In December of 2015, I turned forty, an occasion which prompted much existential thought. To “celebrate” the occasion, I compiled My Life’s Playlist, a collection of one song from each year that I’d lived. In the 40 days preceding my birthday, I identified a song a day, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” from 1975 and ending with Lera Lynn’s “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” from 2015. In posting my choices to Facebook, I used the hashtag #40Songs40Days40Years. A fun project it was (and a challenge, particularly when I reached the meaningful songs of the early 1990’s, of which there were many). You can read about that experiment – and see all of the song selections – here. If you find yourself on Spotify, you listen to the full set of songs here.
As this year’s birthday approached, I knew I would add a new song to the list to represent 2016, a year which has robbed us of too many artists and musicians. The choice this year was simple: the powerful and somber “Blackstar” from David Bowie’s album of the same name. Released on January 8, 2016 (which also happened to be Bowie’s 69th birthday), the album was somewhat of a surprise foreshadowed only by a few digital singles in late 2015. Bowie’s death just two days later on January 10 stunned the world.
Although it was technically released as one of those digital singles on November 19, 2015 (a month to the day before my fortieth birthday), “Blackstar” properly arrived two months later with the formal release of the album of the same name. I listened to it that day, unaware that the song would become all the more haunting in just 48 hours when we would all learn the sad news. Now, knowing what we know would come, the song – intended by Bowie to serve as his final farewell to his fans – is overpowering:
Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside,
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:
(I’m a Blackstar, I’m a Blackstar).
I’ve thought about Bowie a great deal in 2016. I read Rob Sheffield’s excellent book, On Bowie, a collection of a music critic’s observations and memories released just five months after Bowie’s death. Not once, but twice, I saw The Wham Bam Bowie Band, a tribute band based in nearby Asheville, North Carolina (a video of whom you can find below). A week after his death, I penned my own obituary of Bowie, in which I wrote:
Now we find ourselves a part of a popular culture absent David Bowie, once its ubiquitous fixture. For many, including myself, there was never until this week a cultural landscape that existed without Bowie thriving therein. As Jemaine Clement, a member of New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords musical duo, remarked on behalf of that group, “Both born in the ’70s, we hadn’t witnessed a world without Bowie.” To fans and followers of popular music, Bowie remained omnipresent in both his output and influence, and we always anticipated that he would soon release something intriguing and new. Unlike many of his contemporaries who long ago lost whatever edge they once maintained, Bowie never halted his quest to experiment and reinvent himself. One need only listen to Blackstar, his haunting final album released just a few days before his death, to confirm that fact. Its stark album cover . . . now seems especially foreboding in light of what we would soon learn about the state of his health.
There were other songs which resonated with me this year, including Angel Olsen’s “Shut Up Kiss Me,” Radiohead’s “True Love Waits” (an ancient song by the band finally seeing its official studio release), and, of course, Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” (the emotive impact of which was also amplified by the artist’s death shortly after its release).
But, to me, “Blackstar” was the only choice for My Life’s Playlist for 2016. I chose Bowie’s “Heroes” – a marvelous gem – as the selection for 1977. In fact, only Bowie, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire appeared more than once on the playlist. Requiescat in pace, David Bowie.