Written by Nathan Mattise
It’s tough to come up with a fresh take on year-end music lists. Top Albums gets done by everyone under the sun and the same can be said for Top Songs (we’ve done it before, we’ll likely do it again). I’m in the fortunate position of limited real responsibilities and enough discretionary income to make at least 1-2 shows per month. Central New York might not be a hotbed, but if you expand your territory by a few hours in each direction it’s possible to make a concert calendar that includes many of the must-see acts in a given year. Hence…why not a top individual sets of ’09 recap?
Maybe this list won’t be showing up on hip blogs (i.e. largehearted boy or Fimoculous) but it’s mandatory for any aspiring music/culture writer to offer their take on things. As a quick reminder, I’ve reviewed music in Albuquerque, Stroudsburg and Syracuse and throughout college. While it’s not quite SPIN Magazine, I do listen to/see a lot of music.
A few guidelines to start:
- The act did not have to release an album in ’09, but it can only help my excitement for a show if the material is somewhat recent.
- Top sets is not top albums or top songs. Just because your professional recordings are some of the best in a given year does not mean your live performance are too (sorry Passion Pit and Animal Collective… and I saw both this year).
- I know there are a million factors outside of the band’s hands that can impact the effect of a live set (crowd energy, venue, just an off-night, etc.). I also know there are dozens of other acts I wanted to see but couldn’t due to a lack of local dates or just date conflicts (the bands I regret not seeing most this year… Metric, Hockey and [gulp] Dave Matthews Band). All this means I recognize the subjectivity of this list.
- This is a list of individual sets so regardless of who opened the show (or who closed if this band was the opener), acts are judged individually. It may even increase the value of a set if one act upstages a notable other.
- Finally, what are a few things that make up an ideal concert experience for me? I hope the sound is clean, the energy is high and the band gives you a moment that makes you remember that night long after the drive home. Simple enough but certainly not every show has you talking to friends about it long afterwards.
With that out of the way, it’s time for the list. In descending order…
St. Vincent’s “Actor” is one of the familiar titles in seemingly everyone’s ’09 year-end list. Needless to say, it was a complete surprise when she stopped by Castaways in Ithaca between area tourdates with Andrew Bird. St. Vincent’s live musicianship is super high (that includes her multi-instrumentalist backers) and Annie Clark surprises you on many fronts. She looks like a young Dylan on stage when she’s flailing everywhere and her extended live solos show she’s more Stevie Ray Vaughn than her female folk with edge peers (Teegan and Sara, Feist, etc.).
Evolver is quietly another solid Legend release and his collaborations with MSTRKRFT and Andre 3000 kept Legend on the minds of music fans in ’09. His Albany show was in the fancy Palace Theater and he rose to the occasion to prove he’s a professional showman. As I wrote, “Legend may have crafted the perfect show. His music spans everything from upbeat stuff you could hear in the club to slow jams you only play when you’re alone. The sound was great considering the venue and Legend made sure to cover all the major hits from his repertoire.
His sound alone would make the performance noteworthy, but Legend was a consummate showman on top of that. He created such an intimate atmosphere with his crowd that the house absolutely melted with his every move. He entered the stage by walking through the crowd like some ’80s WWF wrestler, encouraged the crowd to take their part on choruses, reentered the stage for his encore in a glowing white suit and even made one audience member’s night by choosing her to be his partner during “Slow Dancin’.”
“Elephant Shell” was my favorite album in 2008 and it is tailor made to be played live. TPC makes short, super catchy, bass-drum-guitar-synth heavy rock songs. Their set was incredibly high energy and (because of their self-noted concise song-writing) you get to hear practically every song you’d want to. From my experience then, “I think it’s tough for a band with raw energy to translate well onto a studio recording (and vice versa, see criticisms of “The Rhumb Line”) but TPC is a rare case…the band knows how to string together a logical song list (case in point, my first mosh pit when “Citizens of Tomorrow,” “Your English is Good” and “Be Good” were played together). It was a show easily worth a three hour drive on a weekday.”
This shifted the entire list right at the last minute. The Flaming Lips’ New Year’s Eve Freakout is becoming an annual mecca for Lips’ fans and this year they pushed it up another notch. The Lips’ stage show is always outrageous – costumed dancers, tons of balloons/confetti, Coyne’s energy and this time a giant LED screen – but to top it off they performed Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” as an encore set at midnight. For a stadium show, the sound was great and the band somehow managed to engage the audience even in my section. I’ve bookmarked April 18 on my calendar already.
This was the night that started my Phantogram fanaticism. The energy, infectious hooks and airy vocals that made me stand up and dance that set have inevitably lead to all my Phantogram hype (including pushing them to USA Today’s Pop Candy, creating their wiki, having an audio interview with them picked up by KEXP, etc.) and to all their current and (quickly approaching) future success. The band went from Charlie Everywhere to Barsuk labelmates in just one year and their full-length hasn’t even been released in the states. It all started with a short opening, opening act that may have stole the night from In Pursuit of the Trivial’s other obsession, Ra Ra Riot.
Girl Talk’s live show absolutely blew up in the past year. I’ve seen him four times overall now (three in ’09) but the intimate show in NYC was by far the best. I’ve said it before and will say it again, there’s a communal aspect to a Girl Talk show that is unparalleled by anything in music today. No one seems to have any inhibitions once Greg Gillis starts up his crowd-pleasing mashups and his theatrical team antics. Rumors of a guy whipping out his genitals happened at the Cornell show I saw this year, but the NYC trip had the roadtrip buildup, the intimacy/proximity to the Girl Talk and this guy who cut his hand up yet was still dancing to the beat.
ATP NY offered over 10 bands on the Saturday I visited (including Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective) but no one stood out as much as Deerhunter. I knew virtually nothing about them beforehand but their nonsense, indie meets 90s grunge take won me over. Their musicianship and cleanliness of sound was off the charts and they just had a continuous rock, shut-up-and-play type of set happening (not to mention, it was their last set for awhile while the lead singer pursued Atlas Sound for a bit).
The must-see band of the year didn’t disappoint when I finally caught them in Boston with Passion Pit and Spoon. The performance showcased just how widespread the popularity of Phoenix is now with the crowd of local college kids flat-out belting the words to every song off “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.” The same upbeat energy, crisp sound and genuine love for performing that gained them notoriety after their SNL exposure didn’t go away several months later with this performance. Phoenix did a good job of mixing in some older stuff for devoted fans while giving the masses the songs-of-the-moment they desired. 1901 must’ve gone on for 8 minutes of sing-a-long at the end while the lead singer ran into the crowd to be surrounded by his adoring fans screaming everyword. A must-see act for folks in early ’10. Listen to the performance of 1901 from that night.
1. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Aug.) in Clifton Park, N.Y.
The best show I’ve ever seen in my life has to take the top spot. Karen O lived up to the legendary hype, they played an unusually small/ intimate venue for this point in their career and the YYY showcased an unbelievable amount of musicianship for a band many simply know as the indie group who did “Maps” to the Guitar Hero crowd. These guys deserve to headline more of the mainstream indie-friendly festivals (ACL, SXSW, etc.) soon.
Others in serious consideration: Spoon (Dec. – in Boston w/ Passion Pit, Phoenix), Ra Ra Riot (Sept. – in Ithaca, N.Y.), Drug Rug (Oct. – in Syracuse, N.Y. w/Portugal The Man).
(Links today from MySpace, YouTube, Wikipedia, The Oklahoman and Hulu.com)