It’s September, summer’s gone, and we now know the lineups to most of 2017’s music festivals. If we’re being honest, though, we’re drawing a fuzzy blank as we try to recall the highlights of this year. For starters, it wasn’t a particularly strong outing for reunions, save for Jawbreaker, and even worse, it wasn’t a particularly riveting year for headliners, either, outside of graduation stories for the likes of Lorde or Cage the Elephant.
But it’s more than that. For awhile, we’ve noted how the biggest festivals with the longest histories have lost parts of their identity, namely due to so many of them being owned by the same companies. Because of this, boutique and destination festivals have started to feel more and more appealing, offering slices of culture that extend beyond music.
Look, if it sounds like we’re coming down on music festivals, we’re not. Even outside of the top 10 below, we’ve found many events this year that are doing something special within the festival landscape, from the relaxed, mature vibes of San Francisco’s Outside Lands to the punk rock nostalgia of Chicago’s Riot Fest to the 90’s-inspired mass appeal of San Diego’s KAABOO.
Gripes aside, there are still many special events happening in the United States and around the world, only the field is more crowded than ever, as we’ve been saying for years. Sometimes, though, you have to make your way through the weeds to find the flowers, and let’s just say, we channeled our inner Ralph Fiennes for this one.
10. The Growlers Six
MVP Headliner: Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been pretty quiet since wrapping its touring behind 2013’s Mosquito. Karen O released a solo album and Nick Zinner has been recording and touring with Head Wound City, but the band has been doing little with regards to their main project. That will end this fall with select tour dates, including this headlining slot. Long one of the most captivating live presences in music, this has particular luster as a long-awaited return.
Best Gets: Up and down the lineup, there is much that you just don’t see at other festivals. This could mean veteran eccentrics Butthole Surfers, recently formed Jenny Lewis project Nice As Fuck, or underutilized legends like The B-52’s and Bad Brains. It’s not that they seem like particularly difficult grabs, it’s just that it takes a little imagination to come up with them.
Added Value: Headlining both nights will be The Growlers, who come off as kind of an afterthought at their own festival, but still draw a devoted crowd. Other great lineup additions include headliner worthy like Modest Mouse and The Black Keys‘ Dan Auerbach as well as hip-hop trailblazer Danny Brown and indie legends Guided By Voices.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Both Rostam and Alice Glass are better known for their old bands, Vampire Weekend and Crystal Castles, respectively. But with recent solo releases, both will be trying to prove that they can stand on their own at this festival.
Final Thoughts: Despite the fact that one name on the lineup, Mystikal, is currently in jail, the bulk of The Growlers Six lineup is inspired. Maybe they have something to prove after losing their old festival name, Beach Goth, in a lawsuit. Moving to a new location, the LA Waterfront, and stacking the bill with acts ranging from indie to rap, the festival maintains a unique vision of its curator. The Growlers Six looks like no other festival happening this year, and that’s the way it is intended.
09. Rolling Loud
MVP Headliner: King Kendrick reigned supreme at the apex of Rolling Loud, carrying all the cache and power of To Pimp a Butterfly and adding then-brand-new album, DAMN., to the fold. This was the rapper’s second high-profile date following the album’s release, which was quite a coup for the festival.
Best Gets: While having stars like Future and Lil Wayne around didn’t hurt, there was also Migos. The “Bad and Boujee” trio have become highlights of the festival circuit this season, and their massive buzz, hooks, and charisma have warranted fascinating, powerful sets all season. This was one of the earliest glimpses.
Added Value: The Rolling Loud organizers did a great job nabbing both established crossover stars (everybody knows enough Wayne and Future to sell tickets) and millennial favorites like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Kodak Black. Snapchat and Instagram had fun that weekend.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Up-and-comers from scenes around the continent peppered this lineup, giving attendees a varied taste of hip-hop flavors. Chicago’s Mick Jenkins and Toronto’s Jazz Cartier were standouts in that respect, but there was some serious variety in the rookie department.
