It's that time of year once more where reflection is the key as we look back over the past twelve months; where consideration is given to the good, great and not so good. Indeed, few could argue that 2013 has been a pretty sublime year for music in general. Records like Hookworms Pearl Mystic and These New Puritans Field Of Reeds confounding all expectations, the standard of releases in 2013 possibly usurping every other year so far this decade. But of course that's only a small part of being a committed, diehard music fan. Listening to records on repeat being one thing, going to see a show - sometimes several in one night - on average five times per week being another entirely.
So far this year; as I write this there's still another twenty-eight days to go; these ears and eyes have witnessed over 1500 live performances. Condensing that little lot into a final ten took an awful lot of soul searching and deliberation. Festival brochures revisited, photographs scoured, t-shirts and records purchased at some of the events in question pawed over. Did The Stone Roses "second coming" at Finsbury Park have the same impact as their inaugural return at Heaton Park a year earlier? Were The Rolling Stones finally worth the wait in seeing them play Glastonbury? Was My Bloody Valentine's return in support of long-awaited new album mbv as dramatic as those 2008 shows? This year saw the return of several heavyweights to the live arena; The National, Arcade Fire and Manic Street Preachers being three that spring to mind. While a host of exciting new talents captivated audiences blissfully unaware of their recorded output prior to seeing them in action. Of the ten shows I've chosen, there's a mixture of triumphant returns, show stopping festival sets, lifelong ambitions realised and just the general thrill of being blown away by a new band on the ascendancy. Some choices may be slightly predictable, others not to so, all entirely worthy of inclusion. So here goes...
Arcade Fire @ Empress Ballroom, Blackpool. 27.11.13
When people open a sentence withe the words "You really had to be there...", it tends to have one of two adverse effects. Either the listener becomes completely switched off by the glib "I was there, you weren't" bombast or finds themselves overcome with regret at missing out on such a life affirming event. Putting their show at Blackpool's Empress Ballroom - a most unlikely setting for a rock concert in the grand scheme of things - into context, imagine spending five hours in the company of a Mariachi band (from the Dorritos television commercial no less!), costumed doppelgangers sporting oversized heads, cos 3000 people in assorted forms of fancy dress, a soundtrack veering from Talking Heads to Love Unlimited Orchestra to Spacemen 3 and beyond. And of course Arcade Fire, aka The Reflektors as they were billed for this tour. While early reviews of the record suggested they'd made a duffer - and let's not forget how most of those reviews were constructed; off the back of one listen in a swish London bar - time has proved the opposite. Live however, Reflektor is an immediately wondrous beast altogether. From the teasing sixty second intro to 'Rebellion (Lies)' that opened the set to a rapturous 'Haiti' which closed the encore, this really was as good a live show as we've witnessed all year. Whether it goes down in history like another famous show at the same venue a quarter of a century earlier remains to be seen, but if the Glastonbury rumours are true, those lucky enough to obtain a ticket for Worthy Farm next year are in for a treat.
Jagwar Ma @ Bestival. 06.09.13
It's fair to say this summer's Bestival headliners hardly had me jumping for joy in anticipation. From the tired old pastiche that Fat Boy Slim has become to the tired and past it likes of Snoop Dogg and Elton John, it needed something special on the undercard to justify the long and arduous trip across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. Nine weeks earlier, having fallen under the spell of Jagwar Ma's incredible but far-too-early Saturday afternoon set at Glastonbury, their Friday teatime slot in the intimate confines of the Replay tent was one of the weekend's most eagerly anticipated. Forty-five minutes later, sweat dripping from every pore as condensation drops from the tent seams like rainfall, their all encompassing melee of soul-infused psychedelia managed to turn Bestival into a scene from the halcyon days of Fantazia. Again, whereas long player Howlin' perhaps didn't quite connect at first, their live show proved something else entirely, eschewing an all-encompassing communal spirit alongside some of the most infectious beats heard anywhere this side of 1992.
