IS IT OVER YET? Among 2016’s many regrettable qualities, this year was a particularly unkind one for musicians. From the shocking January death of David Bowie to the December passing of prog bassist Greg Lake, hardly a week went by without one of our favorite artists getting called to join that great gig in the sky. Now that we’re on the verge of finally putting these 12 months behind us, it’s worth paying tribute to who was lost this year. And there’s no better way to remember our favorite musicians than through their songs—these are some of the tracks that have been sticking with us as this miserable fucking year draws to a close. (Caveat: So many musicians died this year that we couldn’t include them all. This list, by unfair virtue of space, is only the tip of a large, sad iceberg.)
“Free” from 1999 (1982)
Particularly at the beginning of his career, Prince’s art was one of combining overt sexual expression with throbbing religious ecstasy. Early records like Dirty Mind and Controversy were also about avoiding the limitations of prescribed labels like black, white, straight, or gay in favor of finding liberty through expression and self-actualization. But after Prince’s disturbing, premature death in April, our world seemed to grow darker and more restrictive. And “Free,” the cooing ballad tucked away on Side 3 of 1999, has burst out of its once-trite trappings to become a radical statement of resolve and protest in the year 2016. “Be glad that U R free/There’s many a man who’s not,” sings the Purple One over a bed of sexily tinkling piano and slow, heavy drums. A recording of marching feet opens the track, reminding us how easily those freedoms can be trampled or disfigured to fit into lockstep formation. Prince died a victim of prescription drugs, his own freedom tragically impinged. We owe it to him to not succumb to our own freedom-killing evils.
“Moonage Daydream” from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
“I’m an alligator,” David Bowie announces as Ziggy Stardust at the beginning of “Moonage Daydream,” with a thundering guitar riff that sounds like he’s throwing open the door to his spaceship and digging his scepter into the earth. “I’m a mama-papa coming for you/I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ’n’ rollin’ bitch for you.” It’s the third track on Bowie’s groundbreaking concept album Ziggy Stardust, a space-age symphony that’s shepherded through the echoing cosmos by that iconic and commanding riff. Though the record’s extraterrestrial prophet is obviously imagined, Ziggy Stardust’s fluid identity as a creature that transcends definition seems somewhat autobiographical. Bowie wasn’t some alien guide sent to illuminate the path for humanity; he was very much a human, and a flawed one at that. But songs like “Moonage Daydream” seem to cut the tethers that bind us to convention—to make a home out of the space in the sky where you can be an alligator, a space invader, and a rock ’n’ rollin’ bitch, all at once.
“Spectacle” from Dead Moon’s Stranded in the Mystery Zone (1991)
On March 8, a Portland hero passed away too soon. Andrew Loomis was the drummer for legendary band Dead Moon and a fixture of the city’s music scene; his famous drum kit, festooned with a candlewax-covered Jack Daniel’s bottle, provided the visual focal point for many of Puddletown’s most memorable punk-rock moments of the ’90s and ’00s. There’s no shortage of Loomis’ great drumming in Dead Moon’s extensive (and consistently excellent) catalog, but “Spectacle” captures the precise way Loomis was able to first rein in and then explosively detonate the songs of Fred and Toody Cole. With one-two floor-tom slaps during its mellow verses and a slow, steady acceleration that builds up to a breakneck chorus, Loomis’ tension and release illustrates just how Dead Moon made great rock ’n’ roll out of primary colors—and Loomis’ heartfelt drumming gave it rhythm, soul, and just a hint of danger.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” from Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
Each word of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” evaporates over a listlessly strummed acoustic guitar melody that sounds like it’s intended to shrink your heart into a raisin. Wind chimes clink in the folk ballad’s interlude, and the hushed “da-da-da” harmonies of backup singers gain momentum throughout the song until they’re throbbing with the raw operatics of Ennio Morricone. The song is written as a letter that begins without greeting, addressed to another participant in a since-dismantled love triangle. Cohen mumbles lyrics with the stilted chilliness of a letter-writer who hesitantly seeks to commiserate with someone he describes as “my brother, my killer” (the only moment of the song where his voice spits venom). “Famous Blue Raincoat” unfolds like a novel—each quaver in Cohen’s voice alludes to a different subplot, a different twist in the story that only the letter’s addressee could understand.
