20 Great Concerts From 2008

By Amrit Singh / December 28, 2008

I’m not the only one at Stereogum who goes out to see live music, but I’m the one who goes out to see the most live music. And then I’m the one who sits around anally cataloging and indexing it in photos and words, and then recataloging it in list form at year-end. To that point: Lists are inherently personal; a list of top concerts even more so. Did you have that drunk Jersey kid yelling in your ear Night Two of Radiohead @ APW? I didn’t! And that’s why I loved it and that’s why it made this list. (Also it made this list because it’s Radiohead. As you well know.) From every sweaty summer fest, every late set in Williamsburg or out on the LES, I’ve pared the possibilities to 20. And then I numerically ranked those 20 to make a ludicrous and subjective endeavor that much more ludicrously subjective. So without further ado, here is the definitive list of 2008’s 20 Greatest Concerts. If you saw a show you think belongs on here but isn’t, you’re wrong.

20 King Khan @ Pitchfork Music Festival
As always, our friends at Pitchfork dot com assembled one of festival season’s most robust lineups. And to that lineup, King Khan brought the most robust antics. And the most robust belly. You couldn’t turn a corner all weekend without seeing the Canadian/Germany-based garage guy up to something mischievous: slinging frozen confections from Ice Cream Man’s truck in Hawaiian shirt and farmer hat, spraying down little kids with his water gun wearing a cape and not enough else. At one point he tried to peg High Places with a beach ball while standing side stage, only to have it ricochet off the stage scaffolding. He scurried as stage hands chased him away. Later he’d join Bradford Cox and Jay Reatard as pinch-hitters for the airplane-delayed Cut Copy crew. To all that, Khan also managed to tear through his own trashy soul set, with a cheerleader, horns, and less clothes than ever, splitting time between the stage, the audience, and the security divider. Les Savy Fav were on at the mainstage at the same time, but after walking over to catch the tail of that set, we’re pretty sure Khan out Harrington’d Tim Harrington. Dollar bills were shown, trash was thrown, and King Khan presented the full thrust of his Supreme Genius: Knowing suckers like us would pay attention to and write about a guy wandering around in a Roman-style centurion helmet/mask and banana hammock with a boundless amount of hamminess. Success!

19 Saul Williams @ Lollapalooza
Seeing Saul at Lolla was something of a happy accident. Maybe better to say it was the happiest accident. Some band with whom I had a deeper preexisting relationship was scheduled for the same slot across Grant Park, and my legs refused to leave where I stood. Plus a friend told me Girl Talk was about to bring out a raft and 96 rolls of toilet paper for the post-Saul set, so sticking around seemed reasonable. Within songs Williams was my New Favorite Guy: with a band dressed like intergalactic Native Americans by way of tribal Africa, Saul spat packed and pithy poetry like a fiery, facepainted street preacher, slinking on one end of the stage, bounding to the other. You should be him for Halloween next year.

18 The Music Tapes @ Mercury Lounge (CMJ)
The recently revitalized Music Tapes were transportive at Merge’s CMJ showcase. Main Music Tape Julian Koster was joined by two drummers, a bassist (with flute at the ready), horn players, a violin-bowing guitarist, a 7′ Metronome and Static the singing television set (introduced ever-so-dramatically, playing on the recent rash of Mangum sightings). Koster kept a steady smile through tunes from both 1st Imaginary Symphony For Nomad and this year’s For Clouds And Tornadoes, songs that are nautical (“Song For Oceans Falling”), extra-terrestrial (“Aliens”), and existential (practically everything else) in theme. JK was often on that elephant-inlaid banjo, but he’d trade it for a guitar or keys, or to make his singing saw weep. His vibe’s humble and quirky, simple yet otherworldly. Memorable, and recommended.

