But even if a technical malfunction revealed Prince relied exclusively on a Peabo Bryson backing track, there would have been barely a backlash. Mariah Carey’s trainwreck, in contrast, sparked a hundred variations of the “what-else-ended-Saturday-night… Mariah’s-career” joke across the tubes. Let’s start by cutting her some slack. Not everyone can turn a hamburger into steak tartare.
I’ve never been a Carey fan but I get why she’s important. She reinvented the diva, leading to the new generation that leapt from Christina Aguilera to Taylor Swift to Beyoncé. Most of those modern divas adapted that role and empowered themselves to become different kinds of artists, which is why I’m more likely to throw on their records than, say, the “Glitter” soundtrack. But let’s not forget Carey’s standing as a commercial powerhouse.
I am not enough of a Mariah Carey expert to tell you whether she can still pull off notes from 2006, let alone 1996. But Saturday’s performance was no Milli Vanilli incident. Backing tracks and lip syncs are standard for big, televised public events. It’s hard to do quality sound control for the audience that really matters: the folks at home. If you think it’s about sub-par talent, consider that when you see the Boston Pops performing the National Anthem at an NFL playoff game, they’re almost never playing live. And I don’t hear anybody accusing the French horn of faking it.
So after Carey’s mess and the weird, downer decision to play a clip of Wham!-era George Michael on the broadcast, it made me think of all the time spent lamenting the many artists we lost in 2016. With our Facebook feeds about as diverse as a Promise Keepers rally, it felt like cool, essential hipsters were dying at an unprecedented clip — which we all know they weren’t.
But when David Bowie or Leonard Cohen or Sharon Jones died, I did what you probably did. I listened to “Hunky Dory” and “Heroes” for 19 straight days. I bickered with the hapless barista in Brooklyn who didn’t know that the song playing over the stereo was by Merle Haggard. I felt a shiver go down my spine as Phife Dawg’s voice aired on “Saturday Night Live” during A Tribe Called Quest’s stunning reappearance.
And in that spirit, I went to bed in the early hours of 2017 thinking about the many musicians who are still here. In the morning, as the kids slept, I co-opted my daughter’s new, wireless, waterproof speaker and clicked through the music I wanted to hear without having to mourn.
So here’s our lineup for the next few months.
Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty and Paul McCartney get their own playlists, as do the Rolling Stones, whose blues cover record I slagged when I’d just heard one song in the fall but embraced after Spotify-ing the whole LP a few weeks later. I’m particularly eager to hear McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt” box when it comes out later this year. That’s the comeback record he made in 1989, spurred by his songwriting with Elvis Costello and his missteps (“Give My Regards to Broad Street”) earlier in the ’80s.
Did Dylan really once propose to Mavis Staples? Listening to her verse on “The Weight” on “The Last Waltz,” I can understand why. It’s the high point of a record that’s already been deified for decades.
My 14-year-old started playing Neutral Milk Hotel on the aforementioned speaker and that got us talking about Jeff Mangum and his consummate weirdness, which led to me explaining Silver Jews leader David Berman and his consummate weirdness. They are both here, bless them, and who knows what they’ll do in the coming years? But to not discover or re-discover them is criminal. Sufjan Stevens? Throw him onto that playlist, too.
I saw Gladys Knight perform during a special concert at the Kennedy Center late last year. I’m not sure if I’d thought of Knight since the days of “Solid Gold,” but there she stood, in heels and at 72, pulling off “Midnight Train to Georgia” with every bit of her essence undiminished.
They say Sonny Rollins can’t blow his horn anymore. But what he’s left us, not just on record but as an example, is worth celebrating. I love the swagger and humor of “Way Out West,” the sax-slinger wryly gazing at us from under his 10-gallon hat. Find me another artist who quits, at his commercial peak, to work out his playing in isolation under a bridge. Thank God he came back.
Have you heard Gidon Kremer play live? You need to. He’s got tour dates all over the place in 2017. You might have to fly to Texas, but Billy Joe Shaver remains Billy Joe Shaver. He’ll probably smile, talk to you and pose for pictures before the gig, if you don’t say something stupid and get punched in the grill. And go see Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson while you’re down there.
Chuck D gets props, though not enough, Rakim and Doug E. Fresh should also get more. If Joey Simmons and Darryl McDaniels could ever figure out a way to make peace, Run-DMC could rule the world again, right? And we already lost Phife, but I hope Q-Tip takes “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” as inspiration, because there was no record that came out in 2016 that felt more on the button.
I know. You can’t afford all these downloads, but trust me, we’ve got a long year ahead of us.
Don’t fall for any more of those Kinks reunion rumors. Just enjoy Ray and Dave Davies for who they are: either feuding brothers or artists playing feuding brothers. Go see the Monkees when they come around, even if Davy Jones is gone and Mike Nesmith doesn’t tour, because Micky Dolenz is one of the greatest voices of the ’60s. And Colin Blunstone might be the best preserved singer of that era. It’s not just hitting his notes; it’s that breathy, natural quality that so many singers lose as they get older. Every year, I hear grumbling over Chicago or Yes getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think of the Zombies, the greatest power pop band so many have never heard of.
I used to hate Neil Diamond. Something about the way he sang “Forever in Blue Jeans” or smooched the ladies in the front row. Then I heard those Rick Rubin records he made and reappraised “The Jazz Singer,” easily the best worst movie of all time, with Laurence Olivier as an Orthodox cantor and “Love on the Rocks.”
And where, oh where, have you been Fiona Apple? I’m listening to “Extraordinary Machine” right now.