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