Some will argue 2014 hasn't been a great year for new releases. Sure, there has been a handful that should undoubtedly stand the test of time in future years. Records like Alvvays and Eagulls self-titled debuts, The Twilight Sad's magnificent fourth record Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave and The War On Drugs' gateway to mainstream acceptance Lost In The Dream.
Aside from those, this year has been more about keeping things ticking over, and in some ways having new product out there to justify the continual touring many artists have now accepted as par for the course. Which means that the opportunity to see your favourite live act has become more likely than ever. Artists who wouldn't have dreamed of playing another show five years ago are now organising world tours or month long residencies. It's a sign of the times in an industry where product sales are no longer guaranteed, whereas the live market is as vibrant as ever.
It's been another memorable year on the live circuit. The return of Kate Bush confounding all expectations, Slowdive also making a surprising comeback and even Prince turning up unannounced in the early part of the year.
The "classic" albums played in full market has also proved to be one of the most lucrative, with tours by The Jesus & Mary Chain (Psychocandy) and Manic Street Preachers (The Holy Bible) among those to sell out in minutes (Please note: the latter show hadn't happened at the time of going to press...).
Although criticisms of homogenous festival line-ups still prevail, there have been several defining performances this year. Arcade Fire's storming headline show at Glastonbury, St Vincent winning a legion of new devotees at Primavera Sound, Glastonbury and End Of The Road respectively being the trio that spring to mind.
Of course, with such an emphasis on live shows within the industry the traditionally quiet month of December is as busy as any other month, and as I write this with another twenty-seven days left to go before we bid farewell to 2015, there's still plenty more to come. Nevertheless, having watched over 1000 acts so far this year on numerous stages big and small, I've selected the ten live sets that shook 2014 for me.
@ Village Underground, London. 19.05.14
This time last year, any talk of Slowdive getting back together would have been dismissed as pure conjecture. So when the original five band members activated Twitter accounts in January with a daily countdown to the official announcement of their return, many a fan's hopes and dreams became reality.
Fast forward to May and their return couldn't have been any more spectacular. Sure, criticisms of the venue still persist, but this show already holds something of a legendary status that will be talked about for years to come. Seeing all five share a stage for the first time in over twenty years may have been one thing, but hearing them come back tighter, sharper and dare I say better than they were first time around was another altogether. Hearing Pygmalion material in the flesh for the first time alongside live staples of yore was a reverential experience in itself.
Tears were shed, some people even stagedived, a great time was had by all. History really was rewritten, and with the possibility of a new album next year another chapter looks set to be added.
@ Ronnie Scott's, London. 15.04.14
It's not every day you get the opportunity to see a bonafide legend perform songs from a career spanning fifty years in such an intimate setting. So when news spread of Allen Toussaint's two-night stint at Ronnie Scott's, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance no to be missed. What's more, he didn't disappoint either. For an hour and forty-five minutes Toussaint delved into the deepest recesses of his incredible back catalogue, treating the sold out crowd to songs like 'Working In A Coalmine', 'A Certain Girl' and two helpings of 'Southern Nights', his undisputed signature tune.
In between songs Toussaint charmed us with anecdotes and stories, all in all ensuring those fortunate enough to be in presence enjoyed one of their most memorable nights in years.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre
@ Rescue Rooms, Nottingham. 04.07.14
Anyone that's seen the 2004 documentary Dig! will probably have formed their own opinion of Anton Newcombe already. Erratic, difficult and unpredictable on one hand, yet without doubt also one of the most unique, prolific and some would say ingenious songwriters this generation has seen.
It goes without saying that no band or artist can stand the test of time without a certain degree of quality permeating their output, and in the case of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, fourteen albums over a twenty-two year period tells its own story. Indeed, this year's Revelation long player ranks alongside their finest to date, and so it shouldn't be that much of a surprise that the live shows in support of the record have been pretty phenomenal too. While shortened festival sets at Primavera Sound and Glastonbury provided a taster of what to expect, it's in their uninterrupted state headlining their own shows that The Brian Jonestown Massacre really come into their own.
