When The Farsighted assigned the task of coming up with lists of “Best of 2016”, I was a little lost at first. Due to some significant life changes in 2016, I felt more out of touch with current culture and entertainment than I ever have in my life. (It couldn’t have anything to do with being almost 40 and too old to be stay hip and keep up with the latest and greatest… no… not at all) As I tried to come up with my own unique take on 2016, I thought about the one thing 2016 might be most notorious for in history (well, maybe other than a particular thing that happened in November… but let’s not go there)… the loss of numerous entertainers, innovators, icons of our culture and heroes of our youth. It seems odd, maybe even disrespectful or blasphemous, to make a list of people who died as a ‘best of’ assignment… but it just seems that we could honor a list of the top 7 musicians who died in 2016.
>Of course, making “best of” lists is such a subjective task, and there’s bound to be people who feel I’ve done a disservice to their favorite/preferred artist(s) when I don’t include them in my list. But I have to report the “best of” as I see and understand things. I’ve tried to make this list featuring the artists that have impacted me as much as entertainment and culture as a whole. One of the things with the lives we lost in 2016, is that it reminds us, as children of the 80’s, that we are getting older and that our childhood/youth heroes are aging and reaching the end of their lives and ability to continue to provide us with art and the joys of entertainment. Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of artists, musicians, actors, and other entertainers and heroes that die every year. But 2016 caught us off guard because for the first time in our lives, there was such a concentration of icons that had meant so much to us as we were growing up. Many of these musicians had faded from the limelight and were working more under the radar in recent years, but losing them all together still hit a nerve… even if it was mostly a nerve in our childhood selves, remembering what they had once meant to us. Not to say that they no longer meant anything to us or that they had become completely irrelevant. But sometimes you forget what you’ve got until it’s gone… and I think that often includes the celebrities and heroes of our past… and when we hear of their death, we’re reminded of what they had contributed, even if we had kinda forgotten for a while.
I thought that making a mixtape out of my list would make it stand out amongst all the other Farsighted ‘best of 2016’ lists, and kinda kill 2 birds with one post. But I wanted to focus more on the best artists rather than coming up with a list of the best songs from the artists. So I’ve chosen 2 songs from each musician. And I’m gonna try and explain why I picked each song and why I find that song represents what that artist meant to me. Also, I want to point out that while I put the artists in an order that makes sense to me, sorta reflects the impact I think they’ve had on music and culture as well as on me and my musical appreciation, it’s not my intention to make this a definitive ranking of the musicians we lost in 2016… it just reflects my perspective. And finally, I tried to pull some songs that didn’t seem as obvious or remembered. They’re all hit singles or songs that have received radio play at some point… because that’s what I know of these artists. But I tried to dig a little deeper, and even do a little research to find songs that I may have forgotten over the years. I hope you enjoy my selections and that the mixtape helps you to honor these icons of our musical history.
Paul Kantner from Jefferson Airplane/Starship. For the record, I considered including Starship’s huge hit “We Built This City”, just as a way to fly in the face of the accusation that it’s one of the worst songs of all time. I mean… it’s not a great song by any means, and certainly it’s inferior to Jefferson Airplane’s 60s psychedelic rock… but there are many many successful hit songs that are far far worse than the 80’s nostalgic classic. However, I chose instead to focus on a couple songs that Kantner co-wrote for Jefferson Airplane. I open the mix up with “Crown of Creation”, the title track to the album that is considered the pinnacle of the band’s psychedelic experimentation… followed by the next album’s title track, Volunteers, possibly most known for its inclusion in the classic soundtrack for Forest Gump. To me these two songs represent JA’s greatest strengths, intelligent political and philosophical lyricism mixed with intensely challenging and motivating rock music and artistic expression… far from the commercial pop sound that Starship made hits of in the 80s.
Next we move from the psychedelic sounds of the 60s to the country rock that The Eagles made famous in the 70s. “Tequila Sunrise” features the late Glenn Frey on lead vocals and represents the strength of the songwriting team Frey formed with drummer/vocalist Don Henley. Although Frey is best known for his participation in The Eagles, I first came to know him as a solo artist in the 80s. “You Belong to the City” is among my favorite songs from my childhood. Both Frey and Henley strayed pretty far from the country rock sound of the Eagles in their solo careers, but that trajectory makes sense when you really analyze the evolution that the Eagles went through as a band… albums Hotel California and The Long Run certainly sound a lot less country than their eponymous debut. “You Belong to the City” was written for the television show Miami Vice, which is a cultural icon of the 80s itself.
Another icon from the 80s, we lost George Michael on Christmas. Michael made a quick transition from a teen idol pop star to controversial artist and sex icon when he split from Wham! and released his first solo album. In researching to get my facts straight, I learned that “Careless Whisper” was actually his first solo single, even though it was included on Wham!’s platinum selling Make It Big and was attributed to Wham! featuring George Michael in the US, where it became the biggest hit of 1985 according to Billboard. I chose “Careless Whisper”, not for it’s legendary sax solo, but because in recent years, I have found a new appreciation for the song, as an expertly written pop song, especially considering that Michael and Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley were only 17 years old. Even though Micheal considered it a weak, immature song, I see it as revealing the potential that the songwriter had for crafting pop masterpieces, even if only swiftly written out of boredom. The second George Michael track shows just how that potential matured and broke out of the confines of pop stardom. Praying For Time was Michael’s number one hit from his Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1… a song that combines socially conscious lyrics with intelligent pop sensibility. I’ll be honest and confess that I hadn’t specifically remembered that track for this mixtape. I considered using “One More Try”, as I consider it another pop masterpiece… but I decided to dig a little bit, and see if I could remember any the hits from Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1… as it seems that album reflected an attempt for Michael to flex his artistic muscles and begin his work as an advocate for a number of social causes. And I think that “Praying For Time” perfectly indicates Michael’s artistic and socially conscious intentions.
