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Let’s hear it — The Best Concerts of 2011

Adele sings concert Tuesday May 24 2011 RivierTheater. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Adele sings in concert Tuesday May 24, 2011 at the Riviera Theater. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 31, 2012 8:04AM

Last March, on a panel at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, veteran rock critic Ed Ward said, “I feel sorry for kids walking down the street with white ear buds. They think music takes place in their head. Music doesn’t take place in your head. It takes place in a room.” Indeed, in a world where we now watch more performances on devices in our laps and palms, it’s healthy to get off the couch every now and then and experience the vibrations from flesh and steel across the room rather than from a tiny, tinny speaker. Here are 11 shows from ’11 that were better for being there:

1. Adele, May 24 at the Riviera Theatre

This was Adele Adkins’ year — at least at first. Her breakthrough breakup album, “21,” stormed the charts early in the calendar and kept retaking the top slot. The record had been certified platinum (it’s now up to 13 million sold worldwide) by the time she hit the road and arrived in Chicago for an adoring, sold-out intimate audience. With no theatrics other than the raw power of her voice, Adele belted song after song backed by a full band or sometimes just a pianist. However, she had tea handy and frequently held her hand cautiously to her throat. Just two weeks later, Adele canceled her tour because of throat problems. A rescheduled outing in the fall also was canceled because of health. We got lucky, Chicago. We saw her in her prime.

2. Paul Simon, May 16 at the Vic Theatre

A study of grace, Simon was positively buoyant as he took the stage of this intimate Chicago theater — an extra show added to meet local demand after his Chicago Theatre concert the following night sold out so quickly. “I love playing in a club!” he enthused as he began his career-spanning set, from his folk-rock beginnings to his new album, “So Beautiful or So What.” He’ll likely be back in 2012 on a tour playing the “Graceland” album, but I’d be surprised if he returns as animated, giddy and upbeat as he was during this thrilling show.

3. Kanye West and Jay-Z, Nov. 30 at the United Center

So the album wasn’t great — how could it possibly live up to the expectations? It was, however, a fantastic excuse for a joint tour. What these two megastars couldn’t ignite in the studio, they exploded on stage. Performing in Chicago at the same time he was being nominated for seven Grammys in Los Angeles, a manic Kanye West ran rings around his stoic partner and mentor, Jay-Z. The contrasts between them were stark and well-showcased, yet they also made a dynamic duo in several moments both poignant (“New Day”) and insane (the eight back-to-back performances of “Niggas in Paris”).

4. Janelle Monae, with Bruno Mars, May 27 at the Aragon Ballroom It was a double bill, but Monae went first — and was a tough act for Mars to follow. While he’s the cocky and laid-back tunesmith, spinning melodious gold for himself and numerous other performers during the previous year, she’s the arty looker with the towering hairdo and so much more to prove. We’ve seen countless artists inhabit the James Brown persona — but not many (if any) women, and the diminutive Monae wears the cape with confidence. Leading a costumed 15-piece ensemble, the seamlessly soulful Monae jittered and flailed and flung a lot of big ideas from her stunning sci-fi debut, “The ArchAndroid,” my pick for the best album of the previous year. Hood figures stalked the stage, laser lights fired, Monae even painted a canvas live on stage. Art rock, indeed.

5. Kids These Days, Aug. 5 at Lollapalooza in Grant Park

Eight members, all of them ages 18-19, half of them from Chicago’s Whitney Young High School — Kids These Days were so excited to be playing Lollapalooza that they did so with the energy of the past three festivals combined. They earned their slot, though, with their potent cocktail of blues, hip-hop, funk, rock, jazz and most other genres except electronic (give them time). Rapper Vic Mensa led the frenzy, stage diving while the horn section blazed, and the hometown crowd went totally nuts. Look for their full-length debut this year, and watch for more local shows.

6. Paul McCartney, July 31 at Wrigley Field

We’re well past worrying about 64. McCartney, 69, hoofed it through a three-hour show, onstage the whole time, playing more than 30 songs. He certainly didn’t have to run through his entire catalog to please the adoring ballpark crowd, but why stop him when he’s still this focused, this engaged? Even a trifle like “Let ’Em In” came off with remarkable precision and timing. In for a “Penny Lane,” in for a pound — Macca was loose, chatty and soloing like a much younger Beatle.

7. The Kills, May 4 at the Vic Theatre

Fresh and fully cocked, the Kills hit the stage with the simplicity their duo demands but the ferocity of four or five bigger bands. Providing a hot and dirty quickie, singer Alison Mosshart and Tommy-gun guitarist Jamie Hince rocked barely more than an hour (all hail the virtues of a sharp 80-minute set!) but plied every song with tantalizing tension. Wham, bam, next jam — the urgency ratcheted up the electricity, and we were all spent by the encore.

8. OFF!, July 16 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park

Pitchfork delivered several great moments this year — James Blake’s icy chill, tUnE-yArDs’ honking harmonies, Deerhunter’s squall, Cut Copy’s 18,000-person dance party — but the most serrated set came from OFF!, an offshoot of the Circle Jerks. Led by a bug-eyed Keith Morris, the band slashed through the afternoon’s chillwave with a mere half hour of bracing hardcore and speed metal. “We’re gonna bring a different flavor to the party today,” Morris promised. And how.

9. Smashing Pumpkins, Oct. 14 at the Riviera Theatre

The smile on Billy Corgan’s cherub-rock face told the story. Tearing through a stacked set of album tracks, B-sides and new material, Corgan seemed unusually happy and thrilled by the more visceral moments in this monstrous set. There were many. Corgan and his current Pumpkins roster were loaded for bear during this perennial visit, shredding prog-rock solos and pummeling the poor theater. This was part of a short, 12-city jaunt; the band will be back in 2012 with a new album and subsequent tour.

10. Eddie Vedder, June 28 at the Chicago Theatre

Before reassembling Pearl Jam for the big 20th anniversary hootenanny over Labor Day weekend in Wisconsin, Evanston’s Eddie Vedder played two nights in town on his own — an intimate set for an intimate instrument. Drawing from his recent set of “Ukulele Songs,” Vedder offered up a rewarding reacquaintance — stalking the stage like Neil Young, grabbing stringed instruments and tossing off songs, building an intensity as he went.

11. Hatsune Miku, Nov. 10 at the AMC River East 21

Definitely the most unusual concert of the year (and possibly contrary to my opening sentiment above), this in-theater broadcast of a “live” performance by this Japanese chart-topper was both a fascinating and unsettling glimpse into the future. Backed by a live band, Miku sang, danced, flew, changed clothes, even swapped genders. She’s not human, you see — she’s a computer-generated avatar, a three-dimensional projection of a blue-haired, teen pop and video-game star with a sampled voice. The theater audience cheered and sang along as if the whole thing were real, and in this wired world who’s to say it wasn’t?

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