Here are the 10 best shows I saw in 2011, a year filled with enough lousy stuff to make these delightful nights stand out even more brightly.
Beyoncé. Beyoncé’s fourth album, 4 (Columbia), rubbed some people the wrong way because of its victory-lap nature, and her concerts at Roseland around the time of the album’s release probably would not have convinced those nonbelievers; half-cabaret about her life and her destiny, half-4 runthrough, they were very much about crowning the singer as Queen B. But the crowning performance of “Countdown,” the throw-’em-in-a-blender ode to the utter wonderfulness of her long-standing romance with Jay-Z, made her coronation a complete certainty.
The Big 4. Metalheads had their day at Yankee Stadium in September, when four thrash titans strutted their stuff in the outfield: Hometown heroes Anthrax were goofy and grateful; surly Megadeth roared through a set of crunching, virtuosic rock (not bad, given that lead singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine was suffering from a nasty neck condition); Slayer shook the rafters with light-speed, demonically inspired metal; and Metallica pulled out chestnuts from the almost 30-year-old Ride the Lightning to show that, Lou Reed collaboration or not, they could still hang with the greats.
Kelly Clarkson. Somehow I got to see the inaugural American Idol in three completely different settings—a corporate gig at the Highline Ballroom, a brief set at Z100’s Jingle Ball, and a TV taping where she paired up with Ledisi and Mary J. Blige. The Highline set allowed Clarkson to stretch out the most, thanks to her rejecting the idea that a branded gig is an excuse to play four songs and collect a check. Instead, she tore into her biggest hits and a couple of covers (“Seven Nation Army”) with gusto, chatting with the audience as if it were made up of old friends who she’d invited to coffee after a too-long time apart.
PJ Harvey. Let England Shake (Vagrant), the 10th album by Polly Jean Harvey, has the singer looking outward at the world’s travails and coming away disheartened—that it doesn’t sound nearly as bleak as that description is a testament to her economical songwriting and weary wit. In April, she came to NYC and strapped on her autoharp to perform selections from Shake and a few oldies, and her performance was spellbinding enough to achieve the impossible: She got the chronically awful crowd at Terminal 5 to keep their mouths shut and their more brutish impulses in check. (As if there weren’t enough reasons to want her to come back more often!)
R. Kelly. Kells understands his ridiculousness (the operatic take on “Bump N’ Grind,” in which he had a dancer “conducting” a videoscreen chorus of disembodied mouths; the onstage bar) and knows exactly how to harness his voice (the throwback-y Love Letter could serve as a crash course in R&B styles for the completely uninitiated) in such a way to make the Prudential Center crowd hang on his every syllable this June.
Miguel. Much ink was spilled this year on The Weeknd, a Drake-approved project specializing in addled grooves that were as shapeless as the lyrics accompanying them were nihilistic. That critics weren’t hailing the up-and-coming singer Miguel instead was mind-boggling; the wooziness suffusing his music is similar to that of the ballyhooed Torontonian’s, but it has the extra benefits of actual songwriting chops and palpable enjoyment of the women about whom he’s singing. (Are the two related? We’ll never know.) Live, he’s sultry and enigmatic. His clear understanding of the possibilities of mutual pleasure inspired swoons and sighs and, at one point during his November show at the Paradise Theater, a fight that had to be broken up by security guards.
Sade. The smoothed-out R&B combo, back in action after a lengthy dormant period, performed at Nassau Coliseum in June, and they put on a show that was sensuous enough to make me feel like I was on a date, even though I went all by my lonesome.
SMTown Live World Tour in New York. Madison Square Garden reopened its doors with this showcase for the Korean pop-music conglomerate S.M. Entertainment, and the resulting show crammed three and a half hours of Kpop into a time frame that gave the audience little room to breathe, never mind run out for a bathroom break. That was only the tip of the excess iceberg—the group Girls’ Generation crowded 10 members onto its stage, there were multiple opportunities for singers to double as aerialists, and the music was crafted like it was a laboratory experiment, with more than enough cotton-candy choruses and arena bombast added so as to shock the listener into uncontrollable glee.
Patrick Stump. The Fall Out Boy frontman ventured out on his own with the EP Truant Wave (Nervous Breakdance) and the full-length Soul Punk (Island) in 2011, with the latter in particular affording musical pleasures that eschewed the dance-pop thud dominating the airwaves and instead harkened back to the idyllic Jam/Lewis era. His three-night April residency at Joe’s Pub was the first live glimpse at how he planned to bust out of the box placed on him by years of
TRL success and jokes about guyliner, and he did so deftly. At the Studio at Webster Hall last month, he was supremely confident, blowing through the ebullient “Everybody Wants Somebody” and the swaggering one-last-drink resolution “Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers)” in such a way to expand the basement room’s walls to arena size.
tUnE-yArDs. The fearless way with which Merrill Garbus attacks her instruments (I’m including her voice, which she loops live on stage) is inspiring, bringing up urges to seize the day as soon as humanly possible. That the show coincided with Bastille Day turned out to be a wonderful coincidence; as the last notes of the defiant “Killa” rang out, fireworks went off across the Hudson. Even though they technically were part of a Bastille Day celebration, they might as well have served as the night’s final pyrotechnic exclamation point.
Honorable Mentions: Battles at Webster Hall (three musicians at the top of their game); blink-182 at Jones Beach (bratty pop-punk turns into the ideal soundtrack for oceanside splashing); Ke$ha at Jones Beach (a loft party gets blown up to shed size); The Olivia Tremor Control at (le) poisson rouge (underground psych-pop icons prove that they can still make a glorious mess after all these years); Razika at Cameo Gallery (Norwegian twee in the crucial moments before they were devoured by the Internet); Wild Flag at the Rock Shop (’90s refugees refusing to rest on nostalgic laurels).