The 25 Best Live Acts of 2011

Music Lists

Every day between now and New Year’s Eve, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. Today we look at live music, the bands and solo performers who know how to command a stage. From DJs to hip-hop to bluegrass with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, here are the 25 Best Live Acts of 2011.

25. Trampled By Turtles
Trampled by Turtles isn’t the first band to bring a punk ethos to bluegrass music, but the musicians’ virtuosity and energy also call to mind the similarities the genre has with speed-metal. Their live set made them a festival staple this year, drawing a devoted fanbase and converting even non-bluegrass fans.—Josh Jackson

24. Paul Simon
With another fantastic entry into his growing catalog of albums this year with So Beautiful or So What, Simon and his bandmates—several of whom were collaborators on 1986’s Graceland—give new life to four-and-a-half decades of endearing songs. If you haven’t seen him live yet, this is an excellent time to change that.—Josh Jackson

23. Reptar
You’d probably expect a band that takes its name from the dinosaur on Rugrats to have a healthy sense of irreverence, and you’d be right. A Reptar live show typically features goofy costumes, a little bit of tambourine tossing, and most importantly, plenty of dancing. We have a feeling even bratty old Angelica Pickles would be okay with these guys.—Bonnie Stiernberg

22. Givers
Too many bands are either fun to see but sloppy musicians, or are a yawn to see but technically gifted. Then there are the Louisianans in Givers who craft a compelling music and execute it to perfection while jumping around on stage. Their dance party spills out into the audience. Still fairly young, the group is sure to blossom into an even more enthralling live band in the years to come.—Adam Vitcavage

21. Childish Gambino
Here’s a rundown of Donald Glover’s year: a spring tour which he also opened for himself with a 45-minute set of comedy, a pre-album release tour, taking part in Rock the Bells and Moogfest (not to mention writing and recording an album and starring in a hit sitcom). He’s spent 2011 working his ass off and making us all reevaluate exactly what a single creative individual can accomplish. Rap artists often grow tired on stage and rely on a hype man. Gambino is his own hype man and goes twice as hard live than on his album.—Adam Vitcavage

20. The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers’ performances have the power to transform even the grandest of spaces to feel as cozy as a front porch stair. No matter if they’re playing a slow banjo-picked ballad or a foot-stomping, scream-and-holler ditty, the band always feels like they’re singing along, shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Love is propelled from an Avett stage like no other.—Sean Doyle

19. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
If you’re a fan of indie dance band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. then you actually have something in common with NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. After clarifying with the racer that no offense was meant by the band name, Danny Zott and Josh Epstein received Earnhardt’s full blessing. And who can blame him? Zott and Epstein are great showmen and impressive musicians. Their harmonies and use of synths paired with danceable beats make this band hard to compete with when comparing live shows.Clint Alwahab

18. Kopecky Family Band
Even though the Kopecky Family Band isn’t a true family, the vocal harmonies make that hard to believe. Kopecky has the ability to make a room stop in awe at their performances, as seen here; at our 2011 SXSW party. Everyone in the band seems to play everything, trading keys for guitars, guitars for percussion or percussion for strings. Attending a Kopecky show feels like a warm welcome at a family reunion, if your family was a multitalented, show-stopping rock band.—Sean Doyle

17. Big Boi
No one throws a party quite like Big Boi. Still going strong off of the success of Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son of Chico Dusty, his bass-heavy live show blends excellent new tracks with instantly recognizable OutKast classics. And Big Boi isn’t just rapping over a backing track—there’s a solid band re-imagining his already energetic cuts into live magic.—Tyler Kane

16. Fitz and the Tantrums
Whether they’re playing in a big theater or overflowing the stage in the Paste office (see below), Michael Fitzpatrick, Noelle Scaggs and the rest of the sextet own the room, blending funky horns with tasty pop hooks. This is a band made for the live experience.—Josh Jackson

15. Beirut
Berut’s music has always been dynamic, horn-filled and harmony-laden—three things which translate well live if done right. That’s exactly what Zach Condon and company have done in the latter half of 2011, touring now as a sextet behind their latest release The Rip Tide. After years of experimenting with his sound and instrumentation, Condon has honed his craft, reining in the novelty to become a musical force onstage.—Max Blau

14. The Alabama Shakes
At some point, God decided to take the voices of Janis Joplin, Robert Plant and Tina Turner and roll them all up into the body of Brittany Howard. She also happens to front a band that sounds like it just sprouted fully formed from the clay of Muscle Shoals, just an hour away from the Shakes’ hometown of Athens, Ala. Their live show was the talk of this year’s CMJ—Josh Jackson

13. Dawes
Seeing Dawes is like seeing a swelling wave headed your way with no idea of its power until it overtakes you and sweeps you away. The band’s brand of rock has an approachable elegance that can almost feel reserved. They get so deeply entwined in their own music, hitting pitch-perfect harmonies and wailing wandering solos, no one in the audience can escape the experience without being saturated by the easy ebbs and flows of their performance. I feel extremely lucky to have seen Dawes during their climb to what I’m sure will be the future heights of rock ’n’ roll.—Sean Doyle

12. Rich Aucoin
Rich Aucoin continues to win over a new batch of unsuspecting individuals in whatever-sized venue he can get his hands on, be it the Plush Palace (a glorified den) or Hangout Music Fest (a major music festival). Channeling the traditions of energetic electronic performance artists Girl Talk and Dan Deacon, he likes to blur the line between performer and concertgoer, and he seems to intuitively understand what it takes to turn a static crowd into a dynamic dance party. Aucoin knows how to work a room so well that he’s poised to become the Canadian answer to these American party starters.—Max Blau

