This feature was originally published in August 2015.
Welcome to Pearl Jam Week! In honor of the 25th anniversary of Ten, we’ll be celebrating the entire catalogue of Pearl Jam with exclusive features throughout the week. Yesterday, Michael Roffman and Matt Melis reported back from the band’s triumphant return to Wrigley Field. Today, we revisit our list of the 25 rock acts who never phone in a setlist. If you read on, Eddie and the boys just might sit in a fairly prominent spot.
A setlist is the lifeblood of any performing musician. Pop stars commit them to memory, scraggly rockers duct tape them to the stage floors, and a few brave souls look out into the audience for answers. Then there are those that turn the setlist into an art form, treating it less like a blueprint and more like evolved scripture.
Songs come and go, staples shift around long enough that they’re hardly considered staples anymore, and favorites are diverse and scattered among die-hard fans. But this is a veteran’s game, one that young and aspiring artists work toward, building rich catalogs that beg to be timeless and yearn to be heard.
Ahead, we round up the 25 best rock ‘n’ roll acts today who are not only some of the most talented performers, but also the savviest with a pen and paper. These are the folks you stick around after the show, when the roadies might toss you the night’s crumpled and crinkled memory, which will forever be framed in your office.
These are the acts whose shows define the word “unique.”
25. Melissa Etheridge
Rest assured, when you buy a ticket to see Melissa Etheridge, you’re bound to hear iconic FM radio staples like “I Want to Come Over”, “I’m the Only One”, “Come to My Window”, or even her 1988 debut single, “Bring Me Some Water”. But this is an artist who’s been in the game for over 30 years, which is why over the last decade her setlists have pulled from around 57 songs per tour, on average.
This summer, she’s been working with 58 tracks (so far), and each night she’s dusted off a surprise number for an equally surprised audience — from covers of songs by Erma Franklin, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Marley (to name a few) to obscure soundtrack appearances (“It Will Be Me” off Brother Bear 2) to oft-ignored deep cuts (“Cherry Avenue”, “How Would I Know”). Couple that with her VH1 Storytellers crowd work, and, well, what more could you want from her? –Michael Roffman
24. Yo La Tengo
In 2011, Yo La Tengo went on tour. That’s hardly news for the tireless indie rockers, who have been zigzagging across the states and other parts of the world for 30 years. Still, this wasn’t your garden-variety jaunt through the US. The band turned the tour into an absurdist carnival, complete with a wheel fans could spin that would dictate which classic Seinfeld scenes they would reenact on stage. It was a bizarre move in keeping with Yo La Tengo’s flair for marching to their own quirky drum. Outside of sharing their love for “Must See TV”-era NBC programming, the band’s ability to effortlessly spin out killer covers across all genres makes them one of the most fun and unpredictable live acts around. –Ryan Bray
23. Built to Spill
Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi
Use the word “jam” among certain crowds and you’ll be met with some seriously sour reactions. But with Doug Martsch’s guitar geekery and the extended, ambling setlists of Built to Spill, it’s really the only word that fits. Whether it’s the seriously expanded versions of already solo-filled songs or classic rock covers, the Idaho band’s shows often feel like joining some buddies in a suburban basement for a quick jam session.
A YouTube upload of a secret show in San Jose in 2013 bears that feeling out even stronger, Martsch and the band going through a set of covers (ranging from Pavement to Blue Öyster Cult) in a packed-to-the-rafters cafe. A quick scan of Setlist.fm suggests that they’ve opened their 56 shows to date in 2015 with 26 different songs and have played at least 69 different songs at least once.
Plus, for a band with a thick catalog, they don’t shy away from the fan favorites — next to the debut song from the album they’re touring on, the most played song of the tour has been the stone-cold classic “Carry the Zero”. They give fans what they want, and they have fun doing what they want, too — an admirable approach. –Adam Kivel
22. Broken Social Scene
Photo by Philip Cosores
Broken Social Scene has always functioned more as a collective than a proper band. While this probably makes for a nightmare when planning rehearsals, it’s a boon to the group when they perform live. The very nature of the project makes spontaneity a natural occurrence. For example, their latest gig at WayHome Music & Arts Festival wasn’t scheduled until 3:30 p.m. on the day of the show, after Passion Pit dropped out of the bill. Since band masterminds Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning have nearly 30 musicians to choose from, they were able to put something together no problem.
