Regrets? I’ve had a few million. (I was raised Catholic, it’s built-in to the whole sacrament-of-confession thing.) However, having just sneaked out to a matinee of surefire Slate Movie Club favorite Manchester By the Sea—a broken pastorale about how one small mistake can ignite to utterly ruin a person, and the limits of redemption, but its presence in our lives nonetheless—I’m hesitant to use the word “regret” to talk about something as essentially lighthearted as music criticism. When I say “lighthearted,” I don’t mean trivial. I mean that we scribes have the privilege of spending undue hours immersed in what is, even when the messages it conveys are serious, still a form of play: The radical fun of music frees the mind from the burden of habit and reveals myriad ways of thinking and feeling that people might otherwise deny themselves. It orders the world’s chaos in ways that even in the worst times can make us feel, in the words of the Minneapolis rapper Lizzo, good as hell. Music will always be bigger and more resonant than anything I can write about it; I find relief in that truth.
Social media, however, foregrounds the ego assertions of hot takes and so-called definitive statements. Carl, I admire your willingness to listen again and confront your own mistakes. But I’m also working on just letting go a bit, not worrying if I have, to use a common and counterproductive phrase often applied to online commentary in general, nailed it. Most writers are by nature competitive—sustaining a career is just to difficult if you’re not—but ears don’t have IQs. A music writer is just an ordinary listener who decided that becoming hyper-articulate was the best way to engage, instead of (sometimes as well as) becoming an amazing dancer or crate-digger or the makeout artist with the smoothest playlist. Each of us has plenty of idiosyncrasies, culturally determined predilections, and blind spots. I worry that the need for writers to best each other with the fastest, smartest, most awe-inducingly serious responses is alienating us further from the ordinary grace of loving and thinking about music itself. Too often lately, I’ve felt my own pride pushing me toward believing my takes on music (hot or not) matter more than what music actually gives me. My New Year’s resolution is to listen more and weigh in less.
One useful part of this practice, I think, is engaging with something I never regret: live music. In 2015, I relocated from a small Alabama college town with a virtually nonexistent music scene to Nashville, Tennessee, the center of one of the most robust and sustainable music ecosystems in the world. My best nights this year were spent witnessing pickers, singers, drummers, shouters, hand-clappers, dancers, and quiet absorbers entering music’s unbroken circle and traveling together along its curved path for a while. Nashville does have certain issues that limit my pursuit of this pleasure. Being inland limits the number of internationally touring artists we get, and country and Americana music sometimes overshadow all else. But as a home to many of the best and most collaborative working musicians in the world, and to engaged audiences deeply invested in the practice of going to shows, Music City is practically unrivaled. I’d say only New Orleans, New York, maybe Austin, Texas, and Seattle come close. (Sorry, Los Angeles, you’re not quite there, even though I saw the most memorable show of my life there: Prince at the Roosevelt Hotel in 2007, in front of 200 beautiful people. Aside: I will always miss Prince, every day.)
Below is a list of my favorite live shows of 2016, briefly annotated to show how they reflected the arc of life with its striving and celebration, its grieving and defiant resilience, its historical reckonings and communal declarations to rise above. But before I share that, I must acknowledge this year’s final (I pray) music world tragedy. The blaze that overtook the Oakland, California, artists’ space known as the Ghost Ship killed 36 people gathered to fill their ears and move their bodies, together, to music. Investigations suggest that the disaster was greatly magnified, if not caused, by human negligence. The place was a fire trap. Yet who could fault those revelers for gathering within its rickety walls, taking the narrow staircase up to hear DJ Nackt and Joey Casio bring the beats, seeking the beloved faces of friends like Cash Askew and Jonathan Bernbaum, greeting each other with kisses and holding earnest conversations above the din. So many of us who’ve devoted our lives to each other through music felt that awful chill of recognition: It could have been any of us.
