2011 may technically be a thing of the past, but what’s a few more lists, right? I’ll begin the trio with my favorite shows of the year. This list is always the most fun to put together because unlike the best songs or best albums, the list of contenders is limited to the shows that I managed to catch.
There are so many factors that go into a good show: the crowd, the venue, the sound, the music, and even the stage banter and my mood. All too often, concerts leave me rather indifferent. Here are a handful of the shows that I won’t soon forget.
13. Timber Timbre + Angel Olsen – Glasslands, April 14th* Of course, we’ve already established that Angel Olsen is a delight, so seeing her open for Timber Timbre was a nice treat – especially on such a small stage! For the late night show, Glasslands underwent a dramatic transformation. Usually whimsical and cozy, for Timber Timbre’s set, the venue transformed into an eerie, lantern-bedecked cavern, which mirrored the Canadian group’s spooky blues sound perfectly.
12. Lykke Li + Grimes – Webster Hall, May 18th* Maybe it was the sheer spectacle of Lykke Li dancing and prancing on stage or her amazing charisma – whatever the case, this was a solid show (even if Li’s album, Wounded Rhymes, didn’t hold up for me). Of course it didn’t hurt that Grimes, “the sound of the future” according to one music fan I spoke to, held the opening slot. These women will challenge even the most aloof hipster to get down.
Lykke Li (Photo Chris Jobling)
11. M83 + Active Child – Music Hall of Williamsburg, November 23rd* From Anthony Gonzalez’s introductory yelp (“Carry on! Carry on!”), M83 was an unstoppable force. They exuded confidence and competence in equal measure – a rare feat these days.
10. Bon Iver + The Rosebuds – United Palace Theatre, August 9th* I don’t expect Bon Iver’s 2011 release to make the cut for best albums, but there’s no denying it – that man’s voice could cure a cripple, enough so that I was even willing to give that ridiculous saxophone solo a pass.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Photo Renee)
9. Mount Eerie + Wyrd Visions – St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, June 19th* (Northside Fest)
Northside Fest brought some great artists to town in June, Mount Eerie, and this show was the highlight for me. Given the reverence lavished upon Phil Elverum by his fans (I turned into a giggling mess at the merch booth myself when I finally got my hands on The Glow, pt. 2 on vinyl), it only seemed right to watch the show from church pews. (Much love for Wyrd Visions, too!)
8. St. Vincent with Cate le Bon – Webster Hall, November 3rd* Perhaps one of the most flawless and powerful performances I saw all year – Annie Clark brings it.
St. Vincent (Photo Guus Krol)
7. Feist + Mountain Men – Church of the Intercession, October 3rd*
This show was certainly a surprise – for me and the hundred or so others in attendance. It’s not often you find yourself at a crypt in Harlem – especially with an orchestra, Leslie Feist, and the lovely women of Mountain Man. Definitely a treat.
Feist (Photo Jill Mapes)
6. Sea of Bees – Rockwood Music Hall (stage 2), October 21st(CMJ)
Good God, Jules Baeziger left me breathless with this one. In the midst of all the prefab beats, glitz, glitch, and hype that comes with CMJ, an intimate Sea of Bees set was just what I needed. I think I cried at this one. Multiple times. So good.
5. PJ Harvey – Terminal 5, April 19th* Yes, it was Terminal 5, but come on. We’re talking PJ Harvey here. I could hardly believe I was in the same room as her, let alone listening to her play from my perch in the VIP balcony. Cat Power may have been a bust last year, but PJ Harvey? Untouchable.
PJ Harvey (Photo Il Fatto Quotidiano)
4. Austra – Emo’s, March 17th (SXSW) I definitely didn’t know when I was getting into when I stepped into the Domino showcase at Emo’s last spring. With SXSW, it’s always a temptation to dart from show to show, but Austra definitely caught my eye, and I think you’ll see why…
3. Sufjan Stevens + Diamond Rings – Prospect Park, August 3rd*
Despite the fact that rain poured down on us for upwards of three hours, the mood at the park was ecstatic. Swirling neons, giant blow-up men, quick choreography, ridiculous costume changes, Kat Martino’s solo, and beach balls were just a few of the things that made this show pop. Epic in every sense of the word – and worth every drop of rain.
