By Brian Ives
Yes, it’s kind of silly to blame a year for the amount of famous people who died during those twelve months. Still, the 365 days (or so) have seen a lot of great musicians—some of them absolute icons—leave this mortal plane.
It’s been tough to watch so many amazing artists pass, and many of them left us when they were far too young. Here, we raise a glass and celebrate their work with some of their most beloved songs. In some cases, we also acknowledge artists who ended their discography with classic songs or albums.
Lemmy Kilmister – 2016’s tidal wave of fallen musical legends seemed to start a few days early, in the waning days of 2015. On December 28, 2015, we learned that the seemingly immortal Lemmy, the frontman of legendary metal band Motorhead, died just days after his 70th birthday. Motorhead didn’t really have “hits,” per se—they were a band whose influence and impact far transcended their record or ticket sales (and that influence should get them voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one of these days, if the voting body has any sense)—but their signature song was probably “Ace of Spades,” in which Lemmy growls, “You know I’m born to lose! And gambling’s for fools! But that’s the way I like it baby, I don’t want to live forever!” Lemmy rocked until the very end: Motorhead released their final album, Bad Magic, in the summer of 2015, and it included “Till the End,” an uncharacteristically downbeat song which sees Lemmy looking back on his life, singing, “There ain’t no rules to follow/You can’t predict tomorrow/I know just who my friends are/The rest can turn to stone/Your memories are yours alone/They’re yours until you’re dust and bones.”
Related: Remembering Lemmy Kilmister
David Bowie – Perhaps no artist orchestrated their curtain call as artfully as David Bowie, whose final album, Blackstar, came out days before his passing on January 10 at age 69. Immediately upon release, in the brief time before he died, it was already being hailed as a new breakthrough for him, a classic that holds up to the best of his material from the ’70s. And no song—or video—was as haunting as the “Lazarus” video, which in retrospect, seems to be intended as Bowie’s final statement (producer Tony Visconti confirmed that this was the case). Listening to the opening line— “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,” is absolutely chilling.
Glenn Frey – The Eagles singer/songwriter/guitarist died at 67 on January 18, from complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia, according to his family (the Eagles were supposed to be a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors last year, but they were moved to this year’s ceremony, in hopes that Frey would be able to attend). Frey co-wrote and sang many of the Eagles’ biggest hits, but one of his finest moments may have been overshadowed by his ’70s and ’80s classics. “It’s Your World Now,” closes the Eagles’ final album, 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden, where Frey sings, “It’s your world now/My race is run/I’m moving on/Like the setting sun/No sad goodbyes/No tears allowed/You’ll be alright/It’s your world now.”
Maurice White – The Earth Wind and Fire singer stopped touring with the band in 1994 due to his struggles with Parkinson’s disease, but by then his legacy was etched in stone; EWF was one of the greatest R&B bands of all time, and White had also established himself as a producer who worked with Atlantic Starr, Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand. He died on February 3 at age 74.
Joey Martin Feek – One half of the husband-wife duo Joey + Rory, Feek was only known to fans of traditional country music, but her story of her fight with cancer resonated with millions. She died on March 4 at the too-young age of 40. “When I’m Gone,” which Joey + Rory for 2012’s His and Hers, is absolutely heartbreaking today.
Sir George Martin – He produced nearly every Beatles recording, on equipment that seems primitive by today’s standards. And yet, he helped the Fab Four create a kind of magic that has often been imitated, but never duplicated, and helped bring them on their journey from pop gold like “Love Me Do” to the ambitious and epic “A Day in the Life.” He died at at 90 on March 8.
Keith Emerson – The Emerson Lake and Palmer keyboardist (and former member of the Nice) helped to define progressive rock by combining classical music influences with a wild, Hendrixian sense of abandon. He died on March 10 at age 71.
Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) – A Tribe Called Quest’s “Five Foot Assassin” was one of hip-hop’s most underrated MCs. Q-Tip had more star power, but Phife’s rhymes and flow were as good as anyone from the “Golden Era” (late ’80s/early ’90s). In “Phony Rappers,” he schools some fool who challenged his skills, “He said a rhyme about his .45 and his nickelbags of weed/That’s when I preceeded to give him what he needed/Talking ’bout ‘I need a Phillie right before I get loose’/Poor excuse, money please, I get loose off of orange juice/Preferly Minute Maid cuz that’s exactly what it takes/To write a rhyme to school your nickels and your dimes/Because an MC like me be on TV/Don’t mean I can’t hold my s— down in NYC.” A Tribe Called Quest reunited for one last album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, before Phife passed away on March 22 at the young age of 45. He was a fierce MC and never lost his knack for great sports references in his lyrics. On “We the People,” he rapped, “You bastards overlooking street art/Better yet, street smarts but you keep us off the charts/So motherf— your numbers and your statisticians/F— y’all know about true competition?/That’s like a AL pitcher on deck talking about he hittin’.”
