Listen to Austin 360 Radio

The Roots are the best band in America. Period. Here’s why.

Patrick Caldwell
The Roots, led by co-founder Black Thought, have played many times in Austin, including the 2004 Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Take a long, hard look at the schedule of any major music festival, and amid all the gems and joys you’ll find sprinkled in a few injustices. The eleventh Austin City Limits Music Festival is no exception, but no crime is more major than this: The Roots aren’t a headliner.

On a deeply cynical level, that’s not a surprise. Despite their iron-solid reputation among critics, despite their legendary live shows, and despite their prominent pop-culture position as the house band for “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” the Roots have rarely topped the charts. Only two of their albums — 1999’s commercial breakthrough “Things Fall Apart” and its 2002 follow-up “Phrenology” — have even gone gold.

Still, the Roots’ accomplishments are legion. The mercurial hip-hop collective began in Philadelphia in 1987 as a high school collaboration between MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and drummer, bandleader, afro enthusiast and overall icon of cool Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. In the 25 ensuing years, the band’s released 10 albums — none less than great, with several masterpieces — and two collaborative records, with John Legend and Betty Wright. They’ve worked with a galaxy of talented musicians, from D’Angelo to Erykah Badu to Jay-Z to the Dirty Projectors to the Monsters of Folk. They’ve been stridently political in an era of controversy-shy popular music. And they’ve managed perhaps the most impossible feat of all: They’ve made a Jimmy Fallon talk show cool.

All of which brings me to this inevitable conclusion: In 2012, the Roots are the best band in America.

There are no caveats or half-measures in this: The Roots are not just the best hip-hop band in America. They are not the best black band, nor the best television band, nor the best live band, nor the best album band. They’re the best — the definite article.

That might be a bold claim, but when you stride over to the Bud Light stage to see the Roots perform during the waning daylight hours on Saturday night, consider the following argument: Because of the band’s extraordinary output, the immense musicianship of its players, and the incredible versatility that “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” allows them to demonstrate nightly, you’ll be witnessing the finest band this great country has to offer.

Argument No. 1: the Music

Any argument asserting that a band is the best in the land has to start with the music. All the other factors that make a group memorable are moot if the music doesn’t measure up.

And when it comes to the music, the longevity, consistency and variety of the Roots’ output is beyond impressive. That’s because, somewhat improbably, the Roots haven’t merely managed to stick to the creative heights their young selves reached with “Things Fall Apart.” They might actually be getting better.

This is uncommon in pop music, where age is almost universally inversely proportional to creative relevance. But the Roots’ albums are only growing leaner and meaner with time. Questlove’s beats continue to get more propulsive, and Black Thought spits rhymes every bit as powerful as anything he dreamed up in his 20s.

The Roots released their first album “Organix” — a jazzy alt-hip-hop effort — independently in 1993. Their output trended steadily upward through the introspective and seductively mellow “Do You Want More?” (1995) and “Illadelph Halflife” (1996), climaxing in “Things Fall Apart.” That album hit stratospheric highs with addictive dancer “The Next Movement” and the Erykah Badu-featuring torch song “You Got Me.”

“Things Fall Apart” could have been a hard act to follow, but the Roots returned with the expansive “Phrenology,” and the underrated “The Tipping Point,” a return to a smoother and more restrained style. Two dark, politically minded albums, “Game Theory” and “Rising Down,” followed in 2006 and 2008, loaded with inventive grooves and anchored by an angrier-and-sharper-than-ever Black Thought.

And then a funny thing happened — the Roots accepted an offer to become Jimmy Fallon’s house band. That could well have been a creative death knell, if only for the demands it placed on the group’s time. But the band’s first post-Fallon album, 2010’s “How I Got Over,” was a stunning success. On what other album can you find a Joanna Newsom sample, a guest appearance from the Dirty Projectors’ female vocalists, and verses from under-the-radar MCs ranging from Phonte to Blu? You have to go as far back as Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ the Times” to find a ninth album that good.

Clearly energized by the nightly excuse to play with artists of a thousand different stripes, they excelled again with 2011’s “Undun,” an introspective, thoughtful concept album. And then there are the band’s winning collaborations with John Legend (“Wake Up!”) and Betty Wright (“Betty Wright: The Movie”).

The summary of all this? Twelve albums into their career, the Roots have a higher quality-control threshold than ever. That’s no small feat.

Argument No. 2: the Musicianship

That kind of consistency is all the more impressive when you consider the band’s ever-fluctuating lineup.

Though Black Thought and Questlove have been there since the beginning, the rest of the Roots has shifted dramatically over the band’s 25 years, with a regularly rotating cast of other MCs, keyboard players, bass guitarists, and — in its current incarnation — even a dedicated sousaphone player, Damon “Tuba Gooding Jr.” Bryson.

But no matter who’s in the band at any given moment, you can always turn to the Roots for excellent musicianship, especially live, which is something of a rarity in the world of hip-hop. The Roots have high standards for their players, and present members such as guitarist Kirk Douglas and keyboard player Kamal Gray are as good, as focused and as skilled as anyone who’s ever played with the band.

That ever-changing cast of characters helps the Roots pull off one of the best live shows in the business — unpredictable, loud, and stacked with covers, solos, medleys and choice cuts from throughout the band’s long career. A typical Roots set bounds, booms and explores with the best of them; they’re as much raucous guided tours as they are concerts.

Argument No. 3: Positive TV

“Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” has given the band an opportunity unlike any other — and they’ve seized it

In 2008, when word leaked out that the Roots were set to become the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s new talk show, the reaction among music fans was nearly unanimous: “What?”

“The Roots? The Illadelph generals opening up for that stuttering mop-headed ball of suck, Jimmy Fallon? It’s kind of tragic,” wrote Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan in November 2008. “On one hand, we’ll get to see the Roots on TV every night; on the other hand, Black Thought opening for Jimmy Fallon every night is the cultural equivalent of Miles Davis playing his horn on the subway platform to back up a semi-trained dancing spider monkey.”

But over time, the combination of Fallon and the Roots won over even the most cynical of viewers. “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” emerged as the most musically adventurous show on TV, willing to devote an entire week to celebrating the Rolling Stone’s “Exile on Main Street;” providing the late-night debut of rising stars like Grimes and Frank Ocean; and giving Justin Timberlake and Fallon a platform to perform a medley of hip-hop’s greatest hits.

And far from providing the Roots with a reason to coast, the band stepped up to the plate. They provided stunning backing for musical guests ranging from the Beastie Boys to Weird Al to Paul Simon to Christopher Cross. And from day one, Fallon tightly integrated the Roots into the fabric of the show, into sketches and into some of the most hilarious comedic musical performances in television history. They helped Barack Obama slow-jam the news, in a recurring segment that’s also proved a surprisingly good showcase of Black Thought’s singing voice. They backed Stephen Colbert and Taylor Hicks in an astonishing rendition of Rebecca Black’s viral unpleasantry “Friday.” And alongside Horatio Sanz and the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, they brought a remarkable joy to a performance of Fallon’s “Saturday Night Live” classic “I Wish It Was Christmas Today.”

Not only has “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” brought the group into millions of homes and made them visible in a way few bands are, but it’s also made them better musicians and more expansive artists — after all, every album since they joined “Late Night” has found the Roots broadening their already wide-ranging sound.

You couldn’t possibly ask for a better showcase — and it couldn’t possibly have happened to a more qualified bunch of players.

The Roots play at 6 p.m. Saturday on the Austin Ventures Stage. Questlove is scheduled to do a DJ set later Saturday night at Beauty Ballroom.