Sufjan Stevens (Photo Jon Uleis)
2. John Maus – 285 Kent, October 19th* (CMJ) Stepping into this show (another Domino showcase) felt like stepping back in time when music still mattered enough to make you forget everything else and embrace the moment in all its sweaty, smokey glory. Like a cult leader, Maus writhed and shook on stage with fervor as the music swept over the room of his unquestioning followers. Magic.
John Maus (Photo Stephan CK)
1. Laura Marling – Audio Visual Arts Gallery, September 28th*
A private song with Laura Marling? Hands down my favorite music moment of the year.
Picture me and Laura sitting in this room (Photo RK)
It was a week of emotional highs and lows. Two of my most-anticipated shows of the summer happened: Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. At a glance, the two artists don’t seem to have a lot in common other than being at the top of the indie game. But the more I thought about them, the more I began to see similarities.
Both The Age of Adz and Bon Iver Bon Iver are clearly more ambitious albums than their predecessors. Each invoke a bigger, more expansive sound, whether through an added network of noise and effects or simply due to the addition of brass and manpower. With his song titles spanning various geographical locations (many tied to a single state: Wisconsin), Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has even made an album that seems to pick up on the whole 50 states project where Sufjan left off.
And yet, the shows could hardly have been more different in feel. Where Sufjan’s show at Prospect Park last Wednesday was an absurd display of glow-in-the-dark tape, trippy projections, giant inflatable men (the kind you see waving back and forth at used car lots), and costume changes; Bon Iver’s show was full of restraint, by comparison. What they did have in common was an air of desperate yearning to their performance – the kind that makes for a compelling and convincing show.
Take a listen to some clips.
First, Bon Iver from his show at the United Palace Theatre on August 9th. (Full review here on Brooklyn Vegan.)
A recent Bon Iver show (photo Steven Worster)
Ok. I admit I’m still not into the smooth jazz of “Beth/Rest” from the new album, but as a few people have pointed out to me, I do believe that Vernon is, so I’m willing to indulge him a bit. I’m definitely glad I got to see the indoor show though. I know he started off making music in a cabin, but somehow, gilded interiors and red velvet seats just seem fitting.
“The Wolves (Act I and II)”
Overheard on the train after the show:
Guy: I noticed you didn’t cry at all…
Girl: That’s because I have no feelings. Guy: Oh, yeah. I forgot you’re actually a robot.
Girl: I could totally dance you under the table though.
Now… Sufjan. I saw his second show at Prospect Park last week on August 3rd. (Full review here on Brooklyn Vegan.)
For a while, I was a bit annoyed the weather hadn’t co-operated. But by the end of the 2-hour+ set, I no longer cared that I was soaking wet. As a testimony to the crowd’s dedication, all umbrellas were lowered when Sufjan started, but at least where I was standing, no one budged from their rain-soaked spots for the whole show. I fell in love with Sufjan through Seven Swans, but you know what? I didn’t even miss the earlier material. (ok, so hearing “The Transfiguration” or *gasp* “Sister” would have been awesome, but I have to say, I’m down with The Age of Adz. The more I listen to it, the more I want to listen to it.)
Sufjan Stevens at Prospect Park (photo Jon Uleis)
Was the show perfect? Well no. (You try singing through a mass of balloons after you’ve been dancing for two hours non-stop.)
But it was certainly wild and glorious.
Here are some clips from the show. Listen out for the lovely Cat Martino and DM Stith who contribute vox on a number of the songs.
Oy vey! This should not have taken so long to put together.I apologize for the tardiness of this list. The truth is I really struggled to put it together. 2010 was consumed by rampant concert-going and reviewing to such an extent that I didn’t have much time for experiencing music in its more packaged and produced form: the album. Thus, every time I started working on compiling this list, I found myself thinking of more albums I hadn’t ever gotten around to. As a result, much of the past month was spent playing catch-up. Without further ado, here are the results.
