Gigs and albums of the year

2018 has been a vintage year for music.
2018 has been a vintage year for music.
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As 2018 draws to a close, our music writers looks back on their favourite gigs and albums of the year.

Duncan Seaman

Gig of the year

David Byrne at First Direct Arena

While it was a privilege to catch Paul Weller’s joyful career-spanning set at the First Direct Arena and one of Suede’s incendiary gigs to an audience of just 400 at the ever-excellent Brudenell Social Club, for breath-taking imagination David Byrne topped them all with his American Utopia show. Stripping the stage bare save for curtains and minimal lighting, the 66-year-old led his 11-piece band, barefoot and clad like him in grey shirts and suits, through an hour and three quarters-long carnival of music and dance – brilliantly choreographed by Annie-B Parson – that redefined the possibilities of arena concerts. After a rigorous workout during Burning Down The House and Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout, the sweat-drenched euphoria on stage said it all. Byrne is quite simply up there with Kate Bush as one of the greatest live performers of our age.

Album of the year

Hunter by Anna Calvi

Anna Calvi might have swerved Leeds on her 2018 tour – which was a shame because her current set is fantastic – but her third album did deliver handsomely on musical thrills. Drum-heavy opener As A Man set the tone for a record packed with drama; the sensuous title track suggested “nothing lasts”, while Don’t Beat The Girl Out of My Boy suddenly soared into a frenzied wail. Then there was Swimming Pool with a cinematic sweep worthy of a Bond theme as reimagined by Siouxsie and the Banshees plus the Prince-like guitar histrionics of Alpha. Calvi’s headline performance at next year’s Deer Shed festival in North Yorkshire looks set to be one of the highlights of 2019.

Faith Gledhill

Gig of the year

Sad Boys Club at The Wardrobe

The feeling that you get when you see a band live and just know that they’re something monumentally special is incredibly difficult to describe; for me, I get an overwhelmingly unequivocal feeling of undaulterated joy in my chest. It’s unparalleled. Every year, I’m always on the lookout for that one band who just completely and utterly captivate me... cue Sad Boys Club, a vivaciously eccentric quintent from London who with every performance effortlessly resonate an immersive aura of raw and emphatic opulence. For a band who only recently celebrated their first anniversary, their interplay and ability is nigh note perfect. The Wardrobe is one of my favourite venues, and their performance there back in November as part of Live At Leeds’ Ones’ to Watch in 2019 campaign will certainly go down as one of my all time musical highlights.

Album of the year

Yawn by Bill Ryder-Jones

I’m the first person to admit that 2018 hasn’t been a great year for me. It’s widely known and appreciated that, in times of trauma, music can often be the one thing that gets your mind off everything else and helps you heal. The music of Bill Ryder-Jones has long since been my go-to substance when I’ve needed a little comfort, but his recently released fourth album ‘Yawn’ was just what I needed to make me realize that things can and will get better. Despite having a strikingly melancholic edge, behind the haunting melodies lie both subtle optimism and strength. Bill’s music has helped me through so much in recent years and he is someone that I can, without hesitation, call one of my true heroes.

Andrew Steel

Gig of the year

Stereophonics at First Direct Arena

Proving that you don’t have to teach an old dog new tricks to still have a great time, the Welsh legends turned out a consummate performance in another stand-out West Yorkshire show, one that served as a prelude for a headline spot at Sheffield’s Tramlines later this year. Though new album Scream Above the Sounds isn’t a radio classic, cuts like the headlong Chances Are and grooving Caught By the Wind slot in neatly next to the acoustic laments of Handbag and Gladrags and the stadium-sized roar of Dakota, all delivered with scintillating sizzle. Another top night on the town.

Album of the year

A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships by The 1975

Having refashioned the Eighties for a 21st century pop-guitar prism on debut and then delivered an expansive, indulgent sophomore effort that veered between glacial post-rock and dancefloor bangers, the Manchester four-piece spearheaded by Matt Healy delivered what is ostensibly the first part of a double set – and with it, provided a millennial answer to OK Computer for emotional depth and off-kilter hooks. From industrial electro-funk (Love It If We Made It) through shimmering power-pop (It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)), it’s a genre-straddling colossus; by turns intelligent and heartbreaking, it’s a meditation on life dressed as a fist-pump.

Susan Darlington

Gig of the year

Ezra Furman at Brudenell Social Club

Ezra Furman doesn’t play gigs so much as create safe spaces for those who identify as freaks, beautiful losers, and alienated romantics.

When the Chicagoan appeared at the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, he turned seventh album Transangelic Exodus into a clarion call for acceptance with a narrative thread about ‘supernatural queer lovers on the run’.

Delivered with an impassioned whine that’s heir to the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, he updated his post-punk doo-wop with hints of Roxy Music and Talking Heads. It was an intriguing combination that, together with his quiet passion, made for a compelling if reluctant star turn.

Album of the year

Be A Cowboy by Mitski

Mitski Miyawaki’s breakthrough album, 2016’s Puberty 2, was an irresistible slice of 90s emo. Kind of like Angel Olsen fronting Weezer, it presented an angsty satire on early adult life through the concept of an idealised picket fence America.

The Japanese-American musician’s follow-up, Be The Cowboy (Dead Oceans), is a step change that introduces the smart electronica of Lorde and Lykke Li while adding the country-noir of Lana Del Rey.

