The 35 Most Influential Live Musical Performances Of All Time

Like all forms of art, music is highly subjective. What we like and dislike is entirely down to our own tastes and genre preferences. So, with that in mind, picking the “best” or “greatest” live performances in music history is not easy. But this list is curated by what many industry-leading critics deemed as exceptional performances, and also the shows that had the biggest cultural impact. Read on to discover 35 of the most influential live musical performances of all time. Did any of your favorite artists make the list?

Rhythm and Blues era (1940s-1950s)

“Rhythm and Blues” is often cited to have begun in the 1940s, but, as this list shows, it started slightly earlier in the late 1930s. However, the name — which is often shortened to R&B — came in during the ’40s, replacing “race music” as a catch-all term for African-American music. The genre was born out of the musical culture of gospel, blues, and jazz, and it represented a kind of synthesis of those other types of music, with added up-tempo rhythms.

R&B had a huge cultural impact in the 1940 and 1950s, with artists such as Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and The Drifters among the most popular performers. Some of the music responded to the civil rights issues of the day, and it influenced the future development of rock and roll, funk and soul, as well as contemporary R&B.

1. The Benny Goodman Orchestra at Carnegie Hall (1938)

Clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman was already a star when it was suggested in December 1937 by publicist Wynn Nathanson that he play a show at New York’s Carnegie Hall. That show would take place a month later on January 16, 1938, and would be a landmark one that was a massive cultural turning point for jazz, and indeed popular music. “The King of Swing” and his orchestra really brought their A-game on that night, on Goodman’s first appearance at such a venue.

Significantly, this was the first occasion that people actually sat to watch a swing band perform rather than lose themselves to the music on the dance floor. Not only that, Goodman’s orchestra was one of the first racially diverse collectives to play to a paying audience in America. Critic Bruce Eder called this show “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz's 'coming out' party to the world of 'respectable' music.”

2. Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial (1939)

NPR called Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, “one of the most important musical events of the 20th century,” and it is difficult to argue with that assessment. The concert came at a time of serious turmoil in the world — the Great Depression was hitting hard in America, and fascism was on the rise in Europe. Segregation was, of course, still in place in the U.S. too, along with systemic racism. Thus, Anderson’s stirring performance in front of 75,000 people was a milestone for several reasons, both musical and social.

The operatic contralto singer had been denied access to Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the Revolution because she was African-American and Black, so First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a stage set up for her in front of the Lincoln memorial. Anderson — backed only by a pianist — proceeded to win over a much bigger multiracial crowd that wouldn’t have been able to fit inside the confines of the Hall. Her rendition of “My Country, 'Tis of Thee” is spine-chilling, and came at a time when the nation needed a major morale boost. The concert helped spark the fight for racial equality in America.

3. Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall (1948)

When Billie Holiday played Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1948, she felt quite a bit of trepidation. The show at the New York venue would be a comeback of sorts, after her copybook was seriously blotted following her arrest and subsequent jailing for possession of narcotics a year earlier. Not only that, Holiday hadn’t had a hit since 1945’s “Lover Man.” But if Holliday was worried by how the crowd would react to her, she needn’t have. The sold-out venue went wild as Holliday — accompanied by jazz greats such as Lester Young — gave an emotionally charged performance that brought her blues and jazz interpretations to a new level of intimacy and artistry.

Lady Day, as Holiday was also known as, performed a whopping 32 songs that night, including “Strange Fruit” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” before collapsing at the end following a mishap that involved attaching gardenias to her head with a hatpin. The Guardian called the performance “the high point of her career,” and it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

4. Woody Guthrie at YM-YWHA's Fuld Hall in Newark, New Jersey (1949)

Woody Guthrie was a giant of the American folk movement that flourished in Depression Era America. The Oklahoma native’s heartfelt songs of working class struggle, everyday life, and political activism captured the imagination of many, including a young Bob Dylan, who cited Guthrie as his idol. Guthrie gave many great performances during his life, but perhaps none were as memorable as the one that he performed at YM-YWHA's Fuld Hall in Newark, New Jersey, in winter 1949.

