One of the best parts of our job here at Paste is getting to see so much live music, and 2015 did not disappoint by any stretch of the imagination. Whether it was a much-anticipated comeback or a high-energy performance from an enthusiastic newcomer, there was plenty to take in on the road this year. We polled our writers and editors and tallied the votes, and we present to you our picks for the 25 Best Live Acts of 2015.
25. St. Vincent
This year’s Outside Lands festival featured incredible sets from the likes of Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo and Caribou. But perhaps the weekend’s most confident performer was Annie Clark of St. Vincent. The way she and Toko Yasuda move robotically, to bring an ominous digital-apocalypse feel to their set is the type of thing you can’t take your eyes away from. Clark made a conscious effort to play songs off of all of her albums, not just 2014’s self-titled masterpiece. And from the first time I saw Clark play at Santa Barbara’s tiny Velvet Jones in 2008, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by how utterly ridiculous she is on the guitar. Her set was just plain tight and well…perfect. It always is.—Adrian Spinelli
In case you missed the HBO special for U2 live in Paris last night, the band stepped down from stadiums to arenas this year for multi-date runs in cities around the globe. The jaunt was notable for its production, which featured a giant LED screen that spanned the length of the venues, the band performing part of the set from inside of it, as well as the group’s ability to satisfyingly mix the new and the old. Hardcore fans could follow along and pick out the moments and songs that made each gig special, but sadly the tour will ultimately be remembered for a pair of tragedies: the death of their long-time tour manager in Los Angeles and their forced cancelations following the terrorist attack in Paris.—Philip Cosores
23. White Reaper
The first time I saw White Reaper live, I had no idea who they were. But after a few minutes, I knew I had to find out. Take the raw energy of Diarrhea Planet, subtract a few guitars and add a keyboard and some Wavves-like fuzz, and you’ve got one hell of a live act that’s sure to break out to bigger audiences in 2016. Check out our full session with them here, and watch “I Don’t Think She Cares” in the player below.
Bradford Cox and company are no strangers to this list—they’re one of those phenomenal live acts who stand to make year-end roundups like these whenever they set out on tour. Their 2015 dates behind this year’s Fading Frontier were no exception. Cox still can command a crowd, even occasionally breaking up fights.
21. Sylvan Esso
When we caught Sylvan Esso at this year’s Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama, frontwoman Amelia Meath made reference to Beyonce a few times during their set—first by singing a snippet of “Flawless” and then by making a comment after the high winds started blowing her hair around. “I feel like Beyonce,” she said, laughing. “If only.” The thing is, there are similarities to Meath and the pop diva; both know how to work a crowd and deliver a high-energy, danceable set. Meath’s confidence as a performer shined on favorites like “Coffee” and “Hey Mami” this year, and though she may not have woken up in the giant platform sneakers she was sporting, Sylvan Esso’s set was, in fact, flawless.
20. Julia Holter
In the two times I’ve seen Julia Holter perform, her backup band iterations have been slight, but poignant. Touring behind 2012’s Ekstasis, she’d seemed to whittle her players down to empirical parts, attempting to key into and then draw out the intimacy of her experimentally-tinged chamber pop: drums, double bass, her standing behind her keyboard, typically churning out harpsichord sounds. Two albums later, and Holter is playing for much larger venues (though not in Portland, strangely, performing as she always does at the Holocene) with a comparatively much larger band, behind a much more maximalist record, this year’s unexpectedly pop-centric Have You In My Wilderness. Devin Hoff on double bass is still a crucial piece of her lineup, as is Corey Fogel’s drums, but now she’s girthed out her stage sound with viola and back-up vocals, as well as, if you catch the right night, some sweet sax. And with that rosier, more robust arrangement, one might expect something brasher, something broader—something less in debt to her classical or avant-garde roots, readier than ever to embrace a larger audience. But no: she may seem happier, slightly less aloof, on stage, but even with more folks filling square footage, her live renditions are just as elemental as they’ve ever been, cutting to the marrow of her melodies and cutting out the headier production to which her albums have a tendency to attach themselves—Dom Sinacola
19. The Lone Bellow
Their album Then Came the Morning is one of our favorites this year, but their live show is another thing entirely. All three members of this Brooklyn trio can belt, and that’s exactly what they do, tearing into some of the best harmonies you’ll hear, but still aware of the perfect moments to dial it back. They know how to keep things light, too, tossing in a surprisingly great cover of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” every once in a while.
Lucius is a band that scales well, in the sense that they can sound good in just about any venue, with just about any setup or aesthetic. You can take their show and shrink it down to the size of our intimate SXSW sessions with the band, reveling in the sumptuous, naturalistic vocals of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, or you can just as easily put them in a huge theater and crank things up to achieve a sound that is closer to the material found on their still-amazing Wildewoman debut LP. The two identities are quite distinct, and perhaps inspire strong feelings about which is the “real” Lucius, but both leave audiences equally rapt. We can’t wait to see how this facet of their live performance evolves as they tour for the release of their March 2016 sophomore album Good Grief. (In the meantime, check out their 2013 Riverview session with us in the player below.)—Jim Vorel
17. Natalie Prass
Natalie’s live set got better as the year went on, but she was never short of surprises throughout it all. One night at Los Angeles’ Troubadour, Prass brought out Ryan Adams on stage for a couple songs that left the crowd speechless (and she was opening for San Fermin mind you). Prass essentially courses through the entirety of her brilliant debut album (#7 on our Top Albums of 2015) and her incredible backing band is just as mesmerizing as she is. Trey Pollard on guitar, Michael Libramento on bass and Scott Clark on drums all—like Prass—hail from Richmond, Va. and are all essential to enacting Prass’s live experience. In late October, Natalie returned to San Francisco’s Independent for the second time this year, except this time around, the show was seated and highly intimate. She had a few drinks in her and the confidence of her budding career came through with every joke and every gorgeous note as she sang her way into one of the best live performances I saw all year.—Adrian Spinelli
16. Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson’s set at Bonnaroo this year wasn’t too crowded, save for what looked to be shoulder-to-shoulder group in the side-stage area. The show was all the better for it, though, because the medium-sized crowd had double the adoration for the music than any other fans I saw. “We’re dancing to this at our wedding next month,” the guy beside me said during “The Promise,” and his wide-eyed devotion was characteristic of pretty much every person who showed up. Songs like “Long White Line” and “Living the Dream” are best enjoyed loud and sung-along to, so the set was exactly the high point we expected. Don’t miss this guy on the festival circuit.—Dacey Orr