Welcome to my annual countdown of the most entertaining music experiences of the year. I only went to 41 concerts. Life commitments and a family took a higher priority. But then again, I enjoy profiling an artist over critiquing the music. I put more thought into the concerts I attended, so I think this compilation is still “deserving,” whatever that means. Still, some iconic and talented performers didn’t make my top 10: No Elton John or AC/DC, Royal Blood or Kacey Musgraves (who both came close), no Mumford and Sons or Duran Duran.
Those of you who have read my previous lists already know that I specifically use the word “favorite” because using “best” is too subjective. Everyone has their own opinions.
Like in years’ past (above), I set a few rules for myself. Opening acts didn’t count. Neither did non-headlining performances at festivals (that didn’t matter so much this year as even the headliners of Outside Lands didn’t make my list). However, as you see below, some earned “special considerations.” In order for a concert to count on my favorites list, the performer needs to be on stage for at least one hour or be a headliner.
A quick breakdown: I saw the most shows in May (nine; mostly thanks to U2 being on tour), while February had six and August and October both had a respectable five concerts. I only attended one concert in March, June and December. May had the most “rated” shows (three). Unlike the previous year, the favorite shows were more spread-out throughout the year.
2015′s special considerations:
SAM SMITH at Bill Graham Civic – Jan. 31
Smith would go on to rule the Grammy Awards the following week and this show was a bit of a preemptive victory lap. High-quality tour production, full band and orchestral musicians, and backup singers were enough to mask that Smith is a stand-and-perform musician (i.e. Adele). His voice is golden and firing on all cylinders on this night.
CATHEDRALS at the Independent – Feb. 28
The San Francisco duo is still building steam, adding musicians to live performances and gathering fans. This Noise Pop Music Festival performance was an early showcase of just how far they’ve come in the previous few years. When they finally release a full-length album, I believe it will make some noise on nationally.
CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS at the Warfield – April 17
I didn’t know what I was in for when I watched Héloïse Letissier open for Marina and the Diamonds for the first time this year. I read she was big in her native France, and that she danced. What I didn’t know was just how she and her dancers move around the stage. Like I told her later (we’ve spoken several time this year), it was like watching water flow in slow motion. And, oh yeah, she can sing, too.
ST. VINCENT at Outside Lands – Aug. 7
The 2015 version of the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival lacked a cohesive lineup, but there were several standouts. One of the brightest was Annie Clark, who was easily more qualified to headline the first night than Mumford and Sons. Her dazzling performance, while wearing a leather catsuit, was unmatched.
SHAKEY GRAVES at Outside Lands – Aug. 9
On a day most didn’t look past Sir Elton John on the lineup, Shakey Graves surprised those who showed up early with rolling blend of garage rock and blues. Yeah, I interviewed him beforehand so I was familiar with his folky sound record. His live show is definitely not that, and I wasn’t expecting this to be my top performance of the day. Shakey Graves also returned to the Bay Area later in the year for two sold-out shows, but the gig I attended lacked the same level of energy as the festival performance.
THE TOP 10
10 – TAYLOR SWIFT at Levi’s Stadium – Aug. 14
At this point in her career, Swift is a pop diva with a country esthetic. Yet she’s got enough alt credentials to really appeal to everyone. That might annoy some reading this, but it’s a killer combination. On this night, there plenty of lasers, guest performers, stage piece trickery and a setlist filled with hit-after-hit-after-hit. When I stopped analyzing, I realized how much fun I was having. The majority of her setlist was pulled from 1989. It was impressive how little Swift relied on earlier material.
**Swift’s legal team and I came to a compromise. I wouldn’t publicly post live videos and they wouldn’t file any copyright strikes. Visit my YouTube page and do some scrolling.**
9 – FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE at the Masonic – April 8
The time off between records and touring has done Florence Welch a lot of good. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but finds its own identity. The Masonic gig was her band’s first supporting the new album in the U.S. That new identity is both visual and musical. Welch wore not a flowing, ethereal dress, but black jeans, with a sheer white shirt, a scarf loosely knotted around her neck in the appearance of a tie, and for a couple of songs, a suit jacket. The image portrayed a more masculine, driven and grounded performer. The new songs relied less on Welch’s signature harp and militaristic percussion and more on edgier guitar riffs. Welch interacted with the crowd, and more than any of her previous Bay Area stops, with her band, which included two back-up vocalists and a three-member female brass section.
8 – THE VACCINES at Slim’s – Aug. 7
This London band’s third album, English Graffiti, may have garnered little attention in the U.S., but that is an incorrect assessment of its strength. In fact, it’s the most varied of The Vaccines’ career. Seeing the successful quartet in a venue as small as Slim’s was a real treat. In 2013, they sold out the Fillmore, after all. Justin Young, a very capable frontman and rock symbol, worked the tiny stage memorably.
