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Clash Live Act Of The Year 2021

In Association With O2 Music

This is the year in which music returned to the stage.

With the pandemic erasing the live schedule in 2020, fans and artists were left yearning for that sense of connection, the kind of IRL community an IG Live performance just can’t equal.

Throughout 2021 we have worked closely with O2 Music, promoting the glorious return of live music to the stages of O2 Academy venues, The O2 and other venues as social restrictions lifted.

The O2 Welcome Back series has brought the greatest performers from around the globe to the U.K for a triumphant and joyful run of homecoming concerts. Secure Priority Tickets for your next concert now.

Sure, it hasn’t been easy – indeed, it’s been a rocky road at times – but 2021 has seen venues fire up their sound systems, bands emerge from their rehearsal rooms, and songwriters escape from the studios to convene with audiences.

At times, the sense of euphoria has been palpable; indeed, this year has – in spite of its truncated schedule – supplied more classic performances that we can honestly remember.

Here’s our list of the 15 best live acts in 2021…

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15. PATTI SMITH

While for most aging rock stars the time is coming for them to hang up their mic, the same definitely can’t be said for Patti Smith.

Finally returning from a long COVID-induced break, the godmother of punk honestly sounds better than ever. Maybe it’s all the nights spent putting on impromptu livestream shows with her daughter or maybe it’s simply the excitement about being back, but her 2021 performances were reinvigorated with all the power and energy that captivated the 60s and 70s.

Filling the Royal Albert Hall with a wail so rich you’d never believe she just turned 74, her voice has matured into something wiser and more soulful than ever. Scattering her set with Dylan covers and speeches that rile the crowd up into political passion, it never feels like she’s just wheeling out her old classics.

Still with Lenny Kaye by her side, and now joined by her two children Jesse and Jackson, her tight band is truly a family affair and the atmosphere of unconditional love fills the whole venue. The whole audience looks on with awe, everyone is swapping between tears and dancing, and Patti truly sounds her best. (Lucy Harbron)

14. DAMON ALBARN

Damon Albarn’s solo product music couldn’t be further from the tongue-in-cheek ladiness of Blur, but somehow he still brings the same energy and silliness to the stage. Taking over Shakespeare’s Globe for a night, it seems like an odd duo – Britpop and classic lit – but the emphasises theatricality of the setting perfectly paired with his whole band affair and occasion campy hip wiggles.

Playing a mix of his latest record, ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’, older tracks, Blur hits and off-cuts, his show is as eclectic as his back catalogue and Damon moves around his stage like a master. Swapping between serious piano virtuoso and cocky frontman, the change never feels jarring simply because Damon is so good. His voice remains thoughtful and charming, his on stage presence is captivating, and his band are top of the game.

Giving up his stage to traditional African musicians and opera interludes from one of his musicals, his live act is a beautifully odd mix of all his best bits. (Lucy Harbron)

13. CARIBOU

Caribou is no stranger to performing live, having honed his craft over the years, harbouring a sound and vision malleable enough for clubs, festivals and arenas. He returned to playing live with a traditional band, spectacular lighting and well-crafted interludes. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspects of the shows were the bands ability to traverse from the wispy depths of ‘New Jade’ to the oscillating highs of ‘Odessa’.

Caribou’s shows were truly mesmerising, with every aspect so poignantly considered; from an artist perfectly versed on how to translate and in-turn reimagine his music on stage. Snaith and his band treated party-goers to a boundless wave of euphoria that cast ravers a million miles away from the monotony of lockdown. (Josh Crowe)

12. IDLES

Long before the confides of lockdown, IDLES were heralded as one of the most revered live acts in Britain. Their return to playing live was no different, once again propelling revellers into a pulpit of political discourse. Seeing IDLES live once again is a stark reminder of the power of pits, questioning what’s around us, and embracing our vulnerability. Their shows were a musical equivalent of a way cry; shrieking howls, poignant lyricism and manic energy all bundled into ninety minutes of pure joy.

Much criticism has come upon the band in light of their success, suggesting they’ve lost their once blossoming punk-ethos. It’s a critique devoid of true perspective, nor is it one that values the ongoing positive impact the band are having on their ever-growing fan-base. In the words of Joe Talbot: “For the last fucking time, we’re not a punk band”. Their music isn’t an attempt to champion an outdated ideology, but to employ their lived experiences into a tool that can truly help people in the pulpit of day to day life. (Josh Crowe)

11. JOESEF

Everyone who encounters Joesef seems to fall for him. The Glasgow alt-pop savant’s way with words is dazzling, moving from personal revelation to hilarious insight in the space of a single sentence.

It’s the bops that shine out, however, and he opened 2021 with a real statement of ambition: a phenomenal evening at historic venue Barrowland Ballroom, a landmark in his home city. Sweeping south, Joesef then announced – and sold out – three nights at Hoxton Hall, a Victorian dancehall in East London. Making the venue his own, he left fans enraptured with a trilogy of thrilling performances, before pointing to something much more exciting in the coming year.

