2016 was a bit of a record breaker for me when it came to live music. If you count each artist’s set individually, then I saw 69 performances this year, shattering my previous record. Luckily, most of these shows were really high quality. But that makes a list like this even harder.
Somehow though, I’ve narrowed my list down to my 10 favorites for this year. If any of these artists come through your neighborhood, you should definitely go see them.
Astronautalis at Brooklyn Bowl – 9/28
There’s nowhere better to see Astronautalis than a small club. He is the type of performer who thrives on the energy of his fans and vice versa. The closer they are to the stage, the better. And if that’s not good enough, he will jump into the crowd, rapping into everyone’s faces, as the audience shouts his own words back at him. His show at Brooklyn Bowl, part of his 50-State tour, started off with wild swings between moods. It veered from the horn-inflected history of “The Case of William Smith” to the underwater creep of “Kudzu” to the acoustic revamp of “Cut the Body Loose!”
After that track, the concert hit the stratosphere. Astronautalis told the crowd that the rest of his set would be all high-energy and everyone better dance as hard as they could. And they did. For the next 40 minutes, you could barely keep track of where your own two feet were, never mind the stage or Astronautalis himself. It was a unforgettable mess of sweat and smiles.
Julien Baker at Rough Trade – 1/25
Julien Baker’s songs are like spider silk. They seem fragile and likely to dissolve at any minute. But they’re stronger than they seem. At Rough Trade, Baker walked out alone onstage, just her and her guitar in front of a couple of hundred people. Yet, as the first notes of “Sprained Ankle,” the chatter dropped to respectful silence. The singer-songwriter’s minimalist playing and her near-whisper hit hard. Some audience members teared-up as she sang about her struggles with depression, faith and substance abuse.
On some numbers though, her voice would rise to a shout, showing how she beat back the demons in her own life to get to the much better place she’s in today. Between songs, while Baker seemed shy, she also showed a dry wit that helped to break the ice. And all this at the age of 21. I’m sure this is the first of many, many times that I’ll be in her audience.
Bon Iver at Kings Theatre – 12/12
If you have an idea in your head of what Bon Iver sounds like, and you haven’t listened to 22, A Million, throw your expectations out the window. This isn’t your guitar-hauling folk artist that lives in a log-cabin anymore. Instead, Justin Vernon took a left turn in 2016 to turn Bon Iver towards glitchy electronica. These are songs that don’t so much unfold as collide into each other. It’s chaotic, disorienting and jagged. And it works beautifully.
At Kings Theatre, as numerical symbols flashed on screens, Bon Iver took to the stage and led everyone on a journey through this strange new wonderland. Opening with “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” the samples were by supplemented Vernon’s unforgettable falsetto. “33 ‘GOD'” followed with a stunning piano line and vocoder-filtered vocals, culminating into a head-swaying jam session. Even older material, like “Calgary” and “Beth/Rest” were shaken up to fit the new vibe. Vernon didn’t talk much, only to declare encores as “kind of bullshit.” Instead, he stayed on stage for the gorgeous “00000 Million,” which found the spirit in synths.
Florence and the Machine at Barclays Center – 6/14
It’s surprising that it’s taken Florence and the Machine this long to play arenas. After all, Florence Welch’s voice has always been powerful enough to reach the back row of the Barclays Center. Maybe she just needed a set of songs to match her pipes. If so, she conjured them up on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Whether it was the regal horns of the title track, the jangly guitar of “Ship to Wreck” or the wind-swept strings of “Queen of Peace,” her band faithfully recreated every note, giving her an epic musical bedrock that she used to bounce her voice forward.
And that’s not the only thing that was bouncing around! During “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up),” Florence leapt off the stage, running around the crowd to a small platform at the back of the arena floor. She sang there as fans surrounded her, a moment of intimacy magnified to arena size. Given that she broke her foot last year from a similar leap, you would think Florence would be a bit more cautious. Instead, she joyously threw caution into the wind, asking us all to join her.
Mitski at Webster Hall – 11/21
If there’s been a breakout star in the indie scene this year, it’s Mitski. Her fourth album, Puberty 2, focused on exploring her personal identity. Yet, by doing so, she created a relatable experience that connected with people from all walks of life. That connection was just as powerful in concert. While she didn’t speak much, when she did, it was from the heart and all about making those in the audience feel at ease.
Most of her words came from through her music, which ranged from the resigned sigh of “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” to the slow-building roar of “Your Best American Girl” to the off-kilter “Drunk Walk Home.” While she had a tight band her with throughout most of the set, she closed out the night just with her guitar and voice. It may sound cliché to say that she was speaking to each one of us. But for those last few songs, the divide between performer and audience faded away. We were all in it together.