7 – MUSE at Oracle Arena – Dec. 15
Muse have always been more than musicians. They are performers and artists, constantly striving to up their complete performance. On that level, they truly are one of the best bands today and proved once again that they are a force to be reckoned with. Although a malfunction prevented the drones from taking flight at this show, the other production highlights made up for the absence. The band performs in-the-round on a stage resembling a ship from some space adventure far, far away. A large round platform in the center of the arena floor (yes, this “Lazy Müsan” rotates), is flanked by two side stages connected by elevated catwalks. Above the stage, a round screen hangs from a cross-shaped suspension near the ceiling. Sheer sheets descended from the spine to increase capacity for projection. Older material received the biggest fan reaction. Droneshighlights included “The Handler,” during which projection onto the screens made it appear as if the musicians were tethered to the strings of a nefarious puppet master. On “Undisclosed Desires,” the band was enlarged to two stories tall in extremely effective hologram fashion. Does Muse’s new material bring anything new to the table? Not really. Does that matter in-concert? Not at all.
6 – FRANZ FERDINAND SPARKS (FFS) at the Fox Theater – Oct. 15
The partnership between the two influential bands proved very fruitful on stage on the final show of their tour (and perhaps ever). The guitar pop of Franz Ferdinand blended seamlessly into the synth pop of L.A.’s Sparks, and the voices of Franz’s Alex Kapranos and Sparks’ Russell Mael glide in and out of each other. And with six musicians on stage together, fans got to see sides of each that wouldn’t otherwise be available. I hope this is not the end of their collaboration.
5 – MISTERWIVES at the Fillmore – Oct. 19
The first time I saw No Doubt was in 2001. But that point they were probably at the height of their career, and have been in steady decline ever since. I imagine that seeing MisterWives now is a close equivalent is see the latter band as it was on its ascent. The New York pop-ska band is still young, but as it showed at this gig, has grown quickly as it balances musicality and live performance. Gwen Stefani should be proud.
4 – MARINA AND THE DIAMONDS at the Warfield – April 17
Marina Diamond is has one of the most fervent fanbases I’ve ever encountered, and in the United Kingdom and Europe, her voice fills arenas. In the United States, she’s still a club performer, though those who know her love her. This was one of her three-sold out Bay Area performances in 2015 (two followed in the fall, and this was more of a promotional stop than a full-on tour). Yet I thought the later shows, with larger-than-life LED screens and multiple wardrobe changes, were a bit more distracting. Diamond is still performed with her usual pomp, but without the distractions, I was able to concentrate more on her and her talented band than watching a movie.
3 – (TIE) U2 – at the Los Angeles Forum – May 31 and June 3
After considering a choice for several months, I couldn’t pick a favorite between these two of five Los Angeles shows. On the one hand, May 31 featured full-band versions of “Angel of Harlem” and “When Love Comes to Town.” That show closed with “40″ to honor longtime band road manager Dennis Sheehan, who had suddenly passed away. On the other, June 3 had the tour premiers of “Volcano” (much better live than on record) and “Ordinary Love,” (about what you’d expect), as well as one of the few performances of my favorite song on “Songs of Innocence,” “The Troubles.” The earlier show was a much more coherent set, while the latter felt more spontaneous. Both moved thousands of people through various stages of heartbreak, anger and joy. Both were better than either of the two San Jose concerts two weeks prior.
2 – THE SONICS at the Fillmore – May 8
This was truly special: The band that very possibly created garage rock, now in their 70s, still giving everything they’ve got. And on this night, they had immeasurable vigor and focus. Wearing matching suits, the band put on a thoroughly entertaining and energy-filled filled performance. The shame was this was not a sell-out, and The Sonics would have educated fans of the bands they inspired, had more of them attended. Their newer material fit right alongside classics like “Strychnine,” “The Witch,” and “Have Love Will Travel.”
1 – U2 at the Roxy in Los Angeles – May 28
It’s difficult to compare this show to anything else I’ve ever experienced, but as it’s not an Innocence and Experience Tour concert, I’m making an exception to my own rule (no more than one show for any artist on the list). First, there’s the setlist, which consisted mainly of deep — or, at least, old — cuts, including “The Ocean,” (first time performed since 2005) and “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” (first time since 2001). Then there’s the intimacy of U2 in a venue with roughly 350 other people; everyone was practically on top of the stage and the only time this year Bono actually went crowd-surfing. And this show was nearly impossible to get in to. Not even my press credentials cut it. It came down to a radio contest (as it did for most non-celebrities inside the Roxy that night) after hundreds of busy dial tones for weeks-on-end. This wasn’t the best U2 show I’ve ever seen. But it’s probably the most unique.