Sunday, January 16, 2011

My top ten live performers for 2010

In honor and anticipation of the incoming Coachella lineup (and all the other ones that will soon follow) I felt it was time to write this. There are a million best of lists for albums and movies of the year, but I thought I'd offer my take on something I'm more of an expert in. I'm not as on top of the hot albums and arty films as I used to be, but I never miss a good show when possible. So, in no particular order I present my top ten live performers for 2010:

1. Jay-Z
I have always liked Jay-Z's music but I've never been a diehard fan. His production often outshines his lyrics and his flow is good but far from great. But damn he knows how to put on a show. He might be one of the greatest "solo" artists I have ever seen. I've seen dozens of hip-hop shows over the years and in many ways they are the hardest to pull up. When it's just one guy and some beats to get the crowd going everything falls on that one individual's lyrical and performance talent. This is where Jigga shines. His energy is palatable, and no entertainer that I have seen has made the crowd feel more welcome. He seems truly thrilled to be there, and you can bet everyone else was too.

Bonnaroo 2010, Saturday headlining act. 70,000 people in attendance. And miraculously me and my friends made it into the pit, not more than 10 people in between us and the man himself. I had seen Jay-Z 2 years previous in Miami but as soon as he took the stage I knew this would be even crazier. He was backed up by a full band who rocked tight with him all the way, and once the show began he never let up. Obviously with only 90 or so minutes there were some classic songs that didn't make the cut and others you wished hadn't ("Encore" anyone?). But it really didn't matter. Absolutely incredible.

2. Orbital
In some ways I feel more privileged to have seen Orbital this year than anyone on this list. That may seem crazy given some of the heavy-hitters at the end, but much of that comes from the fact that they had been on a touring hiatus for about 6 years, and regardless hardly ever played in the states. For those who don't know Orbital are seminal figures in electronic music and performance, responsible for some of the most legendary performances ever at Glastonbury where they became staples. They put TO SHAME almost all DJ's on the scene now. That is because they aren't DJ's at all, they are musicians. Their music, while classified as electronica, is just as composed and calculated as the best works from any artists. In Sides and the Brown album are classics, beautiful and haunting with hardly a human voice to be heard save for some samples here and there. Enough about their records though, onto the performances.

I saw the same show twice from Orbital, both were different but equally amazing experiences. First was at Ultra, an almost entirely electronic music festival in Miami. Sadly large portions of the audiences at Ultra don't know shit about electronic music and so Oribital's first performance in the states in over 6 years was woefully under-attended as compared to Deadmau5 and the like. But no matter, I was able to get a spot about 6 people deep with some of my best friends on the planet. And once the music started it was pure ecstasy. Sure you could be chemically enhanced for such a show, but for Orbital it's not even necessary. Behind their huge rigs of keyboards and sequencers the brothers Hartnoll bounce around while always keeping the music moving. Their melodies are beautiful and the beats divine, they rank right up there with Daft Punk, Underworld, and Simian Mobile Disco as some of the best electronic performers I have ever seen.

Which is why I am so lucky to have seen their show at Coachella as well. Now here is a crowd that appreciates the masters, although with no notable electronic alternative on at the time some may have been forced to check them out. But I'm sure they were convinced. The soundsystem in the massive sahara tent did their sound justice that almost no place in the world could, and the crowd was so into it. They played for 60 minutes of pretty much non-stop feel-good music, and even converted several in the group who were largely unfamiliar. Respect the masters I always say, and Orbital are no less than masters of their craft. Amazing.

3. Fever Ray
Fever Ray is a group steeped in mystery, and I think Karin Dreijer Andersson likes it that way. If you're not familiar with Karin and her other project the Knife you REALLY need to get on that, check out the song "Like a Pen." Fever Ray was another Coachella speciality, a group I would have no chance of seeing otherwise. Their set came at the end of the first day and was a perfect closer. When I describe their music and the show for that matter it is impossible not to mention the word tribal. The percussive elements and costumes really set the tone, and once the music begins you are transported to another world. And did I mention the lasers?!

