There was a time, not too long ago, when Milwaukee was on the “don’t-bother-playing” list for big-ticket touring acts, and regularly lost big-ticket shows to Madison and Chicago. Now, anyone claiming the latter clearly hasn’t stepped outside their house in roughly a decade. Every corner of Milwaukee is absolutely bursting with incredible shows these days, guaranteeing any list of the year’s highlights will be sorely incomplete. Still, round up those highlights we must: from intimate club shows to sold-out theater shows, here are the most notable Milwaukee concerts we saw in 2014. (Related: 25 best Milwaukee albums of 2014; 15 best Milwaukee music videos of 2014.)

Chris Forsyth & The Solar Motel Band at Cactus Club (February 21)
Following a mesmerizing set by Chicago drone-meister Mind Over Mirrors, Chris Forsyth and his band had their work cut out for them. Doing something original within the scope of instrumental rock is tough enough, but this Solar Motel project is not only a breath of fresh air in terms of dynamic songwriting, it’s a live force that projects stadium-sized riffs and lead guitar wizardry that recalls the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s but in wicked post-punk tones. For anyone who appreciates a solid groove with plenty of room for improv and the pure thrill of loud layers of guitar, Forsyth is one of the most exciting writers and players to come along in quite some time. [Cal Roach]

St. Vincent at Turner Hall (April 4)
Annie Clark completed her hat-trick of Pabst venues this year, playing with a full band in support of this year’s self-titled St. Vincent album, but this was her first appearance in Milwaukee in full-blown pop goddess mode, and she left no doubt in the minds of attendees as to her rightful status as such. Her time spent on the road with similarly subversive rock and roll personality David Byrne was not in vain, as Clark projected a similarly unselfish theatricality, quirky yet commanding. Her band was solid, but Clark’s beaming presence was all anyone would remember. Her guitar playing was just as impressive as her growing canon of superb songs, and the riveting encore rendition of Nirvana’s “Lithium” on the near-anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death cemented the show as unforgettable. [CR]

Milwaukee Day show at Turner Hall (April 14)
The greatest holiday to be based on an area code, Milwaukee Day, gave proud residents of the 414 plenty to do this year: Milwaukee-themed costume parties, neighborhood cleanups, and more. But the final concert blowout at Turner Hall was the real treat, bringing together a terrific new local act (Whips); a recently disbanded local act (Juniper Tar); and a legendary, long-disbanded local act (Decibully). Reunited and playing for the first time in three years, Decibully reminded a packed Turner Hall just how good they once were, and just how good they still could be. See you next Milwaukee Day? [Matt Wild]

Queens Of The Stone Age at Riverside Theater (May 7)
Modern rock and roll royalty Queens Of The Stone Age aren’t exactly Milwaukee fixtures. However, when they come to town, they make it count. Playing in southeast Wisconsin for the first time since opening up for Pearl Jam at Alpine Valley during the latter’s 20th anniversary tour in 2011, QOTSA filled Riverside Theater with fans excited to see a relatively rare theater appearance by a band that’s more equipped for the arena and colossal festival circuit. Though the show was a belated tour stop about a year removed from …Like Clockwork, Queens hinged the majority of the tight, blistering set on their greatest hits, such as “No One Knows,” “Sick, Sick, Sick,” and “Go With The Flow,” beside new standouts like “I Sat By The Ocean.” It might be another three-to-five years before the Queens visit our kingdom again, but memories of this intimate spring theater gig will help the time pass more quickly. [Tyler Maas]

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds at Milwaukee Theatre (June 20)
The room was far from packed, but Nick Cave tends to perform for the first few rows, conducting a creepy séance aimed directly at the truest believers and trusting the rest of the crowd to absorb the energy vicariously through the swooning cult of diehards. The stuffy environs of the Milwaukee Theatre lent a surreal edge to the proceedings, through which the 56-year-old Cave didn’t shy away from his most diabolical and offensive material. The Bad Seeds performed with an otherworldly furor, subtle when necessary but capable of unholy cacophony as well, such as in the high-speed crush of new favorite “Jubilee Street” as well as bombastic classics like “From Her To Eternity” and “The Mercy Seat.” The godfather of goth certainly hasn’t lost his edge, nor his songwriting gift. [CR]

