We’ve got days. We’ve got times. We’ve got it all! Now, it’s time to apply ETACLRS.
Austin City Limits schedules are set, and we’ll be at Weekend Two this year. As such, I decided to comb through the second-weekend lineups and rank each of the three days. If you’ve got prior commitments and have to punt a day, which is the one you shouldn’t miss?
I don’t just glance at the lineups and rank, though. See, that’s probably what a normal person would do — but freaks like me feel the need to come up with weighted rating systems for things like this. So for the first time ever, we’re applying the Ear Traffic ACL Rating System — catchy acronym ETACLRS, for short. Consider it kinda like a preaseason AP Top 25.
What I’ve done is this: I grouped each day’s most interesting acts in three categories: Headliners; Best Supporting Actors; and Intriguing Shows. I then scored each day in three categories, on a simple scale of 1 to 10 for each category. Each day’s score in the following categories is then weighted as follows:
Headliners (2 acts/day): 1.75
Best supporting actors (up to 9 acts/day): 1.25
Intriguing shows (also up to 9 per day): 1
Total possible score (17.5 +12.5 + 10) = 40
Two governing principles to this rating system: First, it’s set up so that headliners are important, but don’t make or break the day. Yeah, everybody wants to end the night with a spectacular show from somebody they love. But the true beauty of ACL has always been not the megastars at the top of the bill, but the depth of a lineup that has something for just about everyone. That’s why headliners count for the most weight, but not so much more that their impact outweighs a day full of music.
Second, I’m in a good mood as I write this, so I’m not downgrading these days for what I deem to be the absolute dregs of the lineup (i.e. negative points). So, Disturbed doesn’t drag down Saturday’s score. None of the DJ/EDM acts down the bill that don’t make me want to grab a glowstick (there are several) are factors, either.
Let’s dive in with our rankings. We’ll just go in chronological order while telling you each day’s rank up front:
Friday, Oct. 12 (Total score: 31.25 — Rank #2)
Headliners (8): Paul McCartney, Odesza
Best supporting actors (9): The National, Big Thief, Borns, Alvvays, Lily Allen, Manchester Orchestra, Jungle, Bishop Briggs
Intriguing shows (6): Brockhampton, Father John Misty, Khalid, The Coronas, David Byrne, Sir Sly, Natalie Prass, Duncan Fellows
Just to get us going here, let’s state something obvious: Popular music names don’t get much bigger than Paul McCartney. That he’ll take the stage at Zilker at the tender age of 76 shouldn’t be much of a mitigating factor. His live shows still have a sterling reputation among Beatles fans, and how many more times might you get a chance to see him at the top of a festival bill? Also, I’m now kind of curious to see if he’d play “In My Life” just to troll a bunch of mathematicians.
From the standpoint of complementary programming, scheduling Odesza as a co-headliner opposite Paul is fairly perfect. Fans of Odesza’s electronic indie-pop would probably tend not to be the most devoted of Beatlemaniacs, and thus are less likely to be crushed about having to choose between them and Paul. If it’s really a debate for you, I think you have to go with the legend. Odesza doesn’t do it for me, and anyway, they’ll be back.
The second tier here features strong depth. The National’s body of work is long enough and good enough to have potentially made them a defensible headliner. Canada’s Alvvays, stellar on record, is one of Friday’s best pure tune-writing bands, with “Archie, Marry Me,” “Adult Diversion” and “In Undertow” all ranking as indie-pop classics of recent vintage. London funk throwbacks Jungle have a strong live reputation and sound like they’d be a ton of fun. The gender-bending Borns impressed at ACL last year with a dark rock sound and commanding stage presence.
Back in their native Ireland, the Coronas have been consistent hitmakers, with some anthemic mainstream rock songs. Khalid, just 20, is one of the most “now” R&B singers around. Local-ish (San Marcos-originated) hip-hoppers Brockhampton are hit-and-miss. Summery and somewhat rootsy Austin indie rockers Duncan Fellows could be a good listen for a sunny afternoon. No idea what kind of performance to expect from David Byrne, but hearing a few Talking Heads classics could be a gratifying diversion from a festival lacking much that sounds like New Wave.
Saturday, Oct. 13 (Score: 27.25 — Rank #3)
Headliners (7): Metallica, Travis Scott
Best supporting actors (8): Chvrches, St. Vincent, Breeders, Wombats, Japanese Breakfast, Justice, Durand Jones and the Indications, Brandi Carlile, Wallows
Intriguing shows (5): Highly Suspect, Blood Orange, Marian Hill, Mon Laferte, Curtis Harding, Rhye, Verite, Donna Missal
Once again, we have phenomenal headliner cross-programming with Metallica and Travis Scott — old guard and new guard, old-school metal and new-school hip-hop. Saturday doesn’t lack for eclecticism, with indie, alt-rock, arty-alt-rock, DJ stuff, synth-pop, bluegrass and Latin pop. And the best of the non-headliners — your St. Vincents, Wombats, Durand Joneses and Chvrcheseses — stack up well against the other days’ non-headliners.
