2010 was full of mourning for the musically minded. From old greats to new talents, it seemed that no-one was safe. The angel of death seemed to pass over every month, and not in a badass Slayer thrash metal way; in a depressing and disheartening way. From progenitors of industrial noise to reggae legends, a multitude of musical mavericks passed away worldwide – all still sorely missed. So before we gallivant chortling and carefree into 2011, let’s pause a minute to think of those who are now rocking the Elysian plains, and cannot join us. Here’s a list of several of the glorious dead, with a record they were associated with that you should really have a listen to out of respect. I’ve chosen to include only musicians, despite the high profile deaths of champions associated with scenes such as Malcolm McLaren, midwife of UK punk, or Rammellzee, hip-hop’s premier art freak. Of course, there’ll be plenty of equally worthwhile tunesmiths that I couldn’t fit on, so feel free to add some obituaries in the comments box. But for now, remember to raise a glass on New Year’s Eve to these fallen heroes and heroines…
Although the band Alex was most eminent for playing in – Big Star – never reached the dizzy heights they deserved to, they remain one of my favourite bands of all time. Capable of writing songs that could be achingly sweet, desperately fragile or downright weird, Chilton was a teenage star in the Box Tops, practically invented power-pop, produced seminal records by the likes of The Cramps, and put his soul on the line in the creation of the criminally overlooked Big Star masterpiece, Third. Consistently brilliant yet upsettingly under-appreciated until the very end, the multitudinous tributes from stars across the musical world were testament to his influence and genius. Only the Velvets were more influential to the creation of indie rock.
Listen To: Big Star – Third
Step-daughter to John Lydon and taught guitar by Joe Strummer, Ariane Forster was always going to be a punk goddess. The goddess Medusa to be precise, with her snake-like dreadlocks and stage presence that could turn a man to stone. As frontwoman with The Slits, she re-invented British guitar music post-punk between recording snotty Peel Sessions and the seminal debut Cut. Mixing a love of reggae and dub with fundamental aggression, she left a seismic crater on the face of punk rock that’s still in the DNA of dozens of more recent bands.
Listen To: The Slits – Cut
A towering artistic presence who was compared to Salvador Dali as often as he was to Frank Zappa, Don Van Vliet – more commonly known as Captain Beefheart – was an enigma of Barrettesque proportions. A possible genius as well as or alternatively a madman, he strode more sonic miles than any of his peers over a course of records that stretched and sometimes tore through the boundaries of popular music. First listen to Beefheart is a bit like whiskey, opera or sodomy – you’ll need to keep on trying to fully appreciate it. But once you’re in the zone, his records – a surreal alien radio station where the blues are played backwards, overflowing with black humour and remarkable poetry – will redefine your ears forever.
Listen To: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica
One of reggae’s greatest all-time voices, ‘Cool Ruler’ passed after a long battle with cancer in October. A star comparable to Barry White in terms of the amount of humping he has initiated, he was the pioneer of the mellifluous lover’s rock ballad. Drawing inspiration from Motown and crooners like Sam Cooke, his soulful, intimate style was distinctive in reggae’s heyday, and, having conquered Jamaica with releases with just about every celebrated producer you could mention, he settled in Britain after worldwide success in the 80’s. Although his life was fraught with problems, his style, dapper in a fedora, and his voice, more dapper still, will live on.
Listen To: Gregory Isaacs – Soon Forward
Nobly suffering in silence for over a year, Gang Starr leader Guru’s death took us all by surprise in April. Re-energizing hip-hop as electro sounds became stale; the duo (completed by DJ Premier) mixed an amalgamation of soul, funk and jazz samples on their palette, Guru’s mercury-smooth flows rolling over the top. Arguably the greatest hip-hop outfit of the early 90’s, their open-mindedness and intelligence offered a socially conscious alternative to the cartoon violence of newborn gangsta rap. Equally competent on solo records such as Jazzmatazz Vol. 1, we head into 2011 lacking one of hip-hop’s most competent lyricists and versatile MCs.
