Sunday, December 30, 2018


We're all hurtling inexorably towards Armageddon but hey, at least the soundtrack's been good. As usual, I've attended more gigs than is strictly healthy, so firstly, here's some honourable mentions for the acts that didn't quite make this year's cut:

The Scorpios, LCD Soundsystem, Yndi Halda, AK/DK, Black Country New Road, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Aurora, Neko Case, Ezra Furman, Patti Smith, Screaming Females, Bo Ningen, Eleanor Friedberger, Mew, Chilly Gonzales, Bjork, Zola Jesus, Axes, Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Son Lux, Jen Cloher, Tokyo Chutei Iki, Michael Rother, Richard Reed Parry, Big Lad, Mass Gothic, Starcrawler, Tiny Ruins, Mitski, PALM, Haley Heynderickx, The Magic Numbers, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Midori Takada, Franz Ferdinand, Titus Andronicus, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Holly Miranda, The Boy Least Likely To, Gwenno, Death Cab For Cutie, Arrows of Love, Misty's Big Adventure, This Is Not This Heat, My Bloody Valentine, Hachiku, Oumou Sangare and Olafur Arnalds 

And now, without further ado: The Top 50 Live Acts of 2018:

50. SUPERORGANISM- London Oval Space 
Essentially Architecture In Helsinki for the Snapchat generation, the East London collective's winsome live show perfectly reflected their ramshackle, technicolour aesthetic and proved there truly isn't a limit to the number of cat memes you can fit into a 45-minute gig.

49. VAMPIRE WEEKEND- End of the Road Festival 
Having once endured a show from the afro-beat appropriators so dreary it made "An Evening WIth Dominic Raab" seem appealing, this charmingly feel-good greatest hits set (featuring an exceptionally vibrant rendition of 'Walcott') came as a very welcome surprise.

48. THE HOLD STEADY- London Electric Ballroom 
Raucous, exultant and extremely sweaty, the Hold Steady no longer have anything left to prove, except that they remain the best goddamn bar band in the whole damn world.

47. EX-EYE- London Milton Court 
Sax-o-mo to the max-i-mo from musical warlock Colin Stetson and his cacophonous metal cohorts.

46. JULIA HOLTER- London EartH 
Despite taking place in a venue with the decor and atmosphere of a student nightclub circa 2004, Julia Holter's avant-garde siren songs effortlessly transcended the incessant clanking of pint glasses, and more importantly, gave the flugelhorn the showcase it damn well deserves.

45. THE FIRE! ORCHESTRA- London Dome 
A breathtaking evening of "Swedish misunderstandings" from the 14-strong musical collective, incorporating experimental jazz, the otherworldly vocals of Sofia Jernberg, and Wildbirds and Peacedrums.

44. CAR SEAT HEADREST- London Roundhouse 
Having last seen Will Toledo and his nervy dad-dancing at a half-full instore at Rough Trade East, I don't think I appreciated how big CSR had become until I found myself surrounded by 2,000 swooning teenagers, bellowing every word to every song at the top of their lungs. Self-deprecating, erudite guitar-rock par excellence.

43. SAX RUINS- London Café Oto 
Dazzling rhythmic chaos from the scintillating Japanese sax-and-drums duo. Time signatures are for losers.

42. EELS- London Brixton Academy 
I've seen Eels "with Strings", "Gospel Garage" Eels, "Minimalist Acoustic" Eels, "Rock Powerhouse" Eels and "Sophisticated Baroque" Eels, and though this country-tinged "Double Denim" show wasn't as innovative as some of the band's other incarnations, everyone was having so much fun it didn't matter.

41. BELAKO- London Scala 
I was previously unfamiliar with this Power-Pop-Post-Punk outfit from the Basque Country, but with a verve and vitality that's half Savages, half Slotface, the Bilbao four-piece deserve to be a hell of a lot bigger.

40. URBAN SOUND- London Kings Place 
A eclectic, accomplished and spellbinding performance from the East Asian quartet, fusing classical, Korean folk, jazz and avant-garde influences. Would be perfect fare for Cafe Oto, just sayin'.

39. A HAWK AND A HACKSAW- London Café Oto 
Balkan folk, Persian santurs and a big fuck-off drum. What more could anyone want?

38. OKKERVIL RIVER- London Garage
Will Sheff still hasn't got a hang of the whole "hitting notes" thing, but his vibrant, poetic folk-rock remains as uplifting as ever.

37. THE DECEMBERISTS- Leeds Academy
Murders most foul, choreographed singalongs and giant whales. Yup, Colin Meloy's back with his gothic sea-shanties and indie-folk ballads and that's a most commendable thing indeed.

36. TRICOT- London Scala
Not the most frenzied Tricot set I've ever experienced - no risk of getting whacked around the head with a bass guitar this time round - but it was the most musically polished. Math-rock-ilicious.

35. US GIRLS- London Islington Assembly Hall 
US Girls as a duo with backing track = adequate. US Girls as an 8-piece pop juggernaut = pretty exceptional.

