June 27 at Ryman Auditorium
Nick Zammuto, coming off his success from Books, needed an outlet to project his weird and wacky ways and has more than delivered with his eponymous band. Serving as the opener to Explosions in the Sky, they claim the distinction of being the only opening act to make this list. Mr. Zammuto showed great innovation, using mass media and technology as a supplement to his band's performance A marquee projected videos designed to complement their songs; one clip showed a guy doing tricks with a tech deck skateboard, while another featured a Christmas tree catching on fire. Highly technical and offbeat drum patterns laid the foundation for Zammuto's sound, which ranged from rock music with funky digitized vocals to hard edged raging rave techno.
9. Local H
December 20 at Mercy Lounge
This is a slightly unexpected pick, since this just occurred a few days ago. Yet it turned out to be the perfect capper for the 2012 concert year. Gathered before a sparse crowd at Mercy Lounge, Scott Lucas and Brian St. Clair pulled out all the stops to make sure everyone had a great time. Their dingy, dirty hard rock attack was simple yet effective. They had the crowd enthusiastically shouting along with the refrain of "California Songs," which jeers the oversaturation of songs dedicated to the Sunshine State. They joined in later on another song on which they were shouting about a high fiving motherfucker. It was tough to make out the rest. To cap it off, Lucas and crew preformed a cover of Rush's "2112" in honor of the pending Mayan "apocalypse," then capped it off with a demented performance of "Jingle Bells."
January 20 at Exit/In
With a name like Graveyard you might expect the sound of doom and death, but you haven't truly lived until you've heard rock like this. Graveyard doesn't try to hide their influences. Their sound is unabashedly inspired by 70s classic rock. Everything from the way they dress to the way they play to the way they rock is vintage 70s. Joakim Nilsson is a fiery, passionate rock singer with enough soul to make the devil salivate. With a high energy bassist in Rickard Edlund, a pulverizing dual guitar battery, and enough heart to convert even the most ardent critics of heavy music, these Swedes seem to have a better understanding of what makes rock music great than most American or British bands today do.
7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor
October 12 at Cannery Ballroom
Godspeed You! Black Emperor seemingly exists on an otherworldly, spectral plane. The 15 minute drone that opens each show seems much greater than the sum of its parts; it could possibly be a sound generated by a machine in the future, broadcasting through time and space. No one does a show like Godspeed. There are no lyrics, no spoken word, not even a microphone anywhere on stage so the listener is left to make whatever of the music they will. Their sound is not conventional. During the long droning buildups, it's best to just shut your eyes and let the music slowly surround you. When this nine piece outfit finally reach the crushing, crashing crescendos, however, it will be an experience unlike any other. The sound quality was simply incredible; no disc or Ipod could ever hope to come close. The 43 minute piece "Behemoth," along with fan favorite "Storm" from their vaunted Skinny Fists album were among its chief beneficiaries.
6. The Tallest Man on Earth
July 23 at Cannery Ballroom
To be frank, Swedish folk singer Kristain Matsson doesn't put on much of a stage show. The stage is rather barren, with only a piano, a pair of guitars, and the man himself. There isn't much to look at, and fanfare is almost nil. Does he need it? Please. Matsson exercises a unique command of his audience by weaving a connection with the listener precious few artists ever take the time to cultivate. His woodsy, folky, frontier melodies, his gentle guitar and piercing lyricism presents a portrait that dares you to not get lost within it. The moving elegance of a piece like "Where Does My Bluebird Fly" washes over its audience like ripples in a pond. Meanwhile, the cracking "King of Spain" is filled with such a potent, essential sense of urgency that it effortlessly creates the sort of static jolt that not only reaffirms we are alive, but that the world is a vibrant and moving place we should feel privileged to exist within.
5. Cloud Nothings
March 20 at The End
On their breakout album Attack on Memory, famed punk producer Steve Albini gave these Cleveland rockers a thin, icy, and cold sound; but that is a markedly different from how the sound the band had up to that point. In person, Cloud Nothings present a much heavier, rawer, and more muscular sound which drove the crowd nuts in the tiny confines of The End. In just over 30 minutes they ripped through the entire Attack on Memory album, presenting it in a totally new way. Dylan Baldi's piercing shrieks on "Wasted Days," the frenetic and offbeat drum patterns on "Cut You," and the crowd shout along invoked on set closer "No Future No Past" made for a wholly compelling night of heavy rock delivered by one of indie rock's best up and coming bands.
