Our Next Guests Are A Wonderful Rock & Roll Band: 20 Performances on Latter-Day Letterman Picked By a Later-Day Letterman Fan

635676571678420060-XXX-DAVIDLETTERMAN03-D01-dcb-001[1] So, it’s come to this. Pop culture as a collective is saying goodbye to a legendary talk-show host in the form of David Letterman. I’ve seen countless tributes pouring in on my timeline – celebrities and regular folk alike all have a Letterman story. I suppose I should share mine, although it doesn’t have the same weight to it as ones from my friends in their thirties and forties that quite literally grew up with the show.

I come into the picture in the 2000s. By this point, Letterman is an establishment. Appearing on that show means that you’re someone – if only for that moment. This much is especially true of the show’s musical guests, which were often the only reason I would tune in. One YouTube came into the picture, I’d often spend hours at a time down a rabbit hole with only the search term “live on letterman” to guide me. There was always such an interesting mix of artists – some well-established, some just coming through the ranks. To me, if you’d been on Letterman, you’d made it. That was your stage, your chance, your moment.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to share some of my personal favourite Letterman musical-guest moments. Please note that this is by no means a definitive best-of – I’ve picked exclusively from the last 15 years; and there is no Future Islands on account of there having been everything that one could possibly say about that performance already out there in the ether. These are just some performances that I’ve been enthralled with over the years for very different reasons. So, let’s take it away.

TV on the Radio – Wolf Like Me (2006)

I still get the exact same electricity running through me nearly ten years after this performance first happened. I shared this with EVERYONE – even people I knew that didn’t like music. There was something monumental about this rendition – it took what was already bound to be one of the greatest songs of the decade and somehow made it even greater. Can’t you just hear how David Andrew Sitek makes his guitar squeal. How Jaleel Bunton punches through those drum parts. Kyp Malone practically jumps out of his suit at one point. This made me want to be in a rock band – my rock band at the time made this cover a staple of our set. It all started – my Letterman obsession, my TVotR obsession, the whole shebang – here.

An Horse – Camp Out (2009)

We cut to the end of the decade, and it’s one of the more obscure Australian acts to have appeared on the show – a Brisbane indie band who were championed by acts like Death Cab and Tegan & Sara. It didn’t turn them into arena filling sensations, but performances like this proved that achieving something on that side of the world was still a possibility. The vibe that you got from watching Courtney Barnett on Fallon or Ellen? That’s what we were feeling when An Horse pressed the flesh with Dave.

Beastie Boys – Ch-Check It Out (2004)

I’ve tried to shy away from the obvious performances in this list, but you just can’t go past the creativity and the energy of this one. It felt like a music video brought to life, and the mile-wide grin on Dave’s face at its conclusion makes it all worth it. This dropped right in a revival of Beastie obsession for me, so it was perfect timing. Fuck, I miss MCA.

Arcade Fire – Rebellion (Lies) (2005)

There’s such an urgency to this era of Arcade Fire that Dave almost doesn’t get their name out before the begin an all-instrument avalanche. This is a kitchen-sink type of Arcade Fire – one of them is even running around the place whacking a floor tom for the fuck of it. Centred in its universe is Win, who is far from the unleashed rockstar he would become in the Reflektor era. Here, he barely moves. He’s the last to arrive at this party and the first to leave – which somehow makes him more of an intriguing prospect.

Grinderman – Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars) (2007)

After years of concert halls and opera houses, Nick Cave wanted to fuck some shit up again like in the old days. Grinderman let him reclaim the mania of The Birthday Party yet keep the suit. It worked – and it resulted in one of the wildest performances on the show. Warren Ellis is playing some kind of electric mandolin while randomly smashing a hi-hat with a hammer. Cave is on the prowl, laying down organ parts and quite literally buzzing away. It’s impossible to look away.

Sparta – Breaking the Broken (2004)

At a time where fear-mongering was at a high and the American political climate was one of uncertainty for any that considered themselves creative, Sparta appeared on Letterman. Sprayed onto their shirts was the word VOTE – and, after putting everything into a performance of what I consider to be their best-ever song, it was quite clear which way they wanted you to do as such. Spoiler alert: They were not successful. At that point in time, though, it didn’t matter. It felt like anything was possible.

