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The Top 20 Live Acts Of 2018: Kendrick Lamar, Iron Maiden, More

December 14, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter

411Music is kicking off end of year list season with a countdown of the best live acts of 2018, but this list comes with a very important disclaimer.

Disclaimer: This list is only made up of acts I have seen in person, so obviously some your favourite acts will be missing – so share your best experiences in the comments. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend a festival like Download this year to sweep up a broader range.

So sorry St. Vincent, IDLES, Christine and The Queens, Ghost and a hundred others, your shows looked incredible on YouTube, but you will not be included here. (Oh and apologies in advance for my terrible Instagram clips).

20. Glass Animals @All Points East Festival

Context is king in live music. Sometimes an act can absolutely wow an unsuspecting, yet observant crowd, but, more often than not, the right band, catches the right crowd, in the exact right mood and magic happens (see Radiohead in the downpour of Glastonbury ’97). That was the case for Glass Animals at All Points East festival. Their airy grooves were just what a unexpectedly sun soaked London crowd ordered as the escapist vibes of Glass Animals’ instrumentals delightfully contrasted their front mans rapid intensity and gawky enthusiasm.

19. Little Big Town @Country2Country Festival

“The quality may vary wildly, but the showmanship and scale of the show never relents. This jubilant headline set is going down a treat and while it’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the odd suspect song, it’s easier to sit back and simply enjoy the show. It helps of course that the band save their two best songs for last (and it isn’t even close). “Girl Crush” has all the narrative subtlety and soulful, longing sorrow missing in much of the rest of their work, best of all it’s a showcase for Fairchild who does not disappoint when all the clanging distractions are stripped away. Then there’s “Boondocks” a love letter to the band’s roots, which is still the best straight country song they’ve ever written. If Little Big Town ever threaten to become indistinguishable from the array of arena touring popstars, then “Boondocks” is their get out of jail free card. It’s all charm and soft shuffle, something their hyper loud set has lacked at times. Proof there is a middle ground between their sonic bulldozer and syrupy ballads – they should explore this fertile territory more often.”

18. Margo Price @Country2Country Festival

“It’s clear that the more critical acclaimed and low key Price is out of step with her chart friendly audience, but as her set approaches the finishing straight she thoroughly wins them round. ~After changing into a sparkly dress to blast out the bar room belter “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” the crowd are slowly coming to their feet and when her set ends with a barnstorming cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” everyone is up and dancing. Bigness and bombast might be the order of the day, but a smart songwriter with eccentric tone can still come out on top in the end.”

17. Young Fathers @All Points East Festival

If the assembled masses were ready and waiting to have a whale of time with Glass Animals, they were most definitely half-asleep and worryingly sober when Young Fathers took to the stage for their early afternoon set. No matter, the Glaswegian rap collective could start at party at a morgue, so an early morning crowd of bedraggled hipsters was a walk in the park. It is of course unfair to label Young Fathers mere party starters; their set was heavy on soul and self-reflection. Driven by dark, but undeniable beats played live, the trio breezily dragged the crowd from sardonic lows to ecstatic highs.

16. Jay-Z & Beyonce @On The Run II, The London Stadium 

“Still, if the night belongs to Beyonce, then the sets greatest single moment is Jay’s. After a suitable triumphant rendition of “Public Service Announcement”, it’s time for a slice of severity. “The Story Of O.J.” is delivered against a chilling stillness. The color drains from the screens, the lights blacken and Nina Simone’s haunting “Four Women” plays out in full as a solitary dancer cruelly contorts her body as she runs towards freedom. The Simone sample soon warps so Jay can deliver his statement on race and escaping your surroundings backed by the song’s infamous video. The chorus is unmistakably potent; no one sings along, everyone listens. At the track’s conclusion, a wall of black men stand proud on a run down street as Simone’s voice twists in the air, only for them to fall to the floor as if gunned down by an invisible assassin.”

15. Soccer Mommy @Wembley Arena

I can’t lie, I thought this set was going to be an abject failure. Soccer Mommy’s Clean remains one of my favorite albums of 2018, but how would her winsome, depressive and slight sound carry inside a cavernous arena? And worse still, how would 10, 000 country/pop fans waiting to see Kacey Musgraves take to Mommy’s sound? The answer, reassuringly, was surprisingly well. Mommy’s dreamy vocals hung beautifully in all that cool empty space and the dampened melodies of her arrangements blossomed on the larger stage. Sophie Allison’s slackerish detachment may have represented understatement (and even anti-performance), but she certainly won over this sequin-clad and half-cut crowd.

