Jason King

My hazy memories of childhood in the 1980s are a jumble of contrasts. On one hand, there's the grim, gray dread of existential threats: nuclear brinkmanship, acid rain, mounting AIDS infections and trickle-down economics. But Day-Glo '80s pop culture — everything from fluorescent shoelaces to loose-jointed breakdancing to Prince albums and wacky films like Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon — offered me escapist relief from the encroachment of peril. Annus horribilis 2020 is just as full of contrasts.

Over the last decade, ghosts have become an increasingly present part of live music, with holographic recreations of Tupac, Michael Jackson and opera great Maria Callas all appearing in concert. Whitney Houston's estate is taking the trend to the next level; starting Feb. 25, the late pop superstar will embark on a hologram tour of Europe.

Legendary R&B singers often have their own iconic signatures — those nifty vocal tricks and embellishments that help distinguish them from the pack. Think of James Brown's high-pitched scream, Ron Isley's tempered "well, well, well," or Luther Vandross' fluttering riff, ascending the musical scale.

The late, great Aretha Franklin delivered world-class soul ballads like "Ain't No Way" that plumbed the depths of romantic experience and made it feel as if your heart had been squeezed dry like a defeated sponge. Her brazen self-determination anthems, including "Think" and "Respect," were electrically-charged lightning bolts of funk that emblematized the movement politics of the turbulent 1960s and '70s. The Queen of Soul was a goosebumps-generating singer capable of making weighty music about loss and love and the vicissitudes of life.

She could also be a bit of a hoot.

2016 has been an unexpectedly gloomy year for musical genius. I've written before that the domino-like deaths of David Bowie, Maurice White, Prince, Bernie Worrell and a host of other beloved musical icons suggests that the high level of creative excellence inaugurated in the late 1960s and '70s by musicians like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix may be on the wane. But even if old-school mavericks are leaving us quicker than we'd like, you can't easily overlook the rise of a new generation of boundary-pushing musicians with commanding technical chops like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding.

Something tells me that 300 or maybe even 3,000 years from now — if we still have breathable air and if we haven't relocated to Mars, and if super-intelligent robots haven't colonized us Matrix-style — we'll still be trying our best to dissect and parse out the überfunky, hyper-synaptic, wildly eccentric, crazy-magical boho black genius of Prince Rogers Nelson. The Minneapolis maestro died at age 57 on Thursday from causes that have yet to be clarified at this time.

All that is solid melts in the presence of funk. Maurice White — the prolific songwriter, singer, producer, arranger, bandleader, organizer and conceptualist at the helm of multi-platinum act Earth, Wind & Fire who transitioned on Thursday at 74 after a 25-year struggle with Parkinson's Disease — gifted us with years of optimistic, exuberant music that could instantly evaporate your frown into thin air.

All rhythm & blues is protest music — at least, that's one way of looking at it. The blues was the haunting soundtrack of newly-freed post-civil-war African-Americans trekking into big cities for work, while putrid Jim Crow laws served as a slap-in-the-face reminder that America was far from the land of the free. And the hammer-like rhythms of R&B were, by the mid-1940s, an erotic, underground revolt against the stifling sterility and monochromatic conformism of overground post WWII life.

The inimitable Rick James' birthday was Feb. 1. To ride out his month we brought back our temporary takeover of "I'll Take You There," the 24/7 R&B and soul channel from NPR Music. Curated and hosted by Jason King of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, the playlist runs the gamut from the genre's origins in the 1940s to today's slow jam stunners — except when we're wall to wall Rick James.