Top 20 Live Bands of All Time
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the Top 20 Live Bands of All Time.
For this list, we'll be ranking the musical artists who are known for delivering the most energetic, captivating or otherwise magnetic performances out there on the stage. We're keeping our focus solely on bands here, which means solo performers or singer/songwriters will have to be saved for another day.
Who’s YOUR favorite band to see in concert? Let us know in the comments!
In the world of high octane thrash metal, there's Slayer.. .and then there's everyone else. There are few bands of their generation that exemplified the kind of sheer intensity on stage that Slayer brought each and every night. Although these venerable speed metal assassins have since called it a day, their career spanned a total of nearly forty years and twelve albums of untouchable aggression. Live, the band seemed to evoke the cover art of their sophomore effort, "Hell Awaits," a fiery conflagration of blazing speed, tight rhythms and frenzied soloing. Anyone who was lucky enough to see Slayer live, never forgot the experience.
#19: Depeche Mode
Electronic music may not be the first genre that comes to mind when one thinks of great performances. Allow us to introduce you to a little band called Depeche Mode, however, and you might just change your mind. The English group pioneered a simple but effective minimalist sound on albums like "Speak and Spell," but eventually brought with them an approach that rivaled any sweaty, swaggering rock act. This is thanks largely to front man Dave Gahan, whose stage presence is an intoxicating mixture of sex appeal and just a bit of danger. Then, there's Martin Gore, whose compositions with late collaborator Andy Fletcher fleshed out every song with beats and rhythms that you feel right in the gut. It's honestly amazing.
#18: Deep Purple
The revolving membership of Deep Purple is so complicated and convoluted, that fans have devoted different “Marks” to denote the varying lineups. Thankfully, there's been one constant throughout the band's career: a killer live show. It doesn't matter whether you're searching for the heavy psychedelia of Mk. I Deep Purple, the muscular proto-metal of Mk. II Deep Purple, or the funky grooves of Mk III Purple with future Whitesnake singer David Coverdale: you're gonna win every time. Deep Purple's musicianship was off the charts, with the neoclassical riffing of Ritchie Blackmore gelling with Ian Paice's frantic drumming and Jon Lord's heavy Hammond organ. In fact, you could even point to Deep Purple as the first heavy metal band. Let the arguments begin...
#17: Guns N’ Roses
Ok, so was Guns N' Roses always on time for their concerts? No, no they were not. But, if you didn't mind waiting, you were virtually guaranteed a rip-roarin' show. That's because GNR were committed to the sort of Sunset Strip sleaze they sang about on albums like "Appetite for Destruction." Their concerts always felt like something dangerous was lurking right around the corner, whether in the crowd, or on stage thanks to the always unpredictable singer Axl Rose. That said, when Guns N' Roses were ON, literally nothing could touch them, and this also applies to the modern day. Yep, the band's live shows continued to evolve with each lineup change, but the recent “classic lineup” reunion feels especially nostalgic.
#16: Rage Against the Machine
Live music with a message? Rage Against the Machine truly delivered the best of both worlds. The Los Angeles-based band proved that you could deliver heavy rock with a physical stage presence, while also flexing your head to bring a fiery political message to the audience. Frontman Zack de la Rocha's rap vocals ensured that this message was delivered in a decipherable way, while Tom Morello's guitar was both thick-sounding and funky - that is, when he wasn’t turning his guitar into a turntable . Meanwhile, the rhythm section of Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk locked into a groove that ensured every note slid smoothly into the ears of their audience. Some music is passive, but Rage Against the Machine's relationship with their fans was definitely active and alive.
#15: Parliament & Funkadelic
Is there anyone in the world with as much funk in his soul as George Clinton? We're not sure, but these two bands were absolutely stellar examples of the man's musical genius. Both groups combined soul, funk, jazz and psychedelic rock elements into their music, while at the same time bringing to the stage a show unlike any other. Seeing Parliament-Funkadelic is like attending the greatest, wildest party you can imagine....in space. At a disco. With tons of glitter and the craziest clothes you've ever seen. Science fiction is a huge influence to the Parliament and Funkadelic live experience, and it makes their music seem all the more otherworldly and fantastic.
Leather, PVC and a whole lot of fire: this is only part of the Rammstein live experience, a wild industrial metal smorgasbord that truly needs to be seen to be believed. Did we hear you wanted costume changes? Rammstein has got costume changes, especially singer Till Lindemann, who’s well-known for his elaborate (and sometimes dangerous) physical transformations. The band also brings with them a multi-level floor set up and a visual aesthetic that's part shock, part rock and all intensity. Oh, and we mentioned fire. Rammstein LOVE their fire; it's a selling point of practically every show they play, along with their envelope-pushing sexual aesthetics and performance style, which is aggressive to the point of sonic assault.
#13: Prince & the Revolution
Sure, Prince is known for his solo work, but many of The Purple One's biggest hits wouldn't quite sound the same without The Revolution backing him up. Case in point? The multi-platinum smash "Purple Rain," which brought us iconic Prince & the Revolution jams like "Let's Go Crazy" and "When Doves Cry." The most impressive thing about The Revolution, however? Being able to shine behind the diamond dynamo that was Prince. It couldn't have been easy rocking out on those keys, drums, bass and guitar with Prince being such a focal point, but the success of these hits were truly a group effort. And live? Every performer brought their A-game.
What can we say about (arguably) the biggest heavy metal band in the world? Metallica is basically an institution at this point, a thrash metal giant that's seriously outgrown the old garage. At the same time, however, Metallica possesses a remarkably personal connection with their fans in the live arena, perhaps more than any other band of their generation. There's a level of devotion there that can be felt at any Metallica concert, no matter where they're playing. It's a magic that honestly transcends the heavy and driving music Metallica has always made, a testament to their ability to connect with fans from all walks of life, all around the world.