Beck – Nausesa (2006)

Nevermind that this is a thoroughly jamming version of one of Beck’s most underrated singles – Borat turns up! MY WIFE! Also worth pointing out that, by a complete luck of the draw, this performance shares a drummer with the very next one in the form of one Matt Sherrod.

R.E.M. – Imitation of Life (2001)

R.E.M. were legacy guests on Letterman. In 1983, they appeared for the first time and performed two songs; both of which have become seminal singles of the era. They went on to appear four more times on the show, with this being their last before they split up a decade later. The contrasts between 1983 R.E.M. and 2001 R.E.M. are centred around Michael Stipe – once an enigmatic, mumbling long-haired twenty-something; now an extrovert and a true frontman in every sense. It was the band coming full circle.

Tom Waits – Make it Rain (2004)

You must understand that I hated Tom Waits when I first discovered him. Hated him. Thought his voice was fucked and that he looked like he’d been run over. Of course, that’s exactly the same reason that I love him now. I look back on this performance that once made me squirm and see one that is all class. The addition of two-thirds of the Blues Explosion laying it down certainly helps matters.

Feist – 1234 (2007)

She may hate this song now, and may well never play it again. There was a time, though, where we all fell in love with it. For many, that came with this performance, which enlisted an all-star choir of people from The National, Grizzly Bear, The New Pornographers, Mates of State and Broken Social Scene. It’s all horns, ba-da-bas and pure unadulterated joy. You can’t help but smile when you see this one. Plus, how on-point are those handclaps?

Liam Finn – Second Chance (2007)

Two offspring of Australasian rock legends combine forces here, Liam being the stock of Neil Finn and his counterpart being one of Jimmy Barnes’ daughters. The similarities, of course, stop there – this is a psychedelically-tinged slice of indie-rock that goes into overdrive once Finn sets up his loop station and goes fucking WILD on the drums. Even a slight fuck-up makes this imperfectly perfect.

Red Fang – Blood Like Cream (2014)

I don’t know – are Red Fang considered a “metal” band? Like, are they metally enough for the Metal Club? Whatever the case, it’s always a surprise and a joy when stuff like this makes it onto network television. They hit this one out of the park, and even Paul Shaffer himself gets in on the fun by adding in some spooky organ drones. Bonus points for Dave’s sick burn at the end: “I’ll talk to your drummer about growing a beard.”

Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You (2009)

There’s this idea that if a song can still sound good through AM speakers, it’s bound to be a good song. This performance of the opening track from Case’s Middle Cyclone sounds like a masterpiece in 480p, so make of that what you will. The triple-guitar layering works beautifully alongside the four backing vocalists, which include Kelly Hogan and Lucy Wainwright Roche. Stunning, understated and a true credit to Case as a performer and bandleader.

Mastodon – Curl of the Burl (2011)

When Mastodon first came on Letterman in 2009, Dave introduced them by saying “I’m not gonna lie to you… I’m frightened” before cutting to a close-up of Brent Hinds’ face tattoo. It was a funny bit, but it was also reflective of a wider preconception about metal and the people involved in it. Seemingly, Dave got over his initial fright once he saw how awesome they were – the band were invited back two more times. This is my favourite of the three, if only for Bill having the words “HI MOM” taped onto his guitar.

LE1F – Wut (2014)

Potentially the first gay rapper to ever perform live on network television? Potentially the only? This fantastic performance from the bold and brassy LE1F was a huge moment for both LGBT and POC visibility, not to mention a massive step up in a live setting. While the MC and DJ set-up certainly works for LE1F, a full band (featuring Dev Hynes on bass) and two back-up dancers works even better.

Morningwood – Jetsetter (2006)

In 2006, I was obsessed with a band called Morningwood. I believe I was one of two whole people in all of Australia that even knew who they were. They may have been a blip on the radar to many, or simply cool by association (lead singer Chantal Claret is married to Little Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence). On this night, though, they were the talk of the town – particularly after Claret did her now-famous Matrix dance during the guitar break. Power-pop for life.

The Orwells – Who Needs You (2014)

The performance that divided the internet right down the middle. Was it a mess? Was it staged? Were they high? Was it rock & roll? Was it all premeditated? The answer, naturally, is that it’s exactly what you see. It’s what you make of it. It’s like the Vines’ infamous performance in 2002. Whatever the case, Paul Shaffer lost his fucking mind over it. You can see why.