1. The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty)
The Age of Adz opens with the deceptively calming and methodical “Futile Devices” – almost as if nothing had changed since the gentle days of Greetings from Michigan. Of course, it isn’t long before things start to get a little… strange. In an interview with WNYC’s John Schaefer back in the fall of 2009, Sufjan talked about his new project, saying, “Well I’m not interested really in a collection of songs in an album, but what if the song itself is the album.” The Age of Adz is a fascinating, experimental adventure – far more experimental than much of the music that typically falls under that tired tag. Yes, it is bombastic and wildly ambitious. Yes, it was met by much flak when it was suddenly released – especially on the heals of the mild and beautiful EP All Delighted People. But sometimes, it’s the art that takes the most risks and is the most divisive that is most worth a look. Take it or leave it, love it or hate it. Gather ’round. This is the age of Adz. Let the flutes flutter, the guitar sound out triumphantly, and the back-up singers belt it out and dance with glee.
Sufjan Stevens, “Age of Adz” clip:
As you will no doubt notice, observant reader, there is a significant gap in my list here. What happened to albums 2-3? You may be thinking to yourself. Well for me, the year’s number one album was obvious… so obvious that the next few had me stumped. Nothing seemed to make enough of an impression to warrant a position so close to The Age of Adz, simple as that. Please don’t interpret the gap as a cop-out. Instead, it is a powerful statement about my feelings of the year in music and my love of my top album. It’s true, I didn’t think it was the most impressive year as far as the album goes, but in this gap, it’s important to note that there is also hope. Every year, I struggle with my limitations. I’m simply not able to hear and synthesize enough albums. In 2010, some of my favorite albums of the year (DM Stith’s Heavy Ghost, Silje Nes’ Ames Room, and Holy Sons’ Decline of the West) are from previous years. I like to think that perhaps I just haven’t yet discovered my other favorites of the year.
4. Go – Jónsi (XL)
Thanks to my early love for Sigur Rós, I have long been captivated by Jón Þór Birgisson’s heavenly voice. But with many of his band members taking a musical hiatus to have kids, Birgisson had a little extra time on his hands and Jónsi was born. From the moment I saw the strange but gorgeous video for “Go Do,” I eagerly awaited more. Go is positively radiant – a celestial kaleidoscope of sound. One of my biggest regrets of the year was missing him in concert. Apparently, it was a sight to behold. (Luckily, you can at least listen to his show at the 9:30 Club, thanks to the folks at NPR Music.)
Jónsi, “Go Do” clip:
5. Halcyon Digest – Deerhunter (4AD)
I was tempted to throw Atlas Sound’s Bedroom Databank on the list, but though the impromptu collection contains an intimate collection of hushed and deeply confessional lo-fi songs, Halcyon Digest is clearly the more cohesive and consistent release. Bradford Cox’s songs may often be grim, but somehow, Halcyon Digest seems – dare I say it? – upbeat… even when the lyrics cover things like perpetual darkness and abandonment. Halycon, indeed.
Deerhunter, “Don’t Cry” clip:
6. High Violet – The National (4AD)
Yes, sometimes Matt Berninger whines on this album. Yes, it may have taken me longer than it should have to get into it. But despite these caveats, High Violet remains one of the most impressive outputs of the year. The instrumentation is full-bodied and complex and the lyrics are brimming with highly evocative one-liners. (I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees sounds almost mythological, and a game of nuns versus priests sounds both comical and terrifying.) Absent of any obvious stand-out tracks, High Violet is also truly an album to be digested in its entirety.
The National, “Anyone’s Ghost” clip:
7. Cloak and Cipher – Land of Talk (Saddle Creek)
At casual listen, Lizzie Powell has the kind of smooth, innocuous vocals characteristic of an artist found on the adult easy-listening channel, but don’t let that fool you. From seeing Land of Talk perform twice this past year, I know the woman to be a powerful force, and her lyrics are some of the most powerful I’ve heard all year.
Land of Talk, “Color Me Badd” clip:
8. I Speak Because I Can – Laura Marling (Astralwerks)
Interestingly, this album was not initially on my list. Besides “Hope in the Air,” there just weren’t any tracks as good as “Ghosts,” “My Manic and I,” or “Crawled Out of the Sea.” But then I got to thinking… Alas I Cannot Swim is perhaps one of my favorite albums in the last five years. So what if I Speak Because I Can didn’t top it. The truth of the matter is that any Laura Marling album is going to be better than average. Everything from the title of this album to the tone reveals a more confident and mature Marling. Maybe there aren’t (m)any tracks I would listen to on repeat as I did with her previous material, but it remains a solid album. I eagerly await what comes next.
