The 25 Best Live Acts of 2013

Music Lists

There are plenty of perks that come with working for a music company. And while free records are great, perhaps the best perk is catching as much live music as we do each year. 2013 was another incredible year to see some of our favorite artists hit the stage, whether in front of thousands at a giant festival or a select few inside a dark club. We polled our writers and editors, with the parameters that artists needed to tour or perform festival dates in 2013 to qualify for this list, and this is what we came up with: the 25 best live acts of the year.

25. Killer Mike and El P
The duo brought their excellent Run The Jewels material to life with a joint tour this year, and as Tyler Kane writes, “Killer Mike hit hard immediately with an amped up sprint through “Big Beast,” setting the tone and welcoming the crowd to his own turf. But what defined the set—and what wasn’t present almost a year ago at the same venue—was his clear dedication as a family man, an artist of integrity and role model. “Big Beast’”s “hardcore G shit” and “dealers and the strippers and the clubs” are kinda half the story here as many casual fans would learn—Mr. Michael Render is a Southern-raised sweetheart. Although the emotion is nothing new for the rapper—anyone who’s seen him in the last year can attest that this guy gets dewy-eyed, even at big fests like Sasquatch—it’s refreshing to see someone so open on the subjects, not afraid to shed a tear in front of his kids, or bring pressing issues of his own to the forefront.” Check out footage from that emotional Atlanta homecoming show below.

24. 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

23. 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

22. Black Joe Lewis
With lyrics that will make you grin and grooves that will get your toes a-tappin’, the Austin soulman and his band are your best bet for dancing, wherever you happen to catch them.

21. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Along with the great stage show established by the band on its debut album’s tours, the addition of fourth member and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Visger brings new energy on plenty of cuts, including the cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and a recently unearthed live cover of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” But many of the star tracks of the tour come from the band’s newest full-player, The Speed of Things. I’m a huge fan of many of the tracks—“Run” hasn’t received nearly enough attention this year, and “Dancefloor” was marked as one of our favorites of the summer, but live these are sparked with new energy that you might not catch on the album.—Tyler Kane

20. Fiona Apple
Forget that Portland heckling incident. Forget the canceled dates. All you really need to know about Fiona Apple’s live shows with Blake Mills this year is that they featured the same stunning performer we all know and love. Sure, she can be something of a raw nerve onstage, but that’s part of what makes her shows so great: that emotional honesty is incredible, sucking you in from the first notes.

19. Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire’s “secret” shows in Brooklyn during CMJ may have been polarizing, and the announcement of their dress code for their upcoming 2014 dates turned a few heads, but ultimately, an Arcade Fire show is still an Arcade Fire show—transcendent, and a reason to stay excited about live music. So get over yourself, dust off that formal wear, and we’ll see you at these guys’ full-blown tour next year.

18. Kanye West
If you know anything about Kanye West at all, you’ll know that he doesn’t really do anything small-scale. If he’s proposing to his girlfriend, he’s gonna need to rent out an entire ballpark (even though we’re pretty sure Kim Kardashian isn’t much of a baseball fan), and if he’s touring behind Yeezus, he’s going to make sure it’s THE GREATEST TOUR OF ALL TIME. Whether or not he has achieved that is open to interpretation, but West certainly knows how to bring the theatrics, with giant set pieces and a supporting cast that makes the whole thing feel more like performance art.

17. My Morning Jacket
Jim James set out on an excellent solo tour of his own this year, but that didn’t stop this band from making the rounds as well, and much of what Josh Jackson wrote when we named them the best live act of 2011 remains true today: “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. 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.”

16. Dr. Dog
Dr. Dog have always been an excellent live band, but this year’s shows seemed to carry them to a new level. Beca Grimm caught them in New York, and she wrote, “Hardly any smokers breaking from the show stood outside. Everyone was still in there, still thrilled to be, too. I felt thrilled, too. Thrilled Dr. Dog can sell out a NYC venue in less than a minute. And thrilled after 15 years as a band—and endless changes, growth along the way—the crew could collectively chip a unique spot into Philadelphia’s musical trunk right now, but also Americana as a whole for all time.” Read her full review here.

15. Passion Pit
On first listen, songs like the immensely commercially successful “Take a Walk” are danceable and perfect fodder for workout-playlists. But on subsequent listens, when you really pay attention to the lyrics, you quickly realize that Passion Pit’s music is more than the 30 second-jingles you hear in TV commercials. They’ve got vivid and compelling stories of their own to tell, and their effervescent live shows might just be the place to really immerse yourself in one of their pop-y epics.—Anita George

14. Deerhunter
You never know what will happen at a Deerhunter show, and this year they reached a new level as they brought their stellar Monomania material to life. Oh, and they just so happened to turn in easily the best late-night performance this year on Fallon. Check it out below.

