The 20 Best Live Acts of 2010

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A live-show experience is a completely subjective thing. One of my favorite concerts this year was Sugarland at the Fox Theatre, but that had more to do with a personal connection to someone in the band, our seats in the front row and the company of my wife, who rarely joins me for live music (if she did, we’d go broke on babysitters).

But for The 20 Best Live Acts of 2010, we tried to bring some objectivity to the countless shows we collectively saw this year, choosing bands and solo performers who consistently left audiences with the feeling that they’d just experienced something special. We only considered acts that toured in 2010, but let us know what your Top 5 shows of the year were in the comments section below.

20. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
This list is bookended by two women channeling James Brown. Jones and the Dap-Kings make the kind of music that moves them, and their feverish passion is contagious. Their shows are wild, sweaty dance parties where everyone is grooving hard, grinning and letting loose. The Dap-Kings unleash confetti explosions of funk and soul and Jones prowls the stage, ranting and raving like a possessed preacher. But instead of hellfire and brimstone, she’s calling down pure, unfettered joy and throwing it into the crowd like bolts of lighting—ready to burn everyone’s souls clean down to ash, so they could start anew. Steve LaBate

19. Robyn
Robyn approaches her concerts like workouts: Dressed in skintight tracksuits, she comes to move and to sweat, occasionally doing some stretching exercises mid-song or eating a banana to avoid sore muscles. Sure, she’s making a show of how much she’s putting into her show, but she’s got the tunes and the soul to make it all work. Stephen M. Deusner

18. Michael Franti & Spearhead
Michael Franti didn’t really do anything all that different in 2010 than he and his band have been doing for most of the past decade, especially on the festival circuit. But it’s time we pointed out Franti’s role as the Apostle of the life-affirming rock party. His dreadlocked, kinda-hippie, soul-folk-rock outfit has a knack for spreading joy to the audience, even when those in the crowd aren’t necessarily familiar with his music. When he invited dozens of children from the crowd onto the stage for dancing during Alabama’s terrific Hangout Festival this year, he gave each of them and their parents a special memory—only topped by his 15-minute full-band, unplugged, post-show epilogue in the middle of the audience, taking the joy to eye level. Nick Purdy

17. Phosphorescent
Matthrew Houck makes a point not to rehearse his band; instead, they develop their chops in front of live audiences, which makes their shows a highwire act. Rather than play rotely memorized riffs night after night, they fly by the seat of their pants, reinvesting songs like “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama)” with new grit and “The Mermaid Parade” with fresh heartbreak every time. Stephen M. Deusner

16. The Roots
The Roots are the hardest working band in show business right now. After performing as the house band every night on Jimmy Fallon, touring and playing festival gigs, and practically living in the recording studio working with everyone under the sun, Black Thought, ?uestlove and company still look and sound like they’re leaving every last ounce of energy on the stage—every time. Josh Jackson

15. The National
Just as it’s hard to imagine Leonard Cohen rattling off a sticky pop ditty, The National’s frontman Matt Berninger possesses a set of a pipes divinely crafted to luxuriate in sad-bastard music. Another gift sets him apart from rock’s legions of mopey minstrels: a pitch-black sense of humor so finely tuned that even the most sullen-sounding lyrics can’t mask the rich vein of sardonic bemusement coursing just beneath the surface. Live favorite “Bloodbuzz Ohio” showcases one of Berninger’s signature vocal tricks—he compensates for his lack of melodic range by varying his delivery, clinging to each word a second longer than you expect before delivering the next. Jason Killingsworth

14. The Hold Steady
Frontman Craig Finn and his Hold Steady bandmates torch one stage after another with their hi-octane performances. As I wrote last year in Spokane, Wash., alt weekly The Inlander: “Flailing around in sneakers, pleated khakis and thick-rimmed glasses, ranting in his trademark sing-speak about novel-worthy characters like Hallelujah, Hard Corey and a horse named Chips Ahoy!, Finn leads the group as it unleashes one blistering guitar-and-keyboard anthem after another. The Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis band’s willingness to simultaneously, unselfconsciously revel in and shatter rock ’n’ roll clichés is what makes it so damned essential in today’s music world, where most artists are hard-panned to either self-serious earnestness or over-the-top irony. The Hold Steady—like their hometown heroes The Replacements before them—can deftly toggle between the two or blend them at will.” Night after night, they do just that. Steve LaBate

13. Frightened Rabbit
The only band at SXSW who I made a point to see twice, Frightened Rabbit played both my favorite acoustic and favorite electric shows in Austin this year. The band’s excellent live album Liver! Lung! FR! should have tipped me off that it was even better in person than on its two studio albums. Like The National or Bon Iver, the emotional weight of Frightened Rabbit’s lyrics builds and builds as the music unfolds. Josh Jackson

12. Sufjan Stevens
The audience at Stevens’ latest string of shows seemed split between those confused by the florescent colors, electronic noise, apocalyptic folk art and dancing Sufjan and those enthralled by it. I took my oldest daughter, and we fell squarely in the latter camp. Gone were the angel wings and quietly plunked banjos, but in their place was something more ambitious. And when Stevens returned for the encore to play some of those old folky favorites, everyone left happy. Josh Jackson

11. The Avett Brothers
You could probably watch video of an Avett Brothers live show with the sound off and still get a pretty good idea of what’s going on—the flying hair, the shredded strings (on Scott’s banjo, Seth’s guitar, cellist Joe Kwon’s furious bow), the uplifted hands and the closed eyes. Not that you’d really want to, ‘cause these boys sing so darn pretty. Whether it’s a crowd of 30 or 3,000, they play like their lives are on the line, and we hope they never stop. Rachael Maddux

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