As peak festival season winds down, we pick the 10 music festivals that still have us talking and already packing our bags for next year.
The variables around music festivals are staggering in their number. There’s location, food, the VIP experience, the sponsors, and the art. What to the wristbands look like? How will the stages be designed? Where will the giant Jenga go? And this is all before figuring out who will actually perform at the event.
Now that another year of music festivals has been fully revealed, it’s clear that what excites us about these events has turned on its head. Previously, the big four (Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits) owned our attention, with their draw and vision guaranteeing some of the most interesting live music events of the year. The other majors, like Outside Lands, Sasquatch, and Governors Ball, would also typically place somewhere in our rankings. These are the festivals with the biggest resources, with the markets or history to warrant large-scale parties. It’s the kind of to-do that smaller, niche festivals traditionally can’t compete with.
But that’s just not the case anymore. Only half of the big four feature in our top 10 festivals of the year, with European fests and smaller, more-focused events taking many of the spots on our list. Complaints of large festivals featuring lineups that are too similar has reached a fever pitch, and rightfully so. While Coachella still offers some signature bookings, like Guns N’ Roses this year, the same cannot be said for all of the others.
Photo by Nina Corcoran
Other factors affecting the rankings have been a particularly bad year for weather. Despite strong lineups, Levitation, Governors Ball, and Beach Goth all had to cancel some aspect of their programming due to rain and flooding, sinking their chances for year-end recognition.
Is there one defining attribute for the festivals that made our final 10? Not really. In the case of Day for Night, a lot of people will focus on booking Aphex Twin for his first American show in eight years, but the lineup is also remarkably focused and cogent. Of course fans of Aphex Twin also want to watch Bjork, Arca, and Oneohtrix Point Never. By knowing who their audience is, Day for Night has become one of the best-booked festivals in the country in just its second year of existence.
And this goes for many of the fests on our final list of the year. The person who FYF is designed for actually exists. As does the person that Coachella would seem to speak to, or Outside Lands, or Riot Fest. So many festival lineups try to appeal to everyone, when in reality the prototypical music fan they are seeking doesn’t exist. Maybe that’s something music festivals are going to need to ask themselves going forward: Who are we aiming to please, and are we accomplishing that? They should take a look at the following 10 festivals for a blueprint on how to do it right.
10. Outside Lands
Previously No. 10: Moogfest
San Francisco’s Outside Lands always draws top-tier talent to play its festival, and the seemingly familiar combo of Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem was no disappointment. It was stacked beyond that with a bit of everything, cherry-picking big names from diverse scenes to put together a stellar lineup. With Lana Del Rey, Duran Duran, Ryan Adams, Sufjan Stevens, and Chance the Rapper, they seemed to pick artists who may not have had a lot in common, but blended together well. Chance in particular was a great get, performing his first large-scale festival set in support of Coloring Book.
Beyond the headliners, there was an undercard filled with bands who would headline smaller festivals in Beach House, Grimes, and Miguel and up-and-comers having a tremendous year, including Anderson .Paak and Julien Baker. A unique booking of legendary Muppets band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and a last-minute addition of bay area legends E-40 and Warren G playing a set together was the icing on top of one of the year’s more memorable lineups. –David Sackllah
Previously No. 9: Boston Calling
It can’t just be Radiohead. Or LCD Soundsystem. Or Lana Del Ray. Or even the sum of their collective powers. They’re not exclusive to Lolla (Outside Lands has ‘em all). Not by a long shot. What matters is what’s on the undercard. Chicago’s Lollapalooza has long been a melting pot, a festival that, perhaps better than any other, bridges that gap between fervent fans and casual ones. The aforementioned acts? That’s the music we can all agree on. And Lolla’s sheer size allows such a deep, diverse lineup, where midday sets from Third Eye Blind and Frank Turner bump up against the likes of Future, Grimes, and Tory Lanez. Mid-tier indie acts with crossover appeal and the future at their fingertips (Haim, Local Natives, Danny Brown) also have a place here, where they’re just as likely to win over a beefy Day-Glo bro as they are a budding blogger. It’s easy to criticize the commercial, fashion-obsessed milieu of Lolla, but you can’t deny that it’s a portal of discovery and, when you factor in the number of celebrity cameos Lolla has culled over the years, surprise. It can’t just be Radiohead. —Randall Colburn
08. Corona Capital
Previously No. 8: Governors Ball
Looking at the lineup for Corona Capital, there’s no way that the bill would ever exist in America unless it was at Coachella a decade ago. Acts like Kraftwerk, Pet Shop Boys, Richard Ashcroft, and Air all appeal to a different kind of music head, one that is well-versed in history and less concerned with the current trends. This has been Corona Capital’s wheelhouse since its establishment in 2010, offering lineup spots to bands like The Libertines, Portishead, and Massive Attack over the years. It’s sophisticated and global, friendly to both traveling festival goers and the tastes of local fans. With so many US festivals trying to please the masses, Corona Capital fills a niche that is now unique to North America.