Tokyo Police Club – Nature of the Experiment (2007)

22 didn’t seem all that far away at 17. When I realised how old Tokyo Police Club were, and I saw them on Letterman, I felt that maybe I’d know where I was going at that age. Naturally, I didn’t; and neither did they – they’ve scarcely been heard from since this peak point of exposure. It’s worth revisiting, though, both for the drummer going hard on just a bass/snare/hi-hat set-up and the entire CBS Orchestra joining in on a tambourine flash-mob. The kids were alright, weren’t they?

The National – Afraid of Everyone (2010)

The National make everything special in their own understated way, including their TV appearances. Here, they played a non-single (not to mention one of my favourite National songs) and brought out a horns section, a pump organ and a casual cameo from Sufjan Stevens. It builds up into something unbelievable – this, to me, is the definitive version of this song.

U2 – Beautiful Day (2009)

Here’s something you should know: From the ages of 8 to 24 (the age I currently) am, I was a huge U2 fan. I still am. Yep, even through some average albums and the whole debacle last year. There’s something about this band that always puts me in the exact right mood. I can’t imagine my life without a song like “Beautiful Day,” as pathetic as that seems. It’s a light in the dark for me; a crack of sunshine let into the shadows. It’s impossible for me to be unhappy when it’s on. So when U2 performed it as a part of U2 Week on the show, in which they did a song every night, I fell in love with it all over again.

On this night, Bono is determined to get the crowd up on their feet. You think it’ll happen in the first chorus. They’re still down. Second chorus. The clapping along is louder, but they’re still down. It takes until the second bridge for them to finally lift – but it’s worth the pay off. I smile like an idiot everytime I see that bit. It’s so daggy, but it reminds me exactly of what “Beautiful Day” does for me.

Thanks, Dave.

Goodnight, everybody.

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The Top 100 Songs of 2014, Part Four: 40 – 21

We’re so close! Parts one, two and three… missed ’em? Not to worry? You can revisit them here, here and here. Let’s get down to some top 40 pop hits. Starting now.

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40. Fucked Up feat. J Mascis – Led By Hand

Here’s a strange proposition: The best Dinosaur Jr. song of the year did have J Mascis in it, but it wasn’t by Dinosaur Jr. In a standout moment from their exceptional Glass Boys LP, Pink Eyes and co. paid homage to proto-grunge wigouts while still maintaining their hardcore punk roots. There was perhaps no greater yin-and-yang in the year than when Mascis mumbled the song’s chorus as Pink Eyes let out a Roger Daltrey-worthy “YEAH!” atop of it. An unlikely pairing on paper, “Led by Hand” had everything making a whole lotta sense quite quickly. Follow it around.

39. St. Vincent – Digital Witness

What did Annie Clark learn from her time making music with David Byrne? Two major things. The first: Horns. They’re a weapon. Use them wisely. The second: Is something categorically weird in your song? Make it weirder. Taking this on board, “Digital Witness” is one of her finest tracks to date. Whether it was the spiralling pre-chorus melody, the stinging guitar wail or that all-encompassing hook, it was nigh-on impossible to deny the resonance of this rebirth. During one of the song’s many earworms, Clark boldly states “I want all of your mind.” You got it. Anything else?

38. The Kite String Tangle – Words

We’re still learning a lot about Danny Harley, the prodigious figurehead behind Brisbane bedroom phenomena The Kite String Tangle. Tracks like “Words” allowed us as listeners to edge slightly closer in this regard, and it was something to be extremely thankful for. A restrained exploration of post-dubstep balladry, Harley shrouds himself in light-and-shade contrasts, gently coaxing out confessional lyrics as distant lights flicker and glow on the outskirts. It shouldn’t add up that such depth and maturity has been achieved at such an early stage, but one would suppose The Kite String Tangle has always been against the odds.

37. Jane Tyrrell – The Rush

Lovers can fall hard and fast for one another, but where does one find oneself when fire turns to ice? It’s a complicated subject, and one that Tyrrell details with an outsider’s eye and an insider’s mind. She may have set up two characters in the song, but it’s safe to say that she sees more than just herself within them. Driven masterfully by the unmistakable drumming of PVT’s Laurence Pike, there are soaring highs and crushing lows that weave through the song’s relatively-short runtime. Tyrrell sees us through to the bitter end. It’s not like it’s her first time.