Suede @ Rock City, Nottingham. 28.03.13
Having waited twenty years to finally see Suede play my native city, their Easter Thursday show was an opportunity not to be missed. Although billed as a warm-up for the following night's Alexandra Palace shindig, this was always going to be a special occasion. The most surprising aspect of all being the show not selling out, with tickets still available on the door right up to showtime. It also provided my first glimpse of Temples, a band whose 'Shelter Song' single had soundtracked the last few weeks of 2012. They did not disappoint, and neither did Brett Anderson and co. With new album Bloodsports representing arguably their best collection of songs since 1996's Coming Up, the band were in buoyant mood from start to finish. Gyrating promiscuously and leaping like a salmon at regular intervals, Anderson turned the clock back in style to an era when his band's androgynous behaviour shocked the nation. Combining the best of their back catalogue with the majority of the new record, it was a show worthy of the two-decades-long wait. And even more gratifying was hearing people that attended both this and the Ally Pally show twenty-four hours later comment on this being the better of the two.
Blur @ Primavera Sound, Barcelona. 24.05.13
Having one of the most iconic frontmen to ever perform on a stage in your ranks combined with a back catalogue to die for should have made this headline slot in Barcelona's Parc Del Forum a casual walk in the park for Blur. But then, Primavera audiences can be notoriously difficult to appease, especially where commercially successful mainstream artists are concerned. And before anyone screams 13! loudly in my ear, make no mistake about it, Blur are a mainstream act, albeit a very timelessly innovative one. Having The Wedding Present open for them in unorthodox fashion by playing three songs off an a raised platform over yonder was a masterstroke in geeing up a restless crowd. What came next over the ensuing hour-and-forty-five minutes was simply magical. 'Girls And Boys', 'There's No Other Way', 'Popscene', 'Beetlebum', 'The Universal', 'Parklife'. You name it, they played it. Damon Albarn's cheshire cat grin throughout the majority of the set telling its own story. If any doubts remained regarding Blur's credentials to headline the biggest independent/alternative festival in Europe, they were surely removed by the heartwarming version of 'Tender' Albarn and co. delivered midset. Its "Oh my baby, oh my, oh why" refrain, joyously bellowed aloud by 30,000 revellers long into the night after the band's departure still sending shivers down the spine to this day.
Dead Skeletons @ Elektrowerkz, London. 23.11.13
Staying with this year's Primavera Sound, another band to make a big impression there were Icelandic collective Dead Skeletons. Playing at the ungodly hour of 2am on Friday morning, they put on a captivating show that confounded all expectations. What stood out most was frontman Nonni Dead's almost shamanic presence. Adorned in hat and cape while dressed from head to toe all in black, the first ten minutes spent painting one of his now familiar designs while his band play the haunting 'Om Mani Peme Hung' in the foreground. Then, for the next hour, it felt like a religious experience climaxing in the seismic 'Dead Mantra'. More importantly, if this can work on a concrete jungle in the middle of Barcelona's sea port, imagine what impact it could have in the intimate confines of a small, sweaty club? And so we fast forward a further six months. To the day in fact. If anyone's ever set foot inside London's Elektrowerkz venue they'll understand when I say first impressions are reminiscent of a scene from 'Labyrinth'. All winding staircases here and dimly lit corridors veering in all directions, its residence as host to Slimelight, the capital's premiere industrial/goth/darkwave clubnight perhaps befitting of its decor. Its compact layout and narrow dancefloor perfect for such a pervasive live experience, openers Dark Bells and The KVB providing an exquisite supporting cast for the evening's main course. And when Dead Skeletons finally take to the stage, their set is both provocative and engaging in equal measures. Although only one new song ('Dead Comet') is aired, it makes little difference to an assembled throng here to practice Dead Magick at the altar of Nonni Dead. The band's motto "He who fears death cannot enjoy life!" ringing intensely throughout closing number 'Dead Mantra', its words relayed back by all and sundry out front. Afterwards discussion turns to psych rock's triumphant year. Opinions vary as to which of the genre's incumbents has made the best record this year. However, concurrence is mutual as to its finest live exponents. Dead Skeletons, we salute you.
