Though I have no business doing a year-end roundup of culture that I haphazardly consumed this year, my inner narcissist has been screaming to be let out. Here are some things I very subjectively enjoyed this year.
Like any human being with a soul, I am a lover of music. Over the years, however, I have become a hater of live music. This has not happened through any fault of musicians themselves, but rather the Sartre-esque spectacles put on by New York audiences. L’enfer, ce n’est pas les autres, mais c’est les gens qui vont aux concerts à New York. I am perpetually perplexed and appalled by people who will pay for absurdly expensive concert tickets only to get drunk and scream-talk the whole time. And the iPhone pictures, my god, the iPhone pictures.
That being said, I did manage to get to ten shows this year, by five artists (saw PJ Harvey six times, whoops!!). I enjoyed all immensely. Here’s how I would rank them:
5. EMA (New York)
I saw this show somewhat randomly, invited by a friend who’d been freaking out over this album and thought I would also freak out. He was right! Sadly, I saw this show after only having heard the album once on the subway on the way to the show, plus I may have gotten a little hammered, so I wasn’t as engaged with the show as I could’ve been. Still though, it was apparent that EMA is an incredibly talented musician, and her album is one of my favorites of the year. The show was short and pretty straightforward, so I can’t really rank it above anyone else’s show, but it was still great. I will be seeing her again in the new year, and I’m looking forward to it.
4. Tori Amos (New York)
Oh, Tori. I am a little bit embarrassed to say that I used to be obsessed with Tori Amos. I have seen her live many, many times. Unfortunately, she jumped the shark to such an extent that she could’ve made it an Olympic sport, and I hadn’t seen her since 2005. Her new album is kind of interesting (though also kind of boring — I still haven’t heard the whole thing), and she was touring with a string quartet, which is kind of the wet dream of any good Toriphile. The morning of her first show at the Beacon, I checked if there were tickets, and there were, for $95. I realized that my not-seeing-Tori-Amos streak was not going to be broken. Then, at about 7pm that night, my friend texted saying that she had a free ticket. Done. And the show was pretty great! Despite Tori’s many, many shortcomings, she is still absurdly talented and downright mesmerizing to watch. And that string quartet was pretty goddamn legit. It was pretty astounding to hear new life being breathed into a song like Leather, which had been autopilot-tastic for the better part of two decades. Plus, spectacular arrangements of songs like Suede and Cruel (which I had never heard live before!) were a thrill to hear. The crowd was pretty annoying. Like, falling in the aisles, standing up to dance to a string quartet, etc. Back in the days when I took Tori shows very seriously, I would’ve been fuming, so it was exciting not to give a shit. So, well done, Tori. I doubt you’ll ever make an album I care about again, but it’s nice to know you’re still in there somewhere.
3. Sufjan Stevens (Brooklyn)
I’ve been a casual fan of Sufjan’s for a long time, but I’d never seen him live. I was pretty thoroughly impressed by both All Delighted People and The Age of Adz last year, so I didn’t have much cause to say no when he was playing shows within walking distance of my apartment. I saw the second night. The first night had been the subject of an overwhelming amount of snark on the internet. Like, to the point where even people who hadn’t gone were making fun of it. So I was ready, almost excited, to hate it. Just the idea of him having a big beach ball party with the Greenpoint Dance Troupe is pretty infuriating to me. So no one was more surprised than I was that I loved it. The show was definitely wacky, but Sufjan’s talent as a musician and the basic honesty of his music transcended all the hubbub for me. Spectacle with a soul. It’s not so impossible! (Don’t worry, I hate me for writing that, too.) I was alone, it was pouring rain, and I was surrounded by Sufjan’s fanbase which is apparently drunk sociopaths, but I was completely enthralled. I even had to stop myself from crying when he started Chicago (note: I have not cried publicly in 11 years). At the time I’d been meaning to write some kind of “Leave Sufjan Alone!” bullshit post, but it never materialized, so I’m glad I got to say it here. Also, he’s extremely attractive. Just FYI or whatever.
