Who ruled the road in 2019? Depends on who you ask. Billboard thrives because of our staff’s diverse taste, and those preferences are reflected in what shows we choose to attend after office hours. (That’s not a complaint -- attending concerts is part of the job, but it’s also an immense privilege.) But something we can all agree on is the power of live performance, no matter who your fave is. After all, we all write about music, which would be pretty hard to do without experiencing it to the fullest extent.
This year, Billboard went to festival sets and Broadway events; to shows at arenas, clubs and museums. We filled seats at stadiums and stood in the desert. We witnessed both a 15-minute set and a six-hour set from Vampire Weekend. We also saw Ariana Grande, a lot. Sometimes, we even put our phones down.
Each of us narrowed it down to the single best show or performance of the year. From all over the U.S., and a few international cities, too, here are the best live shows that the Billboard staff saw in 2019 (in chronological order).
On April 6, Third Man Records celebrated its 10th anniversary with a one-day festival in Nashville that also welcomed the long-awaited return of The Raconteurs. As the sun set, the supergroup -- comprised of Jack White, Brendan Benson, Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler -- started its highly-anticipated headlining gig. The rockers filled their setlist with live debuts of tracks off their then-unreleased third album Help Us Stranger -- The Raconteurs’ first album in 11 years and first Billboard 200 No. 1 -- and, of course, timeless hits like "Steady As She Goes" and "Carolina Drama," for which everyone joined forces for a series of "la la las" complete with arms swaying back and forth. The best part? Phones were allowed (a rarity for White’s shows these days), but barely any were seen. -- LYNDSEY HAVENS
“Are you going to Rosalía?” I heard that question come up amongst coworkers and friends for weeks leading up to the Spanish flamenco revivalist’s sold-out, two-night run at New York City’s Webster Hall; a show that felt like everyone I knew had dug deep into their I-owe-yous to get on the list for. In line, I saw a girl try to sneak in through the press entrance, and inside, I recognized Frank Ocean and Dua Lipa in the audience.
Thankfully for all, the hype was -- and is -- real. Rosalía electrified the venue with her presence, conjuring up a new mini world onstage with each song: a light projector bathed her in twinkling stars during “Barefoot In The Park,” which she performed sans collaborator James Blake, and while she sang “Bagdad,” a group of dancers drew out red scarves around her in perfect unison. During a rare quiet moment towards the end, Rosalía dropped her fierce stare just for a second to gaze out at the audience. "I have never felt what I feel onstage with you,” she told the April 24 crowd, teary-eyed. She didn’t need to elaborate further. -- TATIANA CIRISANO
Seattle drone metal band Sunn O))) played the 1,800-cap Brooklyn Steel back in April, right before the release of their new album Life Metal. The following Monday (April 29), Stephen O’Malley, Greg Anderson and friends downsized for a last-minute performance at St. Vitus, a beloved heavy music venue located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that only holds around 250. Despite the room’s size, the cloak-adorned group played a full-sized show, with lights slowly fading from one color to the next, smoke machines blasting, and the volume cranked till the knobs fell off. If a regular Sunn O))) show rattles your chest, the same version in a condensed space made it feel like your limbs were going to vibrate right off. There is no softer, unplugged version of music that sounds like it’s emerging from the bowels of hell. -- CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if Vampire Weekend's 56-song New York City album release marathon on May 5 was indeed the longest concert ever.
This was linked to a news story Billboard was trying to put together and it involved me unpacking the previous night's exhilarating, surprise-filled show while researching Bruce Springsteen listicles and spending upwards of an hour sifting through ten-year old message board posts about Phish's Big Cypress festival. The verdict was inconclusive. Does a verse and a chorus of VW covering Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" count as its own song? Do the two intermissions -- where bagels and pizza were served, respectively -- count towards the total length? As much as I wanted to heap some gaudy superlative on the best show I'd seen all year, it was, truth be told, most likely not the longest concert ever.
