I saw a lot of shows this year, heard a lot of music, and shot a lot of photos. I will now organize some thoughts into a random best/worst list for 2013.
(A couple caveats: My musical taste, while not stagnant since 1998, has only very, very slowly evolved since then. I like instantly catchy records more the “growers.” And most of this list focuses on bands that I saw live in 2013.)
Best Live Shows I Saw (not necessarily ranked in this order):
1. Neutral Milk Hotel @ 40 Watt Club, Athens, GA. October 23. I’d seen Jeff Mangum several times on his recent solo tour (and once, I’m pretty sure, in the Brooklyn Trader Joe’s), and I thought that would have to be enough, having never seen NMK hotel in the 90s. Since he, at various times, played with all the members of NMH during his solo tour, I figured that would do. I was wrong. Seeing the full band on stage, with added horns, strings, and more, was transcendent. Given that all the members of NMH have stayed active in the years since their last tour over a decade ago, they’re all better musicians, and the resulting shows sounded even better than the records. The horns were in more tune, the arrangements livelier, and Mangum jumped arounds stage in a way that didn’t seem possible when he first emerged from his seclusions. Of course, he looked like marthon man-era Forrest Gump, but after the initial shock wore off, the show was diving. Plus, given the show’s strict no-camera policy, it was the first show I’d been to in… forever, I guess, that no one even looked at a phone for most of the show. Overall, one of the best concert experiences I’ve had in a long, long time. No bullshit, posturing, or anything. Just a great band playing some great songs, in a great venue. I fully expect the New York crowd to be worse in January. But if you have a chance to see them, do it.
2. Japandroids, Music Hall of Williamsburg, June 7. Just a fantastic live band. The Vancouver duo’s music and live show is just about the only intersection in a Venn diagram of music nerds and frat-boy jock rock (or is that just Canada?). But what an intersection. I don’t think I’ve had a better feeling at a show this year than when Japandroids play “The House That Heaven Built.”
3. Diarrhea Planet/So So Glos @ Mercury Lounge, 8/30/13. Having shot the Bat For Lashes show earlier that night, then walking from Webster Hall all the way past and then back up to Mercury Lounge in 90-degree heat, I was already feeling a bit piqued by the time the late show started around 11PM. But there was no way I was missing this show. I’d heard the buzz at SXSW earlier this year, where a music writer friend of a friend said that Diarrhea Planet, despite their awful name, were NOT to be missed. I didn’t catch them then, so I did not want to miss them now. The record sounds a bit like a mix between the heaviness of Dinosaur Jr. mixed with the attitude and catchiness of Superchunk. And how could I not like a band that features 4 guitarists? Plus, shredder Marnie Stern jumped on stage for a couple songs. And I don’t know what “It” is, but frontman Jordon Smith has it. Dude’s gonna be a star.
So So Glos were great as well, and both bands jumped on stage to cover the Beastie Boys “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right” to close out the night.
4. K-Pop night at the SPIN House, SXSW. More like Korean rock than Korean pop. I’d never heard of any of the bands playing the first night of SPIN’s SXSW showcases at Easy Tiger, but I was impressed/intrigued/blown away by the bands that played. Maybe if they were American bands I would have found them to be somewhat generic, but they all seemed so exotic, and played with such energy and vigor, that I couldn’t help but be impressed. The standouts, for me, were Goonam, a sort of goofy quartet playing what I imagine Koreans think SoCal rock should sound like, and 3rd Line Butterfly, a sort of modern Korean take on shoegaze pop.
Some Songs I Liked in 2013
1. Chvrches, “The Mother We Share,” “We Sink”
Saw this band twice in 2013, once at SXSW when I had never heard of them, and once in December after hearing their record several times. They definitely grew in confidence in the 8 months between. I also just discovered that Iain Cook was the guitarist in Aereogramme, one of the many Scottish bands I liked in the late 90s/early 2000s. Anyway, “The Mother We Share” is more instantly catchy, but I think “We Sink” is the overall better song, and probably the one I’ll listen to more a year from now.
2.BOAT, “Inside an Aquarium”
One of my favorite bands of the last five or six years. Just right in my wheelhouse of rock/pop, with just enough 90s indie-rock influence. The record, Pretend to Be Brave, wasn’t my favorite of theirs, but this is definitely, in my opinion, one of their top 5 songs.
3. Bleached, “Dead In Your Head”
Another band I saw for the first time at SXSW. Instantly reminded me of a Runaways/Go-Go’s hybrid (though not as evident in this tune). Nothing tricky about the music, just straight-up girl rock with a bit of an edge.
4 and 5. Telekinesis, “Dark to Light,” The Love Language, “Calm Down”
Two songs off of albums I was really, really looking forward to, but ultimately found disappointing. I’d heard their last albums after they’d been out for a while, and came to love them, so I was really looking forward to both bands having new records this year. Besides both being on Merge, both bands also underwent complete lineup overhauls, as they usually seem to do between records. And I think they both suffered for it. I first saw both of these bands live together in 2010, and was blown away by both. This year, Telekinesis just seemed half a beat slower. They were just less peppy, and the songs seemed to drag a bit. And the Love Language didn’t seem as cohesive as in the past. Still, two pretty great songs off likeable but slightly disappointing records.
