There are plenty of perks that come with working for a music company. And while free records are great, perhaps the best perk is catching as much live music as we do each year. 2013 was another incredible year to see some of our favorite artists hit the stage, whether in front of thousands at a giant festival or a select few inside a dark club. We polled our writers and editors, with the parameters that artists needed to tour or perform festival dates in 2013 to qualify for this list, and this is what we came up with: the 25 best live acts of the year.
7. Stevie Wonder
I guess, yes, technically there was more than one artist who performed on Sunday at Hangout Fest this year. But then Stevie Wonder took the stage and made us forget about everything else we’d seen that day. Wonder played for two-and-a-half hours during his headlining set and didn’t once let up. The legendary Motown singer’s pipes remain pristine—he still hit the same high notes on “For Once in My Life” as a 63 year old that he did at age 18. Wonder made sure to squeeze as much material into the set as possible, playing shorter versions of many songs to make room for hits like “Higher Ground,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” “Living for the City” “Sir Duke” and “Part-Time Lover.” He’s certainly got more than enough original material to fill up all his time, but he also worked a good amount of covers into the set, including Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” a stunning version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a reworked version of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” But perhaps what was most affecting was the obvious joy Wonder still gets from performing and the way his music touches even those closest to him.
Foxygen had its share of struggles in 2013, and breakup rumors and a broken leg managed to overshadow some truly incredible live performances. As multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado told us recently, “The public doesn’t really know that during that time was the time that we were the best, you know? We were just playing really, really awesome shows. We were really on our game.” Don’t believe him? Check out the band’s SXSW set at the Paste party below.
5. Built to Spill
Earlier this year Built to Spill announced their new lineup, which features bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere. The fresh rhythm section breathed new life into the band, resulting in one of its strongest tours…well, ever.
4. Janelle Monae
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 wowing us with a killer Prince cover. Who knew the second coming of James Brown would be a tuxedo-clad android?
3. Father John Misty
He’s good-looking; skinny, with a thin beard and long hair, like a younger Wayne Coyne. He could easily stand quietly behind a microphone and let the waves of love pour in, or he could give off a faint waggish aura with a slick grin or two and revel in the swoons. Instead, he casts aside all reservation and turns the dial up to a level reserved for true divas.The trait that pegs him as someone different—a person unlikely to fit into a comfortable indie rock mold—are the eyes. We need an adjective for these kind of eyes, which initially look sort of dead and expressionless, but are actually resisting expression as a sort of semi-angry, semi-ironic, semi-playful challenge. Think of Zach Galifianakis, and you’ll get the idea. There’s something there that refuses to confess the feelings beneath, and it keeps you off guard. They also draw you in, because you want to understand and be part of the joke, and avoid their implied mockery. You see the eyes, you become curious, and you sense that the evening will not be normal.—Shane Ryan (Read Shane Ryan’s full piece, “Father John Misty Does Not Hate You,” here)
2. Paul McCartney
What is there more to say about Paul McCartney’s Bonnaroo set, other than it was basically perfect? The family in front of me, which sported three generations, was singing every word with Sir Paul from opening note to the blinding fireworks for “Live and Let Die” to the closing cymbal crashes of the Abbey Road medley, and I’m left to wonder if I’ll ever see another artist that can do this in my lifetime. Needless to say, it was truly one of the more special concert experiences I’ve had. And although McCartney could have just showed up, played the three hours of hits (it’s hard to think of many artists that can truly fill that period of time without lulling the crowd), he gave back as much to the audience as they did to him. The set was filled with hit after hit, with McCartney making smart and considerate choices with the deeper catalog and leaning heavily on Wings and Beatles material. We even got one song McCartney hadn’t performed live until this tour, Sgt. Pepper’s “Lovely Rita.” He was a joker, teasing “Woah, someone has some pretty good weed up front. What are you trying to do to me?” and an emotional storyteller, dedicating several songs to Lennon, Linda McCartney and his current wife Nancy, not to mention the absolutely beautiful ukulele version of “Something” he dedicated to Harrison. Long story short, we were all McCartney fans, but the crowd—which I could not see an end to in any direction, even on my tippy-toes—walked away almost feeling like his friend. It’s exceptional to make hundreds of thousands of buds with just a Hofner bass, a piano and that beautiful voice of Paul’s.—Tyler Kane
1. Neutral Milk Hotel
Seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live in the year 2013 is a little like catching a glimpse of Bigfoot, and part of what made their shows so enjoyable this year was the palpable excitement surrounding Jeff Mangum and company. As Tyler Kane wrote about their Mountain Oasis set, “The crowd was just like you’d think, populated with curious youngsters who made too-late discoveries on the beauty of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or OGNMH folks who pulled their dusty old All Stars out of the closet for a weekend away in Asheville. No matter which of these audience members you looked at, they were all eating it up once a corduroy-blazered Scott Spillane marched out for soundcheck with his unmistakable white beard, or when a wool sweater-draped Jeff Mangum trotted out on stage to take on “Two-Headed Boy,” the band fully arriving for a thunderous take on “The Fool.” It was a career-spanning set, one that hit respectfully on Aeroplane and On Avery Island and was bookended by “Two-Headed Boy” sections before going into deep cuts for a second encore with “Ferris Wheel on Fire” and “Engine.” Young’uns and old fans alike walked out completely satisfied.”