Saturday, January 28, 2017

THE BEST LIVE ACTS OF TWO THOUSAND AND SIXTEEN






















2016 may have been colossally shit in almost every respect, but it also happened to be the best year for live music I've ever experienced. It's been a real challenge whittling this list down to a mere fifty acts, so here's some honourable mentions for those that didn't quite make the cut:

Sex Swing, Susanne Sundfor, Low, Cat Power, Fire!, The Boy Least Likely To, Sigur Ros, Bo Ningen, Explosions In The Sky, Daniel Knox, Stars of The Lid, Diet Cig, Liima, Mothers, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Boredoms, Battles, Terry Riley, Floating Points, Mulatu Astatke, Jambinai, LNZNDRF, Merzbow, Orchestra of Spheres, OMD, Shonen Knife, Edwyn Collins, Islam Chipsy, Dilly Dally, Idris Ackamoor, The Joy Formidable, Swans, Marginal Consort and Eleanor Friedberger

50. SLEIGH BELLS- London Tufnell Park Dome
The Brooklyn noise-pop duo are as subtle as Brian Blessed bellowing a ton of bricks off Trump Tower - but dammit, we wouldn't have it any other way.

49. SILVER APPLES- London Corsica Studios
With his self-crafted synthesizer bodged together from "vintage oscillators, sound filters, telegraph keys, radio parts, lab gear and a miscellany of second hand junk", Simeon Coxe III was one of the very first to incorporate electronics into rock music back in 1967. Now 78, he might lack the mullet and formidable sideburns of his youth, but his music still sounds resolutely like the future.

48. MICHAEL ROTHER- London Under The Bridge
75 minutes of vividly-hued Krautrock from the amiable Neu! and Harmonia visionary, whose gloriously fuzzy guitar tones prefigured a whole generation of shoegaze/dream-pop.

47. ANDREW BIRD- London Roundhouse
Ol' Whistlechops may be living the glamorous L.A. lifestyle these days, but damn, he still knows how to loop a violin pretty.

46. PAUL SIMON- London Royal Albert Hall
Paul Simon has written a hell of a lot of good songs in his time. Sadly, he's also written a lot of bollocks too. But despite an uneven setlist and a mediocre sound mix, the unimpeachable encore of The Boxer -> Sound of Silence -> Mrs. Robinson -> Bridge Over Trouble Water elevated a slightly disappointing night to "one to remember."


















45. MASSIVE ATTACK- London Brixton Academy
Politically-charged shows are often earnest to the point of cringe, but the Bristolian trip-hoppers' intellegent and striking visuals, manipulating data straight from the internet, synced fantastically with their dark, minimalist vibe. Plus, Horace Andy performing "Angel" was pretty damn special

44. RADIOHEAD- London Roundhouse
Tommy York and his bleepy-bloopy brethren will never be my favourite band in the world, but even I will admit feeling emotion in my cold dead heart when "Exit Music (For A Film)" kicked in.

43. BORIS- London Electric Ballroom
Who needs hearing when you've got Boris? The Japanese three-piece may readily flit between drone, metal, noise-rock and shoegaze, but if there's one thing you can rely on it's that they'll leave your eardrums feeling like a kaiju-ravaged city.

42. GET WELL SOON- London Lexington
Germany's answer to the Divine Comedy have always been inexplicably overlooked by the British music press but more fool them, as Get Well Soon's lushly orchestrated indie-pop remains an underrated delight.

41. AURORA- London Union Chapel
The best thing to come out of Norway since "Take On Me", it seems unlikely that we'll be seeing the elfin 20-year old play venues as intimate as this the future. Her plaintive cover of "Life On Mars" less than a month after Bowie's passing was quite the...cathartic experience.























40. MELT-BANANA- London Tufnell Park Dome
Melt-Banana's uncompromising grindcore assaults prove to be as damaging to my long-term hearing prospects as Donald Trump is to liberal democracy.

39. THE SUN-RA ARKESTRA- London Union Chapel
Interplanetary jazz wizards bring a splash of Saturn and a tsunami of avant-garde squalling to the genteel environs of Highbury and Islington.

