The 15 Best Live Performance Videos of 2016

screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-4-04-06-pm

To kick off our year-end coverage, I present to you the 15 best live performance clips of the year. Below, you will find a collection of musicians displaying their craft on platforms ranging from emotional reunion concerts, to late night TV, to stripped-down NPR Music office recordings.
 

15. Kendrick Lamar: “Untitled 2” (Live on the Tonight Show)
It’s a testament to Kendrick Lamar’s unfiltered energy and passion that he can draw in the audience with very little additional fanfare. Just Kendrick, a mic, and a lot to say.

 

14. Lucy Dacus (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Lucy Dacus radiates warmth on a night in the streets (and subway stations) of Paris. Dacus pairs insightful lyrics with inviting arrangements in this stripped-down performance. One highlight occurs during her second song, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” when a passerby whispers “Play a Janis Joplin song!”

 

13. Steve Gunn: “Full Moon Tide” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Steve Gunn was made to play his songs surrounded by trees atop old, rusty train tracks. Gunn’s acoustic guitar work is extraordinary as he channels a little Bob Dylan, a little Grateful Dead, and a little Neil Young.

 

12. Britt Daniel: “I Me Mine” (Live at George Fest)
“George Fest,” a tribute concert to George Harrison held at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, happened in 2014 but clips and a live album were released this year. Britt Daniel of Spoon plays a fervent rendition of “I Me Mine,” the last song the Beatles ever recorded in April of 1970.

 

11. Bruno Mars: “24K Magic” (Live on SNL)
No one has more fun than Bruno Mars. I enjoyed “24K Magic” when it came out, but I started really loving it after watching Bruno and his hype men dance through it on Saturday Night Live.

 

10. The Arcs (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Dan Auerbach, known as the frontman for the Black Keys, released an underrated album last year with his side project, The Arcs. Early this year, The Arcs played at the NPR Music office for one of their famed “Tiny Desk” concerts, enlisting the help of a Mariachi band called Flor de Toloache. Auerbach’s bluesy voice really shines over the spare arrangements, but the women of Flor de Toloache steal the show, providing backing vocals along with violin, trumpet, and guitar.

 

9. LCD Soundsystem: “All My Friends” (Live at Webster Hall)
It was thrilling to hear that LCD Soundsystem was reuniting to tour this year, after declaring that they had broken up in 2011. The band played their first show back at Webster Hall in New York City in March, closing their encore with “All My Friends,” an absolute behemoth and roller coaster of a song — easily their best, and probably the greatest song of the last decade. Even though the following clip is a somewhat crude recording from some audience member’s phone, the energy still surges through. I wish I had been there. (And here’s a higher-quality recording of their performance of the same song at Lollapalooza this year.)

 

8. Local Natives: “Dark Days” & “Fountain of Youth” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Local Natives show their harmonizing chops on a slow, gorgeous version of “Dark Days”, one of the best songs of the year. Then on “Fountain of Youth,” one of the guys takes a little dip in the Seine after the performance.

 

7. Beyoncé (Live at the MTV VMA’s)
Beyoncé’s stage presence has always been a sight to behold, and it’s even more powerful with a cohesive narrative like Lemonade as the subject matter. Her performance of a medley of Lemonade tracks at the MTV Video Music Awards combined enthralling visuals, dancing, and Beyoncé’s persistently amazing voice.

 

6. Anderson Paak (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Anderson Paak is a stunningly talented musician, and it shows on this Tiny Desk concert. Paak plays the drums and serves as a confident band leader as he layers his voice over some sumptuous funk/soul/jazz grooves.

 

5. Chance the Rapper: “Blessings” (Live on the Tonight Show)
Chance the Rapper wears his good heart on his sleeve at all times, making it impossible not to love him. On the Tonight Show, Chance is joined by D.R.A.M., Anthony Hamilton, Ty Dolla $ign, and Raury on his earnest mission to have everyone recognize their blessings.