Laura Marling, “Hope in the Air” clip:
9. All Alone In An Empty House – Lost in the Trees (Anti)
When I first saw Lost in the Trees open for Efterklang in the spring of 2008, my friend and I were so impressed and moved by the haunting melodies that we each bought an album – a rarity for us spoiled college radio kids. For front man Ari Picker, making and playing music is a deeply moving and cathartic experience. At a recent show at the Mercury Lounge, he said, “I started listening to classical music in 2005. It was an interesting experience. I started getting a feeling like I was in church or something. It was a mind-opening experience.” Like the band’s older catalog, All Alone in an Empty House is delightfully gothic and brimming with intensity.
Lost in the Trees, “All Alone in an Empty” clip:
10. Love Remains – How To Dress Well (Lefse)
Reminiscent a bit of Bon Iver, How To Dress Well is a hazy, melodic collection of songs that seem to be made for the cold, dark days of winter. Love Remains is a complex and intriguing synthesis of bedroom music, 90s R & B, and fuzzed out, heavily distorted electronica – all accompanied by Tom Krell’s piercing falsetto. The songs flow from one to the next with ease and create a haunting and hazy tableau of sound.
How To Dress Well, “Can’t See My Own Face” clip:
11. Made in the Harbor – Mountain Man (Partisan)
For the first few times I saw the name Mountain Man floating around, I was quick to dismiss the band. Haven’t I heard this before? I thought to myself. But this isn’t Man Man, Young Man, Black Mountain, or the Pink Mountaintops. There isn’t even a man on the album. Instead, three lovely ladies team up to create Appalachian folk-inspired ditties, full of three-part harmonies, sparse instrumentation, and a lot of heart, and the result is captivating.
Mountain Man, “Animal Tracks” clip:
12. The Calcination of Scout Niblett – Scout Niblett (Drag City)
Simultaneously abrasive and demure – Scout Niblett is an enigmatic figure and a compelling songwriter. Her music is marked by furious highs and delicate lows, and she navigates between the two like a restless, overenthusiastic child choosing between new toys on Christmas. Fitting for its heavy sound, The Calcination of Scout Niblett dropped back in January, and as the colder days set in once again, I find myself listening to it with increased frequency and fervor.
Scout Niblett, “The Calcination of Scout Niblett” clip:
13. Magic Central – Breathe Owl Breathe (Hometapes)
I had this album for a couple of months before I finally got around to listening to it. Big mistake. I adored the group’s earlier material for its warmth and down-to-earth simplicity like a little kid loves his blanket. Now, with Magic Central, the sound is more expansive, but the content remains charming familiar. In his characteristic rich and relaxed tenor, front man Micah Middaugh sings of everything from the benign, everyday (an errant mustache) to bigger, heavier topics (like how to forget a former love). As the story goes, the Michigan-based group retreated to a cabin in the woods cabin to soak up the sun and play some music. The formula may be a bit hackneyed now, but the end result is no lessworthy.
Breathe Owl Breathe, “Dragon” clip:
14. Write About Love – Belle & Sebastian (Matador)
After some five years of waiting, I anxiously awaited the release of Write About Love. I spent a lot of time with Belle & Sebastian over the years. A lot. After such a long hiatus, would they be able to retain the glow of previous releases like The Boy with the Arab Strap, If You’re Feeling Sinister, or Fold Your Hands, Child You Walk Like a Peasant? Sure, Write About Love may not glisten, but it certainly still has its moments.
Belle & Sebastian, “Come On Sister” clip:
15. I See the Sign – Sam Amidon (Bedroom Community)
Sam Amidon may seem like something of an odd choice for the list. After all, the man doesn’t even write his own songs… well not exactly. Instead, he adopts and adapts old folk and gospel songs (and even the occasional cover) and makes them his own. Amidon’s fast finger-plucking skills and rich, well-weathered voice combine delightfully in I See the Sign. Though the lyrics may not be his own, each song readily evokes a story. Everything from stubborn damsels to matricide, and a wayward son populate the album.
Sam Amidon, “You Better Mind” clip:
Honorable Mentions go to:
Allo Darlin’ – s/t (Fortuna POP) The sunny, upbeat stylings of this Australian pop group are likely to get stuck in your head for hours on end.