36. Ken Stringfellow – Kids Don’t Follow

If any song is stretching the friendship for its inclusion in a 2014 list, it’s surely this: A cover of a Replacements song from the 80s that was recorded in 2004 for a tribute album to the aforementioned college-rock legends that ultimately never came to be. This hazy barroom take on the anti-authoritative punk number came from acclaimed Posies and R.E.M. alum Ken Stringfellow; and collected dust until the release of a rarities compilation at the beginning of 2014. So, here we are. You best believe this sucker was worth uncovering. A smart, somewhat-sombre reworking from a truly underrated craftsman.

35. Babaganouj – Too Late for Love

Go Violets didn’t fade away, they burnt out. Their embers remain flickering within Brisbane’s still-thriving indie-pop village, as two of its members have resumed full-time positions in this little jangly garage outfit that could. “Too Late for Love” may have been born in the sunshine state, but it’s more European in flavour – there’s a strong dose of Camera Obscura, a hint of The Wannadies and sprinklings of Belle and Sebastian’s early work. None of this is said to deride the song, of course. It’s a reflection on how it immediately feels like home. May this band burn longer and brighter.

34. Kelis – Breakfast

Her milkshake brought all the boys to the yard, but what happens when one of those boys sticks around? Now in her thirties, Kelis is exploring the concept of finding love in wake of divorce. It’s quite an adult prospect, recurring on perhaps her most mature LP to date, Food. Many went with a helping of “Jerk Ribs” when asked to name the album’s standout, but it would be foolhardy to dismiss this triumphantly horn-laden take on neo-soul, complete with stunning chorus and adorable children’s backing vocals. Much like in life, “Breakfast” is the most important meal of the day.

33. Ben Howard – Conrad

A lot of pitch-black darkness took up Ben Howard’s second album – hell, it even took up most of the cover art. Positioned towards its latter half, “Conrad” allowed the LP to let a glimmer of light into the spectrum. It continues to look at where a past love went awry; and yet the song plays to the pop sensibilities that rewarded Howard such attention to begin with. Its shipmates are his exceptional guitar work, layered to the point of being a battalion front; as well as a hummed refrain that would even garner due respect from the Crash Test Dummies.

32. Luca Brasi – Borders and Statelines

Luca Brasi’s dues have been paid in full and with interest; and many within Australia’s punk community have spent the last few years in particular wondering as to when it would be their time. It was answered not with words, but an extremely loud action. The forceful, crashing drums, the stellar twin-guitar attack and the rousing, spirited chorus they always had in them… “Borders and Statelines,” contrary to its lyrics, will come to define this band in the very best way imaginable. There is a wolf in the throne room, and its name is Luca Brasi. There will be blood.

31. Swans – Oxygen

2014 saw Michael Gira turn 60 years old. He continues to haunt the realm of alternative/avant-garde music after thirty-plus years in the game with unfinished business. Amid an exhausting two-hour-plus release – the double-LP To Be Kind – came this truly terrifying beast. “Oxygen,” already a live favourite, can now officially stand as one of the biggest, boldest compositions to ever come out under the Swans moniker upon its long-awaited recording. Its opening moments are spent picking out one of the year’s most distinctive basslines; its dying moments forcefully hurls everything it has built up into the inferno. The in-between is unforgettable.

30. Death From Above 1979 – Right On, Frankenstein!

Yes, the most hyped new rock band of the year may well have been a bass-and-drums duo; but a vengeful return from the very band that made it cool in the first place made sure we all knew whose yard we were stepping into. “Frankenstein” fires off on all cylinders from its opening seconds, pounding through a barnstorming, breakneck dose of rock & roll that exists purely on Keeler and Grainger’s terms. Plus, it’s gotta be the best false ending to a song from this year: The dust settles, the bass rings out… then, POW! Right in the kisser!

29. Bertie Blackman – Run for Your Life

Another new Bertie Blackman album means another new Bertie Blackman. From the days of her favourite jeans to her flirtations with electronica on later releases, the chameleonic Blackman has rarely allowed herself to get too comfortable within a particular style in her decade-and-change of songwriting. “Run for Your Life” is no exception to this, although it would be wise to suggest she spend a little more time in this specific corner. She sounds right at home with the gated snare, thickly-layered synthesizers and the whoah-oh’d call and response. She may well have just stumbled across her own pop paradise.