Jack White at The Rave (July 21)
Jack “The Most Interesting Man In The World” White doesn’t always play Milwaukee, but when he does, he makes sure he plays…The Rave? Yes, one of the city’s biggest shows of the year took place at one of its most divisive venues. (Bonus points if you can name the other one.) But forget about the horrible sound, the astronomically priced drinks, and the horrible sound for a moment: this was an incredible show, location be damned. White tore through songs new (“Just One Drink”), old (“Hotel Yorba”), and obscure (Hank Williams’ “You Know That I Know”), and even gave a well-deserved shout-out to Milwaukee’s Cactus Club. Multiple “put-away-your-fucking-cell-phones-and-enjoy-the-show” requests from White and his crew were mostly heeded, making this a show that demanded to be experienced firsthand. [MW]

Breadfest at various Riverwest locations (July 31 – August 3)
Though this year’s second annual Breadfest opted not to take place during Summerfest again, the DIY festival expanded on the original by swelling to 49 bands playing nine venues throughout four days. The perpetually busy Myles Coyne and his Breadking Collective pals wore themselves out cramming as many acts from as many genres imaginable into a variety of Riverwest venues, book stores, art galleries, and even an open field. With a stacked local lineup that pulled from the folk, punk, rock, and hip-hop scenes, and an overriding theme of togetherness, the City Of Festivals gained a cheap, inclusive, and wholly original event for its already-bursting summer calendar…and without even needing Miller Lite or Gruber Law sponsorship dollars to make it happen. [TM]

Sylvan Esso at Pabst Theater (September 5)
Sylvan Esso, with all its partial Milwaukee roots, played three shows in town between June and November. Of that trifecta of memorable Milwaukee shows, the electro-pop duo’s sold-out Pabst Theater headlining soiree stood out the most. Originally slated for the cozy confines of the Cactus Club, the show was quickly promoted to the 1,339-capacity venue. Any doubts Sylvan Esso would issue a performance worthy of the elevated stage were quickly quashed, as Amelia Meath and Milwaukee ex-pat Nick Sanborn delighted a packed Pabst with energetic and true-to-album renditions of Sylvan Esso songs. At just 11 songs (including a cover), the show was short, but very sweet. In a city that’s sometimes reluctant to encourage its own, it was great to see Milwaukee rally around two collaborators who met here—even if they live in Durham, North Carolina. [TM]

Lorde at BMO Harris Pavilion (September 26)
When it was first unveiled in 2012, the gorgeous BMO Harris Pavilion on the Summerfest grounds was touted as a warm-months destination venue that would host numerous top-flight shows separate from the Big Gig. That promise went mostly unfulfilled, however (early Counting Crows and Elvis Costello shows failed to draw big crowds), until this year’s Lorde concert. Arguably one of the biggest pop stars working today, the young New Zealander sold out all 5,000 seats of the pavilion, and packed plenty more in adjoining grounds. And no wonder: though only 17 at the time, Lorde put on a shockingly assured, muscular, and dynamic show that found her flailing around the stage like a punch-drunk boxer, whipping her hair like a woman possessed, and belting out glitched-out hit after glitched-out hit from her debut album Pure Heroine. (Oh, and she went bowling at the Landmark beforehand.) If this is the future of pop, everything’s going to be just fine. [MW]

Secret Chiefs 3 at Cactus Club (October 8)
Trey Spruance’s appearance in concert with Faith No More three years ago sparked feverish rumors of a Mr. Bungle reunion, but it’s clear that his focus remains solidly with Secret Chiefs 3, the splinter group that has by now at least equaled Bungle in scope and craftsmanship, if not popularity. As usual, the band’s set featured only a smattering of songs that had ever been released on albums, fusing elements of Middle Eastern folk and pop music with swelling post-rock dynamics, blasts of extreme metal, occasional electronic flourishes, and a healthy dose of surf-rock. The improvisational interplay between Spruance’s guitar, the histrionic violin playing of Timb Harris, and the cerebral, polyrhythmic drumming of Kenny Grohowski is an unparalleled force, and with this particular lineup having stuck together longer than any previous incarnation of the ever-changing collective, Secret Chiefs were tighter and more powerful as a unit on this tour than on any other in recent memory. [CR]