 

4. Bon Iver: “Heavenly Father (A Capella)” (Live at the Sydney Opera House)
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver returned this year with an album full of vocal processing, effects, and studio trickery. But for their Sydney Opera House performance of the group’s one-off track (for a 2014 Zach Braff movie) “Heavenly Father,” the group gathers in a circle and relies solely on their blended voices. It’s mesmerizing.

 

3. Pinegrove (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Pinegrove, the Montclair, New Jersey band led by Evan Stephens Hall, made one of my favorite albums of the year in Cardinal, a blend of indie rock, country and, yes, even a dash of emo. Those of you who know me are probably shocked that I could like anything involving the words “country” or “emo,” but here we are. Pinegrove have stirred something inside me recently and I’ve become obsessed. On the album, the “rock” part of the blend dominates, but in a stripped-down setting like the NPR Tiny Desk concert series, those country tinges shine through a little more. It’s hard for me to adequately express the deep connection I feel with these songs, and this performance in particular — especially when they play “Old Friends” at 4:04, as Hall sings “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.”

 

2. Choir! Choir! Choir!: “Space Oddity” (Live at the Art Gallery of Ontario)
David Bowie’s death was almost too much to handle, but people all over the world attempted to process it by paying tribute in whatever way they could. The most affecting tribute to me was a short-notice gathering of an audition-less choir in Toronto to sing “Space Oddity.” One acoustic guitar and a chorus of over 500 voices in perfect harmony. They easily could have made the performance too sickly sweet or cheesy, but it’s done with tremendous taste and restraint. It’s a genuinely moving, chill-inducing memorial to a true legend.

 

1. Kanye West: “Ultralight Beam” (Live on SNL)
Kanye is on my “naughty” list right now, but there was no denying the top spot to his Saturday Night Live performance of “Ultralight Beam” back in February. The funny thing about it is Kanye doesn’t even do much here, but that highlights one of his strengths: he knows talent when he sees it, and he defers to that talent when the song calls for it. A full (and extremely powerful) gospel choir accompanies Kanye along with guests Kelly Price, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper, who all absolutely slay their time in the spotlight. The disparate parts all cohere to make a beautiful statement on searching for light.

Five Quality Tracks: November 2016 (+ October 2016)

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-12-22-12-am 
We’re in the home stretch. The Best Songs of 2016 list is coming soon! But for now, let these ten tracks from the last two months hold you over.
 
NOVEMBER

1. A Tribe Called Quest: “We The People…”

Comeback albums are not supposed to be this satisfying. Or smooth, or cohesive, or playful (at times), or important (at other times). But somehow, A Tribe Called Quest pulled it off with panache.

The Tribe got the whole gang back together for their newest album, We Got it From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Jarobi, Consequence, and Busta Rhymes all make their mark on the album, along with guest contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Andre 3000, Kanye West, Anderson Paak, Elton John, and more. But since A Tribe Called Quest’s inception, the highlight has always been the verbal tango between the two frontmen, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Most of the album’s tracks feature multiple rappers, but on “We the People…”, Q-Tip and Phife take the keys and run with it. There’s absolutely nothing more pleasurable in the world of hip-hop than Tip and Phife’s chemistry together on the mic. But with such a long (and somewhat acrimonious) period of time since their last album, there was a significant chance that the magic between those two would be gone. But they don’t miss a single (Q-Tip-produced) beat.

On “We the People…”, Tip and Phife trade verses like the old days, but the subject matter is very current. The group directly addresses intolerance that many face today, taking on the part of the oppressors with the chorus: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways.” While the subject remains consistent, the duo’s unique styles still come through. Q-Tip (the philosopher) brings up empty-headed reality shows, but instead of outright demeaning them, he points out their appeal: “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with / Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality / And for a salary I’d probably do that s— sporadically.” And Phife (the everyman) is always good for some sports-related similes, going after the unprepared haters who are “like a AL pitcher on deck talking about he hittin’“, or how the Tribe at their best are “like Tony Romo when he hitting Witten.”