Final Thoughts: All ma ladies put your hands up! Oh … hang on … wait. Where did everybody go? There was one female performer on this lineup — plus, reportedly a DJ set from adult film star Uma Jolie — and with no disrespect (only massive praise) meant to Polly A, that’s just disappointing. Kehlani, Kamaiyah, Noname, Jamila Woods … there’s been a deep talent pool from which to draw, and this lineup failed that entirely. Still, there has been a palpable hole in the festival market for a best-in-class rap-centric offering, and this year’s Rolling Loud stepped up to fill that gap. It just would’ve been nice to see it do so with more female representation, especially in a genre often dogged with accusations of misogyny.
08. Festival of Disruption
MVP Headliner: David Lynch so often exists behind the curtains. So when he does come out to talk, he’s likely to turn some heads, and that’s exactly what his Festival of Disruption did when they announced the acclaimed auteur would be sitting down for a full-length conversation. That’s quite a 180 from last year’s inaugural installment, where he acted more like Oz, poking his head out at the very end for a good minute before disappearing into the night, never to be seen again by the general public. Couple that sense of mystery with the fact that this will arguably be his first major interview following this past summer’s Twin Peaks: The Return and you have arguably one of the most valuable bookings of any festival out there.
Best Gets: It’ll be interested to hear from Sheryl Lee, who’s been put through the ringer as Laura Palmer over the years. She’ll undoubtedly have some incredible stories to share, and given how things ended for her character on The Return, a few anecdotes may even prove quite revelatory. On the musical front, however, one has to imagine Sharon Van Etten will have some new tunes to share, seeing how it’s been two years now since her last release, 2015’s Don’t Want to Let You Down EP. And we’ll never not want to watch Rebekah Del Rio burn down the house with her lungs.
Added Value: Well, TV on the Radio hasn’t released anything since 2014’s Seeds, so they’re due for something new. Moby’s DJ sets are always a thrill, and his ties to Lynch go deep, so he could easily take us for a ride through the Black Lodge. Then there’s Bill Hader, another recent addition, whose career runs the gamut from writing to producing to acting. He’ll no doubt have plenty to talk about, especially since his new HBO series, Barry, is right around the corner and finds him playing against-type as a low-rent hitman living in Los Angeles. Should be fun.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: There aren’t too many rookies on this lineup, admittedly, so we’ll go with Shepard Fairey. Who doesn’t love that guy?
Final Thoughts: At this point, festivals are either going to evolve or die. As more and more juggernauts get picked up by the Live Nations and the AEGs of the world, lineups will only continue to look more and more homogenized. That puts the pressure on the boutique festivals to change the game, and while Goldenvoice has been doing most of the heavy lifting in that area, they’re fortunately not alone. Lynch’s Festival of Disruption is quickly becoming a part of that pack, shaking things up by eschewing the traditional and aiming for more fringe fare. Last year’s festivities felt very emblematic of Lynch’s signature brand, programming artists and creatives who are challenging the ways we might attempt to resolve the future, not just with performances but elaborate talks, intuitive galleries, and engaging installments. That’s the case for this year, too, which bodes well for the festival’s vitality, and seeing how they have major plans to expand into other markets, that’s not only good news for them, but for the industry as a whole.
07. Fuji Rock
MVP Headliner: One tiny glimpse at the Fuji Rock lineup and you’ll suffer from non-stop whiplash — of the neck from excitement, of the eyes from blinking so fast through the list, and of the heart because you know this festival is on the other end of the world. The bewitching magic of Björk, evocative allure of Aphex Twin, and magnetic charm of Gorillaz is enough to satisfy a wide palette of music lovers, but the cup that giveth hath runn-eth over: LCD Soundsystem, Lorde, The xx, QOTSA, Father John Misty, and Slowdive. But, who was the MVP Headliner? The smorgasboard of Björk/Aphex-Twin/Gorillaz, of course.
