Who rules the road in 2013? To find out, Rolling Stone asked a panel of writers, industry figures and artists – from Lars Ulrich of Metallica to Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes – to vote on their favorite live performers right now. To be eligible for the list, a performer must have toured within the last five years and not announced their retirement. So, from the Stones to Skrillex, from Gaga to Green Day, here they are – the 50 most crowd-pleasing, club-wrecking, festival-killing live acts right now.
1. Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen has always brought nearly superhuman levels of energy to his shows, but his current Wrecking Ball tour stands as one of his greatest and most thrilling. (It even featured the longest Springsteen show ever - four hours and six minutes, in Helsinki, Finland, on July 31, 2012.) For more shows, Springsteen shreds the pre-planned setlist and collects request-bearing signs from the crowd, leading the band in impromptu renditions of covers by everybody from The Ramones to Jackie Wilson. "I don't look at the setlist very much during the night," he recently told Rolling Stone's David Fricke. "I'm listening to the song we're playing - it's talking to me about what to play next. And I'm watching the audience. Sometimes it's the look in someone's eyes about how bad they want to hear that song they've written on a piece of cardboard or their head."
Showstopper: Each night's highlight is different – a beautiful thing with Springsteen shows.
He's never sounded better, his band 3rd Eye Girl is fire-hot and he's plundering his back catalog with a vengeance; check the Youtube clips of his grunge-blues remake of "Let's Go Crazy." "He's a better guitarist than you are," says Cliff Burnstein of Q Prime Managment. "He's a better singer than you are. He can dance better than you. His songs are better than yours. You might have a better jump shot, though."
Showstopper: "Purple Rain," especially when Prince launches into the epic guitar solo. Or another one. Prince can make the building collapse with any song if he feels like it.
3. The Rolling Stones
After a five-year break, the Stones swaggered back last year, playing rarities ("Factory Girl"), fan requests ("Memory Motel,") and a stretch of absolute classics ("Tumbling Dice," "Honky Tonk Women"), proving they're still the world's greatest rock & roll band. "Everyone was trying to get the band really on," Mick Jagger said late last year. "We wanted to put the music out in a good way, not just be flash."
Showstopper: The recent tour included a superfan dream come to life: Mick Taylor joining the Stones on the blues epic "Midnight Rambler," conjuring '72-era magic all over again.
4. Arcade Fire
The Montreal band has proven that emotionally apocalyptic indie rock can be as grand as U2 without losing any of its chaotic intensity. They've barely played live since owning the 2011 Grammy Awards, and they have a new album nearly in the can (due late October), which may include music produced with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. This, plus word on a secret Montreal hometown show last winter, suggests their shows may be even more of a communal dance party than usual.
Showstopper: Usually the glorious "whoa-oh-oh-oh" emo-glam-rock singalong of "Wake Up," from their 2004 debut Funeral.
5. Neil Young
By some miracle, Young's singing voice and guitar playing is undiminished from his Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere days forty-plus years ago. Whether he's playing with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Crazy Horse or completely solo acoustic, he pours every bit of himself into his stage show. "We learned almost everything we know from him," says Tegan Quin of Tegan and Sara. "I hope one day to have even half his stage presence and catalog."
Showstopper: Many shows on his ongoing world tour with Crazy Horse conclude with a twenty-minute rendition of "Like a Hurricane" that rocks like, well, you know.
6. Jay Z
With a live band keeping him on the toes of his fresh Louis boat shoes, the only predictable thing about a Jay Z show is you won't see the same one twice. "He makes a real personal connection with the audience at every show. "There is an inclusive aspect to the show that is exhilarating," says Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy. "He'll go down as a legend, on par with the Beatles and the Stones."
Radiohead are the only band in rock that can leave nearly every hit song out of the setlist, and still see 20,000 fans walk out of an arena happy. They refuse to rest on nostalgia, and since their new work is every bit as strong as the classics, it doesn't matter.
Showstopper: They rarely get through a concert without a blistering rendition of their ice-flow disco masterpiece "Idioteque."
8. Jack White
Live, White will break out songs from his whole career, including cuts by White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather. Fans still miss Meg White on drums, but the old material sounds amazing fleshed out by a complete band, bassist and all.
Showstopper: The version of "Seven Nation Army" he plays at the end of most shows makes the original seem limp by comparison.
9. Rage Against the Machine
They haven't released a note of new music this century, but their three-album catalog represents rap-rock at it's absolute best. Their rare shows these days prove that every band that followed in their wake is a pale imitator. "I've never seen the kind of audience unity that I've seen at Rage shows," says Lars Ulrich. "I saw them a couple years ago and it felt like there 75,000 people ready to fuck some next-level shit up."
Showstopper: "Bulls on Parade" manages to whip a crowd into a psychotic, violent frenzy like no rock song ever written.
10. My Morning Jacket
They're the quintessential 21st century rock & roll psychedelic band, fusing decades of rock history into exploratory jams and anthems, while peppering every set with excellent covers (the Stones' "Waiting On a Friend," Velvet Underground's "Oh, Sweet Nuthin'"), and covers of covers (the Band's version of Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It"). "They're amazing," says Brittany Howard. "Every song could be their big, set-closing song. Just an epic band."
