“Wanna go to a concert?”
Doctors say you should, at least if you want to live a happy life, and right now, happiness tends to be in short supply. Even taking politics out of the equation, there isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t hear about either a natural disaster or an act of terror. What’s worse, in between these stories are headlines about idiot celebrities doing equally idiotic things. And if that weren’t enough, you have millions of people on social media telling you this or that is awful, making you feel so much better every time you log on.
So, yeah, live music remains a great outlet to let your shit out. Speaking personally, some of my favorite moments this year have been in the throes of a climactic set, surrounded by thousands of people who want nothing more than to sing their favorite songs. It really is a liberating experience. That’s why this year-end accolade is a crucial facet of our Annual Report. These acts ahead aren’t just entertainers, but genuine heroes, who have turned the page for countless souls who have felt estranged from reality.
Hyperbole? Sure. Untrue? Nope.
NINE INCH NAILS
Trent Reznor was on a tear this year.
It helps that Nine Inch Nails put out their best collection of songs in nearly a decade (see: Bad Witch), but it also helps that the political climate is so fucked. Because really, an angry Trent makes for a greater Trent, and you can tell that was the case all year long. His setlists were fueled by some of his gnarliest material, leaning heavily on 1992’s Broken EP, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, and 1999’s The Fragile, and his crowd work all stemmed from the fact that we’re currently living in a Western democracy run by the very brand of evil these albums have long reflected.
But that kind of vitriol could also get old real fast, which is why Reznor was hip to shake things up. Granted, he’s never been one to confine himself to the same ol’ setlists, but this year felt as if he was finally enjoying his entire back catalog. All summer long, he surprised fans with deep cuts and old covers, particularly his latter-era material, most of which was not only exciting to hear again, but incredibly prescient. Singing the chorus to “I’m Afraid of Americans” at Mad Cool Fest with thousands of Europeans was invigorating, to say the least.
Tapping The Jesus and Mary Chain for much of their jaunt was also key. Not that anyone enjoys having their ears bleed or anything, but having the two titans of noise back to back simply boiled down to great planning. It also added some weight to the occasion, making The Cold and Black and Infinite Tour one of the must-sees of the season, especially for the rock genre, which saw some major blockbuster tours. Reznor was right there in the front, waving flags for the past, the present, and the future — a totally relevant rock event.
What a concept.
The American festival landscape has been reeling since we entered the latter half of the 2010’s. Lineups so often lack identity that fans no longer bat an eye when they’re offered a steaming pile of blandness for the lump sum of $400 (not including parking). It’s gotten so bad that I sense it’s seen as the norm by a new generation of festivalgoers, usually young adults, who are eager to participate in this once thrilling musical rite of passage. Adding insult to injury, festival’s have exhibited a noticeable absence of female, LGBTQ+, and people of color atop their yearly billings. If you know about the history of music festivals in the US, this isn’t anything new, but it’s especially infuriating when modern festivals are both lacking in diversity and inclusion and are — excuse my language — boring as shit.
Beyoncé’s two-hour pop epic at Coachella 2018 was, by most accounts, the greatest festival performance of the year and likely the decade. Few sets come to mind that have grasped our attention with such immediacy. (Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s 2012 Coachella set, during which a Tupac hologram sent the internet into a frenzy, might be the only recent performance to strike such a chord within festival and internet culture.)
It is hard to overstate the amount of tact Beyoncé showed through her gripping performance. A multi-layered showing, the set began with her descending from a set of bleachers as an HBCU marching band roared the sounds of “Do Whatcha Wanna” by New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band on either side of her. Incorporating songs by Master P, Crucial Conflict, Juvenile, C-Murder, and Fast Life Yungstaz into her set, not to mention paying homage to Fela Kuti and Nina Simone, Beyoncé blazed through a performance that was, at its core, an homage to black culture and, on the surface, the most invigorating pop spectacle we’ve seen since Michael Jackson did the moonwalk. Seamless outfit changes, over 100 expertly choreographed dancers, and pyrotechnics that left the sky ablaze were all incorporated into the two-hour epic, which left nearly everyone in the crowd either in awe or in tears. Hell, she even reunited with Destiny’s Child on several songs. During a year that was marked by a noticeable lack of flare when it came to music festivals, Beyoncé was a beacon of promise. We can only hope that festivals take note.
As the kids say, we stan a Pop-Queen.
“I would like to thank you, and say to you, that I will miss you a great deal…” Goodbyes are never easy, but they can be fun, and Elton John is never one to shy away from the enjoyable. For decades, the true piano man has made a career out of turning rock ‘n’ roll into something even bigger than a spectacle. And while “spectacle” has certainly followed his name since the early ’70s, it really doesn’t account for the emotional component of his music of which the value is very, very high. In fact, it’s right up there at the top, and that’s something everyone deserves to celebrate.
That’s why the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour is such a crucial experience. It’s one of the many “final” tours for graying legends such as John, and without sounding too precious, it’s a grand display of why legends like John are truly one of a kind. Look, there’s still great music being made today — and there always will be — but very few artists will ever make music this timeless and this transformative. Looking around during John’s two-hour cinematic experience proved this point as thousands of concertgoers of all ages, races, and places sang together like they were in that “We Are the World” music video.
