Hopefully the live music industry will soon rebound, and there will be no need to curate a “best live streams” list (or have a “Best Quarantine Performance” category at the MTV Video Music Awards) in 2021. But this year, as every tour and festival was postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, frustrated yet inspired music stars of all genres took to StageIt, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok to give fans a much-needed virtual music fix. And while the novelty of amateur acoustic concerts shot in living rooms on vertical iPhones wore off after a few quarantined days, musicians quickly became creative in lockdown, staging everything from socially distanced raves to epic Verzuz battles.
Of course, nothing can ever replace the thrill of an in-person live show. But we here at Yahoo Entertainment want to thank everyone on this list for entertaining us safely at home in 2020.
1) Post Malone x Nirvana Tribute
When the rap-rocker announced he’d be doing a live stream concert of all Nirvana songs — a seemingly blasphemous prospect — many doubted that he’d be able to pull it off. Even Post admitted that this, his first live performance without Auto-Tune, was a big risk, saying, "Everyone knows I can't sing for s***, but I'm trying to sing my heart out for y'all tonight.” And Post did just that. The April 24 performance of deep cuts (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t even on the 15-song setlist!), which featured Blink-182’s Travis Barker on drums, was the first true Zeitgeist-capturing streaming event of the COVID era, with all the raw, raucous, anything-can-happen energy of a live rock show. Post earned the approval Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who enthusiastically live-tweeted throughout, and of Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, who popped into the YouTube comments section with the cheeky hashtag “#stylingbyme” — a reference to Malone and his multi-instrumentalist bandmate Brian Lee’s baggy floral housedresses, which were similar to the frocks Cobain often rocked onstage in the ‘90s. Post effectively silenced all doubters, racked up 14 million YouTube views, and raised more than $1 million to the UN Foundation. A real “rockstar,” indeed.
2) Dua Lipa: Studio 2054
Yes, the year 2020 was garbage. But for one magic hour, this U.K. disco dolly future-nostalgically transported us out of our lockdown living rooms and off to the year 2054, on a “kaleidoscopic, rocket-fueled journey through time, space, mirrorballs, roller discos, bucket hats, belting beats, throbbing basslines, and an absolute slam dunk of the best of times in global club culture throughout the decades.” As Dua Lipa frolicked in a dry-ice-fogged boogie wonderland with Kylie Minogue, Bad Bunny, FKA Twigs, and her spandex-sheathed Solid Gold dancers, 5 million fans also joined the party worldwide. So, while this event cost a reported $1.5 million to pull off, the investment was apparently worth every shiny penny.
kylie minogue and dua lipa performing real groove at studio 2054 pic.twitter.com/PwRQfkILlo
— joseph (@heIIobritney) November 28, 2020
3) Gorillaz: Song Machine Live from Kong
Damon Albarn’s cartoon collective released one of the best albums of the year, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, the perfectly titled soundtrack for 2020 — and it sounded even more perfect live, played in full, with special guests like the Cure’s Robert Smith, Joy Division/New Order’s Peter Hook, Kano, a hologramic robot Beck, and a Hanna Barbera-esque animated Elton John stopping by. According to reports, this dazzling show was shot at LH2 Studios in London, but we’d like to believe that an underground Gorillaz lair called “Kong” actually exists. Much like Dua Lipa’s show, this was a transporting experience.
4) Verzuz: Brandy vs. Monica
When ‘90s R&B superstars Brandy Norwood and Monica Arnold came together at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta for their much-hyped Verzuz battle, they broke records and practically broke the internet. More than 1.2 million fans simultaneously tuned in on Instagram alone, with a total of 6 million views across all online platforms. Even future vice president-elect Kamala Harris dropped in to surprise the women, telling them, “I just wanted to thank you ladies, you queens, you stars, you icons!” Sure, there were moments of awkwardness between the two former rivals, who hadn’t spoken in eight years, but that was part of the excitement of a live, unscripted event — and hey, we got some great memes and GIFs as a result. By the end of the divas’ conversation, however, it was a total lovefest, giving us all the healing vibes we yearned for in 2020.
5) Run the Jewels: Holy Calamavote
Run the Jewels’ RTJ4 was one of the best albums of the year, even if the Grammy committee strangely thought otherwise. But Grammy voters might have cast very different ballot had they tuned in for this star-studded, Adult Swim-sponsored benefit — a ferocious full album performance featuring digital cameos by Zack de la Rocha, Josh Homme, Mavis Staples, Pharrell Williams, and 2 Chainz and flesh-and-blood guest spots by Gangsta Boo and Greg Nice. While the venue was empty, Killer Mike and El-P gave it their all, performing like they were in a sold-out stadium. And in the process, they inspired a much more important sort of voter turnout — for the presidential election — and raised thousands of dollars for the ACLU.