6. Sky Ferreira, “You’re Not The One”
This song just reeks of the 80s, right down to the video, but in the best possible way.
7. The Julie Ruin, “Oh Come On”
Historically, I’ve never really liked Kathleen Hanna. But there are definitely a handful of tunes she’s responsible for that I really, really like. And I definitely like her more with a band instead of samplers. And “Oh Come On” is just a great, straight-up rocker. It’s been a rough couple of years for Hanna, health-wise, but it doesn’t sound like she’s lost any vitality (for better or worse) in her music.
8. Kurt Vile, “Wakin On a Pretty Day”
You just know Kurt Vile always wanted to record nine and a half-minute song, and not only did he do that for Wakin On A Pretty Daze, he opens the album with it. What would’ve been a risky move earlier in his career, he’s in an enviable position right now where he’s got the trust of his label, fans, and the rock critic intelligentsia. So given over nine minutes to really stretch his legs, he runs the gamut of everything one would associate with “Kurt Vile” in 2013: Intricate acoustic and electric guitar interplay, warm 70s FM radio sound, introspective and obtuse lyrics, and endless noodling.
Critically-Acclaimed Records I Was Most Indifferent Toward in 2013
1. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories. It’s just Eurotrash dance, right? Can we just call it what it is? I just don’t get it. I never have. It’s like soft-rock, AM radio. Also, I don’t believe that I’ve ever enjoyed any single project that Pharrell has been involved in, outside of his cameo in Get Him To The Greek.
2. Haim, Days Are Gone. Again, just don’t get it. Gave it several listens, wanted to like it, but… meh. I mean, it’s nice and all, but is this where we’re setting the standard of great records now? Or are we just impressed when bands (particularly all-female bands) play their own instruments and write their own songs? If so, that’s just kind of sad.
Record That I Liked A Lot, Much To My Surprise
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time. Somehow lived up to and overcame the hype. Some clunkers on it, to be sure, but also two or three of my favorite songs of the past year. Her live show clearly needs some polish, and she’d do well to get some real professional, slick musicians eventually, but there’s something slightly charming about how all over the place she is live.
Favorite Photos I took in 2013
Japandroids @ Music Hall of Williamsburg:
Japandroids shows I are some of my favorite to shoot, and some of the most difficult to shoot. The lighting is pretty straightforward- lights above, below, and to the side. But the constant strobing is a nightmare. and a large percentage of shots are either all black or totally blown out. But on occasion, you get a great, high-contrast shot, with the band illuminated and the rest in darkness. I particularly like this one given Japandroids’ own penchant for using black and white photos in their album art and fliers.
The Geeks @ Easy Tiger, SXSW
One of the bands that played the K-Pop night at the Spin SXSW showcase. I’d never heard of them or seen them before, and probably won’t ever see them again. But the energy was infectious, and for a concert photographer, you’re always grateful when a band clearly loves jumping air kicks and punches.
Diarrhea Planet @ Mercury Lounge
Great show, great band, horrible lighting. I mostly like this set because I was one of the only photographers there not shooting with flash for the entire show. First of all, flash is cheating. Second, if you MUST use flash, maybe don’t fire the flash constantly FOR THE ENTIRE SHOW. Annoying to everyone, and a couple of audience members definitely had heated words for one of the photographers. Either invest in better equipment that can handle low-light (not all of it is super-expensive) or learn to use Photoshop (and shoot in RAW). Anyway, this was a tough shoot, with nothing but a few red spotlights for most of the show, and a really animated crowd. Couple that with a band that’s jumping around all over the place and a lens that’s notoriously slow at auto-focus, and it’s a miracle I got anything useable. Maybe my most involved post-processing ever. This is kind of overstating it, but I feel like a mortician who was able to have an open-casket funeral after the person was shot in the face. Just a ton of tedious work, but it mostly paid off.
Sky Ferreira @ Webster Hall
Again, horrible lighting. But that’s the magic of black and white. By the way, I’d say that most of the time you see a black and white concert photo, it isn’t because the photographer was trying to be all artsy with the shot, but rather, it was the only way to save a horribly over- or -underexposed shot, or especially an over-saturated shot. The light in this shot was a really dark blue. Also, there are a few heads in the way in the bottom left of this shot that were really distracting in color. In black and white, it just looks like shadows or vignetting. I also like this shot because I think it captures the sort of creepy living-doll aesthetic Sky Ferreira is going for in general, and particularly with the choice of dress. Posed, vacant, and on display.
Savages @ Terminal 5
I’m starting to think that I like Savages’ look more than I like their music. But that might just be a result of the fact that I’ve definitely spent a lot more time looking at them than listening to them. Their music is good, no doubt, but they make for dynamite pictures. Down the middle of the stage, the singer and drummer have such an intense, hypnotic energy, while the guitarist and bassist on the sides just kind of smolder. Mixed with the smoke and sparse, monochromatic lights, and you can get some really striking photos.