Damn this show was incredible, I was hooked from the very first note up until the last. It's hard to describe, and the music is not for everyone, but to me it was nothing short of breathtaking. I feel very fortunate to have seen this group, and I'm still dying to see the Knife, but I'll never forget this show. Karin was the whole group was absolutely amazing.

4. Thom Yorke / Atoms For Peace
I've seen Radiohead 3 times and Thom Yorke's "solo" outfit Atoms For Peace was better than 2 of those times. Never have I heard such a funky and dancy set from Thom York but still complete with all the melancholy and angst his music touches on so well. Thanks Flea! Played in front of a huge crowd at Coachella immediately following the aforementioned amazing Orbital performance I was in a daze but Thom and co. snapped me right back into something beautiful.

He ripped through the entire Eraser album and it sounded better than it ever did on record. If memory serves he even went in order, which, if you've listened the album, meant the show's intensity grew as it went on. By the time they got to "And it Rained All Night" I could barely contain myself. The show ended with an encore of Thom performing some Radiohead tunes solo on piano. Especially "Everything in it's Right Place," an incredible concert moment. Again this show had more energy than two of the times I saw Radiohead (can't top their legendary Bonnaroo show in 2006), and was easily one of the best shows I saw this year.

5. Big Boi
Big Boi is one of the greatest rappers I have ever seen perform. His flow is amazing, and his small stature lends him a larger than life personality that is infectious. I was lucky enough to happen onto a Big Boi show last year at SXSW, but this one took the cake. It was at the Pitchfork festival in Chicago, and his performance was the most anticipated amongst our group.

He started off with an Outkast melody, a surefire way to get a crowd pumped up. Sprinkled into the show were several tunes off his amazing new album "Sir Luscious Leftfoot," which if you haven't heard yet, well, that's a shame. There's honestly not much to say, when a hip-hop show is good you can feel it. And this one blew it down, even a mediocre guest verse couldn't derail it. Ending with "You Ain't No DJ" was a stroke of genius and I will surely think of this awesome show for a long time to come.

6. Bassnectar
Bassnectar has been all over the place recently, and for good reason. I saw him no less than 4 times this year and it could have been even more. And what better reason to be included on a list of year's best performers that his shows NEVER disappoint. In fact whatever the opposite of a disappointment is, that is a bassnectar show. From Ultra to Coachella to Bonnaroo to a parking lot in Nashville he knows how to get a crowd going. You can feel the energy the moment the music begins. Good sonics and beats are all you can ask for from a DJ and Bassnectar delivers in spades. The wildest nectar show I saw this year was at Ultra but the one at Coachella was probably the best although i didn't see all of it. The thing is though about 5 minutes of Bassnectar packs more of a punch than many acts do in their whole show. In other words you may need to see it to believe it, but if you ever get the chance you better jump on it.

7. LCD Soundsystem

What can said about LCD soundsystem that hasn't already been said? Another amazing album and another amazing tour. Supposedly their last for a while, but with the huge success of it all I bet they'll be back. And man they were everywhere this year. And while no show I saw topped their mind-blowing 2007 Coachella show (one of my top ten all time) they still managed to amaze every time. Along with Bassnectar I saw them at 3 festivals this year, with LCD veterans and novices alike and most everybody thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Two things always stand out to me at an LCD show, and that's James Murphy and the rhythm section. James Murphy is like the anti-frontman, his banter and lyrical deliver borders on taunting at times but at the same time is impossible to resist. He knows music better than just about anyone, head of the DFA label and leader of one of the best (IMO) bands of the decade. And his arrangements shine their most in the percussion section. Crafting the most danceable of tunes with a heart is tough, and doing it with 9 people on stage in perfect time borders on the absurd. But there they are every time getting it done.

8. Yeasayer

Damn Yeasayer, where have you been all my life? Yeasayer definitely wins for my new favorite artist of the year, not that this is their first year in existence but 2010 was the year I discovered them. And luckily they have the live chops to back up their awesome records. Go get All Hour Cymbal and Odd Blood NOW if you're not hip to these guys. Their music is hard to categorize, blending complex arrangements of live instrumentation and sampled electronic sounds, their tunes often build to wild crescendos of joy and excitement. On the other hand they can craft very moving and touching songs as well.

