Our 21 Favorite Concerts of 2021

·20 min read

Ah, 2021 — the year live music (mostly) roared back.

After 18 months of livestream drudgery, it felt like unicorns dancing on a rainbow every time someone so much as plugged in a guitar. It was a year of “post-vax concert stories,” where every show was a hard-won reunion, a triumphant homecoming, and a victory all at once. Strangest of all, it was the year when we found ourselves getting misty just being able to look out at a crowd, marveling at the gift of singing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone other than our cats. Okay, so we’re still a little sentimental.

The point is, in a year when every show was a grand slam of catharsis and joy, it was slightly painful to narrow this list down. But after not getting to do one at all in 2020, we are ecstatic and proud to give you some of the highest highlights of live music in 2021.

All shows are listed in chronological order.

High on Fire at the Austin Motocross Park in Del Valle, Texas, June 19

High on Fire at a dirtbike park sounds awesome enough on its own. What better compliment to Matt Pike’s gutsy riffing than motorcycles whirring through the air? But this show was something of an unofficial Central Texas headbanger reunion after more than a year of no shows. You don’t know how much we needed to see Pike shirtless ripping that “Devilution” pick slide in the flesh again – pictures and memories only go so far. This gig was also their first with Big Business behemoth Coady Willis manning the drums, and it’s safe to say he got the part. Original drummer Des Kensel still hasn’t quite gotten his due, and Willis is one of maybe four, five tops, drummers on earth who could fill his throne. Pre-Delta, this night really felt like a new beginning, for the band and audience alike. – Andy O’Connor

Eternal Champion, Vaaska, Skourge at Meanwhile Brewing in Austin, July 9

One of the most devastating things about losing two Texas metal legends during the pandemic – Power Trip’s Riley Gale and Iron Age’s Wade Allison – was that a sick memorial gig couldn’t materialize immediately or safely. Spacing measures don’t really apply to hardcore shows in general, and they would really damper the spirit Gale and Allison could whip up. This gig, held two days after what would have been Allison’s 39th birthday, was the closest to a real memorial show for both, and it was an affirmation to why Texas metal and hardcore reign supreme. Eternal Champion unsheathed a sword (literally – singer and Allison’s former Iron Age bandmate Jason Tarpey is quite the metalsmith) and charged forward with their burly power metal. Vaaska showed why Power Trip drummer Chris Ulsh is still the Texas d-beat king despite no longer living in Texas, and Skourge’s slamming grooves signaled they’re keeping Texas’ flame burning. —Andy O’Connor

Foo Fighters at the Forum, August 26

This spot could easily have been the more dynamic Lollapalooza headlining set a month prior. However, seeing Dave Grohl and company roll through a jam-heavy set that was LOUD was one thing. It was an entirely different thing for him to bring out 11-year-old phenom Nandi Bushell to play drums on “Everlong” while Taylor Hawkins sat back and enjoyed. There were few moments (that I saw) on stage that were as heartwarming as that. Oh, and she kicked serious ass too. Hawkins, watch out! —Daniel Kohn

Control Top, Privacy Issues on the Williamsburg Bridge Sunrise Show, August 29

Live in New York long enough – and involve yourself in your community’s DIY music scene – and you’ll likely end up at a JMC Aggregate gig. Over the summer, JMC organized a series of sunrise shows at various locations across the city (I deeply regret missing Terror Pigeon in the middle of Times Square with a rented PA, no doubt a haunting and delightful scene in the still mostly vacant tourist mecca. It was the summer after the best of us got vaccinated.) I did, however, stay up until the ungodly hour of 6 am to watch Philly post-punks Control Top (performed solo by frontwoman Ali Carter) and The Raincoats-esque. existentialist lo-fi Privacy Issues rip through songs about our violated freedoms and labor injustices at the center of the Williamsburg Bridge. Miraculously there were no cops; a delivery guy on his way home shared his White Claw with me, we hugged. After the sun rose, the dwindling crowd all decided to get breakfast together. It was an incredible reminder of what we lost when we lost live music, and what we can rebuild, now, free of preexisting structures. The most magical musical moments will be like these: made by the people who love it. —Maria Sherman


