Feature: Five Years Later – Best Music of 2016

  • David Bowie – Blackstar [Columbia/RCA/ISO]

Mankind has been flirting with its own mortality since the beginning of time – but leave it to David Bowie to make the process of combing over one’s life in preparation for death seem uniquely original. Bowie’s 26th LP, Blackstar, was released on the musician’s 69th birthday, when 2016 still had egg on its ears, and was nothing less than an utter artistic reckoning, a great masterwork from an artist who oft-trafficked in them. From the requiem-like vocal timbre of the opening title track to the bright, almost freedom-wielding closer, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Blackstar is entrenched deeply in death and the awareness, initially secret, of Bowie’s terminal cancer diagnosis. And, yes, there’s “Lazarus,” whose death-portending video – complete with Bowie, blindfolded, in shrouds and in a death bed – dropped days before his passing. “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now,” he sings over a dirgy guitar and a deceptively plaintive little bass-and-drum groove. Lazarus, for those unfamiliar with Christian canons, was raised from the dead four days after his passing by Jesus, according to the Gospel of John. In short: eerie – and highly relevant – stuff.

But what’s easy to forget about Blackstar, and what’s become increasingly apparent about it in the years since its initial release, is it’s a great record with great songs. Bowie taps into the black energy of 1995’s 1. Outside, certainly a dark record wherein murder becomes a kind of art form, for some of Blackstar’s more art-rock-leaning offerings. Elsewhere, as on the rollicking bitter pill “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime),” he just lays down a mean track. Anyone wondering if Bowie, in his waning days, still had piss and vinegar, needs to listen to “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” or the oddly on-the-nose trip-hop of “Girl Loves Me” – the man was as bright as a supernova until the end.

Blackstar producer Tony Visconti told the press the record was Bowie’s final gift to his fans. Five years later, it’s still giving. – Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Jan. 4, 2022


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.