Smith Uncovered at Pitman Theatre (October 18)
Alverno Presents has been killing it in recent years with its “Uncovered” shows, which find local artists bringing together even more local artists in order to pay tribute to their musical heroes. Stephen Foster and Marvin Gaye have been past recipients of the “Uncovered” treatment; this year, punk icon Patti Smith found her music and words being reinterpreted by some of Milwaukee’s finest. Curated by Testa Rosa’s Betty Strigens, the show was an eclectic and heartfelt love letter, ranging from spoken word pieces from Molly Snyder and Ed Makowski to blistering musical numbers from Mark Waldoch and Die Fucking Kreuzen. Up next for Alverno’s “Uncovered” series: Jones Uncovered, featuring DJ Jordan “Madhatter” Lee paying tribute to the music of Quincy Jones (April 11). [MW]

Death Blues at Riverwest Public House (November 1)
This was the last scheduled performance of the Non-Fiction band, one of several incarnations of Jon Mueller’s Death Blues project, and it was perhaps the most adventurous show they’ve played. The basic formula for the trio goes like this: songs begin with nothing but a simple drum beat and a pulse from two hammered guitars. From there, Mueller’s stream-of-consciousness vocal improvisations get looped and swirled together with an increasingly powerful rhythmic attack, until the room seems to swell physically under the pressure of this dense mass of sound. Not only were the three musicians precisely in lockstep with each other for this show, there was an extra dimension of shimmering fuzz-guitar from Jim Warchol during the final song, ostensibly closing this chapter of Death Blues on the highest note possible. [CR]

Interpol at Pabst Theater (November 15)
The last time Interpol came to Milwaukee, the band was playing in support of its colossally disappointing Interpol, the self-titled acknowledgement that the band’s best days were albums behind them. Last month, the veteran New York post-punkers—fresh off the release of El Pintor—returned to town to treat a sold-out Pabst Theater to a great set that melded two strikingly different Interpol epochs that span five albums. The band wasted no time soothing worries there would be a shortage of cuts from the band’s back catalog, as they kicked off the show with Turn On The Bright Lights favorite “Say Hello To Angels.” From there, they bookended classics with new songs, chased recent material with obscurities from albums of yore, and did it all amid striking visuals that were projected both behind them and into the audience. [TM]

Volcano Choir at Turner Hall (November 30)
The big news leading up to this show was that it would be Volcano Choir’s last in support of its excellent album Repave; the big news the night of the show was that there would be a surprise opening act. That act turned out to be none other than Sylvan Esso, who put on yet another stellar, warmly received Milwaukee show. But the real star was Volcano Choir: Justin Vernon and company were clearly intent on going out with a bang, and that’s exactly what they did. It was a show that expertly moved from delicate to devastating, from pretty to angry—sometimes all during a single song. Highlighted by the apocalyptic “Still” and the triumphant “Byegone” (“Set saaaaiiiillll…”), it was a night that marked the end of an era for both band and audience. Who knows what’s next?

Wilco at Riverside Theater (December 3)
In honor of its 20th anniversary as a band, Wilco played a handful of dates this fall, celebrating the vast diversity of its catalog and the versatility of its six musicians by whipping out nearly every song that has ever appeared on a Wilco record. This warmup show for the ensuing six-night Chicago residency featured a lot of rarities, breaking with a tradition of very predictable setlists over the past several years of tours, which was enough by itself to delight a lot of long-time fans. The show was much better than it even looked on paper, though; the set was heavy on improv and noisy psychedelia, highlighted largely by guitarist Nels Cline, ripping through experimental excursions like “Art Of Almost,” “Ashes Of American Flags,” and Loose Fur cover “Laminated Cat.” Any vestiges of Wilco’s alt-country origins were saved for the end of the night, with a rollicking acoustic mini-set for the final encore wrapping up the best show Wilco has played in Milwaukee in ages. [CR]

Other shows of note: Psych Fest at Cactus Club (April 24); Vampire Weekend at BMO Harris Pavilion (June 4); Locust Street Festival ( June 8); Summer Soulstice (June 20); Outkast at Summerfest (June 29); Brady Street Festival (July 26); Bob Mould at Turner Hall (September 17); Spoon at Riverside Theater (September 17); Ryan Adams at Riverside Theater (October 14)

Big show we missed (though Matt Flynn didn’t): Pearl Jam at BMO Harris Bradley Center (October 20)

X