Best Gets: I mean, we mentioned Aphex Twin and Björk played Fuji Rock, right? Because Aphex Twin and Björk played Fuji Rock. Talk about some eccentric heavy-hitters! You don’t always get the chance to see these two, so when they’re both on a bill, you know your festival is doing something interesting. Beyond that (if you were even capable of getting your brain to keep clicking after you saw those names at the top), you had fellow electronic wonders LCD Soundsystem and an Arca DJ set, as if your top-tier eclectic beat craving could handle anything else.
Added Value: While he might not yet have established himself on US festival circuits, Shugo Tokumaru’s whimsical music wonderlands have driven the following he deserves in his native Japan. His intricately arranged bedroom pop seems almost impossibly adorable and engaging on record — and then somehow he and his orchestra of hyper-talented musicians manage to recreate them live, with every magical detail! As if you needed more reason to travel to Japan, look up some clips of Tokumaru and other Japanese acts, like theatrical rock outfit Group Tamashii and hip-hop duo Tha Blue Herb.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: As if the Pharrell-tipped Maggie Rogers needed more of a bump, she’s garnered valuable spots at huge festivals. And, lucky for us, she’s got the chops to deliver. The Maryland-born singer-songwriter’s quirky electronic pop tracks show off her classical music roots and thrilling, intimate vocals, as well as an idiosyncratic approach that won over the Neptunes hitmaker. If you’ve caught onto the hype but not yet gotten the chance, she’s a must-see. Add in fellow emotionally charged, electronically influenced songwriter Sampha, and you had quite the compelling afternoon.
Final Thoughts: This year’s Fuji Rock was a top-flight festival even outside of Japan, which is why so many of us were wondering, Is Japan a long flight away? Is it? Well, considering the unique experience that this surely was, from Björk on down to discovering amazing Japanese artists you haven’t yet heard, there was enough here to pluck down the money, the time, and the energy to chase after one hell of an adventure.
MVP Headliner: Coachella had the biggest MVP on the planet in Beyoncé, but then lost her to the call of expectant motherhood, explaining why Chella falls a bit on this list. Still, Lady Gaga was a noble fill-in, given a nearly impossible task and running with it to deliver one of the most widely attended headlining sets in Coachella history. Sure, she’s years past releasing material that made a dent in pop, but she packs both prestige and creativity and stands as an artist that only Coachella could nab at this stage in her career.
Best Gets: Because of how early Coachella announces its lineup, it’s initially difficult to judge just how unique their lineup is. Months later, certain bookings (Father John Misty a week after his album drops, Porter Robinson & Madeon, Gucci Mane, No Doubt/AFI hybrid DREAMCAR, New Order, The Belleville Three, Royksopp, Hans Zimmer) glean more inspired than others. Kendrick Lamar, though, coming on the weekend DAMN. was released, was easily the best booking done by the festival, achieving a cultural moment that no other festival has been really capable of this year.
Added Value: In terms of the acts that Coachella had that aren’t particularly unique, there was still strength in numbers. Bon Iver, The xx, Lorde, and Future are all massive in both their appeal and their current prestige, tapping into veins that can appeal to the festivalgoer across dividing lines like age or genre. And if you listen to the radio even a little bit, the Coachella grounds likely felt like a rapidly turning knob through the stations.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Newcomers big and small populated much of the bottom half of the Coachella lineup. Mitski, NAO, SURVIVE, and Sampha all entered the festival with tons of buzz, while smaller-font acts like Tacocat, Bishop Briggs, Hinds, Ezra Furman, and The Lemon Twigs packed the potential and left the two-weekend event with people talking.
Final Thoughts: More than any other festival, Coachella’s lineup is a yearly statement about both the current state of music and where it’s heading. So, by delivering one of its most commercial bills to date, it’s easy for some of us critics to scoff at just how radio-friendly it all seems. The fact of the matter is that no American festival announced this year has had the potential to please the standard music fan more than Coachella, and for crafting a fest that knows its audience, it should be commended.
05. Day For Night
MVP Headliner: It’s not their first festival of the year, but seeing Nine Inch Nails at the top of a bill is still enough to get most music fans to salivate. Sure, they have hits, but their sheen doesn’t stem from being widely appealing either. In a time where many music festivals are catered to the lowest common denominator, leading with Nine Inch Nails is a statement of intent. It shows that a festival cares more about creating interesting programming than it is about accumulating bodies. The hope is that one begets the other, but Day For Night is firm in their belief that audiences want unique and challenging performances.