The perfect example of an artist finding a way past pandemic obstacles, Joesef’s wise and witty alt-pop vision thrives on communication – you only have to start listening. (Robin Murray)

10. PA SALIEU

After a massively successful breakout year in 2020, Pa Salieu has taken no time to adapt his culturally bending sound to the stage this year. Salieu has no issue with incorporating elements of his Gambian heritage into his energetic performances, particularly with his recent jaw-dropping performance at the MOBO awards. His UK festival run and recent ‘Afrikan Rebel’ tour have shown us that Salieu is a born performer.

Of course, like with many new acts of the current generation of rap, there is never a dull moment, never a moment to take a breath. However, Salieu has always had a bigger aim than simply being animated on stage. He aims to take you on a journey through his personal experiences, culture and lessons he’s learnt along the way. You’ll never come away from a Salieu performance thinking he could’ve given anything more.

Whether he’s running through mosh pit ready tracks like ‘My Family’ or taking us on a more poignant ride through his hometown of Coventry, the passion, vibrancy and personality he shows throughout is unmatched. (Chris Saunders)

9. JUNGLE

Jungle’s return to live music in 2021 was nothing short of a triumph, elevating revellers into a frenzy they’ll never forget. The West London singer-producers accompanied with their five-strong backing band of live multi-instrumentalists played a series of dates in the UK, playing in Manchester and London before heading back to the US. Jungle’s blossoming discography is a myriad of dancefloor fillers, that make it abundantly clear they are an act whose music is best received live.

As well as their flawless production, they’ve developed a reputation as one of the best live outfits around. Their return this year paid justice to such remarks, they delivered a set of standout shows with an entirely revised vision of their live shows. This time round they added ‘Loving In Stereo’ to their sonic arsenal, an album that’s tracks blend seamlessly into their rejuvenated live shows.

The new album added an orchestral feel to their performance, amalgamating perfectly with renowned tracks ‘Busy Earnin’ and ‘Heavy California’. Whilst live music is far from being out of the woods, we can still celebrate a small victory that we saw Jungle play live again. (Josh Crowe)

8. WOLF ALICE

Wolf Alice have come a long since they first appeared on the scene about a decade ago. Sophisticated, yet rocking and very raw, North London’s finest alt-rock ensemble continue to impress their crowds, with live shows of immense currency. A genuinely compelling force in music, the band have also shown that they are unafraid to speak their minds on political and social matters of relevance to young people.

This summer the band treated their crowds at Reading to a classy, standalone festival moment. If anyone possesses the intelligence and creativity to demonstrate what poppy grunge means today, it is Wolf Alice. Expertly steered by Ellie Rowsell, the band enthused with a seamless festival set that offered complexity, depth, and vigour, and the crowds responded with zest and energy.

Spells of crisp distortion, serene vocals sprinkled across melodic hit wonders such as ‘Beautifully Unconventional’, ‘Moaning Lisa Smile’, ‘Don’t Delete the Kisses’, and many more, make this performance destined to fester in the minds of thousands of attendees, not just as a great memory of 2021, but as a timeless live performance. (Susan Hansen)

7. JOY CROOKES

The ascent of Joy Crookes underlines the precocious position British soul music finds itself in. Indebted to vintage R&B and neo-soul, the South London artist shared her debut album ‘Skin’ during Autumn to dazzling acclaim, locating a highly personal songwriting style amid those impeccable influences.

A UK tour followed, with Joy Crookes swiftly selling out two nights at the O2 Forum Kentish Town. Fans travelled to North London expecting something special, and they certainly got it; Clash caught her on the opening night, and Joy revelled in the adoration, moving from opulent arrangements to something more pensive, and solitary.

A star coming into her own, those shows emphasised how far Joy Crookes has come – and just how far she could travel in 2022. Closing by thanking her family, Joy Crookes is the relatable icon UK R&B has been crying out for. (Robin Murray)

6. BURNA BOY

Burna Boy wasn’t about to be held back by some pandemic – he spent 2021 shattering the glass ceiling for West African artist, raising the levels on a day by day basis. Announcing, and selling out, a show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, his Space Drift tour is one of the hottest tickets on the planet right now.

The O2 Welcome Back series took Burna Boy to London, one of the first major concerts hosted by the O2 Arena after restrictions were lifted. A sense of joy and release permeated the crowd, with Burna Boy’s performance more than rising to the occasion. Solidifying his place as a modern day icon, the sets also displayed the close relationship between British music and West African culture right now – from Lagos to London, and beyond, Burna Boy is making marks that will last for generations. (Robin Murray)

5. ARLO PARKS

‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’ was undeniably one of my favourite albums of the year and seeing it live only amplified said appreciation. Arlo’s vocals, whilst captured near perfectly on every format, are incomparable to her live production. Stepping on a stage full of flowers and a full band around her, she was greeted by a reception that took her aback. Her demeanour is calm, the audience’s movements united, mirroring the rhythm. Therapeutic and hypnotic, her shows extract the toxicity of the ‘Black Dog’ that exists outside the walls that encase us. It’s undeniable that her debut, the album most of her setlist is comprised of, was a lockdown companion to many.

