2016, what was it good for? It will be remembered as the year David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, and many significant others left this mortal coil. The year of Brexit and Donald Trump where political pantomime villain Nigel Farage's influence became a stark reality. Another year where austerity widened class divisions between rich and poor. Where cuts to education and welfare services remain rife and the threat of privatisation remains. By and large, it's fair to say it hasn't been the best of years.
Which is where music as a form of escapism has provided a glimmer of hope. Vinyl sales are on the increase while attendances at festivals and live shows continues to keep music scenes thriving both at home and abroad. Old school values have returned to the fore; bands now realise spreading their name via word of mouth by touring can be more fruitful than spending hours a day on Facebook or Twitter, which is how the likes of Fews and Cabbage have grown from being relatively unknown this time last year to near veterans of the live arena having amassed between 150 and 200 shows apiece in 2016.
Indeed, the fervour for watching live music from the perspective of a punter hasn't diminished either, and in 2016 I've managed to see over a thousand acts across several hundred shows and twenty-one festivals. Picking the ten standouts from a very long list of possibles wasn't an easy choice to make, but here in all their glory are the ones which made the cut.
Meilyr Jones @ Focus Wales
Once upon a time Adrian Meilyr Jones was the lead singer in hotly tipped Welsh band Race Horses. Since their demise three years ago he's set about forging a solo career and in March, released his debut long player 2013. It proved a fitting introduction to his work, but the accompanying live performances took it to another level altogether.
Last month saw him deservedly pick up the much coveted Welsh Music Prize for 2013 rounding off a fantastic year for the Cardiff-born singer/songwriter. For me, his show at Wrexham Central Station on the final day of May's Focus Wales festival will live long in the memory. Coming on like an amalgam of Jarvis Cocker and Bradford Cox while berating audience members for talking and checking their mobile phones, his early evening set ranks as one of the most captivating I've witnessed this year.
Fews @ The Cookie
When a friend played me Fews' single 'The Zoo' around this time last year, I immediately went out of my way to find out more about them. On realising they were scheduled to play Eurosonic in January which I was attending I managed to catch their set and wasn't disappointed. Ten shows and twelve months later, it's fair to say Fews have become one of my favourite bands and any one of those live sets could easily have found its way onto this list.
However, their show at Leicester's Cookie during what was the band's first ever headline tour of the UK stands out for various reasons. The intimate setting, the sense of community between both and audience, hearing the entire album played in full, and the general feeling of knowing this time next year they'll be filling venues four times the size. One of those genuine "I was there" moments.
Manic Street Preachers @ The Liberty Stadium
Everything Must Go was twenty this year and to celebrate its anniversary, the Manic Street Preachers embarked on a short UK tour throughout May. The highlight of that tour was undoubtedly their show at the Liberty Stadium, home to Swansea City Football Club. With a supporting cast of Public Service Broadcasting and Super Furry Animals, even the rain couldn't dampen spirits for what was a fantastic celebration of one of the finest albums of the nineties.
Playing two sets - Everything Must Go in full chronological order followed by an hour of greatest hits and rarities, the Manics came out with fire in their bellies delivering a performance that belied the veteran status they now hold. The rarely played likes of 'Natwest, Barclays, Midlands, Lloyds' and 'Roses In The Hospital' sat side by side with the chart-topping 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' while the official song for the Welsh European Championship football team 'Together Stronger' resulted in a mass singalong worthy of any stadium.
Amber Arcades @ Eurosonic
It's remarkable to think this time last year I'd never heard of Annelotte De Graaf and Amber Arcades. By mid-January, that had all changed. Having played a mammoth thirteen shows in four days at Groningen's Eurosonic festiva, of which I was fortunate enough to see two, it soon became apparent that Amber Arcades would go on to become one of 2016's finest new acts.
That first show in the upstairs room of a tiny venue called De Spiegel stands out for many reasons. While the sound was hit and miss, De Graaf and co's melodies and occasional forays into sonic access rose above any technical obstacles thrown their way. Comparisons to Stereolab and Broadcast immediately sprung to mind, but strip away the veneer and in songs like 'Come With Me', 'Right Now', and 'Turning Light' they had classics in waiting to match those peers. From that moment onwards I was hooked and Amber Arcades went on to become my most watched band of 2016.
Explosions In The Sky @ Best Kept Secret
Having not seen Explosions In The Sky since their All Tomorrow's Parties event in 2008, it was something of a privilege to witness them three times in three different countries over the space of four weeks.
While all three shows proved tantalizing for various reasons, their set at Hilvarenbeek's Best Kept Secret stood out as the most triumphant not only of the aforementioned three, but also of the entire festival. Playing around Sunday lunchtime on the final day could have gone either way, with many revellers still recovering from the excesses of the previous evening. However, those of us packed into stage two's grandiose marquee would witness one of the most breathtaking festival performances of the summer and one which announced the Texan outfit's return in style.