Allo Darlin’, “Dreaming” clip:
Broken Bells – s/t (Columbia) ‘Super’ precedes ‘group’ for a reason. Take exhibit A, Broken Bells – the work of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse).
Broken Bells, “Vaporize” clip:
Efterklang – Magic Chairs (4 AD) Efterklang is a great live act, and I like the first few songs of Magic Chairs, but for whatever reason, I never seem to get beyond the first 3 or 4 tracks before giving up.
Efterklang, “Alike” clip:
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (Barsuk) Mesmerizing and quixotic songs couple well with Sarah Barthel’s equally intoxicating vocals.
Phantogram, “When I’m Small” clip:
Perfume Genius – Learning (Matador) In all honesty, I have yet to obtain Learning in its entirety, but I’m digging what I have heard of Mike Hadreas’ docile, heartfelt songs.
Perfume Genius, “Learning” clip:
Glaringly and intentionally absent:
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Merge) When Funeral came out in 2004, I remember thinking that it was a big moment in indie music history, but for whatever reason, I have still never been able to get into this band. I’m sorry.
Beach House – Teen Dream (Sub Pop) I loved Devotion as much as the next guy, but despite my fierce desire to get behind this album, I simply can’t handle how raspy Victoria Legrand’s voice has become.
Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (Glass Note) In my book, Fanfarlo, Noah and the Whale, and Laura Marling all deserve more praise than their British folk contemporaries, Mumford & Sons. For what it is, the presentation is just too gruff for me, and the intensity seems artificially heightened.
Before I actually set out to make this list, I thought it would be a piece of cake, but once I actually sat down with my i Tunes, I realized that many of my favorite tracks of the year technically came out last year. (1)
That said, there were a few tracks that stood out.
“Marathon” by Tennis
I was so tempted to pick “South Carolina” over “Marathon” since it is my home state, but I have to say, I think “Marathon” takes the cake – blame the carefree chorus. I love the contrast between the more understated verses and the exuberantly buoyant chorus. ↓
“Heart in Your Heartache” by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart This single dropped a couple of weeks ago – just in time. After falling in love with this band in 2009, I craved more candy-coated distortion. ↓
“When I’m Small” by Phantogram
Phantogram’s two chief members may have recorded much of the album in a barn in rural New York, but don’t let that fool you. The music is anything but campy. Sarah Barthel’s vocals are positively intoxicating. I’m especially fond of the breakdown in the middle. ↓
Of course, there’s something to be said for an eye-catching music video to accompany a deserving song. Regretfully, the previous few songs never seemed to officially be turned into music videos, but then you’ve also got these gems:
“Dreamin’” by Allo Darlin’ If you know me, you probably know I have a bit of a weakness for a good male/female duet. I love the stripped down simplicity of this song. It just seems so honest. ↓
“Gnomes” by Sea of Bees When I figure out what this song reminds me of, you’ll be the first to know. As far as I know, I heard it for the first time just this week (courtesy of Robin Hilton’s best of list on NPR Music). But I feel like I’ve known it for years. I could listen to this song on repeat for days. ↓
“Undertow” by Warpaint What started out as a cover song of Nirvana’s “Polly,” eventually turned into “Undertow” at the hands of the LA 4-piece. Perhaps due to its origin, the song seemed simultaneously fresh and familiar . Ah, Warpaint, the all-girl band that is so much more than a fem heap of X chromosomes. How I enjoy this song. ↓
“I Want the World to Stop” by Belle & Sebastian I think most people were disappointed by Write About Love. The stakes were high. It had been five years since the release of their last album, after all. But you know what? I’m defending this infectious little song, and I dare you to hear it and disagree. ↓
“Go Do” by Jónsi How could I forget this song and it’s beautiful accompanying video? Much of the music I listen to is downtrodden, moody, and/or lo-fi. Enter Jónsi. Enter hope – brilliant, brilliant hope. ↓
“Heaven Can Wait” by Charlotte Gainsbourg She may have been hugely disappointing live, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was addicted to this song when I first heard it early in the year – of course it doesn’t hurt that Beck produced and sang in it. It’s as catchy as any pop song can be, but it’s also wonderfully understated. Then there’s the beautiful oddball surrealist music video. I especially love the tennis shots with the timing of the bouncing.