Listen To: Gang Starr – Daily Operation
Lena Horne was one of those impossible people who lived through the 20th Century as if she was in a movie of her own. A Hollywood career (performing the title song of ‘Stormy Weather’ amongst others) hampered by racism and halted by the Red Scare, she battled for civil rights tirelessly while becoming one of the most prominent nightclub singers in America, all while swathed in the impeccable style of the Golden Age. While her voice was never world beating, her expressiveness and charisma were perfectly suited to flitting between jazz and blues and showtunes without so much as a blink. As the first African-American Hollywood sex symbol, she died at 92 in a world very different to the one she was born in; a world she had helped change.
Listen To: Lena Horne – Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria
The youngest person on this list, Mark Linkous’ career was peaking as he fired a rifle into his chest this Spring. In a three decade vocation that led him from indie obscurity in The Dancing Hoods to critical acclaim with Sparklehorse he managed to collaborate with and influence a dizzying array of acts, as well as producing records by Nina Persson and Daniel Johnson. Having recently completed the troublingly-conceived Dark Night Of The Soul with Danger Mouse, the world was impatient for new Sparklehorse material that sadly wasn’t to be. Despite being far from a household name, Patti Smith, Radiohead, Steve Albini and The Flaming Lips all publicly grieved; evidence of the music sphere’s appreciation of this man’s humble, fragile genius.
Listen To: Sparklehorse – Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain
As one of the original members of Throbbing Gristle, Sleazy can be seen as one of the godparents of industrial music. But he didn’t rest on his laurels back in the late 70’s and simply watch his legacy unfurl; a prolific artist, he also founded experimental acid house occultists Psychic TV, psychedelic noise-innovators Coil, and unleashed a flood of video work for bands as diverse as Danzig, Pink Floyd and Ash. His tragic death on the eve of a re-united Throbbing Gristle tour proved that only mortality could cease his artistic restlessness and ubiquity.
Listen To: Coil – Horse Rotorvator
The ‘nice guy’ of heavy metal, Dio’s lungs rose to fame in flowing-haired groups such as Elf and Rainbow, before he ably took Ozzy Osbourne’s place in Black Sabbath. Despite the medieval power of solo records like Holy Diver, Ronnie was perpetually known as a rare perfect gentleman amidst the headbanging legions. He was purportedly the originator of the now-omnipresent ‘devil horns’ gesture, as well as perfecting the histrionic, operatic vocal style that would so influence the NWOBHM. I thank the Gods of Rock daily that I managed to catch him live in the summer before he succumbed to ‘fight the dragon’ of cancer; a battle he ultimately lost.
Listen To: Dio – Holy Diver
Solomon Burke was a man of biblical proportions – and not just in the waistline department. Fathering 21 children, he was also a doctor of mortuary science as well as the bishop of an evangelical church with a vast congregation. But his flamboyant personality sometimes tended to overshadow his superlative contributions to the soul canon – he never did have a Top 20 hit. The self-styled ‘King of Rock and Soul’, he was one of the first to realise that coalescence between the two genres could maximise the potential of both, and brought in country and gospel influences to create a magnificently recognisable sound. He died on the way to a sold-out gig in Holland – living a life full to the brim right up to the very end.
Listen To: Solomon Burke – Rock ‘n’ Soul
Percussionist Steve Reid’s CV reads like a history of black music in the 20th Century – debuting with Martha & The Vandellas at the age of 16, he went on to play with James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Dionne Warwick, Fela Kuti and Sun Ra. Constantly pushing the parameters of contemporary drumwork, he was equally adept at tight jazz as he was accompanying loose soul, his telepathic improvisational skills astounding all who witnessed them. This wasn’t a man whose glory had faded with time; he had recently found a musical ‘soul mate’ in UK laptop-electronica wizard Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet. Endlessly inventive and open-minded, he remains one of the most unsung yet dazzling musicians of all time.
Listen To: Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid – The Exchange Session Vol. 1
Lincoln ‘Sugar’ Minott was synonymous with the Studio One reggae label, as well as developing the dancehall style. Toasting for the Sound of Silence Keytone Soundsystem, he later formed the African Brothers and ended up as a singer and guitarist at Studio One, before embarking on a lucrative solo career. A pioneer in using backing tracks in the studio rather than live bands, he is widely hailed as the father of dancehall. As well as a pioneer he was a philanthropist; setting up the Black Roots label which was intricately linked to his Youth promotion project, helping young artists of the similar backgrounds as himself. Although his star had waned in recent years, he still performed regularly and, according to reports, with the same bouncing verve.
Listen To: Sugar Minott – Black Roots