38. HOLY FUCK- London Village Underground
I don't know who Allen is, or whether if he is indeed "lovely", but the Toronto quartet sure did him credit over 70 minutes of clattering electro-noise.

37. OKKERVIL RIVER- London Islington Assembly Hall
Will Sheff may continue to have an uneasy relationship with the notes he's actually trying to hit, but his erudite folk-rock proved a much-needed salve in the week of the Great Catastrophe.

36. DAHKABRAHKA- London Rich Mix
The act on this list most likely to make Putin cry bitter tears into his Smirnoff, the Ukrainian purveyors of "ethno-chaos" did their beleaguered country proud with an eccentric, colourful fusion of traditional Slavic musical forms, Western pop music and even hip-hop.

















35. SAVAGES- London 100 Club
There are many creditable ways to start off your day, but to my mind none of them compares to having Jehnny Beth scream "Husbands" directly into your face at 9 in the morning.

34. HORSE LORDS- London Lexington
If Colin Stetson and Deerhoof formed an off-kilter, Can-infused math-rock band, but with more cowbell, they might sound like Baltimore's Horse Lords. This is no bad thing.

33. JOANNA NEWSOM- End of the Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
Not even the dependably shit British weather could dampen J-No's mesmerising brand of harpin' and squawkin', but man, I'd wish she'd stop ditching "Emily" for  "Monkey & the Fucking Bear".

32. PRIMAL SCREAM- London Brixton Academy
A cogent and sober Bobby Gillespie fronting a blissed-out run through Primal Scream's back catalogue, without making a single controversial comment? Truly, a Christmas miracle.

31. PWR BTTM- London Shacklewell Arms
An elatory sugar-high of a set from the queercore power-pop duo, who sound like Fang Island and bitch like Joan Rivers. 

30. PATTI SMITH- London Hyde Park
A bit too heavy on the post-Horses material to top last year's remarkable Field Day performance, but the High Priestess of Punk's messianic fervour remains the perfect antidote to the cult of bland placidity.

29. IGGY POP- London Royal Albert Hall
Two hours of James Newell Osterberg, Jr, aged 69, putting ever single other rock 'n roll frontman to shame.

28. JEFFREY LEWIS- London DIY Space
Illustrated biographies of Alan Moore! Paeans to English breakfasts and cats on the internet! Half-Yiddish spiels concerning a man's inability to impress a pigeon! Random Faith No More covers! So yeah, just another Jeff Lewis show.

27. MOONFACE- London Hoxton Bar and Kitchen
Wedged in the middle of a Wolf Parade tour, this hastily-assembled live collaboration between Spencer Krug and Finnish kraut-rockers Siinai had no right to sound this gloriously epic.

26. EDWARD SHARPE AND THE MAGNETIC ZEROES- London Islington Academy
It's a shame "Home" has been overplayed to death, as it makes it easy to forget that Alex Ebert and co., despite their self-confessed corniness, are one hell of a hoot live.
























25. WEAVES- London Scala
Possibly the best band to emerge from Canada since the mid-Noughties, the off-kilter, grungey art-pop of WEAVES is an unabashed riot, fusing the wonkiness of Deerhoof with the lo-fi ferocity of 90's garage-rock. 
 
24. BURT BACHARACH- London Palladium
There's not many performers who can dispatch songs of the calibre of "Walk On By", "I Say A Little Prayer" and "There's Always Something There To Remind Me" within the first ten minutes of their set and still have a gazillion all-time classics in their pocket, but then, not many performers are Burt Bacharach. One can only dream of having his vitality and enthusiasm at the age of 88.

23. EZRA FURMAN- End of the Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
Queer Jew channels Springsteen, produces magic (and a damn fine Arcade Fire cover too).

22. CALEXICO- London Barbican
It is said there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I'd argue the excellence of Calexico's live shows constitute a third.

21. GRANDADDY- London Oslo
Saw Jason Lytle perform "The Crystal Lake" less than a metre away from me. Not going to lie, it was a bit awkward.