One commenter on YouTube stated, “Kanye, I’m gonna let you finish, but Charlotte Gainsbourg had the best music video of 2010!” And I have to say I’m inclined to agree. ↓
I’m starting with this list because it is perhaps the easiest to compile. More to come.
There are 19 here. Deal with it. They’re also in descending order, for dramatic effect.
(The asterisks link to the appropriate show review.)
19. Warpaint – Music Hall of Williamsburg, December 2nd*
This was another surprise. Though I had heard the name Warpaint thrown around for a few months, I knew little about them going into the show, but they had me bewitched with their alternating vocals and mesmerizing minimalism.
18. Seabear – Mercury Lounge, March 25th*
I really can’t get enough of these quaint Icelandic bands, homespun sweaters and all. The harmonies and the impressive range of instruments in this large band leave me with an extra spring in my step. I want to get inducted into their family. You don’t think they’d notice if I joined in, do you? Maybe I could play the tambourine… or just pretend to sing.
Seabear (Photo Thomas Helbig)
17. Land of Talk – Bowery Ballroom, November 6th * I really loved this album – the lyrics especially, so seeing Land of Talk this past November was a real treat.
16. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Cairo Gang, The Babblers – Town Hall, December 8th*
Surprisingly, this was my first time seeing B’P'B. It was a long time coming. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, however, was The Babblers – yet another of Will Oldham’s special projects, featuring the irresistible Angel Olsen on vox.
15. tUnE-yArDs – The Bell House, February 5th * With her wild gaze and tribal-influenced songs, Merril Garbus is a force to behold. From what I heard, she stole the show from the Dirty Projectors when she opened for them. Somehow, that doesn’t at all surprise me.
tUnE-yArDs (Photo Jessica Amaya)
14. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Mercury Lounge, October 14th* (an interview with Owen)
I’ve seen Owen more times than nearly everyone else (3 or 4 times this year alone), and every time is a treat. This show was an extra treat because it was one of his last performances as CFTPA… ever! (I also attended his last NY show the next night, but the Brooklyn Masonic Temple was not the right environment, and too many people were there to see the other bands on the bill – ahem, Dan Deacon and Lightning Bolt). What a sweet man. I look forward to hearing his next musical project.
13. Scout Niblett and Holy Sons – The Mercury Lounge, October 6th*
After the disastrous Cat Power-esque performance in 2007, I’m certainly glad I gave you another chance, Scout (aka Emma). I love how raw her voice is and how she effortlessly shifts in tone from the sweet, innocent girl to the big bad wolf. Though I had never heard of them prior to the show, Holy Sons wowed me so much that I left with two albums.
Scout Niblett (Ian Crowther)
12. Lost in the Trees – The Mercury Lounge, August 23rd *
These guys from North Carolina are every bit as mesmerizing now as when I first saw them in 2008. Their moody orchestral arrangements and haunting lyrics make me shiver every time.
11. The Blow – Glasslands Gallery, May 13th*
Oh, Khaela. Your banter about the lost album with the unnamed starlet (Lindsey Lohan) may not be true, but it makes for quite an entertaining schtick. I love her beautiful, awkward stage presence and the candidness of her songs.
The Blow (Photo Devyn Manibo)
10. Beirut – Music Hall of Williamsburg, July 5th*
The man has French horn tattoos. Enough said.
9. Belle & Sebastian – The Williamsburg Waterfront, September 20th*
This was perhaps my most anticipated show of the year. I’ve spent countless hours listening to Belle & Sebastian. They were just one of those formative bands for me. Too bad it took me like 6 years to actually see them. The show was good, and the band was charming. Sadly, it just never could have lived up to my expectations.
Belle & Sebastian (Photo Amanda Hatfield)
8. CocoRosie – Music Hall of Williamsburg, September 15th*
This was kind of the wild card of the year. I wasn’t sure if I’d want to storm out of the room or take the sisters home with me. The latter was more accurate. I was pretty much speechless by the end of the night.
