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The 20 Best Live Acts of 2010

December 13, 2010  |  7:00am
15. The National
Just as it’s hard to imagine Leonard Cohen rattling off a sticky pop ditty, The National’s frontman Matt Berninger possesses a set of a pipes divinely crafted to luxuriate in sad-bastard music. Another gift sets him apart from rock’s legions of mopey minstrels: a pitch-black sense of humor so finely tuned that even the most sullen-sounding lyrics can’t mask the rich vein of sardonic bemusement coursing just beneath the surface. Live favorite “Bloodbuzz Ohio” showcases one of Berninger’s signature vocal tricks—he compensates for his lack of melodic range by varying his delivery, clinging to each word a second longer than you expect before delivering the next. Jason Killingsworth

14. The Hold Steady
Frontman Craig Finn and his Hold Steady bandmates torch one stage after another with their hi-octane performances. As I wrote last year in Spokane, Wash., alt weekly The Inlander: “Flailing around in sneakers, pleated khakis and thick-rimmed glasses, ranting in his trademark sing-speak about novel-worthy characters like Hallelujah, Hard Corey and a horse named Chips Ahoy!, Finn leads the group as it unleashes one blistering guitar-and-keyboard anthem after another. The Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis band’s willingness to simultaneously, unselfconsciously revel in and shatter rock ’n’ roll clichés is what makes it so damned essential in today’s music world, where most artists are hard-panned to either self-serious earnestness or over-the-top irony. The Hold Steady—like their hometown heroes The Replacements before them—can deftly toggle between the two or blend them at will.” Night after night, they do just that. Steve LaBate

13. Frightened Rabbit
The only band at SXSW who I made a point to see twice, Frightened Rabbit played both my favorite acoustic and favorite electric shows in Austin this year. The band’s excellent live album Liver! Lung! FR! should have tipped me off that it was even better in person than on its two studio albums. Like The National or Bon Iver, the emotional weight of Frightened Rabbit’s lyrics builds and builds as the music unfolds. Josh Jackson

12. Sufjan Stevens
The audience at Stevens’ latest string of shows seemed split between those confused by the florescent colors, electronic noise, apocalyptic folk art and dancing Sufjan and those enthralled by it. I took my oldest daughter, and we fell squarely in the latter camp. Gone were the angel wings and quietly plunked banjos, but in their place was something more ambitious. And when Stevens returned for the encore to play some of those old folky favorites, everyone left happy. Josh Jackson

11. The Avett Brothers
You could probably watch video of an Avett Brothers live show with the sound off and still get a pretty good idea of what’s going on—the flying hair, the shredded strings (on Scott’s banjo, Seth’s guitar, cellist Joe Kwon’s furious bow), the uplifted hands and the closed eyes. Not that you’d really want to, ‘cause these boys sing so darn pretty. Whether it’s a crowd of 30 or 3,000, they play like their lives are on the line, and we hope they never stop. Rachael Maddux

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