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Top concerts of 2012

Greg Kot

1:05 AM EST, December 21, 2012

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Here are my favorite concerts from 2012:

1. Neutral Milk Hotel at Athenaeum Theatre, Feb. 6: After releasing two acclaimed albums in the ‘90s, Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum drifted away for more than a decade. His return stacked up as an event, and he delivered: His voice in full cry, nailing notes with conviction and accuracy over guitar strummed so rudely it’s a wonder it didn’t break in half. He sounded renewed, and so did a thrilled audience. "How do you feel about reincarnation?" one fan blurted out. Mangum’s response: "I'm doing it right now."

2. Nick Waterhouse at South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, March 14: A cramped, sweaty club and an even more cramped stage only enhanced the vibe. Waterhouse’s band – hard-swinging rhythm section, blaring sax, insinuating backing singers – turned the claustrophobic room into a sea of shoulder-to-shoulder shimmying and shouting. Waterhouse himself looked like a bespectacled engineering student -- until he played one of his car-crash guitar solos or pleaded for a little respect.

3. Amadou and Mariam at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Aug. 5: Amadou Bagayoko’s gold Telecaster reflected the late-afternoon sun, a beacon calling to everyone within earshot to join the dance. Amadou; his wife, Mariam Doumbia; and their four-piece band turned the park into an undulating sea of bobbing heads and shimmying hips as they threw down an ocean of polyrhythmic groove straight from Mali. About midway through, Amadou switched from rhythm to lead, his melodies surfing ecstatically atop the waves.

4. Fiona Apple at Chicago Theatre, July 10: “I just want to feel everything,” Apple declared, and for nearly two hours she let it roar. She’s turned into a more mature, disciplined performer since her erratic youth, but that shouldn’t be confused with mellowing. Indeed, she has never sounded more fierce, as she channeled a multitude of voices, pounded her piano like a drum and tumbled on the stage, her body vibrating like a live wire.

5. Frank Ocean at Lollapalooza in Grant Park, Aug. 4: Anyone who was there and many who weren’t will remember Lollapalooza 2012 as the evacuation festival, when promoters and police emptied Grant Park in anticipation of a major storm that swept through downtown Chicago. Much later on that rain-drenched day, Frank Ocean played in front of a small crowd and delivered one emotionally complex, darkly insinuating song after another. Playing an acoustic guitar, Ocean evoked the subtle elegance of Jobim, the sensual yearning of Marvin Gaye.

6. Neil Young and Crazy Horse at United Center, Oct. 11: Reunited with Crazy Horse, Neil Young slipped into his serial-killer guise this night, his eyes wide, his legs splayed, his guitar spraying notes like a machine gun. Songs became more like long train rides, gaining momentum and ferocity the longer they traveled, the guitars of Young and Frank “Pancho” Sampedro surfing atop the waves of rhythm churned up by bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. Young brought it all home with one of the quietest – and scariest – performances of the show, a harrowing “Tonight’s the Night.”

7. Bobby Womack at the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Festival, Riverfront Theatre, Sept. 23: The R&B singer had been laid low by cancer and diabetes. A new album with Damon Albarn, “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” has introduced him to a new generation, but this night was devoted to his classic material from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Womack treated each song as a story he can reshape in the moment. “I like to do it right and take my time,” he said, as he played his 13-piece band and the audience like an instrument.

8. Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall at Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, July 15: The two kindred-spirit San Francisco bands were booked in overlapping time slots at the Pitchfork festival, which seemed to only jack up the urgency and energy pouring from both sets. There was Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer turning his guitar into a rocket ship one minute, a trash compactor the next, then a few minutes later on a neighboring stage Segall was howling over the rollercoaster rhythms of his band. Both singers were shouting out greetings to one another across the field. Fortunately, fans got to see both bands tour together and play full sets later in the year, sharing the stage at Logan Square Auditorium.

9. Leonard Cohen at the Akoo Theatre, Rosemont, Ill., Nov. 23: At 78, Cohen is the gentleman assassin, bringing his deadpan wit to bear on songs that address aging, mortality and sin. Who knows how many more opportunities we’ll have to see him, but Cohen is acting like he’s having a ball on tour, singing on bended knee, dancing and cracking jokes at his own expense while dishing out 30 life-changing songs a night.

10. D’Angelo at United Center, Sept. 13: Like Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, D’Angelo has sunk into an enigmatic silence for more than a decade after making two brilliant albums. His return to the stage as opening act for the always-incandescent Mary J. Blige made this a must-see show for R&B fans, and despite a a blink-of-an-eye six-song, 30-minute set, D’Angelo left little doubt that his skills are undiminished, his voice and charisma very much intact. Then there’s his taste in bass players – I could listen to Pino Palladino play all night.

greg@gregkot.com