17 Cut Copy @ Pitchfork Music Festival
For fans of dance, and fans of New Order, Cut Copy put on a very good live show. That is not why they make this list. They make this list because this set was DRAMA. The story: While Spoon were busy being massively popular at the main stage’s closing set of Fork Fest, Cut Copy were scheduled to perform to a smaller crowd closing out the sidestage called “B.” But they were flying in from Australia (via L.A.) and these things get complicated. Word was they weren’t going to make it. The temporary replacement? An ad hoc group pairing frontmen Bradford Cox and King Khan with the Ponys’ Jered Gummere on drums and occasional spastic vocal intrusions by Jay Reatard. A cute way to stall, but the generic bluesy garage stuff really was nothing more than a cute way to stall. As Cox put it, “We’re stuck with you … and you’re stuck with us.” But not quite: After about 25 minutes, King Cox stopped, Bradford offered a few safety tips then announced that Cut Copy would be on in five minutes. This is when what remained of the audience lost their shit. By the time Cut Copy started playing, the crowd had swelled closer to its original size … and threw flowers at the stage, screamed like they were seeing the Beatles or Timberlake, danced in a huge, sweaty throng. As Brandon put it: “Now and then something transcends the ho-hum everyday and simple mechanics of these fests. That’s what happened when Cut Copy dug into their abridged, but tight and exciting because abridged, set: All the disappointment and pent up energy that seemed like it would find no outlet was transformed into a bouncing mass.” Also it gave new happy-thought material for my next interminable Jet Blue delay on the runway.

16 Krallice @ Remains 7/27/08
This is not a calculated metal-cred grab. Yes I went through a deep, dark headbanging phase as a child, but I claim not the metallic expertise of my esteemed colleague Brandon Stosuy. And I saw very few full sets of metal this year. However I thank Brandon for dragging me out to Remains, where Kralice unleashed one of the most sensationally epic sets of my year. In an emptied out art warehouse space, Mick Barr applied his fleet fingered guitar strangulations and a blackened, gravelly growl to his new black metal project. It clenched my gut and uplifted my soul, even as it was meant to darken it. It was just so fucking musical, and mesmerizing, and constantly progressing, one plateau after another … and also I discovered later Krallice is great running music. Hail Satan, you guys.

15 Robyn @ Highline Ballroom
Robyn’s reinvention, via her self-titled electro-pop opus, was first recognized in Sweden in ’05. That’s when the album came out. And this three-year piecemeal global release/victory lap would be pretentious on top of simply frustrating if the record wasn’t just so fucking awesome. This was her first real US show — yes this includes the prefab “Show Me Love” days — so imagine the fevered pitch in a Highline Ballroom filled with the fashionable, the gay, and the bloggers, as the pint-sized Swede set foot to stage. The set was just under an hour — too short in Clock Time — but each minute was packed with dance moves and HITS. As Scott said: “Robyn does silly + sexy better than anyone we can think of: She’s either not concerned with being cool, or more likely Sweden has a definition of cool that doesn’t require being detached.” Best moments: the ballad take on “Be Mine!,” or the Robyn-style rearrangement of “Show Me Love.” Said Ms. Carlsson: “You can always do SOMETHING with a good song, right?” If you’re Robyn, you can do a lotta things. There are some videos from the show here if you desire. (You do.)

14 Lightning Bolt @ All Tomorrow’s Parties New York
On a weekend rock retreat dominated by nostalgia and bedbug scares, Lightning Bolt pierced all that noise with an urgent and pulverizing jackhammer racket of their own. It was transcendent, it was Saturday’s signature set. The Brians were on the floor as usual; the immediate ring of moshers instinctively embraced their dual deputation as frontline cheerleaders and arm-locked crowd barricade/Bolt protectors; Chippendale’s manic barks spiked the duo’s detonations and the entire Starline Ballroom into a whipping frenzy. That set was one reason to love ’08. And here’s one to love ’09: Lightning Bolt are expected to have a Hypermagic Mountain followup out this year. We are excited.

