The 25 Best Live Acts of 2018

Music Lists Best Live Acts
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 Prass’ The 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

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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