She switched between these styles in accordance with the personas she assumed across its 14 tracks, which explored socially acceptable forms of femininity while graduating to ‘Adult 1’.

Janne Oinonen

Gig of the year

Mercury Rev at Brudenell Social Club

Tours dedicated to recreating a particular album are most often about returning to a band’s greatest moment of triumph for an easy crowd-pleasing win. Mercury Rev triumphed comprehensively with this evening dedicated to 1998’s expansive, opulently orchestrated psych-rock masterpiece Deserters’ Songs by rewinding to the time to self-doubt and plans to pack it all in that came before the enduringly resonant record’s hard-won success. Setting out to recreate the stripped back, embryonic demo forms of the songs – recorded when the band’s existence was very much in doubt - which would later bloom into richly arranged, dreamy epics reminiscent of twisted Disney movie themes on the finished album, the show’s semi-acoustic presentation breathed fresh air to familiar materials. The likes of Holes - presented as a slowed-down, reverential hymn, with plenty of alluring space between the notes – effectively hypnotised the sold-out crowd, before an extended psychedelic garage rock freak-out coda to Opus 40 built a pulverising bridge to the band’s noisier early days. Add to this frontman Jonathan Donohue’s charming showmanship and guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak’s atmospheric prowess – often hidden under rich orchestrations on the band’s records – and you had a show that proved even more memorable than the band’s previous visit to the Brudenell in 2015.

Album of the year

New Hymn to Freedom by Szun Waves

Cascading between electronica, free improvisation, ambient mood music and forward-gazing modern jazz, the second album from the “supergroup” consisting of electronic producer Luke Abbott, Portico Quartet saxophonist Jack Wyllie and Triosk/PVT percussionist Laurence Pike, New Hymn to Freedom – released by Leeds label Leaf - proved a spellbinding testimonial to the hypnotic potential of improvised music. Improvisation can often result in the off-putting sound of musicians arm-wrestling each other for maximum showing-off room. Szun Waves pack the patience to stand back when the interests of the performance calls for restraint. Their telepathic interplay and the strength of the material – most notably the hypnotic highlight Temple – is all the more impressive considering the album was dreamed up from scratch in the studio, and percussionist Pike resides in Australia, making actual rehearsal time a scarce commodity. Impressively, the trio proved even more powerful live during their Leeds date in November.

Runners-up: The Wave Pictures - Brushes with Happiness; Träden - Träden; Low - Double Negative; Jim Ghedi - Hymn for Ancient Land; Toby Hay - The Longest Day; Jeff Tweedy - WARM; Brigid Mae Power - The Two Worlds; Kamasi Washington - Heaven and Earth; Harmony Rockets - Lachesis/Clotho/Atropos; Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread - Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread

David Hodgson

Gig of the year

Father John Misty at The Piece Hall, Halifax

Touring fourth solo album throughout 2018, it would be expected that US folk rock singer Father John Misty’s live set is a polished affair. Whilst that is the case, the surprise is that despite the incessant touring programme, Misty’s passion and energy levels are maintained throughout every gig. Backed by an extensive band, now including strings for added richness, tracks from God’s Favorite Customer featured heavily. Set in the stunning surroundings of Halifax’s Piece Hall, a line-up of The Orielles, Hookworms and Edwyn Collins as well as a touching tribute to Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchinson, left Misty as the pinnacle of a staggeringly impressive collective.

Album of the year

Columbia by The Blinders

Listeners to the Yorkshire band’s debut album need peak physical fitness, such is the relentless and unceasingly intense energy emitted throughout the breathless opening half, drawing breath at Ballad of Winston Smith, before taking the reins back up again until Orbit (Salmon of Alaska) brings one of the freshest, most invigorating albums of the year to a close. The Blinders demonstrate a level of self-confidence and swagger that belies their young age, the bassline of stand-out track L’Etat C’est Moi forever cerebrally lodged in all affected by it, Brave New World the entry level song. The perfect foil to the similarly unrestrained live set.

Mike Price

Gig of the year

The Selecter/The Beat/Stiff Little Fingers/Buzzcocks at Millennium Square, Leeds

First discovering Buzzcocks watching ‘Party Animal’, an 80’s American college romp made memorable by ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’, ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ and ‘I Don’t Mind’ in its soundtrack, the resultant purchase of ‘Singles Going Steady’ changed my musical taste forever. Predictably, my lasting memory of Shelley will be like most, watching him scowl through Buzzcocks’ unique collection of rough diamonds. In this instance we’re talking Millennium Square last May, stealing the show in a four band bundle following sterling work by The Selecter, The Beat and Stiff Little Fingers. With Diggle as ever by Shelley’s side, those Buzzcocks gems sounded just as fresh as the day they were cut in the studio. Rest in noise and thanks for the listening pleasure.

Album of the year

Twentytwo in Blue by Sunflower Bean

Honing that pure-pop sound whilst rocking out when the mood takes you can be tougher than it seems, many over the years planting feet in both camps with differing degrees of success. The opening brace from Sunflower Bean’s fine second record clearly demonstrates the knack the New York trio have of comfortably turning their hands to both. A furiously catchy ‘Burn It’; 70s glam complete with a sleazy riff meatier than the contents of Leatherface’s cellar, is followed by the effortlessly cool detached pop of ‘I Was A Fool’, Julia Cumming and Nick Kivlen alternating vocal duties and sounding eerily reminiscent of Buckingham and Nicks in their heyday.