It’s time for the third annual installment of the best live performance clips of year. When you get a chance, feel free to check out the 2017 and 2016 live performance lists as well. And also, if you haven’t already perused the 50 best songs of the year, don’t miss it! And come back soon for the best albums of 2018.
Alright, let’s get to it.
15. Lorde covering Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” (Live at Ally Coalition Talent Show)
At the Ally Coalition Talent Show in New York City on a January night, Lorde was joined by her producer Jack Antonoff on piano for a cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop gem “Run Away With Me.” It shouldn’t be a surprise, but Lorde just kills it, imbuing the song with feeling and E•MO•TION.
14. Maggie Rogers: “Fallingwater” (Live on SNL)
The Saturday Night Live sound stage rarely puts musicians in a flattering light. For some reason, SNL musical performances often sound flat, making even the most exciting artists seem bland. Luckily for Maggie Rogers, her voice is strong enough to overcome the deck stacked against it. She doesn’t hold anything back, going all out for those high notes and destroying them.
13. Iceage (Juan’s Basement Live)
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt knows he’s cool as hell, so what’s the point of trying to pretend otherwise? The frontman for Iceage — the group of Danish post-hardcore barn-burners — fully leans in to the rock star image and does a bang-up job, complete with smoldering looks and devil-may-care posturing. I’m sold. It’s immediately clear that a basement is a natural habitat for Iceage’s brand of heavy, gritty rock n’ roll, where the band plays through most of their excellent 2018 album, Beyondless.
12. Kendrick Lamar, U2, Dave Chappelle: “XXX.” / “LUST.” / “DNA.” / “King’s Dead” Medley (Live at the Grammys)
Kendrick Lamar is probably the only one that can come close to matching Beyoncé as far as creative vision on the stage. At the Grammys, Kendrick mashes up a few cuts from DAMN., one of 2017’s best albums, brings in U2 to sing their part on “XXX.,” enlists Dave Chappelle for some random joke interludes, and confirms that, yes indeed, he is an artistic genius. My only wish is that the sound packed more of a punch in this clip — I bet it sounded amazing in the room.
11. Julie Byrne (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Julie Byrne made one of 2017’s best albums, a masterpiece in pensive folk. In her Tiny Desk appearance, Byrne’s voice sounds world-weary and wise over her gorgeous guitar-picking.
10. Big Boi (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Big Boi, best known as 50% of OutKast, knows a thing or two about grooving. He and his backup band bring the energy to the Tiny Desk from the outset, immediately creating a lively, yet relaxed atmosphere, cracking jokes and running through some old OutKast favorites. “The Way You Move” is the runaway highlight, with its smooth delivery and unshakable funk.
9. Phoenix (Live at Brooklyn Steel)
The reason why a random Phoenix concert recording makes the list is simple — sometimes a successful live show requires nothing more than a fine-tuned band playing beloved songs for an appreciative, excited crowd. It also doesn’t hurt when the sound quality is exceptional. Favorite three-song stretches: a tie between “Entertainment” –> “Lisztomania” –> “Trying to Be Cool” (starting at 7:42), and “Ti Amo” –> “Armistice” –> “Rome” (starting at 48:57). Favorite moment: when frontman Thomas Mars lets the crowd sing the chorus to the endlessly catchy “Lisztomania” (which, in my opinion, is a top-5 song of the previous decade, don’t @ me.)
8. Flasher (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
DC trio Flasher fill me with warm memories of the type of mid-to-late-90s punk-infused alternative rock I used to hear on the radio growing up. With that style of music, it’s easy to rely on distortion and production to make your songs sound good, but it’s clear that Flasher’s songwriting holds up on its own in the stripped-down context of the Tiny Desk. The acoustic versions here crackle with life, especially their second song “XYZ,” which boasts tight harmonies and rhythms.
7. Car Seat Headrest: “Bodys” (Live on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon)
Will Toledo was recording music in his bedroom just a few years ago, and now he’s playing on Jimmy Fallon. The recorded version of “Bodys” is almost seven minutes, but because this is late night TV, he has only a four-minute slot in which to fit the song. Toledo hilariously acknowledges this multiple times during the band’s energetic, endlessly catchy performance — “It’s the chorus! ‘Cause we’re on live TV! And we only have four minutes to play this song, we’re going to go to the second verse” and “Normally, we do a bit of a breakdown here, but we only have 50 seconds left, so we’re just going to go right to the final chorus.” The crowd eats it up. Oh and also, the band sounds great.
