The 25 Best Live Acts of 2015

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One of the best parts of our job here at Paste is getting to see so much live music, and 2015 did not disappoint by any stretch of the imagination. Whether it was a much-anticipated comeback or a high-energy performance from an enthusiastic newcomer, there was plenty to take in on the road this year. We polled our writers and editors and tallied the votes, and we present to you our picks for the 25 Best Live Acts of 2015.

25. St. Vincent
This year’s Outside Lands festival featured incredible sets from the likes of Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo and Caribou. But perhaps the weekend’s most confident performer was Annie Clark of St. Vincent. The way she and Toko Yasuda move robotically, to bring an ominous digital-apocalypse feel to their set is the type of thing you can’t take your eyes away from. Clark made a conscious effort to play songs off of all of her albums, not just 2014’s self-titled masterpiece. And from the first time I saw Clark play at Santa Barbara’s tiny Velvet Jones in 2008, I’ve never ceased to be amazed by how utterly ridiculous she is on the guitar. Her set was just plain tight and well…perfect. It always is.—Adrian Spinelli

24. U2
In case you missed the HBO special for U2 live in Paris last night, the band stepped down from stadiums to arenas this year for multi-date runs in cities around the globe. The jaunt was notable for its production, which featured a giant LED screen that spanned the length of the venues, the band performing part of the set from inside of it, as well as the group’s ability to satisfyingly mix the new and the old. Hardcore fans could follow along and pick out the moments and songs that made each gig special, but sadly the tour will ultimately be remembered for a pair of tragedies: the death of their long-time tour manager in Los Angeles and their forced cancelations following the terrorist attack in Paris.—Philip Cosores

23. White Reaper
The first time I saw White Reaper live, I had no idea who they were. But after a few minutes, I knew I had to find out. Take the raw energy of Diarrhea Planet, subtract a few guitars and add a keyboard and some Wavves-like fuzz, and you’ve got one hell of a live act that’s sure to break out to bigger audiences in 2016. Check out our full session with them here, and watch “I Don’t Think She Cares” in the player below.

22. Deerhunter
Bradford Cox and company are no strangers to this list—they’re one of those phenomenal live acts who stand to make year-end roundups like these whenever they set out on tour. Their 2015 dates behind this year’s Fading Frontier were no exception. Cox still can command a crowd, even occasionally breaking up fights.

21. Sylvan Esso
When we caught Sylvan Esso at this year’s Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama, frontwoman Amelia Meath made reference to Beyonce a few times during their set—first by singing a snippet of “Flawless” and then by making a comment after the high winds started blowing her hair around. “I feel like Beyonce,” she said, laughing. “If only.” The thing is, there are similarities to Meath and the pop diva; both know how to work a crowd and deliver a high-energy, danceable set. Meath’s confidence as a performer shined on favorites like “Coffee” and “Hey Mami” this year, and though she may not have woken up in the giant platform sneakers she was sporting, Sylvan Esso’s set was, in fact, flawless.

20. Julia Holter
In the two times I’ve seen Julia Holter perform, her backup band iterations have been slight, but poignant. Touring behind 2012’s Ekstasis, she’d seemed to whittle her players down to empirical parts, attempting to key into and then draw out the intimacy of her experimentally-tinged chamber pop: drums, double bass, her standing behind her keyboard, typically churning out harpsichord sounds. Two albums later, and Holter is playing for much larger venues (though not in Portland, strangely, performing as she always does at the Holocene) with a comparatively much larger band, behind a much more maximalist record, this year’s unexpectedly pop-centric Have You In My Wilderness. Devin Hoff on double bass is still a crucial piece of her lineup, as is Corey Fogel’s drums, but now she’s girthed out her stage sound with viola and back-up vocals, as well as, if you catch the right night, some sweet sax. And with that rosier, more robust arrangement, one might expect something brasher, something broader—something less in debt to her classical or avant-garde roots, readier than ever to embrace a larger audience. But no: she may seem happier, slightly less aloof, on stage, but even with more folks filling square footage, her live renditions are just as elemental as they’ve ever been, cutting to the marrow of her melodies and cutting out the headier production to which her albums have a tendency to attach themselves—Dom Sinacola