20. TRICOT- London Hoxton Bar and Kitchen
Guitarists whirling, bassists river-dancing, singers draped over the sound-desk, and a room filled with sweat, flailing arms and potent joy. Viva Tricot!

19. SPIRITUALIZED- London Barbican
"ALL I WANT IN LIFE'S A LITTLE BIT OF LOVE TO TAKE THE PAIN AWAY". Wouldn't say no to a gospel choir, though.

18. DAN DEACON- London Roundhouse
Malfunctioning player-pianos. A 25-minute audience participation piece involving five hundred mobile phones blasting out Phil Collins. Dance-offs and human tunnels and overhead projectors and The Crystal Goddamn Cat. Even by Dan Deacon's standards, this was pretty out-there but man, it was tremendous fun.

17. TEETH OF THE SEA- London Tufnell Park Dome
Always thought Teeth of the Sea's oppressive aural dystopia naturally evoked "1984". Now I'm thinking it's a little more "2017".

16. OPERATORS- London Lexington
Potentially the best Dan Boeckner side-project yet, Operators take the zest and furious energy of The Handsome Furs and marries them to scintillating, hard-edged synth-rock. Much 80's, very dance. Wow!

15. CHARLES BRADLEY- London Rough Trade East
Given his recent cancer diagnosis, I'm even more honoured to have had the opportunity to catch the Screaming Eagle of Soul performing a set to 100 very lucky people. "Spine-tingling" doesn't do it justice.

14. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM- Lovebox Festival, Victoria Park, London
Five years ago, Win Butler told James Murphy to "Shut Up And Play The Hits". At Victoria Park, he took that advice to heart.

13. OTOBOKE BEAVER- London Brixton Windmill
Four whirling, immaculately-dressed dervishes of garage-rock energy, hitting the perfect mid-point between the unabashed fun-times of Shonen Knife and the explosive brilliance of Bo Ningen. When a gig ends up with one guitarist writhing on the venue floor before the other piles right on top of her, you know it's a good 'un.

12. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE- End of the Road Festival, Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset
Hearing "Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl" performed live for the first time since 2008 was "totes emosh", as the kids might say. Rest of the show was alright too.

11. STEVIE WONDER- London Hyde Park
Only Stevie Wonder could take four hours to play an album that clocks in at 90 minutes, but then what do you expect from a man for whom the line between genius and self-indulgence has never been terribly well-defined? That said, for every interminable solo or inexplicable cover, we got a moment of such exquisite brilliance that it truly took your breath away. And let's face it, there's few set-closers that can even get close to touching "Superstition".

10. ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF- London St. John's, Bethnal Green
The only gig I've ever been to that's caused masonry to fall off a church. Guess that's what you get for booking the harbinger of the Apocalypse.


9. ZA!- London DIY Space
Channelling Calexico, Deerhoof, Captain Beefheart, the Buena Vista Social Club and Acid Mothers Temple all in the space of 50 minutes, the relentlessly exuberant Catalans proved their Arcade Fire-topping set at Primavera 2014 wasn't a fluke: they really are one of the best live bands in the world right now.


8. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN- London Wembley Stadium
Badlands->Jungleland->Born To Run->Dancing In The Dark->10th Avenue Freezeout->Shout->Bobby Jean->Thunder Road. FLAWLESS VICTORY.


7. BJORK- London Royal Albert Hall
The best single live music moment of 2016? Bjork giggling in delight when the audience spontaneously sang the refrain of "Pagan Poetry" back at her. 







6. BRIAN WILSON- NOS Primavera, Parque da Cidade, Porto
Brian Wilson is basically a zombified Chuck McGill these days, but even he cracked a smile or two during this sublime performance of "Pet Sounds" (and a myriad other hits) under the setting Portuguese sun.


















5. XENIA RUBINOS- London Birthdays
Being a tired, embittered old troll it's rare that I'm genuinely blown away by a new artist, but Xenia Rubinos truly is The Real Deal - a funky, political blend of R&B, Cuban rap and indie-rock, delivered by one of the most magnetic performers I've seen since Janelle Monae. 