This sold out show at Nottingham's Rescue Rooms was a perfect example of a band clearly at the top of their game, and seemingly enjoying themselves and the subsequent adulation too.
The Underground Youth
@ Cosmosis, Manchester. 15.03.14
For a band who've been making consistently great records for the past years The Underground Youth's live presence isn't quite as prolific. However, when they do play it's an absolute given their performance will leave a lasting impression. Take their early evening homecoming slot at Manchester's Cosmosis festival in March for instance. Playing on a stage set in the upstairs room of a former stately home, their half hour set carried a life affirming precision about it. While their music may be steeped in reference points from the past, they play with a grace and vigour that could only be associated with the here and now. Husband and wife Craig and Olya Dyer undoubtedly serve as focal points. The former's laconic vocal sitting acutely on top of a plateau of caustic guitar-driven melodies while the latter bashes out mellifluous rhythms like a modern day Mo Tucker. Their set here undoubtedly stole the show from some of the more esteemed acts sat above them on the bill. Although currently on a self-imposed hiatus, we await their next move with baited breath.
@ Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury. 27.06.14
"They'll never be able to pull this off," claimed the doubters prior to Arcade Fire's inaugural headline set at Worthy Farm in June. By midnight that Friday, those same prophets of doom were gorging on humble pie as Win Butler and co. produced the showstopping performance of their lives.
While last year's Reflektor continues to divide opinion, their can be little argument about how great those songs sound in a live environment. And when placed alongside the best bits from the band's previous three long players, it's difficult to envisage where this could possibly go wrong. Despite mooted special guests not appearing although the jury's still out as to which member(s) of Pulp adorned the papier mache heads and costumes for the grand finale, this was a headline set worthy of such a prestigious event as Glastonbury. While also confirming Arcade Fire's status as one of the biggest bands on the planet at this moment in time.
@ The Bodega, Nottingham. 12.11.14
One Wednesday night in November, four of my all time musical heroes in one venue. A couple of hours before showtime Mark Gardener confirms Ride are getting back together. He then goes onto play a wonderful set featuring three of their songs ('Polar Bear', 'In A Different Place', 'Drive Blind') alongside a handful of solo compositions that are well worth investigating in their own right. The majority of the crowd are here to see the headline act, and with a star studded band in tow featuring My Bloody Valentine's Debbie Googe and fellow Sonic Youth defector Steve Shelley on drums, expectations are high.
Fortunately, Thurston and band exceed such expectations, playing a set largely consisting of material from his recent LP The Best Day, but also featuring a couple of songs ('Ono Soul', 'Pretty Bad') lifted from his 1995 debut Psychic Hearts. What makes this performance extra special is how much the fifty-six year old is clearly enjoying himself, and such a magnanimous display of exuberance transcends itself on the audience, who respond accordingly throughout. Defying his years by decades, it results in a show reminiscent of Moore's first visit to Nottingham when Sonic Youth played the now defunct Eden club in the autumn of 1988.
A Place To Bury Strangers
@ Reverence, Valada. 13.09.14
It's been a relatively quiet year for A Place To Bury Strangers. By their standards at any rate. Last month's announcement that fourth album Transfixiation is finished and scheduled for release next April suggests their year hasn't been spent lazing idly. However, their live schedule has been much sparser than usual, so when the opportunity arose to perform for a live audience that's exactly what those in attendance at Valada's Reverence festival were given. A performance. And one none of us will forget in a hurry. Despite only being allocated a half hour slot, they provided more breathtaking moments of excitement in thirty minutes than some bands produce in an entire career.
Playing a set consisting of material from their back catalogue as well as one new song, Oliver Ackermann and co. put on a demonstration of adrenalin fuelled, noise laden punk rock of the highest order. Ears were shredded and instruments got trashed. Indeed, it's unlikely the inhabitants of Valada will have recovered from such an intense aural pummelling, and with a full European tour next year, those cochleae look set for another heavy duty endurance test.
The Twilight Sad
@ Parc De La Ciutadella, Barcelona. 31.05.14
Having never been a fan of stripped back shows - particularly where bands as reliant on sonics as their lyrics are concerned - this semi-acoustic jaunt in Barcelona's Parc De La Ciutadella was approached with some trepidation. The previous night's full band set at Primavera Sound behind them, this would be an entirely different ball game.