6) Nick Cave: Idiot Prayer
The Australian post-punk legend, who has a brilliant way of connecting with his fans and conjuring art from darkness, certainly demonstrated the healing powers of music when he played a globally live-streamed solo piano show at London’s famous “Ally Pally” this past July. The pandemic event was in fact so big-screen-worthy that it later became a limited-run concert film (the final installment in the cinematic Cave trilogy that includes 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth and 2016’s One More Time With Feeling) and an accompanying live double-album, Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace.
7) The Rolling Stones on One World: Together at Home
Global Citizen and the World Health Organization’s eight-hour event featured dozens of A-list artists, but Stones drummer Charlie Watts managed to steal the show by going super-lo-fi and super-stripped-down — that is, by not actually playing anything at all. Looking like the winner of some international Air-Drumming Championship, the venerable Stones rhythm ace won the night during the band’s viral performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as he coolly sat behind his Freedrum virtual drum kit, wearing a smirk and teal headphones, tapping on a black box and pretending — rather convincingly — that the armchair to his right was a stack of invisible cymbals. Even without actual drums, Watts proved he’s one of the best time-keepers in rock history, and his attention to detail was downright fascinating to watch.
8) Perfume Genius: Live at the Palace Theatre
Brilliant baroque pop singer-songwriter and queer idol Mike Hadreas, whose Blake Mills-produced Set My Heart on Fire Immediately was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2020, brought a full orchestra to this majestic event at one of Downtown Los Angeles’s most historic vaudeville venues. Though Hadreas used to be known as a shy and reluctant performer, he was completely in his element on a stage once graced by the likes of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, and the result was a concert for the ages.
9) Mika: I Love Beirut
The Beirut-born glam-pop piano showman pulled out all the stops for this benefit to aid the people of Beirut, Lebanon, following a devastating explosion that killed more than 200 people and destroyed a central hub in that city. His friends Kylie Minogue, Salma Hayek, Danna Paola, Rufus Wainwright, Laura Pausini, and others joined in for the cause, but the best collaborative highlight came when Mika took to the streets of Rome with a local marching band for a freewheeling parade performance of his SNL-popularized hit “Lollipop.” What a sweet, celebratory moment.
10) Miley Cyrus at Save Our Stages
In October, YouTube hosted the three-day Save Our Stages virtual festival from independent music venues across the U.S., raising more than $2 million for the National Independent Venue Association’s Emergency Relief Fund. A whopping 34 artists participated, including the Roots and the Foo Fighters, but it was Cyrus’s star turn at Hollywood’s Whisky A Go-Go that generated most buzz (and the most views, with 1.2 million). It was during this set that she debuted her now-iconic cover of the Cranberries’ “Zombie” — which was so well-received, it ended up as a bonus track on her new rock record Plastic Hearts — as well as an unexpected, heartfelt rendition of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”
11) Biffy Clyro: A Celebration of Endings
More of an arthouse concert film that straight-ahead live stream, this record release show for the Scottish alt-rock stadium heroes’ ninth studio album, A Celebration of Endings, felt like a celebration of new beginnings in live-streaming when it took place in August. Shot at Glasgow’s famous Barrowlands venue, the stream kicked off with a 30-minute, black-and-white backstage preshow of acoustic songs before bursting into vivid color for the main stadium event, which included a full string section, a maze of mannequins, an illuminated-cube satellite stage, and even frontman Simon Neil dashing outside to belt the finale song in the middle of the street. True to one of the album’s song titles, the band created “Tiny Indoor Fireworks” on the small screen.
12) Janelle Monae: Pay It Forward Live
When the Grammy-nominated multi-hyphenate played a special concert direct from her home for Verizon’s weekly streaming entertainment series way back in May — when most living room concerts still had little production value — she elevated the game, appearing in a crimson-lit, smoke-fogged, reverbed bunker flanked by her futuristic mannequin band, the Andrettes. But there was one particularly intimate and raw moment, when Monáe became too choked-up to continue. “Fandroids, I’m going to need your help to get me through this. This is a lot. …I'm not going to be able to get through this song,” she confessed as she sat on her knees, breaking down while crooning Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Monáe then went off-script with this impassioned speech: “This is a time that community is so important, and it's really great that we can lean on one another during these times. And I just want to let you guys know that we're going to come out on the other side. There will be a vaccine. So just remember, then, those who have lost families and friends who have lost loved ones and couldn't be with them as they transitioned. I see you. I love you. I’m praying for you. Those who are unable to get tests, those who have to listen to this administration, the lack of resources we have right now to financially make it through this, I'm with you. I'm right there with you. We're right there with you. We're all going through different stages of this.” Eventually, she regained her composure and ended her goosebump-raising performance with a dramatic mic-drop.