Cabbage @ The Venue
It's easy to dismiss a band because of their name, and let's be honest - monikers don't come any sillier than Cabbage. But to take such a judgmental stance would be your loss as they're quite possibly the most exciting live band in the UK right now.
Playing a support slot to local trio Unqualified Nurse Band on a Thursday night in Derby, Cabbage went on to steal the show and lure dozens of new devotees to their burgeoning fan club in the process. With songs that celebrate the merits or otherwise of the NHS and dinner ladies, berate capitalism and right wing politics in America while belittling the nepotism of Manchester's music scene, they're a lot more serious than people give them credit for. Nevertheless, it's the riotous element of their show which borders on chaos where anything could happen at any given time and usually does that makes them unmissable.
LCD Soundsystem @ The Other Stage
Some people called it sacrilege when James Murphy announced he was resurrecting LCD Soundsystem this summer so soon after calling it a day in 2011. The shows will be nothing more than functional, financially driven exercises in going through the motions proclaimed the cynics. How wrong they were. Very wrong in fact.
While the touch paper was initially lit at Primavera Sound in Barcelona four weeks earlier, Murphy and co's showstopping headline set on the Other Stage brought Glastonbury to a hedonistic, dance-fuelled finale. Rendering the Pyramid Stage bill toppers Coldplay even more pointless than usual, LCD Soundsystem delivered the perfect ending to the UK's biggest festival.
Charlotte Church @ The Rabbit Hole
Or at least they would have done had Charlotte Church not brought her Late Night Pop Dungeon show to the intimate confines of The Rabbit Hole in the far easterly corner of The Park area. Playing a set mainly consisting of covers with the odd original composition thrown in such as 2005's top ten smash 'Crazy Chick', her performance ended up being one of the highlights of a busy festival season that saw her wow crowds at Green Man and Festival No. 6 later in the year.
Opening with her take on Nine Inch Nails' 'Closer', hearing Ms. Church utter the words "I want to fuck you like an animal" may have been a bit hard for devotees of Voice Of An Angel to take, but here in such salubrious confines while being roared on by a delirious crowd it worked to perfection. Renditions of Super Furry Animals' 'Hometown Unicorn', Sugababes' 'Overload' and The Troggs 'Happy Together' followed among others before closing with In Deep's 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life'. Now that really is how to close a festival!
Desert Mountain Tribe @ The Lofthouse
2016 was a pretty big year for London-based trio Desert Mountain Tribe. Having released their long awaited debut Either That Or The Moon in March, their profile has risen immeasurably thanks to their incredible live shows, of which this was one of the band's finest to date.
Playing for over an hour in a venue that's not predominantly recognized for live music, Desert Mountain Tribe's first headline set in Nottingham was a mesmerizing, mind-melting concoction of psychedelia and garage rock that owes as much to Chris Isaak and Jeff Buckley as it does The Black Angels and The Doors. Having crafted a sound and identity all of their own, we predict even bigger things to come in 2017 but for now, the memory of this performance lingers on.
Chameleons Vox @ The Venue
While the debate rages on among fans of The Chameleons about bass player and songwriter Mark Burgess playing the band's songs under his Chameleons Vox guise, anyone that's actually seen the band can't really argue that while only comprised of one member from the original line up, they're a pretty formidable force when it comes to not only replicating the aforementioned's back catalogue, but also putting their own spin on things too.
Having toured the seminal Script Of The Bridge album last year, Burgess and co have adopted a mix and match approach to the setlist that's reaped dividends so far. Take this show from last May at The Venue in Derby for example. Even for a Monday night, the room was packed to the rafters and while the main body of the show was packed with more familiar material from The Chameleons back catalogue, the encore saw a couple of rarely aired gems in the shape of 'Dali's Picture' and 'Denims And Curls' served up for good measure. Although it will never be the same as when the original quartet were standing side by side on stage, this is as good an opportunity as any for people not fortunate or old enough to have seen one of the most influential guitar bands of the post-punk era first time around and if this performance is anything to go by, we wholeheartedly recommend checking them out.
2016 has been a great year for live music and there were several other shows worthy of a mention here. Veteran rockers The Pretty Things rolled back the years with a flawless set at Derby Flowerpot in January. While Money followed up releasing one of the year's finest albums with a string of impeccable live performances throughout 2016, most notably their show at Sheffield's Harley in April. Festival-wise, The Jesus & Mary Chain's perfect headline set at Cosmosis whet appetites for next year's new album as did The National at Latitude. As the year drew to a close, Hooton Tennis Club reminded everyone what a great live band they are during their tour for the awesome Big Box Of Chocolates while Feeder also provided a timely jolt to the memory at Nottingham's Rock City in October.
Discuss: Which were your favourite live shows of 2016? Who are you most looking forward to seeing next year? Join the discussion over on our music forum.
Lead photo by Shaun Gordon.