I saw close to fifty shows this year, some as a music reviewer others as a fan. Some were incredible, others forgettable, and many others filled the vast middle-ground in between. I missed a few great shows too, like The Black Keys, My Morning Jacket, and The New Pornographers, but there’s only so much time in a week. Why eight? I just didn’t want to dilute the list by including any shows I felt less than 100% enthused about. This list, therefore, represents the absolute best of the best of what I saw in 2011.

1.) Cut Copy at the Vogue

On tour to promote their Grammy-nominated album Zonoscope, this Aussie synth-pop band turned-in one of the most energetic, well-produced, and simply electrifying performances I’ve ever seen. They packed the Vogue on a rainy Monday night and the crowd got so crazy that CC lead singer Dan Whitford had to implore everyone to chill out. The combination of lights, bass, synth, dancing, and the band’s unrestrained enthusiasm made for a rave-like atmosphere. It was an obscenely good show.

2.) Arcade Fire at Pepsi Coliseum

Alright, this one’s kind of a slam dunk, but despite being fully-established as indie rock legends and despite the fact the show was moved from The Lawn at White River indoors on a dreary April weeknight, AF put on a superb show on their first trip to Naptown. They relied heavily on the strongest hits from The Suburbs (or they might’ve had a riot on their hands) and truly put on a spectacle; they filled the super-wide stage with their troupe of musicians all standing spread-out at the front like buskers, while two drummers kept time majestically on raised platforms, all beneath a surreal B&W film loop projected on a screen above. Hearing them drop the opening piano chords of “The Suburbs” toward the end of the show was a moment I’ll never forget. Openers The National also put on a hell of a show.

3.) tUnE-yArDs at Rhinos (Bloomington)

For an indie music fan this was one of those absolute must-see, clear your calendar, cancel your plans kind of shows and tUnE-yArDs delivered the goods. Their percussion-heavy, homemade R&B kind of sound played even better live than on their latest album WHOKILL, which they were on tour to promote. Merrill Garbus was so fun to watch; dressed in a sort of fuzzy pink boa with half her face painted white, she sang with a raw, gutsy, energy and at times a childlike sense of glee, smiling and giggling in spite of herself when she would pull off a great riff. By the end of the show she had the entire crowd bopping up and down with her in time to her closing song.

4.) Band of Horses at IMA

Odds are you didn’t hear about this one. That’s because it was a “secret show” announced only 24 hours or so before the event and meant to revolve around this year’s Indy 500 festivities. On a Spring night that started out rainy but turned mild and clear, BoH played to the crowd of 200 in the IMA garden as if it were a stadium of 60,000. The terraced garden, facing the White River, made for great acoustics and as evening drew in the stage lights caught the river fog creating a dramatic kind of mood that went right along with BoH’s classic songs like “The Funeral,” and “The Great Salt Lake.”

5.) Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks at Earth House

Somewhere along the line, in the process of the past 25-odd years as a recording musician, songwriter, and leader of seminal alternative band Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has become a master guitarist. He displayed that at Earth House this fall when he trotted out his latest album Mirror Traffic, a tightly-produced gem of a record. To see this show was truly to watch a master at work playing well-instrumented and technically-brilliant rock and roll.

6.) Broad Ripple Music Fest

Granted there were 150 bands, the line-ups at Connor’s and Rock Lobster represented what are undoubtedly the city/region’s best indie rock bands. Outfits like Murder by Death, Pravada, Slothpop, America Owns the Moon, The Kemps, Sleeping Bag, and HotFox—just to name a few—made this an unforgettable day of music and a chance to see a wide swath of what Indy has to offer, for only $15. You simply couldn’t come away from this year’s installment of BRMF feeling anything less than fired-up about the state of indie rock in this region.

7.) Bill Callahan at White Rabbit

I find singer-songwriter Bill Callahan (formerly known as Smog) is one of those staid, quirky artists that you have to be in a particular mood to listen to, and I guess I was in that kind of mood when I saw his show this summer. Cool and aloof, Callahan played his lyrically-rich, prose-poem kind of songs deliberately and with the kind of poised intensity that marks his music overall. The song “Sycamores” actually seemed to move the audience—or at least this reviewer—into a trance as they hung on every word.

8.) The Kemps et al. at Helter Shelter (Indy)

How does a house show in SoBro get on the same list with the likes of Arcade Fire and Stephen Malkmus? You had to be there. The lineup for this show included two of my favorite local bands, The Kemps and Vacation Club, along with Oreo Jones, Learner Dancer, and Grey Granite. On a hot, late-summer night these bands turned the cramped, dark basement of Helter Shelter into a den of sonic mayhem; it was the kind of close-knit scene that makes you feel like you’re part of something. In this case that something is Indy’s thriving independent music scene.


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