The Great Gig in the Sky

The best albums of our lives – and the afterlife

The Great Gig in the Sky

On Wednesday, Dec. 3, press day at the Chronicle, news of Ian McLagan's hospitalization began circulating early. The 69-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame keyboardist in both UK smashes the Small Faces and Faces had suffered a stroke at home two days earlier and remained in critical condition. By 10:30am, I knew what the public at large didn't: Mac was moving on.

Combing through 20 years of archives, I spent the next hours writing an obituary. Unless you're The New York Times, summating a life normally happens after someone's death, so this rare instance of prior knowledge left me numb – uncomprehending. One of Austin's most spirited musicians, adopted organist of two decades, was this very moment loading up his gear for the great gig in the sky.

Having devoted my being to a field contemporarily viewed as opportunistic, I suddenly felt like nothing less than a scavenging bird of prey, circling and waiting. Limbo only goes over well in a Chubby Checker hit. Needle bouncing repeatedly in a vinyl divot, my mind stuck on McLagan's June release, United States, destined now to become his swan song.

As Music reviews editor, I'd been moved by an advance of the LP, struck by its honesty, maturity. Instead of just another catalog entry from a journeyman musician, United States spoke of a life and its attendant emotions – adult feelings expressed with a spry outlook. In the four long hours between word of McLagan's imminent departure and confirmation of the same, my relationship to the album changed forever.

Timeless albums aren't immutable. Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon doesn't endure because it's unchanging. Listen to the 1973 warping of time and space from her(e) to eternity and it relates to your everyday existence precisely because of its psychedelic existentialism.

Moreover, great expression never unmoors from its creator and their fate. Highway to Hell blazes to this day in part because its bawdy lyricist embarked on that route directly thereafter. Jeff Buckley, J Dilla, Amy Winehouse – take your pick. Their muse haunts us doubly given their life stories.

A week after Ian McLagan's death, as the paper went to press with him on our cover, I finally spun the new album by Meshell Ndegéocello, who produced Ruthie Foster's recent Grammy-nominated Promise of a Brand New Day. Female Prince, I exclaimed, only that's sexist since no one ever called Mick Jagger the male Tina Turner. Yet why wasn't Ndegéocello's sultry Comet, Come to Me part of the year's Top 10 dialogue?

Popularity contests rightly crown Beck as the prom king and St. Vincent his queen, with both Leonard Cohen and Lucinda Williams just as likely to succeed now as 1967 or 1979, respectively. Ten discs nationally are harder to tally than 50 locals, but lump that vacuity in with media in general, right? Mac and Meshell might not belly up to (inter)national consensus, but their albums help distinguish 2014 as surely as DSOTM set a standard 41 years ago.

The Great Gig in the Sky

Top 10 National

1) Beck, Morning Phase (Capitol)

2) St. Vincent, St. Vincent (Loma Vista/Republic)

3) Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems (Columbia)

4) Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)

5) Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Give the People What They Want (Daptone)

6) Autopsy, Tourniquets, Hacksaws & Graves (Peaceville)

7) Meshell Ndegéocello, Comet, Come to Me (Naïve)

8) Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal)

9) Spanish Gold, South of Nowhere (BMG/Del Mar)

10) First Aid Kit, Stay Gold (Columbia)

The Great Gig in the Sky

Top 10 Austin (Boyz)

1) Spoon, They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)

2) Shakey Graves, And the War Came (Dualtone)

3) Ian McLagan & the Bump Band, United States (Yep Roc)

4/5) Willie Nelson, Band of Brothers (Legacy)/Billy Joe Shaver, Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod)

6) Centro-matic, Take Pride in Your Long Odds

7) Dat Boy Supa, Supacabra (The Fraternity)

8) Gary Clark Jr., Live (Warner Bros.)

9) Boyfrndz, Breeder (Brutal Panda)

10) Whiskey Shivers, Whiskey Shivers

The Great Gig in the Sky

Top 10 Austin (Grrls)

1) Kat Edmonson, The Big Picture (Sony Music Masterworks)

2) Marcia Ball, The Tattooed Lady & the Alligator Man (Alligator)

3) Gina Chavez, up.rooted

4) Sunny Sweeney, Provoked (Thirty Tigers)

5) The Bluebonnets, Play Loud

6) Feral Future, Haematic (Western Medical)

7) Erin Ivey with the Tosca String Quartet, Whisper of the Moon

8) Eliza Gilkyson, The Nocturne Diaries (Red House)

9) Ruthie Foster, Promise of a Brand New Day (Blue Corn)

10) BettySoo, When We're Gone

The Great Gig in the Sky

Top 10 Austin (Coed)

1) All ATX British Invasion

2) Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, Our Year (Premium)

3) Carrie Elkin & Danny Schmidt, For Keeps (Red House)

4) The Black Angels, Clear Lake Forest (Blue Horizon)

5) The Mastersons, Good Luck Charm (New West)

6) Rosie & the Ramblers, Whatever You Need

7) Megafauna, Maximalist (Danimal Kingdom)

8) The Ugly Beats, Brand New Day (Get Hip)

9) The Sour Notes, Do What May (No Play)

10) Casual Strangers, Casual Strangers

The Great Gig in the Sky

Top 10 Underserved Texans

1) The Black & White Years, Strange Figurines

2) Brian Beattie, Ivy & the Wicker Suitcase (Earmovie Music)

3) Flaco & Max, Legends & Legacies (Smithsonian)

4) Atash, Everything Is Music (Ars Mundi)

5) The Young, Chrome Cactus (Matador)

6) Soul Track Mind, Unbreakable

7) Stephen Doster, Arizona (Atticus)

8) Israel Nash, Rain Plans (Loose Music)

9) The Jones Family Singers, The Spirit Speaks (Arts+Labor)

10) I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness, Dust (Secretly Canadian/Monopsone)

The Great Gig in the Sky

Top 10 Pieces of ATX Vinyl

1) Headcrusher, Let the Blood Run/Black Burning Skies (Spora)

2) OBN III's, Third Time to Harm (Tic Tac Totally)

3) Flesh Lights, Free Yourself (12XU)

4) Ghetto Ghouls, Ghetto Ghouls (Monofonus Press)

5) The Dead Space, Faker (12XU)

6) Suspirians, Suspirians (Super Secret)

7) Lou Ann Barton, The Best (Rock Beat)

8) John Schooley & Walter Daniels, Dead Mall Blues (12XU)

9) Spray Paint, Clean Blood, Regular Acid (Monofonus Press)

10) The Gary, Farewell Foolish Objects (Sick Room Records)

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More Ian McLagan
All or Nothing
All or Nothing
Rock & roll's MVP keyboardist, Ian McLagan, was first and foremost an Austinite for the last 20 years of his life

Tim Stegall, March 20, 2015

Ian McLagan: All I Wanna Do
Ian McLagan: All I Wanna Do
Ian McLagan on these United States

Jim Caligiuri, Dec. 12, 2014

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