The live music industry is booming, if you will. Live Nation recently reported its best quarter ever, while Nielsen said the amount of Americans who attend some sort of live event every year is up to 52 percent. Billboard staffers, too, continue to do their part by heading out to venues after office hours. Of course, we are not complaining: attending concerts is part of our jobs, but it’s also a privilege.
This year, Billboard went to festival sets and album release parties; to shows at amphitheaters and clubs, and to late-night rooftop sets. We filled seats in arenas, went to Broadway musicals, and, in one case, sailed on a cruise with the band. A few of us saw upwards of 100 shows (!) in 2018. We saw Taylor Swift, a lot. We go to all of these shows because it is not enough to write about music from behind a desk. It must be lived.
We each managed to narrow it down to the single best show or performance of the year. From coast to coast, and a few cities in between, here are the best live shows that the Billboard staff saw in 2018 (in chronological order).
Billy Joel was my college commencement speaker. “If there’s any advice I can give to you,” he said during the 2006 speech, “it is, do what you love.” He then sang us a song he had written about our school, Syracuse University, set to the tune of Wilson Pickett’s “New Orleans”. That was the only time I’d seen Billy Joel perform live until this year, at one of his Madison Square Garden residency shows on Jan. 11. During the 27-song set, which included two with special guests Mick Jones and Lou Gramm of Foreigner, Joel growled out his hits from the piano bench while his thick fingers nimbly moved across the keys. I teared up during “Vienna.” I sang along to every word of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” I danced like a maniac to “You May Be Right.” Watching Joel laugh and joke with the audience, it was a comfort to see that he’s still taking his own advice after all these years. — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN?
At Brockhampton’s show in New York on Feb. 2, Irving Plaza had some weird mandatory coat check rule, and due to the frigid temperature and the show being thoroughly sold out, I was stuck in a crowded mass of people waiting downstairs. I think I missed the first song or two, so when I finally got up top, shit was poppin’: kids locked arm in arm, singing along, losing their minds to this bunch of dudes in orange jumpsuits with a couch onstage. Plenty of their songs are grimy and aggressive, but an unstoppable feeling of positivity just emanated through it all. It was just pure love, and I swear the mosh pit looked like a heart:
When we had to get our coats back, the line was so long we wound up back outside on the sidewalk in freezing weather. But that sidewalk, filled with everyone who’d just watched the show, was where the heart was. — CHRIS PAYNE
Charli XCX doesn’t put on concerts — she throws parties. So when the British pop experimenter performed her futuristic mixtape Pop 2 at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere on March 18 for a throng of sweaty 20-somethings, she did so flanked by at least a dozen guests and collaborators (including Kim Petras and Brooke Candy), resulting in a crowded, glitter-splashed, #NSFW onstage celebration that could’ve been mistaken for a rowdy house party. Standout moments: An onstage makeout session, ample crowd-surfing and a rogue cream cheese bagel tossed onstage, to Charli’s delight (yes, really). The synergistic set not only solidified Charli’s growing rep as a taste curator, but also prophesied the direction tours might head in today’s uber-collaborative music world. By the time Charli closed out the seemingly endless night with the proclamation, “Pop 2 is the fucking future,” the words rang true. — TATIANA CIRISANO?
Following less-than-enthusiastic reviews for his Man of the Woods album, Justin Timberlake managed to put on a mesmerizing show at NYC’s Madison Square Garden on March 22 — even when he sang MOTW cuts. JT utilized the entire floor of the arena, breaking the stage into three portions that afforded all fans a better view. Timberlake clearly had the nosebleed sections in mind while designing the setup, as drapery around each stage served as massive screens, projecting Timberlake’s image or outdoor imagery that played into the tour’s woodsy theme. And when it came to the set list, Timberlake found a nice balance of MOTW tracks and his biggest hits like “Señorita,” “SexyBack” and the epic show-closer, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Bash the album all you want, but the Man of the Woods Tour was nothing short of magical. — TAYLOR WEATHERBY?