But what a day. I found out I was getting in at the last second and woke up impossibly early on a Sunday morning to hear Vampire Weekend cover the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" to open the show at 10:35 a.m. Over the next seven hours, Ezra Koenig & Co. performed their glorious new LP Father of the Bride front-to-back, nearly every song off their three previous albums, a bevy of b-sides (shouts to "Jonathan Low"), a Baio solo song, and bunch of purposeful collabs with appearances from old friends like Dev Hynes and the Haim sisters. Rostam wasn't around anymore, but an expanded, seven-person iteration of the one-time four-piece let VW sprawl out like the celebratory jam band they always kind of wanted to be. They're probably glad I spent that time on Phish's message board. -- CHRIS PAYNE
There was the 15-minute introduction by The Hamrahlid Choir. There was the reverb chamber, in which Björk would go occasionally to shout-sing for natural reverberation throughout the theater at The Shed in New York City on May 9. There was the video spoken-word interlude by Swedish prodigy-superstar Greta Thunberg (before her iconic UN takedown) that whipped an otherwise respectful audience into a frenzy.
But the moment that defined Björk’s Cornucopia Tour stop was a performance of “Body Memory,” with the Icelandic iconoclast standing inside of The Circle Flute: four flautists (of seven that performed on stage throughout the night) connecting their instruments into a ring, enclosing Björk for a mesmerizing audio-visual illusion.
There was also Björk, and that voice, ripping through much of her two most recent albums and turning even her most experimental songs into urgent anthems for political and environmental change. -- ERIC FRANKENBERG
The anticipation of around 100,000 A.R.M.Y. was palpable in the moments preceding BTS’ arrival to the stage during their final show during their U.S. leg of their Love Yourself: Speak Yourself Tour on May 19 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. There was a moment of chilling calmness as the speakers cut following a series of introductory videos, and then the stage erupted in fireworks. Classically-inspired Ionic columns, huge metallic jaguars, and a team of dancers heralded the arrival of the septet of superstars, who introduced the night with “Dionysus,” a rambunctious song off of their Billboard 200 chart-topper Map of the Soul: Persona that revels in BTS’ artistry and success. Setting the stage for the night, the opening, like BTS themselves, was both grand and larger-than-life. -- TAMAR HERMAN
Florence + the Machine
Florence + the Machine played at sunset at NYC’s Governors Ball Music Festival in 2015, and returned as a headliner -- rightfully so -- on June 1 this year. Appearing in a gauzy, nightgown-esque dress, Florence Welch and her fantastically talented band were perfectly equipped to lift Gov Ball out of the mud (the stuff was prevalent thanks to a rain shower earlier in the week). What followed was the sort of high note-hitting and lit harp-playing that a typical Florence + the Machine show entails, but something about this warm June night set it apart from all the others. I have to think it was because of a certain magical moment during “The End Of Love,” when Welch sang, “We were reaching in the dark/ That summer in New York,” and the crowd reached their arms right back at her, cheering at the appropriateness of the line. -- GAB GINSBERG
As Spanish-language music has become more ingrained into the American mainstream and Latin artists have received increased representation on top 40 radio and streaming platforms, festivals around the globe have also had to react to shifting cultural trends and adjust their programming accordingly. As such, Barcelona festival Primavera Sound’s Saturday night (June 1) lineup in 2019 felt triumphant for every Spanish-speaking listener in attendance. Yes, U.S. acts like Miley Cyrus, Future, Interpol and Janelle Monae played the main stage throughout the weekend, but the back-to-back bill of Rosalía and J Balvin owned it.
In particular, Balvin delivered pure euphoria, rattling off international smashes while dancing between oversized cartoon characters onstage and wagging his neon microphone at the crowd. The Colombian superstar spoke nary a word of English, and the Barcelona crowd was palpably grateful for it — yet even those who couldn’t translate his breathless interludes still knew what to do when the “Mi Gente” beat dropped. -- JASON LIPSHUTZ
I was prepared for the embarrassment of being an aging music writer continuing to frequent concerts by artists a decade or more my junior, with crowds that were mostly even younger than that. What I wasn't prepared for was the increasingly common shame that comes with seeing one of those younger artists live, when the majority of the crowd are also your age, with barely an actual kid in sight, like when I saw teenage U.K. psych-pop duo Let's Eat Grandma in 2018 and the crowd seemed like it was 90% 30-something music writer types. That show was great, and the band didn't seem actively put off by the disparity, but it nagged at me that the dynamic between artist and audience was very much not what it should have been, and that it was a problem I was actively contributing to just by being there.