Having such a large, loose machine also makes for a constantly shifting setlist, rife with celebratory staples such as “7/4 Shoreline” as well as gems from the members’ respective side projects. Though it can sometimes be a drag to hear solo material, that’s not the case when you count Jason Collett and various members of Stars, Metric, Apostle of Hustle, and other formidable acts among your roster. –Dan Caffrey
21. Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst
Photo by Ben Kaye
Conor Oberst is another artist who has grown considerably over the course of his career, finding inspiration from classic rock icons not just in his sound, but also in how he conducts shows. In 2011, the last year he was touring as Bright Eyes, the more than 100 shows he played featured nearly 60 different songs in rotation, and even since Bright Eyes took a break, Oberst uses his other recording projects to incorporate different songs into the mix. When playing under his own name, you are likely to hear songs from Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk, and his solo material with the Mystic Valley Band. It all adds up to consistently surprising performances, likely to feature collaborations with whoever he’s on tour with. –Philip Cosores
20. Cat Power
Part of the thrill of seeing Cat Power live is the unpredictability. Much has been made over the years about the erratic nature of Chan Marshall’s live performances, but when she nails it, the results are spellbinding. Sometimes, her show will consist of a full band doing large-scale renditions of new songs, such as the tour behind 2012’s Sun, mixed in with a few old favorites. More likely is an intimate solo performance that finds Marshall switching between choice cuts throughout her discography, pulling from Moon Pix and What Would the Community Think to more well-known songs from The Greatest.
What truly makes Cat Power’s setlist unique on a given night are the covers she pulls out. Known for recording albums of cover songs, you might get staples like her take on Dylan, Stones, or Pedro Infante, but you may also get Duke Ellington, Bonnie “Prince’ Billy, or Mary J. Blige. She’s able to cull from her own discography and the work of others to present varied setlists and experiences that are never the same twice. –David Sackllah
19. The Flaming Lips
It’s hard to name any band that’s steadier live than The Flaming Lips. In the past three decades, the band has beared the fruits of more collaborations, covers, and experimental nonsense than any other. From Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha to Nick Cave, Erykah Badu, Henry Rollins, and beyond — there’s a lot to choose from. And choose they do. Over the years the Lips have given us Dark Side, Sgt. Peppers, Echo & the Bunnymen, and occasionally Louis Armstrong. Even their more standard setlists have purpose. In Wayne Coyne’s own words, “Hopefully [our shows] just let you be free. People can decide, ‘I’m not going to be cool tonight.’ And when the audience does that, you can feel it. There’s this powerful surge like, ‘Oh, we’re all in this together.’” For a band with 17 studio albums of widely varying popularity, selecting tracks that both the casual fan and the diehard can get lost in is its own art form. –Kevin McMahon
18. The Hold Steady
Photo by Ben Kaye
I’m going to commit an indie rock sin by bringing up The Hold Steady’s tired “Best Bar Band in America” title once again. But let’s break down why it applies to them in the first place. A bar band has to roll with the punches, whether those punches be a shitty sound mix, a restless crowd, or actual punches. They have to be willing to change up their setlist on a dime or throw a cover in the mix depending on what the people want.
I don’t know how many rowdy dives The Hold Steady has actually played (I’m talking places with chain-link in front of the stage a la The Blues Brothers), but they often cater their setlists to their audience nonetheless, inviting guest stars like Titus Andronicus’s Patrick Stickles to the stage, pulling out old-school fan favorites such as “Certain Songs” on a whim and incorporating covers including “The Power of Love” the day after they learned them. –Dan Caffrey
17. Modest Mouse
Photo by Lilian Cai
For a long time, Modest Mouse was not a great live band. But as they’ve matured, something has clicked, and a big part of this is in regard to the setlists the group trucks out nightly. Even the band’s biggest hit, “Float On”, isn’t a guarantee (though it’s made its way into 40 out of 48 setlists this year), with the song’s appearance in the setlist usually a good indicator of how good a mood frontman Isaac Brock is in.