13 Marnie Stern @ Cake Shop (CMJ)
I remember seeing Marnie back at a Todd P thing at SXSW ’06. She carried with her three items of note: a Hella headband, an electric guitar, and an iPod. There was no band, only In Advance Of The Broken Arm‘s frantically tapped lacerations being piped through that PMP, vocals in tact, with Marnie doing her best to keep up with the studio-perfected version of herself. It didn’t turn out so good. Two years later comes This Is It…, which basically owned my iTunes this year (Gummy vote, check). She’s a shredder, but what’s inescapable this time is the way in which she’s honed and buffed to brilliance an ability to shoehorn that technical virtuosity into song-oriented compositions. The trills and taps and shifting arpeggiated patterns coil, eating their own tails, often overdubbed and intertwining while panned hard to either speaker, snaking underneath the tracks and through transitional passages. They give a live-loop like texture to Sleater-friendly rock songs. And still, come CMJ I braced for the iPod show and tempered my expectations. But Marnie came with a full-on trio boasting a second guitarist and a not-Zach-Hill-but-still-great drummer. Powerful. Cake Shop was the best of the three Stern sets I took CMJ week — the dank basement packed with people pushing forward to get closer, blasted back by the trio’s shit-kicking takes on “Prime,” “Transformer,” “Ruler,” “Shea Stadium,” etc. — but each time out I saw a witty and kinetic, singularly impressive star ready to pull shit into her orbit.

12 Animal Collective @ Pitchfork Festival
Another year, another Animal Collective show for the Best Shows list. In 2007 it was seeing the newly Deakin-less trio work through Sung Tongs, Strawberry Jam and post-Strawberry jams at the Seaport. This year’s inclusion, for AC’s Saturday-headlining set at P4K Fest, hinges on a couple things. There was the setlist which included a “cover” of Panda Bear’s “Comfy In Nautica”; early listens of Merriweather cuts “My Girls,” “Lion In A Coma,” and “Daily Routine”; and a rarity in Danse Manitee‘s “Essplode” riding the back of “Fireworks.” For an eight-song set, that’s a helluva selection. Also, Avey, Geologist, and Noah had, like, Coldplay light towers with them? And for the trifecta: Animal Collective are now big enough to headline festivals. Granted it’s the Pitchfork Music Festival, which might be like expressing awe over Glasvegas headlining an NME festival, but still. They would have played all night if not for the park curfew, but it was enough. I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things, but with new songs, a bump in festival status, and a light show like that, 2009 looked great for Animal Collective. Based on Merriweather, it already is.

11 Dirty Projectors @ Music Hall Of Williamsburg 4/9/08
Dirty Projectors are another band making a repeat showing on this year’s list, primarily because they are the most awesome. Particularly this incarnation of the band — featuring drummer Brian McComber, guitarist Amber Coffman, and bassist Angel Deradoorian — which Dave Longstreth is wisely preserving and taking into the studio for his forthcoming Domino debut. The MHOW set was another full of snaking and thrashing, spiraling and sublime avant-rock, with otherworldly vocal arrangements and a vice grip on the crowd’s guts and frontal lobes, in equal parts. That night was their recent-staple setlist of Rise Above and New Attitude stuff, alongside peeks at promising new sunny, bizarre-pop tunes like “Sunrise” and “That’s My Move.” Even without the new material, they’re one of the few bands worth the trip every time out, whether just crushing their catalog or making something transcendent of it. I joked that the crowds at their NYC shows last year comprised “72% people in bands, 24% music writers, with the rest dabbling in both,” so it bears repeating that there were no lines of sight in MHOW that night without some member of the indie rock all-star softball team: Grizzly Bear, Battles, Deerhunter, the National, Apes & Androids, My Brighest Diamond, Vampire Weekend. Dirty Projectors shows are like band camp, or like some sort of a master class. Nobody’s going to truly cop the style, but everybody’s in to take their notes.

