the hook whenever a journalist tried to corner him about his sexuality. Because, on top of it all, Juan Gabriel was a gay man in what’s perhaps the world’s most machista country.
“I have four sons. That’s No. 1,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “Second, in show business, if you’re male and cute and gracious, people assume you’re blah blah blah. But people don’t understand that art itself is female — it is full of graciousness, cadence, color, rhythm. It’s full of love and grace. No. 3: Nowadays, the important thing is to be careful. That’s what people have to worry about, not whether one is or isn’t. Watch your ‘bird’ and watch your butt. Especially in the U.S., where there is, or there is supposed to be, so much respect for all peoples.”
Years later, Univision tried to ask the same question, and “Juanga” had a shorter but equally disarming comeback: Lo que se ve no se pregunta [“What you see you don’t ask about.”] Better still: to understand Juanga, all you have to do is listen. — EL
Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016)
Leonard Cohen was a living and breathing Zen koan, perhaps finally articulated in two of his last statements about his own mortality: “I am ready to die” and “I plan to live forever.”
This duality in the face of death seems to symbolize the devastating nuances of Cohen’s poetry and lyrics. The Canadian poet and ordained Buddhist monk never held any designs on being revered as a musical mind, though he certainly entered some truly great songs into the eternal ledger, but he saw the performance of popular song as an elegant and accessible way to impart the written word to groups of people. With songs like “Hallelujah” (though his original version is largely eschewed), “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “Bird On The Wire,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Suzanne,” and several others over the years, Cohen presented a unique creative vision of the world, somehow both pessimistic and mystical at once, and teeming with wounding and exasperating images of truth, death and love.
Not as prolific as some of his contemporaries, at least in musical output, Cohen’s offerings, even his more recent efforts, always had the studied and self-sure air of projects that had been appropriately suffered for. — JC
Leon Russell (April 2, 1942 – November 13, 2016)
Leon Russell was basically an ace blues tickler and an occasionally powerful songwriter, who fell head first into some good acid, couldn’t decide between the Brits and the cowboy-hippies, and could lay it on thick in just about any style you could dream up.
He was a hustler and a stubborn star’s star, a unicorn born into pastures of longhorns and wild mustangs. He could mingle, but he could never stray too far outside of his own glorious strangeness. He played keyboard with artists as disparate and estimable as Elton John, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, B.B. King, and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few.
But it would be a shame if, in recognizing Russell’s legacy as one of the most talented musicians of his time, we were to neglect the trove of strange beauty and sheer individuality that is his own musical output. Carney, Russell’s gritty and wild, pop-rock masterpiece from 1972, is one of the finest albums of the 1970s (to say the least), and an absolutely essential listen for anyone looking to dive into the man’s work. Another personal favorite, with a loose and boozy country wink, is 1973’s Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol. 1. — JC
Sharon Jones (May 4, 1956 – November 18, 2016)
Unlike the untimely departures of Bowie and Prince, the passing of funk and soul powerhouse Sharon Jones came with a public warning via filmmaker Barbara Kopple’s documentary Miss Sharon Jones! Three years in the making, the film shed an intimate light on Jones as she fought pancreatic cancer with an inspiring level of determination and positivity.
Born in Georgia and raised in 1960s-era New York, Sharon Jones grew up idolizing James Brown, singing gospel in church and eventually gigging with wedding bands. Demonstrating a toughness and tenacity later reflected in her music, she supported herself by working as an armed guard for Wells Fargo and a corrections officer on Rikers Island. Eluded by success despite undeniable talent and star quality, Jones was once told by a record producer that she was “too fat, too black, too short and too old.”
In 1996, Jones’ big break arrived in the form of producer/bandleader Gabriel Roth, who “discovered” her singing backup for fellow James Brown disciple Lee Fields. She ultimately released her debut song “Damn It’s Hot” at the age of 40. Personifying the concept of a “second chapter,” Jones went on to spearhead New York’s retro soul revival as frontwoman for Roth’s horn-driven ensemble the Dap-Kings. Adding an electrifying draw to the band’s success was Jones’ inimitable stage presence — a tour de force shouting and shimmying in sequins and fringe. Inevitably, critics and fans likened Jones to a “female James Brown.”
Chronicled in Kopple’s film, Jones did make a triumphant, albeit brief, recovery (“I have cancer; cancer don’t have me,” she told Rolling Stone in 2016), defiantly performing with a close-cropped cut and earning a much-deserved Grammy nomination for 2014’s Give the People What They Want, a sixth album she wasn’t sure she’d live to see released. Currently displayed on record store shelves, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ final offering — 2015’s It’s a Holiday Soul Party — listens like a poignant farewell, with the late singer lamenting on Charles Brown’s 1960 classic “Please Come Home for Christmas” — “Oh, what a Christmas to have the blues.” — Bryan Rindfuss