The 25 Best Live Acts of 2012

Music Lists
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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.

15. M83
Setlist.fm offers 122 M83 show listings for 2012, a number bested by only a handful, most notably Skrillex. This relentless support of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming saw clubs turn to theaters, festival tents give way to main stages, and even found the band headlining events like FYF Fest and Treasure Island Music Festival. But, quantity is only part of the story. Anyone who caught M83 live witnessed a group seizing the moment with unerring musicianship, big-budget lighting, and a focal point in Anthony Gonzalez overcoming shyness to hold the spotlight in a proud display of passion and energy. Showmanship appeared both in the form of a creepy cloaked troll and in the full-band percussion frenzy that closes “Reunion.” And, of course, there’s the eventual sweaty dance orgy that is “Midnight City,” a perfect moment of unity served nightly that only a pop song could provide. M83 has long been a great recording act, but in 2012, Anthony Gonzalez finally became a rock star.—Philip Cosores

14. Justin Townes Earle
In support of this year’s Memphis soul-inspired Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, Justin Townes Earle has been performing with a full backing band that wholly encapsulates the tone and emotion of that personal record. However, it’s the solo acoustic, mid-set breakdowns that showcase Earle’s jackhammer fingerpicking blues and raw, raspy vocals. It’s this contrast within sets that makes Justin Townes Earle shows both submissively stunning and absolutely invigorating.—Hilary Saunders

13. The Walkmen
Live acts don’t get much more solid than The Walkmen in 2012. Performing with a simple backdrop and white lights, the band let its raw talent speak for itself when showcasing its latest album, Heaven. Evenly drawing from all eras of the group’s catalog, they remind us why we’re still excited to see them deep into their career. And frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s voice is notably as powerful as ever. —Tyler Kane

12. The Jesus and Mary Chain
Ray and Dave Davies. Noel and Liam Gallagher. Jim and William Reid. There’s something about sibling rivalry among gifted songwriters that blows up a band and leaves the rest of us without hope for a reunion. But the Reid brothers of The Jesus and Mary Chain finally buried the hatchet this year, giving those of us who wore out our cassettes of Psychocandy but never caught them live a second chance to experience the wall of noise coming from the Reids’ fuzzed-out guitars and almost-buried vocals, delivered with the same nonchalant swagger that defined cool back in 1985.—Josh Jackson

11. Father John Misty
At a Father John Misty show, Josh Tillman is equal parts musical brilliance and comedic genius. In between extending and riffing on great songs like “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “Nancy From Now On,” he jokes with the audience with his sly humor that is more than evident on Fear Fun. Tillman is an exuberant performer, making his songs sound fresh in the live show, making his audience laugh and rock, all while seeming to have a great time while doing it.—Ross Bonaime

10. Flaming Lips
We could talk about these fearless freaks’ live show for days, but you’d probably get sick of hearing about that giant hamster ball after a while. Wayne Coyne and friends are one of two bands on this year’s list who made our 2011 list as well, and in 2009, we named them one of the best live acts of the past decade. This year was no different, as the band performed Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side of the Moon from start to finish on tour and more than did it justice, following it up with a set of their own undeniable hits. We’re not quite sure what these guys have cooking for 2013 yet, but at this rate, look for them to grace this list again next year.—Bonnie Stiernberg

9. The Who
Contemporaries like The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones have fallen into the jukebox-of-hits pattern with their live shows, but The Who are to be commended for being bold enough to trot out their dense concept album Quadrophenia on tour this year. It’s incredible to see the record performed in its entirety, but don’t fret if you don’t want to shell out the big bucks without hearing a few hits—the tour features an extended encore of favorites like “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley” and “The Kids Are Alright.” You’d never know frontman Roger Daltrey is pushing 70 from the way his voice still soars, and that scream of his will still make your hair stand on end.—Bonnie Stiernberg