I had heard about Billie Eilish; I knew that she was a young teen whose hit “Ocean Eyes” was performing well. But I had no idea what a massive presence she was, or what a crazed fan base she had gathered in just a few short years. Eilish’s March 23 set at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom was explosive, at times tender, and entirely exciting. At the time, she only had a nine-track EP to pull from, but the way in which each song explored a new territory, both the performance and the performer felt entirely full and thought out. At age 16, Eilish was too fresh to have a front (she even hung around to take photos with fans after the show), and many times mentioned “how crazy” it all was. For being a relatively new artist, she wasn’t just comfortable on stage; she was thriving. It was the type of show where you are acutely aware that the artist you are currently watching will outgrow the venue they are playing almost immediately. And she did: In early November, Eilish sold out two nights at Brooklyn Steel, more than triple the capacity of Bowery Ballroom. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
There was a moment during Lorde’s Melodrama show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on April 4 that still gives me the same sparklers-in-the-heart reaction months later. Here’s how it goes: We’re halfway through the set when album producer Jack Antonoff emerges with an acoustic guitar in hand. Things get casual. Ella takes a seat at the edge of the stage, Jack follows, and while they’re both facing one another, she starts calling him out on his gum-chewing habit and he starts joking about her affinity for bodega sushi. And then suddenly there we are: all 10,000 of us fading into the periphery as two deeply caring friends fall into a stripped-back mashup of “New York” (a song Antonoff produced for St. Vincent) and “Hard Feelings.” Ella scoots closer to Jack and leans into a lyric, and though the intimacy of their performance will draw internet speculation, it is, I think, their way of letting us into their version of New York. — BROOKE MAZUREK?
Patti Smith & Bruce Springsteen
Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen hadn’t performed their hit collaboration, “Because the Night,” on the same stage in years — but those attending the April 23 premiere of Smith’s documentary, Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, were treated to their surprise reunion at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. After the concert film’s debut at New York’s Beacon Theatre, Smith and her band ran through a brief set of her greatest hits before she took a pause and invited Springsteen to join her. The pair dove into their 1978 hit — for which Smith penned the lyrics, after Springsteen wrote the music — before a completely stunned, and thrilled, audience. — HILARY HUGHES
Mouse on Mars
The kick-off to The National’s inaugural Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio, merged the new event with guitarist Bryce Dessner’s 13th edition of the avant garde MusicNow. On an April 27 bill that blended folk, rock, hip-hop and bluegrass, iconic German electronic duo Mouse on Mars (Jan St. Werner, Andy Toma) remixed the entire night with a head-spinning set that included remotely-triggered robot percussion solos that broke into a Grateful Dead-style drums-and-space jam, salted with African high-life guitar, spacey electronica and frenetic rhymes from Spank Rock. Folk singer/fiddle player Sam Amidon and Irish siren Lisa Hannigan crooned over watery beats, followed by Icelandic vocalist Kristin Valtysdottir and National brass section Lanz Projects adding a reggae bounce to a set that begged to be playlisted to be believed. — GIL KAUFMAN
Taylor Swift debuted her blockbuster Reputation Tour in Glendale, Ariz., on May 8 and kept the momentum going worldwide through November. The “Delicate” singer proved she was anything but during the opener, with flashing lights, giant snakes and moving stages setting the tone for her high-energy performance. Swift also managed a few quieter moments, too, from her strumming of fan-favorite “All Too Well,” to a speech about the importance of the reptilian imagery. During her time on the stage, Swift displayed a mastery of herself, her catalog and her audience, gifting us a gorgeous show. — DENISE WARNER
Car Seat Headrest
The setting of Car Seat Headrest’s Brooklyn show on May 8 was almost as captivating as the performance. The Market Hotel is not a hotel; it’s a weirdly shaped second-floor space in Bushwick with a fire-trap vibe, windows that look out onto elevated subway tracks, and, at the time, the strangest drinking policy I have ever encountered. The owners have since gotten a full liquor license, but that night if you wanted to drink you had to head into a separate room, where a woman dispensed 3 oz. Dixie cups of free beer from a keg. Tossing those back teeny-tiny cups while watching Car Seat — joined that night by members of Naked Giants — cover Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge” and Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” while J and M trains glided by was one of those moments when New York felt like it was still full of secrets and not a chain-store metropolis for billionaires. — FRANK DIGIACOMO?
