Maybe Grimes is right. Maybe live music will soon be obsolete. That was what she so boldly predicted during a November appearance on the Mindscape podcast, a pronouncement that produced one of the year’s most entertaining Twitter beefs (featuring cameos from both Zola Jesus and Holly Herndon) along with some genuine debate within the music world. Why sweat at a festival or cram into a venue when you’ve got Spotify and an Oculus Rift? A future ruled by algorithmic playlists and AI performers may be inevitable, but it hasn’t quite arrived in 2019. In our actual present, concerts remain alive and well, at every scale and in every venue.
At the highest level, assertions about live music’s health can be backed up by the numbers. According to Billboard’s year-end Boxscore charts, the top 10 tours of the year alone grossed a staggering $1.5 billion, led by a mix of legacy acts (Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Elton John), established pop brands (Ed Sheeran, P!nk), and rising stars (Ariana Grande, BTS). That rosiness extended to much of the festival world, as well; while 2019’s biggest story was probably the cancelation of the beleaguered Woodstock 50 festival, the rest of the year saw Bonnaroo sell out for the first time since 2013 and attendance records fall at festivals from Outside Lands and the Detroit Jazz Festival to Louder Than Life and the Beale Street Music Festival.
In the smaller venues, evidence gets more anecdotal, but no less immediate. If you’re reading this, you probably have a favorite concert memory from the year; for me, it’s a close tie between seeing Kamasi Washington bringing the walls down at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of Pitchfork’s Midwinter event and watching Ken Stringfellow of the Posies carouse around a gallery space as part of his most recent living-room tour.
From college-town basements to the Rose Bowl and Soldier Field, musicians defied the odds of isolation and brought people together in search of excitement, catharsis, and community. Among them all, five stood out. Whether they were celebrating milestone anniversaries, making the move towards stardom, or saying farewell on their own terms, the artists on this list helped make 2019 memorable from every stage they graced.
So, maybe Grimes is right … but she’s not right yet.
Click ahead to see our top five live acts of the year broken down by genre.
Pop Act: Lizzo
Anytime you feel self-doubt creeping in, watch a Lizzo video on YouTube, and I swear you’ll absorb confidence through the pixels in your screen. When the Grammy-nominated Cuz I Love You singer hits the stage, her audience witnesses and feels the powerful, earth-shaking emotion behind her songs. Take her recent “Jerome” performance, where she ended the song on her knees in a floor-length gown, pulling off an Oscar-worthy breakup scene at the AMAs. She took the opposite approach for the BET Awards, where she sang “Truth Hurts” — arguably the ultimate single-girl anthem of 2019, even though it originally came out in 2017 — atop a wedding cake, flipping the narrative of marriage just as the song’s music video does. Then she whipped out her flute.
This is the real magic of seeing Lizzo live. It’s a feat to go from dancing to belting out sky-high notes to controlling your breath again to play the flute to perfection. It’s what makes her NPR Tiny Desk performance stand out from the masses. If you watch her old YouTube covers, her musicianship has been apparent since the beginning of her career, when she recorded a truly astounding flute version of “Empire State of Mind” in 2010. There’s no awards-show glitz or television cameras here — just a girl and her instrument, poised for greatness.
Lizzo was also unforgettable onstage at the VMAs last August. Her medley of “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell” included an inflatable butt, a glittery bottle of Patron, and a pep talk that anyone could use in 2019: “I’m tired of the bullshit, and I don’t have to know your story to know that you’re tired of the bullshit, too. It’s so hard trying to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back, am I right? … You deserve to feel good as hell. We deserve to feel good as hell.”
Watching Lizzo do her thing makes you believe anything’s possible, and that’s a feeling worth holding on to in 2020.
Rock Act: The Cure
Celebrating your 40th birthday at a music festival isn’t unheard of; if it were, Riot Fest would blink out of existence. However, if you’d told Cure fans in 1979 that the authors of the “Boys Don’t Cry” 7-inch they’d just purchased would, four decades hence, curate a celebratory birthday music festival in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl on the hottest weekend of the year, they would’ve laughed in your face before turning into bats and flying to their roosts beneath the eaves of Rough Trade. And yet, there was Robert Smith, hair still defying gravity even at 60, shaking off the triple-digit heat to run through hits from his band’s catalog that’s always, somehow, hit deeper than you remember. As our Scott Sterling put it in his live review:
From “Shake Dog Shake” to “The Walk” to “The Caterpillar” to “Burn”, Smith revisited their post-punk building blocks as much as he indulged in their psychedelic pop. Just looking at the setlist is like gazing over a greatest hits box set, and it certainly felt like that, only Smith was wise enough to toss out surprise trinkets, such as the first-ever US performance of the song “Just One Kiss”.
The Cure’s American swing (in addition to their own Pasadena Daydream festival, they also headed to Texas for both weekends of Austin City Limits) came at the end of an active year, which saw the band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before they reasserted rock’s viability as festival headliners at major stops throughout Europe and Japan. The year also featured another fitting anniversary tribute to the band’s best-loved album: The Cure staged five nights in honor of Disintegration at the Sydney Opera House, where crowds were treated to what The Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate Morrissey described as “[a] perfect album and its correspondingly perfect show.”