“The Space Program” from A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
The other members of A Tribe Called Quest say they didn’t know if Phife Dawg knew precisely how numbered his remaining days on Earth were. Regardless, he pushed the crew to reconvene for one last album: Coming a few months after his death in March, it’s a benediction in the form of epitaph. The sonic fingerprints of We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service serve as excellent reminders of what made Tribe so groundbreaking in their heyday, but the opening track, “The Space Program,” is an exhortation that couldn’t have existed prior to the strife of 2016. Phife’s call to action at the end (“Gotta get it together for brothers/Gotta get it together for sisters”) is more than mere sermonizing, and the repeated vocal hook (“Move on to the stars”) turns transcendent, reminding us of where he’s gone. (To compound the song’s grief and hopefulness, the track samples another icon who died in 2016: Gene Wilder.)
“If We Make It Through December” from Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present (1973)
Though he’s often known for classics like “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard’s seasonal 1973 ditty “If We Make It Through December” is one of the most enduring tracks in his catalog. The outlaw country legend sings about getting laid off from his factory job just in time for the holidays, and not having enough money to afford Christmas presents for his daughter. It’s brutal: Haggard hopes his family makes it through the “coldest time of winter,” and although this sets the bar pretty low for their yuletide festivities, the song’s melodic flurries of optimism and his assurance that “If we make it through December/Everything’s gonna be alright, I know” are as sunshiny as his daydreams about California.
“Crazy Man Michael” from Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief (1969)
Fiddler Dave Swarbrick joined English folk-rock trailblazers Fairport Convention at their peak—just before they made Liege & Lief, one of the most stunning reinterpretations of British Isles folk traditions ever recorded (and the young band’s third album inside of a calendar year). The closing track, “Crazy Man Michael,” was a lament written by Swarbrick and guitarist Richard Thompson in memory of drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn, both of whom had died in a recent car crash. With Swarbrick’s mournful violin offering reassuringly hopeful commentary to Sandy Denny’s icewater voice, the song’s bleakness evokes the ghosts of the past and suggests the inevitability of time’s passage—and it’s now a more-than-fitting goodbye for Swarbrick’s unifying, inventive fiddle work. (For extra tears, cue up Liege & Lief’s gorgeous “Farewell, Farewell.”)
“People Don’t Get What They Deserve” from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ Give the People What They Want (2014)
Last month, Gabriel Roth of the Dap-Kings told the LA Times that beloved soul singer Sharon Jones suffered a stroke while watching the results on election night. She’d battled cancer for years, but Roth said that before her death, Jones blamed Donald Trump for the stroke’s sudden onset. “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” tells the story of a character not dissimilar to America’s president-elect: “There is a man who is born with a fortune,” she sings, “A hard day’s work he’s never done (livin’ on easy street)/He lives from the sweat of other men’s labor/As he sips his champagne and lays in the sun.” It’s unbelievably feverish funk, punctuated by horns and made great by the backup singers’ oohs, ahs, and interjections like “Cheaters never prosper!” Despite its name, “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” isn’t pessimistic—instead it emanates self-love in the face of karma’s broken machine as Jones sings, “I don’t pretend for one single moment/That what I get is my just reward.”
DALE “BUFFIN” GRIFFIN
“Saturday Gigs” from Mott the Hoople’s Greatest Hits (1976; single originally released in 1974)
Dale “Buffin” Griffin was Mott the Hoople’s powerful, consistent drummer—his lurching beats were often the only connective tissue holding the British group’s roaring, soaring rock ’n’ roll together. After more than one attempted breakup and seven chaotic studio albums, the Motts finally called it a day during glam rock’s twilight hours. They bid adieu with the exceptional “Saturday Gigs,” a last-call number that recounted the band’s fractured history over a patient, slow-dance beat from Buffin. The song is an uncommon thing: a love letter from a band to its fans, and one that attempts to say farewell to the youth of an entire generation. Amazingly, it works wonderfully, without succumbing to gloppy sentiment. Buffin is the first member of Mott to leave this mortal coil after the original group reunited for a triumphant series of gigs in recent years; that their resurrection has been cut short is all the more reason to revisit their spectacular back catalog. “Goodbye, goodbye,” sings a massed chorale during the fadeout of “Saturday Gigs.” And there’s only one way to respond: by raising our lighters high for Buffin—and for all the other great musicians whose flames went out in 2016, a year whose likes we hope to never see again.