The normal year-end music lists are built around the best albums of the past 12 months. But my year in music is never measured in albums. It is measured, first and foremost, by live shows. And then the conversations and unique moments I am very fortunate to experience.
So looking back at 2017 these are the shows and artists, from the National, Linkin Park and Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty and Kendrick Lamar, that defined a 2017 that was, for music, very impressive
Band Of The Year: The National
The alternative heroes delivered the year’s best album with the brilliant and typically articulate Sleep Well Beast. In addition, they were also among the most politically outspoken, going after not just the current administration, but Karl Rove as well with “Walk It Back.” If there was any doubt that the National were the most interesting and challenging band of 2017 it was laid to rest with the band’s devastatingly powerful show at the Hollywood Bowl this past October. One of the top three shows in L.A. this past year the two-hour set proved they are as compelling and dynamic live as almost any band in rock today, all done while delivering songs as diverse as the horn-infused “Fake Empire,” the rocking “Mr. November” and “The Day I Die,” the gorgeous “Pink Rabbits” and “About Today” and so much more. For all the thoughtfulness and ambition the National brought to music in 2017 they are an easy choice for the most important band of 2017.
Rock Star Of The Year: Eminem
Four years after his last album, the Detroit rap icon reemerged with “The Storm,” his blistering freestyle attack on Donald Trump. The video went viral with more than 42 million views and just over two months later Eminem made history as Revival debuted at No 1 and he became the first artist to ever have eight consecutive chart-topping albums. Eminem isn’t just the biggest rock star of the year he is the benchmark for rock stardom in the twenty-first century. Living in Detroit, he largely avoids social media and the limelight, then when he is ready to return does so under his terms, with very select interviews and tour dates. In an age where artists feel the need to share all, the way he maintains privacy and mystique make him a true rock star.
Most Inspiring Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Last Monday, December 18, thanks to a longtime friend, I got to watch Kendrick Lamar perform a short set at the jersey retirement of the Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant. Lamar played “Humble” and other songs for “the living legend,” as Lamar referred to Bryant, in a private lounge at Staples Center for an audience that included NBA Hall Of Famers Bill Russell, Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, who DJed after Lamar, Elgin Baylor and more. Three days later, Lamar performed during the day for underprivileged kids at Watts’ Nickerson Gardens as he does every year. What makes Lamar so inspiring and so special as an artist is that he does both with grace, dignity and fun. He is clearly enjoying his moment as one of the biggest music stars in the world today, but still gives back and speaks out socially all the time. He has found the perfect balance of having fun and being involved, which is needed in the crazy world of 2017.
Rock God/Best Show Of The Year: Nick Cave
Ask almost any musician of a certain age or even Brad Pitt, who was hanging backstage at Cave’s godlike Greek Theater show in L.A., and they will tell you the Australian renaissance man – singer/songwriter, actor, author, composer – is the rock god of the moment. He showed why at the Greek, delivering a performance that, as I wrote at the time, “Transcended music in many respects.” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebaltin/2017/07/07/seeing-nick-cave-and-the-meaning-of-art/#5283183a1ce2) In the span of a few moments Cave can bring either a power or beauty that are almost unrivaled on either count. Performing with a passion that is almost other worldly he merged art, spirituality and rock and roll into a timeless performance that, for those lucky enough to see it, will be deservedly remembered as legendary.
Activist Of The Year: Shirley Manson
What makes a great activist is an unyielding combination of conviction and candor. Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson has been sharing both for years, becoming a feminist icon for a new generation of musicians and music fans. Unapologetically speaking out for women, LGBTQ and artists with intelligence and passion, Manson is an inspiration for artists regardless of gender or age.
Triumph Of The Year: Linkin Park
In a year that saw so many horrific tragedies there were a lot of contenders for musical triumph of the year, especially Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester concert, which raised $13 million and brought together a country devastated. But if one show stood out as the single most triumphant it was the five remaining members of Linkin Park taking the stage at the Hollywood Bowl just three short months after the shocking death of lead singer Chester Bennington. Performing for more than three hours with a who’s who of friends, including Blink-182, Alanis Morissette, Avenged Sevenfold and more, the remaining members of LP shared their pain and doubt in a performance that I wrote at the time was part of a “night of beauty, of power, of love, of incredible sorrow and of joy. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebaltin/2017/10/28/linkin-park-make-chester-bennington-proud-with-heartfelt-and-powerful-tribute/#2081ac255ed8). Two months later that feels even more so looking back. What makes the night so compelling is instead of masking their uncertainty and anguish as many artists would do, LP shared with their fans their own immense pain. To do so, so bravely, is something all musicians should aspire to.