They're one of the hottest bands in the world, and they're who you call when you want the absolute best: KISS! Seeing KISS live is exactly the sort of rock and roll party you'd expect, an experience that's unlike any other. From Gene Simmons' fire-breathing and blood spitting antics to Paul Stanley's soaring across the stage or Ace Frehley's (NOT freely) smoking guitar, KISS is what your brain dreams up when the phrase "iconic rock concert" comes to mind. It's the sort of event that combines songs, performance and showmanship into one definitive, unforgettable package.
#10: The Who
When it comes to live performances, there’s showmanship...and then, there’s The Who. This British rock institution carved a career out of legendary live performances, which balanced the stability of John Entwistle with the wildness of Keith Moon and the dynamic energy of Roger Daltrey with Pete Townshend’s famous and often imitated windmill strums. Amid sheer destruction and perfectly crafted songs, there's also that iconic 1967 televised performance of “My Generation”, when Moon’s double dose of explosives in his drum kit caused a blast which allegedly lead to Townshend’s developing tinnitus years later.
Very few bands provide the sort of immersive, interactive experience in the live arena quite like Ireland’s U2. This smart, creative and politically active band have always presented their concerts as an opportunity to connect with their audience on an intellectual level, while simultaneously commenting on such issues as consumerism or sensory overload with their PopMart and ZooTV tours. What’s particularly great about the band, however, is how they combine this high mindedness with perfect musicianship and a dedication to providing the best possible show for their scores of rabid fans.
#8: Black Sabbath / Ozzy Osbourne
Rock ‘n Roll became a whole lot darker when Black Sabbath hit the scene. Giving birth to the doomy and gloomy sound of heavy metal, Sabbath’s powerful live performances throughout the 1970s proved that dark studio albums didn’t necessarily translate to boring concerts. A lot of this success in the live arena could be attributed to the band’s frontman John “Ozzy” Osbourne, whose forceful presence behind the microphone could only be described as completely magnetic. Ozzy would only continue to cultivate his showmanship throughout his solo career and numerous reunions with Black Sabbath, making him a show onto himself.
We have just two words to say when it comes to describing the focal point of AC/DC’s longevity as a live act: Angus. Young. The younger brother of rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, Angus’ schoolboy costume, blistering lead guitar work and iconic take on Chuck Berry’s “duck walk” has led the AC/DC axeman hopping into the hearts of rock fans all over the world. Of course, there is more to AC/DC than just Angus. While the band has gone through a considerable amount of line-up changes, the energy of their live shows has continuously blown us away tour after tour.
#6: Iron Maiden
This next group has always delivered the goods live, but the legend that is Iron Maiden has also done something a bit more challenging: they’ve captured imaginations. Chalk it up to Maiden’s thinking man’s lyrics referencing famous works of literature and film, or maybe it’s the Air Raid Siren vocals of frontman Bruce Dickinson, but fans of this iconic British metal institution have grown to expect an emotional connection every time the band performs live. Oh, and there’s also the fact that Maiden themselves happen to be some of the most captivating musicians of their era, particularly band leader and bassist Steve Harris.
#5: Led Zeppelin
There was always a cult of mystery and mysticism surrounding the members of Led Zeppelin, particularly guitarist Jimmy Page, whose enigmatic presence and live magnetism made these rockers a must see. Of course, Page’s partner in crime Robert Plant deserves additional props, thanks to his lion-maned, swaggering sex god persona practically setting the template for hard rock lead singers, while the rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham dizzied the audience with their off-the-charts musical prowess. Led Zep is one of rock’s most celebrated recipes for success and a hard act to follow when it comes to putting on a show.
#4: Bruce Springsteen
The name “Bruce Springsteen” has become virtually synonymous at this point with passionate, sweaty, life-affirming live performances, thanks largely to the reputation this New Jersey native earned during his concerts in the 1970s and 80s. Fan favorite Springsteen tracks “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road” and “Born in the U.S.A.” have grown to full icon status over the years, as Bruce and his E Street Band have delivered show after show of performances, which sometimes literally left everything out there on the stage floor. Trust us, a Springsteen show has to be seen in person to truly understand its raw, visceral power.
#3: The Rolling Stones
With a live show that only grows bigger as they age, The Stones themselves are one of the most naturally cohesive units you’re ever likely to catch live, from the co-guitar work of Ronnie Wood to the rock solid, perfect drumming of Charlie Watts. But it’s no secret that creative friction between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards has led to what is essentially two electrifying presences on stage, fighting for the audience’s attention. There are worse problems for a band to have.
#2: Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd's studio work was known for big ideas and even bigger sounds, but they became so much larger on stage. Interested in bringing visual stimulation even in their early days, Floyd upped their game by adding advanced quadraphonic sound systems, sound effects, lights, and props to the live show. Behind all the gimmickry were talented musicians who at their best created stimulating and fan-satisfying works like “The Wall,” “Animals,” “The Dark Side of the Moon” - and more importantly, they captured the imaginations of millions on their respective tours.
Before we name our number one pick, here are some honorable mentions!
The Grateful Dead
For the Long, Strange Trip
From Heavy Metal Origins to Summer Concert Staples
Forever Stronger Than All
Germany's Finest Metal Export
Do we even have to explain this? Just watching this legendary footage from Queen’s conquering performance at the Live Aid festival is enough to convince almost anyone that Freddie Mercury and the boys were the best live musical act of all time. Momentarily setting aside Mercury’s proven ability as rock’s most triumphant and visually stunning frontman, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor were also musical virtuosos, able to effortlessly keep up with backing and lead vocals while Mercury held the crowd in the palm of his hand with his inimitable, almost effortless style.