Feature image by Philip Cosores and Cap Blackard
Judging from my uncontrollable sneezing, sinus migraines, and itchy eyes, it’s springtime again. Which means we’re two weeks removed from South by Southwest and two weeks outside of Coachella — basically, the calm before the storm. Nothing to complain about; it’s a tiny window we enjoy every year, a moment to take in any last gasps before we hit the ground running.
Oh, we’ll be lacing up all year. Back in January, we already had a solid forecast of the forthcoming festival season, thanks to early announcements by Coachella, Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, and a dozen more banner names. Now, we’re looking ahead with 20/20 vision, and while there’s been much debate about whether the scene’s been homogenized, the future looks bright.
Over the past couple of months, we’ve been pummeled with a handful of new and exciting lineups, from blue-chip fests like Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, and Osheaga to newer additions like New York City’s Panorama and Ohio’s PromoWest. That’s all without mentioning the endless head-turners — ahem, FYF, Summerfest, and Rock Werchter — that keep piling up.
There’s been a lot to sort through, admittedly, and plenty of garbage to toss aside. But we’ve done the dirty work, which is why we’re back with another round of rankings that collect this year’s top festivals so far. Rest assured, we’ll be back by summer potentially with a new list, but you don’t have to worry about that. All you need to do is just read and plan accordingly.
You can thank us later.
Previously No. 10: Moogest
Unlike the fest itself, which has moved from NYC to Asheville and now to Durham, North Carolina, Moogfest plants its feet firmly in 10th place on our list. Initially designed to celebrate Dr. Robert Moog, inventor of the synthesizer, Moogfest provides the perfect synthesis of old and new acts. By combining the likes of Grimes and Odesza with Laurie Anderson and Gary Numan, the festival artfully attracts a younger electronic fan base while teaching them about the musicians that pioneered it all. Obviously, this design was intentional. In fact, Moogfest organizers continuously update the fest’s infrastructure, making it resemble more of a SXSW than a run-of-the-mill EDM fest. That said, while festivals that preach peace, love, and vibes are well and good, those with a greater purpose are a bit more refreshing. –Danielle Janota
09. Boston Calling: Spring
Previously No. 9: Shaky Knees
Boston Calling remains the only major music festival to grant women equal representation from the top to the bottom of the bill, and that counts for something in a year when ladies are clearly outclassing dudes in everything from radio pop (Sia, Robyn) to guitar-based indie rock (Haim, Courtney Barnett). Throw in some inspired choices at the top of the lineup — Sufjan Stevens, anyone? — and you’ve got yourself a solid early entry in the festival season. This one will set a high bar for the others to reach. –Collin Brennan
08. Governors Ball
Previously No. 8: Bonnaroo
Quite a bit has changed since we published our last festival ranking. It was announced last month that concert behemoth Live Nation is in the final stages of purchasing Governors Ball Music Festival, capping off a weird, transitional year for the Randall’s Island festival that started with the emergence of AEG Live’s own New York City festival, Panorama. But despite all the chaos, the Ball is still bringing it this year. The three-day fest somehow convinced both Kanye West and The Strokes to headline, which lends an air of volatility and excitement to the top of the bill. Throw in Jamie xx, Eagles of Death Metal, and The Killers (very underrated in a live setting) and you’ve got an island we’d like to be stranded on for a few days. –Collin Brennan
Previously No. 7: Sasquatch!