In addition, Corona Capital’s 2016 edition offers up a unique booking of Kevin Parker vs Mark Ronson, a pairing we won’t know much about until they hit the stage in a couple weeks. And that’s something truly special, something that every festival should strive for, where fans head into the event full of questions that can only be answered on stage. And that’s not even getting into the headliners The Killers, LCD Soundsystem, and Lana Del Rey, who round out what is one of the best bills of the year. –Philip Cosores
07. Riot Fest
Previously No. 7: Levitation
“Batshit crazy.” That’s how we described the batch of artists at Chicago’s Riot Fest this year. No other lineup in 2016 had as many shocks, curiosities, and, well, questions: Wait, The Misfits are reuniting? Juliette Lewis has a band? You seriously think Morrissey will show? Riot Fest takes more chances than any other festival of its size. While some festivals see Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem as their “sure things,” Riot Fest relies on Glenn Danzig and Andrew W.K. That reverence makes Riot Fest unique, as well as a hot spot for reunions — in addition to The Misfits, the Smoking Popes performed, and The Hold Steady welcomed back multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay for a top-to-bottom play through of Boys & Girls in America.
As much as it values its punk forebearers, however, Riot Fest is never alienating. Hip-hop both modern (2 Chainz, Joey Bada$$) and vintage (Nas, Method and Red) unfolds alongside accessible indie stalwarts (Brand New, Death Cab for Cutie), weirdos (Ween, The Flaming Lips) and local, burgeoning acts (The Walters, The Falcon). And GWAR. Never forget GWAR. What the rise of festival culture (and phrases like “festival culture”) means is an inevitable commercialization; synergistic initiatives abound and the idea of “festival as event” can sometimes serve to eclipse its raison d’etre. Riot Fest isn’t immune to this, but it’s perhaps best at hiding it. That counts for something. —Randall Colburn
06. Festival Supreme
Previously No. 6: New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
Festival Supreme is the only performer-curated festival to make our list. But with the success of Bon Iver’s Eaux Clairs and Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw, plus the budding national attention (both good and bad) for The Growlers’ Beach Goth, there’s something to be said for events that reflect the sensibilities of artists with established audiences.
For Festival Supreme, it’s the idea of comedy rock, where Flight of the Conchords, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and founders Tenacious D present the vanguard of the genre. But the festival also doesn’t limit itself to that, presenting stand-ups like Patton Oswalt and musicians like Mac Demarco who fit the sensibility of the event. One-time-only bookings like The Music of Wet Hot American Summer and Fred Armisen’s fake Documentary Now! band make Festival Supreme a risk-taker, a fest that chooses the unknown over safe commodities. In a year when many festivals did the opposite, this makes Festival Supreme a standout. –Philip Cosores
05. Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Previously No. 5: Panorama
For all of Coachella’s garishness, corporate artistry, and celebrity worship, the Indio festival’s lineup was no joke. It never is, though, and though it shared headliners with a number of the year’s festivals (LCD Soundsystem, Sufjan Stevens, Sia), the festival distinguished itself with a robust undercard and a longstanding reputation for curating a one-of-a-kind experience. Speaking of one-of-a-kind, Coachella also scored a huge get by being the only festival to scoop up a reunited Guns N’ Roses. Sure, you can can scoff at Calvin Harris’ headlining slot, but Coachella, like Lollapalooza, wears its populism on its sleeve, and the sense of pure balance it achieves in appealing to the full spectrum of music lovers is unparalleled.
And then there are the surprises. As noted, Lollapalooza always has a few of its own, but Coachella uses its west coast locale to not simply surprise, but to offer the feeling that you’re part of a cultural moment. Truly, crowds flock to Coachella as much for what’s not on the lineup than what is. Sure, the cool kids of music (Kanye West and Rihanna) showed up, but so did then-democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders (via video) and Kesha, who was, at the time, at the center of a larger discussion of women in music. All that spectacle extends to the environment, which included the area’s myriad art installations and the electricity of its candy-coated aesthetics. Going to Coachella is sorta like going to an idealized idea of Hollywood: the palm trees glow, familiar music floats through the air, and a celebrity is smiling around every corner. –Randall Colburn
Previously No. 4: Coachella
What helps to keep Glastonbury in these conversations each year is the sheer magnitude of the lineup. Even though the first name on this year’s bill was the eternally underwhelming Muse, the rest of the lineup more than made up for it with a selection of truly inspired picks spanning across genres and decades. There was Beck and PJ Harvey to represent the ’90s alt-rock boom, Earth Wind, & Fire, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, and ZZ Top to play the ‘70s classics, and New Order, Underworld, and Fatboy Slim to cover various aspects of UK dance history. It wasn’t all backwards looking, as they brought in contemporary rising stars like Nao, Vince Staples, and Kamasi Washington to round out the undercard. This year’s was even more of a powerhouse due to the hometown favorites having a moment both with The 1975 in the midst of their world-conquering tour and with Skepta months before accepting the Mercury Prize. Topping it all off was Adele on the heels of one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade making her only major festival appearance of the year. In the midst of a particularly contentious political climate right after the Brexit vote, this year’s Glastonbury pulled out all the stops. –David Sackllah
03. Day for Night
Previously No. 3: Glastonbury
Whether or not you want to call it “peak” festival season, the fact is that in 2016, music festivals have become extremely commonplace. If you live in a sizeable city in the US, you’re likely not far from at least one or two festivals in a given year, or five times that number if you live in Chicago or Austin. As more and more pop up, it’s becoming increasingly aware that to thrive as a new festival in this climate, you have to contain a distinct, defining vision and offer a lineup unlike any other. Enter Houston’s Day for Night, a combination of music and visual art installations that, after a tremendous debut year in 2015, truly threw down the gauntlet in 2016.