19. The Lone Bellow
Their album Then Came the Morning 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.

18. Lucius
Lucius is a band that scales well, in the sense that they can sound good in just about any venue, with just about any setup or aesthetic. You can take their show and shrink it down to the size of our intimate SXSW sessions with the band, reveling in the sumptuous, naturalistic vocals of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, or you can just as easily put them in a huge theater and crank things up to achieve a sound that is closer to the material found on their still-amazing Wildewoman debut LP. The two identities are quite distinct, and perhaps inspire strong feelings about which is the “real” Lucius, but both leave audiences equally rapt. We can’t wait to see how this facet of their live performance evolves as they tour for the release of their March 2016 sophomore album Good Grief. (In the meantime, check out their 2013 Riverview session with us in the player below.)—Jim Vorel

17. Natalie Prass
Natalie’s live set got better as the year went on, but she was never short of surprises throughout it all. One night at Los Angeles’ Troubadour, Prass brought out Ryan Adams on stage for a couple songs that left the crowd speechless (and she was opening for San Fermin mind you). Prass essentially courses through the entirety of her brilliant debut album (#7 on our Top Albums of 2015) and her incredible backing band is just as mesmerizing as she is. Trey Pollard on guitar, Michael Libramento on bass and Scott Clark on drums all—like Prass—hail from Richmond, Va. and are all essential to enacting Prass’s live experience. In late October, Natalie returned to San Francisco’s Independent for the second time this year, except this time around, the show was seated and highly intimate. She had a few drinks in her and the confidence of her budding career came through with every joke and every gorgeous note as she sang her way into one of the best live performances I saw all year.—Adrian Spinelli

16. Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson’s set at Bonnaroo this year wasn’t too crowded, save for what looked to be shoulder-to-shoulder group in the side-stage area. The show was all the better for it, though, because the medium-sized crowd had double the adoration for the music than any other fans I saw. “We’re dancing to this at our wedding next month,” the guy beside me said during “The Promise,” and his wide-eyed devotion was characteristic of pretty much every person who showed up. Songs like “Long White Line” and “Living the Dream” are best enjoyed loud and sung-along to, so the set was exactly the high point we expected. Don’t miss this guy on the festival circuit.—Dacey Orr

15. Protomartyr
This is post-punk that refuses to sit still. Alex Leonard’s drumming stutters with anxiety, occasionally shifting tempos mid-song, while Ahee’s guitar work alternates between darkly melodic riffs and sudden blasts of white-hot noise (as on first single “Why Does It Shake?”). And then there is Joe Casey, whose vocal presence exists in a low, rambling growl that teeters between a sung baritone and hoarse, chant-like repetition. Sometimes he’s muttering to himself, and sometimes he’s barking surreal orders: “Remove the fire from thine eyes…please!” he repeats, steadily but obsessively, at the end of the frantic “Boyce or Boice.”—Zach Schonfeld

14. The Rolling Stones
You don’t do something for over 50 years because you’re bad at it. After more than half a century, it’s a given that The Rolling Stones’ live show is a well-oiled machine. They’ve got a greatest-hits setlist that they change up just enough from tour to tour for fans to feel like they got a unique experience without complaining they didn’t get to hear their favorites. They shoot off fireworks. They utilize a catwalk to make sure diehards 30 rows deep can still see Mick Jagger up close and personal, and Jagger sprints from one end of the stage to the other throughout the set like any great frontman, making sure to wave to cheap seats and yell “How you doin’ tonight!!?” every couple songs. The truly impressive part nowadays isn’t that the Stones know how to put on a fantastic show—it’s that they still can. Here’s the thing about Mick Jagger: he’s a goddamn miracle. He turned 72 this year; go ahead and think of any 72-year-old men in your life and ask yourself whether they’d be able to dance across the length of a stage for two hours straight and still sound great. Ask yourself if you’d be able to do it. Logic tells us that at 72, everything about Jagger and the rest of the Stones should be ridiculous. All the pursed lips and swiveled hips and feathered capes are supposed to be things artists age out of, but the rules of time don’t apply to The Rolling Stones.

