For live music in Los Angeles, 2016 may be remembered as the Year of the "Secret" Show. All year long, big-ticket acts downsized into intimate venues such as the Fonda, Troubadour, Satellite and Whisky a Go-Go, warming up for larger-scale tours or keeping their chops up between festival gigs, while giving those few fans lucky enough to score tickets the thrill of a lifetime. Lady Gaga, Metallica, Prophets of Rage, Iggy Pop, Paul McCartney and Guns N' Roses all got in on the underplay action — though only three of them made our final picks for the year's 20 best shows (you'll have to read on to find out which three).
Elsewhere around the SoCal live music landscape, festivals continued to dominate. Eight of our top 20 shows were sets at such excellent events as FYF, Echo Park Rising, Camp Flog Gnaw, Desert Trip and the still-reigning champion of them all, Coachella. (Other worthy festivals, including Hard Summer and Desert Daze, didn't make the list but still delivered great experiences, even if no one performance at them stood out.)
So without further ado, here are our picks for the 20 best concerts of 2016. See you in the will-call line next year!
20. ELO, Hollywood Bowl, Sept. 9-11
It’s hard to say how exactly the Electric Light Orchestra went from being viewed as a basic prog-rock nostalgia act to an iconic, classic-rock hot ticket. But in September, Jeff Lynne’s current ELO lineup sold out three nights at the Bowl and proved that they are just that. Pretty much every show I saw at the Bowl this year was awesome, but ELO’s season-closing nights were a rousing climax that was hard to top. The immersive lights and backdrops were as compelling as the soundscapes themselves, perfectly complementing the ’70s vibes and varied moods of the music. From wistful ballads to giddy dance tracks, classical instrumentation to trippy sound effects, Lynne’s still-emotive vocals and timeless melodies made us fall in love with the Light all over again. —Lina Lecaro
19. DJ Harvey, Bears in Space at Akbar, July 3
Previous experience had my friends and me mentally and physically prepared for DJ Harvey’s annual Bears in Space appearance at Silver Lake’s highly enjoyable den of iniquity, Akbar. Converse, shorts, tank tops, cross-body purses and hair up, as it was guaranteed to be a smelly sweatbox. And it was, with the moodiness of the regulars heightening in correlation with the temperature. But with Harvey tucked away in an inaccessible DJ booth, on his own sound system and in the ultimate zone for the duration, none of that mattered. We lucky few wore out the four square feet of space we marked off for dancing, which never stopped. —Lily Moayeri
18. Bruce Springsteen, Sports Arena, March 15-19 (review)
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rocked the L.A. Sports Arena for one last set of shows before the "dump that jumps" or "the joint that don't disappoint" was demolished in September. For these marathon three-hour-plus sets, the Boss and company played the entire double LP The River (one of the weirder, darker, more tangled entries in his discography) from end to end, then played another dozen or so classics in between "Bruuuuce" chants echoing one last time in the old, intimate venue. With Clarence Clemons' son Jake now on the sax to fill the void his insanely talented father left, the band that's been touring consistently for decades played one of the best rock shows in L.A. this year. —Jonny Coleman
17. Bat for Lashes, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, April 20
Bat for Lashes’ latest album, The Bride, chronicles the death of an epic romance through a series of deeply sad yet convulsively cathartic ballads. Singer Natasha Khan emphasized the funereal bridal theme by booking her band’s tour in churches, and Immanuel Presbyterian was a fittingly imposing setting as her aching voice ascended airily and resounded off the grand building’s lofty ceiling. An unexpected cover of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” only deepened the eerie feeling of loss, longing and shattered expectations. —Falling James
16. The Who, Desert Trip, Oct. 9 (review)
While all six artists on the first annual Desert Trip festival's surreally stacked lineup rose to the occasion with brilliant sets (yes, even Bob Dylan — don't listen to the haters), The Who's twilight performance on Sunday night stood out as the first weekend's fiercest. Galloping through their massive catalog of classics with the aid of a razor-sharp backing band (anchored by the controlled but still Keith Moon–like drumming of Ringo Starr's kid, Zak Starkey), Who survivors Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey put any "hope I die before get old" wisecracks to rest once and for all, raising their middle fingers to old age and breathing new life into even their most overplayed hits, especially a climactic "Won't Get Fooled Again" that, in the era of Trump, took on a new sense of bitter urgency. —Andy Hermann
15. Thee Commons, Echo Park Rising, Aug. 19
My colleague Chris Kissel recently posited that East L.A.'s Thee Common might be the best live band in Los Angeles, and after seeing them blow everybody else off the outdoor mainstage on Friday night at Echo Park Rising, I'm inclined to agree with him. Thee Commons' music is a distinctive tangle of punk rock, psychedelia and cumbia, which they serve up with raw, loose-limbed energy, especially when joined by sometime fourth member Jesus Salas on sax. At EPR, their performance grew more unhinged with each song, especially when they donned animal masks and were joined onstage by a dancing pink gorilla. —Andy Hermann