14. Florence + The Machine @The O2

Florence Welch feels assured and uncompromising. She’s reached the stage of her career where she can sell 40,000 tickets in one arena alone and no longer needs to bend over backwards to placate her audience. As a result her setlist is heavy on new album High On Hope and light on hit singles from either Spectrum or Lungs. The result is a more brooding and chilling arena show, fired by her unrelenting energy as a performer and the wall shattering reach of her vocal. There are flaws in the performance – there is an over reliance on mid-tempo tracks and Florence is a mawkish speech maker – but when she rips into “Delilah” while diving straight into the heart of the crowd she proves undeniable. It’s worth noting too, that modern efforts “What Kind Of Man” and “Big God” are perfectly pitched for the grandest of stages and are quickly becoming must see moments for live music fans regardless of your personal taste.

13. Sheck Wes @Underworld, Camden 

Well this was a breath of fresh air. Having seen disappointing performances from both Migos and AJ Tracey in 2018, I was sceptical of Sheck Wes ability to capitalize on a hyper-energetic crowd. Luckily, the second he stepped on stage he commanded the room and his self-produced extra-terrestrial beats were perfect for a crowd who want to mosh, thrash and smash anything in sight. This wasn’t all about wild surges and singalongs – the crowd were not entertaining themselves -Wes’ own performance matched their intensity, his stare is ferocious live and, unlike so many badly soundchecked rappers, his every word was clear, crisp and charged with violent intent.

12. Midland @Country2Country Festival

“The shock is not how well Midland perform these rock solid staples, but how much better the band sound live than on record. Mark Wystrach is a heartthrob, this is undeniable, the crowd is in his thrall and the band has some serious kick, injecting their tracks with huge dollops of swing and panache. Between the volume, the immaculate 70s light show and the preposterous get ups, the stultifying MOR glaze that occasionally dampens their studio work is washed away. Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson are frankly preposterous live – and all the better for it. Seriously, they were pulling out some moves that would make Gene Simmons and Angus Young think twice.”

11. Pusha-T @O2 Kentish Town Forum

Nothing sets a show up for disappointment like high expectations. On a personal level, I’ve been wanting to see Pusha live since I was a teenager listening to Clipse, while tonight’s jam packed crowd, judging by their attire, are here to celebrate what King Push is labelling the “rap album of the year”. There is further cause for concern when the support act is met with a frosty, but respectfully immobile audience. Luckily, when Pusha takes the stage he instantly incites a riot with “If You Know You Know”, before the crowd settles down and actually focuses in on his lyricism: reciting his bars word for word and revelling in a career spanning setlist. This is not the norm at UK rap shows in 2018, normally the crowd will lose their minds regardless of what is being performed – the rappers themselves actually encourage this. Tonight was different, this was a mixed crowd of wildly divergent tastes coming together to hear Push spit his coke king pin rhymes over some of Kanye’s finest productions. Having marvelled at “Nosestaglia” and “Hard Piano” during the main set, when the encore comes around, the crowd cut loose and spark up the mosh pits for a can’t miss trio of “Mercy”, “Move That Dope” and “I Don’t Like”.

10. Dido & Aeneas @The Barbican

Purcell’s retelling of Virgil’s classic tragedy, which culminates with the Queen Of Carthage’s slow death soundtracked by Dido’s staggeringly beautiful lament, is a masterpiece. I’ve waited a decade to see it performed live and even the last minute loss of soprano Christine Rice cannot undermine an opera that thrives on its eccentricities. It’s instrumentation is pleasingly slight – the opera pre-dates the invention of grand piano – and inhabits a timbre utterly at odds with the cannon of Mozart and Verdi that seems to run on a eternal loop in the city of London. This semi-staged version is brought to life via puppetry (yes you read that right), but is anchored around Ashley Riches’ caring Aeneas, enlivened by Neal Davies’ outrageous Sorcerer and absolutely stolen by Rowan Pierce’s Belinda – with a voice both so pure and distinct, it cannot be long before Pierce takes the lead.