Here’s where the mixtape veers off the pop/rock road… but I couldn’t leave country music icon Merle Haggard out of my list of top 7 musicians we lost in 2016. I grew up hearing Hag’s music on the radio, but somehow had never focused on his catalog until a few years back… and when I got the opportunity to take my dad to see him in concert a few years ago, we were both surprisingly blown away by just how great a performer and guitar player Haggard was. Both of these songs come from the early 80s… which might not be the most adequate representation of Haggard’s catalog… but these are his 2 songs that stand out the most to me, and I think fit best in this particular mix of songs. In a way, I feel that “Are The Good Times Really Over” fits with George Michael’s “Praying For Time”… in that both songs are reflections on their times and lament the politics and social circumstances they find themselves in. Of course, Haggard’s song reflects a more “conservative” perspective and the idea that things used to be much simpler, and thus better. Haggard is certainly known for championing such a “conservative” and patriotic attitude in his songs… but reading an interview in Rolling Stone in 2009 made me realize that his disillusionment was with all sides of the political and social spectrum. But more than anything, Haggard did more than represent the “outlaw” side of country music… Johnny Cash once told him he was everything people believed Cash was supposed to be.
The transition from Hag’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” into David Bowie‘s “Modern Love” might be the most awkward in this whole mixtape… but somehow, I think it works. For as much as Haggard meant to country music, Bowie came to mean as much and more to rock and pop music. “Modern Love” comes from Bowie’s most pop/commercial accessible album, Let’s Dance. It might have been shocking to hear such a radio single friendly album after the strange and sometimes shocking records he had made in the 70s, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he used Nile Rodgers to co-produce considering songs like Fame had incorporated the kind of funk and disco that Chic had helped make popular. And Bowie is most known as an artist who was always insisting on reinventing himself… often pushing the boundaries of what culture accepted regarding sexuality and gender definitions, as he became different “characters” for different periods of his career. And yet, Bowie never seemed to lose his confidence in who he truly was in the midst of all of his changes.
In many ways, Prince carried on what David Bowie had started. Even though he never embraced the glam rock and fashion that Bowie had helped establish, Prince continued to bend the rules of gender and sexuality, and certainly didn’t shy away from his own flamboyant sense of style and fashion. < He also set a significant precedent when he was able to convince his record label to allow him to be a one man recording, producing, and performing machine, making his records without the interference that record labels are notorious for. "Let's Go Crazy" is from the soundtrack to his first foray into film, Purple Rain… and although it was more successful than Graffiti Bridge, which “Thieves in the Temple” came from, after watching it recently, I gotta say it wasn’t exactly a cinematic masterpiece. But it certainly left its mark at the time and helped establish Prince as more than just a pop singer. “Thieves in the Temple” was another song I had to research to remember… as I wanted a less obvious track than the massive hits we typically hear on the radio these days. I was glad to include this song, as well as a George Michael song from the early 90s, because for some reason, it seems that period of top 40 hits seems to be somewhat overlooked on throwback radio. We hear both artists’ 80s hits all the time… and we even hear pop music from the later 90s and early 2000s frequently… but we rarely hear songs that were big hits in the years 1990-1992… and that’s probably the era that I followed the top 40 charts most thoroughly.
Finally, I had to include a musician who’s known more as a producer than a musician…but his mark on pop and rock music is undeniable and he certainly contributed his musicianship to help a 4 piece band become the most influential and popular band of all time. I am of course talking about Sir George Martin, who signed and produced The Beatles. Martin’s training was more in classical music than pop, and his recording experience was mostly comedy records prior to working with the Fab Four… but he was the only record executive who was able to see the potential that the band. Martin’s formal training allowed him to add elements of classical music to the band’s otherwise rock and roll sound… which helped give the quartet’s records a greater sense of sophistication and complexity than other pop music of the time. In My Life was chosen for this mixtape for Martin’s piano solo, sped up to sound like a baroque harpsichord… a trick the producer used many times on Beatles records. “A Day In The Life” represents the complex arrangements and production that Martin led the band through as their music and recordings grew into the ambitious efforts like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and raised the bar for all recording artists from then on.
I finished off this mix with a “bonus track” in tribute of my list’s honorable mentions. I’m sure lots of music fans will be disappointed that I left singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen off my best of list. Well… to be honest, I’m just not that familiar with his work, since he managed to stay under the mainstream music radar for most of his career. In fact, he has become more famous recently, more due to the abundance of covers of his most known song… I believe it rivals The Beatles’ Yesterday to be the most covered song ever. But for this bonus track, I decided to use a different song, covered by my favorite Christian alternative super group, The Lost Dogs. If It Be Your Will is a somber and reflective song that exemplifies Cohen’s frequent flirting with faith and spirituality in his lyrics. Inclusion of this song is also in honor of a more personal friend, John Gordon, who also passed away in 2016. John was a singer/songwriter who had toured professionally with a band and was a fan of both Leonard Cohen as well as The Lost Dogs. Even though I had only met John once in person, having gotten to know him through Facebook, he had become a good friend and certainly made an impact on our social media circle… receiving comments and tributes from many of Christian alternative’s favorite artists after his passing.
In conclusion, I hope that my list and the songs I have chosen adequately honor the artists and icons we lost last year. Even more importantly, I hope that as we reflect on the loss of such powerful musicians, that we’ll be sure to take the time to remember those that we still have with us… that we’ll dig deep into our memories to think of artists that we maybe haven’t thought of for a while and make it a point to pull out their old hits, and catch up with what they’ve been doing in recent years. Let’s not allow ourselves to only be reminded of the great musicians we have access to, when we realize that they’ve gone. Thanks for listening…