With that all out there, for me, this is the weakest day of the three. “Weakest day” is relative, of course; few will come away thinking they didn’t see enough solid music. But between aged metalheads and a trap king who doesn’t have the same flair for pop catchiness as some of his contemporaries (like Rae Sremmurd), these headliners are the least exciting. And there’s arguably an overdose on chill pop and R&B that may not grab you at a festival, unless you’re too stoned to move and want to stare at the sky. Marian Hill, Rhye, slenderbodies, and even Bazzi fit this category.
Headliners excepted, females and female-led bands provide most of the day’s anticipated punch. Chvrches has a good chance to deliver one of the most memorable performances of the day, as the big hooks of “Leave a Trace” and “The Mother We Share” offer the opportunity for moments that stick out. St. Vincent is still riding high off last year’s album, Masseduction, and is one of the most unique alternative guitarists out there. Chile’s Mon Laferte is a star in the Latin music world and could throw a party. Donna Missal’s voice can switch from sweet to powerful as needed. Durand Jones and the Indications preserve soul music close to its original state, helping to fill a void that Charles Bradley’s death last year left behind.
One act with a very high degree of commercial success only makes my “Intriguing” pile, but given the state of their genre, that’s an achievement. On a day that also includes a disturbing late addition to the lineup in Disturbed, Highly Suspect is a reminder that modern mainstream hard rock doesn’t have to be awful. Racking up hard-hitting, grunge-y top 10 hits over the past few years like “Lydia” and “My Name is Human,” Highly Suspect has some downright enjoyable rock moments in their catalogue (even if they might have a cringe-worthy moment or two, like recording a song called “Send Me an Angel”).
Sunday, Oct. 14 (Total score: 33.25 — Rank #1)
Headliners (9): Childish Gambino, Arctic Monkeys
Best supporting actors (10): Janelle Monae, Sylvan Esso, Houndmouth, Parquet Courts, Shakey Graves, Twin Shadow, Elle King, Thunderpussy
Intriguing shows (5): Twin Shadow, Ghost of Paul Revere, X Ambassadors, Mt. Joy, Vince Staples
And here, ETACLRS has crowned its winner: Sunday.
Much like Kendrick Lamar’s headlining set in 2016 (coming just a month before the election of Donald Trump), Childish Gambino’s set is the place where cultural relevance is most likely to take center stage. “This is America,” Donald Glover’s massive critical and chart hit, is probably hip-hop’s, if not music’s, most visible social statement of the year. It’s not in any way tuneful (unlike Gambino’s previous hit “Redbone”), but it effectively gets across its clipped, punkish-ly fragmented statements about what black Americans are dealing with these days (and the outstanding video does it even better). Glover has grown immensely as a musician, and seeing him perform now — particularly seeing what stage action he has planned for “This is America” — feels like a necessity.
Arctic Monkeys are one of the premier rock bands of this millennium. The caveats: The only other time I caught them live (in 2011) wasn’t particularly memorable, and their loony Vegas lounge act of a new album doesn’t have anything that anybody would want to rock out to live (although a stage treatment of “Four Out of Five” could turn out pretty cool). But assuming they don’t play Tranquility Base Hotel cover to cover, which is probably a safe bet, they should deliver the goods of more than a decade of work — everything from “Fake Tales of San Francisco” to “Fluorescent Adolescent” to “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High.”
For quality and diversity of music, it’s hard to ask much more of a Supporting Actors tier — so I’m not, awarding it a 10. Janelle Monae is a socially conscious and skilled R&B performer who seems to be hitting her peak. Rootsy punks Parquet Courts are another one of rock’s top bands of the moment and have been on my must-see list for several years. Same for Sylvan Esso, which for an electronic-oriented act brings pleasingly little frills — just Amelia Meath’s smooth, sweet vocals and Nick Sanborn’s beats. Shakey Graves is one of the few bigger-name locals not confined to Weekend One. And Seattle’s Thunderpussy play straight, heavy rock ‘n’ roll that stays in that sweet spot between metal and punk; they give you that car-radio rush without forgetting to be melodic. Also, their ongoing effort to get their naughty name trademarked (endorsed by a writer for Forbes) adds additional contextual interest.