9. Kacey Musgraves @Wembley Arena 

Pusha-T isn’t the only one celebrating an album of the year, Golden Hour, the LSD inspired harmonization of country twang and existential blissed out pop, has catapulted Kacey Musgraves to both stardom and critical acclaim. Backed by a beautiful kaleidoscopic backdrop and an incredibly tight band, Kacey is ready to run a victory lap on her own terms. She isn’t a natural performer. It’s clear that she’d rather be getting high and goofing off backstage with Soccer Mommy than doing anything as serious as a rehearsed arena show, but that doesn’t undermine her performance. Golden Hour is on full display; “Slow Burn” is an earnest opener, a bridge between the precise narratives of old and the intergalactic, rainbow gazing drift of the new. “Space Cowboy” is the highlight however, a wonderful mature reflection of going your separate ways. It’s melancholic, but never self-pitying – proof that a break up can be wistful without descending into tragedy – and it lingers and twists deliciously in Wembley Arena’s wide-open spaces. Now don’t go thinking that Kacey has forgotten her roots, a wildly entertaining acoustic set, topped off by “Family Is Family”, provides a wonderful mid-set diversion.

8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs @All Points East Festival

Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase are really, really, really fucking happy to be back playing live music, it’s almost disturbing. They wear the broadest possible smiles when they step foot on stage in front of a 40,000 strong crowd and their high never wanes. It’s strange, because their music is as ferocious and sordid as ever. The Fever To Tell era hits can still tear a crowd to shreds. “Y Control”, “Date With The Night”, “Black Tongue” and “Pin” have transformed from fidgety outstiders fit for grungy little sweatboxes in New York City to familiar, arena-ready friends. Bizarrely, the whole set has the air of a coronation, here are the home coming heroes ready to reclaim their live crown without having to throw a single punch. This is pure adulation. “Maps”, “Gold Lion” and “Cheated Hearts” are rendered completely inaudible as the crowd bellows their every word, while “Zero”, “Heads Will Roll” and “Sacrilege” have aged incredible. Where so many indie dancefloor crossovers that now feel craven and crass in 2018, the YYYs hits pleasingly endure.

7. Queen @The O2

It’s no radical insight to say that Adam Lambert is revelation. Brian May and Roger Taylor credit the singer with reviving Queen and the front man’s brilliance lies in his ability to “do a Freddie” without actually doing a Freddie. Rather than mimicking Queen’s legendary frontman, Adam almost sends him up, blowing Queen’s eccentricities up and allowing the audience to both laugh and indulge in the preposterous nature of it all. May and Taylor are rock solid and still play magnificently, while Adam is outrageous and playful as he celebrates an incredible hard rock legacy. There are genuinely tender moments as Brian May takes the stage alone for “Love Of My Life”: he leads the crowd in song before Freddie’s ghost eventually appears for a heartbreaking finale. There’s plenty of bite to match the sentimentality however, “Stone Cold Crazy” still kicks like a mule and “Bicycle Race” remains one of the most barmy creations to get an airing on a corporate arena stage. Ultimately though, this is a Queen show and it’s about giving the people what they want: spectacle, showmanship and hits, glorious hits. They more than deliver, making Queen the perfect Christmas time show – they could take this show on the road until the end of time.

6. Arctic Monkeys @The O2

The last time the Arctic Monkeys played the O2 they were touring a beleaguered album (Suck It And See). They clearly had something to prove, and boy did they: their 2011 setlist was a reassertion of their brilliance with an energized and essential live show for the ages. In 2018 they are in a vastly different headspace. The run away success of 2013’s AM restored the lustre of the Sheffield band’s early years and afforded the Monkeys the luxury of the solipsistic and self-indulgently metaphorical Tranquillity Base Hotel And Casino album. No one really knows what to expect from this tour, there’s a sense that Alex Turner had gone off the deep end and devolved into a wondrous self-parody – and well, that’s exactly what has happened, but it makes his performance undeniably compelling. With a shaved head and safari suit, he leers and lurches across stage like a sexual predator doing stand up at an old working man’s club. He croons deliciously through the cooler, lounge dwelling material of 2018 and improvises alternate lyrics to classic sing alongs.

It might sound unnerving, but his band are tighter and more serious than ever, “Brianstorm” is a pitiless typhoon, “Cornerstone” is thick as molasses and “Teddy Picker” is beautifully buoyant. The encore is something else man, after years of playing “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” at lightspeed, the Monkeys finally slow it right down, throwing the sold out crowd for a loop. The message reads loud and clear: we can do whatever the hell we want with the classics, because our newer material is bulldozingly brilliant live – “Four Out Of Five”, “Arabella” and the incendiary “R U Mine?” now rank alongside “Baba O’Reilly” and “Rock N Roll” in the great British live rock canon.