7. Andrew Bird – The Guggenheim, August 5th*
Andrew Bird… at the Guggenheim. The set-up alone is drool-worthy. Then there was the ‘forest floor of horns’ and the multi-level rotunda, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Andrew Bird (Photo Macey Foronda)
6. The National – Radio City Music Hall – June 16th*
I’d say I preferred their show at the Bell House or BAM earlier in the year (whoa, I saw them 4 times)… except for the fact that this was the show when Matt Berninger left the stage, climbed over the seats in my aisle, and landed in mine. The feeling of his hand on my shoulder as he steadied himself and the knowledge that I could have easily reached across the three-inch divide and caressed his cheek, are almost too much to handle.
5. DM Stith + Silje Nes + Inlets – Littlefield, June 13th*
Again, a fantastic line-up and a small, intimate show (with seats!). This was my first encounter with the Norwegian beauty Silje Nes, and I hope to see her many more times. And David Michael, might we go on a picnic sometime?
4. Laura Marling – Le Poisson Rouge, February 12th*
I love this girl… even if her songs strongly suggest that she doesn’t believe in the emotion. She is miles in front of her British contemporaries (Noah and the Whale, Fanfarlo, Mumford and Sons). Laura, I foolishly invite you to ditch Marcus and trample on my heart instead.
Laura Marling (Photo kDamo)
3. Efterklang + Sam Amidon + Daniel Bjarnason – Le Poisson Rouge, March 3rd*
I loved each of these acts individually. Together, they made for one of the most memorable shows of the year. What a talented array of musicians. Even though shows at LPR can be a bummer due to the pesky 2-item minimum at tables, I’d gladly hulk in the corner for you any day, Sam.
2. Atlas Sound – The Bell House, February 3rd*
Remember when the Bell House consistently hosted great musicians? I really hope these winter shows become an annual tradition as Bradford hinted a couple of weeks ago. I love Deerhunter, but I feel like Bradford would be dead without Atlas Sound to channel his surfeit of creative energy. Wonderful, heartfelt show – a nice contrast to the cold, dark February night.
1. Sufjan Stevens + DM Stith – Beacon Theatre, November 14th *
How could this not be the best show of the year? One minute I was dancing and laughing with glee and a few songs later, I was silently sobbing. Simply amazing.
After an extended period of silence, Sufjan fans have had numerous reasons to celebrate this year (what with the EP, full-length, and subsequent tour), and 2011 is looking good, too.
I love The Age of Adz, don’t get me wrong, but I think my favorite album still has to be Seven Swans in all its erratic splendor, and this March the blog On Joyful Wings is slated to release a tribute album. And, well… with 15 different artists contributing a song each, the redux may just get even more colorful and unpredictable.
Seven Swans (tint added for effect)
Seven Swans Reimagined Track List:
1. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”
2. The Gregory Brothers – “The Dress Looks Nice on You”
3. Derek Webb – “In the Devil’s Territory”
4 Joshua James – “To Be Alone With You”
5. Damion Suomi – “Abraham”
6. Unwed Sailor – “Sister”
7. Wakey!Wakey! – “Size Too Small”
8. Elin Smith – “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand”
9. DM Stith – “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
10. Half-Handed Cloud – “He Woke Me Up Again”
11. Carl Hauck – “Seven Swans”
12. David Crowder Band – “The Transfiguration”
13. Jason Harrod – “I Went Dancing With My Sister” (B-side)
14. Shannon Stephens – “Waste of What Your Kids Won’t Have” (B-side)
15. Inlets- “Borderline” (B-side)
Ok, ok. So technically this little project isn’t exactly coming from the heart and mind of Sufjan himself, but it should still be worth a listen. Oh yeah, and did I mention it’s for a good cause? All the proceeds will benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. March 22nd. Mark your calendars.
Question: What do you get when you combine “Avatar with Cats on Ice?”
Answer: the best show of the year.
Sufjan at the Beacon Theatre (Photo Tammy Lo)
Sufjan Stevens and company played for an amazing 2 hours and 13 minutes. (For those counting, that’s longer than it took Gebre Gebremariam to complete the New York Marathon last week, and it seemed every bit as epic and exhausting. By the third song (and the third upper body costume change), Sufjan was already wiping the sweat from his brow. That shiny silver (looks like insulation) jacket couldn’t have helped matters. Sufjan could have easily relied on his three lovely female back-up singers (including the lovely Cat Martino who typically lends her talents to Sharon Van Etten) to the dancing, but he couldn’t help but participate in the over-the-top choreographed moves.