13. The Replacements
As the followup to their stunning pseudo-reformation in 2013, the legendary Replacements embarked on a highly anticipated national tour, fulfilling the wishes of a legion of fans who were either too young or too naive to see them the first go-around. The shows, luckily, were still beautiful fuck-ups. What with Paul Westerberg smoking cigarettes between songs, during songs, even inside a camping tent that was erected on the stage for some reason, and Tommy Stinson leaping around like a kid during “Bastards of Young,” there was little left to be desired. As a message to fans, Westerberg donned a new white shirt each night of the tour, with a spray-painted letter on the front and back. By the end of the tour, the message read, “I have always loved you. Now I must whore my past.” Perhaps that’s enough said.—Ryan J. Prado

12. Tame Impala
There were some raised eyebrows at this year’s Shaky Knees Fest in Atlanta over the fact that Tame Impala was the Sunday-night headliner. Are they really at the “closing festivals” stage of their career already? Why not go with Wilco or Ryan Adams, both of whom—on paper at least—seem like more obvious choices? But Tame Impala proved the skeptics wrong this year, commanding the crowd’s attention and captivating them with their trippy psychedelia. Add to that dreamy, soaring sound a top-notch light show, and you’ve got everything you need for a successful headlining spot. New tracks from this year’s Currents sounded just as strong as the hits from their excellent Lonerism, and we’re excited to see these guys in the top-billed spot for years to come.

11. Florence + the Machine
My night at this year’s Øya Festival concluded with the heavenly sounds of Florence & The Machine. I don’t think it’s possible to hear Florence Welch perform “Shake It Out” live without coming away from the experience feeling like you could conquer the world, and judging from the emphatic response when she asked that the audience take the place of her choir on the chorus, I’m not the only one who felt that way. The way Welch bounds around a stage is nothing short of inspirational, and I hope she’ll continue to make her way up festival bills for years to come.—Dacey Orr

10. The Decemberists
When The Decemberists returned in 2015 from a nearly four-year sabbatical, one couldn’t help but wonder how the time off might impact their live show as they toured in support of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Anyone who saw one of those shows in support of the new album, though, likely had any of their concerns satisfactorily allayed—if anything, the band has come back stronger than ever. Recognizing a fan base that has missed their shows since 2011, Colin Meloy and co. have been performing a unique array of deep cuts and favorites from all over the band’s catalog, including individual tracks from Picaresque, The Hazards of Love, The Crane Wife, Her Majesty and more, while still finding time to introduce listeners to the new material. Meloy is in fine voice and simply seems to be enjoying himself more than in the few years leading up to their break, suggesting that perhaps the time off did exactly what it was intended to do, rekindling the singer’s passion for performance. Regardless, the 2015 version of The Decemberists put on the best show I’ve seen from them in 10 years.—Jim Vorel

9. Future Islands
I have to admit that when everyone lost their minds over Future Islands after their Letterman performance last year, I didn’t totally get it. It was a great performance, of course, but it didn’t seem like THE BEST THING EVER the way everyone else seemed to think it was. That was dumb, though, because now having seen them live, I can see what all the hype is about. Frontman Samuel T. Herring is an extremely accomplished performer, alternating between his natural lovelorn voice and a monstrous growl and rolling and contorting his body in some extremely impressive dance moves. When he introduced “Seasons (Waiting on You)” at this year’s Hangout Fest, he dedicated it to everyone who was waiting on someone and said “I’ve got my fingers crossed for you,” and strangely, it feels good knowing he’s in our corner.

8. Run the Jewels
By the time I made it to This Tent at this year’s Bonnaroo for Run The Jewels, I’d been walking around the farm all day and frankly, I was exhausted. But Killer Mike and El-P weren’t having it—within minutes of crossing into the crowd at Run the Jewels, it was like my batteries were re-charged and I had no choice but to take on the rest of the night in full force. Between thundering chants to “Lie, Cheat, Steal” and a seemingly-continuous string of “R-T-J!” cheers, it was impossible not to be drawn in as the hip-hop duo ran through their catalog. Beyond the contagious energy, the duo’s rapport is always lighthearted and fun. This is the act that you never miss out on if you can help it. —Dacey Orr

7. Leon Bridges
Leon Bridges had quite the breakout year in 2015, from buzzy performances at SXSW to national TV performances on the AMAs and Saturday Night Live to big festival gigs like Glastonbury. That’s due largely to his excellent debut album, Coming Home, but it’s also because Bridges is so entertaining to see live, from his smooth moves to his sharp suits and a killer band behind him. Here’s hoping 2016 only brings us more of him.

