It’s funny to think that, given the amount of tours, one-off shows, reunions, and festivals this year, that this list would seem kind of arbitrary. Could he possibly have seen every live show this year? Is he making this list out of a vacuum? Well, of course this list has not come out of a vacuum, and naturally, I couldn’t have seen EVERY SINGLE live event from 2018. But with ambition, confidence, and enthusiasm for discovering something new and memorable, I did my best. Here are the best live acts of 2018.
It’s hard to find any real punk shows anymore. Shows where you can get caught in a mosh no matter where you are in the venue, and anybody would be happy to pick you up to crowd surf. FIDLAR still keeps alive such a tradition. Featuring a wall of death and non-stop movement, they were originally banned from playing venues like the Hollywood Palladium for being too “loud and obnoxious,” but the show let the crowd live a night of cathartic release of energy. It’s funny that, given the acronym of their name, they’d live up to their bad boy images. Yet, even they know that their lives and bodies will have to, one day, face the consequences of real life. With songs like “Bad Habits,” “Stupid Decisions,” and “Overdose,” they acknowledge their inevitable reckoning. But they’re okay with that. This is what gives them pleasure. This is what they choose to do. Yes, they have bad habits. But they’re their bad habits.
9. BEACH HOUSE
Having seen Beach House several times, mostly unintentionally, they always somehow fell into my orbit, whether I liked it or not. What resulted was somewhat an acquired taste, like beer or wine. However, the band this year was intoxicating in another way. With an ambient light show and a down-tempo set-list, in a cemetery of all places, the band provided an environment that operated on another conscious level, one that felt like wading through a dream of my past self, remembering where I was in my life when I had last seen them. It’s one thing to play a tight-knit show featuring good musicians, but it’s another to create an actual experience.
8. JOHN MAUS
Never has such an out-pouring of emotions been so cleansing, taking the form of an electronic-rock show. One may not call Maus a “rock star,” but the presence he exudes says anything but. A self-taught engineer (he builds all of his own synthesizers), a college lecturer, and student of philosophy who studied under Alain Badiou, he yells and screams at the top of his lungs, beating himself up on stage and smashing the microphone into his face. By the end he’s often drenched in sweat, his white button up shirt now a totally different color. It might sound exhausting at first, but a Maus show allows for an outlet to express emotions that normally wouldn’t be let out in a normal club scene, and you can’t help but yell in anger and frustration with him.
7. THOM YORKE
Usually, it’s hard to separate the man from the source. Thom Yorke’s been the face of Radiohead for almost 30 years now, and nothing will take that title away. Yet, usually it’s hard to distinguish him from the monster that made him, but he still manages to keep himself outside that realm in terms of his solo work. Playing alongside producer Nigel Godrich and Dutch visual artist Tarik Barri, they created a show that’s entirely its own world, one that dives into experimental electronica and stands out from the rest of the typical repertoire he’s known for.
6. WAR ON DRUGS
With a psychedelic light show and a badass Gibson Flying-V, the War on Drugs sound just as sharp as they do on record, a sound that cuts so fine it’s as if it was pre-mixed. When one listens to them live, you can practically see how much time Adam Granduciel spent meticulously crafting the layers and intricacies their music lays atop of. But what really makes them stand out is how well they read one another, just as good at complimenting each other as they are actual musicians. With an album that’s titled “A Deeper Understanding,” the band implies that you approach their music with some sort of skepticism, an incentive to dig deeper and digest just a little longer.
5. JACK WHITE
The very first thing I remember about seeing Jack White on this tour: no cellphones. Period. And yet, the very next thing I remember about the show was how much fun I had without it. With musicians that were hand-picked by White himself, the band used the cellphone-free policy as a way to create a different live musical experience. Featuring improvisation and crowd interaction, they scrapped the idea of set-lists as White called out songs on the fly by reading the crowd’s energy. With the band arranged playing to each other rather than toward the crowd, the result was a fresh take on live communication within a performance, emulating what had long been lost since James Brown’s shriek-and-command chemistry.
