2016 has been an unusually hard year for music lovers.
In every generation, certain musicians stand out, slowly becoming the guideposts of their art, their influence changing the course of music for years to come. They can be imitated, but never replicated, succeeded, but never truly replaced.
When they pass, they don’t truly leave us—their contributions to music and culture live on, giving them a sort of immortality.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult when these bright stars leave us, and in 2016, the sky has grown dimmer than it has in a long time. This year marks a harsh transition in the world of music, and a bitter changing of the guard.
Let’s remember some of the most talented musicians we’ve lost this year.
Of all the musicians that left us in 2016, none, perhaps, has left such a gaping hole as David Bowie.
Bowie was a true artist, blazing a trail that others could barely follow, reinventing himself every few years, never stopping for long enough to grow irrelevant or out-of-date. Bowie didn’t have to catch up to culture; culture had to catch up to Bowie.
“I re-invented my image so many times that I'm in denial that I was originally an overweight Korean woman,” said the singer.
Bowie singlehandedly founded glam rock, and was a major inspiration to the punk rock music movement. His image—images, rather—are engrained in popular culture, and the cult that grew up around his personality remains strong today.
Because he succeeded so brilliantly in so many genres of music, there are few contemporary musicians that do not owe Bowie some debt.
Bowie’s life continues to challenge new generations of musicians to innovate, reinvent, and take risks in the pursuit of that perfect sound.
The Eagles, the iconic rock band formed in 1971 that gave us such classics as “Hotel California,” and “Tequila Sunrise,” lost its founding member, singer, and songwriter, Glenn Frey.
Frey shared lead singer status with Don Henley, and together, the two wrote most of the Eagle’s songs, helping propel the Eagles—one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time—to stardom.
The sound of the Eagles, influenced by soul, bluegrass, and rock, won the group six Grammy Awards over the course of over three decades.
Frey passed away a month after the Eagles were chosen for the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors. The band performed in his memory at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards in what was the group’s final performance.
Founded in 1970, Earth, Wind, & Fire is one of the most successful bands of all time, playing for U.S. presidents and foreign dignitaries, and going on receive 20 Grammy nominations—and winning six— and 12 American Music Awards.
This band—one that Rolling Stone credits with changing “the sound of black pop,” was co-founded by Maurice White in 1970. White, who passed away in February from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, continued to manage and direct the creative direction of EWF even after his retirement in 1994, continuing to oversee the band that he helped create for the majority of his life.
While many recall images of bell bottoms, platform shoes, and psychedelic patterns at the mention of Earth, Wind, & Fire, the band’s influence, under the direction of Maurice White, extends to the present day. White’s influence can be heard and felt in the many celebrity musician tributes that have emerged since his death—a wide variety of entertainers have, from Questlove to Quincy Jones, have acknowledged White’s legacy and musical influence.
One thing’s for sure—we wouldn’t have many of the sounds and musical styles we have today if it weren’t for White’s contributions to his field.
This list wouldn’t be complete without one of the biggest shockers of 2016—the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, otherwise known, simply, as Prince.
Dying of an opioid overdose at the mere age of 57, Prince left us far sooner than expected. A prolifically accomplished, complicated man, Prince was one of the greats who absolutely defined his musical era, sending out ripples of influence that will continue to be felt for generations.
Winning 7 Grammy awards over 40 years and 40 albums, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and selling more than 100 million records, Prince is one of the most prolific musicians of all time. His fusion of pop, jazz, rock, and even opera broke down barriers not only in genre, but in culture. He was a man who simply could not be defined.
Known for his incredible musical prowess, Prince’s voice could slide from the highest falsetto to a deep baritone in the space of a note, and his hands held mastery over 27 different instruments.
Prince’s sound helped create the pop, electronic, hip-hop, and soul we enjoy today—the world will long celebrate his musical legacy.
Beginning his career as a poet and novelist in the 1950s and 1960s, Leonard Cohen didn’t begin his musical career until 1967, at age 33. It was those poetic roots which gave Cohen his distinct artfulness of lyric that defined his career.
Cohen passed away in November of 2016, leaving behind a legacy that explored the depths of human brokenness through the art of music.
Best known for his song, “Halleluja,” which has since been covered by more than 300 artists, including Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, Cohen was a master of intermingling the darkness and light that life is woven of, and creating songs of them. His most emblematic line, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” aptly distills his body of work.
While other artists were merely entertaining, Cohen was teaching, poetically examining the human condition and acknowledging the difficulty inherent to life. A serious artist to the end, Cohen’s legacy of literary music is unmatched.
Passing the Microphone
A home may fall beneath the ravages of a storm. It might burn away in a blaze, or simply succumb to the deterioration of time.
But the foundation remains to be built upon again.
That’s what’s happening now. 2016 was the year the house of music burned down. It’s also the year that new construction began. And soon enough, new stars will emerge to take the microphone passed down from the likes of Bowie and Prince and Cohen, from Frey and White—new talent that will break genres, that will define and shape the cultures around them.
We certainly have a plethora of upcoming entertainers, from the body-positive Lizzo, to indie-folk group Kississippi, to the electropop beats of Jack Garratt, we’re sure to see amazing talent arise in 2017.
But we’ll never forget those greats who have passed this year, those great blocks in the foundation of the musical arts.