The 25 Best Live Acts of 2014

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The 25 Best Live Acts of 2014

One of the best parts of our job here at Paste is getting to see so much live music, and 2014 did not disappoint. Whether it was a high-profile reunion tour, 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 2014.

25. Twin Peaks

It’s kind of a given that a guy rocking out in a penguin suit onstage knows how to have a good time, but all the members of Twin Peaks genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves whenever they happen to be performing. Their energy at this year’s CMJ was infectious, inspiring some half-naked crowd surfing. Time to stop making David Lynch jokes and believe the hype about these guys.

24. Those Darlins

Whether you thought they were a quirky-obnoxious novelty act or a gang of infinitely charming, boots-are-made-for-rockin’ Americana party girls, forget your initial impression of Those Darlins. Because, over the last few years, the band has become the spirit of rock ’n’ roll incarnate—a slightly older, wiser, modern-day Southern-garage version of The Runaways.—Steve LaBate

23. Janelle Monae

Stage presence is something that can’t be taught, and nowhere is that more evident than at a Janelle Monae show. Monae’s just got it, and whatever “it” is, it’s clearly something she was born with, something she can flip on and instantly deliver a phenomenal performance. The Electric Lady worked the crowd at this year’s Bonnaroo with favorites like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Electric Lady,” “Tightrope,” “Cold War” and “Primetime,” all while laying on the theatrics and even darting through the crowd at one point. But all that stuff only works when you’ve got the voice to back it up, and Monae absolutely does.

22. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave and his ever-evolving backing band have always been a fearsome live act, whether they are playing the scratchy, unsettled noise-blues of their early days, the balladeering of the late ‘90s era, or the sexy palpitations of their last few albums. But for their most recent run of U.S. dates, they managed to add something extra, something more volatile and menacing. Maybe it was the re-addition of founding member Barry Adamson as a utility player or it was the ever-welcome presence of his hirsute hetero-life mate Warren Ellis, but the 57-year-old Cave raged through every song. He walked on the crowd, sang delicate lines to the swooning women of the audience, and danced like was trying to conjure up a demon from deep below the Earth’s crust. It was absolutely electric from the first note.—Robert Ham

21. Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley made this list last year, and we have a feeling that as long as he continues to tour, he’ll continue to be among the best live performers we see in any given year. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see The Screamin’ Eagle of Soul do his thing, stop what you’re doing and figure out how to rectify that immediately.

20. King Tuff

If you’ve caught Kyle Thomas live before, you already know, but in case you don’t: if you’re at all a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, fun and/or things that are good, get yourself to a King Tuff show.

19. Black Lips

The Black Lips are self-aware. They actually might be one of the most down-to-earth, self-aware bands in America. They’re certainly one of the most consistent—they’ve been recording albums and touring regularly for over a decade with the same four members. That doesn’t happen by accident. Despite the reckless image, the partying, the wild stage antics and so on, they know exactly what they’re doing and how best to do it.—Ryan Bort

18. Courtney Barnett

That same slacker-anthem cool that permeated Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener”?already decreed one of the best songs of the year pretty much everywhere?materialized in her live appearances. At this year’s Pickathon festival in Portland, Ore., Barnett somehow bridged her heavy-lidded linguist/bard vibe with an effortless affinity for grand guitar posturing and easy-does-it punk-lite mojo in a Kurt Cobain t-shirt. If all her sets were like this (and there’s little reason to presume they wouldn’t be) then she’s got to be one of the most charming, whip-smart performers currently touring the world.—Ryan J. Prado

17. Alice Cooper

Vincent Furnier—a.k.a. Alice Cooper—has plenty of stage filigree to cover up for a bum performance: the guillotine act, the huge puppets, the slinky pythons he wraps around his shoulders. Luckily, the 66-year-old glam metal icon has a terrifyingly great band backing him up, including brilliant new guitarist Nita Strauss, that tears into each classic song in the setlist with razor sharp fangs. With their help, Cooper was even more free to become the consummate showman that he is, working even the biggest auditorium-sized crowd as part of his 2014 tour opening for Motley Crue into a frothy frenzy.—Robert Ham

16. La Dispute

Grand Rapids, Michigan’s La Dispute made one of my favorite albums of 2014 with Rooms of the House. This stark conceptual piece gets its power from a no-frills guitar/bass/drums lineup, which has been shining across packed venues in the U.S. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the album’s powerful imagery, La Dispute’s live show brings forth the whole package—a unit of thoughtful musicians carrying on the cathartic spirit of Fugazi and At the Drive-In. You’ll scream. You’ll cry. You’ll be happy you went.—Tyler Kane

15. Run the Jewels

Music at its best can be life-affirming. It can be healing. It can raise questions, and it can provide a sense of catharsis during some of our darkest moments. That’s all par for the course at a Run the Jewels show—as we noted when naming them to this list last year, “emotion is nothing new for Killer Mike—anyone who’s seen him in the last year can attest that this guy gets dewy-eyed— but 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.” But nowhere was this more evident and powerful than at the duo’s St. Louis set this year, which coincidentally happened to fall on the same day as the Michael Brown verdict. Mike delivered an impassioned speech to open the show (which you can—and should—watch below) before tearing into the material in a way that makes you stop and give thanks.