Maluma fulfilled one of his greatest dreams on May 19: to perform at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Fla., as part of his F.A.M.E. U.S. tour. Maluma delivered the best show ever; P. Diddy, Flo Rida, Prince Royce, Marc Anthony, Noriel and Jason Derulo all showed up as special guests. However, the best moment was when Maluma realized that he was standing in front of a sold-out arena in Miami and was brought to tears. — SUZETTE FERNANDEZ
If P!nk had just stood on stage and run through her hits, her Beautiful Trauma show at The Forum in Los Angeles on June 1 would have already be a winner, given the breadth of her formidable catalog. However, what truly elevated (every pun intended) the pop star’s Forum spectacular was her Cirque du Soleil acrobatics, which had her soaring over the audience while singing full throttle. Working without a net during many numbers, P!nk defied death, the laws of gravity, and plausibility at times, including during “Secrets,” when she and an impossibly toned male dancer sensually intertwined 20 feet off the ground. She never dropped a note. — MELINDA NEWMAN
Years & Years
For a band with a sizable queer following, it’s remarkable that Years & Years managed to sell out NYC’s Brooklyn Steel on June 24, the same night Kylie Minogue headlined the city’s massive pride festival only seven miles away. It’s also a testament to the group’s flamboyant frontman; since their 2014 breakout, Olly Alexander has proven to be an electric showman. Between his unhindered undulations, the quick-witted banter with adoring fans and a knock-out vocal, Alexander commanded the stage with an unflinching confidence generally displayed by music icons decades into their careers. — PATRICK CROWLEY
Perhaps in response to the deafening cheers that met Kylie Minogue during her June 25 underplay in New York City’s famed Bowery Ballroom, the Australian pop icon told the frothing fans, “I’m going to do something I’ve basically never done before — play a demo for you.” Kylie then unleashed an unreleased disco/freestyle strutter called “New York City.” Complete with a rapped portion that brought to mind Blondie’s “Rapture,” the irresistible jam exuded the joyous hedonism of an early ’80s Manhattan dance club and had everyone singing along by the second chorus. The response was so enthusiastic that she played it not once, but twice — and it was met with louder cheers than nearly any of her fan-favorite hits the second go-around. — JOE LYNCH
On Friday, July 28, I drove two-and-a-half hours in a thunderstorm, navigated a flooded New Jersey Parkway and sprinted to my seat in the summer heat, missing the first three songs in Kesha’s set at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. Although it still pains me to think of missing the pop heroine strutting onstage to “Woman,” the rest of the show provided enough confetti-cannon explosions, campy set pieces and triumphant singalongs to make up for missed opportunities. Kesha has morphed from a synth-pop party-girl character into a soulful storyteller in the wake of her distressing legal battle with Dr. Luke; songs from her 2017 album, Rainbow, were performed with an expected fierceness, but past hits like “Die Young” and “Tik Tok” also carried a surprising gravitas — communal celebrations as acts of defiance. And “Praying,” which was Kesha’s reintroduction on the other side of her career limbo, proved as moving in person as it is on record. Hearing Kesha belt out the words “You said that I was done/Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come” — and knowing that she was correct — was more than worth a slow drive and a pair of soaked sneakers. — JASON LIPSHUTZ?