That's one of the many reasons I was grateful for the Saturday night (June 1) of Governors Ball weekend this summer, when after playing at the New York City fest in the daytime, rock power trio Sunflower Bean graced the late stage at undersized lower Manhattan venue Mercury Lounge. I feared the band -- a streaming-unfriendly rock outfit with more critical acclaim than radio hits -- would draw largely (if not entirely) folks like me. But while there were a fair share of potential critics in the building, there were easily more high school- and college-age fans, many of whom got on stage by show's end to join the band in dancing and singing along to their life-affirming jams, kids that could have been me or my girlfriend 10 or 15 years earlier (if we were a little more extroverted at the time). The show was for them, and I was thrilled to just get to watch it from the sidelines.
I don't anticipate this problem will exactly go away for me as I get older -- and so does the age of this average rock fan. But for the night at least, I was overjoyed that there was still a next generation to let me off the hook while I enjoyed one of the best bands in America in full effect, without feeling guilty just for showing up. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Is taking a trip to Spice World in 2019 a radical act? Critics who’ve dismissed the group's Girl Power ethos as watered-down, commodified feminism would probably scoff. But from the clear nod to Brexit and international politics that flashed on screens during the opening of the group’s reunion tour -- “We welcome all ages, gender identities, sexual orientations, races, countries of origin, religions & beliefs” -- it’s clear that the Spice Girls’ come-as-you-are message, however simple, sometimes has real-world stakes.
Perhaps that’s why the group’s Posh-less European stadium trek felt more urgent than the pure nostalgiafest its members (and myself, having bought tickets at 5:30 a.m. last November to fulfill a childhood dream) thought it would be. Celebrations of individuality were everywhere at their last London show on June 15: In the house ball theme, which saw every dancer rep their tribe without any two dressing alike; in the setlist, which forewent members’ solo material for deep cuts like the sisterly pep talk “Do It”; or in the dance break during “Holler,” when Sporty and Scary delivered killer moves while Ginger and Baby...sipped tea? Yes, this was always the Spice Girls’ deal: You didn’t have to be the best or most talented to leave a mark -- you just had to own who you are and have fun doing it.
Since that night, rumors of other tour legs have come and gone. It’s a small shame; I’d gladly empty my bank account to relive the belonging and elation I felt as I linked arms with strangers in the pit of Wembley Stadium. (At least give us the live DVD or something!) But the takeaway from the show, as I learned while watching 70,000 people spill out of the venue and help each other get home, is that Spice World isn’t a place you visit, but a state of mind -- one you can always go back to. After all, the Girls already gave you the key: All you need is positivity. -- NOLAN FEENEY
Anyone who has seen Paul McCartney live knows that he doesn't shy away from The Beatles’ catalog, despite having his own robust solo and Wings discography to work from. To wit, in his robust 38-song set list at the final stop of his Freshen Up Tour at Dodger Stadium on July 13, a whopping 22 of those songs were by the Fab Four. He kicked things off with "A Hard Day's Night." He ended the pre-encore set with "Hey Jude." He did an all-Beatles six-song encore, bookended by "Birthday" and "The End." Oh, right! And he brought out Ringo freaking Starr during the encore to play drums on the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" reprise and an unbelievably rocking "Helter Skelter," with an assist from Eagles axman Joe Walsh.