5. U.S. Girls @Scala 

It’s hard to describe exactly why U.S. Girls took me completely by surprise with their live performance. I’d been waiting to see them live since their debut album dropped and I was expecting Meghen Remy to deliver an incredible vocal performance. So surely, if anything, I should have been prepared for what came next, but I wasn’t remotely. Remy and her band have an undeniably strange live presence, something of the uncanny valley is present in her stillness and it creates a tense coolness in the air. You can’t help but stare transfixed. Whether they are grooving through an elongated jazz workout (“Time”) or indulging in a riotous 50s pop pastiche at Barack Obama’s expense (“M.A.H.”), there is always an air of arch severity. Despite their wildly divergent dress (the backing band look like they should be playing in four separate bands) and mannerisms (Remy is graceful and cool, her backing singer is wild and free form), this sense of edge and discomfort helps to recreate the macabre menace that underwrites the beauty of her stunning 2018 album In A Poem Unlimited.

4. Kendrick Lamar @The O2

“Kendrick’s job is done. All that’s remains is to send the crowd home happy: an effortless “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and an explosive rendition of “Alright” do just that. “HUMBLE” is a victory lap, he allows the crowd to rap the key lines and encourages a deafening shout-along where The O2 growls “sit down”, “be humble” completely acapella at Kendrick’s command (surreally echoing the Nuremberg rally or Kanye West performing “Clique”). Kendrick reloads the track (complete with the beat this time) to close the show.

“GOD”, Kendrick’s favorite cut from DAMN., serves as the sole encore. It’s an appropriate choice, not a banger, but a blissed out moment of introspection – a chance for Kendrick to revel in his own staggering achievements while the audience catch their breathe and marvel at the enormity of the performance.

Kung Fu Kenny already had the rap game on lock, but with this tour it’s clear that he’s coming for the live throne. Jay-Z and Kanye West better keep their head on a swivel, but, truthfully, everyone from U2 and Metallica to Daft Punk and Lorde have reason to fear Compton’s finest.”

3. LCD Soundsystem @All Points East 

This is not what you’re supposed to do. Festival headliner set are meant to be feel good moments of collective exuberance, where music fans of all stripes come together to have a good time and celebrate the oeuvre of legendary or red hot artist. In turn, said artist tends to shake up the touring setlist and, as LCD Soundsystem put it on their final live album, “Shut up and play the hits”. Well James Murphy has different ideas. He kicks of the show with an ironic joke. “You Wanted A Hit” is the opener, and as the refrain goes: “Well maybe we don’t do hits” – and they don’t. “North American Scum”, “Daft Punk Is Playing…”, “New York I Love You”, “Drunk Girls”, “Movement”, “Yeah” and many more, have been ditched.

This my friends, isn’t a celebration, it’s an emotional meat grinder. LCD Soundsystem are determined to recreate the grueling middle-aged malaise of 2017’s American Dream live on stage in front of 40 000 fans. It’s a masterstroke. The set is centered around the band’s most powerful gut punches. The magnificent “Home” anchors the set: a melancholy, but strangely uplifting ballad that bids farewell to the friends you’ve grown apart from almost unconsciously and a life style you cherished but can no longer embrace. “You might forget, forget the sound of my voice/But don’t forget, no don’t forget the things that we laugh about”. That is the message. This wistful, heavy hearted set is about coming to terms with the loss of your youth – not in terms of your body growing old, but in the way in which time erases places, spaces, sounds and relationships. It’s heartbreaking and bewildering. What are we left with? The answer is simple: the moment and the experience, if everything must pass and all will be forgotten, hold your loved ones close and dance like the sun’s at its end.