6. Courtney Barnett
If all you know of Courtney Barnett is what you’ve heard on her record, you’ve only got half the story. While words like “laidback” and “laissez-faire” get tossed around about her album, Barnett turns up the energy live and rocks to the point where Nirvana comparisons are inevitable. At this year’s Bonnaroo, it was the same story, and the crowd (which included an air-drumming Christopher Mintz-Plasse) loved every second of it, screaming along to favorites like “Avant Gardener” and “Depreston.” By the time it was all over, they were literally chanting her name. Check out a more stripped-down version of Barnett’s live act via our Riverview session in the player below.

5. Father John Misty
Look, we write about Father John Misty a lot. By now you probably know how we feel about him (hint: reallygood). But 2015 saw FJM somehow bringing his live show to a new level with his I Love You, Honeybear material, shifting gears from stunningly gorgeous on “I Went to the Store One Day” to disaffected and funny as hell on “Bored in the USA” at the drop of a hat. Watch him destroy on Kimmel in the clip below.

4. Sufjan Stevens
To say that no two Sufjan Stevens tours are the same is something of an understatement. From the small club shows with the band dressed as boyscouts for Michigan to the orchestral beauty of Illinois to the dance-y neon glow for The Age of Adz, each new series of shows reflected his unique vision. The tour in support Carrie & Lowell reflects his the stripped-down nature of that music, but like the album, there are elements that make it so much more interesting than the typical singer/songwriter fare. The light show as seen through church windows was mesmerizing, but Stevens had no costume and uniform to hide behind. The backing band brought a dynamism and passion to the melancholy songs that made everyone in the audience feel all the feels. These songs are incredibly personal, and the intimacy of the evening had nothing to do with the size of the venue.—Josh Jackson

3. D’Angelo
I am not at all mad that D’Angelo hit the stage at the This Tent during this year’s Bonnaroo almost 40 minutes late. I’m not mad that there was some minor sound bleed from Bassnectar’s nearby set. I’m not even mad he didn’t play “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (unless he came back out for a second encore after we left after 3 a.m.—in which case, yes, I’m mad I missed that). That’s because from the moment the singer and his band The Vanguard appeared to their final note, they were in phenomenal form. You’d think a long delay would mean a shorter set time, but D’Angelo seemed like he was willing to stay onstage forever, making time for plenty of Black Messiah favorites like “Sugah Daddy,” “Ain’t That Easy,” “Back to the Future, Part II” and dedicated “1000 Deaths” to Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and “the fallen.” The whole time, he commanded his band with the energy and true funk of James Brown, turning in one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.

2. Kendrick Lamar
How do you do justice to one of the most important hip-hop albums of the last decade on the live stage? You don’t take the easy way out. And Kendrick brought a full backing jazz band to juice up the songs off of both To Pimp A Butterfly and good kid M.A.A.D. city throughout the year. San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival, was arguably this year’s best and Kendrick’s was easily the most talked about performance. A crowd spanning all demographics bouncing to every note, erupting on the punchline of “Backseat Freestyle” and blaring “Alright” at the top of their lungs, no matter how densely packed the 10,000 people were at the Twin Peaks Stage. As the year rounded itself out, Kendrick brought the mystique and riveting emotion of the Kunta Groove Sessions to 12 select cities. What he called “maybe the last time I’ll do these songs from TPAB like this,” was nothing short of transforming venues like Oakland’s Fox Theater and New York’s Webster Hall into a jazz club. It was the way TPAB—one of the most triumphant modern jazz and hip-hop creations—was meant to be played, and if you were lucky enough to see the “Sessions,” it was a hip-hop show unlike any other…one that you’ll be talking about forever.—Adrian Spinelli

1. Charles Bradley
This isn’t the first year Charles Bradley has made our Best Live Acts list, and it most likely won’t be the last. We could recap all the reasons why seeing the Screaming Eagle of Soul do his thing live is an absolute must for any music fan, but this year we’ll show rather than tell. We were fortunate enough to host a Charles Bradley show at the Brooklyn Bowl last month, and we captured the whole thing on video. Check out the full set here, or watch “Let Love Stand a Chance” in the player below.