During this performance — one of the few recorded Guthrie shows to have survived — the folk hero played his heart out, with fine renditions of classics like “Tom Joad” and “1913 Massacre.” He also answered questions about his life from his wife Marjorie. The recording was released in 2007, and won the Grammy for Best Historical Album. The gig secured his status as a voice for the voiceless.

Rock ’n’ Roll Era (1950s-1970s)

The 1950s saw the emergence of rock ’n’ roll as a major force in music. Rock ’n’ roll emerged out of earlier African-American music, such as Blues and R&B. But by the end of the decade, it had surpassed them both in popularity. At first, rock ’n’ roll was almost exclusively performed by Black pioneers like Fats Domino or Chuck Berry. But after Elvis Presley emerged and topped the charts in 1957, the genre crossed the race divide and its popularity grew exponentially. Early rock ’n’ roll rebelled against the conservative nature of '50s America, and included some racial commentary on the time. But mostly it was about youthful abandon and having a good time.

When rock ’n’ roll reached England in the late '50s, it led to the formation of some of the biggest bands in the genre, such as The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks. These bands brought a new form of rock back to the U.S. in the 1960s “British invasion” and further developed the genre into a high art form, with concept albums and rock operas.

5. Elvis Presley, 1956 Tupelo Mississippi Fairgrounds

There’s no doubt that Elvis Presley performed a lot of memorable shows during his legendary career. But perhaps none were as mythical as the one he performed at the Tupelo, Mississippi Fairgrounds on September 25, 1956. This show saw the King of Rock ’n’ Roll return to his hometown to give an electrifying and raw performance in front of an adoring crowd. Interestingly, Presley had performed at the fair when he was 10. But this performance couldn’t have been more contrasting to that innocent one.

The now adult Elvis — with his parents in attendance — displaying an incredible rock ’n’ roll and sexual energy that helped launch that genre’s mainstream explosion over the next few years. The screaming crowd was so raucous that 100 National Guardsmen were needed to keep them in line.

6. Chuck Berry, 1958 Newport Jazz Festival

When Chuck Berry was booked to play at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival it sure raised a lot of eyebrows. The selection of the African-American rocker for the event by talent scout John Hammond was controversial, given that it was, as its name suggests, jazz-focused, and consequently quite scornful of rock ’n’ roll. But during an electrifying performance featuring his signature duck walk, Berry turned jazz skeptics into rock ’n’ roll believers.

Berry tore through his recent hits “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “School Days,” and his outstanding performance put him well on the way to superstardom. Critics were won over, too, and Newport became much more diverse musically as a result. A certain Keith Richards took note, and wrote in his memoir, “I think it was Chuck's proudest moment, when he got up there [at Newport].”

7. The Beatles, 1965 Shea Stadium

The Beatles' 1965 performance at Shea Stadium is kind of hard to watch. Not because the Fab Four weren’t in absolutely superb form on their U.S. stadium debut — they were. It’s just that the screaming and shrieking from the fans in the New York stadium is near unbearable. We can’t imagine how loud it actually sounded at the concert, or how John, Paul, George, and Ringo were able to hear themselves think, let alone play at the level they did.

But from the opening bars of “Twist and Shout” that opened the show on that mid-August night, The Beatles had their audience going absolutely wild. Years later, Global Sound Group measured the peak sound at 131.35 decibels — 28 decibels louder than a jumbo jet 100 feet above in the sky. Yikes! This concert arguably marked the high watermark of Beatlemania, as a U.S. live audience finally got a taste of the biggest rock band in the world.

8. Janis Joplin, 1967 Monterey Pop Festival

By the late 1960s, Janis Joplin was one of the most highly regarded performers in America. That status was largely earned on the back of her astonishing turn at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. At that festival in June, the Texas-born singer announced herself as a major talent when she performed with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Although the band itself was filled with capable musicians, all eyes were on the raw and intense performance of Joplin.

