What a brilliant year for live music 2012 was. And I saw an awful lot of it: 462 performances, by my count. I know that sounds insane — more concerts than days in a year. Many of those were full concerts, but sometimes at music festivals I'd run from club to club or stage to stage just to catch a song or two. It's all part of a quest to find new music and hear new talent. Even a short taste helps me know whether I need to pay attention to a burgeoning band or whether a classic act seems to give a damn anymore.
Live music is in such abundance. It wasn't like that when I was growing up. Maybe that's part of why I drink it up with such abandon. What really made a concert memorable, as I look at this list with some hindsight, was the element of surprise. People Get Ready's mix of performance and theater, Kishi Bashi's unfolding solo magic, the inexhaustible energy of Death Grips and so on. I love walking into a room with either zero expectations or having my expectations challenged.
Below I wrote about my 10 favorite concerts of last year, plus some runners-up (a number of them were recorded by NPR Music, so you can listen for yourself). You'll also find the complete list of shows I saw in 2012. How do I keep track of what I loved, liked and everything else? I take a one-minute video of almost every show I see and save wristbands and badges (you can see a huge, hi-res, interactive version of the photo above here), but I didn't write stuff down and — embarrassingly — I'd sometimes completely forget who that opening band was Tuesday night. Fortunately, there are people crazier than me who do keep track of this stuff: Show List DC — with its list of dates, band names and venues — was my life saver when I began to compile my complete list of concerts.
Bob Boilen's Top 10 Concerts Of 2012
1. People Get Ready at New York Live Arts in New York City (Oct. 19)
Ian Douglas/Courtesy of the artist
Ian Douglas/Courtesy of the artist
No single show took my breath away the way this one did — part rock concert, part performance art, part dance, all perfectly melded together. Having seen so many dudes with guitars during the CMJ Music Marathon, it was incredibly refreshing to find a group challenging and changing the norm. It felt like a band creating a music video for every piece of music performed. I hope People Get Ready take this show, Specific Ocean, on the road. If they do, GO!
2. Dirty Projectors at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. (Aug. 17)
One of my favorite albums of 2012, Swing Lo Magellan was even more stunning in concert. Dirty Projectors have been making complex songs for almost a decade, and frankly, having seen them on other occasions I thought of them as a studio band more than a live band. That changed in 2012. The musicians grew into these song and they were devastating. I went two nights in a row!
Watch Dirty Projectors live at the 9:30 Club
3. Debo Band at globalFEST in New York City (Jan. 9)
Ryan Muir for NPR
Debo Band performs during globalFEST at New York City's Webster Hall on Jan. 8.
Debo Band performs during globalFEST at New York City's Webster Hall on Jan. 8. Ryan Muir for NPR
In Washington, D.C., where I live, there's a large Ethiopian community, and in the 1970s it wasn't unusual to walk into a restaurant and be entertained and crooned to by an Ethiopian big band. Well that's sort of the spirit of the Debo Band, only it rocks more. It turned out to be about the best band at globalFEST and a fantastically refreshing sound at SXSW this year.
Listen to The Debo Band live at globalFEST
4. Julian Lage Group at Winter Jazzfest in New York City (Jan. 6)
Ingrid Hertfelder/Emarcy Records
Julian Lage. Ingrid Hertfelder/Emarcy Records
Julian Lage did for me what much of the past 30 years of jazz guitar couldn't: He made me love the form again. I know I'll insult and perhaps generalize too much when I say this, but too many jazz guitarists "noodle," or make runs up and down the neck that just leave me cold. Lage has grit and elegance. I saw him three times if you count his fabulous Tiny Desk Concert. What a pleasant surprise.
Watch the Julian Lage Trio's Tiny Desk Concert
5. Alabama Shakes at SXSW in Austin, Texas (March 14)
Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
The Alabama Shakes' lead singer, Brittany Howard, onstage at NPR Music's SXSW showcase at Stubb's Wednesday night.
The Alabama Shakes' lead singer, Brittany Howard, onstage at NPR Music's SXSW showcase at Stubb's Wednesday night. Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
"Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old."
Those are the lyrics to "Hold On," by Alabama Shakes; the singer of that song, Brittany Howard, is now 23. This is a band that is growing up so fast. At SXSW the first time was so memorable, but by the time I saw them again at the Newport Folk Festival they had already grown up. Good solid soul and blues served with sweet southern heart.
Watch Alabama Shakes live at SXSW
6. Kishi Bashi at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. (April 3)
I first discovered Kishi Bashi listening through a batch of 1300 songs, trying to sort out what shows I should see at SXSW. His brand of pop music was infectious, and how this mostly one-man-band was going to pull off such complex stuff live was mystifying. I remember standing in a crowd at the Scottish Rite Temple in Austin with a crowd (many curious All Songs Considered fans) eagerly anticipating. I also remember seeing that crowd gasping, jaws open and filled with delight. It was a bit like watching a great magician, only instead of a wand Kishi Bashi had a violin bow. A few weeks later I saw him open for a band, Of Montreal, of which he was also a member.