14. Dillinger Escape Plan, The Regent Theater, Oct. 30
If the Dillinger Escape Plan are truly taking a long hiatus after their remaining live shows, they lived up to their notorious reputation for riotous performances to the bitter end. Vocalist Greg Puciato immediately dove from the stage into the crowd upon screaming his first lyrics. Guitarist Ben Weinman soon followed, with guitar in tow. The band’s career-spanning set list accompanied nonstop moshing, Puciato's 15-foot balcony jump into the crowd and an invite to get as many fans moshing onstage with the band as humanly possible. The grand finale was Puciato standing above the crowd and blowing a huge fireball above their heads as the band finished off the closing bars to “43% Burnt.” –Jason Roche
13. Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, Camp Flog Gnaw, Nov. 13
Anderson .Paak wasn’t a complete unknown entering 2016, but this year has done wonders for his career, including two critically acclaimed albums (his own Malibu and NxWorries' Yes Lawd!) and a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. He played just about every major music festival with his band, The Free Nationals, but it wasn’t until November at Camp Flog Gnaw that his live identity completely came into focus. Whether it was leaping around the stage as a bandleader, sharing the spotlight with surprise guest Mac Miller or impressing with his drum skills, Paak was no longer performing with anything to prove. He’s a fully formed rock star whose potential can only be limited by his own imagination. —Philip Cosores
12. Bleached, Echo Park Rising, Aug. 20
This year’s four-day Echo Park Rising festival was a literal walking tour through the lives and sounds of hundreds of this town’s most promising musicians (Chicano Batman, The Regrettes, Emily Gold, The Bomb, Laura Jean Anderson) mixed with occasional visits from old-school sages (The Weirdos) in various clubs and shops along Sunset Boulevard. But the most thrilling set might have been Bleached’s triumphant appearance on the outdoor Liberty Stage behind Taix. Lead singer Jennifer Clavin belted out catchy pop-punk anthems from the band's latest album, Welcome the Worms, with charismatic assurance while her sister Jessica played the role of guitar hero to perfection. —Falling James
11. Vince Staples, Coachella, April 16
If the Sahara Tent once housed Coachella’s 72-hour dance floor, no one told Vince Staples. Apart from the elaborate lighting design, his weekend one set bore a kind of intimacy that hits too close to home while suspended in the vast Coachella void. Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky may have been milling around the front of the stage, but Staples will never fall into the cliché of “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper.” He might, however, be your favorite rapper’s favorite writer. Breakout single “Blue Suede” closed the show with visions of early, ill-fated deaths and premature headstones obscured by bouquets, and flower crowns in the crowd took on a higher degree of absurdity than ever before. —Cory Lomberg
10. Ty Segall, Busdriver, Sex Stains, Very Be Careful, The Smell, Jan. 9
The Smell's 18th birthday party was a jubilant, dizzingly energetic celebration of L.A.'s flagship DIY venue. Very Be Careful ground out a set of swaying cumbia, Sex Stains (predictably) went way over the top and Busdriver's crackling hip-hop was raw as ever. It was, in true Smell fashion, a bootstrapping affair, culminating in a loud, vicious solo set by Ty Segall, who accompanied himself on a duct-taped kick drum. The crowd, gnarly and sweaty, crossed the spectrums of age and appearance. It was one of those shows that reminds you why you go to shows in the first place. —Chris Kissel
9. Warpaint, The Fonda Theatre, Oct. 13 (review)
The best bands are the ones that trick you into thinking they've peaked before they're anywhere close. On third album Heads Up, Warpaint found the pot of gold at the end of years of jamming through a kaleidoscopic spectrum of psychedelia. This homecoming show saw a rowdy crowd that played as hard as the foursome worked. Guitarist-singer Theresa Wayman jubilantly opened a ceremony that fizzed and vogued to Stella Mozgawa's Speedy Gonzalez drumming and the intricate bass-slapping of Jenny Lee Lindberg. The best rhythm section in L.A. was sweetened with career-best harmonizing from guitarist/singer Emily Kokal and Wayman, as Warpaint proved themselves virtuoso magicians of vibe. —Eve Barlow
8. Prophets of Rage, Whisky a Go-Go, May 31 (review)
Made up of three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy's Chuck D and DJ Lord and Cypress Hill's B-Real, the anti-Trump supergroup Prophets of Rage made their live debut at a not-so-secret show at the Whisky, whipping a beyond-packed crowd into a frenzy with ferocious versions of "Miuzi Weighs a Ton," "(Rock) Superstar," "Killing in the Name" and other classics from their component bands. The twin emcees did an admirable job of bringing their own swagger to the Rage tracks, filling the rather large void left by Zack de la Rocha's absence, but the set's biggest thrills came from Tom Morello, whose guitar trickery remains unequaled. In the end, of course, the Prophets couldn't stop Trump, but for one glorious night, it actually did feel like protest music mattered again. —Andy Hermann
7. Brainfeeder at the Bowl, Hollywood Bowl, Sept. 17