Her powerhouse, mezzo-soprano vocals stunned many of those in attendance who didn’t know her already, and would help define female blues-rock going forward. Of course, just as her star seemed to be on the rise even further, Joplin shockingly died on October 4, 1970, at the age of 27. The Monterey Festival would also mark the major U.S. debuts of the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Who, helping to usher in the California-based “Summer of Love’ and hippie counterculture.

9. James Brown, 1968 Boston Garden

James Brown gave one of his most memorable performances in a career full of them on April 5, 1968. The soul legend put his heart and, ahem, soul into an eleven-song set that included classics such as “Please, Please, Please” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).” The Godfather of Soul’s unmatched showmanship was on full display that night. The show took place at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, and was arguably the most important show that Brown ever performed. Why? Well, it took place a mere day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and there was not surprisingly a lot of anger in the Black community about that.

As a result, the show was broadcast live in its entirety in the hope that Brown performing would transfix the people of Boston and quell any potential for riots there. After being set to cancel the concert after King’s murder, Brown ended up being pushed into going ahead with it and honoring King’s legacy instead. The historic concert remains of great cultural significance more than half a century later.

10. Cream, 1968 Royal Albert Hall

Few farewell concerts have been as intense as the one that Cream performed on November 26, 1958. The gig took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and is famous for its intensity — and duration. Despite their animosity, guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker, and bassist Jack Bruce brought the goods for one last time, and were ably supported by the soon-to-be huge prog rockers Yes and Rory Gallagher-fronted Taste. By the time Cream showed up, the Royal Albert Hall was not really seen as a rock venue but a classical music one, despite a few rock concerts having been held there previously. But all that changed following Cream’s adieu, which came only two years into the band’s existence.

Clapton and co. hit it out the park with a set heavy on blues covers by the likes of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, not to mention their own classics such as “Sunshine of Your Love.” A landmark concert and fitting swan song.

11. The Rolling Stones, 1969 Hyde Park London

The Rolling Stones’ concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, is arguably the most famous show they ever played. Whilst that can be debated, what cannot be questioned is that it was one of the most important. The Stones had been out of action in a live sense for almost two years, and they were debuting new guitarist Mick Taylor. In front of roughly 250,000 people, the stakes were incredibly high for the band introduced by an excitable promoter as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” Thankfully, Keith, the two Micks, Bill, and Charlie largely delivered.

Mick Jagger prowled the stage in a dress-like get-up, while Keith Richards and Taylor churned out raucous, amped-up blues. The band debuted “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women” live, and played numerous covers and favorites, too, including an extended version of “Sympathy for the Devil.” But the show is widely remembered for being played two days after ex-member Brian Jones’ death in a swimming pool. Jagger delivered a poetic ode to him, before thousands of white butterflies were released. A landmark performance that helped define the band in a difficult moment.

12. Jimi Hendrix, 1969 Woodstock

The Woodstock Festival — officially Woodstock Music & Art Fair — is almost universally regarded as one of the most significant festivals in music history. There were a whole host of legendary acts and bands at the festival in upstate New York, and exceptional performances, too. But one band — and indeed a solitary person — shone brighter than all the rest, and that was Jimi Hendrix of the Jimi Hendrix experience. Yes, Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock is the stuff of legend. One of the most iconic in rock history, without doubt.

Hendrix brought guitar pyrotechnics and a warped psychedelia on a level that had never been seen before, and arguably never topped since. His fringed jacket and red bandana are synonymous with the late rocker decades later, and his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that day still wows today. The signature performance of the entire counterculture movement.

13. The Who, 1970 Isle of Wight Festival

At their peak, The Who were a mighty rock band. The quartet of guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, singer Roger Daltrey, and madcap drummer Keith Moon could put on one hell of a show when they were in the mood. And they certainly were when they performed at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970.