I’ve only been a fan of country music since 2012 (yes, I’m basically a bandwagon sports fan, starting to root for the Yankees after a World Series win), and a major part of my conversion was Luke Bryan‘s inescapable radio hits from that year. So it was a fitting full-circle moment to see Luke as the first-ever country artist to headline Dodger Stadium on July 28. And there was no greater moment that balmy summer night than when Bryan performed the 2014 smash “Play It Again,” his ode to that perfect song coming on the radio at the perfect time on a perfect night, and a personal favorite of mine. Getting to sing, “Oh my God, this is my song!” and really mean it, along with 50,000-plus fellow fans and the man himself, is a pretty fantastic feeling. The only thing that could have made it better was if Luke had actually played it again. No one would have complained. — KATIE ATKINSON
“It’s a lot of hits, huh?” a coy Janet Jackson asked roughly halfway through her headlining set at Panorama fest on July 28. Undeniably so: Ms. Janet has racked up over 40 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart over her generation-spanning career — most of ’em top 10s — and she seemed to play at least a snippet of every one of them over her 90-minute performance. The set was a triumph of both legacy and timeliness, making an argument for Jackson both as one of pop’s all-time greats and one of its most enduringly relevant performers, and attracting easily the most diverse festival crowd I’ve ever seen at New York City’s Randall’s Island. But even with the fiery political sentiments that bookended her performance, the set’s most powerful moment also came with a personal one. At the climax of her rendition of Velvet Rope dance-pop smash “Together Again,” the screen behind Jackson flashed a photo of brother Michael with Papa Joe, both of whom had passed within the past decade. “I miss you,” she offered to both them and the crowd, a disarmingly simplified expression of two extremely complex relationships. “Both of you.” Lotta hits, indeed, but none hitting quite as hard as that one. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
This year, one artist got me out past my bedtime: Alex Lahey, whose debut album, I Love You Like a Brother, was one my most thrilling discoveries of 2017. Lahey’s 10:00 p.m. (!) set at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom on Aug. 7 had even curmudgeonly old me jumping up and down and whipping my bangs around to her sinewy pop-punk jams like an angsty middle schooler. (Her cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” didn’t hurt, either.) Artists talk all the time about the cathartic, restorative powers of getting in a room with a bunch of strangers and shouting along to songs that reveal our darkest inner monologues, and Lahey’s set reminded me that it’s not just a cliche. The last song of her set, “I Haven’t Been Taking Care of Myself,” is a self-deprecating pity party that talks about drinking too much and eating poorly — and yet it made me feel more energized and youthful than a full, grown-up eight hours of melatonin-aided sleep ever has. — NOLAN FEENEY
Drake’s ascension from television actor to rap demigod has been a sight to see over the last several years. His Drake and the Three Migos Tour at NYC’s Madison Square Garden this summer encapsulated his musical triumphs, even after Pusha T attempted to abdicate his throne last June. After delivering a 90-minute set at the Garden on Aug. 24, watching him reflect on his near-decade climb to rap’s mountaintop was a moment we all deeply appreciated. With the instrumental for “Over My Dead Body” blaring through the speakers, we watched Drizzy gaze at the big screen and reflect on his Thank Me Later days, an album which propelled his career into mainstream glory. Once the montage concluded, you could tell those 90 seconds galvanized Drake. Charged up on nostalgia and adrenaline, the 6 God sprinted to the finish-line with “God’s Plan” and left the crowd with an endearing message: “I’m a kid from Canada and I have seven nights at Madison Square Garden. Me and you built this together. It’s not just me.” — CARL LAMARRE
Miami was due for a good dose of rock and roll, and Sept. 9 saw one of the most conspicuous Latin rock bands make an appearance at The Fillmore Theatre. Mexico’s Molotov was back after years of depriving the city of their glorious and virulent guitar riffs and lyrical grandeur. “Hemos venido para cantarles reggaetón!” (“We have come to play you some reggaetón!”) joked Micky Huidobro, bass player and one of the vocalists of the rapcore band, halfway through the frantic performance. A daring guitar loop left the tightly packed audience in awe, while drummer and vocalist Randy Ebright, dubbed El Gringo Loco, bared his true mettle to spark up the rapid-fire rap and exhilarating “Frijolero.” — PAMELA BUSTIOS?