At first, the omens didn't look good. Rainclouds gathering ominously overhead, and then singer James Graham contracting food poisoning overnight meant the gig was in doubt at one point. But like the consummate professionals they are, and clearly overjoyed to be offered such a show in the first place, the three-piece went on to deliver arguably the greatest performance of their lives. Songs like 'Cold Days From The Birdhouse', 'And She Would Darken The Memory' and 'I Became A Prostitute' sounding as epic and magnificent in this setting as they do in full surround sound. A (then) rare outing for 'The Wrong Car' brought out the emotional side of frontman Graham, while closer 'Mapped By What Surrounded Them' engendered a stirring finale. James Graham has since gone on to call Primavera weekend "the best this band's ever had" and few there that day would disagree.
@ Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith. 24.09.14
The biggest comeback of the year was reserved for an artist who hadn't toured in thirty-five years. While the news Kate Bush was set to play a month-long residency at Hammersmith's Eventim Apollo was greeted with gasps of disbelief, the big question on everybody's lips circulated around what songs she was likely to play. Would they be greatest hits sets? Unlikely to be honest, as a lot of those hits were written by a then-teenage Bush and rarely performed live back in the day. Or would it be a different album (or two) played in full every night? Possibly, although again doubtful as there are clearly some albums from her back catalogue that serve as reminders of periods in her life Ms Bush would probably rather forget.
Unsurprisingly, tickets for the shows sold out in minutes despite the inflated prices and while the "no cameras, no phones, no talking" policy received mixed reactions at first, it seemed to be met favourably on the night(s). So what of the show itself? Entitled Before The Dawn, it certainly couldn't be described as anything less than a lavish production. Largely created and directed by her teenage son Bertie, it went some way to justify the three-figure price tag many had paid for the once in a lifetime opportunity to see their heroine in the flesh.
Vocally flawless throughout, the opening segment containing a selection of her better known songs before the main body revolved around theatre productions based on two of her records; side two from Hounds Of Love (The Ninth Wave) and Aerial's second disk, A Sky Of Honey before finishing on a rapturous 'Cloudbusting'. Even the most casual of fans could not fail to have been moved by such a gracious spectacle, and if it does turn out to be the last time Kate Bush ever performs in public, these shows serve as a fitting epitaph.
Manic Street Preachers
@ First Direct Arena, Leeds. 28.03.14
If there's one thing that sets the adrenalin flowing it's a Manic Street Preachers tour, and with this year also being the twentieth anniversary of seminal LP The Holy Bible, anticipation for what might be included in their setlists sent many a social network into speculation mode. Of course those shows to commemorate said record come later this month. However, with a new album imminent and one the band had previously described as having similarities with The Holy Bible, the prospect of hearing new material added a further air of curiosity to proceedings.
The first night of the tour at the recently opened First Direct Arena in Leeds already had a triumphant ring about it thanks to local heroes Eagulls impressive opening slot off the back of their critically acclaimed debut. When the Manics did appear, we were treated to career-spanning set taking in rarely played artefacts ('Love's Sweet Exile', 'Black Dog On My Shoulder'), energetic new material ('Europa Geht Durch Mich', 'Futurology'), regular live staples from the past to the present ('Motorcycle Emptiness', 'Rewind The Film') and yes, a couple of relics from The Holy Bible ('Archives Of Pain', 'Revol'). Setting the scene for the new record and the year that lay ahead, this hungrily energetic performance wasn't so much a throwback to the old days, but more a timely reminder of a band whose relevance still hasn't diminished over a quarter of a century on from their first release.
There were others that narrowly missed out on a place in the top ten. Reliving my youth withThe Jesus & Mary Chain in Manchester last month, Richard Thompson's jaw-droppingly beautiful performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival and the emergence of newcomers Girl Band and April Towers, both of whom got better with every subsequent show and look to be on the cusp of great things in 2015. However, none quite matched the aforementioned ten.
Discuss: Which were your favourite live shows of 2014? Who are you most looking forward to seeing next year? Join the discussion over on our music forum