So yeah, any of the lucky 50,000-plus fans who packed the L.A. ballpark that balmy night got to see the only living Beatles playing together for the first time in years. It's tough for classic acts to find the balance between being creatively stimulated by fresh material and rewarding fans with the hits that brought them out to the concert in the first place. It feels like Sir Paul is able to celebrate his legendary past while still staying busy in the studio, scoring a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 just last year with Egypt Station -- his first chart-topper since 1982 and his first-ever No. 1 debut. So McCartney has it both ways, and has an absolute blast commemorating all 60 years of his rock-star career with stadiums full of fans across the world. -- KATIE ATKINSON
As an avid John Mayer fan, I knew I was going to enjoy the July 26 Madison Square Garden stop in NYC on his summer tour no matter what. He could have walked on stage, did the hokey pokey and exited the building, and I would say it was worth every penny. Thankfully, he instead jammed out with guitar solos, hits and deep cuts. About halfway through the show, he stopped for an intermission and appeared on dozens of screens around the arena to announce a very special, live taping of his popular Instagram show, Current Mood. During the mini episode backstage, he announced a total game changer: he would be performing his entire 2006 Continuum album from start to finish for the first time ever. It felt like we were in a time capsule, brought all the way back to the simpler times of the mid-2000s. Yes, I bought merch that night, and yes, I bought the special Continuum x MSG t-shirt that released two weeks later. -- BECKY KAMINSKY
The Rolling Stones
I’ve been obsessed with the Stones my whole life, but I never considered “Street Fighting Man” an origin story until it was blasting before me, with Mick Jagger waggling forward to ask a football field’s worth of people at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Aug. 1: “Well now what can a poor boy do/ Except play in a rock ‘n’ roll band?” With all the members in their mid-70s, playing the highest-grossing tour of the decade, The Rolling Stones are no longer young and poor. They’ve lived longer, grown wealthier and been in a band together more than any of them would have guessed back in 1968.
With 50-plus years of work, the set was was one gift after another: from the country-funk warmth of “Sweet Virginia” to the sinister squawk of a jaw-dropping, 12-minute “Midnight Rambler” to a sweet stomp through the requisites: “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar,” “Satisfaction.” They could all be origin stories. Mick also ceded the mic to Keith Richards for two songs; to many, Richards will always represent the core of the band: bedraggled elegance and pure blues. In 2019, his grey hair and rippled smile have softened his fearsome image, but when he sang that incredible line on “Before They Make Me Run” -- “Gonna find my way to Heaven/ Because I did my time in Hell” -- it was clear that this is a man still searching for those pearly gates. -- SARAH GRANT
Drizzy journeyed back to his hometown to give the city a show of a lifetime at his ninth annual OVO Fest on Aug. 5. To celebrate the Toronto Raptors' June NBA Championship win, Drake wheeled out a giant-sized replica of the Larry O'Brien trophy to kick-off the show. With "Trophies" thumping throughout the Budweiser Arena, Drake later tagged in a bunch of his rap friends like Cardi B, Meek Mill, Gucci Mane, DaBaby, and Megan Thee Stallion to share the stage with him in Toronto. It's one thing to have the city at the palm of your hands, but to have every A-list rapper pay homage was such a godly move from The Boy. -- CARL LAMARRE
If there’s one concert that really hit home for me this year, it was the Backstreet Boys’ DNA World Tour. After blessing my 10-year-old self as a “BSB Freak,” attending their show on Aug. 23 at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida really triggered some of the best memories of my childhood and adolescence. In support of their tenth studio album, DNA, I expected the now-men (Nick Carter, Brian Littrell, Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, and A.J. McLean) to sing their newer jams rather than the classics, but man, was I in for a real treat. BSB -- just as they did in the ‘90s and early ‘00s -- delivered an incredible spectacle with a light show, dancing, fireworks, and confetti.
