For someone who makes a living thinking about popular music, I am notoriously bad at keeping up with what’s current. Sure, I dutifully watch the newest viral video, and I try to listen to everything that my students recommend to me, but I find myself a bit too locked in the past to go out and buy new records. So a list of my favorite records/songs from this last year would likely contain embarrassingly few records/songs that were released in 2014. Instead, I put together a list of my favorite live acts from the past year. Seeing live music is something that I am dedicated to, and this list challenged me to leave out a ton of great musicians for the sake of concision. I have the good fortune of living in Los Angeles, where I can see almost every touring act if I want. Even so, I probably missed loads of “must see” live acts this year. These were simply the best of what I did see. In alphabetical order:
(Where possible, video is linked from the show I went to…so sorry that the quality is bad on a lot of these. Elsewhere I did my best to find something representative of what I saw live.)
AraabMuzik – The Echoplex, April 23, 2013
In 2013, I started working on my dissertation prospectus, which is about how some musicians in the 1970s imagined themselves in to be amateurs, and what it meant to be an amateur at that historical moment. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that I was so blown away by AraabMuzik’s brazen virtuosity. AraabMuzik is known for his uncommon (for EDM) level of visual gymnastics, branding himself as much more “live” than many of his contemporaries. I’m somewhat critical of this idea, but the experience of seeing him live is at least different than most other electronic artists. Personally, I was more impressed by the sounds rather than visuals. AraabMuzik’s live music just sounds so much bigger than anything else I had experienced, and I felt that was notable given the maximalist turn amongst many electronic musicians in recent years.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – First Unitarian Church, June 21, 2013
I don’t know why I like Ariel Pink so much, but I do. I don’t go in for a lot of contemporary indie rock/pop, but Ariel Pink just seems so much weirder than the rest. And this show was weird. Everyone sat for the first half of the set, and Ariel Pink roamed around the aisles of the church while he sang like some kind of speed freak minister. Eventually all of the teenagers just stood up and started dancing at the front. By this point, you couldn’t see anything because a fog machine had been running nonstop, and you couldn’t hear anything because for some insane reason Ariel Pink had control of the sound board. So I suppose the image I’m trying to convey is one where a bunch of youths were dancing in a fog-filled church to a totally unintelligible version of “Menopause Man.” I liked it.
Jaap Blonk (with Jake Rosenzweig and Ted Byrnes) – Human Resources, May 11, 2013
I’ve been a casual fan of sound poetry since high school, and while I’ve listened to a number of recordings I had never witnessed it live until I saw the Dutch poet/performance artist Jaap Blonk. Blonk blurted out bizarre noises with all of the expression, intellect, and humor that I appreciate about sound poetry, but the addition of drums and bass from Jake Rosenzweig and Ted Byrnes is what made the performance so memorable. Having a rhythmic drive behind Blonk gave the poetry a real edge that reminded me of the way I felt when I first heard many of my favorite punk bands. Or more accurately, I thought this type of ensemble, with this type of vocalist, was like Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band for the 21st century (a highly favorable comparison in my mind).
My Bloody Valentine – FYF Fest, August 25, 2013
Here is my confession: I broke the law to see this show. I am very stubborn in my refusal to pay for music festivals, and I knew I could sneak past the fence on the hill opposite the festival grounds. But risking arrest seemed worth it to see My Bloody Valentine. Technical issues aside (the PA stopped working for about the last 20 minutes of the set), this show was great. As one of the most influential bands of the last 30 years, My Bloody Valentine’s aesthetic has been recycled a lot…at least the “pretty” portion of their aesthetic. But seeing them live reminded me of how radically noisy this band is. Seeing thousands of people cheer for the 15 minutes of guitar noise in the middle of their set was a really impressive experience. In no way do I regret sneaking by that fence.
Bill Orcutt – The Echo, December 13, 2013
This was definitely my favorite live performance of the year and probably one of my favorite live performances ever. I’m a modernist at heart and I appreciate things that seem very “new” to me (fully recognizing the problems with that type of judgment). Most known for his work in 90s noise-rock band Harry Pussy, Bill Orcutt is still the most shockingly new guitarist I’ve heard. When I get disillusioned by the staleness I perceive in a lot guitar-based music these days, Bill Orcutt reminds that there’s a lot of unexplored territory in the instrument – an inspiring revelation for someone that plays guitar in a band. Opening for Lee Ranaldo and the Dust (who were good-not-great) and playing with the drummer Jacob Felix Heule (who complimented Orcutt’s style perfectly), Bill Orcutt showed off his idiosyncratic style like a painter might give a studio visit; I got the impression that he was just showing us what he’s been working on, and that if I’m lucky enough to see him again in 2014 that his sound will be even newer and better crafted.