2. Iron Maiden @The O2 

Okay, LCD Soundsystem may have delivered the most profound and painful headline set of the year, but there is something to be said about shutting up and playing the hits – and Iron Maiden do just that. You don’t need me to tell you that Maiden are magnificent live, despite relentless touring, Bruce Dickenson is in tremendous voice and is raring to tear into an impossibly stacked setlist. That’s not to say there are no surprises, “The Clansman” and “Sign Of the Cross” prove perfect additions, not only for their bellowing choruses, but as shrewd commentaries on both Brexit and international politics at large. Despite, supporting Brexit in a famously Remain town, these shrewdly selected numbers leave much of the meaning in the eye of the beholder: you can wave your flag and celebrate freedom or stand shoulder to shoulder with your allies in fighting the forces of authoritarianism.  Gargantuan anthem follows gargantuan anthem, but there is a pleasing sense of variety as the blitzkrieg assault of “The Trooper” is contrasted with smoother gallop and croon dynamics of “The Evil That Men Do”, not to mention the call and repeat joy of “Fear Of The Dark”. Ultimately, from opener “Aces High” to the show stealing “Hallowed by Thy Name” and rampaging closer “Run To The Hills”, The Legacy of The Beast tour is lesson in just how many ways Iron Maiden can write a stadium sized hit. Modern metal bands often wave the white flag when it comes to radio play or universality, Maiden prove that independence and eccentricity do not have to be scarified in the name of superstardom, but you do have to be brave enough to risk falling on your face in search of those perfect hooks and killer riffs. There’s worse things than being laughed at you know.

1. David Byrne @The O2

This was never really a contest. In 2018 I attended 19 or more fantastic gigs and one transcendent performance. Labelling The American Utopia tour a mere gig or concert feels wholly inadequate. Byrne has been revolutionizing live music for more years than I’ve been alive, but even by his own standards American Utopia goes above and beyond.

It’s worth saying from the outset that the entire performance is choreographed. Bryne and his ten plus strong backing band are clothed in grey suits, they perform on a barren stage, with only a bead curtain and the occasional prop (a table, a brain, a light bulb). They are shoeless and their wear their guitars and drum kits as they walk, dance, gesticulate and act. Byrne’s choreography is looser than in years past, but still, uptight, anxious, awkward, gawky and deliciously paranoid. There is a severity to the subject matter that is diffused by Byrne’s unflinching penchant for self-deprecation and fragility, he sweats and staggers and dances (often badly) like a man caught in a headwind.

Each song is a micro-drama. At times the band march and dance in unison, in other moments they turn against their leader as if they trying to knock him from his feet with the raw power of their funk. Elsewhere, on the brilliant “Blind”, stage lighting is used to create a dynamic shadow play of giant guitarist and tiny Lilliputian dancers. Trying to describe each arrangement will only do the concert a disservice, but there isn’t a stray second, every moment of the performance is captivating in its oddness and pained profundity.

Now this is music review and cannot conclude this commendation without praising the magnificent polyrhythms that rattle every rib cages of everyone in attendance. The musicians are absolutely faultless despite having to act out each and every note they play. Better still, their virtuosity is showcased frequently without a hint of indulgence. If the afro-beat grooves and angular indie insecurities the Talking Heads blend are timeless in their brilliance, Byrne is not. He is a human, he is a vulnerable to age just like the rest of us, and yet, somewhat miraculously, at age 66 he is in immaculate voice. His tone is richer and deeper than I can ever remember. His every lyric is crisp and clear as he takes the role of both our wise narrator and the helpless lost soul overwhelmed by a mile-a-minute society. Better still is his physical fitness, which he attributes to regular cycling. Byrne has been on the road very literally performing every word of each song on this two-hour setlist and here (on the last night of the tour) he appears stronger than ever.

If there is to be one highlight it has to “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”. Not only is it one of the finest songs The Talking Heads ever wrote, it is also the moment when Byrne takes to center stage to answer the question everyone has been secretly asking: are they really playing all this music live as they dance and prance? The answer is of course yes, and he demonstrates by having each musician solo before demonstrating which element of the rhythm they will contribute, then one by one they build the beat, layering their individual instrument (including vocals) into one of the techiest and most alien polyrhythms in the rock cannon. It’s a jaw dropping moment that rightly earns a standing ovation: a celebration of both the performance and complex creation of great music. And through all the paranoia and politics of the set, it’s the sense of celebration that endures: both art and music from every corner of the globe are raised to the highest heights for one unforgettable night.

The tour is already a legend in its own time and the titans of live music, like Muse, have taken notice: Matt Bellamy admitted having to reconsidered his entire approach to performance having witnessed an American Utopia show. Who knows what’s next for Byrne, but nearly 40 years after the release of Remain In Light and 32 years after Stop Making Sense, he has once again turned the music industry on its head.

Now it’s your turn: tell us about the best live acts you’ve seen in 2018 (and who I should go out of my way to catch next year).