The 25 Best Live Acts of 2018

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The 25 Best Live Acts of 2018

After the release of our best albums list, it’s time to celebrate another facet of the best music of the year—live music. Our writers and editors voted on our favorite live acts that we saw from the past year, and we ranked the top 25. Below is a list of newcomers, veterans and legends who all blew us away and left us wanting more. From the fierce artistry of Janelle Monáe and the quirky stage concept of David Byrne to the beautiful mystique of U.S. Girls and the rambunctious youthfulness of Shame, we’re confident in the ability of these artists to turn one night in a music venue into a moment that you’ll never forget. If any of these acts are coming to your town soon, you know what to do.

25. JAIN

In 2017, JAIN was awarded the prestigious SXSW Grulke Prize for the Best Developing non-U.S. Act. What Austin witnessed, was the sprouting of a unique and powerful international pop singer. Now in 2018, with her second album Souldier in tow, JAIN is a full-blown international pop star and her on-stage energy was one of the finest we had the pleasure of experiencing this year. The French singer puts on a one woman show. Clad in a purple astronaut-like jumpsuit, she has a wireless control bracelet that allows her to manipulate her soundboard as her dance moves touch every inch of the stage. Tracks like the explosive “Star,” the empowering “Alright” and the bombastic “Heads Up” filled Montreal’s MTELUS concert hall with the same energy that was felt at San Francisco’s Mezzanine. If you’re not sweating after a JAIN show, there’s something wrong with you. While she’s fully blown up in Europe (and French fans follow her wherever she plays), it’s a matter of just how deeply she can continue to connect with American audiences through her globally minded pop music. JAIN pulls sounds from Africa and the Middle East, where she grew up, and she also tips the cap to France and America with newfound hip-hop elements. Here’s hoping the U.S. can appreciate her for the incredible pop singer that she is as her promising career and live experience keeps unfolding. —Adrian Spinelli

24. Idles

Going to see Bristol-based band Idles is just like going to a good therapy session. Sure, the show is louder than a traditional therapy session may be, but it’s probably just as inspiring, if not more so. Singer Joe Talbot leads the band in what has become their signature sound: seemingly angry yet incredibly uplifting punk rock. It’s not just a show, it’s an experience. Idles invite audience members on stage to sing, dance and even play instruments. They lead stage dives and give little nuggets of wisdom, all while playing music full of social and political commentary. The smaller the venue, the better for an Idles show—the intimacy makes you feel like not just a fan, but also a friend. —Annie Black

23. Miya Folick

Miya Folick may be a relative newbie, dropping her first album Premonitions this year, but she shouldn’t be discounted. Following the release of two previous EPs, Premonitions is a record marked by her at times angelic and other times burly vocals and a lyrical voice that’s emotionally nuanced, purposeful and accessible. After watching her support another band, my immediate thought was that any headliner would be doomed to follow that performance. Her bubbly energy and impassioned, unusually operatic pop vocals clearly set her apart from the typical carefree indie-rock opener. The audience, who had largely never heard her music before, was hanging on her every word in a way that many headliners would be jealous of—let alone a support act. If the crowd wasn’t already convinced she was something special, her fiery closing performance of “Give It To Me” certainly made that obvious. —Lizzie Manno

22. Sam Bush

You’ll rarely find Sam Bush without a broad smile on his face whenever he’s onstage. He beams, reflecting a sense of pure delight. Whether jamming with friends and fellow travellers, or at center stage singing and playing fiddle and mandolin at the helm of his own outfit, he purveys an elevated level of enthusiasm sure to rouse even the most stoic observer. It all seems to stem from an inexhaustible energy that sometimes surprises even himself. At Merlefest this past April, he played eight sets in a single day, a workout that tested his determination but ultimately found him undeterred. Indeed, at any given festival, it seems as if he’s invented a means of cloning himself so he can be everywhere at once. Little wonder then that he’s performed at Telluride a remarkable 45 years in a row, and at Merlefest practically since its inception. Not surprisingly then, every performance seems like a welcome return, laced with humor and an informality that suggest he’s merely playing for his friends, which, in fact, he is. Those sentiments are summed up in his concert staple, “Circles Around Me,” a paean to a love of performance that’s evident every time. —Lee Zimmerman

21. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, featuring Lucinda Williams

Whether it was the Newport Jazz Festival in August or Washington’s Library of Congress in December, Charles Lloyd bridged the gap between post-bop jazz and Americana singer/songwriters better than anyone from either side of the divide has yet managed. The saxophonist and flutist has celebrated his 80th birthday this year by touring with Lucinda Williams and such pop-friendly jazz instrumentalists as Bill Frisell and Jason Moran. Whether Williams sang her own compositions such as “Joy” and the new “We’ve Come Too Far To Turn Around” or the old Blind Willie McTell blues tune “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” her evocative lyrics and resonant alto prompted Lloyd and his musicians to improvise a different kind of solo, rooted as much in words as in changes. She pushed them into new territory, and they did the same to her. It’s one thing to hear a recording that documents this process in the studio, but it’s a deeper thrill to watch the interaction happen right before your eyes. —Geoffrey Himes