10 Apes & Androids @ Bowery Ballroom 5/30/08
Brooklyn’s Apes & Androids put out a sprawling and sadly overlooked debut LP this year with Blood Moon. On the flip, nobody’s ever going to overlook their concerts. Live A&A are something like of Montreal by way of Spinal Tap (cue back-to-back harmonizing guitar solos, synchronized fist pumps, perfect and bombastic backing vocals, etc.). Overblown and under-dressed, Ziggy Stardusted rock stars wielding a computer-enabled strain of over-the-top theatrical rock, Queen and Bowie alongside — and sometimes filtered through — futuristic booty beats. Each show’s a little different — masked and bodysuited dancers rushing out at one show, taiko drumlines at the next. They’ve carefully constructed a meta-aesthetic that perfectly and improbably juggles performance art, mystique, and satire, and Bowery was their coming out party: no longer relegated to tiny venues and Brooklyn art spaces, with a vision that could no longer be contained by them. Scantily clad alien ladies with tricked out wigs and multi-colored LED-infused hula hoops ran up one side of the room; 10 ft. tall white-feathered monsters with illuminated Arc Reactor heart pieces handled the other. Confetti rained; smoke machines smoked; arms waved glowsticks; faces were painted; boys were in dresses. Apes & Androids are either going be a world-conquering force, or Brooklyn’s best kept secret. There’s no halfway with these guys. Obviously.

09 Portishead @ Coachella
This year Portishead came back. Thank god. Whatever you believed this band to be, whatever bullshit genre coin you scratched over their previous beats, Third destroyed with pulses that rocked and rifled, undulated and swung. The passes were fragile in one look (“The Rip”), terrifyingly violent the next (“Machine Gun”). It got one of my Gummy votes. At their only US show in support, Geoff, Adrian, and Beth expanded their Portishead to a stage sextet, casting spells and chills into the arid Indio air. I climbed the stage to get closer shots of Beth, who looked both devestated and triumphant in black. Geoff and Adrian manned their instrumental outposts while their images were blown up in iced blue on the backing lightboard. There was applause between songs, yes. But mostly there was a slackjawed and haunted awe that clung to the desert sand the rest of the night. Portishead are back. Everyone recognize.

08 Fleet Foxes @ Bowery Ballroom 3/30/08
I had listened to but not loved the Sun Giant EP, my hitting this show was a last minute decision to kill time before a party, Robin had a nasty cold and accepted packets of Emergen-C from the audience. All of which is to say, there isn’t much — not nature, not distraction — that can obfuscate the goosepimply body buzz from standing in the presence of Fleet Foxes’ psychedelic and dusty harmonic goodness. All year, naysayers have been trying to understand the band’s startling ascent. Proposed reasons: Times are tough, people want pretty and easy as respite and comfort from their disappearing commodities, people are safe and like safe sounds, etc. Maybe. Maybe not. Point: They’re just really fucking good live. They move hearts. Their shows are pindrop silent and take on the feel of a spiritual reverie. Their songs make people sing, hum, hug. Their arrangements are dense on a musically theoretical, and simply aural, level. That is the reason why they are popular. We did it guys, we figured it out. Now go see them.

07 Joanna Newsom @ BAM 2/1/08
There’s a lot to love about Joanna Newsom. I’m also fully aware of all there is from which to detract: her voice, a more affected strain of Kate Bush-iness that’s sure to grate on some ears; the whole sylvian nymph thing, what with the woodsy promo shots and the elven visage, a fable-ready sort of preciousness; the harp, which can conjure the worst of Ren Faire pretense; and etc. But this set at BAM systematically dismantled all of that. Never mind the rare pleasure of hearing the full-bodied Ys suites accompanied by the versatile Brooklyn Philharmonic, rendering Van Dyke Parks’ piquant orchestral arrangements to the note. Never mind the beauty of the space, the walls, the sheer occasion of it. The real story was how warm, real, self-aware, and magnetic Joanna was, herself. (And also maybe the Andy Samberg sightings in the VIP box.) Her voice was a less caricaturized version of her own, all the beauty, less the unnecessary affect. Her banter was down-to-earth and witty, joking about hairstyles and band members, speaking as if she knew well what we thought of her — and would have fun fucking with it. When set two was down to just the Ys Street Band (violin, drums, banjo) — to play Milk-Eyed Mender tunes, “Colleen” from the EP, some new stuff — the night only got stronger. Now you could focus on the intricacies of her playing, of her flawless technique and countermelodic arpeggiation. Now you could hear the way the quartet interacted and fed from her direction. Pretty much, now you could focus on her — with less performers to feel guilty about ignoring.