Brainfeeder's takeover of the Hollywood Bowl in September, featuring new signees George Clinton and P-Funk as well as label stalwarts, was a kind of label State of the Union. With the new addition, Brainfeeder adds a certain amount of interstellar funk into its jazz-inflected musical ambition. The Gaslamp Killer and Thundercat carved out their own corners of the stage, Clinton proved he's still a restless composer and performer, and label head Flying Lotus — aka Steven Ellison — turned in a dazzling, definitive set. That it all took place under the Bowl's glowing bandshell only gave the proceedings the ceremony they deserved. —Chris Kissel
6. Kendrick Lamar, FYF Fest, Aug. 27 (review)
K. Dot's first hometown gig in nine months felt less like a homecoming than a rebirth, as the most accomplished rapper here or anywhere else proved that he's just as capable of holding down a festival mainstage as any of his flashier peers. At their best, Kendrick's tracks operate on multiple levels, serving as both meditations and party starters; even on To Pimp a Butterfly's two most celebratory tracks, "i" and "Alright," it's hard to miss the darkness of lyrics such as "We hate popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure," especially when they're being chanted by 40,000-plus fans. But it's part of his genius that he's able to lift us up while still making us think, and that genius was on full display at FYF. —Andy Hermann
5. Iggy Pop , Teragram Ballroom, March 9
Only a couple months after David Bowie died, Iggy Pop played an intimate warm-up gig at the Teragram Ballroom, performing material from The Idiot and Lust for Life, both co-written and produced by Bowie during the duo’s “Berlin era.” It was exactly what we grieving Bowie fans needed — not a tribute but a subtle salutation, a celebration of an audacious alliance that changed music forever. Josh Homme and his fellow Queens of the Stone Agers served as backing band, and the new stuff Josh and Iggy collaborated on from Pop's latest album, Post Pop Depression, gave the evening historical range and relevance. Not only did the show reaffirm our lust for life, it reminded us that legends are still with us, and their legacy never dies. —Lina Lecaro
4. Sia, Coachella, April 17 & 24
Sia’s Sunday night appearance on the Coachella stage cleverly addressed the singer's discomfort in the spotlight by allowing her to hide behind her trademark wig and instead put elaborately choreographed dance numbers front and center. That concept was taken to a new level creatively, as the video that audiences saw projected onto the screens featured celebrities such as Kristen Wiig, Tig Notaro and Paul Dano, seemingly all part of the onstage action — or were their parts prerecorded, with look-alikes re-enacting everything live? Fans blew up Twitter trying to reconcile what they were witnessing, casting Sia’s set as a Coachella moment for the ages, previewing a presentation that she’d take around the world throughout 2016. —Philip Cosores
3. Kanye West, The Forum, Nov. 1 (review)
Kanye's Saint Pablo tour was either the best or worst gig of your life, depending on which date you witnessed. At the fourth of six Forum shows it was magnificent, a one-man hovering art installation with West traversing over a pit of out-of-reach fans, isolating himself like a prophet on a hillside. Physically hanging in midair, he was also mentally in limbo. The weeks following saw his behavior become increasingly erratic. The tour never was completed. The night I saw him, he amended "Feedback," declaring, “I swear to God I ain't crazy.” On his next L.A. stop, he checked into a psychiatric hospital. —Eve Barlow
2. Grace Jones, FYF Fest, Aug. 28 (review)
"If you missed Grace Jones, you fucked up," declared James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, who were given the thankless and humbling task of going on after the legendary Ms. Jones turned FYF into her own giant discotheque. Wearing white tribal body paint, a series of ever-more-spectacular headdresses and not much else, the onetime model and all-time champion of offbeat, funky cover tunes delivered a mesmerizing performance highlighted by her slinky versions of The Pretenders' "Private Life" and Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug," plus her own "Slave to the Rhythm," to which she Hula Hooped throughout.
It was the kind of performance that's so good it becomes life-affirming, especially when you consider that Jones is in her 60s and still delivers her classic ’80s material with not only the athleticism of someone half her age but also an exuberance that makes every song feel as if she just recorded it last week. If she plays L.A. again, don't fuck up — go see her. She's a living treasure. —Andy Hermann
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1. Guns N' Roses , The Troubadour, April 1 (review)
Do you remember the ridiculous concert footage from the Bad tour? When fans convulsed during Michael Jackson’s performance as if they were witnessing the second coming of Christ? I never thought I'd see that sort of hysteria at a rock show, not when most rockers have been reduced to reality show stars with Kat Von D tattoos.
However, we were teased for months that shit was about to change. There was vague messaging; nothing garish, not even a press conference. Nobody was going to believe it until they saw it. But when Guns N' Roses reunited at the Troubadour on April Fools Day, disbelief transformed into a current of electricity that reanimated the MTV teenager inside us all. Some of us, myself included, shook in orgiastic relief as rock’s biggest "what if" was answered: Would Axl ever again slay a crowd alongside Slash? He did, at the Troubadour, where press (and cellphones) weren't allowed inside and only a few hundred fanboys, like Nicolas Cage and yours truly, got to witness the second coming of hard rock. —Art Tavana