28. Kiesza – Hideaway

Fred Armisen may have sung that the dream of the 90s was alive in Portland, but his radar was a little off. The dream of the 90s, friends, is alive in Kiesza, a twenty-something Canadian up-and-comer who dominated dancefloors throughout the entire year with this certified banger in her arsenal. From a crafting perspective, “Hideaway” is retro in the sense that it can appreciate that there was a “What is Love” and a “Rhythm of the Night” for every “Teen Spirit” and “Black Hole Sun.” Its spirit is alive and shuffling once again. Mash it.

27. Coldplay – Magic

In the year that the phrase “consciously uncoupling” entered the cultural lexicon, you could well have been forgiven for forgetting that Chris Martin actually made music this year. Sure, some people would like to forget it altogether, but that’s another story for another time. We’re here to talk about “Magic,” a single that allowed Martin and co. to recall the pop simplicity of their early days while connecting it to the fresh pain of a then-recent separation. If “Magic” proves anything, it’s that we can begin again. That, and Chris Martin can still write a bloody tune.

26. Tkay Maidza – U-Huh

Don’t let Tkay Maidza’s age fool you, nor the simplicity of her big-business single. MCs twice her age would kill for a flow so tightly syncopated, hooks this high in both quality and quantity and a beat as bright and boisterous as the one that fills the spaces of “U-Huh.” There are constant surprises around every corner in the current Australian musical climate; and Maidza is the latest to make a substantial impact. One hopes the fire spat here leads to a phenomenal debut LP next year. After all, as she puts it, “We don’t tolerate broke behaviour.”

25. Yoke – Jabiluka

A phrase as simple as “I never told her” is what centres itself thematically at the core of “Jabiluka,” so named after a mine in the Northern Territory of Australia. Each time it is uttered, there are further layers peeled back to reveal the pain, the regret and the loss that comes with delivering such a line. It’s conveyed emphatically, almost taking on new meaning with every repetition. Similarly, the song itself may externally feel like a Dev Hynes-flavoured slice of downtempo indie-pop, but further listening will see those very same layers revealing. A smart yet complicated song.

24. DZ Deathrays – Reflective Skull

Who gives a fuck about how many notes you can play? If you can play the right ones, in the right succession, you needn’t worry about a single thing more. The riff that “Reflective Skull” lives and dies by was not designed for any greater intellectual pursuit. It’s a primitive headbanger, locked into an undeniable stomping groove and launched forth with reckless abandon. Ironically enough, with its less-than-more approach, this could be one of the biggest sounding tracks that the Deathrays duo have ever put their collective name to. Altogether, now: DUN, DUN-DUN, DUN DUN DUN-DUN, DEWWWW DEWWWW DEWWWW.

23. Sia – Chandelier

Ten years removed from her previous signature song, the inimitable “Breath Me,” Sia Furler has penned herself a new standard; an anthem which will forever define her as one of not only Australia’s greatest singer-songwriter exports, but as a true mastermind behind pop music in the 21st century. Hyperbole? For Christ’s sake, go listen to that chorus again. Seriously. It feels like that Maxell ad campaign where the guy is being blown away by the sound in his chair. Maddie Ziegler may have given the song a second life, but it was all a part of Sia’s grander plan.

22. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt

Don’t call it a comeback. Don’t even call it a reinvention. What we are seeing here is Brian Fallon and co. going out on a proverbial limb, gazing forlornly at what lies beyond. In leaving their comfort zone and exploring the possibilities of slower, more refined songwriting, Gaslight have undertaken a greater journey all with a single step. The title track from their latest record also served as one of their most striking, honest songs ever put to wax. It’s murmurs and whispers from a band defined by their shouts and screams, and it makes for a remarkable listening experience.

21. Tiny Ruins – Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens

The single greatest ode to love in 2014 came from the humble, warm abode of Auckland; where you’ll find the quaint, gorgeously understated sounds of one Hollie Fullbrook on the wind. The story is simply told, beautifully painted and pristinely arranged, as we follow the scent of young love through two uniquely different workplaces that somehow not only complement on another, but serve as a reflection on the resolute power that can come through finding love. Its greatest achievement, however, is its ability to accomplish all of this majesty in a decidedly slim 155 seconds. It just comes and goes.

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