4. SYSTEM OF A DOWN
System is one of those rare bands that, once they take the stage, they HAUL ASS. This train stops for no one, either you hang on tight or get off. There’s something about their comeback tour that re-proved themselves. Not that they had to redeem themselves in any way, but they re-introduced an impenetrable wholeness about their show. Blazing through a 90-minute show packed with thrash and death metal grooves, the band started at a high pitch with “Prison Song” and sustained that high note all the way to the end with “Sugar.” It’s been a while since these guys have put out new material (all legal matters aside), but when they re-kindle on stage, it’s like they never left.
3. DAVID BYRNE
It starts with the brain, David Byrne holding one at a kitchen table. The creator of ideas, the soul of the body. This show stemmed from the cerebral creation of Byrne, taking notes from Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense shows. Like Stop Making Sense, the show starts with just Byrne on stage, as his band, little by little, make their way on stage throughout the show, untethered by input cables that usually plague a normal rock band’s performance. Through the two hour show, he pulled out hits old and new, playing gems from the Heads to his later records. However, it was not a show about looking back into the past, but about foreseeing the future, both figuratively and in show performance.
2. MY BLOODY VALENTINE
Have you ever been so frustrated by a movie’s plot or a show’s through-line, that you surrender all will to put forth anymore energy to understand it? My Bloody Valentine was the perfect example of that. Playing in a music hall where the sound reverberates off the walls, MBV was an hour and a half onslaught of sound-waves hitting you like a semi truck and making their way in and out of your body. It would be an understatement to say that it was by far the loudest show I’ve ever attended, but more fitting to say that it touched on every part of your senses: you can hear it, you can taste it, you can smell it… and I’d be lying if I said the droning overdriven guitars didn’t take me to a place.
1. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM/YEAH YEAH YEAH’S
The show that should’ve happened 15+ years ago, LCD Soundsystem and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s teamed up for a hallucinatory night at the Hollywood Bowl. Having both come out of the New York post-punk scene in the early 2000s, it’s a surprise they haven’t played together until then. What resulted was a music migration to the bowl on those two very special nights, people traveling from different countries around the world to finally witness this spectacle.
If you haven’t been to the Hollywood Bowl, just imagine a 17.5 thousand person venue that’s always been used for picnic-going concerts: think orchestras, symphonies, Andrea Bocelli… shows you sit down at. Then imagine that massive venue turn into an ALL OUT RAVE. Everyone on their feet, dancing through the aisles and halls throughout the bowl. With glow sticks and beach balls constantly flying through the air. LCD has always been that kind of show, the type where it doesn’t matter where you are in the venue because their sound travels so far and hits so hard, the band never being the center spectacle, but you. The concertgoer. The individual.
The show started out with the YYY’s opening, coming out to the looping riff of “Y Control.” Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase, looking as if they’ve never taken a break form the band in their lives, delivered a show full of romance, psychedelic lights, and confetti. It’s amazing to see how far both bands have come since their inceptions, and yet even more amazing to see the years of hard work, how much time each has spent building layer after layer, growth after growth.
LCD, naturally, delivered an anthemic performance that spanned their discography, opening with “Get Innocuous” and blasting through the epic trifecta of “You Wanted a Hit” into “Tribulations” into “Movement,” eventually diving into the synth-stomping progressive song “How Do You Sleep?” All in all, what made it special was not the quality of the sound, not the variety of set-lists, or the psychedelic light show, but the fact that it was 100% a whole communal experience, one that could’ve been witnessed at any part, at any point, anywhere in the show.
But what hit the mark for me was about three or four songs into the set with “I Can Change.” There was nothing different about the song, no different arrangements, no added interludes, but the fact that you can hear 17.5 thousand people, singing in unison, “I can change.” For you, I can change. If it helps you love me more, love me better, I’m willing to change myself. And when you hear a whole stadium chanting that chorus, exposing their vulnerability, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit reassured, to say the least.