In his first US appearance in eight years, the one and only Aphex Twin will be playing, a booking feat so awesome that we’re still trying to figure out how they pulled it off. Bjork will be delivering the US debut of Bjork Digital, her new five-room combination of music and art. Texas experimental rock pioneers Butthole Surfers are reuniting for their first show in over five years. Both Arca and frequent collaborator Jesse Kanda will be appearing. Blood Orange, Squarepusher, Blonde Redhead, The Jesus and Mary Chain, John Carpenter, Mykki Blanco, S U R V I V E, and Matmos are all making rare appearances in Texas. On the other side, Houston itself is present throughout the lineup from Travis Scott at the top to the “Welcome to Houston” event that features Bun B, Slim Thug, Mike Jones, Lil Flip, and Paul Wall among many other local heroes. A cutting-edge assembly of intriguing acts has Day for Night swiftly making the leap into the top tier of American festivals. –David Sackllah
Previously No. 2: FYF
For the past five years, FYF has consistently put together one of the best lineups around, to where even in 2015 when Frank Ocean canceled last minute, they were able to get none other than Kanye West to replace him. This year, they followed that up with perhaps their most insanely stacked lineup yet. While the big names of Kendrick Lamar, LCD Soundsystem, Tame Impala, Grimes, and Beach House certainly played their fair share of festivals around the country this year, having them all clustered together at the top was impressive. Even more so were the names beyond that who were less common on other bills, making for a one-of-a-kind experience. At the top was the revered Grace Jones, making one of her only festival appearances of the year, a legend so timeless that having her alone would put the festival in the top tier.
Beyond that, there was Anohni giving a rare performance of this year’s tremendous Hopelessness, Blood Orange doing one of a few west coast stops, and special appearances by classic electronic artists Air and Moby. Going further, you had artists making rare festival stops, like Shellac, Todd Terje, Hot Chip, and a reunited Wolf Parade. Even the artists who made this one of many stops, like Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, Explosions in the Sky, and Vince Staples, were the kind you’d never skip out on seeing. From top to bottom, almost no festival was as exciting and distinct in 2016 as FYF. –David Sackllah
01. Primavera Sound Festival
Previously No. 1: Primavera Sound Festival
As magical as it can be to hear your favorite songs in the open, moonlit fields of Tennessee or the enclosed forests of western Michigan, there’s something beguiling about the urban festival. Much of Primavera Sound’s power lies in the magnificence of downtown Barcelona, which fortifies the music with a sense of weight and history. Now that festivals are becoming more and more commonplace, location and atmosphere is starting to become as important as the music itself. Sigur Ros’ music is informed by the environment in which you hear it. So are John Carpenter’s horror instrumentals and Explosions in the Sky’s guitar symphonies.
Those are just three inimitable artists on Primavera’s expertly curated lineup. And, despite its size, “distilled” is the perfect way to describe it. It could be easy to assume that festival curators Abel Suarez and Alfonso Lanza are in possession of a time machine that they use to scope out every festival’s lineup before handpicking the best and most interesting acts from each one. There’s little filler here, whether you’re talking about its headliners (Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, Sigur Ros, Brian Wilson), the midcard (Tortoise, Julia Holter, Freddie Gibbs), or those buried in the small font (Car Seat Headrest, Holly Herndon, Bradford Cox). Hell, most of those “small font” bands would be a helluva lot higher on the cards of most festivals. But those festivals don’t have PJ Harvey. Let that serve as evidence of how stacked this lineup is.
Let’s go back to its location, though: the capacity for discovery is even more exciting when you’re abroad. In the States, you’re bound to see many of the same names at the bottom of the card. When you’re in Spain, however, you’re being exposed to local artists who rarely have a chance to make it overseas. Our own Adam Kivel kicked off his thoughts on this year’s Primavera by saying he always “winds up leaving feeling as if there was still so much left to discover.”
2016 marked Primavera’s 15th anniversary, and if they keep giving us lineups like this, it’s safe to say they’ll one day be celebrating 50. –Randall Colburn