The Curmudgeon: The Problem with Ranking Music in 2017

In an era when musicians are putting their emphasis on live music and downplaying LPs, shouldn’t critics do the same?

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The Curmudgeon: The Problem with Ranking Music in 2017

It’s December, and for music critics that means filling out countless polls and 10-best lists. (Or in Paste’s case, the 50 Best Albums of 2017.) It’s a time-consuming exercise, but it’s a fun game—and often enlightening, for it forces one to put a calendar year into perspective by making distinctions (what is it that makes the fifth-best album better than the sixth?) more specific than merely what’s good and bad.

In 2017, however, I find myself asking if a list of the best albums is still the best way to measure a year’s worth of music. Personally, I love albums, but except for the Taylor Swifts and Jay Zs of the world, musicians no longer make much money from recordings. For most artists, albums are just a promotional tool to drum up business for their only remaining income stream: live performances. If musicians are putting their emphasis on live music, shouldn’t we critics do the same?

Many critics have argued that the best way to read pop music’s temperature is with a thermometer calibrated as a list of the best singles. Most listeners now consume music one song at a time—as a stream, a download or a radio track. Shouldn’t critics assess music the same way?

Except for the Taylor Swifts and Jay Zs of the world, musicians no longer make much money from recordings. For most artists, albums are just a promotional tool to drum up business for their only remaining income stream: live performances.

Such an argument is irrefutable if you’re only interested in what were the year’s best songs. But if you’re interested in who were the year’s best artists, a single will tell only so much. A romantic ballad, for example, reveals but one facet of a performer; you’d need to hear a celebratory dance number, an angry rocker, a melancholy confessional, a narrative memoir song and/or a protest anthem to get a fully rounded portrait. One song’s not enough. That’s why albums seem a more helpful measure—or would, if the industry still emphasized long-players as a listening experience and income source.

What the industry does emphasize—because it’s the one thing it still knows how to monetize—is live music. So why don’t critics emphasize it as well? A 20-song live set combines songwriting, singing and musicianship in enough different ways to reveal an artist’s every facet in a particular year of their career. So why shouldn’t a top-10 live-show list supplant the traditional top-10 album list?

Three major counterarguments immediately present themselves. First, studio ingenuity is crucial to certain kinds of music-making—especially for experimental rockers such as the Beatles and Beck, and even more so for hip-hoppers such as A Tribe Called Quest and Kanye West. Why should these artists be penalized by replacing best-album lists with best-live-show lists?

Second, the live show that I saw in one city on the tour may be a lot better or a lot worse than the live show you saw in a different city on the same tour. We can’t be sure we’re seeing the same show the way we can be sure we’re hearing the same album. Third, while it is reasonable to expect a critic to hear all the crucial albums of the year, it’s not so reasonable to expect that critic to see every important tour.

We can get around these objections by pointing out that live shows require special skills that aren’t reflected in studio recordings, every bit as much as studio skills aren’t reflected in live performances. In a poll, the variations in which shows a voter attends will get evened out in the combined voting—and even an individual top-10 list can highlight a live performer whom readers might otherwise overlook.

The Dustbowl Revival made an excellent album this year, but their live show is where they truly shine. (courtesy Signature Sounds)

For example, my favorite live performance of 2017 came from the Dustbowl Revival, a Southern California string band with horns and two lead singers. The group’s recording from this year, The Dustbowl Revival, was very good—a top-20 album if not a top-10—but onstage before an audience, the octet raised their energy and impact to another level. That’s because the band’s strengths—playful improvisation, a contagious sense of humor, stomping dance rhythms and heart-on-the-sleeve ballads—flourish more onstage than in the studio. It would be as inaccurate to give them an album-of-the-year nod as it would be to deny them the live show of the year.

Dustbowl Revival founder Zach Lupetin isn’t the first person to recognize the parallels between old-time jazz in New Orleans and old-time country in Appalachia, but no one else has committed himself to that fusion so wholeheartedly or so successfully. The trumpet and trombone are balanced out by the fiddle and mandolin, and the vaudeville spirit of Lupetin’s male vocals are balanced out by the R&B power of Liz Beebe’s female vocals.

I saw them three times in 2017, and the best by far was at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in September. At this weekend festival on the Virginia/Tennessee border, the Dustbowl Revival performed in a huge, temporary tent erected on a parking lot. The tent was crucial, for it prevented the energy from evaporating as it so often does at open-air festivals.

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Contained within the white canvas, the familiar feedback loop—of the musicians stoking the audience, which in turn stokes the musicians—started early with the crowd singing along to Lupetin’s raucous version of the old blues-gospel number “John the Revelator,” got steamier on Beebe’s 6/8 R&B jealousy ballad “Busted,” and ignited pandemonium inside the tent with their signature tune, “Lampshade On.” This was a tent revival in the most literal sense.

The Dustbowl Revival wasn’t the only act to outdo their studio recording with their live show in 2017. Valerie June’s high-pitched nasal voice was as strikingly unusual as her visual appearance—red-sequin dress, white-frame sunglasses, polka-dot nylons and Medusa-like coils of hair—when she came to the Luck Reunion at Willie Nelson’s Texas ranch in March. More striking still was her lack of emotional filter. When she started weeping for her recently passed father on the old hymn “Uncloudy Day,” many in the audience were dabbing at their own moistened eyes. Her album, The Order of Time, is good, but this show was extraordinary.

Even better was an October show by San Fermin (pictured top) at Baltimore’s Ottobar. At first glance, this Brooklyn rock band is very different from the Dustbowl Revival, but their live shows are powered by similar means. Both octets balance horns (trumpet and baritone sax in San Fermin’s case) against violin and guitar over a dance groove; both alternate equally impressive male and female lead singers, and both fuse different genres into something new.

For San Fermin, those genres are modern-rock and contemporary classical music, but the collision of instruments and influences combined with superb singers and a stomping beat stirred the audience in the sweaty Baltimore club as effectively as they had in that Bristol tent. Both were experiences that no recording could duplicate. And they were experiences where the bands actually made money.

Here’s a list of my 20 favorite live performances of 2017:

20. Little Big Town at the Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 15)

19. Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer at the Rams Head Tavern (Annapolis, Md., Aug. 26)

18. Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys at Lakeview Park (Eunice, La., Feb. 27)

17. The Kevin Gordon Band at the Americanafest (Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 16)

16. Don Bryant & the Bo-Keys at the Americanafest (Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 16)

15. The Todd Marcus Jazz Orchestra at the Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore, Nov. 30)

14. Robbie Fulks at the Folk Alliance Conference (Kansas City, Feb. 15)

13. Craig Finn & the Uptown Controllers at the Canton Waterfront Park (Baltimore, May 4)

12. Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan at An Die Musik Live (Baltimore, Dec. 5)

11. St. Vincent at the Anthem (Washington, D.C., Nov. 27)

10. James McMurtry at the Americanafest (Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 12)

9. Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks at the Continental Club (Austin, Texas, March 18)

8. The Waco Brothers at the Yard Dog Gallery (Austin, Texas, March 17)

7. Rhiannon Giddens at the Newport Folk Festival (Newport, R.I., July 30)

6. Steve Coleman & the Five Elements at the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C., April 22)

5. Valerie June at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion (Spicewood, Texas, March 16)

4. U2 at Fed Ex Field (Landover, Md., June 20)

3. The Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival (Newport, R.I., Aug. 6)

2. San Fermin at the Ottobar (Baltimore, Oct. 19)

1. The Dustbowl Revival at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion (Bristol, Va., Sept. 17)