4. CAROLE KING- London Hyde Park
65,000 people singing along to "You've Got A Friend". Can't really beat that.























3. TITUS ANDRONICUS- NOS Primavera, Parque da Cidade, Porto
A show that left me physically, mentally and emotionally broken. #toooldformoshpits


2. WOLF PARADE- London Scala
God doesn't always have the best goddamn plans, but persuading Wolf Parade to reform after a six-year hiatus was definitely one of his better wheezes. 

1. KAMASI WASHINGTON- London Royal Albert Hall
One of the greatest contemporary jazz groups on the planet, backed by a 20-piece gospel choir and a 36-piece string section? Of course it was going to be my gig of the year. True, some of the arrangements were a little bit too enamoured with Star Trek: The Original series, but when everything clicked, it sounded more transcendent than Piers Morgan suffocating to death in the depths of Trump's rectum.

(And for previous editions of this self-indulgent nonsense, now in its 11th year, here are the lists for 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

BO NINGEN (London Cafe Oto, 22/12/16)



The 121st and final gig of 2016- and what finer note to wrap up the year than an unhinged psych-noise assault from London's own "Stick Men"? It's pretty much the same show I've seen them do thirteen times before, but why would you ask for anything else?
PRIMAL SCREAM (London Brixton Academy, 15/12/16)



Review: HERE
BORIS (London Electric Ballroom, 13/12/16)



Who needs hearing when you've got drone-metal/noise rock/shoegaze trio Boris performing "Pink" in full? By the end of it my eardrums felt like a Japanese city, post-Godzilla...
THE BOY LEAST LIKELY TO (London Social, 12/12/16)


The long-awaited return of the most gleefully twee band in existence, playing selections from their festive album as well as all the old classics (not to mention a delightful cover of Wham!'s "Last Christmas"). A pretty joyous experience all round.
CRIPPLED BLACK PHOENIX (London Dome, 09/12/16)



A two-hour psych/prog/metal odyssey from the erstwhile Mogwai side-project. Not really my bag, but "Burnt Reynolds" remains a sorely underrated epic.
PWR BTTM (London Shacklewell Arms, 06/12/16)




An inspiring, elatory show from the queercore power-pop duo, who sound like Fang Island and bitch like Joan Rivers.
LOW (London Union Chapel, 05/12/16)



There's no better way to kick off the Christmas season than with a dose of melancholic slowcore, and the Duluth veterans more than deliver with a mix of Christmas standards, self-composed Yuletime numbers and various down-tempo tunes from their extensive back catalogue.
PIXIES (London Brixton Academy, 29/11/16)




Review: HERE
IDRIS ACKAMOOR AND THE PYRAMIDS (London Cafe Oto, 20/11/16)



Despite hanging round these earthly spheres since 1972, Idris Ackamoor and his eccentric brand of afro-futurism hasn't quite achieved the acclaim or cultural visibility of the not-dissimilar Sun Ra Arkestra. But their energetic live shows, fascinating array of instruments and compelling fusion of free-jazz, funk and traditional African influences make them a band well worth checking out if you like your mind blown and your grooves cosmic.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

MONO (London Electric Brixton, 17/11/16)




The Japanese post-rockers may be a one-trick pony (start off slow, build up glacially, GLORIOUSLY CACOPHONOUS PAY-OFF) but it's a damn good trick nonetheless.
HORSE LORDS (London Lexington, 14/11/16)



Do you like the idea of Colin Stetson and Deerhoof forming an off-kilter, Can-infused math-rock band? Do you like ridiculous displays of musical and rhythmic proficiency? Do you like fucktons of cowbell? If so, then Baltimore's tremendous Horse Lords might be the band for you.
OKKERVIL RIVER (London Islington Assembly Hall, 10/11/16)



Review: HERE
PAUL SIMON (London Royal Albert Hall, 08/11/16)