13. The Lone Bellow
Their debut album is one of our favorites this year, but their live show is another thing entirely. All three members of this Brooklyn trio can belt, and that’s exactly what they do, tearing into some of the best harmonies you’ll hear, but still aware of the perfect moments to dial it back. They know how to keep things light, too, tossing in a surprisingly great cover of Mariah Carey’s Always Be My Baby every once in a while. Here they are performing for Paste.

12. King Tuff
Used to be, the man with a penchant for glammed-out, lo-fi pop perfection played his should-be hits for a select few; now, Kyle Thomas has a legit producer and a much-bigger set of songs to show for his efforts. The results, especially when they give equal time to his natural charm and knob-twiddler Bobby Harlow’s clearly natural talent (“Keep On Movin’”), are nothing short of spectacular.—Austin L. Ray

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
From frontwoman Karen O’s manic, unpredictable stage persona to Nick Zinner’s brilliantly precise guitar noodling to drummer Brian Chase’s equally dexterous percussion, Yeah Yeah Yeahs stand as three different powerhouse musicians who just happen to all play in the same band. Whether you are headbanging to the likes of “Zero” or swaying along to the introspective “Maps,” a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert is an experience you’re likely to treasure for the rest of your days.—Mark Rozeman

10. Charles Bradley
Bradley is an old-school showman of the highest ilk, whom Daptone head Gabriel Roth discovered only a few years ago when he was doing James Brown covers in a small New York nightclub. At ACL Live, Bradley worked the crowd with a number of impressive, totally unique dance moves—including some kind of funky version of the robot and a maneuver where he lets the mic stand fall to the ground only to yank it back up into his hand by the cord before it hits—as he and the Menehan Street Band rocked through some favorites from his 2011 debut album No Time For Dreaming. The real “holy shit” moments of seeing Bradley live, though, were the sustained James Brown-style wails he regularly emits. Even if you’ve already seen him once, even if you’ve already seen him a thousand times, when the Screamin’ Eagle rears his head back and lets one fly it’s as if you’re hearing it for the first time. Goosebumps are a common occurrence.—Ryan Bort

9. Nine Inch Nails
Live, Nine Inch Nails is still a force as much as ever, with super-respected bassist Pino Palladino providing low-end (and also tackling “March of the Pigs” on bass, the first time I’ve seen the instrument in the place of the heart-rattling low-synth heard on The Downward Spiral in NIN’s live set.) And there’s always something reassuring about seeing Downward Spiral-era guitarist Robin Finck manning the six-strings, kicking down mic stands and acting as a recent staple for the band’s live act. You can’t argue with the band’s tremendous stage show. When NIN tours, they do it up big, and the initial Hesitation Marks offering didn’t disappoint. Low-hanging, glitchy lights, amazing visuals and smoke defined a night of hard-hitting tunes, and the 20-song set ended with a single-heavy stretch that started with “The Hand that Feeds” and ended with the lighter-mandatory singalong that is “Hurt.”—Tyler Kane

8. Flaming Lips
It seems like every year we make this list, the Flaming Lips wind up snagging a spot—deservedly so. 2013 is no different, and at this year’s SXSW, the band took home the inaugural Grulke Prize, awarded to “an established artist who appeared at SXSW 2013 to reinvent themselves or launch an important new project.” That new project was The Terror, performed in its entirety at Auditorium Shores in front of a record crowd. But the night before, the band played an equally impressive, scaled-down show at the Belmont, one so great, Paste’s Ryan Bort didn’t even care about some drunk guy’s drink spilling all over him: “About an hour later the set was almost over and, by some small miracle, not a drop of my neighbor’s drink had been spilled on me, despite it having hung precariously in his limp-wristed hand through repeated stumblings. Coyne had made a promise that even though they didn’t have enough time to get through all of Yoshimi, they wouldn’t leave the stage without playing “Do You Realize??” The time to play it had come, and as the song’s famous opening countdown began, my wasted friend thrust his fist in the air triumphantly, the same fist that was holding his drink, and a nearly full vodka/something found its way all over me, in its entirety. I only laughed, because how can you be even remotely upset about anything while The Flaming Lips are playing “Do You Realize??” a few feet in front of you?”