20. Cold Cave

When Cold Cave came to Atlanta earlier this year, I hadn’t really listened to the band before. I was there for an opener (Choir Boy) but after seeing, and frankly, hearing the band for the first time live, I was absolutely hooked. A Cold Cave show is the epitome of moodiness. Wesley Eisold is dark and mesmerizing, seductively pulling the audience in close and hypnotizing them with a synth-induced trance. Their lighting (or lack there of) is spectacular. It enhances the atmosphere, propelling the audience straight into an enlightened void. If you get the chance to see Cold Cave, take it. You’ll be sore the next day from dancing, but it’s entirely worth it. —Annie Black

19. Natalie Prass

Natalie PrassThe Future And The Past show was the concert we needed in 2018. On the record, Prass combats political polarization, a bleak national mood and whatever else is bringing you down with R&B-infused beats, delirious love songs and pure, danceable joy. She brings the same strategy to her live show, a positive-vibes-only, smiley hoopla. Backed by a troupe of dude musicians (including her fiance and Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick), Prass is the lone frontwoman. Her bandmates wear blue jumpsuits, while she dons a yellow skirt set, or maybe a pink one. At her October show at Atlanta’s The Earl, glittered sheets served as a backdrop while soft pink lights illuminated the stage. Prass delivered a party as opposed to a set, treating her tiny but enthused audience to all The Future And The Past’s dance hits as well as standouts from her self-titled first album, like “Bird of Prey” and “Your Fool.” As the show neared its end, elation, or maybe exhaustion, consumed the band as they burst into an improvised song about La Croix, prompted by Slick’s swigging of one of the fizzy, fruity drinks. Somehow, it wasn’t kitschy at all. During the show, sparkling water tribute included, Prass kept things chill, spirited and good-natured. I left The Earl on a cloud. —Ellen Johnson

18. Old Crow Medicine Show

At Del McCoury’s Delfest in Appalachian Maryland in May, the Old Crow Medicine Show showed off its roots in mountain music, using fiddles, banjos, harmonicas, mandolins, acoustic guitars and even clogging to summon up the ghosts of an older kind of unplugged music, a push-back-the-chairs and roll-up-the-sleeves barn dance where hollow wooden boxes can whip up a frenzy equal to any EDM rave. The band helped McCoury sing Hank Williams’ “The Lost Highway” and evoked its own vision of the rural South in songs such as “Alabama High Test,” “Cumberland River” and “Dixie Avenue.” At Nashville’s Americanafest in September, playing for a younger, more urban audience, the sextet played many of the same songs with a more rocking oomph, relying on electric guitar, pedal steel and keyboards to point that old tradition toward the future. With lead singer Ketch Secor directing traffic like a cop in a busy intersection, the musicians bounced back and forth among more than a dozen instruments, sounding like a much bigger, much more varied band than you’d expect. The high spirits made you listen to the songs, and the songwriting made you remember them. —Geoffrey Himes

17. Lucy Dacus

Seeing Lucy Dacus give shape to material from her outstanding sophomore album is a particularly special experience given how much those songs mean to her as an artist: The singer-songwriter has called Historian “the album I needed to make,” a statement to define her young creative career. That was reflected onstage at an Atlanta show in March as Dacus, guitarist Jacob Blizard, drummer Ricardo Lagomarsino and bassist Sadie Powers gave themselves over to the album, from their set-opening “Addictions” and halfway-point highlight “Pillar of Truth” to crowd-galvanizing closer “Night Shift” and hushed encore “Historians.” Dacus and her band demonstrate a reverence and care for their music that never feels self-important or precious, and it’s moving. “It’s like re-reading a book that you love,” Dacus told Paste in April. “You know what’s gonna happen next. But you love it and it’s still meaningful to you. I’m re-reading the same book that I wrote every night.” —Scott Russell

16. The Vapors

Following the reunion of The Vapors—now including founder Dave Fenton’s son, Dan, as well as original bassist Steve Smith and new drummer Michael Bowes—in April 2016, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to bring their successful UK-club shows to America. The fundraiser was such a success that their planned two-day run at the Mercury Lounge was extended to three and all shows sold out practically overnight. Not only did they play songs from New Clear Days (1980) and Magents (1981)—the scream I let out when they riled up “Spring Collection” can still be heard echoing off the walls of the Mercury Lounge—they teased a third album with four new songs, “Letter to Hiro (No11)”, “The Right Stuff,” “King L,” and “One of My Dreams,” which the elder Fenton wrote about getting the band back together. And after the shows, the band stuck around to chat with fans and sign autographs—including my Dad’s original pressing of New Clear Days, now in my possession. One of my dreams indeed. —Libby Cudmore

