The 25 Best Live Acts of 2018

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10. Radiohead

Radiohead  have absolutely nothing to prove in 2018. Their most recent—and unequivocally gorgeous—record A Moon Shaped Pool is now approaching two-and-a-half years old and in support upon its release, they embarked on an exhaustive world tour that saw them headline seemingly every major festival. With most bands, a tour like the one Thom Yorke and co. scheduled this year would seem like a cash grab for a legacy act in financial distress. But Radiohead obviously aren’t most bands; their continuation of the live show that graced the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and the mainstage at Coachella still felt more than relevant in 2018, complete with a career-spanning setlist comprising of fan favorites like “2+2=5” and “Let Down.” The live show may look like a “Greatest Hits” set, but it was so much more than that—a celebration of the group’s last few records and the deep cuts that inspired them. —Steven Edelstone

9. Waxahatchee

Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project has varied in style since her first album under the handle, 2012’s American Weekend. On that record and her sophomore effort, Cerulean Salt, she leaned wholly into a soft, acoustic bent, focusing on lyrics rather than guitar hoopla and production. Then, she changed direction again on last year’s Out in the Storm, a punk-fueled indie-rock machine. But she toured Out in the Storm as if it were her older, softer material, and her live show proved to be a haunting and intimate affair because of that. For her most recent North American leg, Crutchfield toured with two artists who released debut full-lengths this year, Anna St. Louis and Night Shop. They each performed an opening set, then St. Louis and Night Shop’s Justin Sullivan stepped in to play bass and drums, respectively, serving as Crutchfield’s backing band. It was a very cool display of musical collaboration and something that doesn’t happen too often on an indie stalwart’s headlining tour. The three artists played some of the louder tunes from Out in the Storm, like “8 Ball” and rocking album opener “Never Been Wrong.” But Crutchfield finished out the show alone, seated at the piano with sheet music laid out before her, or at the mic with a guitar, playing acoustic versions of Out in the Storm tracks or true-to-recording renditions of songs from her excellent 2018 EP Great Thunder, which features songs she wrote while fronting an experimental-folk project of the same name. At the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Ga., on one night in September, Crutchfield, Sullivan and St. Louis played a set so tender, pure and untarnished, we may as well have been seated in pews, with hymnals within reach. —Ellen Johnson

8. Iceage

Iceage’s live show is a monstrous whirlpool, a ritualistic vortex of bodies clambering over each other to get as close as they can to singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s dead-eyed mysticism. His stage presence is best described as an apathetic cult leader—the crowd seems like nothing more than a wall for him to alternately scream at and whisper to. And while the pit pulsated as expected, there’s something about the honky-tonk influences on Beyondless that made the whole thing a bit stranger. The center certainly held, but the fringes of the crowd became something like a hoedown, albeit one in a burning barn. Elbows were thrown, partners were twirled, and the whole room seemed ready to fall apart. The band gets bonus points for perhaps the coolest stage presentation of the year in their video for “Under the Sun,” where they performed on a stage built of flowers as part of a collaboration with Japanese floral artist Azuma Kamoto. —Justin Kamp

7. Phoenix

French rock four-piece Phoenix may have been an unexpected addition to this year’s Austin City Limits lineup, but they turned out to be one of the best sets of the festival’s opening weekend. Frontman Thomas Mars is known for his ventures into the crowd with his trademark red-corded microphone and Austin fans got another piece of that. Throughout the set, he planted himself in the crowd and even floated above them with the help of fans who hoisted up his feet as he continued to sing. The band mostly played tracks from their three latest records, especially their 2009 modern classic Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Songs like “Lisztomania,” “Entertainment” and “Fior Di Latte” showed off the strengths of each of their last three albums—the pumping singalongs of Wolfgang, the slick, ultra-modern pop of Bankrupt! and the Italian disco-tinged synth-pop of their latest effort, Ti Amo. —Lizzie Manno

6. Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monaé put down one of the greatest sets in the history of Outside Lands. There were shades of St. Vincent’s epic set on the same Lands End main stage in 2015, the moment where an artist cemented their role as one of the greats. As “Dirty Computer” played, Monaé appeared atop an Aztec pyramid-shaped stage addition, two-toned checkered tights, red and white vinyl jacket with matching boots, mirrored shades, pyramid earrings, highlighter yellow nail polish and conductor cap on, as she and four dancers went through a fantastic routine for “Crazy, Classic Life.” For “Screwed,” Monaé took off the shades and grabbed an electric guitar. For “Django Jane,” she shed the coat and changed her cap to match her now black and white suit with red highlights as she sat on a gold throne through “Django Jane,” arguably the best rap cut of the year. And that was just the first three songs. She played guitar and contorted like Prince. She owned the stage like Beyoncé. At one point, she put on “vagina pants” with large labia tassels, one of many costume changes that would’ve made Björk proud. Every person on stage with her was a woman and this was a fierce performance from the next heir to the musical throne. “Love whoever you want!” she shouted to the crowd. It was a simple and perfect message that she delivered without breaking stride of her flawless performance. As the set came to a close, the hypnotized crowd was screaming in approval and Monaé disclosed she’d been sick and throwing up before the set, which made the incredible tour de force we’d just experienced even more impressive. Go ahead and file Janelle Monaé as one of the finest, most important artists and entertainers of today. This left no doubts. —Adrian Spinelli

5. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

This year, Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit completed another six-night residency at the Ryman Auditorium, the legendary Nashville venue best known as the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. For the second year in a row, the band overtook the Ryman for almost a week, this time commemorating the release of Live from the Ryman, recorded there at the same time last year. Plucking from Isbell’s three most recent studio albums—the critically-lauded Southeastern, Something More Than Free and last year’s excellent The Nashville Sound. Live from the Ryman showcases an impassioned set highlighting the best of those records, and Isbell’s strong presence as not only a bandleader, but a band member. I can’t attest to the mood in the Ryman Auditorium on the night it was recorded, but this summer at Birmingham, Ala.’s Sloss Music & Arts Festival, Isbell commanded a near-silent crowd during Southeastern hit “Cover Me Up,” gently singing, “So cover me up and know you’re enough.” As on the live record, both tears and applause (but mostly applause—loud, congratulatory whoops and hollers) abounded as he sang, “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time,” referencing his past struggles with alcoholism. But Isbell sings the most tender, intimate moments loudly and from the belly, making it a clenching story about life-changing, healing, love. When Amanda Shires, his wife, songwriting partner and the inspiration for this song, joins in for the second half of this six-minute take, there’s almost a ceremonial feel to the song as marching drums kick in and her fiddle blazes. Usually when an artist sings a love song, it’s safe to assume his/her partner isn’t present. But when Isbell and Shires sing together, however, their love songs become all the more gripping. —Ellen Johnson

4. Shame

It’s hard to do Shame any justice by writing about their wild live shows. The way I can best summarize the aftermath of going to see Shame is that you’ll suddenly feel like you’ve been christened with the ability to perform some act of superhuman physical strength. Though the melodic, fervent post-punk of their debut album Songs of Praise needs no polite introduction, it’s not an angry “in your face,” it’s more like an “in your face” that’s beaming with happiness and with an overflowing passion that can’t be depleted. Their sweaty, bare-chested frontman Charlie Steen’s stamina and powerful presence is felt, but it’s not overbearing. He consistently reminds the crowd, “Smile! This is entertainment” while bassist Josh Finerty engages in a comical gymnastics routine and guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith embodies his guitar’s vigorous shredding with a similar vibrating fit of energy. By this point, Steen is an experienced crowd-surfer and as long as his motor is running, expect the unexpected at a Shame show. —Lizzie Manno

3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave  isn’t your typical arena act. Without the name recognition or any of the hits of his arena-performing peers, Cave playing North America’s biggest rooms seems a bit like an aberration, a head-scratcher of a booking. But the second Cave and his long-running backing band, The Bad Seeds, hit the stage, they quickly showed why they belonged. With screams, leg kicks, and smooth dance moves that few artists 40 years younger could match, Cave brought an added intensity to the arena, proving that his delicate and emotionally-wrought 2016 record Skeleton Tree could translate outside of theaters. At the Barclays show in Brooklyn, Cave delivered a career-spanning hit to the last row in the building, even inviting throngs of adoring fans onstage for the terrifying “Stagger Lee.” We already knew he was one of the best live acts in the business—he’s been doing his thing for four decades now—but his ascension to the arenas at age 61 shows that his live set is the finest its ever been and the rafters are the limit for what happens next. —Steven Edelstone

2. David Byrne

Besides David Byrne’s obvious musical genius, Byrne and his band get a special mention here for wearing impeccable, matching suits in the 90 degree Austin City Limits sun. With his customary grey-suited troupe, Byrne serenaded the crowd while clutching a plastic human brain, but it’s all par for the course. Playing solo hits as well as Talking Heads classics, the set was nothing short of a spectacle with a group of a dozen or so other musicians (dancers, percussionists, keyboardists, etc.) all playing wirelessly and in a seamlessly choreographed fashion. The group’s symbiotic relationship was more than impressive. Songs featured funky African-inspired rhythms and unconventional flourishes that we’ve come to know and love from Byrne. Bryne closed with a rousing cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which gave off a tropical marching band vibe and a revolutionary spirit as the song’s lyrics commemorate the names of minorities who were violently killed. —Lizzie Manno

1. U.S. Girls

Following the release of this year’s standout LP In A Poem Unlimited, it’s almost as if something has been awakened inside of Meg Remy on stage. She oozes mystique and comes across as totally in control of a diabolical plan to woo a crowd that never fails. Whether it’s her entranced ABBA-meets-Blondie disco dominance on “M.A.H.,” the sheer theatrics and distinct feminine energy of the stunning “Window Shades,” or seemingly losing her fucking mind as the eight people alongside her send her spinning into a vortex of beatific madness, with Remy at the helm, there is no other band enacting the glistening finished product that U.S. Girls are putting down live right now. —Adrian Spinelli

Read our brand new interview feature with Meg Remy of U.S. Girls

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