7. Stevie Wonder
I guess, yes, technically there was more than one artist who performed on Sunday at Hangout Fest this year. But then Stevie Wonder took the stage and made us forget about everything else we’d seen that day. Wonder played for two-and-a-half hours during his headlining set and didn’t once let up. The legendary Motown singer’s pipes remain pristine—he still hit the same high notes on “For Once in My Life” as a 63 year old that he did at age 18. Wonder made sure to squeeze as much material into the set as possible, playing shorter versions of many songs to make room for hits like “Higher Ground,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” “Living for the City” “Sir Duke” and “Part-Time Lover.” He’s certainly got more than enough original material to fill up all his time, but he also worked a good amount of covers into the set, including Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” a stunning version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a reworked version of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” But perhaps what was most affecting was the obvious joy Wonder still gets from performing and the way his music touches even those closest to him.

6. Foxygen
Foxygen had its share of struggles in 2013, and breakup rumors and a broken leg managed to overshadow some truly incredible live performances. As multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado told us recently, “The public doesn’t really know that during that time was the time that we were the best, you know? We were just playing really, really awesome shows. We were really on our game.”

5. Built to Spill
Earlier this year Built to Spill announced their new lineup, which features bassist Jason Albertini and drummer Steve Gere. The fresh rhythm section breathed new life into the band, resulting in one of its strongest tours…well, ever.

4. Janelle Monae
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 wowing us with a killer Prince cover. Who knew the second coming of James Brown would be a tuxedo-clad android?

3. Father John Misty
He’s good-looking; skinny, with a thin beard and long hair, like a younger Wayne Coyne. He could easily stand quietly behind a microphone and let the waves of love pour in, or he could give off a faint waggish aura with a slick grin or two and revel in the swoons. Instead, he casts aside all reservation and turns the dial up to a level reserved for true divas.The trait that pegs him as someone different—a person unlikely to fit into a comfortable indie rock mold—are the eyes. We need an adjective for these kind of eyes, which initially look sort of dead and expressionless, but are actually resisting expression as a sort of semi-angry, semi-ironic, semi-playful challenge. Think of Zach Galifianakis, and you’ll get the idea. There’s something there that refuses to confess the feelings beneath, and it keeps you off guard. They also draw you in, because you want to understand and be part of the joke, and avoid their implied mockery. You see the eyes, you become curious, and you sense that the evening will not be normal.—Shane Ryan (Read Shane Ryan’s full piece, “Father John Misty Does Not Hate You,” here)

2. Paul McCartney
What is there more to say about Paul McCartney’s Bonnaroo set, other than it was basically perfect? The family in front of me, which sported three generations, was singing every word with Sir Paul from opening note to the blinding fireworks for “Live and Let Die” to the closing cymbal crashes of the Abbey Road medley, and I’m left to wonder if I’ll ever see another artist that can do this in my lifetime. Needless to say, it was truly one of the more special concert experiences I’ve had. And although McCartney could have just showed up, played the three hours of hits (it’s hard to think of many artists that can truly fill that period of time without lulling the crowd), he gave back as much to the audience as they did to him. The set was filled with hit after hit, with McCartney making smart and considerate choices with the deeper catalog and leaning heavily on Wings and Beatles material. We even got one song McCartney hadn’t performed live until this tour, Sgt. Pepper’s “Lovely Rita.” He was a joker, teasing “Woah, someone has some pretty good weed up front. What are you trying to do to me?” and an emotional storyteller, dedicating several songs to Lennon, Linda McCartney and his current wife Nancy, not to mention the absolutely beautiful ukulele version of “Something” he dedicated to Harrison. Long story short, we were all McCartney fans, but the crowd—which I could not see an end to in any direction, even on my tippy-toes—walked away almost feeling like his friend. It’s exceptional to make hundreds of thousands of buds with just a Hofner bass, a piano and that beautiful voice of Paul’s.—Tyler Kane

1. Neutral Milk Hotel
Seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live in the year 2013 is a little like catching a glimpse of Bigfoot, and part of what made their shows so enjoyable this year was the palpable excitement surrounding Jeff Mangum and company. As Tyler Kane wrote about their Mountain Oasis set, “The crowd was just like you’d think, populated with curious youngsters who made too-late discoveries on the beauty of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or OGNMH folks who pulled their dusty old All Stars out of the closet for a weekend away in Asheville. No matter which of these audience members you looked at, they were all eating it up once a corduroy-blazered Scott Spillane marched out for soundcheck with his unmistakable white beard, or when a wool sweater-draped Jeff Mangum trotted out on stage to take on “Two-Headed Boy,” the band fully arriving for a thunderous take on “The Fool.” It was a career-spanning set, one that hit respectfully on Aeroplane and On Avery Island and was bookended by “Two-Headed Boy” sections before going into deep cuts for a second encore with “Ferris Wheel on Fire” and “Engine.” Young’uns and old fans alike walked out completely satisfied.”

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