Perfect Pussy – East 7th Punx, December 20, 2013
I’m from upstate NY and I have a certain amount of pride attached to this Syracuse punk band, whose members have been toiling around the state in lesser known bands for years. The hype around Perfect Pussy is like nothing I’ve ever seen for an upstate band, and while I enjoyed their four song demo I didn’t really “get it” until I saw them live. A good portion of the experience of seeing Perfect Pussy was the excitement the audience had for them. For all of the attention around singer Meredith Graves’s “heartfelt lyrics” (as almost every review annoyingly reduces this band to), her vocals were completely swallowed up by the sheer loudness and dissonance of their live performance. But the kids didn’t care, because they did get it – Perfect Pussy give you just enough punk traditionalism for you to slam dance, but wrap it in a wild and scuzzy frame so that it doesn’t feel like your father’s hardcore band.
Pleasure Leftists – Pehrspace, September 23, 2013 and East 7th Punx, September 24, 2013
Pleasure Leftists are a band I’ve been listening to for years and finally got a chance to see in 2013 (twice!). If you read anything about this band, at some point it’s going to focus on singer Haley Morris’s voice – and for good reason. A lot of bands (especially in LA) do the post-punk revival thing well enough, but Pleasure Leftists have the best singer out of all of them (and it’s not even close). I’ll tell anyone willing to listen about Haley Morris, and I usually advertise her as a punk Annie Lennox for the 21st century. Both shows were great, and two very different audiences – one at a more traditionally indie rock venue, the other at a more hardcore punk DIY venue – went nuts over them (I rarely see “underground” touring bands sell as many records at shows as Pleasure Leftists did). On a side note, Haley Morris’s solo project Kiernan Paradise put out my favorite tape of the year, Loss.
Rash – The Bug Jar, December 27, 2013
I saw Rash in Rochester, NY (near my hometown), making this is the only show on the list outside of LA. Their CD/tape The Weight of the World was one of my favorites this year, but I thought they were even more impressive live. When you go to a lot of noise or experimental shows you get used to seeing a lot of heavy/droney bands. But Rash skipped the usual self-indulgences that comes along with this genre. There was no pissing contest to see how loud or “brutal” they could be, and they even kept their set relatively short (something that the punk in me always appreciates). Instead, they focused on slight variations in timbre and pitch (yes, pitch can be relevant in drone music!). I took a sound studies course at the beginning of 2013, and we focused a lot on vibrational ontology in approaches to sound and music. This thought has really influenced the way that I listen to (and feel) music, so I appreciated seeing a band that seemed to pay serious attention to these kinds of ideas.
Sissy Spacek – MATA Gallery, October 11, 2013
This was the fourth time I’ve seen Sissy Spacek, and each time is a totally different experience. At this performance, they had a singer I hadn’t seen before – Sara Taylor – who was a really impressive compliment to the band’s short bursts of thrashy noise. Los Angeles experimental music mainstay John Wiese plays bass in this band, and while I know him more for what he does with electronics, I really love the frenetic, disjunct style he brings to the instrument. I need to mention that Joseph Hammer (a longtime member of the Los Angeles Free Music Society) was also on the bill that night, and he gave a really great musique concrete performance. MATA is one of the best and newest spaces for experimental music in LA, and while this was the only show I’ve gone to there (so far), I’m very excited to see what they do in 2014.
Team Supreme – The Echo, every month
OK, this is cheating, because this is a monthly event, consisting of many different artists. But Team Supreme put on such consistently good shows that I couldn’t leave it off this list. I honestly can’t remember how many times I went to Team Supreme in 2013 (probably 4 or 5?), but every time I went I felt like I was getting the absolute cutting edge in instrumental hip hop and electronic music. Los Angeles has become known for its “beat scene,” mostly though that other, much-more-famous regular hip hop night, Low End Theory. But I like Team Supreme more, partially because I don’t have to wait in an around-the-block line, but mostly because the performers are younger/newer (with seemingly more to prove) and possess a broader sonic range. Amongst the group of regular producers, my favorites are Great Dane (some of the best heavy trap beats I’ve ever heard), Penthouse Penthouse (very tight, soulful, almost house-like sound), and Mr. Carmack (probably the most rhythmically complex of the bunch).
Benjamin Court is a PhD student in musicology at UCLA. He performs in a number of noise, punk, and improvisational bands.