The Greatest Musicians We Lost This Year
...And why we’ll never forget them
We should have known better that 2016 was going to be an unsettling year when, just 10 days in, David Bowie released a genuinely great jazz-influenced album—and then promptly relocated to that Great Recording Studio in the Sky.
He was soon joined by a host of other musicians—singers and instrumentalists, solo artists and band members—all great and sorely missed. We’d like to think they’re having one massive, never-ending jam session to make ourselves feel better. While we don’t get to hear it from where we are, we’re happy enough to remember them by the tunes they left behind.
To those who served, we salute you.
Bernie Worrell, keyboardist of Parliament-Funkadelic
Died 24 June 2016
Why we miss him: Because he truly was the “Wizard of Woo.”
To call Worrell as “just” the keyboardist of Parliament-Funkadelic is to massively underestimate the toe-tapping funk he brought into dozens upon dozens of collaborations with legends, like Fela Kuti, Gov’t Mule and Talking Heads. Classically trained from age 3, he could conjure up magic from his fingers and make you dance the moment he stepped in front of the keys. Check out how fun he made the Heads’ This Must Be the Place in their legendary 1983 live set. During his solo, he even got lead singer David Byrne to dance with a lamp.
Phife Dawg, MC of A Tribe Called Quest
Died 22 March 2016
Why we miss him: Because, man, did he bring the killer rhymes.
In the two-man MC tribe that was A Tribe Called Quest, you could never be sure whether Q-Tip was Jordan and Phife was Pippen, or whether it was the other way around. But together, they were, indeed, hip hop’s G.O.A.T. The man who styled himself as the “Five Foot Assassin” also had a lot of heart: saluting fellow MCs Nas, LL Cool J and Run-DMC in 1993’s excellent God Lives Through. And even giving Shaq a helping hand with his rhymes during the basketball player’s not-too-shabby debut rap album.
Merle Haggard, country legend
Died 6 April 2016
Why we miss him: Because he was an outlaw who happened to have a voice of gold.
May we never have lives as interesting as Merle Haggard’s. In and out of jobs, rackets, jails, near-brushes with death, ill-fortuned marriages and alcoholism, he used his tragedies as anvils and, over a decades-long career, hammered out aching country anthems of downtrodden inmates, jobless drifters and sons who lost their fathers. In his most famous song Sing Me Back Home, a man on death row asks Haggard to sing a song that will remind him of his mother before he dies. Somehow, Merle’s pretty voice makes the tale even more unbearable.
Leonard Cohen, singer
Died 7 November 2016
Why we miss him: Because he was a true poet.
If 2016 is the year that taketh away our musicians, it also, somehow, gaveth: it would be the first time in history that a musician was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. There could have only been two candidates for this singular honor. The Prize Committee chose Bob Dylan, but they also wouldn’t have gone wrong with Leonard Cohen. “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah,” he sings in a song that’s soundtracked countless films. It’s masterful. Just masterful.
Prince, guitarist and singer
Died 21 April 2016
Why we miss him: Because he was the king of riffs.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” Prince intones in the intro to Let’s Go Crazy. “Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time. But I’m here to tell you there’s something else: the afterworld.” But then, 32 years before he shuffled off the mortal plane, in an album that would be recognized as his greatest, Prince gives the best excuse to not go off just yet into the afterworld: Let’s Go Crazy’s crazy, funky, pants-unbuttoning guitar work. Even in death, Prince is the reason we say music is life.
David Bowie, artist
Died 10 January 2016
Why we miss him: Because he was THE David Bowie.
There’s a reason why David Bowie’s Heroes was chosen to soundtrack the Emma Watson-Ezra Miller film The Perks of Being a Wallflower. For generations, Bowie’s music and style—elusive, alien, unconventional, queer, barrier-breaking—was the de facto OST for outsiders of every stripe. “Just turn on with me,” he sings to us all in Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, dressed up in full drag as Ziggy Stardust, “and you’re not alone. Gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful.” So were you, Mr. Bowie.