15. Grapetooth

You know those crusty old heads that corner you with their stories of the first time they saw the Dead or Phish or whoever? The type that want to make it crystal clear just how indescribable that one 12-minute guitar solo was, how it changed their entire being? Yeah, I think I’m starting to understand those people. The first time I saw Grapetooth was after a long day of roasting in the sun at Pitchfork Music Festival. The Chicago synth-pop duo played an aftershow at Lincoln Hall, and while I was dead tired, I still went. The show was almost criminally short—no guitar solos in sight—but there was more energy packed into that 40-minute set than any show I’d been to that year. There was wild dancing and surprise guest appearances. There were bottles swigged and haircuts given. And when all the kids bum-rushed the stage during “Trouble”—now a fixture of their live act—it was genuinely enlightening, or at the very least just laugh-out-loud joyful. And when I’m old and washed-up and repeating this same story to the kids who just want to buy some beer, I won’t give a damn, because it’s important for everyone to know just how fun it was to see Grapetooth live. —Justin Kamp

14. Alvvays

Canadian dream-pop band, Alvvays were simply made for sunny weather, so they fit right in at this year’s blazing hot Austin City Limits Festival. The group’s danceable jangle-pop along with their retro aesthetic and summery imagery (merry-go-round, ice cream, pool, wayfarers, etc.) just made this occasion feel right. Performing tracks from their two full-lengths, songs like “In Undertow” and “Dreams Tonite” really connected with the crowd as everyone was clearly basking in the glory of their sweet dream-pop bliss. After delivering a particularly punchy version of “Saved By a Waif,” lead singer Molly Rankin noticed a Beto O’Rourke shirt in the crowd, which resulted in her widely appreciated quip, “Fuck Ted Cruz!” The audience laughed and cheered before joining in full force for their fan favorite track and set closer, “Archie, Marry Me.” —Lizzie Manno

13. Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen

When two legends from the Lone Star State share the stage, it can be a humbling experience. However when the pair happen to be Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, it also makes for an evening laced with humor, easy affinity and, of course, no shortage of songs. That comes as little surprise; Lovett and Keen are longtime pals, a friendship that can be traced to Lovett’s seminal appearance on Keen’s 1984 debut No Kinda Dancer. Likewise, with more than 30 albums between them, there’s also ample material to choose from. Nevertheless, it was the connection and camaraderie that was immediately evident when the two performed together at Knoxville’s historic Tennessee Theatre this past October. Along with the music, there were anecdotes, reminiscing, history, and humor woven in between, a repartee that found each man acting as a foil for the other in what often seemed like a spontaneous exchange. Texas doesn’t have any better ambassadors than Lovett and Keen, and their intimate showcase allowed the audience not only to share a love for their dual legacy but their obvious respect for one another as well. —Lee Zimmerman

12. Parquet Courts

Though I saw plenty of impressive moshpits throughout the first weekend of Austin City Limits, nearly all of them were for hip-hop and rap artists, but finally I witnessed a good moshpit for a rock band while watching New York City’s Parquet Courts. Playing ACL in support of the band’s latest album Wide Awake!, Parquet Courts commanded people’s attention with their punk energy, art rock idiosyncrasies and engrossing personalities. Frontman A. Savage was spring-loaded—calm and cool one moment and raucous the next—and guitarist Austin Brown was equal parts goofy and sophisticated. Cuts like “Total Football,” and “Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out Of Patience” set off the crowd into a moshing frenzy with kids spraying full bottles of water that security members had literally just given them. The title track from their album was another obvious highlight, with its infectious bassline, repeated whistles and street carnival-esque percussion. —Lizzie Manno

11. Boygenius

At the tail end of Boygenius’ penultimate song in their live set, Julien Baker shreds on the guitar, playing a classic rock-inspired solo that’s completely out of place in her—or either of her bandmates’—back catalogue. It’s something Lucy Dacus mentioned in a recent interview, that in the recording sessions for the Boygenius EP, Phoebe Bridgers would “suggest an idea as a joke, and then we realized, ‘Wait, this is an amazing idea!’” Those lighthearted, playful vibes are very much on display when you see the folk supergroup live; when Baker begins to solo, Bridgers and Dacus try their absolute hardest to get her to laugh, sometimes waving lighters and other times rolling around on the ground. The trio’s live energy is undeniably infectious and the crowd is more than willing to send it right back, even at the end of a show that spans four whole hours. This round of Boygenius shows, likely to be the only ones of their kind, simply represent three good—and generationally talented—friends at the top of their respective songwriting games, having the time of their lives. While there’s a definite “I was there” feeling to these shows, we definitely hope this likely once-in-a-lifetime tour happens again sooner rather than later. —Steven Edelstone

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