34. ANNA MEREDITH- London Queen Elizabeth Hall 
The irrepressible Scottish musical alchemist struck gold once more with an orchestral rendition of "Varmints" so acoustically dense, it pushed the structural integrity of the Southbank to breaking point.

33. ST. VINCENT- London Cadogan Hall 
After feeling somewhat detached from the stylistic and conceptual bells and whistles of her recent tours, it was so refreshing to see Annie Clark play this stripped-down, piano-and-vox show with no 'quirky' monologues, no slow falls down stairs, and no pre-recorded backing tracks.

32. THE SUN RA ARKESTRA- London Union Chapel 
Marshall Allen is now 94 years of age, yet seems more sprightly than ever (?!) Needless to say, this was the best display of Afro-futuristic free-jazz space wizardry I've seen to date - as hypnotically groovy as the eighth ring of Saturn.

31. SSING SSING- London Purcell Room 
I only checked out the Korean glam-rockers because their K-Music Festival write-up sounded intriguing, and they proved to be one of the surprise discoveries of 2018. I'm not sure the Purcell Room has ever been witness to so much pogoing...

30. JENNY LEWIS- London Koko 
It may well be sixteen miles to the Promised Land, but Jenny Lewis brought paradise a bit closer to home with a captivating career-spanner that encompassed everything from the lively power-pop of Rilo Kiley to the slide-guitar-and-fiddle twang of her more recent work.

29. NATALIE PRASS- London Bush Hall 
The alt-country superstar-in-waiting has embraced the funk, and I'm totally on board with that. The fact she's not already huge remains a complete mystery to me, but then again, this country did vote for Brexit.

28. BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE- Birmingham Academy 
If this truly is, as Kevin Drew intimated, the Canadian super-group's last-ever European tour, at least they left us on the highest of notes (kinda ironically, as half of them had lost their voices). "Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me... "

27. THE GO! TEAM- London Electric Ballroom 
The Go! Team's kaleidoscopic, "kids-TV-show-through-a-vintage-filter" schtick could well have gone stale a long time ago, but the effervescent glee that permeates every part of the enterprise proves impossible to resist.

26. THE BURNING HELL- London Ivy House 
Not only did the world's most lovable Canadians deliver the best sing-along chorus of the year ("Pass the wine", "fuck the Government", "I love you" / Three statements overheard at once in the crowded room / But I could not be sure which one had come from you / So I passed you the wine and said "yes, fuck the government, I love you too"), but also the most perfectly ill-timed quip about pet euthansia in recorded history.

25. JAMBINAI- London Purcell Room 
Magnificently epic metal-tinged post-rock centered around traditional Korean instruments. One of Robert Smith's more esoteric choices for Meltdown this year, and one of the undoubted highlights.

24. LIZZO- London Islington Academy 
Move over Lizzie, Lizzo's our true Queen now.

23. FEVER RAY- London Troxy
 Karin Dreijer may have built a reputation as an unknowable ice-queen, but this performance reflecting her embrace of queer polyamory was intense, raunchy, political- and loads of fun. (Plus, that bit where everyone bellowed *that* line from "To The Moon And Back" in unison was hilarious).

22. JANELLE MONAE- London Roundhouse 
The obvious heir to Michael Jackson and Prince, Janelle Monae may - as yet - lack the 5-star catalogue that'd propel her to superstar status, but her all-singing, all-dancing, and commendably woke show is one of the most impressive all-round performances London has seen in a very long time (just a shame the sound wasn't that great). Truly the Electric Lady.

21. MONO- London Queen Elizabeth Hall
The sixth and (by some distance) the most impressive show I've seen from the stately Japanese post-rockers. The closing run of Halcyon/Ashes In The Snow/Everlasting Light was so uncompromisingly epic it hit me right in the feels.

A celebratory, tremendously funky set from the veteran Afro-futurists, which memorably featured a woman from Romford shouting "MY PEOPLE! MY PEOPLE!" over a dedication to a Native American tribe.

19. MERCURY REV- London Oslo
What better way to wrap up another superb year of live music than with the dream-like majesty of Deserter's Songs, performed in a 300-capacity venue? The definition of loveliness.

18. FEIST- End of the Road Festival
There's so much more to Leslie Feist than "1,2,3,4", and this commanding, exquisitely charming headline performance was a pitch-perfect showcase for her prodigious talents.

17. CONFIDENCE MAN- London Village Underground
A post-detox Die Antwoord, a lightning-sharp pastiche of 90's Euro-pop, an ironic yet strangely honest celebration of sex and music and fun. Confidence Man are all these things, but most than anything else, they're the most straight-down fun new live act of 2018.

16. LIIMA- London Oslo 
I'm not sure I'll ever love neo-Efterklang quite as much as the original, but the joy Casper, Rasmus and Mads bring to a room by their mere presence is a beautiful and remarkable thing.