Showstopper: The ominous sludge of frontman Jim James' strumless guitar intro to "Victory Dance."
Three decades into their career, Bono and Co. are still at the top of their stadium-killing game. "What they do live is always inspiring," says Lars Ulrich. "They have this ability to create intimacy; you see them in the big fuck-off arenas, but it always feels like it's just you and the band."
Showstopper: Any one of the soaring Joshua Tree anthems. Or if you've got relationship troubles (who doesn't?), it's "One." Every time.
Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline have become one of the best two-guitar-fronts in rock. Plus, their catalog has grown fat with gems, and you never know what they're going to play. "Their current lineup plays older material better than the band that recorded the originals," says fan and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon music booker Jonathan Cohen. "That's a rare thing."
Showstopper: "Heavy Metal Drummer" is still the sing-a-along fave, while guitar fiends are most likely to faint during "Impossible Germany" or "Spiders (Kidsmoke)."
13. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Fans who complained of stale hits-heavy setlists in recent years got a surprise this year when the Heartbreakers overhauled their set with deep originals and covers, including Paul Revere & the Raiders' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" and the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil." "I think we have raised the bar a bit," Petty tells Rolling Stone. "Musically, the communication is really fantastic right now. I think in many ways, we have gotten better."
Showstopper: Petty resurrected the Traveling Wilburys' "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," transforming it into a tension-filled, ten-minute psychedelic epic.
14. The Black Keys
The Black Keys honed their raucous live set for years in clubs, as they tightened up their songwriting. Now, they're bringing big riffs and bigger hooks to arenas and festivals around the world. "At a recent fancy gathering, I saw them decimate the suits and the hipsters alike with their bulldozer blues," says Tom Morello. "It left me (and everyone else) gasping for air."
Showstopper: Old stompers like "Thickfreakness" are mindblowing, and newer ones like "Next Girl" and "Run Right Back" are full of urgent intensity.
15. Paul McCartney
McCartney returned to touring in 2002 for the first time in a decade and has since given fans everything the Beatles didn't in concert: Great sound and long, career-spanning sets. "It's kind of amusingly different," says McCartney, who plays nearly 40 songs a night. "[Performing] is what I do, and it's what I've always done, and I love it so much. Of course, there's got to be some kind of physical limitation. But I haven't found it."
Showstopper: From opener "Eight Days a Week" to the "Hey Jude" sing-along, the hits are a blast. But recent shows have featured curveball peaks, like Wings' funky "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" and the Beatles goofy deep cut "All Together Now."
16. Alabama Shakes
Frontwoman Brittany Howard is a force of nature whose roots-rock vocal power only seems to be growing. And besides potent originals, their songbook is full of sneaky covers (see their sharp-fanged take on Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times").
Showstopper: "Be Mine," which re-animates the Muscle Shoals R&B of their home turf for a new generation, complete with a speed-ramp finale that has Howard speaking in soul-queen tongues.
17. Nine Inch Nails
After a four-year hiatus during which he did Oscar-winning soundtrack work and started a new band (How to Destroy Angels), Trent Reznor is reconvening Nine Inch Nails and bringing industrial-strength torment to an arena near you. At the band's coming out gig at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, they proved why this year's slate of shows is called the Tension Tour – the balance between the perfectly sculpted sonic darkness, the sensory-attack light show and Reznor's doom-diva charisma were breathtaking.
Showstopper: Any of NIN's Nineties hits has the power to turn an arena full of fortysomething fans into a giant junior-high goth dance party.
They haven't quite reached Bob Dylan status yet but Metallica have been on their own Never-Ending Tour for much of the past decade. They are an incredibly well-oiled machine, and they know exactly what their audience wants to hear: lots of songs from Eighties classics Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning and not much from recent albums like St. Anger or Reload.
Showstopper: "One" is always epic, and the pyro brings the chaos of war to the stage.
19. The Roots
They are not merely the world's best hip-hop band – what competition do they have, really? – but one of the great musical outfits of our time. Their tenure as Jimmy Fallon's house band has only made them more jukeboxingly versatile; you never know what you might hear, or who might turn up. "Obviously I am a little biased on this one," says Fallon music booker Jonathan Cohen. "Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Paul Simon all left their regular bands at home to collaborate with the Roots on our show. That says a lot."
Showstopper: It could be a letter-perfect cover of Kool G Rap's "Men at Work" or the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." Jim James might join them for some Prince and Bill Withers covers. Or they could just drop a smoking version of their own "Break You Off."
20. Kanye West
West's whole life may seem like performance art, but the stage is where his brilliant vision is laid bare. He melds high art with high anxiety – ranting, raving, pleading, and preaching in front of innovative video productions and entrancing stage sets like a man on the brink of genius or madness (and very often, both).
Showstopper: In recent years, "All of the Lights" – which comes with that spine-tingling horn fanfare and a synapse-sizzling light show – has been guaranteed to raise the room's collective heart rate and risk of seizure.
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