Not going to lie- this wasn't quite the epoch-defining gig I expected to be. But despite the stuffiness of the venue, the mediocrity of the sound-mix and the surfeit of filler, the sheer quantity of stone-cold classics nevertheless made this a gig worth the £75 ticket price. I mean, say what you like about Paul Simon's post-Garfunkel musical output, but The Boxer -> Sound of Silence -> Mrs. Robinson -> Bridge Over Trouble Water is a pretty solid encore by anyone's standards.
SPIRITUALIZED (London Barbican, 07/11/16)



There were many goosebump-inducing moments during Spiritualized's celebration of their all-time masterpiece "Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space", but the bit at the end of the title track where the gospel choir properly kicked in really did hit me right in the feels. Some songs felt a little-drawn out, "Electricity" was slightly neutered without the traditional strobe assault and the sheer maximalism of the set did occasionally overwhelm, but on the whole this was a magnificent, life-affirming gig in a week where joy was in particularly short supply.
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS (London Brixton Academy, 02/11/16)


Review: HERE
EZRA FURMAN (London Roundhouse, 31/10/16)



Another knock-out show from my favourite queer Jewish rock 'n roll hero. Not the best gig I've ever seen him do, partially due to some unnecessary aggro in the crowd, but even a second-tier Ezra show is a hell of a lot of fun (it was a nice tip to the date to have him carried onto stage in a pastel pink coffin). Fantastic support from Charlotte Church's Pop Dungeon as well, who perform the only mash-up of Destiny's Child and Rage Against The Machine you'll probably ever hear.
SLEIGH BELLS (London Tufnell Park Dome, 27/10/16)


As subtle as Brian Blessed bellowing a ton of bricks off Trump Tower - and we wouldn't have it any other way.
XENIA RUBINOS (London Birthdays, 24/10/16)



Being an embittered, tired old troll, it's rare that I'm properly, genuinely blown away by an act these days, but goddamn, Xenia Rubinos is The Real Deal - R&B, Cuban rap and abrasive indie-rock mashed together to create something astoundingly funky, pointedly political and tremendously fun. And that's not to mention Xenia herself, who combines the magnetic charisma of Patti Smith with the dazzling showmanship of Janelle Monae. Without a doubt my gig discovery of the year.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

DANPYUNSUN AND THE SAILORS (London Rich Mix, 21/10/16)
 


So, apparently Jambinai are far from the only alternative band of note from South Korea at the moment. I discovered these avant-garde indie-rockers on the K-Music Month Spotify playlist a couple of weeks back, and they struck me as a band I nedded to see live. And in that I was correct, even though some of their songs are a little middle-of-the-road for my tastes. Danpyunsun is a hilarious, deadpan frontman, even when jetlagged to hell, and their riveting, no-holds-barred performance is up there with the most energetic I've seen in 2016. Well worth checking out, for sure.
HANNAH EPPERSON (London Slaughtered Lamb, 20/10/16)



Looped violins and birthday cake from the talented Julianna Barwick collaborator, whose spawling, absorbing compositions mark her out as a talent to keep an eye on.
OPERATORS (London Lexington, 18/10/16)



Any band involving Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner is always going to be one hell of a beast, but Operators might well be his best side-project yet, marrying the zest and energy of the Handsome Furs to electrifying synth-rock and tremendous live drumming. One of the best London debuts I've seen this year.
YUMI ZOUMA (London Oslo, 17/10/16)



Pleasant enough dream-pop from New Zealand, with a couple of standout songs going someway to make up for a lack of variety.
HOLY FUCK (London Village Underground, 15/10/16)



A holy fuckin' great show from the Toronto electro-rock quartet, who can still inspire a dance party even when playing an absurdly early time-slot. One of the few shows I've seen recently that I genuinely wish had been longer.
SWANS (London Islington Assembly Halls, 13/10/16)



Review: HERE
EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY (London Brixton Academy, 12/10/16)



Review: HERE
SYMPHONIC FANTASIES (London Barbican, 06/10/16)



There's no one person more responsible for my deep and enduring love of music than Nobuo Uematsu, the composer behind the "Final Fantasy" series. Since I first played FFVII at the age of eleven and heard the synthesized church bells of "Flowers Blooming In The Church" I've obsessively gorged on his soundtracks and the various arranged albums built around thhem. I've religiously attended every concert of his music put on in this country - the "Distant Worlds" series more purist and faithful to the original compositions, the "Symphonies" taking familiar melodies and leitmotifs and re-arranging them into exciting new forms. I've even met him in person, leading to the only time in my life where I've genuinely been star-struck.