Yes, they performed their recent bops, but they gave fans exactly what they wanted: the timeless hits; the songs that ultimately make up their musical DNA. The concert lasted about three hours, and the over-30-song-set included all-time favorites “As Long As You Love Me,” “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” and “I Want It That Way.” They wrapped up with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and “Larger than Life,” an ode for their fans. After all the dancing, singing and screaming, it’s safe to say that my inner BSB Freak dubbed this the best concert of her life. -- JESSICA ROIZ
Anyone who was a fan of the Jonas Brothers back in their late-2000s heyday likely love every second of the Happiness Begins Tour, as the sibling trio makes their 90-minute show an almost-flawless balance of classics and new songs (justice for “Pom Poms”). As I witnessed at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Aug. 29, there are plenty of moments that’ll get the Jonas juices flowing -- whether it’s the “mystery” fan request each night or the medley dedicated to the OG fans -- but it all starts with the most epic opening possible. After a slightly cheesy yet gripping video of three kids who are portraying the young Jonai, sparklers begin to burst, and suddenly the Jonas Brothers are ascending down to the stage on a platform side by side, singing “Rollercoaster” -- the Happiness Begins track that best depicts the journey they’ve been on as brothers. While the entire show is a mix of euphoria and nostalgia, there couldn't have been a more powerful way to kick it off than that. -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY
She might’ve taken the stage fairly late each night during her Madame X residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall, but when she did, as at the Sept. 19 show, Madonna treated fans to a highly personal spectacle that was thoughtful, campy and impossibly irresistible. The opening number, Madame X’s lush disco standout “God Control,” turned the focus from national mythology to personal history, demonstrating exactly where Madonna found her freedom -- on the sweaty floors of New York City discotheques in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s -- and how she sees it, quite literally, under fire (the gunshot-punctuated musical odyssey explicitly nods to the 2016 Pulse massacre). And whether she was busting out the delirious electro-bop “American Life” or sliding in a cool jazz take on “Human Nature” (complete with a spread eagle that would put Veronica and Charlie to shame), Madonna graced us with several rarely performed gems from her iconic catalog. -- JOE LYNCH
I didn’t know it at the time, but walking into Lizzo’s sold-out show at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 24 would be a spiritual awakening. As a brown-skinned girl growing up plus-sized in Brooklyn hating her cellulite, I didn’t have many role models, preaching self-love and body acceptance, to look up to. Years later, I shed the weight, but I still wasn’t feeling good as hell about my body. Enter Lizzo. Sparkling on that stage in a hip-hugging gold leather bodysuit and fishnets stockings -- a look that was clearly inspired by the Jean Paul Gaultier conical bra Madonna wore during the Blond Ambition Tour in the ‘90s -- the pop and hip-hop sensation welcomed her patrons to the Cuz I Love You Too Tour. After asking if we were ready to experience “church with a twerk,” Lizzo broke out into a bootylicious version of “Worship.”
Surrounded by curvy dancers of all shapes, sizes and colors, there was a moment when Lizzo asked the crowd to say, “I love you big girls,” before getting on her knees to finish a rafter-reaching rendition of “Cuz I Love You,” followed by a split-filled version of “Scuse Me.” She was my spirit animal and I was ready to follow her gospel to the tee. She promised to “take us higher” and I was a believer. Above all, I realized the true magic of Lizzo. It may have been called the Cuz I Love You Tour, but this diva’s true intention was to make sure we left loving ourselves. And to that, I say Amen. -- DANICA DANIEL
A wooden warm-blue-painted staircase took us up to the historic Lodge Room in Los Angeles’ Highland Park for Vetusta Morla’s last of 11 U.S. stops on Oct. 16. The Spanish indie rock band whittled the set down to its most representative hits as part of its Mismo Sitio, Distinto Lugar Tour. Pucho’s platonic vocals treated the audience to a unified recitation, bouncing from pop-rock classics such as “Maldita Dulzura” and “Copenhague” to the hypnotic “Los Días Raros.” Meanwhile, Guillermo Galván’s jagged guitar riffs married David el Indio’s brawny drum set on pounced rock-infused tunes such as “Te Lo Digo a Ti,” “A Veces No Soy Yo” and “Salvese Quien Pueda.” A crowd-pleasing show, Vetusta Morla injected the beguiled audience with purposeful rock vigor. -- PAMELA BUSTIOS
David Byrne's American Utopia
