The 25 Best Live Acts of 2016

Music Lists Best of 2016
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The 25 Best Live Acts of 2016

One of the best parts of our job here at Paste is getting to see so much live music, and 2016 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 2016.

25. Prince
When we saw Prince at the Atlanta date of his Piano & A Microphone tour, we had no way of knowing that show would be his last, and after the singer’s tragic, untimely passing, 2016 will mostly be remembered as the garbage year that took the legendary Purple One from us, but it’s worth noting that the singer also played some incredible shows in his final months, stripping down his hits as well as some deep cuts and covers (including a stunning version of the recently departed David Bowie’s “Heroes”—seriously, 2016, enough) and getting behind the piano. Check out a clip from the Piano & A Microphone tour below, and for more live Prince video, click here.

24. Margo Price
Off-stage Margo Price is demure. We saw her hanging around the kids’ stage at Pilgrimage Festival in a white t-shirt shepherding around her son. But on stage, Price is more like her Twitter handle—Miss Margo Price. She rocks rompers and shows skin. She stomps her cowboy boots and shakes her tambourine. And she belts it. She sings perfect covers by country’s matriarchs like Loretta Lynn and rips through her own brilliant originals like she’s still trying to make her damn point after all these years. For Price, that kind of ferocity and tenacity is priceless. —Hilary Saunders

23. Iggy Pop & Josh Homme
Touring in support of their joint album Post Pop Depression, rock icon Iggy Pop and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme put together a tour as fierce as their recording. The show was an impressive feat of ageless, timeless rock. Pop alternated between sweet grandpa-like waves and blowing kisses in between songs to youthful raunchiness—humping monitors, sticking the microphone in his pants, and leading the crowd in a riotous chant of, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” And for their part, the band—dressed in sparkly red tuxedo blazers, white dress shirts, and black ties—provided a rock-solid musical foundation. With Homme (who produced and co-wrote Post Pop Depression) on one guitar, multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age, drummer Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys, and two additional musicians, the six-piece group performed the new songs with the same intensity as those from Lust for Life and The Idiot. —Hilary Saunders

22. Japandroids
There are some bands who ensnare you with their recordings—begging, daring, even taunting you to find a way to see them live. And then there are bands who you just happen see live—the kinds that your friends drag you to, in which you follow out of curiosity and goodwill—that make you believers. For me, Japandroids falls into the latter category. I saw Japandroids for the first time this year at a sold out show at Knitting Factory Brooklyn. The air was ripe with sweat and stale beer. The people packed inside kept the cold outside air at bay. And when Brian King and David Prowse stomped onto the stage, the room surged forward in earnest. It seemed as though the more energy the Canadian rock duo exerted, the more the audience replenished their stock. Fans moshed and jumped and kicked and crowd-surfed not with the violence of a hardcore show, but with the exuberance of a life-changing experience listening to rock ‘n’ roll. —Hilary Saunders

21. Lydia Loveless
Lydia Loveless’ latest album is called Real, and that’s perhaps the best descriptor for her live show too. Loveless brings an authenticity to all of her performances, and with this new album under her belt, she’s expanded her musical arsenal as well. “I really like pop music and I always have,” she told us in a recent interview. “When I was younger, I wasn’t musically as adept and people described it as country punk. I just wanted to open things up a bit more and get away from talking about my childhood on the farm. I wanted to be talked about as a songwriter and a talented musician. I definitely improved so I wanted to move behind three-chord country ditties. This one, it’s cohesive and more advanced musically. Stylistically, it’s the most me.”

20. Janelle Monae
Of all the tributes to Prince, the one that felt most heartfelt and enlightening was Janelle Monae’s Friday set at Jazz Fest. Monae, of course, worked closely with the Purple One and survives as his most obvious heir. His influence is reflected in her melodies, rhythms, lyric themes and dancing. Her live show is always exhilarating, but on this afternoon she was lifted by raw emotion into another realm. “Today we’re going to do something different,” she told the audience. “We’re going to dedicate this entire show to Prince, because he deserves it. He was free; he was fearless. He was music; he was rock’n’roll; he was R&B.” She kicked off the set with “Giving ‘Em What They Love,” the song from her latest album that featured Prince as co-writer and duet singer. A few songs later, she paid a strange kind of tribute to her mentor by singing two songs that influenced him: James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” She channeled both JB’s percussive shouts and Jacko’s giddy squeal. She told stories about Prince: how he intervened on her behalf to get her on the BET Awards Show, how she first spoke to him by phone. “You know about me?” she remembered telling him after the surprise call. “You, Prince, know people?” He said, “I like your jazz voice.” So at New Orleans, she sang the jazz standard, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” from her first album. She climaxed the show with two songs by Prince: “Take Me with You” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” On the latter song, she seemed to live up to the title, bouncing about the stage like a pinball and belting out the chorus with the cathartic satisfaction of letting it all go. But it was a comforting show, despite its adrenalized energy, for it proved that Prince’s legacy is in good hands. For here is a young woman who can sing, write and dance very much like he did—and is determined to do so for decades to come.—Geoffrey Himes