During that raw and destructive performance, the British band pulled out all the stops. Not only did they perform their acclaimed rock opera Tommy, they also threw in some of their best loved hits, such as “My Generation” and “Substitute” and even a few epic covers, most notably “Summertime Blues.” Moon played the drums with reckless abandon, Daltrey sang his heart out, whilst Townshend was windmilling his guitar in signature fashion. The concert is widely considered to be one of the greatest rock concerts in history.

14. Led Zeppelin, 1973 Madison Square Garden

Led Zeppelin were one of the biggest rock bands of the 1970s, with precious few of their peers able to get anywhere near them at their peak. The heavy metal pioneers performed one of their most epic shows at Madison Square Garden on July 29, 1973. It was the final night of a three-night stand at the famous New York venue. Many detractors and critics were waiting for the band — who had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the early '70s — to fail in front of a sell-out crowd and under the bright lights of MSG.

But that night, guitarist Jimmy Page, drummer John Bonham, bassist John Paul-Jones, and singer Robert Plant performed like men possessed in an epic display of heavy blues rock, with Page and Bonham in particular illustrating why many critics and fans regard them as the best ever with their chosen instruments. After that performance, there was — ahem — a “Whole Lotta Love” for Zeppelin, and some humble pie to be eaten for those who doubted their greatness.

Punk & New Wave Era (1970s-1980s)

It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the Punk and New Wave Era of the 1970s and 1980s was sparked off, but one starting point often used for punk is the live debut of the Ramones in New York City in 1974. That band — and the Sex Pistols in the U.K. — largely came to define punk on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Both of them, it should be said, were both predated by proto-punk acts like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

New Wave, meanwhile, was less aggressive and often more poppy and artier. It was perhaps best personified in America by bands such as Devo, Talking Heads, and Blondie, while in the U.K. it was Elvis Costello, XTC, and The Stranglers. Both genres largely constituted a reaction against bloated progressive and stadium rock, and a move away from hippy idealism to a grittier realism. Many of the acts synonymous with punk and new wave dealt with social issues like alienation and poverty, and reacted against conservative attitudes too.

15. David Bowie, 1973 Hammersmith Odeon

The final show of the acclaimed Ziggy Stardust tour that traversed Japan, the U.S., and U.K., David Bowie’s performance at the Hammersmith Odeon is legendary for a number of reasons. For starters, the iconic musician and his backing band The Spiders from Mars put on a show for the ages at the London venue on the early July night. They performed classics like “Ziggy Stardust” and “Changes” with aplomb, and were even joined on-stage by guitar god Jeff Beck for “The Jean Genie” during the encore. But the gig is also remembered for the fact that Bowie announced the effective death of Ziggy Stardust, and The Spiders from Mars.

Bowie told fans, “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest. Because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.” This announcement left many fans in tears, and The Spiders from Mars — barring guitarist Mick Ronson — in shock. Still, it illustrated Bowie was not a man to rest on his laurels but constantly needed to reinvent himself. Furthermore, the show represented the peak of theatrical glam rock.

16. The Ramones, 1974 CBGB

The Ramones are often cited as the real punk rock pioneers. The legendary band from Queens, New York, formed before the Sex Pistols, beginning to popularize the genre before Johnny Rotten and co. even got started. A case in point is the quartet’s first show at CBGB, back on August 16, 1974. It was a venue they would become intimately entwined with during their storied career. That night, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey brought their brutal three-chord assault on an unsuspecting New York public, kickstarting the punk revolution as we know it.

The historic show constituted a sea change in rock music. Now there were songs about sniffing glue, and a lack of a fancy stage show or even musical prowess was a virtue. Hippies and pretentious prog rockers were largely shoved aside to make way for this exciting revolution. Rock music would never be the same again.