Les Savy Fav at Market Hotel in Brooklyn, September 12

The post-punk heroes played 13 furious songs, including EMOR (ROME Upside Down), their nimble 2000 EP, from start to finish. Favs’ eccentric singer-poet Tim Harrington (who is apparently also a children’s author and illustrator) did it all in an “I’M FROM MIAMI BITCH” t-shirt as the M train rattled the floor. Harrington sang from a microphone dangling from a ceiling hook. He ran onto the fire escape. He made out with someone in the mosh pit. Then he became the mosh pit. And after their last song, he walked directly from the stage to the venue door, shirtless, breathless, covered in sweat, and personally thanked every single person for coming to the show. I hugged him. Brooklyn is back. —Sarah Grant

White Reaper at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, September 20

The first time SPIN editor Sarah Grant and I hung out was, fittingly, at the White Reaper concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. After some chatting over canned alcohol, we snuck through the crowded yet breathable mass up to the very front left below the stage. I had never heard of the ghoul group, and the five mid-to-late 20-year-olds shuffled onto the stage, reminding me of my young, band-tee-bearing co-workers from the sandwich shop I work at. Kicking off with a track off their debut, they head-banged and spitted a mix from all three of their records. They picked on the crowd’s Nirvana fans when they harshly covered “Aneurysm,” and their keyboardist even asked everyone for some beers (someone brought up five). A small and spacey mosh pit opened in the middle of the audience, and we joined in during the Van Halen-esque “Judy French,” shoving anyone next to us and laughing along with the band. —Marisa Whitaker

Fugees at Pier 17 in New York City, September 22

For one epic September night on the roof of Manhattan’s Pier 17, the hip-hop unthinkable happened—The Fugees, along with a backing band bigger than the Count Basie Orchestra, came together to re-animate seven classic songs left untouched for 15 years. As is the Fugees’ tradition, the show was heavily delayed for no reason, but 3,000 people left waiting for over three hours with their phones locked in pouches to prevent filming definitely helped the ’90s vibe. Ms. Lauryn’s rapping was still incredible, her singing still royal. Wyclef performed half of a new Fugees song (not a freestyle, confirmed by a sax player I ran down in the parking garage post-show), and Pras supplemented it all perfectly. If this whole extravaganza makes it to arenas next year, what a way to come back; if the tour never materializes, what a way to go out. Either way—drumroll—we hear a 25th-anniversary triple vinyl of The Score is coming soon from RuffNation Entertainment, along with a few surprises. —Jonathan Rowe

Coldplay at the Apollo Theater in New York City, September 23

Seeing a stadium juggernaut like Coldplay in a theater this size is like capturing a supernova in a snowglobe. Chris Martin sweated through at least two shirts that night jumping around the hallowed stage, launching his wide, open palm in the air as if exorcising the planet via synth-pop. Speaking of, the night’s big unveil was their new single “My Universe,” a leviathan collab with South Korean boy band BTS. But the amazing thing about a hardcore Coldplay audience is that even a Max Martin banger takes a backseat to the ballads. Don’t care for an extended acoustic rendition of “Yellow”? You can GTFO, thanks. “The Scientist” and “Fix You” were the big emotional highlights. And although it was odd to hear a section of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” interpolated in “Viva La Vida,” the chaps meant well. “We’ve dreamed of playing here for a long time,” Martin said. “I honestly didn’t think it would ever happen.” The evening ended with “Coloratura,” a 10-minute piano opus from their sublime new album, Music of the Spheres. But Martin, a true gentleman, had already given people the clear to head out “if you think the new stuff is shit.” Not a soul took him up on it. —Sarah Grant