I was lucky enough to see them twice this year, and the second show was key for inclusion on this list. Because while I did very much enjoy their show at Coachella, I was forced to miss some of it due to conflicts. But I loved their energy and the crowd responded in tune. So when they were declared the semi "headlining" act of Next Big Nashville this year I was ecstatic. They played a fabulous show at Cannery to a large but not too densely packed crowd. The lighting and opening song "Children" (of which I am not a fan of on the album) drew everyone into their spell. For those who haven't checked out this incredible band I can't recommend them enough. They are the rare band that can serve up even better live versions of already very complex songs. The emotions of the show ranged all over the place, but in the end you're left with a big smile on your face.


Maybe the most obscure band on this list to some, but definitely worth the inclusion for how amazing they are. Tortoise has been around for a long time, and if you don't know is responsible for a ton of influence on the post-rock movement. Composed of 5 of some of the most amazing musicians I've ever seen, Tortoise can    craft songs invoking all types of emotion without a single word. In fact rarely do they even say a word while performing, except for the cursory John Herndon thanking of the crowd.

This was my fourth time seeing Tortoise but it was the first time in a small venue (Exit/In) at a show they were headlining. When you're right up close you can really get a sense of how incredible these guys are. Several of the members switch instruments between songs, making each arrangement sound unique. I can't say enough about this band, they're some of the best musicians I've ever had the pleasure of listening too and if you ever get the chance you owe yourself the experience. If you have the patience to listen to this 30 minute clip I think you will be amazed, just throw it on in the background.

10. Paul McCartney / Stevie Wonder / Neil Young

Ok this is obviously "cheating" by listing 3 names here, but I couldn't leave off any of these legends and I didn't want to drop anyone else. Props to Nashville for bringing both Paul McCartney and Neil Young this year, and Stevie Wonder saw it fit to come to Bonnaroo on top of that. All are amazing in their own right, although Paul probably takes the cake.

Speaking of Paul, I was lucky enough to see him last year as well when he headlined Coachella, and even though this show was very similar it was impossible to resist his charm. Everyone was going berserk, which is really saying something considering how many older people were at the show. I must also say I was very impressed with the sound and staging at the Arena in Nashville. 2 years ago I would never have thought I'd get to hear classics like "Blackbird" and "Hey Jude" and "Yesterday" performed live. Again props to Nashville for getting this amazing show.

Stevie Wonder was a joy to behold. While I'm not a fan of all of his tunes (sometimes they get a little cheesy) there is no denying his mastery. From the moment he was led onstage and sat at his piano he had the whole audience (I'd guess 30k minimum) in the palm of his hand. Another musical legend I feel had to be on this list, he sent out good vibes for miles. He rocked for a full 2 hours and even though I was crammed up next to a bunch of people waiting to get into the pit for Jay-Z I enjoyed every second of it.

Neil Young was the most raw of the three, but that was to be expected. He played a solo show at the Ryman, switching between electric and acoustic guitar and a couple of songs on the piano and organ. I've been a fan of Neil ever since I was young and my Dad used to rock Harvest Moon and some of his live albums. But that is not to say I'm an expert, as there were several songs during his set I was not familiar with. But it didn't manner. His aura was spellbinding, and the 90 minutes he played was nowhere near long enough. This video can hardly do it justice, and is not from the Ryman because they're super uptight about using cameras.

So there it is, what came to be my top 12 live acts of 2010. Some incredible ones just missed the cut, including Flying Lotus, Wolf Parade, Pavement, Fake Blood, Jonsi, Dead Weather, Lightning Bolt, Freddie Gibbs, and Chromeo.

Expect lots more reports on music this year now that I have this blog going. Coachella lineup set to drop very soon, can't fucking wait.

If you have a moment drop a comment on who your favorite shows were this year.

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