17. Patti Smith, 1975 CBGB

It’s difficult to pick out a particular show of Patti Smith’s 1975 residency at CBGB, as there were so many. During that remarkable seven-week run at the famous Lower Manhattan venue, Smith and her group played two sets a night, on four nights of the week. And many of them were unique and memorable. During the residency, Smith honed the punk rock poetics and mesmerizing stage presence that would become her trademark.

Her first record, the landmark Horses, was developed during this residency. Arguably best of all, Smith was supported by a band that would become legendary in punk rock: Television. The Tom Verlaine-led garage rock group swapped headliner slots with Smith, in what was a groundbreaking period for CBCB and the fledgling punk rock scene, putting Patti Smith front and center.

18. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, 1975 Hammersmith Odeon

Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in London is the stuff of legend. Yes, the Boss and his E Street Band really brought the goods that November night in England’s capital, in what was a breakthrough moment for them. The show at the Hammersmith Odeon was the band’s first European concert, so the stakes were high.

How well would Springsteen’s tales of American working class woes translate to a European audience? As it turned out, pretty well. The likes of “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” and “Born to Run” were all performed on the night, as the band showcased its recently released LP. Their tendency to stretch out their songs into epic jams didn’t put the crowd off either.

19. Sex Pistols, 1976 Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall

The Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976, is an absolutely legendary one for punk fans. Not only did the Pistols give an incendiary performance that night of startling anger and nihilism, but they inspired a whole host of others to follow their lead. Brian Eno once said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Well, a similar thing could be said about the Sex Pistols June 4 show in Manchester: hardly anyone was there, but nearly all those who were formed a band.

There were roughly 40 people in attendance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall that night. But they were nearly all mesmerized by Johnny Rotten and co., and inspired to join the underground rock movement. Yes, the Pistols ignited a musical revolution that night, with the likes of Mark E. Smith, Pete Shelley, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Morrissey all forming their own seminal bands — namely The Fall, Buzzcocks, Joy Division and The Smiths — shortly after the gig. Tony Wilson was also in attendance and inspired to create the influential Factory records. No wonder this show has been labeled “The gig that changed the world.”

20. Talking Heads, 1975 CBGB

Before Talking Heads were a seminal and hugely popular act, they were just like any upstart band — young, hungry, and trying to make an impression. The Heads would get that chance in June 1975, when they played their first show at CBGB in support of the Ramones. On that night, David Byrne and co. came out in front of a fierce crowd and won them over. It was clear, even in their infancy, that this was a band going places.

Performances of songs such as “Psycho Killer” and “Warning Sign” were on point, even if Byrne’s jerky dance moves were still being developed. A new type of rock music was being born here. June 5, 1975, was a landmark show for a band that would prove hugely influential on music for decades to come.

21. Blondie, 1977 CBGB

In the late 1970s, Blondie made CBGBs something of a home. The New York band fronted by Debbie Harry played the Lower Manhattan venue a bunch of times, but one gig arguably stood out over the rest. That show was on May 4, 1977, and was arguably the night that the new wave genre was invented. On the famously filthy stage of CBGB, Harry and co. tore through memorable versions of “X-Offender” and “Rip Her To Shreds,” before throwing in covers by the Yardbirds and the Runaways in the encore.

The band were tight and loud, but still ironing out their sound, which would become more pop-oriented in the years to come. But there was little doubt for those in attendance that they would transcend the venue and were heading for superstardom.

22. The Clash, 1982 Shea Stadium

When The Clash arrived at New York’s Shea Stadium in November 1982, they were practically falling apart. Inter-band tensions were at a high — drummer Topper Headon had already been booted out for narcotics abuse, and guitarists and co-front-men Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were constantly at loggerheads. But if you thought these factors would result in a lame performance in support of The Who, then you’d be very wrong. Instead, in spite of all the tensions, The Clash brought their A-game, and practically blew The Who — no slouches when it came to playing live — off the stage.