Eddie Vedder and the Earthlings at Ohana Fest, September 25

There’s something romantic about seeing a band perform their first-ever show. Even for seasoned veterans. Eddie Vedder, who has been fairly prolific on the collaboration front this year, had to spring into action when Kings of Leon dropped out of their Ohana headlining slot due to their mother’s death. Thus, fans were treated to a day early set (Vedder was slated to headline Saturday night) and the result was a true, die-hard music fan’s dream. Seeing him unveil the Earthlings, the all-star band featuring Josh Klinghoffer, Chad Smith, Pino Palladino, Andrew Watt and Glen Hansard, was fun and unexpected (Vedder has played Ohana solo in the past). It’s rare for a “new” band to bring an unfiltered garage-y, getting-to-know-you vibe to the stage, yet, at the same time, having the first day of school feel. The result was the beauty of hearing all kinks, rough edges and good ol’ fashioned fun (once they got rolling). —Daniel Kohn

Phoebe Bridgers at Governors Ball Music Festival in New York – September 26

Like every other millennial, Punisher was the album that I cried to, walked to and languished to throughout the pandemic. The fact that I, and so many others, couldn’t hear Phoebe Bridgers‘ cathartic scream in “I Know The End” live until nearly a year-and-a-half after the dazzling record dropped nearly broke me. But I’m happy to say that I made the trek from Brooklyn to Queens to Governor’s Ball — the music festival where I make an annual cameo — to see Ms. Bridgers sing me lullabies and let me get out some much-needed angst. Against a starry revolving backdrop, Bridgers sang nearly the entirety of her sophomore LP to a crowd of swaying hipsters. I tried to ignore the screaming teens, because frankly, I was one once too (maybe still am), and let Bridgers lull me into a teary-eyed trance during a serenade of “Moon Song.” —Ilana Kaplan

Brandi Carlile at Ohana Fest, October 2

There are times when you’re at a show, at a moment, when you know that an artist is in the middle of a moment. It’s even better when you’re witnessing an artist who you know who has long been knocking on the door, is about to smash through to mega-stardom. That’s what happened at weekend two of Ohana Fest. Brandi Carlile, who already had a strong performance at the fest’s first weekend, had the crowd eating out her proverbial hand. Opening for Pearl Jam at Eddie Vedder’s festival is no easy feat, yet the grounds at Doheny State park were PACKED and was raucous for her. Her terrific album, In These Silent Days, was released the day before and Carlile had the unspoken swagger on stage that accompanies superstardom. Not that even had to be said, but at this show, Carlile’s confidence was infectious (showing range and the chutzpah to cover Soundgarden with Mike McCready and Matt Cameron was pretty damn impressive in its own right) and the performance backed that up. —Daniel Kohn

 

Social Distortion at the Majestic Ventura Theater, October 11

It’s been a long time since Social Distortion last released music. But, in those 11 (!!!) years, Mike Ness and company have been a touring force, playing shows, festivals, and literally everything in between. But, after two years (an eternity for them) there was something great about seeing them perform in a nearly-century old theater in a quiet beach town 60 miles north of Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, Social D ripped through a career-spanning set in a way that the OC punk pioneers can, proving that even after a long layoff and over four decades in, this Southern California treasure still has it. —Daniel Kohn

 

Mammoth WVH at the Whisky A Go-Go, October 12

Just before Wolfgang Van Halen was set to debut his new band at an intimate club show on the Sunset Strip in August, there was a COVID situation that caused the show to be pushed to October. Because we can’t have nice things, Mammoth WVH’s guitarist, Frank Sidoris and his wife were involved in a bad accident that injured the two of them pretty badly. Fortunately, they survived, but Mammoth WVH had to continue the final dates of their 2021 tour as a four-piece. Without Sidoris on stage but there in spirit, the band tore through that emotional first night that was Van Halen’s first proper headlining show in his hometown on his own. Spirited versions of “Don’t Back Down,” “Resolve” and “Distance” showed how Van Halen has evolved into a confident bandleader who can command an audience in such a short period of time. —Daniel Kohn