8. The Men
It’s not often that a band can be experienced in two completely different ways from month-to-month, but that’s the case with Brooklyn’s The Men, who we had the pleasure of catching several times this year. Their first set—a late-night slot at SXSW that highlighted their latest album, Open Your Heart—showed the guys polished and exceptional, scoffing at the on-stage smoke the venue surrounded them with. It was only months later when the fierce foursome, who seem to be churning out new tunes at an alarming rate, paid little attention to that same album at a recent Atlanta gig. Instead of leaning on the success of Open Your Heart, they tore through a handful of deafening, brand-new tracks to a sloshed, rowdy crowd. It’s hard to say which version we like more.—Tyler Kane

7. Florence and the Machine
Frontwoman Florence Welch is a force to be reckoned with, at times ethereal and at others positively bombastic. On this tour in particular, she seemed to truly feed off of the crowd’s energy, whether she was instructing everyone to hoist their neighbors up onto their shoulders or leading some frenzied, synchronized jumping during “Dog Days Are Over.” Her costumes occasionally appear to draw some witchy inspiration from Stevie Nicks, and we have to admit—we’re totally under her spell.—Bonnie Stiernberg

6. Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus might have come fresh from the studio in 2012 with Local Business, but if their appearances at SXSW and multiple U.S. tours are any indication, the band belongs on the road. With the first half of the year dedicated to rehashing the classic The Monitor and The Airing of Grievances, we caught some real gems as the band built up Local Business and previewed tracks like “My Eating Disorder” along the way. And the whole time, frontman Patrick Stickles’ personality is in full effect with musings in and outside of melodies.—Tyler Kane

5. Vintage Trouble
Vintage Trouble might be the one of the most energetic touring bands of the year, taking stadium-sized riffs and smashing them into intimate clubs. Ty Taylor is the ultimate showman—spinning in circles, swinging the mic stand, falling to his knees, bouncing back up and sauntering out into the audience. Watching him perform is as much a part of the Vintage Trouble live experience as singing and dancing along to the music.—Hilary Saunders

4. Gary Clark Jr.
How long has it been since a singular blues-rock behemoth has regularly graced stages across America? Austin, Texas’ Gary Clark Jr. filled the void in 2012 by lighting the summer festival circuit on fire with an arsenal of earth-shaking guitar riffs and an impassioned wail that sounds like it belongs to someone decades his senior. And if you had a chance to see him in an enclosed venue? Forget about it. It’s a wonder the whiskey bottles of America’s bars were able to stay on their shelves when pitted against the building-rattling vibrations emitted from Clark Jr.’s monster Epiphone licks. Hide the women and children, please.—Ryan Bort

3. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Imagine yourself 40 years into your job, still giving every ounce of energy you have every day you show up for work—even after you became the boss. Bruce Springsteen formed the E Street Band back in 1972 when he signed on with Columbia Records, and four decades later, they haven’t slowed down. And though we’ve lost Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, their presence is still felt on stage, especially seeing Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons taking over on sax.—Josh Jackson

2. Alabama Shakes
It can be difficult for a band to continuously put on compelling live shows with only one full album’s worth of original songs. But the Alabama Shakes, who also made last year’s list, have toured extensively on their outstanding debut album, Boys & Girls. Brittany Howard’s blast-from-the-past voice shines over the band’s clean Southern twangs and ripping riffs. Plus, they’ve been known to bust out a Led Zeppelin jam or two.—Hilary Saunders

1. Jack White
Jack White is equal parts showman and recording artist. From the White Stripes’ red-and-white peppermint theme, to his various world record attempts, to Third Man Records’ ostentatious everything, White has always placed a high premium on flair. So when it came time for him to tour in support of his solo debut, Blunderbuss, fans knew to expect more than just a stool and guitar on stage. Debuted to the masses during an unforgettable and highly exclusive Sixth Street performance during SXSW in March, White’s 2012 live show typically consisted of two sets—one with an all-female backing band, The Peacocks, and one with an all-male backing band, The Buzzards. Between the two, White treated audiences to rousing performances not only of his newly minted solo material, but also of fan favorites from his days with The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather.—Ryan Bort