Trailblazer Of The Year: Bruce Springsteen
With the recent news Lady Gaga is following in the footsteps of Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez in doing a Vegas residency, it’s becoming increasingly clear Vegas is the preferred home for pop stars who don’t want the demands and rigors of a full-time tour. So where do the classic rock acts, like Elton John, Rod Stewart and the Who, all of whom have done Vegas residencies, go? Thanks to Bruce Springsteen’s phenomenally successful Springsteen On Broadway, which has been extended twice and is breaking box-office records, Broadway is all of a sudden a viable option for many of music’s greatest troubadours. From Tom Waits and Bob Dylan to Alanis Morissette, there are numerous artists who could flourish commercially and artistically on the “Great White Way.”
Interview Of The Year: Dave Gahan
The Depeche Mode frontman does few interviews these days, so when I received an email saying, “Dave wants to do the email himself, can you meet him at his hotel?” I wrote back, “Hell yeah.” Gahan did not disappoint, opening up about politics, his relationship with band mate Martin Gore and how he went from being a fan of David Bowie to being “just dads” with him as their kids went to school together in New York City (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebaltin/2017/05/25/depeche-modes-dave-gahan-opens-up-about-david-bowie-enduring-four-decades-and-more/#60b8e2345644).
Tour Of The Year: Tom Petty
As I wrote about September 25 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebaltin/2017/09/25/how-tom-petty-ruled-classic-rock-with-the-tour-of-2017/#54af1a6a79c9), just a week before his tragic death, Petty spent the year performing his greatest hits with the Heartbreakers for the fortieth anniversary of the band. Whether it was headlining festivals like BottleRock or Arroyo Seco or headlining his own shows, Petty and the Heartbreakers showed off one of the great catalogues in all of rock with a joyful glee and youthful passion every night, delighting audiences and cementing his status as one of rock’s all-time greats. Still hard to believe that just a week after wrapping up triumphantly at the Hollywood Bowl Petty was gone. But he truly did go out on top musically.
Best New Artist: Rationale
Two years ago I was walking into my friend Bryan Ling’s club at 432 N. Fairfax in Los Angeles. I was having a conversation with another friend, Tyler, who runs the venue. We were discussing how seeing so much music it was very hard for either of us to be blown away anymore. Then I walked in, listened to this British singer/songwriter deliver his soulful trip-hop bent in a stripped-down set that left jaws dropped. It wasn’t a fluke. His eponymous debut, released this past October, is stunning. His magnificent voice, as showcased on songs like “Loving Life” and “Something For Nothing,” is truly unique in music. Trust me, when he tours next, you need to see Rationale live.
Most Interesting Artist: ASAP Rocky
The rap superstar is probably going to give me crap for this title. Befitting his humility, he joked with me about being embarrassed by GQ magazine’s title of “The World’s Flyest Human.” All humility aside though, Rocky is that chameleon who can bound between the fashion world, Hollywood, big business and more. What makes him such a pop culture icon and a for certain future mogul is he is one of the rare artists, like Mick Jagger, Dave Grohl and Dr. Dre before him, who can fit into any scene. Rocky can talk about the Doors and smoke in the studio until two in the morning and then be at a GUESS meeting the next morning and both worlds feel natural for him. That’s what makes him so interesting.
Lyricist Of The Year: Lorde
How do you follow up a debut album that is released when you are 17 years old and goes No 1 in more than 20 countries? If you are a legitimate talent like Lorde you do so with a sophomore effort that earns a Grammy nod for Album Of The Year and should have been nominated for Song of The Year for the smart and biting “Green Light.” “Well those rumors, they have big teeth/Hope they bite you,” she delivers with a snarl. She showed a poet’s heart throughout the album, like the opening to “The Louvre.” “Well, summer slipped us underneath her tongue/Our days and nights are perfumed with obsession.” The gift to write like that shows Lorde will be around for a long, long time.