A stunning rendition of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” was perhaps the highlight of a set that was heavy on hits, from “London Calling” to “Rock the Casbah.” Some 72,000 New Yorkers lost their minds that night, and rightly so. But the evident tensions would see Jones kicked out the band the following year, and the sad decline of one of the greatest rock bands in history.

Pop & Hip-Hop Era (1980s-2000s)

The period from the early 1980s to the early 2000s was marked by radical changes in music, and the emergence of new genres and styles. By the early 1980s, hip-hop had emerged out of funk and R&B to become a genre to be reckoned with. The likes of Run DMC and later N.W.A. pioneered the art form, the latter igniting a gangsta rap movement that brought us 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. amongst many others.

Pop in its many forms also dominated the air waves during the 1980s and 1990s, with artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson commanding the charts. The early '80s also saw a burgeoning underground rock scene emerge in America. Eventually, the seminal bands of that scene — such as Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Dinosaur Jr. — paved the way for the grunge explosion in the early '90s that was headed by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. Some of those bands addressed social issues such as racism, sexism, and misogyny, whilst rappers like Nas and 2Pac often focused on poverty and police brutality.

23. Michael Jackson, 1983 Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever

When Motown’s 25th Anniversary Special — officially titled Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever — was conceived, it was meant to be billed chiefly as a celebration of the many great artists from the label’s past, such as The Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye. But the event in May 1983 ended up being remembered for firing one particular artist into the stratosphere. That artist being the Jackson Five alumni Michael Jackson.

During that May 1983 broadcast, Jackson outshone all of the legendary artists there with a performance for the ages. His performance of “Billie Jean” in particular, was iconic, as he prowled the stage in a fedora. It was during this show that Jackson debuted the famous moonwalk. The Motown 25th Anniversary Special show that turned Jackson from album-topping mega artist to a pop culture phenomenon.

24. Prince, 1985 Purple Rain Tour

Already a considerable draw, Prince shot to superstardom in 1984 with the movie Purple Rain and the album that accompanied it. So, when it came to planning a 98-show tour to promote those acclaimed entities in 1985, ‘the Purple One’ knew he had to go even bigger than he had ever gone before. As a result, the Purple Rain Tour featured something akin to 98 Broadway productions.

The diminutive funk god would begin by ascending from below the stage on a hydraulic lift, and amidst bringing a mind-bending blend of funk, rock, and pop, would change costumes around five times a show. Perhaps the greatest of all the spectacular shows was the one at the Los Angeles Forum, where Madonna and Bruce Springsteen joined Prince for the encore, for an epically stretched out version of “Purple Rain.”

25. Madonna, 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour

Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour that traversed the globe in 1990 was truly groundbreaking. The Queen of Pop brought the world impassioned performances, spellbinding visuals, stunning choreography, and a heavy dollop of controversy, too. Madonna was heavily involved in creating the themes, clothing, and visuals on the tour, along with her brother Christopher Ciccone and fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier.

On previous tours, Madonna had largely just sung her hits and danced a little bit. But the Blonde Ambition Tour changed all that. By now there were numerous dancers, interweaving story arcs and vignettes, and controversial simulations of sex (the latter of which almost got Madge arrested). As well as elevating Madonna even further into the superstar echelons, this landmark tour upped the ante considerably for pop music, and arguably transformed it as a live spectacle.

26. Nirvana, 1991 Reading Festival

Nirvana were an incredible live band that blessed us with some of the best performances ever seen from a rock act on stage. Who could forget their astonishing turn at the Live and Loud in Seattle in December 1993, or the famous MTV Unplugged in New York show that same year? But there’s another gig that longtime fans and critics look back on with great fondness — and that’s when the trio of guitarist and singer Kurt Cobain, drummer Dave Grohl, and bassist Krist Novoselic played Reading Festival for the first time on August 23, 1991. Perhaps one of the reasons for this fondness is that the show occurred shortly before Nirvana burst into the mainstream with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Nevermind, and became almost everyone’s favorite new band.