To some, that may sound a little cheesy — and, sure, maybe it is — but at least it didn’t feel like that. No, the show instead felt like an emotional consolidation of everything John has been pouring into his music from day one. That’s why he put his weight into all his most memorable hits and sing-alongs. Now, some diehards might scoff at this and wonder why he’s not playing “Candy by the Pound” or “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket”, especially given that this is his final go-around, but they’d be missing the point. This isn’t a show that celebrates his work; this is a show that celebrates what his work has meant to people.
By taking the populist approach, John gets the goodbye he deserves. He gets to watch these emotions come to life night after night, something he explicitly admits and confesses he’ll be missing in the years to come between songs. Fortunately for him, he plans on stretching the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour across a couple of years, giving himself plenty of time to wave and wave and wave until he gets carpal tunnel. Odds are he won’t. If there’s one other thing to glean from this show, it’s that John lives for the stage. It’s where he belongs, it’s where he’s always been his truest self, and like any great performer, it’s his first love.
Saying goodbye to that will be anything but easy for him.
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS
There are certain hallmarks of a modern pop show that, while broadly fun, are generally predictable. Bright light displays, energetic dancers in loud costumes, giant LED screens, and probably a healthy application of artificial smoke — all of these things are welcome, yet ordinary. The shows Christine and the Queens designed for her Chris tour utilized many of these elements, but with such barefaced subversion that it creates something larger even while being ostensibly more subdued.
Doing more with less is an essential trick of the theater, something in which Héloïse Letissier is fairly well versed. All the comparisons you’ll read of the Chris show to West Side Story are completely valid; it feels like a muted, loose ballet, in the best possible ways. Her diverse group of dancers, many embracing the gender-neutrality of Letissier’s current “Chris” persona, wear plain, earthy tones instead of flamboyant, revealing outfits. Their movements, cocky and sharp, are more modern dance than hip-hop, an intensity mirrored in their facial expressions. Each song is a vignette of motion, sometimes a fight, sometimes a romance, always telling a story of strength and agency.
Though these bodies move around a largely barren stage, there are a few understated bits of set design. Leaving the lasers beams and clouds of fog to the typical pop provocateurs, Christine and the Queens prefers a simple strobe carefully timed to the rhythms or concealed smoke bombs billowing from a lone dancer. Yes, there’s a moment during “Goya Soda”, a song performed as a push-pull between Letissier and a dancer, where the latter literally disappears in puffs of smoke. It’s the most uniquely captivating use of the effect you’ll likely see on a stage, as beautiful as the streams of sand that fall in pillars of light from the rafters during one of the latter numbers. Like her choreography, Letissier takes an extremely considered approach to set design, giving audiences a rare sense of enchantment.
And at the center of it all stands Letissier. Between the major emotional moments of the performance (a purely apt descriptor), she lets her playful personality shine brightly. She could well be a stand-up comic with her self-deprecation and mockery of the crowd for their attempt at singing along to her French lyrics. The shift in mood doesn’t feel at variance with the show in general, though, as the whole thing builds towards an idea of embracing the fluidity of identity. At times, we can see literal interpretations of Letissier’s self-acceptance and individuality. There’s a grappling with her own gender and sexual identity that, in turn, gives the crowd a freedom to be themselves in the space she has created.
Chris is an album about pushing through the pains of the world to find the strength to be yourself, and the shows diffuse that theme into a stunning visual story. No other musician out there is presenting their intention so completely, so idiosyncratically, and so beautifully.
If boygenius, the indie supergroup made up of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, never existed, and the three musicians went on a regular three-act tour together, it would still be a phenomenal concert. Onstage, Dacus alternates between a soft acoustic verse and a sharp, blaring rock chorus at what feels like the flip of a switch. Bridgers uses her live sets to find humor in the solemnity of her songs and covers her “favorite song ever written about music streaming,” Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free”. Even when Baker’s emo-tinged tracks emotionally drain her audience until they’re left raw and vulnerable, her live presence offers hopefulness, particularly as she introduces her song “Everybody Does” as a song that she wrote about loneliness — a feeling she no longer experiences so strongly when she sings it to voices singing along and reflecting it all back to her.
But the main event of the boygenius show is these three musicians’ strengths combined and magnified. The trio play through their EP with pride and matching embroidered blazers, looking like three magicians prepared to perform six foolproof spells with confidence of their mastery written on their faces. That confidence is what stands out on the stage the most. When Dacus sings the first words of the EP and the set on “Bite the Hand”, she’s instantly met with cheers of delight, and each member of boygenius smiles to herself, because she knows. The live set even feels more confident than the acclaimed EP itself. Bridgers very softly sings the last lines of “Me & My Dog” on its recorded version; now, live, she belts them with the urgency and intensity those words demand.
Unlike the members’ solo songs, the track “Salt in the Wound” could fill an arena, and the trio treats it as such as Baker enters an uncharacteristically heavy, but extremely welcome guitar solo. Bridgers and Dacus, on either side of her, then fall to their hands and knees, bowing down to the newly appointed rock goddess and whipping out lighters. It is clearly meant to make Baker laugh, but the interaction is more poignant than that. After three excellent solo sets, these musicians join together to avoid taking one another’s spotlights, and instead prop their friends up. Three acts that honor personal touches, individualism, and intimacy are tied together by a presentation of collaboration, camaraderie, and love — three women who often sing about feeling sad and alone show to an audience, confidently, that they each have at least two shoulders to cry on.