 But I've always secretly hoped that I'd get to hear a concert showcasing from some of his lesser-known but similarly brilliant contemporaries, most notably Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross/Xenogears), Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) and Hiroshi Sakimoto (FFXII/FF Tactics/Vagrant Story). I'm still waiting for that Sakimoto concert, but Symphonic Fantasies offered me the opportunity to witness Mitsuda and Shimomura performed by no less than the London Symphony Orchestra - and it was just as elatory an experience as I could have anticipated.

The first half comprised of two works, one based around Kingdom Hearts, the other around Hiroki Kikuta's "Secret of Mana" soundtrack. To my surprise, though the former symphony engaged the old nostalgia glands right from the start with the simple, beautiful piano line of "Dearly Beloved", it was latter that ultimately proved the stronger work, with its masterful use of choir and unexpected sound effects, including that of a tropical rain storm.

But it was inevitably the second half that truly shined, with a Mitsuda medley that wove together a smorgasbord of classic Chrono tracks- not least Scars Left By Time, Gale, Frog's Theme, Magus' Theme, To Far Away Times and Peaceful Days. What has always differentiated Mitsuda's work from most VGM composers is his passion for world music, and the effect that has on his melodies, his rhythms and his instrumentation - and thus giving a starring role to the effervescent red-coated darbouka virtuoso Rony Barrak and his percussive brilliance was a masterstroke. After that, a conservatively arranged work based around Uematsu's themes felt a little underwhelming, especially compared to what was showcased during the Final Symphony concerts (in fairness, this program predates those by several years), but there's no denying the hold those classic themes have over my psyche.

As is standard for these concerts, an "unannounced" encore wrapped up proceedings- and delightfully, it comprised a medley of final boss themes from the various games represented tonight. "One Winged Angel" and "Dancing Mad" are inevitably the focus of the piece, but hearing 80 or so primly-dressed choristers intone "LAVOS!" with appropriately apocalyptic volume may have been my personal highlight.

All in all, it probably didn't hit quite hit the heady heights of Final Symphony II - which was one of the best concerts I've ever attended in any medium - but just hearing the Chrono piece alone was well worth the price of admission. A superb performance, and one that makes me excited about what the organisers will come up with next.
JAMBINAI (London Oslo, 03/10/16)



Every time I see Jambinai, they get a little less post-rock and a little more metal. Which isn't a criticism by any means, as their fusion of the harder edge of Western music with traditional South Korean instrumentation remains as potent as ever.
STARS OF THE LID (London Barbican, 02/10/16)



Although they're almost indistinguishable from their sister band A Winged Victory For The Sullen these days (no bad thing), Stars of the Lid's beautiful orchestral ambience and stunning projections - which look breathtaking from the back of the Barbican Hall- provide the perfect soundtrack to a most agreeable Sunday evening.
MERZBOW (London Cafe Oto, 01/10/16)



The sound of a tiny kitten skipping lightly over a sea of rose petals. Or forty-five minutes of unrelenting harsh noise being blasted in my direction, and every other direction, and possibly in directions not as yet discovered by even the most intrepid scientists. A not entirely unpleasant experience oddly enough, but one that left me in a weird daze for some time afterwards.
THE GOON SAX (London Shacklewell Arms, 27/09/16)



A scrappy but endearing set from the maudlin Australian three-piece, whose wistful lo-fi melancholy compensates for their lack of polish.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

TERRY RILEY (London Barbican, 24/09/16)



Review: HERE
WEAVES (London Scala, 22/09/16)



The best band to have come out of Canada since the mid-Noughties heyday of that particular scene, the off-kilter, grungey art-pop of WEAVES is an unabased riot live, coming across as a glorious mix of Deerhoof, Pavement and the Pixies (and maybe a sprinkle of Ponytail too). The best support act I've seen in many a year.