The Sounds and the Fury: Top 10 concerts in 2015

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Those who know me well know that the line between music and the rest of my life is a blurry one. I’m constantly going to shows and sending around that latest and greatest track that’s got me ecstatic.

So when Bob Boilen of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts put together a list of his favorite 10 shows of 2015, I thought I would enjoy doing the same and sharing it with my friends.

While I can’t compete with his 506 shows (!), my 225 (or so) ain’t too shabby. Like him, I’m counting each artist as its own show, but you’ll find that our tastes diverge significantly. Where possible, I’ve included links to the performances so you can experience at least a little of what made them so special.

After my top 10, you’ll see the complete record of the shows I saw in 2015, listed chronologically.

Here’s to another few hundred in 2016. I hope you can join me!

 1. Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires

 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, California (October 4)

If the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” had his glorious, silver- and gold-bedazzled coming-out party at Coachella, Mr. Charles Bradley had his homecoming ball at Hardly Strictly. Always an emotive performer, he seemed genuinely overwhelmed as he brought a huge crowd to its feet in a city he called home for many years. His seamless blend of classic soul and funk may not be sonically groundbreaking, but the swagger, honesty, vulnerability, vocal force, and raw emotional power he brought as the sun began to set behind the trees in Golden Gate Park made this performance an unforgettable one I feel lucky to have shared with him.

 2. Gesaffelstein

 Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Coachella, California (April 12)

You can (and definitely should) listen to this set here, but no set of speakers, no matter how good or how loud, can convey Gesaffelstein’s absolute mastery over a crowd. The white lights. The black darkness. The feeling. That feeling of black euphoria that only Gesaffelstein knows how to create, sustain, and bring to a fever pitch. Gesaffelstein’s live set at Coachella – his last, he says – was and will always be hard to capture in words. He took all of us to another world, something that felt like Satan’s invite-only apocalypse party for the baddest of the bad. You can hear the crowd’s enthusiasm in the recording, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone – myself included – completely lost their minds during this one.

 3. Madeon

 Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Coachella, California (April 12)

A mere few hours before Gesaffelstein owned the dark at Coachella, Madeon ushered us through a beautiful sunset, bridging the scorching desert day with nighttime revelry. You can re-live it here. I have mixed feelings about Coachella as a festival and musical experience, but I’ll never forget the moments when Madeon played the sun to sleep and coaxed it under the horizon, slowing down just for a moment to sing and play a beautiful lullaby on the piano. Add to that his effortless sense for melody, combined with his refreshing (and much needed) live approach to electronic music performance, and this was one heck of a show.

 4. Talisman

 Bing Concert Hall in Stanford, California (October 4)

Talisman is a student a cappella group at Stanford University that performs music from the African diaspora. This show brought together many, many of the group’s alumni to celebrate its 25th anniversary – you can re-live it here. So many talented singers raised their voices together to sing ageless songs of joy and sorrow, suffering and triumph in a variety of traditions. Regardless of each song’s language or tone, Talisman made every one’s meaning and emotional impact powerfully felt.

 5. Beardyman

 The Independent in San Francisco, California (March 4)

If you’ve never heard of Beardyman, stop reading this (promise you’ll come back!) and check out his amazing and hugely entertaining Ted Talk. Beardyman is, put indelicately, a freak of nature who can do pretty much anything with his voice. He also loves music of all kinds (especially drum ‘n’ bass) and does a pretty amazing job creating it on the fly, at will. And because he performs solo, with his own voice, he can make it all change and evolve as quickly as the thinking in his head does – which is pretty darn fast. He put his myriad of talents on display at the Independent, making my jaw drop too many times to count. At the end, he spit a pretty insane beatboxing session (watch here; those who know me may be able to spot the back of my head) and generally brought the house down.

 6. The New Deal

 The Independent in San Francisco, California (January 16)

The New Deal is an electronic band that can make DJs, with all their computers and buttons, just look silly. All three members can shred, and they know better than almost anyone how to create tension, build to a climax, and at last release. This first show of a two-night stint at the Independent had everyone dancing like crazy people, sounding sometimes like smarter versions of Avicii and other times like a groovy jam band from a funky neighboring planet.

 7. Flume

 Frost Amphitheater in Stanford, California (May 16)

As the first DJ on this list who performed in the now “traditional” way (i.e., computerized turntables of some sort), Flume earned his spot with an electrifying headlining performance on a gorgeous day at Frost, which used to host acts like Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late ‘60s. The music, of course, was much different, but the vibe felt oddly unchanged (for someone far too young to know firsthand, at least) – sun-drenched flower children dancing like mad to lush melodies and strange, big sounds. Flume knows his craft well, and he poured dense yet bright, massive-but-somehow-not-quite-mainstream electronic music onto the Stanford grass to kick off the summer with a bang.

 8. Fatboy Slim

 Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, Nevada (June 19)

Although many ravers know the now-ubiquitous axiom, “Eat, sleep, rave, repeat,” few know that Fatboy Slim is the man who coined it with his 2014 hit track, perhaps because the Calvin Harris remix has become the anthem ad nauseam. And even fewer know that Beardyman (see above!) is the one actually saying the famous words. Although I didn’t know Fatboy Slim’s music too well beyond a few hits, I figured he would be fun to watch, and he did not disappoint. Ever-conscious of his audience, Fatboy Slim struck a delicate balance between popular big-room EDM and his own more club-style sound, managing throughout the set to heighten and mock both in turn. The visuals were half the fun, but you can join in anyway and hear it here. If you want a laugh, try to catch the screaming goat sample at 17:20. At a festival where more and more of the DJs played the same songs and struck the same rockstar poses, Fatboy Slim crafted a refreshing rollick of a set that didn’t take itself too seriously yet still excelled.

 9. Tchami

 Mezzanine in San Francisco, California (September 30)

If there are two electronic genres adored by the kids these days (yup, I’m old now), they’re trap and future house. Tchami invented the latter, with imitators springing up left and right month after month. So when the real deal came to San Francisco, the atmosphere was absolutely electric – one of the most intense, enthusiastic shows I’ve attended in my entire life. And for good reason: Tchami brought the ruckus with a genre-bending journey that powered through without missing a beat.

 10. deadmau5

 Treasure Island Music Festival in Treasure Island, California (October 17)

deadmau5 may be a dick sometimes, but he sure is good at what he does. As the electronic music scene becomes increasingly dominated by constant drops and the relentless monotony of instant gratification, deadmau5 knows how to build anticipation higher and higher and higher than you ever thought it could go. In his headlining set at Treasure Island, he patiently built up the crowd’s energy, sometimes stretching single songs more than 15 or 20 minutes for maximum effect. And with classics like “Strobe,” this set had plenty of firepower.

 And now all the rest!

 
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