Phife Dawg passed away earlier this year of diabetes at the age of 45, eight months prior to the album’s release. Not only is the album impressive in its own right, but it’s a fitting, worthy tribute to his memory. R.I.P. Phife, and Thank You 4 Your Service.

 
Continue reading

Five Quality Tracks: September 2016

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-33-47-am 
Grad school and work at the same time is hard. Sorry for the huge delay in posting my favorite tracks from September. Hopefully you don’t shrug this off as *so last month*, because September was pretty cool, music-wise. Let’s dive in.
 

1. Local Natives: “Dark Days”

One of the most underrated albums of the current decade is Gorilla Manor, the 2010 debut album from L.A. band Local Natives. In an indie rock genre saturated with cookie-cutter versions of the same band, Local Natives stood out with their wide-eyed songs and incredible, unique gift for complex harmonies. They’ve now released their third album, Sunlit Youth, which features a song we’ve already showcased as a quality track back in May (“Past Lives”), but the album is full of solid songs.

“Dark Days” is a joyous, hopeful, exhilarating 3-minute slice of winsome pop. Vocals, both lead and background, have always been the band’s strong point, and “Dark Days” showcases their vocal talent with subtle beauty. Kelcey Ayer takes lead, sounding vulnerable as he sings about the dark days of summer, while the band harmonizes behind him. They bring on guest vocalist Nina Persson of The Cardigans (the band that brought you the smash ’90s hit “Lovefool”) to sing the second verse and duet with Ayer towards the end, complementing each other beautifully. “Dark Days” gets into a groove right from the beginning and never lets up — the hook is full of guitar flourishes and drum fills, all anchored by a simple, effective bass line. The whole song is just so catchy and well-executed.

 
Continue reading

Five Quality Tracks: August 2016 (+ July 2016)

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 1.17.47 AM 
The transition from July to August brought vacations and final exams and a LOT to do, so apologies for no previous July edition of Five Quality Tracks. But never fear — after going over the five tracks from August, we’ll double back to July and make up for lost time with five additional tracks.
 
AUGUST

1. Frank Ocean: “Self Control”

Frank is back! It’s hard to believe this actually happened. I still can’t shake the feeling that we’re all living a fever dream and Frank Ocean’s two new albums (yes, two new albums!) will be yanked away from us when we wake up. But my iTunes still has 35 more Frank Ocean songs than it did a couple weeks ago, so it’s real!

Two days after releasing a “visual album” called Endless (a project largely full of vignettes and a smattering of really good, but also really short ideas), Ocean released Blonde, his proper follow-up to channel ORANGE. As a whole, Blonde floats along with less immediacy and fewer hooks than channel ORANGE, but it washes over you with ambient moments of unadulterated beauty, punctuated by bursts of brilliance. “Self Control” can be classified as one of those “bursts.”

On “Self Control,” Ocean opens with a jarring chipmunk effect on his voice before going into his gorgeous, raw croon over a rhythmic electric guitar groove. Ocean’s ability to create a thick, fully realized atmosphere in the studio is enough to put him in the upper echelon of songwriters, but then he has that extraordinary voice to go on top of it. He’s a talented dude.

The song then gives way to an absolutely stunning chorus of Franks singing “I I I know you gotta leave leave leave.” It’s the kind of thing that makes you stop in your tracks and pause to take in the beauty.

Frank is back. Let’s enjoy it.

 
Continue reading

Five Quality Tracks: June 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 12.43.08 AM 
1. The Avalanches: “Colours”

In Stereogum’s review of the Avalanches long-awaited sophomore album, Wildflower, Chris DeVille points out the group’s knack for creating a “sensation of somehow simultaneously swimming and soaring.” After captivating the underground music community with their thrilling, unique debut Since I Left You in 2000, the Avalanches fell off the face of the earth for 16 years. They would occasionally tease a follow-up album, but nothing would ever come of it — until now. That swimming and soaring sensation DeVille mentioned is what makes the Avalanches so special, and the wait for Wildflower completely worth it.