Even so, the performance on that late August day in Berkshire was something special. Nirvana were hungry, tight, and had something to prove. Back then, Cobain was actually seeking rock stardom rather than revolting against it. Seeing the band play “Spirit” with such gusto live was truly memorable, and the whole set constituted a landmark moment in rock history. When they came back to Reading a year later for another epic show, they were the biggest band in the world, but Cobain was sadly well on the way to self-destruction.

27. Notorious B.I.G., 1995 Summer Jam

One of the biggest hip-hop stars of the 1990s, The Notorious B.I.G. helped define East Coast rap. Biggy performed numerous memorable shows during his short life, but the second Summer Jam event that he played in 1995 arguably represented him at his absolute peak. Biggie warmed up by getting on the mic with the R&B group Total, before going on to perform his own set.

What followed was the very definition of aspirational, East Coast gangsta rap, with the suited-and-booted Biggie storming through hits like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” and, in turn, announcing his position at the top of the rap game. Not surprisingly, critics and fans of the genre still talk about this landmark performance in rap history today.

28. Oasis, 1996 Knebworth Park

Although they largely failed in their attempt to crack America, Oasis have long been treated like kings in their native U.K. The Manchester band probably reached their absolute peak with a two-night stand at Knebworth, Hertfordshire, in August 1996. This was the height of Britpop in the U.K, and the Gallagher brothers Noel and Liam were not shy about milking the rock star adulation they were getting.

Over 250,000 fans showed up at Knebworth — with many more trying and failing to get tickets – to see Oasis play a hit-heavy set full of attitude and swagger. Singer Liam — in his Beatlesque sunglasses – really rose to the occasion, and anthems like “Roll With It” and “Champagne Supernova” were sung back at him by the adoring crowd. It was the undoubted peak for the band and the movement they inspired.

29. 2Pac, 1996 House of Blues

On July 4, 1996 at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, 2Pac took to the stage with Snoop Doggy Dogg and numerous others to give a career defining performance. The 25-year-old rapper had the crowd in raptures as he performed hit songs like “How Do You Want It” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” off his recent LP All Eyez on Me. There's no doubt that 2Pac was at his absolute peak at this point, and few rappers in the land — perhaps Snoop, Nas, or the Notorious B.I.G. — could get anywhere near him.

Little did he or anyone know, though, that this barnstorming performance would be the last he ever gave, before his life was cruelly cut short in a drive-by shooting in September 1996. This show would end up defining the gangsta rap genre, and launching it into the stratosphere. Website Culture Honey called it “the biggest night in rap history,” and who are we to argue.

30. Radiohead, 1997 Glastonbury Festival

Radiohead’s performance at Glastonbury in 1997 is widely heralded as a landmark moment for them, and indeed both rock and popular music. But it nearly broke the acclaimed British band. Thom Yorke and co. were hit by a series of technical problems on the day, which bassist Ed O’Brien told the BBC a decade later made the set “like a form of hell.” Yorke also told the BBC that he never wanted to play Glastonbury that year and was “burnt out.”

He almost walked off stage during the technical problems, but was told he’d regret it by O’Brien. Nevertheless, Radiohead mustered all they had to play a memorable show, including a mesmerizing version of “Paranoid Android.” O’Brien said that perhaps the technical problems “galvanized us.” Music magazine Q ranked it as the best gig of all time, and they are not alone in that assessment.

Contemporary Era (2000s-Present)

The Contemporary Era of music has seen a huge explosion of different musical styles in what could be labeled the streaming age. The charts have been at times dominated by female American pop artists such as Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyoncé. But there has also been the emergence of international stars, such as Spanish flamenco-pop phenomenon Rosalia, and South Korean K-Pop giants BTS and BLACKPINK.

Rap music has continued to be popular into the 2020s, with Kanye West and Drake two of the biggest draws in this era. Besides LGBTQ+ questions, music in this era has tended to be less concerned with social issues, and more focused on personal empowerment and success, arguably representing the neoliberal age it was formed in.