HAIM at All Things Go Festival, October 16

The last show I saw before 2020’s lockdown was the HAIM sisters nestled in a Manhattan deli playing a handful of songs from their beloved forthcoming album Women In Music Pt. III surrounded by bowls of matzo ball soup. It was brief but a hell of a way to go into a year (plus) without music. So seeing my favorite California sisters get to perform a career-spanning set (finally) that included WIMPIII songs and came with a stadium vibe was more than worth the wait. On a jaunt to DC’s All Things Go Festival, I was able to catch my favorite sister act sway in unison to “Want You Back” and belt out “The Steps” to a drunk crowd (including myself). They charmed, they wore faux leather and they made me remember how to dance around other people again. —Ilana Kaplan

Des Rocs at Bowery Ballroom, November 4

One of 300’s new signees is a blues-guitar-obsessed kid from Long Island whose life mission is to be Freddie Mercury and Brian May at the same time. I had my doubts, too, until I got smacked with Wembley-size energy at the Bowery Ballroom on a Tuesday night. Blazing lights! Careening guitars! Fists to the sky! I just kept thinking, What year is this? The live display was enlivening and over-the-top, with two guitarists and a drummer who had to be pried off the stage. Des did his “thanks for coming out tonight” guitar solo at least four times. What I took for new songs — “Imaginary Friends,” “Mickey Mouse Club,” “Hanging By A Thread” – were well-worn anthems to everyone there who knew all of the words. (The technical term for the Des fanbase is the Filthy Animals, which now explains why there was someone walking around in a giant rat costume.) Des Rocs released his first full-length album in 2021 and this was his first headlining U.S. tour. His vocal styling does owe a lot to Queen — Des even did a Freddie-style vocal improv exercise with the crowd — but the music is closer in tone, and in theme, to the urgent 2000s emo-rock of Panic! At The Disco and Muse. Whatever you think of those bands, the point is, Des Rocs is not to be missed in 2022.

Turnstile at the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles, November 6-7

Turnstile is likely the rock band of 2021, and as such, they did this fall what every great rock band does at some point in their career. They went on a tour with a bunch of hip-hop acts to perform for thousands of kids who have never heard their music before. For the Los Angeles stretch of the tour — which was headlined by SoundCloud duo $uicideboy$ and also featured British rapper Slowthai among others — that meant performing three shows within 24 hours for one of the best hardcore bands on the planet right now. Between their two evening performances at the Shrine Exposition Hall, they drove down to Long Beach to open for A$AP Rocky at the unorganized hurricane of consumer culture known as ComplexCon. While perhaps only 30% of the crowd knew what to make of the Baltimore rockers, a large swath of them couldn’t help but dance (or at least uncomfortably sway) along to Turnstile’s high-energy hypnotic tunes. —Josh Chesler

Kendrick Lamar at Day N Vegas in Las Vegas, November 10

As one of the most anticipated sets of the festival, Kendrick Lamar’s first show in two years (and only one of 2021) did not disappoint. In a career-spanning set (in chronological order, no less)that also included an appearance by Baby Keem (who performed “Range Brothers” live for the first time), Lamar put a contemporary, but artistic show. Lamar shared the stories behind the making of his lauded albums prior to performing cuts from them. Aside from his biggest hits, Lamar once again reminded the audience of his magnetic showmanship by incorporating modern dancers into the stage show who enhanced the set and made it an immersive performance. —Eleni Rodriguez