Since the fire, all-ages and DIY spaces all over the country have faced the threat of shutdowns. In Nashville, some of the only places my teenager could go to hear, and to play, the punk rock that currently defines her identity and generates her joy are dark. At least for now: Artists and bohemians have a way of rejuvenating rejected or forgotten corners of the urban landscape, growing flowers in a new dustbin as soon as the last one’s bulldozed. I’m not worried about underground music surviving. But American cities could do much more to support it. (In Nashville, there are signs that city officials will engage in this process with Mayor Megan Barry issuing a cautious statement vowing to “assist” in keeping venues safe and open.) This is the moment when mayors and other civic leaders could choose to acknowledge and support less commercially profitable music scenes—not only the ones that attract tourists but those maintained by the most adventurous musicians and by fans at all stages of their noise-defined lives (including teens!).
A wish for 2017: in every city, a Vera Project. In 2016, Seattle’s community-run, city-supported all-ages space celebrated 15 years of nurturing little punks and hip-hop heads, teaching them how to turn their music-mad urges into real skills, and hosting shows open to anyone who shows up with love in their hearts. We need these safe spaces more than ever now, and they need to really be safe, inspected, and up to code. Music is free speech, and I can’t think of a better way for cities to support the First Amendment than to make sure it can flourish, open to all.
Ann’s 22 Top Shows of 2016
Those Darlins, Jan. 29 at the Basement East: Beloved local band says goodbye, is hoisted aloft by its rock and roll family.
Taylor Mac, Feb. 19 at Oz Arts: American popular music history becomes a game of transformation and truth-telling in the hands of a genius in glad rags.
Chris Stapleton, Feb. 20 at the Ryman Auditorium: Country’s humble new hero flies through a much-earned victory lap.
Julien Baker, March 9 at the Exit/In: A precociously open-hearted 21-year-old comes fully into her own, armed with only her guitar, a few looping pedals, and a voice that enraptures everyone.
Penny & Sparrow, March 29 at City Winery: Duo mostly ignored by coastal tastemakers sing together to a roomful of fans who know every sweet word and don’t give a damn about being cool.
Dayme Arocena, March 18 at the Speakeasy in Austin, Texas: At the first-ever official Cuban music showcase at South by Southwest, this 23-year-old vocalist ascends to join the legacies of both Ella Fitzgerald and Erykah Badu.
William Bell, June 5 at 3rd & Lindsley: A soul elder with energy and finesse to spare wows a crowd that should have never forgotten him.
Maren Morris, June 9 at the Riverfront Stage, CMA Fest: Even the bros had to admit she ruled the day.
The Bellamy Brothers, June 11 at the Durango Stage at Fan Fair X, CMA Music Festival: Country music pioneers in the sexy 1970s return to show their harmonies and double-entendres still hold up.
Ron Gallo, June 23 at the 5 Spot: Insurgent thrift-store poet overcomes irritating schmoozing crowd with feedback and barbed words.
The Fairfield Four, July 9 at the Barbershop Harmony Society Championships at Bridgestone Arena: An American institution finally honors the black Americans who were central in founding it.
Twenty One Pilots, Aug. 7 at Ascend Amphitheater: The kids are all right.
Tribute to Guy Clark, Aug. 16 at the Ryman Auditorium: “Guy’s songs are better than your stories,” the sign said backstage, but the all-stars who wept for him proved that both are essential.
The Dixie Chicks, Aug. 17 at the Bridgestone Arena: Country Khaleesis make a triumphant return to the wide open spaces.
Lizz Wright, Sept. 5 at City Winery: A chill ride down a river of soul.
My Bubba, Sept. 20 at Third Man Records, Americana Music Festival: As quiet as shows get, utterly entrancing.
Marlon Williams, Sept. 23 at the Mercy Lounge, Americana Music Festival: A preternatural talent from New Zealand channels both Bill Monroe and Nina Simone and somehow it works.
Margo Price at the Nashville Palace, Americana Music Festival: Honky-tonkin’ into the future.
Graham Nash, Sept. 25 at City Winery: A rock legend brings himself down to human scale with revelatory new songs and deeply vulnerable versions of classics.
Kelsey Waldon, Nov. 5 at the Station Inn: A hardworking bright star of hard country gets to headline the little mother church.
Shane Parish, Dec. 1 at WELD: Sometimes it’s just a wonder to watch a guitarist’s right hand fly.
Seu Jorge sings David Bowie, Dec. 9 at Marathon Music Works: An ideal goodbye to the Starman, sending him off with a beijo and a sigh.