Contrary to what the first six items on this list suggest, LCD Soundsystem doesn’t have to top the bill to make a fest shine. As the growing festival market continuously regurgitates the same few lineups, the smaller, concept-driven gatherings like Levitation really start to increase in value. While our ranking pushed the Austin fest back two spots to make room for fuller lineups, it still upstaged some of the world’s most renowned. As always, Levitation (previously Austin Psych) chose quality over quantity, allowing it to not only replace Sasquatch on our list, but also help knock NOLA Jazz and Bonnaroo completely out of the running. The stellar lineup, which boasts a number of experimental oddballs and legacy acts, offers a unique selling point. However, the fest’s appeal truly lies in its aesthetic. Not only do all the acts bear some psychedelic influence, but Brian Wilson was purposefully selected to pay homage to the 60s, the era for which the fest was designed and named. By some miracle, or perhaps some hallucinogen, Levitation has found itself once again. —Danielle Janota
Previously No. 6: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
There’s an understood rule whereby any lineup that features Radiohead is exponentially better. For this year’s festival season, that’s less a rule and more an indisputable fact, especially given the extenuating circumstances, namely: They’ve yet to drop their first new album in half a decade. That exciting mystery makes Thom Yorke & co. something of a prized pig for any festival, and Lollapalooza was fortunate to nab ’em. On top of that, they also grabbed the year’s big reunion (LCD Soundsystem), a festival favorite (Red Hot Chili Peppers, no matter what you say), and young all-stars (J. Cole, Lana Del Rey). Swim through that undercard long enough, and you’ll re-surface with a tacklebox of must-see names, whether it’s obvious mid-tier gold like HAIM, Future, and Disclosure or lesser-known stuff like Flatbush Zombies, Bob Moses, and Mothers. NOLA’s Jazz Fest will always feature the stuff of legend, but their two-weekend plan is no match for four days and Radiohead. Sorry, Big Easy. –Michael Roffman
Previously No. 5: Levitation
In their first year, Panorama has come out the gates strong with a lineup that earned them a spot in our top-five heading into the summer. LCD Soundsystem headlining a New York fest isn’t much of a shocker, but having them headlining alongside Arcade Fire and Kendrick Lamar feels right. It feels like this is how festivals would look if LCD had never left; they’ve reclaimed their rightful place atop the lineups of our favorite fests. Worth noting about Panorama is how quickly it has made a name for itself; having acts like Madlib, Ex Hex, and White Lung populating your bottom lines certainly helps to stake your claim as a legitimate contender, and Panorama appears to be here to stay. –Pat Levy
Previously No. 4: Boston Calling: Spring
Coachella being stacked isn’t exactly news. The granddaddy of North American music festivals has become so popular that it needs two weekends to get its point across, and that’s largely because organizers keep bringing it with a healthy mix of legacy acts (Guns N’ Roses and Ice Cube), modern indie A-listers (Sufjan Stevens and Beach House), and stuff nobody else managed to book (Death Grips). All the hype might be going to LCD Soundsystem at the top of the bill, but don’t sleep on the bands playing earlier in the day. With underground heavyweights like Sheer Mag and Anderson .Paak buried amid the small print, this one is impressive no matter how closely you look at it. –Collin Brennan
Previously No. 3: Governors Ball
Europe is really representing in 2016, with two of our top three festivals taking place across the pond. While Primavera still tops the list, Glastonbury shot to the forefront of the festival discussion with a killer lineup chock-full of upper tier indie fare (Beck, PJ Harvey), legacy acts (New Order, Earth, Wind, & Fire), populist bands (Muse, Coldplay), and Adele. Yes, that’s right, Adele will be there. As the UK’s preeminent pop star, it shouldn’t be shocking that she’s headlining the fest, but it’s the exclusivity of Glasto being the only festival appearance on her docket that is so exciting. Other highlights include the current top dogs in grime, Skepta and Stormzy, British electronic legends Underworld, and some American flavor like Mac DeMarco, Vince Staples, and Kamasi Washington. –Pat Levy
Previously No. 2: Coachella
If any festival came remotely close to challenging Primavera’s juggernaut lineup, it’s this dazzling slice of life by FYF Fest. We’ve expected nothing less than exceptional from Sean Carlson’s two-day soiree over the years, but man did they outdo themselves this year. Not only did they add two quality headliners each night, but they also opted for inventive fare way, way left of the dial. Grace Jones? Grace Jones?! Was she on anyone’s radar? Very smart move and one that pairs well with their ever-eclectic undercard, which consists of this year’s oft-ignored reunion (Wolf Parade) and other sizzling names (Air, Explosions in the Sky, and Young Thug). Oh, there’s also Grimes and Beach House, two in-demand acts that could arguably headline either night of the festival, and you know, Kendrick, Tame, and LCD — banner acts who look more like delicious cherries on the top. While not quite as expansive as Coachella, who was previously slotted here, FYF is a lesson in quality over quantity. –Michael Roffman
01. Primavera Sound Festival
FYF really gave it a run for its money, but there’s a reason why Primavera remained at the top of our rankings three months later. Sure, other festivals have managed to recreate pieces of the biggest draws of this fest, as Radiohead, LCD, PJ Harvey, Air, and Brian Wilson are all featured on other lineups around the world this summer. However, none of them are as expertly distilled as Primavera, where over 100 acts are brought together with remarkably little filler. Primavera has built up such goodwill over the years that it could easily get by on coasting, but it doesn’t. It’s so stacked that you could look deep at artists buried in the lineup and build your own genre-focused festivals that people would be clamoring over, whether it’s noisy ‘90s rock (Shellac, Drive Like Jehu, Mudhoney), cutting-edge electronic producers (Evian Christ, Holly Herndon, Hudson Mohawke), or psych powerhouses (Loop, Deerhunter, Animal Collective). Primavera is so stacked that you have to strain to see legends like Boredoms or Venom casually mentioned alongside acts that more routinely tour the festival circuit. With expert curation and something for everyone, Primavera remains peerless in the festival game. –David Sackllah