13) John Taylor: Stone Love Bass Odyssey
The Duran Duran bass ace provided entertainment and edutainment for Duranies and music tech geeks alike with his fascinating weekly Instagram series — in which he shared the secrets behind the deceptively difficult funky basslines of beloved hits like “Planet Earth,” “Girls on Film,” “Rio,” and “The Reflex,” and interviewed everyone from Mark Ronson to his bandmate Nick Rhodes. It was must-see viewing for New Romantics looking for the TV sound.
14) JARV IS...: Live From the Centre of the Earth
True to this stream’s title, Britpop icon Jarvis Cocker recorded his new project’s album inside an actual grotto — known as the Devil’s Arse — in Derbyshire, and performed live deep within this dimly lit lair. Could there be a more 2020 energy concept than that? The ex-Pulp frontman cinematic cave concert captured all the claustrophobia and foreboding of a year marked by extreme isolation, yet it was so celebratory and magical at the same time. You must go into lockdown, Jarvis is the man to keep you company.
15) Cub Sport: Like Nirvana
After their world tour was canceled, the Australian “transdimensional genrequeer pop” band took to a Brisbane soundstage for the live premiere of their aptly titled heady and gorgeous fourth album, Like Nirvana. Real-life indie angels, they seemed to be performing in the clouds against a blood-red sky as they delivered a performance more soothing than anything the Calm app ever had to offer.
16) DJ D-Nice: Club Quarantine
The DJ of the people kept it simple during his Instagram Live sets, but his “parties with a purpose” boasted the most fascinating A-list guestlists imaginable. His March 15 broadcast attracted Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, Drake, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack and Michelle Obama, Jennifer Lopez, Ava DuVernay, Dwyane Johnson, Quincy Jones, Kerry Washington, Madonna, Diplo, Jamie Foxx, Nile Rodgers, Bernie Sanders, and even future president Joe Biden, all of whom were looking for connection and community through music, just as lockdowns were starting to happen all over the U.S.
17) The Struts: Sunday Service
The U.K. glam-rock band eventually recorded an entire lockdown album, Strange Days, a sort of Exile on Main Street for the COVID age. But their first feel-good burst of quarantine inspo came in early April, when the premiered their “Sunday Service” brunch series with a home performance of the Spice Girls’ “Stop,” complete with adorkable Spiceworld choreography. Lead singer Luke Spiller told Yahoo Entertainment: “I'm English. How can I not be a fan of the Spice Girls? That was like the sound of my childhood, the sound of the playground, the sound of every school disco.”
18) Mike Campbell: Tom Petty Birthday Bash
When former Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers members Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench got together at the old Heartbreakers “Clubhouse” to celebrate what would have been Petty’s 70th birthday, it was their first joint performance in three years. Campbell told Yahoo Entertainment it was “cathartic” and “there were moments where it was a little tugging on the heartstrings, a little here and there. But that's what makes it real.” Campbell also joined his favorite new band, L.A. garage-glam rockers Starcrawler, during the Petty marathon for a cover of “I Need to Know” that was so rawkin’ and awesome, Starcrawler eventually released it as an official single.
19) Andrea Bocelli: Music for Hope
The opera superstar’s special Easter Sunday solo concert from Milan’s Duomo di Milano cathedral, featuring accompaniment by Emanuele Vianelli on one of the world’s largest pipe organs, became the biggest classical live stream in the YouTube history, with a whopping 28 million views during its first 24 hours alone. Clearly Bocelli’s message of “love, healing, and hope to Italy and the world” was very needed during a time of increasing isolation.
20) The Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s Rocky Horror Picture Show reunion
While this benefit stream in the pre-election weekend was spotty in parts, seeing RuPaul’s Drag Race diva Peppermint’s swaggering rendition of “Sweet Transvestite,” David Arquette’s bloody and bonkers “Hot Patootie,” and Lance Bass as the gold-speedo’d Rocky were well worth the price of admission. But it was the triumphant return of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter that brought all the feels. Having mostly stayed out of the public eye since suffering a major stroke in 2012, Curry appeared on the live stream in his wheelchair, drolly singing a bit of “Wise Up Janet Weiss.” Even though he needed some assistance with his dialogue, the teamwork Curry displayed with his longtime co-star Nell Campbell was wonderful to witness, and his occasional sharp-witted ad-libs throughout the broadcast made it so fun to see the good doctor do the Time Warp again.
HONORABLE MENTION - Trixie Mattel: One Night Only
This is a pre-pandemic performance, but how prescient was it that the Drag Race contestant-turned-pop/folk troubadour put on an entire shut-in living room concert for an audience of socially distanced Barbie dolls… in late January? Trixie has always been a trailblazer.
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