PANORAMA FESTIVAL – 07/22 to 7/25
The inaugural year for most music festivals usually have one goal: make sure it’s not the last iteration too. For Panorama Festival, on Randall’s Island, the deck was stacked against them. The temperature throughout the weekend hovered in the high 90s. Not exactly ideal conditions. Luckily, the organization and the lineup was so excellent that the humid weather ceased to be a factor.
There are too many peaks to list, but here’s a small sampling. Lindsey Stirling’s electronic violin set, complete with choreography and strobe lights. The passionate howl of Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes. Arcade Fire closing the first night by playing Bowie covers through the festival grounds with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band . The blistering punk of The Julie Ruin. The trippy mindfuck of Sufjan Steven’s show, complete with absurd costumes and rafter-climbing. Everything about Kendrick Lamar. Dancing throughout the entire two-hour performance by the reunited LCD Soundsystem, only to end the festival jumping wildly through “All My Friends.”
So yeah…it was good.
Sarah Neufeld at Le Poisson Rouge – 4/15
The sound of Sarah Neufeld’s her violin seemed too expansive for the small lounge of Le Poisson Rouge. But it allowed everyone to focus on each note she played. As her hands glided the bow effortlessly across the strings, Neufeld moved gracefully across the stage, making eye contact with her band members and the crowd. Her vocals were another instrument, often wordless or spacey, but always adding to the atmospheres she created.
Even better, Neufeld was joined for most of her set by frequent collaborator Colin Stetson. Whether he was on the saxophone or the clarinet, Stetson’s playing kept Neufeld’s swept melodies grounded. It was wonderful to see two artists connect so strongly onstage, both with each other and with the audience.
Radiohead at MSG – 7/27
Seeing Radiohead is like waking up on Christmas as a kid. You don’t know what you’re going to get and you often end up happily surprised. For the band’s first New York shows in five years, I walked in with no expectations. I knew they would play material from their excellent new record A Moon Shaped Pool. Most of those songs translated well, including highlights like “Daydreaming” and “Identikit.”
But it was the selections from their back catalog that made this a night to remember. As soon as Jonny Greenwood started the sharp riff to “My Iron Lung,” returning to their set after a long absence, I knew all bets were off. The set veered wildly from the beats and soundscapes of Kid A and The King of Limbs to rockier tracks from Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows. But it was the appearance of songs like OK Computer’s “Let Down” and “Karma Police” that had us all screaming. And to cap the night off? “CREEP” Yes, Radiohead actually played “Creep!” My brother and I were in joyous shock that this song made a comeback. But that’s Radiohead for you. Always expect the unexpected.
Savages at Irving Plaza – 3/28
There is not a more blistering band playing today than Savages. The post-punk noise rockers are single-minded in their pursuit of pummeling ferocity. With only two albums to their name, the four-piece has already grown to become a must-see act. From the first discordant chords of “I Am Here,” their prowess was on display. Fay Milton hit the drums on “She Will” with enough force to knock someone unconscious. Guitarist Gemma Thompson’s stabbed out icy notes and head-banging riffs during “No Face.” Ayse Hassan’s bass slipped between the chaos of “Evil” to find an irresistible groove.
Leading the band and the audience along was Jehnny Beth, one of the best front people in music today. She is the type of singer who forces you to pay attention, just with her voice and her intense presence. Even though it was a sold out show, Beth told everyone to move forward three steps towards the stage before starting “Husbands.” Sure, we packed in tighter than the subway in Grand Central Station at rush hour. But it was more than worth it for the barrage of sound that Savages put forward.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at MetLife Stadium – 8/30
This artist has been on my bucket list for years and years! Springsteen plays the tri-state area seemingly every year, but it took until this summer for me to make my way out to see The Boss in his home state. It was certainly worth the wait! Well-oiled from the year-long River Tour, Springsteen and the E Street Band were at the top of their game, putting in more energy than most acts half their age.
The band started around 8 p.m. with “New York City Serenade” and closed four hours later with a cover of “Jersey Girl.” In between, they performed everything from the expected hits (“Badlands,” “Born To Run,” “I’m On Fire”) to deep cuts (“Kitty’s Back,” “Darlington County,” “Candy’s Room”) to fantastic covers (“Summertime Blues,” “Twist and Shout”). Bruce was in his element, making his way out to the crowd , drinking some guy’s beer, and inviting fans to join him on guitar for “Dancing in the Dark.” This show (temporarily) broke the record for their longest U.S. concert ever. Despite that milestone, the band still left us wanting more.