Best concerts of 2008: Kanye vs. Rage

The top two choices were clear, but then it was all a wonderful blur.

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Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zack de la Rocha sang with the band at Target Center.

Photo: Joey Mcleister, Star Tribune

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Chris Riemenschneider

1. Rage Against the Machine (Target Center, Sept. 4, final night of GOP convention). An arena surrounded by police in riot gear. A city wrapped up in protest and pageantry. A legendary rock band that hadn't been in town for 11 years. Conservative or liberal -- remember, they played the Democratic convention, too -- you would've felt chills shoot up your spine when Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha spouted off lines like, "The war is right outside the door." Then again, you could've ignored the lyrics altogether and still been lightning-struck by the band's thundering performance.

2. Kanye West (Target Center, June 11). Hip-hop's most ambitious tour ever,but even more impressive was Kanye's personal delivery. I've rarely seen a performer so deeply invested in a concert.

3. My Morning Jacket (Orpheum Theatre, Oct. 2). The guitars were as luminous as the whirling light show, but frontman Jim James shined brightest as a rare, unique talent. With all the dizzying visuals and rip-roaring energy, it was no surprise James fell off a stage in Iowa City a few gigs later, ending the tour.

4. TV on the Radio (First Avenue, Oct. 20). Even with their boldly diverse sonic DNA, Brooklyn's sonic collagists put together an impressively cohesive, orchestrated set.

5. Drive-by Truckers/Hold Steady (First Avenue, Nov. 15). Two ugly garage bands made for a beautiful pairing with all their poetic songs about the joys, pitfalls and healing powers of rock 'n' roll.

6. Lucinda Williams (Minnesota Zoo, June 30). The alt-country queen was in a great mood while previewing a strong new album on a gorgeous summer night. A can't-lose formula.

7. Bon Iver (Turf Club, Jan. 16). With his album still just a blogger phenom at that point, Eau Claire native Justin Vernon confirmed he's for real. A packed Turf Club has never been so hushed/ mesmerized.

8. Soundset '08 (Metrodome parking lot, May 25). The Atmosphere-led fest confirmed a lot about indie-rap, not the least of which is that its local purveyors are great entertainers.

9. Cat Power (First Avenue, Feb. 11). Indie-rock chanteuse Chan Marshall was finally, forcefully pulled out of her shell onstage by an excellent Stax-meets-Touch & Go band.

10. Marilyn Manson or Judas Priest (Myth, Feb. 8 and Aug. 2). Moving from half-empty arenas down to a club packed with diehards upped both acts' heavy impact.

Biggest letdowns: Beck, spoiled by poor acoustics and a vacant personality at Roy Wilkins on Sept. 30; no visits here by Radiohead or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

Biggest surprises: The reunited New Kids of the Block received like U2 by 13,000 screaming women at Xcel Center on Oct. 21; the reunited Stone Temple Pilots not sucking at Roy Wilkins on June 6.

Jon Bream

1. Kanye West (Target Center, June 11). It wasn't the visually ambitious approach of the supa-star performing on a gigantic lighted laptop that blinked to his beats, but it was his fiercely unrelenting passion. Rarely has a performer -- singer, rapper, DJ, instrumentalist, lip-syncer, whatever -- poured so much of himself into every single song. I thought he was going to explode, which he kind of did by delivering a misguided rant against critics as a way-late encore after most people had left.

2. Rage Against the Machine (Target Center, Sept. 4). Uncompromising, unrelenting, unbelievably committed and incredibly loud. Zack de la Rocha demonstrated that he's the most wired rapper on the planet, and Tom Morello played mighty funked-up guitar.

3. Neil Young (Xcel Energy Center, Oct. 14). A terrific show, front-loaded with rip-roaring rock favorites, followed by quieter, acoustic treats, three unrecorded new electric numbers and a blaze of ragged glory at the finish. Dancing with his guitar Ol' Black, Young was roaringly urgent.

4. Adele (Theatre de la Jeune Lune, June 2). The highly touted British newcomer, 20, delivered a knockout if too-short performance of acoustic R&B-tinged pop, one of those tiny shows that will be legendary years from now.

5. My Morning Jacket (Orpheum, Oct. 2). This tight, powerful, derivative quintet put on an enthralling and occasionally majestic show, thanks to stylish lighting, enough stage fog to envelop London and super-talented frontman Jim James.

6. Fleet Foxes (Cedar Cultural Center, Oct. 11). Schooled on classic-rock harmonies, the young Seattle quintet sounded fresh and special. Not only is 22-year-old frontman Robin Pecknold a superior singer/songwriter, he is a friendly and funny star in the making.

7. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (State Fair, Aug. 21). Jones' unstoppable personality and boundless body-shaking energy might seem like hammy show-womanship, but she backed it up with a ferociously passionate voice on vintage-style soul.

8. Miranda Lambert (Mystic Lake Casino, Feb. 24). A first-rate songwriter, the part rock/part country star proved to be a charming personality and potent performer with the best va-va-va-voom strut in country music.

9. Rodrigo y Gabriela (First Avenue, Aug. 18). These two acoustic guitarists kept the crowd entranced for nearly two hours with Latin-flavored originals and interpretations of classic-rock songs. Fast, furious, complex, subtle.

10. Shelby Lynne (the O'Shaughnessy, Nov. 29). She has mastered the art of being both sad and sultry, seasoned by John Jackson's pained guitar. Plus she showed the sexiest stage legs since Dwight Yoakam's.

Biggest letdown: Ringo Starr's far-from-stellar All Starr Band at Mystic Lake Casino on July 14.

Biggest surprises: Celine Dion adding enough camp and personality to her over-the-top spectacle at Target Center on Dec. 18, and Kid Rock's fun rock 'n' country revue at Target Center with Peter Wolf and the Rev. Run on May 24.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 • Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

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