Sufjan and back-up singers/dancers (Photo Tammy Lo)
From the comfort of my fourth row seat, I may not have had the chance to dance along myself, but my lack of movement in no way hindered my appreciation of the show. My heart was beating more quickly than it would have had I just run five miles.
From his childhood fear of vertigo to his theories of physics and his impressions of one enthralling – perhaps crazy – artist(1), Sufjan’s banter took some odd turns, but his frenzied mid-set confessions and analyses fit in well with the chaotic nature of his new material. This is not music for the faint of heart. It’s worth noting that Sufjan didn’t play a single song from the beautifully subdued album Greetings from Lake Michigan. With as many as thirteen people surrounding him on stage (including the excellent opener DM Stith on piano), the show featured nearly all new songs, with just a couple of older songs thrown in at the beginning and end of his set and encore.
Easily the best example of Sufjan’s new music is the truly epic, 25-minute song “Impossible Soul,” which apparently the crew plays every night. Sufjan joked that the song was therapeutic for the band (2), and it’s easy to see why. The peaceful, melodic introduction soon spirals into controlled chaos as the tension builds. And yes, you heard right. This is when the auto-tune comes in.
It was “Impossible Soul” that finally motivated the crowd to get to their feet and actually start dancing… cue the confetti cannons and later, the canopy of multi-colored balloons. With the balloons rising and falling throughout the orchestra section of the beautiful historic venue during “Chicago,” I felt as if we were living in a rainbow snow globe. The magical scene had the audience actually laughing with pure, childlike glee.
Take a listen to a little mash-up of “Impossible Soul” (with Cat Martino on vox)… followed by “Chicago.”
Of course, being that this was a therapy session, Sufjan followed up this amazing high with a few weepies – “Casimir Pulaski Day” (which makes me cry every time), “To Be Alone With You,” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” From ridiculous dance moves to songs about serial killers in just a few minutes. Now that’s what I call therapy. The range of emotions I felt over the course of the two+ hour show was simply amazing. Remember when music actually made you feel? Remember how nice that was? Yes.
Beacon Theatre, a kaleidoscope of colors, a ball pit of energy (photo Chris Robinson)
Age of Adz
Now That I’m Older
Get Real Get Right
Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, IL
Casimir Pulaski Day
To Be Alone With You
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
(1) Sufjan explains the “attractive insanity” of the eccentric artist from Louisiana who inspired much of his new experimental music
It’s been over four years now since the ever-elusive and enigmatic Sufjan Stevens released Illinoise. Four years. Sure, news of this fellow has cropped up a few times in his long hiatus. There was the jumbo Christmas package in 2006. And then in 2007, the story with the song-writing contest in which one man – Alec Duffy – won the rights to a single Sufjan Stevens song and held private listening sessions to slowly and intimately unveil it instead of just releasing it on the Internet. (1) Then, of course, Sufjan recently contributed to the Dark Was the Night compilation album. By and large, however, not much has come to pass.
Once an avid Sufjan fan myself (2), I worry how my weary ears would react to his shtick now. Will he still be endearing, heartbreaking, and oddly uplifting or will my overexposure to all things quirky and twee in the last four years be his downfall? (3)
But… if you still have hope (and I hope you do), then fear not, intrepid Sufjan follower. The man is on the move once again. In October, his BQE project will be released, and just today, a mini tour was announced. Oh yeah, and he’s apparently also re-working the songs in Enjoy Your Rabbit for kicks and giggles.
Sufjan performing in Chapel Hill, NC circa fall 2006 (photo: Sanders Hall)
I’m not sure what tricks this chameleon has up his sleeve this time. Heck, I’m not even sure what songs he will play at his shows, but one thing is for sure: I hope I can score a ticket to one of his two Music Hall of Williamsburg shows before they sell out. Tickets reportedly go on sale on Saturday. I think we’re in for a surprise.
(1) You can read about one of the listening sessions in this article in the Village Voice here.
(2) I fell in love with Seven Swans in college.
(3) I saw Paper Heart today, by the way. I know, I know. You would think (500) Days of Summer would have more than satisfied my twee need.
"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."
- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being