11. The Flaming Lips
Once upon a time, The Flaming Lips emerged onstage from a giant spaceship, and leader Wayne Coyne crowd surfed in a giant plastic bubble. Since 2009’s Embryonic, the band has retired the space ship and now chosen to emerge out of a woman’s vagina displayed on a massive LED board. Coyne, of course, still surfs over his audiences in a giant bubble because, who wouldn’t? It’s antics like this, along with a rock-solid live show that put The Flaming Lips among the strongest touring acts in the U.S. The band’s overwhelming onstage energy is impressive even for skeptical audience members. And if you haven’t had the opportunity to grab Coyne’s butt through a giant plastic bubble and shove him over a crowd of thousands, I’m not sure you can say you’ve lived.—Clint Alwahab

10. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
No drums, no bass, no extra guitarist sitting off to the side. Welch and Rawlings realized two decades ago that their two voices and guitars made a perfect blend that needed no accompaniment. That can be chalked up to some guitar wizardry from Rawlings, magical harmonies and the pair’s impressive repertoire of timeless songs.—Josh Jackson

9. Girl Talk
Girl Talk’s albums are basically a party as it is, but having Gregg Gillis perform his insane mashups live is a concert experience unlike any other. Girl Talk shows are filled with balloons, confetti and toilet paper guns, but the true excitement comes from dancing with up to a few thousand people as Gillis decides to play Black Sabbath with Ludacris, or any one of his unexpected combinations. Girl Talk doesn’t just perform, he exhausts his audience who party until they can’t party any more. Then he still keeps going, and, somehow, so does the crowd.—Ross Bonaime

8. David Wax Museum
Whether it’s just David Wax on his jarana (a Mexican instrument similar to a guitar) and Suz Slezak playing the fiddle or the quijada (an instrument made out of a donkey’s jawbone) or with a full band including drums, an upright bass and even a dancer, David Wax Museum always puts on captivating set. At first it’s easy to be skeptical of these peculiar instruments, but after you see them played you’ll be wondering why more bands don’t implement the jarana or the quijada.—Adam Vitcavage

7. Deer Tick
Deer Tick mixes the perfect parts of country, rock, heartache and don’t-give-a-damn to create the atmosphere of your favorite hole in the wall bar wherever they may be performing. Each show feels like it should start with a shot and a beer—both of which are promptly smashed after consumption. Deer Tick is the band your mother always warned you about, the kind of band that isn’t afraid to set their instruments—or themselves—ablaze and bask in the cleansing glory of destruction. These are the kind of guys who chew up music and spit it back out at you. A must-see for anyone who thinks rock has gone soft.—Sean Doyle

6. Fleet Foxes
No one ever doubted Fleet Foxes technical skill to hit those harmonies, high notes and complex arrangements, but their recent tour behind Helplessness Blues finds the band feeling more comfortable with themselves than ever before. Hearing them start their shows with the heart-racing song “Grown Ocean” or transform the title track into an anthemic, four-on-the-floor set-closer is pure excitement. —Luke Larson

5. Janelle Monáe
There are few live acts today who can transform a crowd into a post-apocalyptic dance party in a matter of minutes and then turn around and stop you in your tracks with an arresting slow jam. Janelle Monáe can do it all, whether she’s tipping on the tightrope or sharing the stage with Of Montreal. Who knew the second coming of James Brown would be a tuxedo-clad android?—Bonnie Stiernberg

4. Arcade Fire
Fresh off their Album of the Year win at The Grammys, Arcade Fire set out on a huge North American and European tour. They headlined shows around the country, including Bonnaroo and Coachella, and brought their anthems of youth and hope in the face of adversity live to the world. No matter how many times you hear “Wake Up” or “Rebellion (Lies),” there’s nothing like seeing it live, as Win Butler and his group of modern troubadours rouse their fans into chants and sing-alongs that can renew and revitalize hearts and minds.—Ross Bonaime

3. tUnE-yArDs
To hear Merrill Garbus expertly weave her voice, ukulele and percussion into stellar tunes on her record is one thing; to watch it unfold live is another thing entirely. A tUnE-yArDs show is a dizzying display of loops and pedals, almost like a choreographed dance where Garbus moves from mic to mic to craft each song from the ground up right before our very eyes.—Bonnie Stiernberg

2. LCD Soundsystem
After an impressive 10-year run, James Murphy announced that LCD Soundsystem would be calling it quits, but not before performing the year’s most epic show: a sold-out, almost four-hour set at Madison Square Garden. Murphy asked everyone to dress in white, and the show, which sold out minutes after going on sale, was more of a celebration than a funeral. He started with “Dance Yrself Clean”, performed all of his “45:33,” featured guest stars like Reggie Watts and Arcade Fire, and ended suitably with “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” If LCD Soundsystem had to end, there was no better way to celebrate their career than with this final, monumental show.—Ross Bonaime

1. My Morning Jacket
If you think that rock ‘n’ roll is dying, My Morning Jacket is here to forcibly eject those thoughts from your brain. An energetic live band throughout their career (remember when they all had the hair and knew how to use it?), their concerts have only gotten better. This was the year that the band reigned supreme, headlining festivals and delivering musical salvation like itinerant preachers of rock. Bruce Springsteen hasn’t gone away, but Jim James has been steadily getting promoted through the ranks, looking every-more ready to take over as Boss.—Josh Jackson

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