We remember the heroes and innovators we lost over the course of 2017 by revisiting the playlists we created in their honor, both to celebrate their achievements and/or shine a light on the less-traveled corridors of their career.
The passing of Chuck Berry on March 18 at the age of 90 put the final punctuation mark at the end of this musical pioneer’s story. But the legacy left behind by the man who made rock ‘n’ roll what it is today largely rests on a relatively small group of milestone singles—about a dozen or so, mostly released between the mid ’50s and mid ’60s. And, when you’re talking about an artist like Berry, that leaves a lot of things out. On this collection of Chuck Berry esoterica, you’ll find just about everything you can think of and then some: calypso, jazz, Latin-tinged jams, psychedelic experimentation—you name it.
It’s impossible to imagine what hip-hop, house, and techno might have used for a rhythmic foundation if not for the 808 beat. That’s why the impact that inventor Ikutaro Kakehashi—who passed away April 1 at age 87—had on the past four decades of music is incalculable. Since the fine 2015 documentary 808 tells you everything you could want to know on the subject (and way more), we let the music do the talking with a set that includes many of the most famous uses of the 808 (and its successor the TR-909) by early adopters like Arthur Baker as well as such present-day devotees as Kanye West, who transformed the beat into the sonic epitome of emotional desolation on 808s And Heartbreak.
Few filmmakers ever displayed as much savvy about music—or were so eager to show off their sheer love of it—than Jonathan Demme. The director, who passed away on April 26 at the age of 73 after a battle with cancer, established his impeccable and impressively diverse tastes—from The Fall and The Feelies to Big Youth and Boogie Down Productions—long before indie-movie hotshots like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson followed suit in the 1990s. This playlist includes the iconic tracks famously featured in his films, as well as selections from the many musicians with whom Demme collaborated.
The late Chris Cornell—who took his own life on May 18 at age 52—was one of the most dynamic and adventurous singers to emerge in the ’90s. This playlist highlights the underrated non-Soundgarden songbook of the only rock vocalist to have worked with both Timbaland and the Zac Brown Band, while always sounding unmistakably like himself.
Prodigy of Mobb Deep was one of the best rappers on the planet because he was dark. He didn’t have Pac’s tortured-thug activist energy, Big’s charisma or hitmaking ease, or Nas’s wisdom combined with the ear of a jazz musician. It didn’t matter. While other rappers laughed and joked, or screamed in your ear, Prodigy calmly explained how he would end your life while referencing the Book of Revelations and the Illuminati. The MC passed away on June 20 at age 42 from complications related to a painful life-long fight with sickle-cell anemia; this playlist salutes the greatest writer of threats in rap history.
There’s something almost transcendental about early Linkin Park. They were too anthemic to be fully nu metal, too hip-hop to be rock, and too emo and mainstream to be “cool.” But Chester Bennington’s lyrics had a radically human core, one that embraced and tried to work through longing and alienation. And their music was very intriguing, boasting intelligent percussion, authoritative washes of reverbed guitar, disciplined use of electronics, and methodical pacing. In the wake of Bennington’s shocking suicide July 20 at age 41, we published this playlist tribute to a band who, for certain angst-ridden teenagers, were like The Smiths of their era.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were already anachronisms when they met as jazz-obsessed teenagers in the late ‘60s and began to write the droll, harmonically complex songs that made Steely Dan one of the greatest and most unique bands of the ‘70s. So it’s not surprising that a duo who worked tirelessly to get the best performances out of skilled session players never had much interest in hip-hop and the art of sampling. But the Steely Dan songs that have been sampled by multiple rap artists offer a case study in how many options the band’s rich arrangements offer to beatmakers. Becker, sadly, passed away from esophageal cancer on September 3 at age 67. But his music lives on—and continues to find new audiences—through the many hip-hop, rock, and R&B tracks collected here.
With ’80s noise-pop pioneers Husker Dü, Grant Hart played the misfit McCartney to Bob Mould’s lacerating Lennon, providing the honey chaser to his partner’s hoarse-throat howls. Following the band’s extremely acrimonious break-up, Hart gradually faded into obscurity, releasing a small handful of under-the-radar records while Mould enjoyed a steady, successful career as an alt-rock elder statesman. Recent years had been especially trying: Hart lost both parents in quick succession, and he was injured in a fire that destroyed his longtime family home in South St. Paul. And then 2017 brought the diagnosis of the kidney cancer that ultimately claimed him on September 14 at the age of 56. With this playlist, we pay tribute to the man who forged the Dave Grohl prototype of the shit-hot drummer who also a tender tunesmith.
Before his death from cardiac arrest on October 2 at age 66, Tom Petty was a man of the people in a way that Dylan and Springsteen couldn’t be, because they just seemed too oversized, too mythic, too huge from the get-go. Like the characters he tended to write about, Petty was always somewhere between underdog and self-made outcast. Yet the chip on his shoulder was the rare and beautiful kind that seemed to make him more empathetic to people rather than less so. That’s what you hear in these songs, some of which are hits, while others are deep cuts from albums that didn’t quite get as much love as they should’ve. (For more, check out this playlist of the contemporary artists keeping Petty’s spirit alive.)
Gord Downie was effectively Canada’s Bruce Springsteen—a rock star with blue-collar blood, whose intimate portraits of Canadian life could stir a patriotic fervor with a simple small-town namedrop. His band, The Tragically Hip, was huge in Canada and in Canada only, however, since Downie’s untimely passing from brain cancer on October 18 at age 53, more people outside the country are tuning into his peculiar genius. Here’s a playlist of 23 songs to introduce non-Canadian newcomers to Downie’s deep discography. While it includes some Hip hits, these aren’t necessarily the band’s most popular songs. Rather, they’re ones that mostly venture beyond the band’s bar-rock roots and don’t require an Encyclopedia Canadiana to decode. And they’re the ones that most directly communicate Downie’s singular combination of outsized passion, white-knuckled intensity, sly humor, absurdity… and grace, too.
If his brother, Angus, is AC/DC’s Chuck Berry (all about dazzling flashes of lightning and speeding, razor-wire licks) then Malcolm Young was their Bo Diddley, a brilliant groove engineer (as well as songwriter—let’s not forget that) who could ceaselessly combine and recombine the essential, fundamental components of boogie. We present a cannonballed salute to the greatest rhythm guitarist in hard rock, who passed away November 18 at age 64 after a years-long struggle with dementia.