Genesis at the United Center in Chicago, November 15

When Genesis headlined London’s Wembley Stadium for four straight shows in July 1987, it marked the apex of a band at its commercial peak. The prog-pop trio, fronted by the inescapable Phil Collins, were still riding high on the smooth synths and silkier hooks of their 13th LP, Invisible Touch. But me? I was in diapers, having been born two months earlier. (Turns out there are downsides to your heroes being four decades older than you.) When Genesis reunited in 2007, I was more concerned with English papers and small-town tomfoolery than attending their tour — scraping together hundreds of dollars for a ticket was a preposterous concept. So when they announced their latest go-round (likely their last), I was elated, even if Collins would probably be sitting for most of the shows, still hobbled by multiple health issues. I promised myself I would pay any sum of money for two tickets (me and my wife, a fellow Genesis-head), so we bought a pair for their show in Columbus, Ohio. Then, naturally, I wound up getting the assignment to review their opening date in Chicago. Holy shit! Two shows? Do we dare? We dared. That night was everything I’d dreamt about for years: massive pop hooks and balladry butting up against extended prog epics; tears buttressed by laughter; the joy of singing along (if awkwardly masked) in a crowd of strangers; watching people try — and fail — to bop around in 5/4. At various points, I found myself closing my eyes. Then I’d realize that fact and scold myself: “This is my first time seeing my favorite band! I should take in every second!” Looking back, I think I couldn’t process all that emotion. I’d glance over at my wife, whose love of this music solidified our nerdy bond back in college, and lose myself in the raw magic of it all. I’ll treasure those moments forever. —Ryan Reed

 

Foo Fighters at the American Museum of Natural History Gala, November 18

Six months after the Foo Fighters triumphantly kicked open Madison Square Garden, the Hall of Famers returned to another New York City landmark — the American Museum of Natural History — where they played the annual gala to a lavish crowd dining beneath the big blue whale. It’s been a nonstop year for the Foos. So that’s why it was particularly poignant to hear Dave Grohl reflecting on one of the first concerts he played this year, in his old Washington, D.C. stomping ground: President Biden’s inauguration, which the rest of us only saw virtually. The band began with their prescient anthem “Times Like These” with its slow, emphatic intro just as they had on the January 20th broadcast. “We woke up that morning and we found out that we had a new president and for some reason, this song made more sense than it ever had before,” Grohl said. The gravitas subsided. One “Learn to Fly” and several tipsy SNL cast members later, the Foos revved into a cover of “Darling Nikki” and the room basically exploded. Speaking of 1984, MTV queen Patty Smyth was also a guest that evening, so the only missed opportunity was not bringing her onstage for a “The Pretender”/“The Warrior” mashup. Ideas for next year. —Sarah Grant

 

The Lunachicks at Webster Hall in New York City, November 27

In 2021, the one time I saw a bra flung onstage was at a Lunachicks show. No surprise there. Some of us have waited our entire lives for the honor of getting our ears ripped off by thee Theo Kogan. And after a goddamn pandemic? It was a reunion/homecoming like no other. Gina Volpe on guitar and Squid Silver on bass turned the night into their own personal power-chord Jenga, each song more badass than the last, as Theo held court in her giant wig and tutu looking like if Ariana Grande walked off the set of American Horror Story. But during set-closer “Down at the Pub,” even the garrulous Kogan was at a loss for words. (“I mean, I’m pretty speechless at this point.”) It’s been quite a comeback year for these punk freakazoids, who also released the entertaining (and excellently-titled) memoir, Fallopian Rhapsody: The Story of the Lunachicks. It’s the story of a band that’s fiercely loyal — “If someone fucked with us, we went after them arm in arm and ruined their stupid lives” — and loves a fart joke. Sample chapter title? “Close Encounters of the Turd Kind.” A must-own. —Sarah Grant

The Hold Steady at Brooklyn Bowl, December 1

Looks like we made it. That was the vibe and the Barry Manilow song playing as the Hold Steady made their triumphant return to the bowling alley stage that’s been lacking them for two long, miserable, Massive Night-less years. But we rose again. Damn right, we rose again. It was the perfect occasion to celebrate 15 years of their 2006 masterpiece Boys and Girls in America, which they played in full. Michael Imperioli from Zopa (and The Sopranos) and Augusta Koch of Gladie and Cayetana came onstage for “Chillout Tent.” I choked up when Craig Finn sang about “kids coming from miles around to get messed up on the music.” I kept thinking about the “carload of girlfriends” line. How we’re all just trying to make it down from Boden. How lucky we get to be the carload of girlfriends once again. How unbelievably lucky, to be alive and vaccinated and screaming “DOUBLEWHISKEYCOKENOICE” with my friends again. —Sarah Grant

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