15. OTOBOKE BEAVER- London Scala 
OTOBOKE BEAVER WE LOVE YOU. And perhaps there's a contingent of balding 50-year old punks who love them a bit *too* much, but nonetheless neither they, or the over-zealous security, could detract from the frenzied whirlwind of garage-rock energy that the Kyoto quartet effortlessly whip up.

14. MARTHA REEVES AND THE VANDELLAS- London Brixton Blues Kitchen 
It's not often you get to witness a bona fide Motown legend for £2 above a hipster-orientated burger restaurant, but it's something I wished happened more often. Of course her voice isn't what it used to be, and the other Vandellas looked like they were perpetually chewing a barrelful of wasps when they weren't singing, but the sheer joie de vivre of their performance really captured what made the Detroit sound so utterly timeless.

13. SPARKS- London Shepherd’s Bush Empire 
Enter the Maelstrom! Ron and Russell's unstinting 50-year commitment to their idiosyncratic brand of pop is remarkable in itself, but not nearly as remarkable as the fact that by all accounts, they're on the best form of their half-century career.

12. CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH!- London Electric Ballroom 
The perfect encapsulation of the off-kilter brilliance and electrifying vitality that made the mid-Noughties indie-rock scene so exciting. Satan said dance indeed...

11. QUJAKU- London Lexington 
Few things make me happier than Japanese bands that sound like the Apocalypse and Qujaku could have frankly annihilated galaxies. So loud that the drummer smashed right through his kick drum.

10. CRACK CLOUD- London Moth Club
Looking for a jerkier, more concentrated Nervous Conditions featuring a guy who looks like a 2nd-tier anime villain? An intimidating group of straight-edge former addicts who fuse razor-sharp post-punk with math-rock and African rhythms? The best new band I've seen this year? If so, I'd get yourself to a Crack Cloud gig RIGHT NOW.

9. THE FLAMING LIPS- Cambridge Junction
I didn't think it would be possible for Wayne Coyne to carry off the full Flaming Lips experience - confetti cannons, luminescent unicorns, a 10ft inflatable pink robot and roughly 52 billion giant balloons - in an 800-capacity venue in deepest, darkest Cambridge. Needless to say, I was wrong.

8. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS- All Points East Festival 
It's Nick Cave. Of course he's going to be up here.

7. !!!- London Bush Hall 
After delivering the most shamelessly exuberant gig of 2017, the dance-punk legends effortlessly repeated the feat at Bush Hall, where half the audience ended up on-stage, whilst Nic Offer spent half the set off it.

6. DEVOTCHKA- London Union Chapel 
The prospect of "How It Ends" at Union Chapel was enough to guarantee my attendance, but DeVotchKa could have ignored that song's existence and still made my Top 10. Sousaphones, theremins, and everyone dancing in the aisles to "Such A Lovely Thing"- it was truly one of those shows that leave you glowing for days.

5. WHY?- London Electric Ballroom 
Always thought only a handful of people loved "Alopecia" as much as I did, but this sold-out show at Electric Ballroom clearly proved otherwise. Even Yoni Wolf seemed taken aback by the force of several hundred people singing "yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere" in harmonically uneven unison, and the reworked arrangement of "By Torpedo Or Crohn's" almost brought a tear to these cynical, embittered eyes.

4. DAVID BYRNE- London Hammersmith Apollo
Davie B's show at the Festival Hall in 2009 remains one of the most memorable live performances I've ever seen (Eno in a tutu!), but somehow, he's managed to up his game even further. Utilising a minimalist set-up to produce maximum results, placing the focus on his multi-talented entourage rather than fancy stage-craft, it's a show that married glorious invention, marvelous choreography and some of the best songs of the last 40 years with an unmatched, unpretentious sense of fun.

There's music that sounds like the End of the World, and then there's Anna Von Hausswolff. Having shifted gothwards from Kate Bush to "Dark Elf Sigur Ros", this performance by the Swedish dronemaster was so sublimely uncompromising it felt like it could tear space-time asunder.

2. ARCADE FIRE- London Wembley Arena 
It looked like Arcade Fire were down for the count after the much-maligned "Everything Now", but the critical mauling seems to have granted them the most astonishing second wind. The boxing ring staging, the phenomenal lighting, and litany of guest starts (Chrissie Hynde! Jarvis Cocker! Florence! Boy George) proved they can pull off an arena show as well as any band in the world, but it was their unfailing energy and passion that reminded me why they were the band that triggered my live music addiction in the first place.

1. KAMASI WASHINGTON- London Roundhouse
No gimmicks, no fancy light-shows, just 100 minutes of transcendent, funk-infused jazz courtesy of some of the most astounding musicians in the world (not least the mighty Shabaka Hutchings). The kind of show that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you speechless, because what could you possibly say in the face of such brilliance? Perfection.

(And for previous editions of this self-indulgent nonsense, now in its 13th year, here are the lists for 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 - sadly the photo links are busted but I plan to sort that out in the fullness of time) 

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