31. Daft Punk, 2006 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

French house and EDM duo Daft Punk put on a groundbreaking spectacle when they performed at the Coachella Festival in April 2006. The often robot-helmeted pair pulled out all the stops and evidently left no expense spared for the first show of their Alive Tour. It was also their first gig on U.S. soil for eight years. At Coachella, Daft Punk brought not only their acclaimed music, but a visual and pyrotechnical show that wowed everyone who was in attendance — around 40,000 people — or those watching online.

The performance is widely cited by EDM fans as the best of its kind, and one that pushed the genre and its other stars such as Skrillex and deadmau5 to another level. No longer was it good enough to just play the music — fans expected a visual spectacle to match. An unforgettable performance that has been the benchmark for EDM artists ever since.

32. Kendrick Lamar, 2022 Glastonbury Festival

On June 26, 2022 Kendrick Lamar wandered onto the Pyramid Stage of Glastonbury Festival to perform as the highest billing artist. He was there to close the event on the Sunday evening. No pressure, then. But the Compton rapper earned rave reviews for his performance, which demonstrated all of his skills as a rapper and story-teller, with numerous freestyles and no little showmanship either.

His powerful set featured numerous cuts off his recent record Mr Morale & The Big Steppers and beloved good kid, m.A.A.d city, while Lamar intelligently addressed social issues like racism, solidifying his position as the thinking person’s rapper. A headliner’s performance, that paved the way for more diverse line-ups in such festivals.

33. Beyoncé, 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

As a part of Destiny’s Child and later as a solo artist, Beyoncé had conquered the charts and won multiple Grammys and other awards. But although she was impressive when performing live, she arguably didn’t have a signature performance. That is, until Coachella 2018, when “Queen B” dominated the Californian Festival so much they nicknamed it “Beychella.” Yes, with her two performances on April 14 and 21, 2018, in Indio, Beyoncé reached a new level of artistry, mesmerizing the huge crowd with an empowering celebration of Black womanhood.

There were marching bands, political statements, and majorette dancers. She made history in numerous ways, from being the first female headliner to drawing the biggest crowd ever at the festival and smashing streaming records. Beyoncé brought out her hubby Jay-Z and her old Destiny’s Child bandmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams for duets, and the result was an iconic performance that The New York Times called “meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical.”

34. Rosalía at Primavera Sound 2019

Rosalía’s headline performance at Primavera Sound in June 2019 was something special. The Spanish singer delivered an energetic and innovative performance of flamenco-inspired modern pop in front of her expectant home crowd in Barcelona. The festival had made some noise in the media with its lineup, becoming the first to offer a 50/50 gender split on the bill.

Rightly or wrongly, Rosalía was under a bit of pressure to justify her top billing, and boy did she do so. The Catalan even brought out British musician James Blake during the set to perform his song “Barefoot in the Park,” which they had collaborated together on. All in all, it was a triumphant homecoming for Rosalía, and a wider breakthrough for both her and women headlining festivals worldwide.

35. Taylor Swift, 2023-2024 Eras tour

By the time of her Eras tour, Taylor Swift was without doubt the biggest pop star in the world, and one of the most popular and successful musical artists of all time. The stats don’t lie, from the record albums sales to the copious Grammy Awards and number one singles. Indeed, the entire Eras Tour made the Guinness Book of Records as the highest-grossing music tour in history, raking in over $1 billion dollars and making Swift a billionaire herself. Swift mesmerized her fans throughout the tour, performing hits and employing personas from across her surprisingly large back catalog.

Among the best received shows of the tour were the three at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium in late May 2023. During that three-night stand, Swift had the NJ public in the palm of her hand, with a little bit of help from guest star Ice Spice. In this mood, Swift is simply unstoppable, so expect more records to fall if she continues to have the appetite for touring and recording.