What a crazy year 2014 was. Personally, I moved to Phoenix, dove into a vibrant music scene in a brand new city, and overall filled my head with new sounds and experiences. I went to a lot of concerts and listened to a lot of new music this year. Here are the 10 best things I heard.
Primus' front-to-back performance of Primus and the Chocolate Factory with The Frog Ensemble (Monday, November 19, at Orpheum Theatre): Darkness lingers in every corner of Roald Dahl's classic children's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Gene Wilder and company brightened much of that out of the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (which Dahl disavowed), but remnants remain. What do you expect from a movie based on a book in which a chocolate factory becomes judge, jury, and almost-executioner of four sinful children? So when Primus announced it was going to remake the film's iconic soundtrack and release it as an album, everyone scratched their heads but ultimately came to the same conclusion -- well, that makes sense. If there's any band that could honor both the dark and playful sides of the source material, it's Primus. When the band came to the criminally underused Orpheum Theatre in November, it pulled out all the stops -- performing the album front-to-back in full costume, complete with seven-foot-tall Oompa Loompas and a giant video screen that showed twisted re-edits of the film. The final product was spellbinding -- much like the movie -- and ended up being one of the best concerts of the year.
Against Me! -- "Thrash Unreal" (Wednesday, May 21, at Nile Theater): Phoenix hipsters get a bad rap when it comes to being audience members. For so many Pitchfork bands that come through Crescent Ballroom and other downtown venues, audience members stand rooted to the ground, with only the occasional outliers daring to move to the music. But go to a punk show in the East Valley? You'll see a much more lively scene. Against Me! has been making music for more than a decade, and when the band came to Nile Theater in May, fans went crazy. With no security and no barriers, scene kids leapt on stage and back into the crowd with increasing abandon throughout the night. The band started playing "Thrash Unreal," one of its most popular songs, and the crowd kicked into hyperdrive. One of the stage divers appeared to trip over a cable. Whatever the reason, lead singer Laura Jane Grace's microphone went dead in the middle of the song. She looked bewildered at first, and she gazed out into the crowd in disbelief. But she didn't need the mic after all. Slowly, her face morphed into a gigantic smile. She didn't have to sing, it turns out -- the crowd was doing it for her.
Dr. Dog at the Desert Botanical Garden (Thursday, May 15): I dig Dr. Dog's style. This is a band that could choose to play thousand-person venues, where they could probably sell out. But instead, they play multiple nights at smaller venues, opting for intimate concerts over the less personal experience at larger halls. Earlier this year, the band sold out two sets at Crescent Ballroom (they'll be back in February), and come January, they'll play four consecutive nights at the 575-capacity Bowery Ballroom in New York City. So when the band announced it was playing a Blue Moon-sponsored show at an even smaller venue -- the Desert Botanical Garden -- I leapt at the chance,in order to see Dr. Dog in a beautiful outdoor setting at an even smaller venue than normal. And the concert was better than expected -- euphoric, dreamy rock 'n' roll surrounded by the best natural beauty Arizona has to offer.
Paul McCartney -- "Maybe I'm Amazed" (Tuesday, August 12, at Talking Stick Resort Arena): Sir Paul is a living legend, one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. Somehow, at 72, he still retains his boyish demeanor and puts on a hell of a show, as evidenced by his Phoenix tour stop earlier this year. There were highlights galore, but the best song of the night easily was "Maybe I'm Amazed," one of the best love songs McCartney ever penned. "I wrote this song for Linda," was all the introduction he needed. (His wife Linda McCartney died in 1998.) The band whipped into a frenzy with an impassioned McCartney screaming, "Maybe I'm a lonely man lost in the middle of something."