19. Wolf Alice
As Wolf Alice is nearing the end of its set at The Roxy, the band members are feeding off the energy of sweaty fans bouncing up and down to the riff-heavy album track, “Giant Peach.” During the one encore song, “Moaning Lisa Smile,” Rowsell crouches down at the edge of the stage and stares down the crowd for a while before descending into the pit with her mic and guitar. The fans encircle her, singing along to the chorus while pogo-ing in unison. Rowsell won’t make it back to the stage. Amid the chaos, she abandons her mic and guitar to slip away to the backstage area, looking both spent and exhilarated. In that moment, the impetus for “Moaning Lisa Smile” seems far from stupid. It feels ordained.—Chris Tinkham

18. The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones are always contenders for this list when they’re touring, but in 2016, it was their performances at two weekends of the Desert Trip festival in Indio, California that earned them votes. Their Night 1 headlining spot (during which they thanked the Nobel Prize-winning Bob Dylan for “opening” for them), set the tone for the rest of the once-in-a-lifetime festival, and a surprise cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” even had Paul McCartney smiling and waving with approval from the VIP section.

17. Beyoncé
There is no other Top 40 artist whose live performance can come close to matching Beyoncé’s flawless vocals, choreography and command of the stage. Add to that her outstanding material from this year’s Lemonade—her best, most personal and most overtly political work to date—and you’ve got one hell of a show.

16. Savages
When the majority of your songs go for the same vibe and tempo, it can sometimes be tough to hold the attention of a festival crowd full of more causal fans, but Savages never seem to have that problem. They keep crowds captivated, like at their Friday evening set on the Ponce de Leon stage at this year’s Shaky Knees festival. From the first notes to their set-ending “Fuckers” (in which frontwoman Jehnny Beth repeats “don’t let the fuckers get you down” like a life-affirming mantra), old fans and new ones alike were eager and receptive.

15. Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks  are extremely fun live, but still, no one at a Twin Peaks show ever seems to be having a better time than the band itself. They’re full of energy, and that joyfulness comes through in their music and infects everyone in the crowd.

14. The Cure
The Cure have 40 years of material to choose from, so it’s no surprise that they crafted some beautifully eclectic set lists in 2016, featuring some popular hits and deep cuts every night, for their first major North American tour since 2008. Frontman Robert Smith’s voice still sounds pristine—here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another eight years to see him next.

13. Father John Misty
Father John Misty  is no stranger to this list—his shows have landed him on our Best Live Acts list for the second year in a row. 2015 saw FJM somehow bringing his live show to a new level with his I Love You, Honeybear material, shifting gears from stunningly gorgeous on “I Went to the Store One Day” to disaffected and funny as hell on “Bored in the USA” at the drop of a hat. In 2016, he did all of that and covered “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, which he introduced as his “favorite love song.” With his recent revelation that a new album is finished, we can’t wait to see how he’ll top himself in 2017.

12. Explosions in the Sky
It doesn’t matter how seriously you take yourself, how disinterested you are in post-rock, or how jaded you are to live music as an experience. An Explosions in the Sky set will move you. You won’t spend the show looking at your phone, occasionally glancing up at the stage. You won’t turn and talk to your friends whenever there’s a lull. You will look, you will listen, and you will feel things. An Explosions in the Sky set is not something you ignore, though their instrumental reveries do make incredible background music. An Explosions in the Sky set is something you get lost in, something sweeping and wordless that will envelope you in its rise and fall. Munaf Rayani and Michael James, the core of this quartet, will sway in place, cradling their guitars like dance partners, and close their eyes, unconscious conduits through which the sea of noise spills. Christopher Hrasky will pound tirelessly on tom and crash, the band’s heartbeat, quickening your own. And perhaps, if you are lucky, Explosions in the Sky will play songs from The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place—if you are even luckier, one of those songs will be “Your Hand in Mine,” one of the most breathtakingly beautiful post-rock songs ever written—and by the time Explosions in the Sky’s set is finished, you will know once and for all that they’re right: that the earth is alive, and that every day it gives us is precious.—Scott Russell

11. Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope  manages to make a lot out of a little. The guy-girl, husband-wife duo acts can get cloying, but Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst defy such pigeonholing. From their instrumentation (mostly alternating between guitars, drums, and keys) to their stage décor (repurposed wooden pallets hung behind them with original projection art), Shovels & Rope makes the barebones bone rattling, and that ingenuity makes them one of the best bands we saw live this year. —Hilary Saunders

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