Year-end lists -- most of which have already emerged -- generally calculate the best in recorded music, celebrating the albums and songs critics deem most innovative and most skillful. But in many ways, it’s the live performances of these recordings that tell us the most about both the artists making them and the fans consuming them. A One Direction show reveals far more about the community of people invested in the British boy band and their present cultural impact than one of their albums, because a live performance is entirely contingent on the relationship between the artist and those who adore them.
The past 12 months were defined by grandiose tours, those featuring expensive production, extensive tour dates and artists looking to define themselves visually as well as musically. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Rihanna to Kanye West to Nine Inch Nails invested in the aesthetic marriage of visual production and expressive music, their choices guided by the premise that experiencing something on multiple sensory levels can truly augment a song. For West, whose Yeezus Tour was one of the year’s biggest and most involved, the stage production took on a theatrical quality, employing a massive set and multiple backup dancers to create a mood that suited the artist’s dark, angry album. West donned masks for almost the entire set each night, revealing himself only late in the show when a Jesus figure literally unmasked him.
Drake represented the alternative side of hip-hop, presenting himself on a modernly stark stage in equal sized venues (both artists headlined the Staples Center in L.A. this year). For Drake, the performance was about his connection with the audience, something he spent a large portion of each show actively cultivating. It’s an aesthetic that resonates with his emotionally driven, deeply personal music. Jay Z, who toured both individually and on a co-headlining summer run with Justin Timberlake, cultivated a similar tone onstage, allowing the music and its relationship with the fans to be the primary motivator of his production and self-presentation.
The pop stars focused on glamorized, exciting ways to bolster their radio singles, with Rihanna relying on sex and drugs to sell her music onstage and Lady Gaga resorting to bizarre theatrics. Artists like Selena Gomez and Swift kept things simpler, perhaps because fans feel more in tune with them on a personal level, whether that connection is manufactured or not. Where Gaga faltered, caught up in an overwrought onstage narrative and too many self-important speeches, the more personable pop stars prevailed, most notably Swift, Beyonce, Ellie Goulding and Paramore.
The most fascinating of all tours this year was One Direction’s run, which held court at the Staples Center for numerous nights in 2013 (the band will return to L.A. next year). For someone who is largely not a fan of the music, the performance was more about the fans than it was the band’s songs. Talking to the teenage girls in attendance offered a sincere understanding of the band, who are worshipped in a way exclusive to them. One Direction fans, as it turns out, are rarely fans of other musicians; they are fans of One Direction -- and anyone who tours with 1D -- alone. The band members, adorable in their feigned innocence, embrace this adoration onstage, delivering a solid performance every night.
Both if the hip-hop and pop tours focused heavily on production, choreography and ensuring that the fans felt their connection, real or staged, the best rock shows of the year were about genuine rawness. Nine Inch Nails celebrated the release of their latest album with a concert at the Troubadour, eschewing traditional production and light shows for an almost punk rock vibe that involved only Trent Reznor, his band and the extreme pummel of the music itself. The band’s subsequent arena tour, which hit Staples Center in November, involved a light show second only to the one Muse hauled around earlier in the year, removing the band from the audience with a transparent curtain of lights.
Queens of the Stone were perhaps the best live rock band of 2013, perpetually extending their tour in support of new album "…Like Clockwork" due to popular demand. But it was it was Paul McCartney who was hailed as one of the best performers of the year, largely thanks to his set at Bonnaroo in June, a performance that embodied the vigor of a much younger musician, circumnavigating his entire musical career.
If, at the end of a year, you find that you’ve experienced nearly every major tour of the past 12 months and attending almost every notable performance and festival, it seems like an opportunity to take stock, to determine what connects those live experiences in an overarching way. In 2013, that connector seems to be artists searching for ways to truly connect with their fans onstage. While that may seem reductive and hardly revelatory, there is a sense that musicians must embrace every possible way of audience relation, from social media to revealing interviews to 3D movies and biographical TV specials, to keep from falling out of the zeitgeist and losing coveted album sales. So it makes sense for Drake and Lady Gaga and One Direction to plot their set lists around planned moments of recurring fan engagement in a way they might not have in years past.
Kanye West, critically, had one of the most impressive and interesting releases of 2013, however, his tour felt notably overwrought. The music sounded good, sure, and it’s always entertaining to see what West will do next, but having the album of the year doesn’t mean the tour in support will be the comparable best.
My favorite live moments of the year aren't necessarily represented on the critical year-end lists: Baroness’ aggressively heavy set at Bonnaroo during an oddly appropriate thunderstorm, Fall Out Boy’s unabashed enthusiasm during their performance at the Roxy just after reuniting, Phoenix’s standout set during the two-day iHeartRadio music festival in Las Vegas and Explosions In the Sky opening for NIN at Staples Center. In all these moments, I felt connected to the musicians onstage and the music they played, each for various reasons and in various ways. The best live performances are those that allow you to transcend the moment itself, whether by the merit of impressive pop production, a sincere delivery of the music, or some combination of the two. A live show lets you experience the music in its most expressive, genuine form alongside others in equal rapture. In this way, it’s no wonder that the most instructive tour on fan unity in 2013 was that of One Direction.