4. Kathleen Edwards
January 28 at Exit/In
There are few performers as passionate or thoughtful as Kathleen Edwards.. The Canadian folk/singer songwriter lit up Exit/In in January by pouring every drop of herself into her performance The intensity is etched plainly all over her face, from the burning drive behind her eyes to the way her head shakes ever so slightly when belting it out. Ringing tracks like "Back to Me" hit like a gale force dervish, but she also showed she could excel at quiet numbers. One of the most touching moments came when the band left her side for a performance of "House Full of Empty Rooms," one of the most introspective and moving songs in her catalog. An unexpected surprise was the appearance of her beau, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who overwhelmed the crowd with a volley of emotional guitar solos.
3. Beach House
September 15 at Marathon Music Works
Baltimore dream pop duo Beach House take the cake in terms of immersion and setting atmosphere. They don't pull anything fancy. Their set doesn't sound much different from the record, but any music fan with a pulse should thrill to be draped and shrouded in the sounds of Bloom and Teen Dream. Beach House are on a clear upward trajectory, with each album showing considerable improvement over the one that came before it. Victoria Legrand's voice cut through the mist and darkness with a ringing clarity and power, while Alex Scally's lush guitar work carted the crowd into a haze. They hit the essential tunes in their discography, from the effusive "Myth" to the booming "Take Care," while also providing several surprises from their back catalog. Without doubt, Beach House shows were among the most hypnotic experiences to be had anywhere.
2. Crystal Castles
October 11 at Marathon Music Works
The appeal of a Crystal Castles show is that it is like an out of control train whose brakes have failed, and the whole contraption is rumbling ahead at full speed. The crowds are insane, constantly moshing, thrashing, and gyrating. The core fan obsession is geared toward Alice Glass, who climbs over the barricade to crowd surf several times throughout the show. Giving Alice a shove to propel her through the crowd, and getting tangled up in her microphone cord are all very electrifying experiences. The music itself isn't too shabby either. Ethan Kath's beats range from icily dissonant to warm, full of passion, and fully emotive. The only downside was the sound wasn't that great. The low beats sounded fine but the higher pitched twinkling beats didn't come through very well. If not for that, this show might have taken the top spot. But what Crystal Castles present is an alluring frontwoman going farther than virtually any other artist to ignite a crowd, backed by some of the most inventive rave/dance electronica in recent memory.
1. Grizzly Bear
September 18 at Ryman AuditoriumGrizzly Bear's set at the Ryman brought together all the elements necessary for a fantastic performance. The first was top notch material delivered from an experienced, imaginative band in the prime of their career. For an hour and a half they weaved their blend of pastoral indie pop, complete with a dizzying array of vocal harmonies. There is a great sense of variety inherent in this material. "Sleeping Ute" and "Southern Point" concentrate on painting a rough, woodsy aesthetic while "Two Weeks" and "While You Wait for the Others" are clean cut bona fide indie pop hits.
Their set benefited from unrivaled art direction. Rich shades of purple lit up the stage while deep orange and red hues captured the essence of the season. The band also benefits from a standout frontman. Lead singer Ed Droste carefully tailored his remarks to fit his crowd. He commented on the recent college football game between the University of Tennessee and Florida, which took place while the band was playing in Knoxville two days earlier. He also congratulated a newly engaged couple in the crowd, while jolting the audience to their feet during key moments of the show.
And to cap it all off, it all took place in one of the most acoustically perfect buildings in the nation, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Every little nuance of their intricately structured harmony arrangements, every flourish of Daniel Rossen's guitar, and every ounce of power delivered from Christopher Bear's drumkit rang through triumphantly. As a nice homage to Nashville, they decided to take full advantage of the moment by playing an acoustic version of "All We Ask," a divine sendoff to the best live show of 2012.