On Oct. 16, at the very end of American Utopia -- his Broadway theatrical-concert of sorts -- David Byrne stood still onstage. It was a notable moment: for the past hour and a half, he'd been anything but stationary, shuffling, bopping, guitar-playing, dancing around with the merry group of polymath performers who constitute his ensemble but really, with Byrne himself, transform into one rapturous organism onstage. "Despite all that's happened -- and all that's happening -- I think there's still possibility," he told the New York City crowd in the off-the-cuff, unfussy manner he maintained throughout the show. "We're a work in progress." Then, with his company standing in the shadows around him, he began an a capella rendition of "One Fine Day," a lovely, lyrical cut from his 2008 album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
Byrne spends the majority of American Utopia contemplating, in conversation and song, the connections within us and among us that grow and vanish throughout our lives, and our potential, against all odds, to improve the world a bit. The lyrics of "One Fine Day" -- "Even though a man is made of clay/Everything can change that one fine day" -- perfectly express the poignant optimism that suffuses Byrne's onstage presence and American Utopia itself. He's simply an artist in his purest state, asking an audience to consider a different perspective -- and it's pretty impossible to leave the theater not thinking that Byrne's is one worth seeing. -- REBECCA MILZOFF
Celine Dion opened the North American leg of her Courage Tour in Cleveland, Ohio with five outfit changes, two encores, hundreds of drones, and plenty of flirty banter. Starting off with a powerful rendition of "It's All Coming Back to Me," Dion ran through her hits, peppered in songs from her new album, and ended with a call for world peace as she sang John Lennon's "Imagine." Plus, her performance of "My Heart Will Go On" -- the first encore of the night -- featured said drones pulsating through the air like droplets of water in the ocean, or even the famous blue diamond itself. For two hours, Celine dazzled the Oct. 18 crowd with her vocals, her quirky personality, and a whole lot of sequins and sparkle. And after over a decade spent in Las Vegas, Dion proved she belongs on the road again. -- DENISE WARNER
Twenty One Pilots
No matter where you saw Twenty One Pilots on their Trench Tour over the past year, you could count on the Skeleton Clique to turn out in full force, dressed in their custom uniforms splashed with yellow tape. And if you were lucky, you also saw the Clique spontaneously bust into an a cappella rendition of the moving 2013 ballad “Truce” from the Vessel album. To kick off the encore segment of their Oct. 22 show at the Heritage Bank Center in Cincinnati, the entire audience swayed and sang: “Now the night is coming to an end/ The sun will rise and we will try again/ Stay alive, stay alive for me/ You will die, but now your life is free…” A young woman behind me burst into uncontrollable tears from the overwhelming emotions the song inspired. In a testament to the power of music, the moving plea to choose life -- shouldered entirely by the Clique -- inspired the crowd around the teen to close ranks and surround her with love and support. -- GIL KAUFMAN
Dead & Company
Attending a Dead & Company concert on Halloween (Oct. 31) already feels like stars-aligning kismet, but there was a stronger presence in New York City’s Madison Square Garden when the band took the stage and ushered in the rare first set opener “Ripple.” As the first show on their Fall Fun Run Tour, the night marked the Dead’s first performance since the passing of lyricist Robert Hunter in September, and the band honored his memory with an unforgettable setlist comprised entirely of classics from his songbook.
Though the show was steeped in a generational blend of tradition -- from the reliable Halloween encore “Werewolves of London” to bassist Oteil Burbridge’s “horning” initiation by the original Rhythm Devils -- the most enduring legacy of the night will live in Hunter’s songwriting: “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine/ And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung/ Would you hear my voice come through the music/ Would you hold it near as it were your own?” As the crowd swelled with applause and awe as a photo of Hunter and the late Jerry Garcia appeared during the opening number, it was just as clear as ever that the answer remains an undeniable and resounding yes. -- BRYAN KRESS
As a dedicated Ariana Grande stan since 2011, I made it my duty to see both North American legs of the Sweetener World Tour. Opening night (Nov. 9) of the second leg had something special that stood out. Midway through the show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Ariana changed into a glittery, white Christmas-esque outfit complete with reindeer antlers, and brought her 2015 Christmas & Chill EP to life.
She performed a medley of “December,” “True Love” and “Wit It This Christmas” before breaking into her 2014 holiday single, “Santa Tell Me.” During the contagiously upbeat number, she spread the joy by throwing gifts into the crowd, ranging from autographed gift cards to pit tickets. Her soaring vocals filled the arena, confetti fell from above and created the most beautiful, picture-perfect blizzard, giving me instant chills. The festivities continued on as the lights dimmed and Grande performed “Winter Things” in a moonlit room. Overall, the whole show was absolutely phenomenal, but in that very moment, she made an arena full of strangers feel like a family. -- ALEXA BIANCHI