06 Gang Gang Dance @ Studio at Webster Hall
From the Times love and the paparazzi-friendly faces in the room that night, to music critics’ continued tongue baths for an experimental oeuvre that’s been teased and refined into the ambitious, accessible Saint Dymphna, Gang Gang’s 1AM set at Stereogum Late Night @ CMJ was that rare and pure moment where hype, buzz, anticipation, and merit conflated. Lizzi Bougatsos’ was all swaying locks and bounce, wails and rototoms, riding the twisting, spaced-out, dubbed-up beats and avant-pop gold that is GGD’s wellspring. This is NYC’s most interesting — and excellently odd — live band. I feel luck and pride that they played our show.

05 Radiohead @ All Points West
This year Goldenvoice debuted a new, NYC-area festival called All Points West. You waste half the day taking a ferry to get there. And if they book Radiohead to headline two nights of it again next year, I will go to it for two nights again next year. Since the only way to fairly and meaningfully gauge a Radiohead show is in comparison to another Radiohead show, I’ll say Night Two at ATP was near or at the top of my seven nights with the band, and easily the best of the three (including Lolla) from that week. It was on from the start: the crowd was bigger, happier, more conductive the day before; the band was clearly engaged with the field from the opening “Reckoner” and on, each song the perfect thread to the one before. By the time “Exit Music (For A Film)” came on you could hear a pin drop anywhere in Jersey. That was a chills moment. Thom dedicating “Airbag” to Kings Of Leon (“If we were that good looking, we’d be famous”) was a LOLz moment. (You get one with each Radiohead ticket purchase.) “Bangers & Mash” meant Thom on the kit. “Planet Telex” meant the already arresting stalactite light show spurting into higher, rainbow-psych gear. “Kid A,” and “Idioteque”‘s noise breakdown, meant I wet myself. Etc. The great thing about seeing this band: No matter what they play, it’s the Greatest Hits. But when all is dialed in like on this night, the material becomes a vessel for five guys onstage, and every person in earshot, to get lost in Something. At that point it’s not lights and music … it’s Radiohead.

04 of Montreal @ Roseland Ballroom 10/10/08
In response to the post-Outback and T-Mobile ad campaign flak, Kevin Barnes wrote us an essay in which he said “Selling Out Isn’t Possible.” What he didn’t say was where all that money was going: Roseland Ballroom, costumes, and Kevin singing “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” while sitting on and stroking a live white horse. This show was the crown jewel in what was a high-concept fall tour, even by oM standards: pulling primarily from Skeletal Lamping (a jagged and fractured pile of brilliant, barely stitched together song seeds that’s itself a fuck-you to sell-out claims) and Hissing Fauna…, Kev and a cadre of costumed actors created a full and distinct set piece around each stop on the setlist. The sketches were associated to songs’ lyrical themes: There was a military scene; a crazy beach party; Kevin as centaur getting the shaft from two damsels who preferred his brother as fife-playing satyr (this related to “Beware Our Nubile Miscreants” — “you only like him ’cause he’s sexually appealing,” etc.), which devolved into an orgy scene, the damsels and the fife player erotically eating fruit and squirting juices on themselves and writhing under red lights. Demons coaxed Kevin to commit suicide via pills, and injections, and then by hanging from a noose (feet off the ground, hanging … scary). The main set’s big finish: Kevin emerging from a coffin, covered in only shaving cream. The full show’s big finish: a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Only Nirvana did it better. But then, Nirvana never did it with a horse.

03 My Morning Jacket @ Bonnaroo
No band straddles the demographic divide at Bonnaroo quite like My Morning Jacket. Jim James’s annual midnight set at the festival has already become a ‘Roo staple, but this year’s four-hour marathon — featuring an Erykah Badu cover, a Kirk Hammet guest solo on “One Big Holiday,” and the advent of MMJ as the world’s greatest funk-cover-wedding band — was the stuff of legend. The air was chilled and the rain pelting; it’s not easy for a band and a crowd to find a mutual groove in those conditions, especially as the weather continued to weed out the weak from the audience. But it all aligned around 1AM for “Lay Low”: the rain started coming down even harder to the point of hilarity just as Jim and Carl hit into that harmonizing guitar solo bit. The rain swelled, the band leaned into it, the crowd roared. Jimmy James introduced “an up and comer” named Kirk Hammett and MMJ capped their power hour with the six most electrifying minutes of live music I saw this year. And then there were the covers: Badu’s “Tyrone,” James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” (with Jim doing a JB shuffle across the stage in a cape and hat), Funkadelic’s “Hit It And Quit It,” and “Get Down On It” by Kool And The Gang. Yes, Kool & The Gang. And yes, My Morning Jacket are available for your next bar mitzvah or corporate function. I didn’t stay late enough for their cover of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” with Zach Galifianakis as Little Orphan Annie, but I can state with certainty that beards were involved.