Rosalia tells powerful stories through her music and her visual masterpieces, but the moment I saw her live for the first time at a Latin Grammy Session in Miami on Sept. 11, I knew she was a big deal. Rosalia captivated the entire room with her performance. During her set, the Spanish singer, along with a five-member band and eight-member dance crew, poured her heart out to songs such as “Malamente” and “Pienso En Tu Mira.'” But she didn’t just belt out lyrics; her enchanting powerhouse vocals were also accompanied by fierce dance moves and flamenco-meets-urban streetwear. — JESSICA ROIZ?
During his last tour as Childish Gambino, Donald Glover used every trick to make his final stop in New York City on Sept. 14 special. But it wasn’t his far-reaching vocals that could shake the rafters of Madison Square Garden that made the show unforgettable, or the playful tease of “some new shit [he’s] working on” before a cinematic set piece ushered in another unreleased song, or the fries he shared with a fan as he ventured into the crowd. It was the indelible image of Glover, after years of transformation, derision and refinement, standing shirtless in perfect posture with a single spotlight at the opening of the show, soaking in the roaring praise of the arena crowd like the prodigal son claiming what was rightfully his. Despite Glover calling the show “church,” he proved he wasn’t there to eulogize his alter ego but rather to leave the audience with something to look forward to in his next life. — BRYAN KRESS
When Ozuna’s Aura Tour hit Madison Square Garden on Sept. 22, the arena was set up in a 360 format, with the stage in the middle to accommodate more seats — the sold-out show had more than 19,000 seats filled. But instead of going for booty-shaking dancers, the standard prop on which most reggaetón acts rely, Ozuna focused strictly on the music, playing with a full band (as opposed to just DJ and percussion). He worked his square stage like a boxer, dancing from side to side to connect with every corner of The Garden. The show was a vocal tour de force that traversed multiple genres, from bachata to ballads to straight reggaetón and trap, and it highlighted Ozuna as one of the very few urban Latin acts who can sing and vocally improvise with ease. — LEILA COBO
The 2018 record Dirty Computer offers an almost complete picture of Janelle Monae’s power, but the last piece of the puzzle is her live show. This year, elaborately-costumed dancers and a rotation of props served to highlight Monae’s prowess as a performer throughout the Dirty Computer Tour, which I saw a total of three times. Still, the standout date was at Bustle’s Rule Breakers event in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Sept. 22, when Monae took things a step further by stripping down to her bodysuit and stage-diving into the crowd not once, but twice. — GAB GINSBERG
After almost a decade of being away from the stage, the grand diva herself — Ms. Christina Aguilera — finally returned to her true calling and went back on the road. Her stop at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall on Oct. 3 was my first time seeing her live, and I could feel my emotions swell as I remembered the 11-year-old girl searching for answers within Stripped — the moment I became an official #Fighter. It was a rollercoaster ride of slay as Xtina ripped through sassy chart toppers and beloved deep cuts. But the biggest and most unforgettable highlight of the concert came when Lil’ Kim made a surprise appearance to perform “Lady Marmalade.” The pair didn’t miss a beat, strutting and shaking their booties along to the words of the iconic, provocative anthem. It was so good seeing the ladies smiling and hugging each other after all these years, capping off a night of nostalgia and girl power. — BIANCA GRACIE
Toro y Moi
I first encountered Chaz Bundick, who makes music as Toro y Moi, as part of the great chillwave surge of 2009-2010…on Tumblr, naturally. At his show at NYC’s Elsewhere on Nov. 11, the second of two sold-out nights, Bundick spoke little and sang cleanly, looking confident and sharp in a white T-shirt tucked into trousers, his hair short and bleached. He and his band moved easily from genre to genre, beat-driven chillwave to funk to Hall and Oates-style soft rock. My dad would’ve dug it. By the time he closed, with “Rose Quartz,” I was surprisingly moved by his journey, from a shy guy at SXSW in 2010 to this glowed up dude in gentle command of a mixed room of Brooklynites, out to dance on a Sunday. — ROSS SCARANO
Honorable mentions: Paramore’s Parahoy Cruise, Paul Simon, ODESZA, J Balvin, Shakira, Florence + the Machine