Best Gets: You don’t have to look far to see one of the best gets of any music festival this year: Thom Yorke. The Radiohead frontman doesn’t play a ton of solo dates, and with the festival already noting that this is not a DJ set, a performance of solo material and rarely heard songs is expected. Sure, Laurie Anderson, GAS, and The Jesus Lizard also stick out as special bookings from a festival known for special bookings, but it’s hard to top the leader of the best band of our times.
Added Value: It’s probably not the last time we’ll see Solange and St. Vincent near the top of music festivals, but both are riding high as unparalleled creative forces. For the former, she’ll be leading a “Soul Cleansing” performance on the Friday before the festival, following a panel that features Chelsea Manning among others. For the latter, this will mark one of her first festivals following October’s Masseduction, hopefully ushering in a new era where Annie Clark becomes a headliner in her own right.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: For one, there’s the current Taylor Swift challenger on the Billboard Hot 100, Cardi B. But while what seems like a perfect bit of timing has that booking looking like an A+, other acts like Jlin, Princess Nokia, Forest Swords, Jessi Lanza, and Priests all speak to the taste level of this fest.
Final Thoughts: Following a year that saw Aphex Twin play his first American concert in eight years, it seemed like Day For Night would have an impossible time following that. Of course, that performance even looks better a year later when Aphex didn’t wind up playing Coachella or other US fests as anticipated. But looking at the 2017 iteration of Day For Night, it’s easily the best lineup the fest has put together in its young three years. Part of its power is in the depth, which looks nearly as good down at the bottom of the bill as it does at the top. But a big part of the appeal is in how cohesive it all feels. It’s one thing to have great taste, and it’s another thing to channel that into programming that makes sense as a singular vision. There’s no doubt about what the identity of Day And Night is at this point. Coming on the heels of the recent devastation for the city of Houston only further heartens what the organizers have managed to accomplish here. In short, Day For Night is the best young music festival in the world.
04. Primavera Sound
MVP Headliner: There wasn’t a single jewel in the Primavera Sound crown that shined brighter than another this year, but Arcade Fire certainly provided the biggest moment. While the band would go on to headline a fair share of more mainstream fests over the course of the year, this was a time before all of the Everything Now brushback. Hell, the band even played a surprise smaller stage ahead of their headlining performance. And when they hit the main stage, all of the negativity that would surround their latest album release could not have been predicted.
Best Gets: When Aphex Twin played his first concert US concert in eight years in December, there was reason to speculate that it might mean widespread touring for the reclusive electronic artist. But that wasn’t the case, which made his appearance at Primavera all the bigger of a deal. Add to the equation artists like Grace Jones, Van Morrison, Slayer, Descendents, and Seu Jorge, and you have a festival defined by its good gets.
Added Value: Yeah, The xx, Bon Iver, and Solange weren’t exactly rarities at festivals this year, but they are still a representative of the best recent releases in the music world. With the addition of artists like Skepta, Angel Olsen, Japandroids, and Flying Lotus, Primavera boasted a remarkably dense lineup with top-tier artists represented at every level.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: The small fonts of the Primavera lineup were like a treasure trove of up-and-coming musicians. The fact that they booked artists like LVL UP, Operators, Nikki Lane, Weyes Blood, and Swet Shop Boys speaks to the attention to detail that the curators pay to even the littlest bookings. And it boded well for the dozens of artists that were unfamiliar at first glance, making it an excellent place for music discovery.
Final Thoughts: Primavera Sound is more than a lineup. It’s a party that goes all night in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But the fact that they get it so right every year, tapping into the most exciting musical acts of the past, present, and future without watering things down for ticket sales, makes it the standard bearer for fests worldwide. There’s a reason we called it the best festival of 2016. Frank Ocean’s cancelation makes it unlikely to repeat, but it managed to thrive without him.