Portishead @ Glastonbury Festival. 28.06.13
Forget The Rolling Stones, the real coup de grace at Glastonbury this year was finally getting the opportunity to see Portishead in the flesh. More importantly, to say their performance was a revelation would be an understatement. Even pitted head-to-head against strong headliners across several other stages - Arctic Monkeys, The Horrors and Chic featuring Nile Rodgers being three - they managed to pull off a show stopping performance not bettered anywhere else over the entire weekend. From the industrial clatter of 'Machine Gun', poignantly delivered 'Roads' and stunning climax that was 'The Rip', Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Uttley issued a timely reminder as to why Portishead continue to be held in such high esteem nearly twenty years on from their first, pivotal release.
Robin Guthrie @ Glee Club, Nottingham. 06.02.13
When it was announced not one, but two legends from the bygone shoegaze era before it existed as a genre would be touring together, several whoops of joy followed by skyward punches of delight were expressed. While the choice of venue raised a few eyebrows. The Glee Club pretty much does as it says on the tin, hosting stand-up comedy rather than live music first and foremost. Having spoken with Robin Guthrie a few weeks earlier, it was clear anyone expecting him to delve into the farthest recesses of his extensive back catalogue would be disappointed. And rightly so, his solo material being worth the admission fee alone. This being the first night of the tour, nerves were expected yet quickly brushed aside by Mark Gardener's support slot, which saw him play a handful of Ride classics alongside as-yet unreleased material from his forthcoming long player. By the time Guthrie emerged with his backing band, Heligoland's Steve Wheeler and Antti Makinen, the whole room was sat (yes, SAT!) in tranquil silence. An hour or so later, having played a deliriously woozy set of textured ambient grace, we're left in no doubt that the word "genius" can be applied to Robin Guthrie without any fear of reprisal. Simply colossal.
Helen Love @ Indietracks. 28.07.13
It isn't every day that you get to share a stage with an indiepop idol while she's singing your favourite song of hers. As if a rare live appearance from Welsh Joey Ramone obsessive Helen Love wasn't enough, impromptu stage invasions during a frantic 'Does Your Heart Go Boom' at the end of her set made it all the more worthwhile. Not that the rest of the show was any less charismatic either. 'We Love You', 'Happy Hardcore', 'Punk Boy', confetti canons, and yes, that stage invasion turned an engine shed in a remote Derbyshire village into the greatest party Sunday evening has ever seen. And she didn't even play 'Long Live The UK Music Scene'. Oh well, there's always next time.
Splashh @ Chameleon, Nottingham. 01.06.13
If you want something doing properly, do it yourself. Which is exactly why Splashh ended up playing Nottingham's tiny Chameleon on the first Saturday in June. Nothing unusual there you might say. Except with one hour to spare before the headline act's start time, the venue was already over capacity to the point where people had to be turned away, the floor was dangerously shaking as support acts Popstrangers and Hunting Party energetically whipped the over-enthusiastic crowd into a state of frenzy, and vantage points included light fittings and skirting boards. At this point, we should perhaps mention Splashh's performance, which as expected was a hazy mix of incendiary grunge pop and ethereal psychedelia. And what's more, also played an incredible unrecorded new song not('Peanut Butter And Jelly') a full three months before debut album Comfort's release. Result!
Depeche Mode @ Optimus Alive, Lisbon. 13.07.13
Last but not least are another band that for one reason or another - mostly due to the fact their tour schedule in recent years has been rarer than a sighting of Halley's Comet - I've spent the best part of a lifetime waiting to see. So when that opportunity finally presented itself at Lisbon's Optimus Alive festival it wasn't going to be passed up. And even though the set weighed heavily on material from this year's Delta Machine, itself a minor return to form after its disappointing predecessor Sounds Of The Universe, their two-hour show was a masterclass in marrying showmanship with electronic music. And in between all that came the hits, while Dave Gahan pirouetted elegantly across the stage all evening like a sprightly teenager rather than middle-age fifty-one-year old.
Of course there were many more shows this year worthy of a mention; Wild Beasts excellent set at Sheffield's Queens Social Club on their low key comeback tour, Loop's equally blistering show at the Brudenell Social Club and the emergence of Manchester four-piece MONEY, who blew the roof off everywhere I saw them this year even when playing out in the open. However, none quite matched those ten performances above which shook 2013 for me.
Discuss: Which were your favourite live shows of 2013? Who are you most looking forward to seeing next year? Post your comment over on our forum, in this thread or over on our Facebook.