Watch Kishi Bashi live from the 9:30 Club
7. Patrick Watson at SXSW in Austin, Texas (March 16)
Patrick Watson performs live in concert at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.
The most magical concert moment of the year happened in a church. The members of Patrick Watson (the name of the band and its leader) stepped away from their instruments at St. David's Church in Austin, Texas, carrying what they could — guitars, some light percussion, as I remember — and took the concert into the crowd. The church was not well lit beyond the stage, so the band brought flashlights and sang the song 'Into Giants' with some acoustic accompaniment. I teared up and I could see I wasn't alone. Everyone in that room had been through a day filled with music — it was SXSW after all — but there was something so honest in that moment and when the band sauntered back to the stage and picked up instruments for the song's full electric climax I got chills; I'm getting them again just thinking about it. I saw Patrick Watson a few more times after that show, including twice at the 9:30 Club.
Watch Patrick Watson live at the 9:30 Club
Watch Patrick Watson's Tiny Desk Concert
8. Kraftwerk at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (April 12)
Peter Boettcher/Courtesy of MoMA
Ralf Hutter (left) and the other members of Kraftwerk in performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Tuesday.
Ralf Hutter (left) and the other members of Kraftwerk in performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Tuesday. Peter Boettcher/Courtesy of MoMA
I saw the future of concert projections, and they were 3D. Kraftwerk is the ultimate clean machine: not a wire to be seen, not a moment unplanned. It felt like a live movie with the most fabulous sound. Each night of their eight-night retrospective at MoMA presented one album in full, plus a set of the greatest hits of this always-influential German electronic band. I was at the Trans Europe Express performance, and the imagery of machines and modernity in three dimensions was truly stunning. There's an entire crop of new artists looking to the future, and this band from the past has just pointed a way forward. I can't wait to see how a new generation takes this to the club scene.
9. Death Grips at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City (Oct. 17)
Loren Wohl for NPR
Death Grips at Le Poisson Rouge.
Death Grips at Le Poisson Rouge. Loren Wohl for NPR
I walked out of this show after 30 minutes. I'd had enough, I felt pummeled and exhausted, I was bummed that much of the music was backing tracks from a laptop. Still this was one of the most powerful shows I saw all year. This is hip-hop with no mercy. This is turn-on-the-switch, throttle up with no breaks. This was some of the best drumming (by Zach Hill) and the most intense singing (by MC Ride) I saw all year. I only wish I could understand the words more often.
Watch Death Grips live at Le Poisson Rouge
10. Lost in the Trees at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City (April, 11)
AJ Wilhelm for NPR
Lost In The Trees perform at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on April 11, 2012.
Lost In The Trees perform at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on April 11, 2012. AJ Wilhelm for NPR
I love to close my eyes when I listen to Lost in the Trees. That can be a bit awkward in a club, but it just happens. This music is simply cinematic: the stories are detailed, the arrangements swirl and the sum of it all is dramatic and transporting. This show at Le Poisson Rouge was over before I was ready. I listened to more on my headphones later that night, or maybe it was morning.
There is an art to crafting songs that are solemn, that are catharsic to the writer without bringing the house down when the crowd has come to be lifted up. Lost in the Trees manage to celebrate life even as it tells some of its darkest stories.
Watch Lost in the Trees live at Le Poisson Rouge
Beyond that top 10 list were a number of shows worth singling out for one reason or another: the first concert I saw that successfully used an app, the concert that made me fall in love with my favorite album of the year, etc. You'll find a handful of those stand-outs below, followed by the big list of all 462 performances that I saw this year, in chronological order (click here, or on the list itself, for a larger PDF of the complete list). The 243 in bold were the most memorable, the bands I'd recommend seeing if they come to your town. I want to thank the many, many musicians, sound engineers, club owners and staff and all those who made it possible to see such an assortment of remarkable talent all year long. Here's to 2013.
- Alt-J, at the Rock & Roll Hotel, helped me discover my album of the year.
- Jack White, playing with his all-women band, rocked harder than anyone on a big stage.
- Dan Deacon: Best use of an app at a concert.
- fun. at the 9:30 club: Best sing-along night.
- The Beach Boys' 50th anniversary show in New York was kind of sweet.
- Reggie Watts: Best improv by any musician all year.
- Father John Misty: Watching this guy discover the stage was a joy.
- Regina Spektor: A master storyteller.
- Metz renewed my faith in drums, bass and guitar.
- Morton Subotnick at Moogfest: So good to see a living legend in the context of 21st century electronica.
- Sufjan Stevens at the 9:30 Club: Chaos and celebration and the giant "Wheel of Christmas."
- Father Figures at Paperhaus: Revelatory concerts can happen anywhere, and they did on this night at a house concert in Washington, D.C.
Mobile readers: Click the image above for a PDF of the complete list.