2. PJ Harvey (Brussels, Berlin & New York)
PJ Harvey is probably my fav. At least as a live act. She is a total powerhouse, and there’s no one I enjoy watching more. Let England Shake is some of her very best work, in my opinion. And in like, everyone’s opinion. It was truly a thrill to see this tour so many times. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t say that there was something a little off to me about these shows. Just the setup was odd, with Polly standing stationary off to the side and Mick Harvey center stage. PJ Harvey, whose name is on the tickets, apologizing to an angry Mick Harvey for starting a song, which she wrote, in the wrong key. Odd. And there was something I can only describe as aggressively un-fun about these shows. Let England Shake is an aggressively un-fun album, so I get that the presentation had to match that to some extent, but it struck me as kind of absurd that the only time she even stepped away from the microphone was for The Pocket Knife, a song that a large segment of the audience probably did not know. (But it was so great! Just this morning I caught myself doing her Pocket Knife dance while I was making my french toast.) I’m certainly not one of those “just play the old stuff!” dummies (I loved her last tour with John Parish, where none of her solo material was played), but it would’ve been nice to see her spice the setlist up a little bit more, like she did for her White Chalk shows in 2007 (White Chalk is an even less fun album, it must be said). All of that being said, though, the shows were still phenom. Everything sounded great, and this might be the best band she has ever toured with, even if Mick is a bit of a dick. I still get chills just thinking about her singing “let it burn, let it burn, let it burn burn burn”. I also still giggle when I think about those first shows of the tour in Europe, when she would bend over and her headdress would hit the microphone with a “THUMP”. Anyway, this has devolved into PJ Harvey word-vomit, and I will end it here.
1. Fiona Apple (Los Angeles)
There is no one like Fiona Apple. She became a big star almost by chance out of a teenage whim, but she was born to be a singer. Her voice and music are timeless, but she could only really have come out of the mid-90s. She went from being a VMA-stealing, famous magician and director-dating household name to doing random shows at a 200-seat theater. But that’s actually not sad. As you might have guessed, I’ve been a big fan of hers for a very long time. Like, she wrote me a letter when I was 16. Yeah. It’s very fitting with her bizarre personality that when I saw her at Largo in LA this past October, the show had only been announced two days before. Fiona live has always been an adventure. She puts more of herself into her performances than anyone I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen shows of hers that were so jaw-droppingly cathartic and brilliant that I had very close-calls with breaking my 11 year crying streak. I’ve also seen shows of hers that have been weird, screechy and disturbing. (I briefly maintained a Fiona Apple Acting Crazy tumblr to showcase this.) The last time I saw her, an interview and mini-show at the 2007 New Yorker festival, was the most uncomfortable event I ever paid money to experience. So while I was thrilled to have the chance to see her so randomly and in such an intimate setting, I was ready to be disappointed. Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed. The evening was billed as “Fiona Apple & Friends” and her friends were many. Jon Brion accompanied her for the whole thing, plus appearances by Sean & Sara Watkins, Fiona’s sister Maude, Jenny Slate doing comedy, and a bunch of others. The setlist was a mixture of covers and bare-bones arrangements of Fiona songs. She sounded so good singing songs like Jolene and Walkin’ After Midnight and Till I Kissed Ya (which she accompanied herself on drums for, and which I’ve perpetually replayed in my mind ever since) that I found myself almost disappointed when they’d start up one of her own songs. Like, rolling my eyes at Paper Bag. Yeah. The mood was laid-back, but they weren’t phoning it in. It was carefree but not cavalier. It was so exciting just being there while they stood on stage debating what song to do next. I felt like I was really part of something even though I was just sitting there like a bump on a log. It was really nice to see Fiona just having a good time, singing a song written by children, going into the audience to take a picture with them holding up a big sign with the name of the little Rwandan boy she just started sponsoring, and other shenanigans. And needless to say, Jon Brion and all the others are pretty effing impressive to watch. Largo has very strict policies against phones and cameras, so there’s absolutely nothing from the show online. It’s a shame, because the whole show was so astounding, but it’s also kind of nice. It harkens back to the days when concerts were something that just existed as they happened. It was a night of music that kind of ruins other music for me, and I’ll never forget it. It was the kind of night that makes me happy to be alive. Not to be a sap.