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There’s something to be said about Christmas radio shows that pop up across the country every December. More traditional music festivals have their perks, and definitely the headliners, but KROQ’s Almost Acoustic Christmas has the hits. Each set is jam-packed with songs the crowd will inevitably sing along to, even if they didn’t realize how many songs they actually know — a stark contrast to waiting for that one TikTok chorus and then losing interest. And a station like KROQ has decades of hits, and the artists behind them, at their disposal.

Not only does this mark the 30th anniversary of the iconic L.A. Christmas party, it’s also a homecoming for the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas. Longtime program director Kevin Weatherly, is back at the helm and, after a two-year absence, the show also returned to the Kia Forum, having spent 2019 at Honda Center in Orange County.

Holiday Headliner

“KROQ, you’re the reason we have a career. Thank you for that,” said Imagine Dragons’ frontman, Dan Reynolds. Following a more laid back but shredding set from the Black Keys, complete with familiar puffs of smoke floating up from the crowd, the chart-toppers closed out the night with a colossal performance. Showcasing how radio-heavy their catalogue is, Imagine Dragons powered through their biggest tracks including “Believer,” “It’s Time,” “Natural,” “Radioactive” and their Arcane hit “Enemy.” With a setlist and performance crafted for stadiums, it’s easy to how the contemporary act worked their way up to headline status.

Dan Reynolds, Daniel Platzman, Wayne Sermon and Ben McKee of Imagine Dragons Getty Images for Audacy

Christmas Tradition

There’s a very specific history when it comes to the SoCal KROQ sound and the bands that helped shape it. Over the years, a handful of veteran KROQ bands have become regulars at the Christmas show. The Black Keys, certainly no strangers to this event, brought a ripping musical technicality in their tight, bluesy set that included alternative staples “Tighten Up,” “Gold on the Ceiling” and “Howlin’ For You.” The slowed-down, acoustic intro for “Little Black Submarines” had the audience lighting up the Forum sky with their flashlights before ending the set with everyone on their feet for the dancey “Lonely Boy.”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys Getty Images for Audacy

A couple of other KROQ mainstays, Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Eat World, embarked on their 5th and 6th Almost Acoustic Christmas, respectively. Ben Gibbard and company snuck into the crowd’s feelings with poignant lyrics and sing-alongs to “I Will Possess Your Heart” and “Soul Meets Body.” Jimmy Eat World, having played Almost Acoustic Christmas more times than any other band on the lineup, showcased a parade of hits. Kicking off strong with “A Praise Chorus,” they continued to jam through timeless songs that everybody knows and will forever be known to alternative music fans like “Pain,” “Bleed American,” the ultimate crowd participation song “Sweetness” and the track that put them on the map, “The Middle.” They were the only band to do a Christmas song, their cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” Even with their music being solidified as part of KROQ history, nights like this aren’t lost on the band. “There wasn’t any, like, hot music scene where we came from. It was just like you had little hope of breaking out of that scene. It wasn’t even on our minds that we’d get this opportunity to be fucking here,” frontman Jim Adkins explained to a captivated, slightly drunk crowd.

Jimmy Eat World Pooneh Ghana for Variety

The Holidays Are About Family

Also no stranger to the iconic L.A. Christmas party is Orange County’s very own Social Distortion. As frontman Mike Ness put it onstage, “The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had to say ‘no, no, no’,” because of the latter band’s guitarist, Nick Zinner, continuing to battle a nasty case of pneumonia. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs understandably had to pull out last-minute, KROQ turned to family and called up Social Distortion, which is currently in the middle of a slew of shows throughout Los Angeles and Orange County. It’s fitting given the long-standing relationship between the two throughout the decades. “We’ve always supported each other, so it’s just continuing on,” said Ness. After all, Social Distortion played the very first Almost Acoustic Christmas in 1990. Their 5th time at the event didn’t disappoint as they got the biggest reaction — outside of headliners Imagine Dragons — when getting announced onto the stage. The punk legends’ set included fan favorites “Reach for the Sky,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Ring of Fire,” as well as new song “Tonight” for the Social D diehards and a stellar cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”

Making New Christmas Memories

This was the 30th KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, but its lower back is far from hurting. The night left plenty of room to highlight fresh new artists. The buzzy Wet Leg opened the show to a mostly full pit as the rest of the Forum began to trickle into seats. Their set proved to be a treat for early arrivers as they’re nothing if not a good time. With the cheeky lyrics of “Chaise Longue” and “Wet Dream,” and energetic riffs in “Oh No” and “Too Late Now,” it was impossible not to enjoy it, even for those new to the Wet Leg craze.

Wet Leg Pooneh Ghana for Variety

Ska-punk darlings the Interrupters, who KROQ supported early on, took the stage for their 3rd consecutive year at Almost Acoustic Christmas and brought a party with them. “To an L.A. band like us who grew up listening to it every year on the radio or going to it when we could — dream come true,” said guitarist Kevin Bivona. Classic punk sing-along was the vibe, which included fan staple “Take Back the Power” and their breakthrough “She’s Kerosene.”

Where the Interrupters are stacking their KROQ chips, Italian rockers Måneskin took the Almost Acoustic Christmas stage for the first time. Turning up the volume on the night, they showed how hard they can actual rock with “Beggin’,” “Mammamia” and a rousing rendition of “I Wanna Be Your Slave.” Even their ballad, the latest single “The Loneliest,” hit hard and maintained the uncontainable energy of the set.

Maneskin Pooneh Ghana for Variety

Yungblud had no plans on slowing things down, running, leaping, and dancing across every inch of the stage as if the Tasmanian Devil were a person, but a person with highly underrated vocal abilities. You don’t need to know any of Yungblud’s songs; he’ll teach you. This is exactly what he did with “Fleabag,” getting thousands of people to scream “somebody touch me” at the top of their lungs. “The Funeral,” “Parents,” latest single “Tissues” and “I Think I’m Okay” (sans Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker) are all fan favorites. If anyone didn’t know the British rocker before, they were won over by the time he closed out his set with “Loner.”   

Yungblud Pooneh Ghana for Variety