14. The War on Drugs

When you watch a band like The War on Drugs, it has a way of making everything else seem like an idea, rather than the thing itself. Everything I’d seen to that point seemed like an academic theory about music—some more exotic than others—put into practice. But watching Adam Granduciel, who looks like Jimmy Fallon’s older, world-worn brother, was a different thing. He’s known as a perfectionist, particularly when he’s making an album, and no doubt this intense attention to detail is an essential building block of his music, but watching his band live, you don’t look at the stage and see a control freak. You see someone channeling the music in a way that few others could ever approach, and the magnitude of it all necessarily makes everything else look minor by comparison.There’s something unchained about it all, as though his talent gives him the freedom to let the music run wild. It’s all perception, but genius has that way of erasing the middle steps between idea and execution, so that while the others are painting by numbers, with someone like Granduciel it seems to flow unchanged from an origin you’d never be able to find by simply re-tracing his steps.—Shane Ryan

13. OutKast

The obviously most hyped (and speculated act) of this year’s Sasquatch came on night one, when the ATL-based duo were set to take the stage. I have to admit, I was nervous for Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Sure, they’ve had several very good appearances since a shaky start at Coachella—but what if mine wasn’t one of them? Thankfully, it looks like the duo has ironed out any shortcomings in their set. They’ve trimmed the set time down to a lean hour and 30 minutes—no encore—and one that makes limited room for solo material and focuses on what the bulk of the fans came for. Let’s face it, that’s hits like “Ms. Jackson,” “Hey Ya” and “Bombs Over Bagdad.” The two took the stage in the middle of a see-through cube that projected images of Atlanta’s past, including some visuals that drummed up memories of OutKast’s beginning. I loved the visuals, Dre’s expectedly loud outfit (a black jumpsuit that read “Everything is Temporary” with a “sold out” tag attached. Apparently that also applies to Eastern philosophies). While it looks like the two haven’t totally become comfortable with this performance thing, they’re getting close. And a pretty good OutKast show is a lot better than a lot of others’ amazing shows. If you’re on the edge about catching them in the future, I wouldn’t hesitate; their 20-year-plus stroll down Atlanta’s memory lane is well worth the price of admission.—Tyler Kane

12. Foxygen

In the wake of ...And Star Power, Foxygen has expanded to a nine-piece outfit on tour, including a trio of female backup singers and an extra guitarist to allow Jonathan Rado to stay on the keys for all the songs that call for them. The bigger band also means Sam France is freed up to focus solely on vocals and shoot across the stage as he pleases, right in that sweet spot where it feels like any moment he could fly off the rails.

11. Swans

I’ve done three things that have pushed me toward a physical breaking point. One: Ran the Detroit Marathon. Two: Survived on a raw food diet for 30 days. Three: Once, I went to a Swans show without earplugs. And as the final chords rang out—and as I listened to tinny frequencies I’d never hear again—I figured the experience was more than worth it. Swans, which was reassembled by Michael Gira in 2010, is a force that must be experienced live. Yes, I am among the many who adored this year’s To Be Kind. I went gaga for 2012’s The Seer, but no matter how loud you crank your stereo, there’s no replicating the band’s mammoth performances. With a six-piece band in tow, Gira’s been guiding Swans through punishing, eerie takes on Seer and Kind tracks for years. Sure, it’s something to endure, and yeah, you’re going to want to bring protection. But Swans are one of the few bands who, especially in the YouTube age, are making live shows mandatory again.—Tyler Kane

10. 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.

9. Lucius

Brooklyn-based Lucius’ delicate blend of intoxicating harmonies and fierce lyrics is only magnified by the entire band’s chemistry on stage—a display that employs collaborative percussion, eye-catching stage props and a symbiosis of themselves and their audience, turning any venue into its own ’60s-rooted power-pop experience. This deliberate boldness reveals itself in each track, whether it’s sonically powerful like “Turn It Around” or lyrically dauntless like “Go Home,” each track seems to have a different way of revealing Lucius’ strengths.—Dacey Orr

8. St. Paul & The Broken Bones

We’ve been lucky enough to see St. Paul and the Broken Bones three times since March, and each time has been better than the last. This year’s Bonnaroo was particularly special: frontman Paul Janeway recalled working security at the festival years ago (where he got heat rash and got peed on during Jay-Z’s set) and revealed that since then, playing Bonnaroo has been a big dream of his. At one point, he paused to take in the adoring crowd (that sounds like hyperbole, but they were truly eating up every note—when Janeway first opened his mouth and unleashed his first note, the guy next to me fist-pumped and yelled “yessssssss” like he had just won the Super Bowl) and looked like he was close to tears. But after declaring “enough of that mushy stuff,” he brought the tempo back up for tracks like “Call Me” and a roaring cover of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”

7. St. Vincent

This year’s St. Vincent was her best work yet, and to see Annie Clark perform it live is to witness an artist firing on all cylinders. The big set pieces, the stoic choreography…it all adds to the experience of taking in tracks like “Birth in Reverse” and “Digital Witness,” and it all comes together to prove that St. Vincent has had one hell of a 2014.