In total, more than 60 Modest Mouse songs have been played over the course of their 2015 tour dates, with the band never losing sight of their past accomplishments. Even tracks from their first album, This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, still regularly appear in the rotation, with most setlists finding a pretty good retrospective feel of their whole career. It took a while, but seeing Modest Mouse is now a crowd-pleasing event. –Philip Cosores
16. The Mountain Goats
Photo by Debi Del Grande
With 15 studio albums (which doesn’t even include the cassette releases and EPs that John Darnielle has put out since he began recording in 1991), The Mountain Goats certainly have a wealth of material to draw on. The cool thing about seeing the band over the years is how the live performance aspect is kept fresh by a constantly evolving setlist. Songs are usually chosen to fit the themes or arrangements of the newest material, with favorites from The Sunset Tree or All Hail West Texas peppered in for proper crowd-pleasing. When Darnielle performs without a backing band, all bets are off; nearly any song he has penned can come into play. He’ll also perform songs that are regionally specific, which works out well, considering that he has songs specific to nearly every place he plays. –Philip Cosores
15. Umphrey’s McGee
A band that can tour 300 days out of a year without boring fans is rare indeed. Umphrey’s McGee is one of those groups. Their ability to bounce from metal and prog to blues and classic psychedelia is well-documented. The endless touring assures that Brendan Bayliss and co. can communicate fluently with each other musically — maybe better than through words. For the crowd, this means that crystal ball predictions are the best that can be made for the night’s setlist.
On Halloween, fans get legendary “mashup” compositions. “Life During Exodus” is a personal favorite, combining the Talking Heads and Bob Marley classics in verse-chorus style. Night in and night out, no two setlists are alike. “No Diablo” and “Mulche’s Odyssey” seem to be making their rounds of late. After bringing out the Chicago Mass Choir and closing their Ravinia show with Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”, their inclusion was an easy choice. –Kevin McMahon
14. Ryan Adams
Photo by Ben Kaye
Like many of the performers on this list, Ryan Adams has an extensive back catalog. Of his 14 proper studio albums, three are two discs, and that’s to say nothing of his bonus tracks, EPs, monthly 7-inches, and a vault’s worth of bootlegs and unreleased material. But the wealth of material isn’t the only thing contributing to his historically diverse setlists. Adams tends to make up songs on the spot, adding to an already hefty discography with improvised, usually silly tunes such as “Goodnight Bob” and “The Three Fuckin’ Balloons”. When I caught him at the Cadillac Palace in 2011, he penned a tongue-in-cheek ditty simply titled “Lady with the Phone” when he spotted a woman in the back illuminated by her mobile device. Adams — being Adams — compared her to a sorceress hovering over a glowing cauldron. –Dan Caffrey
13. My Morning Jacket
Photo by Ben Kaye
If the setlist is an art form, Jim James and co. are masters of the discipline. Rather than focusing on which songs they play, My Morning Jacket follows in the tradition of great jam bands like the Grateful Dead by re-imagining and deconstructing their own catalog at every show. Thus, the variety of tunes is secondary to their integrity, which makes going to see the group three nights in a row slightly less insane than it may otherwise be. Not content to rely solely on their own output, MMJ is also known for peppering in inventive covers, oftentimes accompanied by big-name guests. From The Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away” with Eddie Vedder to Danzig’s “How the Gods Kill”, there’s reason to expect the unexpected at every MMJ show, even if you’re at every one of them. –Zack Ruskin
Photo by Philip Cosores
If you’ve seen Metallica of late, the way the band invites fans to join them on stage is just one example of how appreciative they are of their fan base. But the way the band manages to pay homage to their entire career in concert, often changing setlists to incorporate different songs, is another indicator of their crowd-pleasing nature. Sure, they’ll play “Enter Sandman”, “One”, and “Master of Puppets” every night, but going back to 2009 and 2010 (their last couple years of heavy touring), more than 60 songs were in play to be performed by the band on a given night. Taking into account the technical nature of a Metallica performance, their task of being a band that doesn’t play the same show on a nightly basis becomes even more impressive. –Philip Cosores
11. Neil Young
When many of his classic rock peers just shut up and play the hits, Neil Young is consistently focused on whatever album he’s just released, albeit with a sprinkling of hits, too. If that sounds like a negative in light of interesting yet ultimately subpar records such as Landing on Water and This Note’s for You, just listen to A Treasure. It proves that various cuts from an album like Old Ways — boring in their studio versions—become bona fide barnstormers live. In recent years, Young has even started mixing the past and the present within his stage show. The Psychedelic Pill tour, for example, pulled the over-sized road case set-pieces from the Tonight’s the Night era while still focusing on Young’s new songs. –Dan Caffrey