6. Low covering Neil Young’s “Down By the River” (La Blogotheque: Soirée de Poche)
Low have been around for 25 years now, but these wily slowcore veterans are making some of the most vital music of their career. This house show, beautifully captured by La Blogotheque for their Soirée de Poche series (“soirée de poche” roughly translates to “pocket evening”), technically took place in 2013, but the video wasn’t released until this year, so we’re counting it! The whole 35-minute clip serves as an intimate portrait of the band’s two leads, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, as they deliver their signature, haunting vocal harmonies over a very acoustic-sounding electric guitar. Their slow, deliberate style is well suited to a slow-burner like Neil Young’s “Down By the River,” and the unadorned setup allows the song’s intrinsic rawness to shine through.
5. Sudan Archives: “Come Meh Way” & “Wake Up” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Brittney Parks is an L.A.-based singer and violinist who records under the name Sudan Archives, an homage to her African folk influences. These influences are filtered through both classic and modern American rhythm & blues to form a sound uniquely her own. For La Blogotheque’s Take Away Show series, she strolls nonchalantly through a green house with a little electric fiddle and fills the space with her beguiling folk fusion. All I can do is smile when I hear what sounds like an early-20th-century fiddle juxtaposed with Parks singing “I got too much swag.”
4. Moses Sumney: “Rank & File” (Official Live Video)
The talent emanating from Moses Sumney is extremely apparent. Sumney, who made one of my favorite albums last year, Aromanticism, made an official live video for his 2018 single “Rank & File.” He records almost every part of the dense tapestry of music right there on the spot, looping all his vocal affectations and percussive claps, snaps, and mic thumps, which he then uses as a backbone for his ominous melody.
3. Mac Miller ft. Thundercat: “What’s the Use?” (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Mac Miller passed away from a drug overdose in 2018, just as he was ascending to a creative peak. One of his parting gifts was his Tiny Desk concert, recorded just as his new and final album was released, and one month before his death. Miller’s charisma shines, giving life to his confessional lyrics. It doesn’t hurt that the band Miller chooses to bring along with him is as tight as it gets, headlined by the illustrious Thundercat on six-string bass. On “What’s the Use?”, Thundercat steals the show, grinning throughout as he plays that flawless, insatiable bass groove. You can taste the pure, palpable joy emanating from Miller and the band, which makes his passing even more devastating.
2. Beyoncé (Live at Coachella)
It can feel at times like the Internet’s breathless adoration of Beyoncé can devolve into outlandish hyperbole, but I’m here to dispel that notion. There is no hyperbole when it comes to Beyoncé, because she literally is the greatest pop star of our generation. Her Coachella performance substantiates that claim. With almost 100 dancers and an impressive marching band made up of HBCU alumni behind her, Beyoncé took total command of the southern California desert, playing hit after hit with her usual style, panache, killer dancing, and robust voice. The opening stretch from “Crazy in Love” through “Freedom” to “Formation,” with the marching band providing the music, is just stunning. I’m running out of adjectives, people.
One of our greatest travesties is that the official live-streamed version of this performance is nowhere to be found online, so we’ll have to rely on fan footage. Now, the vast majority of iPhone videos from some random concertgoer can be pretty underwhelming, but luckily that’s not the case here. You can still taste the energy and feel the scale of the performance.
The number of artists that can pull off a performance this ambitious and spectacular is one. It’s Beyoncé.
53-second sampling of the performance from Beyoncé’s Instagram:
1. boygenius (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
I just gave endless praise to Beyoncé’s legendary Coachella show, and yet didn’t put it at #1. That’s because live music’s greatest power is its versatility in generating emotional resonance, perfectly illustrated by the completely different live performances that occupy the first two positions on this list. A production with a magnetic uber-superstar flanked by hundreds of collaborators and dancers in front of thousands of enthusiastic, adoring fans can achieve the exact same transcendence as a group of three understated women harmonizing over an acoustic guitar in front of a few nerdy NPR employees.
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, who make up the indie “supergroup” boygenius, created the most gorgeous, exquisite 12 minutes of music you could imagine in their Tiny Desk concert, stopping by to sing “Souvenir,” “Me & My Dog,” and “Ketchum, ID” from their EP. Not only are the songs themselves undyingly tender, but I can’t help but marvel at the absolute perfection with which they blend their harmonies in a live setting. You can sense the bliss they feel just to have the opportunity to harmonize with talented friends on songs brimming with such beauty.
BONUS: boygenius’s more amped up version of “Me & My Dog” on WFUV is also a “must-see.”