The 20 Best Live Acts of 2010

Music  |  Lists
10. Grinderman
When I saw Grinderman this past November, it was less a stage the band performed on than a pulpit. There, Nick Cave marched back and forth, sweat-soaked and preaching to his loyal followers, pointing in their faces, barking all manner of doom and gloom. To his left, Warren Ellis attacked a violin and flailed wildly, seemingly on another plane of existence entirely. Perhaps he was possessed and Cave was attempting to exorcise his demons? Hard to say, but I took it in with a dumb smile on my face all night. I was a believer. Grinderman converted me. Austin L. Ray

9. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
We knew the massive Merry Prankster-meets-tent-revival ensemble known as Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros would be a good time, we just didn’t know how good. After a spirited set full of jam-outs, harmonious mantras and lots of manic dancing in the crowd, frontman Alex Ebert sat in the middle of the audience, brought us all in seated around him, and played a sweet, tender encore of “Brother.” Few live acts can balance intimacy and exuberance with such finesse. An Ed Sharpe show is controlled chaos in gig form, and it is wonderful. Lindsey Eanet

8. Titus Andronicus
Patrick Stickles’s energy—just like his uncertainties, his disdains, and disappointments—are boundless, and perhaps the only thing more surprising than his ability to translate such caustic disgust with New England into one of the best rock-’n’-roll records of the year is his ability to turn those battered and beaten songs into a live show that’s more cathartic than cynical. In exorcising their demons, the members of Titus Andronicus are excitable and exuberant, inviting their audiences to share in their pain and creating a sweaty, snarling, welcoming community. Stephen M. Deusner

7. Arcade Fire
An Arcade Fire show is a truly special thing. There are usually about 10 band members, yet the sum is still bigger than their individual parts. And throughout the show, most of them look like they couldn’t think of a more fun thing to do than play music. For you. Right now. It’s an arena-rock show on an amphitheater stage with transcendent music that continues to uplift as band members shout along without mics during “Wake Up,” climb rafters, bang on oversized drums with abandon and fall to the ground, caught up in a moment that they somehow replicate night after night. And holding it all together is frontman Win Butler, giving every ounce of himself like a modern-day Boss. Maybe there’s some magic in having your wife onstage with you? Josh Jackson

6. Bruce Springsteen
Amazingly, I’d never seen the Boss before this year—a fact that I took a lot of heat for as editor of music magazine. As I’m sure you already know, all the hype is well-deserved. He’s a manic preacher/showman/everyman, using every part of the stage, including on top of the piano. At Bonnaroo, he jogged up and down the aisle towards the soundboard, leaning into the crowd, standing up on the railing, taking requests by grabbing fans’ homemade signs. He was the Boss, commanding us to sing along with “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town,” despite the dusty sweat baked onto our bodies by a Tennessee day in June, despite his own protestations that it’s “too fucking hot for Santa,” all because a fan had handed him a giant cardboard Santa. And we did. We did whatever he said, whether or not it made sense. Josh Jackson

5. LCD Soundsystem
We said of LCD Soundsystem’s album This Is Happening (our 2010 album of the year): “There’s a remarkable sustained energy to this collection.” It’s like a party on a little, round silver disc. But it’s even better when the party takes place in a club with the band’s adoring fans multiplying that energy by a couple thousand. Josh Jackson

4. Mumford & Sons
The communal power of rock is on display when Mumford & Sons’ fans bellow every word, arms and hands raised in the air throughout each song during their entire soul-moving live show. The act of mass confession driven by Marcus Mumford’s wrenching lyrics has the effect of a religious revival, no matter your persuasion. The crowd isn’t there to watch as much as it is to join the band in its celebration of light in the midst of personal darkness. Nick Purdy

3. Jónsi
On stage, Jónsi is costumed in a leather-and-cloth sash, variously patterned feathers, a furry shoulder harness and military-issue pants with a narrow stripe along the outer seams; pink makeup bursts across his temples. The look is 85 percent Peter Pan Lost Boy, 15 percent circa-1983 Cyndi Lauper. This is how the skinny dude from Sigur Rós goes about dismantling, brick by stoic brick, the perceived Great Wall of Self-Seriousness encircling his band’s frequently austere music. The sonorous organ hum, 13-minute tracks and wraith-like vocal cascades of Sigur Rós’ mystifyingly-titled ( ) album seem a zillion miles away when you watch Jónsi plucking his ukulele and singing flowery, life-affirming sentiments in clear English. Welcome to the opposite of opacity. Give your eyes a moment to adjust. Jason Killingsworth

2. Atoms for Peace
With members like frontman Thom Yorke, Flea, Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco, expectations were high for this super-group. But those expectations were exceeded, and the rules of engagement seemed to be utterly re-written. Mind-warping songs, jaw-dropping line-up and a crowd going so nuts on Oakland’s second night that even after the lights came up, the roadies starting pulling cable, and ushers start trying to herd people out, no one moved. The applause grew louder until the lights went back down and the band came back on broke into Joy Division’s “Love Will tear Us Apart.” Sitting on top of the San Andreas fault can be nerve wracking, but had there been an earthquake, no one in the room would have noticed. Jay Sweet

1. Janelle Monáe
There are few live acts today who can transform a crowd into a post-apocalyptic dance party in a matter of minutes and then turn around and stop you in your tracks with an arresting slow jam. Janelle Monáe can do it all, whether she’s tipping on the tightrope or sharing the stage with Of Montreal. Who knew the second coming of James Brown would be a tuxedo-clad android? Bonnie Stiernberg