2016: The Year the Music Died

The deaths of so many top musicians, from David Bowie to Prince, offer stark reminders of the bittersweet power of song.

The Desert Trip concerts featuring Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Neil Young and the surviving members of the Who and the Rolling Stones offered a once-in-a-lifetime bill of top rockers still wowing crowds five decades into their storied careers. 

The October shows also marked, perhaps, a last stand of sorts for the survivors and thrivers from the 1960s music revolution – average age, 72. 

As affirming as the concerts proved, they underscored the fragility of longtime pop heroes in a year buffeted by a seeming tidal wave of deaths. The demises of everyone from David Bowie to Prince threaten to make 2016 sink low down into history as the year the music died.

The litany of names plays like a bittersweet chorus of lost greatness: Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones, Paul Kantner, George Martin, Scotty Moore, Leon Russell, Vanity, Maurice White and two-thirds of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Keith Emerson and Greg Lake), among others. And let's not forget Natalie Cole, who died Dec. 31, 2015.

No matter what the ages – from Phife Dawg's early passing at 45 to Martin's final breath at 90 – the spate of deaths offers a stark reminder of our own mortality. The stream of obituaries is all the more jarring because music greets us with the promise of timelessness, often delivered on the sweet, raw wings of youth.

The growing intergenerational pull of song in the era of Spotify, on which the Beatles set streaming records when their catalogue hit the service last Christmas Eve, intensifies and expands the mourning to fans with parents too young to remember the Desert Trip stars’ various debuts.

The losses of 2016 reinforce how lucky we are that the departed shared their talents, permanently etched in everything from vinyl to digital files. We're also fortunate to have music greats still ready to play, for however long the trip lasts. 

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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