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10 Best Live Music Acts of 2008

December 22, 2008  |  12:30am
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On any given night, on any city in America, there's a band or a singer/songwriter transcending the usual concert experience. At the most basic, they're doing the same thing as thousands of others that same night—standing on stage, singing and playing some instruments. But there's something about the way they're doing it—the way the lights compliment the sound, the way they involve the audience, the way their music connects directly to your soul, the way they make you know that there's no place they'd rather be than with you, and the feeling becomes mutual. The audience will remember that night for a long time, and the next time they purchase a concert ticket, it will be with the hope to see something as special.

This list honors those touring musical acts who set the bar over and over for us in 2008, no matter the city, no matter the venue, no matter the night. Their shows aren't just another concert, but a spectacle. Whether because of the costumes, the light shows or just the beauty of good music, well played, these artists put on a good show. Since Arcade Fire didn't tour much in 2008 and the Flaming Lips didn't unveil any new jaw-dropping elements to their show, we felt like it was time to crown a new (old) king of live music this year. Here are our 10 Best Live Music Acts of 2008. Let us know who impressed you this year in the comments section below.

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Photo taken at Voodoo Music Festival by Rob Inderrieden for Paste

10. TV on the Radio
The beats are irresistible enough to get indie kids to dance. The songs are heady enough to make math majors swoon. And the combined charisma of Tunde Adebimpe (vocals/loops), Kyp Malone (vocals/guitars/loops) and David Sitek (guitars/keyboards/loops) is enough to make TV on the Radio one of the must-see bands of 2008.

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Photo by Pier Nicola D'Amico for Paste

9. Bon Iver
Though Justin Vernon's debut album For Emma, Forever Ago is the kind of quiet, lovely creation that immediately grabs you with a whisper (and my favorite album of 2008), it wasn't obvious that the live show would be anything more than a relaxing night out. But he manages to give his concerts as much emotional heft as on record, inviting the crowd to sing along as he and his band slowly build each song into little moments of relational catharsis. Demand for his shows grew so much that we published six stories about Bon Iver extending its tour this year.


Photos taken at 9:30 Club by by Rob Inderrieden for Paste

8. Of Montreal
Kevin Barnes' onstage personality is an utter force of insanity. A live horse. Ninjas. A nearly naked Barnes emerging from a coffin covered in shaving cream. Boxes filled with human hair. These are just a sample of the things you'll find an Of Montreal show that you won't find anywhere else. Except maybe David Lynch's dreams. (More Of Montreal concert photos)

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7. Janelle Monae
Atlanta's Janelle Monae might only weigh 100 pounds soaking wet, but she commands the kind of presence that reminds me of another pint-sized performer who's thankfully going by the name Prince once again. She hasn't released a proper LP yet, but she's already been nominated for a Grammy, so we're not the only ones who've been wowed by this future mega-star.

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Photos taken at Austin City Limits by Rob Inderrieden for Paste

6. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
L.A. native Gillian Welch somehow channels Depression-era Appalachia as if she were the long lost grandaugher of A.P. Carter, and her longtime partner David Rawlings compliments her songs with just the right guitar licks. Buddy Miller once told me that Rawlings was his favorite acoustic guitar player and his favorite electric guitar player. Together they're just masterful.

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5. The Hold Steady
Of all the touring musicians I've seen, only Josh Ritter looks like he's having nearly as much fun up on stage as The Hold Steady's Craig Finn. And no one has more manic energy. In smaller venues, you can hear Finn's off-mic running commentary on his subject matter between lines of his sing-speak songs. It's raw, joyful rock 'n' roll that, for a couple of hours and with a couple of drinks, makes you forget absolutely everything else.

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Photos taken at United Palace by Sarah Hajjar for Paste

4. Sigur Rós
If there's a spiritual element to music, Sigur Rós has somehow stumbled onto the same frequency as Beethoven, Bach, Gregorian monks and every great black gospel choir. Their atmospheric musical movements and mostly nonsensical vocals drift down like a blanket from heaven over usually mild mannered audiences that now look like a Pentecostal congregation getting ready to speak in tongues.

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Photos taken at The Fox Theatre by Stephen Lindley for Paste

3. My Morning Jacket
Their last album may have been divisive, but when Jim James embraces his inner James Brown on stage, it all makes total sense. The Jacket is just a force of nature on stage, constantly improving their live presence from the days when they all had the hair and knew how to use it.

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Photos taken at Outside Lands 2008 by April Brimer for Paste

2. Radiohead
Who needs hits? Radiohead's concerts each feel more like cryptic keys to understanding the 21st century than rock shows. The lights are mesmerizing, the mechanical soundscapes almost trance-inducing and watching Thom Yorke dance is witnessing a man with his audience in the palm of his hand.

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Photos taken at The Fox Theatre by Bob Butler for Paste

1. Tom Waits
This year's tour was announced with a fake press conference and covered an almost random swath of the American landscape. But it proved once again that when Johnny Cash passed away, Waits became the coolest cat on planet earth.

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