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