“Colours” is a vibrant smorgasbord of swirling sounds, floating in an out of focus, resulting in a song both stimulating and soothing. “Colours” demonstrates another quality unique to the Avalanches: their ability to make a song that can soundtrack a party as naturally as it can drift through your ears as you fall asleep. Unbelievably, counter to the Avalanches’ usual modus operandi, the track contains no samples, so the backmasked vocals and whirlwind of sound were all recorded by the group. The flutes, bells, strings, and airy vocals combine to form a kind of ice-cream truck psychedelia.

 
Continue reading

Five Quality Tracks: May 2016

Featuring discussions of the Strokes’ career trajectory, the single most important quality of a great pop song, and more.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 3.36.48 PM 
1. Radiohead: “Burn the Witch”

Much of Radiohead’s music takes a while to sink in. It took me a repeated listens to fully appreciate the intricate brilliance of OK Computer and Kid A, and the band’s newest surprise album, A Moon Shaped Pool, is proving to be a slow-burner as well. There are exceptions, however. In Rainbows was an album that revealed its pleasures immediately. While most of Kid A took some time, opening track “Everything in its Right Place” was spine-tingling from the start. Similarly, the lead track on A Moon Shaped Pool, unlike the rest of the album, was instantly engrossing.

“Burn the Witch” is eerie, full of an anxious energy that boils over by the time we reach the end. The song highlights multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood’s proclivity for discordant string arrangements. Greenwood’s strings were almost like another full-bodied character in films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master. Greenwood uses the same pizzicato technique on “Burn the Witch,” and as a result, the song sounds huge, important, and cinematic in scope. It forges forward with Thom Yorke’s ethereal voice floating on top until about the three-minute mark, when it kicks up a notch and builds to a fever pitch. Jillian Mapes of Pitchfork said it best when she called it “simultaneously unsettling and gorgeous.” The lyrics match the sonic paranoia — “Stay in the shadows, cheer at the gallows,” “Avoid all eye contact, do not react, shoot the messengers,” and “This is a low-flying panic attack.”

 
Continue reading

Just Throw This at the End: Kanye West’s Gift for Outros

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 1.12.20 PM

Over the past few years, Kanye West’s outsize persona has eclipsed his music-making ability in the public consciousness. When someone is married to a Kardashian, can’t stop dissing Taylor Swift, and tweets whatever idiosyncratic musings come to his head, it’s not surprising when that person’s extracurricular activities consume all the attention. But to me, Kanye’s legacy will always rest on his brilliant production work.

One of my favorite aspects of Kanye’s music is a bit random — his outros, i.e. the way he ends his songs. He has a gift for knowing what sample will hit the spot, or what groove will bring the whole track home. He’ll either ride whatever beat he already has going for just the right amount of time, or he’ll switch it up in an invigorating or even beautiful way.

On Kanye’s latest album, the messy and overwrought but sporadically dazzling The Life of Pablo, one of his outros gave me chills: Frank Ocean’s pained voice singing out into the night on “Frank’s Track,” coming right after “Wolves.”

“Wolves” is constructed in a way that gives Ocean’s outro maximum impact. The portentous aura of the song builds until everything is stripped away except for just an electric piano and Ocean’s raw, passionate voice. You can hear his voice catch when he sings “BLACKENED” and “LIFE IS… precious.”

Let’s take a look at the other masterful outros in Kanye West’s catalogue. I’ve broken the songs/outros into three categories: (1) Riding the Groove; (2) Switching it Up, Subtly; (3) Switching it Up, Dramatically. As I mentioned, Kanye’s best outros can either be built on the already-existing beat (Category 1) or on a subtle (Category 2) or dramatic switch-up of the beat or production (Category 3).

Before jumping in, I should give honorable mention to “Runaway”, which has an iconic outro (and, not to mention, is one of the best songs of the decade), but the outro goes on a little too long. Another small note: the tracks that I’ve listed here from Yeezus and The Life of Pablo can have fairly explicit language, but the rest are SFW.

Continue reading