6. The Replacements

By the time Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and company were supposed to take the stage at Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival in May this year, the rain had turned vicious, drenching dedicated fans waiting to see the reunited band. The Replacements started their set about 10 minutes late due to the weather, but it was so worth the wait to see the legendary band play classics like “Swingin’ Party,” “Bastards of Young,” “Merry Go Round,” “Kiss Me on the Bus,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and “Alex Chilton.” Even when Westerberg briefly forgot the lyrics to the latter, his badassery remained intact—a smirk and a shrug from Paul Westerberg is sometimes just as good as words. The band brought out Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong (or as the drunk guy behind me excitedly misidentified him, “SLASH!!”) to play guitar with them for the set, and you could tell from the enormous grin plastered across his face that Armstrong was happy to just be breathing the same air as The Replacements, let alone playing with them. We even got a “Judy is a Punk” cover; I can basically die now.

5. Perfume Genius

This year, touring behind Too Bright, Perfume Genius’ live show boasted an expanded soundscape. As Sasha Geffen notes, “While Mike Hadreas’ lyrics made the most powerful moments of Perfume Genius’s 2010 debut Learning and 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, Too Bright folds its words into startling, varied instrumental textures. The album’s first single ‘Queen’ thundered in earlier this year full of squeals and barks that sounded entirely alien to the Seattle songwriter’s damaged cabaret. It’s Hadreas’ first banger, barbed with lines like ‘no family is safe when I sashay’ as though he were finally accepting a role as menacer rather than menaced. But in the space where a hook should go, Hadreas’ voice dissolves. His words give way to shrill whistles, disembodied echoes and a ‘woof!’ taken straight from Kanye’s reserve. His energy turns wordless, yet loses none of its power.”

4. Lee Bains III & The Gloryfires

You don’t really know Lee Bains III & The Gloryfires until you’ve seen them live. Sure, the energy is there on their record, but until you witness Bains sweating onstage, leaping into the crowd for a gleeful solo, or riding into it atop a bandmate’s shoulders like he did at this year’s Bragg Jam in Macon, Ga., you won’t truly understand the unbridled nature of one of our favorite discoveries this year.

3. Future Islands

Future Islands made its national TV debut on The Late Show With David Letterman, with a vivid performance that spread like viral wildfire across the music-blog click-scape. The Baltimore trio played its latest single, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” a silky new-wave groove decorated by Herring’s reliably malleable vocals (which sweep from a guttural, borderline death-metal growl to a theatrical croon) and his weirdly endearing dance moves—which resemble both Peter Gabriel performing Hamlet and a grandfather’s drunken twist at a family reunion barbecue. Punching imaginary holes in the air, beating his chest like Tarzan, gazing deeply into the rafters as if searching for his lost lover, Herring delivered every note with a level of desperation and intimacy rare for a late-night TV promotional pimp-out. It was uncomfortable and odd and confusing and completely riveting—and it was just another Future Islands show.—Philip Cosores

2. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings

When I saw Sharon Jones perform at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse in January, she was just a few weeks removed from her last chemotherapy treatment. Weeks. Less than a month before absolutely tearing it up onstage, dancing at a frequency that would make even the healthiest of us winded and belting out each song with inexplicable strength, she was receiving radiation treatments to kill her cancer. Watching Jones perform has always been amazing, but to watch her bounce back from life-threatening illness in such an incredible manner is truly something to be seen. She’s back, and somehow, she’s even better than ever.

1. Diarrhea Planet

Next time Diarrhea Planet is playing in your area, tell your uninitiated friends to stop making shitty jokes (yeah, okay, pun intended—I’m a hypocrite) about their name and go see what will undoubtedly become one of their new favorite bands. Most important at a Diarrhea Planet show is the Diarrhea Planet material, during which the band’s four—yes, four—guitarists absolutely shred. They shred while playing behind their backs or with their teeth. They shred while climbing monitors. They shred while crowdsurfing inside an inner tube designed to look like a Simpsons donut. And, best of all, they all look like they’re having the greatest time in the world doing it. That energy’s infectious, making it impossible to not enjoy yourself at a Diarrhea Planet show.