At the end of a decade that’s seen The Cure’s brand of swirling gothic popcraft refracted into genres from witch house to emo rap to whatever it is we’re calling Billie Eilish’s whole thing, it was a fitting victory lap and a reminder that Smith and company remain a more vital draw than most of their peers. With new music on the way in 2020, let’s hope they keep it up. –Tyler Clark
Hip-Hop Act: BROCKHAMPTON
BROCKHAMPTON speed up even when they slow down. Their 2019 album, GINGER, explored vulnerable authenticity through themes of family, police brutality, and the nuance masculinity plays in intimate relationships. Their live performances show a soft side paired with the BROCKHAMPTON energy notorious for drawing a crowd, bouncing up and down to Boogie beats.
Like something from space, Kevin Abstract, Matt Champion, Merlyn Woods, Joba, Dom McLennon, and Bearface descend on their crowd in silver space suits, starting with slow jams that have the crowd chanting like a prayer. Their beats split up each song distinctly, pulsing in rhythm to lights changing every color, some Tyler, the Creator vibes showcased with their Flognaw performance. Infrared cameras and polo popping neon projects on screens behind them, their stage set up with simple high risers that allow the group to play with levels as they come from the wings. Their raw emotion shifts with every song. They kneel to cry during “Dearly Departed” and jump through vertical fog machines screaming “Love Me for Life”.
BROCKHAMPTON beautifully pairs boy band with hip-hop. They’re a fresh addition, a contradiction to what hip-hop has been. They split the crowd for songs that require moshing and sit at the edge of the stage to vibe with the front row. Their unpredictable stage presence and the tenacity with which they perform dissolves any sort of boundary between artist and audience. What makes their live act so incredible is how personal it is. It’s the high school party with the banging playlist you’d sneak out in the middle of the night for, laying in grass experiencing a moment you can never recreate. –Meggie Gates
Electronic Act: Chromatics
Chromatics released their seventh studio album in October after many years of speculation and confusion regarding their supposed “missing” sixth studio album, Dear Tommy. Closer to Grey is not that album, but instead a whole new one that continues the Chromatics’ sonic saga. Even though Dear Tommy has yet to get an official release date, that didn’t stop the band from touring and doing big things this year. Earlier this spring, Chromatics played their first show in more than five years, and no — those Twin Peaks appearances don’t count.
Those TV appearances have always made the band appear calm, collected, and slightly eerie and have served as pretty much the only appearances the band have made until earlier this year, allowing ample time for rumors to be set ablaze about band members destroying masters and then re-recording them and also the heavy speculation about if those masters would ever be released or played live. Those rumors and faux announcements are likely what made fans extra excited to see that the band would kick off a new tour in support of their new album, beginning in April at the Observatory in Santa Ana.
These were the first Chromatics concerts in quite some time — since January 2014 to be exact — and their setlist boasted plenty of old favorites, including usual covers of Kate Bush, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. They also threw in a couple of newer tracks like “Time Rider” and “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around”.
As expected, Chromatics brought their dark and slightly eerie performance back from the dead and let it shine center stage brighter than before. The band have resurrected their performance with appropriately mysterious sways in front of video projection backdrops and a sea of colorful lights. It’s the type of performance that makes you feel grateful that they’re back, but devastated that they were away so long. –Angie Piccirillo
Legacy Act: Slayer
It’s difficult — albeit theoretically possible — to remain serene while pummeling a moshing crowd with the heaviest of metal songs about “Mandatory Suicide” and the “Criminally Insane”. Or to be unaffected, singing lyrics like “Pressure in your skull begins pushing through your eyes/ Burning flesh, drips away” about Nazi “angel of death” Josef Mengele. Indeed, in their nearly 40-year history, preeminent LA thrash band Slayer were never ones for complacency, either in song or onstage. (Proof positive: In 2010, surgeons put a titanium plate in singer/bassist Tom Araya’s neck to repair significant disc damage. The diagnosis: too much headbanging.) While peers like Metallica penned ballads and collaborated with composer Michael Kamen and Lou Reed, Slayer’s intensity of purpose never wavered. Not even following founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman’s untimely 2013 death.
When the end was nigh, during the quartet’s 2018-2019 Farewell Tour, Slayer remained, per their usual set-opening song, utterly fucking “Repentless”. Guitarist Kerry King, bearer of chains big enough to pull a subway car, his tattooed skull shiny with sweat, is the stolid, intimidating onstage icon, his shredding solos, along with Paul Bostaph’s drums, providing an aggressive, racing pulse that whips an audience — even in the cheap seats — into a frenzy. The opening slow-burn notes to “South of Heaven” send shivers down the spines of the knowing audience members, the classic portending the biggest pit and sing- and thrash-along of the night.
Slayer’s darkly ominous music and lyrics shatter the politesse that holds — if barely — society together. And the arenas where Slayer’s music lives — or rather, lived from 1981 to 2019 — is the unholy fire-and-pentagram church where alleged miscreants gathered to worship at the feet of their metal masters and brothers in arms. When the final curtain closed on the Slayer story on November 30, 2019, following “Angel of Death”, Araya, his voice cracking with emotion, understated, “I’m gonna miss you guys. Thank you for being part of my life.” Slayer’s seasons in the abyss had ended as they began: onstage, with the fans. –Katherine Turman