02 Sigur Rós @ Bonnaroo
If you’re a fan, if you’ve seen Sigur Rós before this year, nobody needs to convince you to attend a Sigur Rós live show. After this set at Bonnaroo I gave five reasons you need to see them right now anyway. New reasons, because this is a new band. With the sun-splattered nudity of “Gobbledigook” Sigur Rós hearkened a transformation — from being composers of epic, alien, and incomprehensible whale-song ruminations, to epic, alien and occasionally comprehensible bursts of joy — fully realized in that Tennessee tent. The setlist was a catalog-spanning beast, showcasing hallmark moments from each of the band’s style shifts: from the dark and dank Ágætis byrjun, to the slowest-of-core unpronounceabilites of the ( ) stuff, to the triumphant Takkisms. The Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust stuff crushed it live, came with lots of horns, horns and saws powered by amiina, confettie guns, and most notably a wildly grinning Jonsi. Human after all. During the show I started texting “Sigur Rós is…” and a guy next to me asked, “may I be so rude as to suggest the rest of your sentence?” He continued: “Sigur Rós is … an atmospheric pumpkin. And this year Halloween is Christmas.” I’ve never read a Sigur Rós review that sounds any less goofy than that, so, believe it? Or watch their similarly costumed, brass-accompanied set at the Museum of Modern Art two nights later, which I also hit and had the added benefit of a stage-adorning Rodin and a great view of Sigur Rós’s big bright balls. (As in stage lights, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their testicles were luminescent orbs of wonder too. That’s an acceptable thing for a fan to think, look it up.)

01 My Bloody Valentine @ Roseland Ballroom
For purposes of this list, it could be said that My Bloody Valentine benefited by me seeing them twice in the same week. It could also be said that they benefitted from being My Bloody Valentine. I’ve spent countless hours forging a deep, somewhat tragic relationship with each track in MBV’s catalogue, never expecting to consummate that relationship any more viscerally than with my noise-cancelling headphones. After 16 years, they came back to the States. MBV came to ATP NY. And it was … a letdown. The entire weekend was a glorified opening act for that final set, and somehow, somewhere, the sound in the Stardust Ballroom got twisted. Kevin and Belinda mouthed at a mic, but I heard nothing. Helpful commenters pointed out “that’s what shoegazer is.” Nope. Their aesthetic calls for vocals that are buried, yes, not vocals that are nonexistent. After the show a friend offered a chance to see night two of their Roseland stint. I promised myself that this time, despite the excessive warnings to the contrary, I would not wear earplugs. I would try and hear it all. And there was just so much to hear: deep cuts from Loveless and Isn’t Anything, the entire You Made Me Realise EP (save “Drive It All Over Me,” sadly), the inimitable aural smears and guitar thunder, and you know, vocals. I may carry some permanent eardrum damage from the noise meltdown which cracks open the middle of “You Made Me Realise” (it feels something like sitting inside a jet engine for 12 minutes, only more disorienting and louder), but I would rather carry this memory than hear anyone talk ever again. They’ll be back, by which time they’ll be playing new stuff. That is good news. But the noise-cancelling headphone Geek! in me is glad I at least got this one night.


[Pic from MBV's set @ ATP]

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My feet are tired. Feel free to call me a SQUID BRAINS for not including your favorite show and feel even freer to share your top sets of ’08 below.

[All photos by Amrit Singh, except Radiohead by Abbey Braden and Dirty Projectors by Jen Carlson]