The crowd at the Black Keys' concert (Monday, November 10, at Talking Stick Resort Arena): The Black Keys concert serves as living proof that, yes, Phoenix audiences will get down for the right band. Normally, giant arenas don't make for great concert venues. The sound sucks, the bands don't come with the right visuals to make the show watchable for people in the nosebleeds, etc. But the Black Keys do arenas right. They brought a sweet setup of moving screens that provided a captivating backdrop, and the band sounded incredible. The audience responded in a way I've never seen a Phoenix audience respond. The masses writhed and gyrated all night long, and when the Black Keys ended their set and waited for the encore, the audience got louder than I've ever heard at any arena show, period. Nicely done, Phoenix.
Rival Sons -- "Pressure and Time" (Sunday, September 21, at the Pressroom): This one gets a little personal. Around the time of the Rival Sons show, I was starting to get disillusioned with the Phoenix music scene. Maybe blame the summer and the uncanny ability of endless 105-degree days to dampen fun, but I was getting a little sick of boring garage-surf-punk and indie rock bands trying so hard to be on the cutting edge of something and ending up as nothing but a dull blade. Rival Sons make throwback rock 'n' roll, riding the tidal wave Led Zeppelin created. Seeing this show was a much-needed shot of rock 'n' roll straight to my inner ear, prompting thoughts like "that bassist plays with his fingers! Too many goddamn pickers in this town" and "Orange amps and Ampeg cabs are all you need; get the picture, Phoenix?" It all came to head during "Pressure and Time," played during the band's encore: Brilliant rock played by supremely talented musicians in the shadow of the house Joe Arpaio built.
Behemoth -- "Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel" from The Satanist: Death metal legends Behemoth released the video for this song in December 2013, but the album didn't come out until February 2014, so I'm counting it for this list. Metal fans don't agree on much, but one thing is clear: Everybody loves this album. It's a masterpiece filled with evil intent and even evil-er riffs. The opening track sets the terrifying tone for the album: A crushing 12-ton riff grabs you by the throat as singer Nergal takes the role of a triumphant Satan, taunting a bloodied archangel Gabriel to sound his horn, not for the return of God but for the Evil One himself. "I watched disciples 12 dissolved by flame / Looked down on son of God snuffed in vain." So. Fucking. Metal.
Run the Jewels (feat. Zack De La Rocha) -- "Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)" from Run the Jewels 2: Everything is going right for Run the Jewels these days. Killer Mike and El-P make one hell of a dynamic hip-hop duo, and their 2014 album, Run the Jewels 2, is the most unstoppable rap album of the year. The chemistry between the two MCs is undeniable, the culmination of two years spent collaborating. "Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)" might not be the best track on the album, but it might be the most impressive, as it accomplishes something that hasn't been done in decades: making Zack de la Rocha cool again. El-P samples the former Rage Against the Machine frontman's words in the song's beat, and he delivers a blistering verse to cap the song, defiantly rapping, "I'm a fellow with melanin / suspect of a felony / Ripped like Rakim Allah, feds is checkin' my melody." And get ready: apparently, Run the Jewels 3 production starts next year, and De la Rocha is purportedly back in the fold.
Fairy Bones -- "Waiting," from the soon-to-be-released Dramabot:
Eerie and raw, Fairy Bones goes full American Horror Story with this track, from their crowdfunded, soon-to-be-released album Dramabot. Singer Chelsey Louise wails something powerful, and the band provides tasteful guitar lines, pounding drums, and beckoning bass lines as backdrop. It's the sort of track you could hear during a scene in a horror movie, when the evil serial killer is slowly overtaking its wounded soon-to-be victim.
Andrew Jackson Jihad -- "Kokopelli Face Tattoo," from Christmas Island:
The Jihad came back in full force this year with Christmas Island, its most polished album to date. The catchiest track on that record is "Kokopelli Face Tattoo." Now, the song appeared on the group's 2013 live album, which was recorded in 2012. But on Christmas Island, the song gets a well-deserved studio treatment, and both the track's nervous energy and singer Sean Bonnette's piercing lyrics shine through brilliantly. Has any singer sang a better piece of advice this year than "Hating you won't make you suck any less"? We doubt it.
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