The 25 Best Live Acts of 2012

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Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.

2012 was a great year for live music, whether it was legacy acts brushing off the cobwebs and heading back out on the road or new groups proving their mettle on the big stage. We polled Paste staffers and writers about their favorite acts who toured or performed festival spots this year, and today we present the 25 Best Live Acts of 2012.

25. Wilco
Touring The Whole Love has allowed Wilco to play a strong batch of buy-this-album alongside fan favorites. Nels Cline remains almost comic in his virtuosity—and certainly induces chuckles of amazement—but his bandmates keep with him, hamming up the arena-rock potential, embracing groove under a brilliant light show, or taking surprisingly mellow detours. Those breaks don’t last (though we can hope for an end to “California Stars”), as the band’s exceptional explosiveness wins out in a show that blends experiment and precision with bombast and recklessness.—Justin Cober-Lake

24. Prince
After reigning for decades as one of the most popular recording and live artists in pop history, Prince could be forgiven if he chose to rest on his laurels at this point in his career. But, anyone who’s seen the Purple One live in the past few years knows that he’s taking no prisoners and playing better than he ever has before. Supported by one of the best bands he’s ever taken on the road—James Brown alumnus Maceo Parker on sax is only one of the incredible players who came out with him again last year—Prince has been crossing the world playing long sets of hit-heavy shows. Today’s Prince concerts, for all their cutting edge technology and pyrotechnics, recall nothing so much as the early Motown and Stax revues from the mid-’60s for sheer enthusiasm and entertainment value. Catch him while you can.—Douglas Heselgrave

23. Wild Flag
In a year when women demanded to be heard both politically and musically, Wild Flag was the loudest live act this side of Pussy Riot. After releasing their self-titled debut last year, Wild Flag’s 2012 tour served as a celebratory victory lap for the band. With every rebel yelp and raucous riff, nothing instills awe and inspiration quite like watching Brownstein, Weiss, Timony and Cole parlay a riot-grrl past into a fierce feminist future.—Jessica Gentile

22. Radiohead
Radiohead’s 2012 featured yet another amazing light-show—this time on a series of TV screens that gave each song it’s own color scheme and design. It featured a wide-range of songs from throughout the band’s catalog. And most importantly, it featured dancing Thom Yorke. The usually enigmatic frontman seems to be enjoying himself onstage more than ever, and his un-self-conscious gyrations are a wonder to behold. Thom Yorke is the King of Limbs.—Josh Jackson

21. D’Angelo
What is it about the pursuit of the groove that leads all-time greats like Sly Stone and D’Angelo into seclusion? Luckily there’s a light at the end of the wilderness, if D’Angelo’s incredible comeback performance at the BET awards (after over a decade away from the stage) was any indication, from jittery synth vamps to tricky piano solos, to his own increasingly rare falsetto. The fact that this national treasure, dangerous microphone-stand wielder (on the Voodoo tour he reportedly snapped them in half) and keeper-of-the-funk preaches to his choir while Chris Brown gets to creep out the diverse Grammy audience is hopefully a relic we can chalk up to the dark days before healthcare reform.—Dan Weiss

20. David Byrne and St. Vincent
The combination of David Byrne and Annie Clark is exciting on the duo’s release Love This Giant, but live, they’re transcendent. Backed by a full brass band, not only do Byrne and Clark play off each other well, both masters with their guitars, but they each get their own chance to shine in the spotlight. From classic Talking Heads songs to the frenzied shredding of “Actor Out of Work”, even if this tour is a one-time thing, it’s rock’s best answer to Watch the Throne, an event that is too fascinating and great to ignore.—Ross Bonaime

19. Black Lips
The Black Lips  have always been notorious for their often controversial and always entertaining live shows. Though their most recent album, Arabia Mountain, was released last year, the Georgia natives didn’t miss a beat with their 2012 touring schedule. In addition to their usual run of dates, the adventurous punk rockers traveled to the Middle East in September, making stops in places like Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia. And let’s not forget their recent performance at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest, during which a seemingly deranged Val Kilmer disrupted their show and eventually locked lips with guitarist Cole Alexander. It appeared as if Kilmer was re-inhabiting his role as Jim Morrison from 1991’s The Doors, but his on-stage cameo was actually part of a new Terrence Malick film. If Malick and company wanted mayhem, they chose the right band’s performance to walk in on.—Ryan Bort

18. Of Monsters and Men
Whether they’re on the cozy stage at our SXSW party in the mid-afternoon or playing in front of thousands in a packed theater on their headlining tour, Of Monsters and Men give the same level of intensity from start to finish. The six-piece Icelandic folksters (joined on stage by an accordionist/trumpet player) aren’t afraid to push the limits of what they already mastered on an excellent album. Live, the drums give the band a more dance-like vibe, and everyone claps and chants along to the uber-catchy melodies Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson sing so captivatingly. Fans of the album will have new respect for the group’s music and will be easily blown away by the force the band hits you with every second of every song.—Adam Vitcavage

17. Neil Young and Crazy Horse
For anyone who has heard Neil and the Horse play live in support of Psychedelic Pill, the first thing that’s immediately obvious is that they haven’t made any concessions at all to aging. If anything, they sound more raw and distorted than ever as they explore extended versions of Crazy Horse classics such as “Powderfinger,” “Fuckin’ Up” and “Cortez the Killer.” The few minutes of calm Young allows the audience during a brief acoustic set are quickly brushed aside to make way for full-throttle versions of new songs like “Walk Like A Giant” and “Ramada Inn.” Don’t pass up on a chance to see Crazy Horse on this tour. They’re playing better than they ever have.—Douglas Heselgrave

16. The Lumineers
This quiet band released a gentle folk album about love and heartbreak to much acclaim. But in all honesty, the album can’t hold a candle to what the band does during their live shows. They transform from a trio to a quintet for a full sound that begs you to sing along. The group’s wholesomeness oozes through to their performances where you can see their genuine love for playing in front of people. The Lumineers want you to be a part of it, and they want you to sing louder than them, especially during their breakout hit “Ho Hey.” It is an experience you definitely want to see in an intimate setting, and luckily their intimacy translates to the masses effortlessly.—Adam Vitcavage

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