So, when it got to ‘Hope’, there was more than one tear shed by a crowd who joined together to sing “you’re not alone like you think you are” back to the person who had offered them companionship when loneliness crept in. Winning the Mercury Prize, dominating MOBO nominations and being a live performer at a standard many of her peers could only wish for, at 21 Arlo’s 2021 has been a year that most could only dream of. (Megan Walder)

4. MOGWAI

It’s been a titanic year for Mogwai, with the Scottish post-rock group claiming their first ever UK number one album with ‘As The Love Continues’. In a close run race against Ghetts, the band prevailed thanks to the dedication of their fanbase, a community amassed with countless ear-bludgeoning live shows. The pandemic may have limited Mogwai’s opportunities to escape the rehearsal room, but it didn’t blunt their power.

An album launch show at Glasgow’s Tramway rang out across the city, with the reverberations epitomising their sense of control; as visceral as some aspects of their set may be, Mogwai blend this with moments of quiet beauty. Finding the balance between their uncompromising stance and an engaging subtlety, Mogwai’s fusion of endless dark and blinding light is virtually unrivalled.

Simply one of the band live acts in the country today, Mogwai remain a force of nature. (Robin Murray)

3. BERWYN

Setting up on a small stage with his band, Berwyn likes to keep things intimate. Although his experience with live performances is relatively small right now, that hasn’t stopped the 25-year-old, full name Berwyn Dubois, from making any venue his home. Providing a pleasant mix of records from his first two official projects, ‘DEMOTAPE/VEGA’ and ‘TAPE/2 FOMALHAUT’, you get pristine vocals, blistering raps, and a connection between performer and audience that boats a cult-like synergy, one that only lifts the energy in the room.

While showing his multi-instrumentalist abilities throughout his performances, let’s not take any shine away from his band. Not only are the collective perfectly in sync, they know how to captivate the crowd, in a way that stretches far away from a regular show. A Berwyn live performance is a journey, with the most exciting thing being this: it’s only the beginning. (Jack Lynch)

2. LITTLE SIMZ

Little Simz has claimed 2021 as her own. Just last week, the North Londoner received 4 BRIT Award nominations, including Artist and Album of the Year. However, at the forefront of her accomplishments this year – Simz sold out all three nights at the O2 Brixton Academy, making her the first woman to do so. Already amped to be a one-of-a-kind performance, the wordsmith indeed delivered as she weaved through this year’s ‘Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert’ close to its entirety.

Championed as CLASH’S Album Of The Year, the project lends itself to the live experience with a stage filled by a five-piece band, executing larger-than-life tracks like ‘Woman’, along with the bare acoustics of ‘I See You’ to their perfection. Indeed, this was a landmark moment for Little Simz, one that deserved a full scope of her artistry and served as a reminder that her rise has been far from sudden.

Displaying a journey of growth and years of grafting, the 27-year old performed early gems like ‘God Bless Mary’ off her debut album – an emotional moment for those who’ve stayed by Simz’s side, every step of the way. With a guest appearance from emerging visionary Obongjayar, ‘Point And Kill’ brought all the rhythm and grooves as the two’s natural chemistry resonated across the warmly-lit stage.

As crowds chant ‘Go Simbi, Go Simbi, Go,’ there is a clear reason why everyone is rooting for Little Simz… (Ana Lamond)

1. WIZKID

Selling out the O2 Arena within 12 minutes, the Star Boy was left with no choice but to add two more dates for his London fans (for which, of course, tickets were snapped up just as quickly). Across the three nights, Wizkid undoubtedly brought his fourth studio album, ‘Made In Lagos’, to life, an astronomical project that brightened many’s hope during it’s time of release, where a winter lockdown’s shadow was cast over the UK.

Hailed as the most streamed Nigerian artist in the world, Wizkid formed part of the O2’s Welcome Back Shows. Performing a track list that spans across his 10-year career, the star emulated victory from the second he stepped foot on the stage, highlighting the old and the new. Whether it be summer anthem ‘Essence’ or 2014’s global break-through ‘Ojuelegba,’ there was a radiant energy between Wizkid and the crowds, one that insinuated history was being written amongst them.

As each night unfolded, a range of guests joined the 31-year old, including rising vocalist Tems, Burna Boy, Ella Mai and notably in some head-turning sparkling trousers, Skepta. Staying true to his core message, Wizkid delivered one of, if not, the most impressive shows of the year – proudly waving the flag for Nigeria, sharing the best of afrobeats worldwide. (Ana Lamond)

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Source: https://www.clashmusic.com/features/clash-live-act-of-the-year-2021

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