Merle Haggard – One of the greats of country music, Haggard was an ornery but soulful voice for working class people. “Mama Tried” was semi-autobiographical—Haggard had done time in prison, although he didn’t get “life without parole.” The song, and Haggard himself, symbolized what came to be known as “outlaw country.” Shortly after his death on April 6 at the age of 79, his final recording was released. “Kern River Blues” holds up to his immense catalog, and serves as a warning against too much change in the name of greed… for Nashville or for the world: “They used to have Kern River / Runnin’ deep and wide / Then somebody stole the water / Another politician lied/When you closed down all the honky tonks / The city died at night / When you closed down all the honky tonks / The city died at night / When it hurt somebody’s feelings / Well, a wrong ain’t never right/Well, I’m leaving town forever / Kiss an old boxcar goodbye / Well, I’m leaving town forever / Kiss an old boxcar goodbye / I dug my blues down in the river / But the old Kern River is dry.”
Prince – First off, we’ll point out that (unlike other artists) Prince’s music is difficult to find on YouTube. Prince made sure that was the case during his lifetime, and while his estate let up on that a bit in the weeks after his death at 57 on April 21, now most of his videos are gone. One exception: this black-and-white shot concert from New Jersey’s Capitol Theater from January 30, 1982. And this performance 0f “Do Me, Baby,” shows what a searing live performer the man was. He’s not playing guitar on this song, but to get a bit of his six-string prowess, check out his now-legendary performance (with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne) of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” where he made people forget who played the solo on the original version (that would be Eric Clapton).
Leonard Cohen – Cohen was a poet turned musician who put out a string of sparse, quiet folk albums, starting in the ’60s. But it was a obscure song from the ’80s, “Hallelujah,” which went on to be his single most defining moment (there’s an entire book written about the song’s journey from obscurity to ubiquity). And similar to Bowie, Cohen seemed to have his impending demise in mind while working on his final album, You Want It Darker, which was released just weeks before his death (he died on November 11 at age 82). On “Leaving the Table,” he sings, “I don’t need a reason for what I became/I’ve got these excuses/They’re tired and they’re lame/I don’t need a pardon, no no, no no, no/There’s no one left to blame/I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game.”
Leon Russell – The singer/songwriter/producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist toiled in near-osbsurity after enjoying superstardom in the ’70s. That changed a bit when one of his biggest fans, Elton John, invited him to do a duo album, and in 2010, they released The Union, an album that brought Russell back to the big time. As Russell said at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shortly after the album’s release, “Elton came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life. He took me up to the high stages with the big audiences, and treated me like a king.” Russell died at age 74 on November 13.
Sharon Jones – The old-school R&B singer, who died on November 18 at age 60, had a story that is the stuff that movie scripts are made from. Most artists release their debut album in their 20s, or maybe their teens. Jones’ Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings came out in 2002, when she was in her 40s. She gained a cult following—”100 Days, 100 Nights” was one of her more popular songs—and permeated pop culture a bit, appearing in a Lincoln commercial covering the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” and in Netflix’s Luke Cage series. She died, following a battle with cancer, on November 18 at age 60.
Greg Lake It was a terrible year for Emerson Lake and Palmer fans: nine months after Keith Emerson’s death, Greg Lake died as well, on December 7, at age 69. In a year where prog-rock band Yes finally was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was sad to see two thirds of ELP die before they are inducted (Yes’s leader, Chris Squire—who happened to be Lake’s roommate in their pre-fame years—also died before his band’s induction).
Related: Greg Lake: 10 Great Songs
George Michael – In 2016, Michael’s influence on pop culture loomed larger than it had in years. Don’t believe it? As we recently learned, James Corden’s inspiration for “Carpool Karaoke” came from a skit he did with George Michael for the BBC before he hosted The Late Late Show. Wham! and “Careless Whisper” were a big plot point in the rated R and NSFW superhero film Deadpool, and Michael himself was referenced often in Key and Peele’s rated R and NSFW film Keanu.