There are two festival seasons. One in which festivals actually take place, which has just recently begun with SXSW, Coachella, and a few other smaller events, and one in which festivals announce their lineups. In terms of festival lineup announcements, we’re nearing the finish line, with just our fall events holding out on their bills.
So what have we learned this year? For one, we now know there is only one Beyoncé, and no other artist in music comes close to the prestige she momentarily brought to festival season. Sure, Lady Gaga did a fine job in her stead, but once Beyoncé made it clear she would have to postpone her Coachella appearance, there was a collective realization that no one can really replace her.
On the other hand, 2017 has also been notable for the range of artists we see headlining. Though the middle of lineups can feel a little redundant at times, we’re still getting artists like The Who at Outside Lands, Childish Gambino at Governors Ball, Missy Elliott at FYF, Jawbreaker at Riot Fest, and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. release performance at Coachella that prove festivals can still offer their own unique flavor in a crowded market. Add to the fold that some of the biggest rock bands on the planet (Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Arcade Fire, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails) are currently headlining fests while we’re currently witnessing an influx of new festival headliners (Lorde, The xx, Frank Ocean, and Chance the Rapper), and you’ve got a pretty eclectic assortment of top-line talent.
Why, then, do festival lineups seem off? Part of the reason might be a lack of noteworthy reunions happening this year. What was typically a major part of festival season reveals is now running low on groups it can get back together. And there is also a disconnect in when artists are releasing new music versus when they are actually playing music festivals. We saw just how exciting it can be when an artist like Kendrick Lamar uses a music festival to debut new songs right at the time of their release, but not many other artists are following suit. Look how it took Frank Ocean nearly a year to take his recent records on the festival circuit. Same with A Tribe Called Quest. Festivals are often feeling a step behind the music conversation, and thus struggle with maintaining relevance.
With all this in mind, our latest round of rankings represent a range of festivals doing something right and are noteworthy for taking place across three continents, in numerous time zones, and all with their own distinct vision of what a festival should be. There are certainly more festivals than this that excite us, but these 10 are setting the bar high.
10. Boston Calling
MVP Headliner: Any lineup with Tool right now is going to turn heads, and while Chance the Rapper is currently being hailed as the greatest living rapper, there’s something admittedly unique about seeing Mumford and Sons in the middle. They don’t do much for this writer — okay, to be fair, “I Will Wait” tugs at a few heartstrings — but they’re guaranteed crowd-pleasers and also haven’t been overbooked … yet. Odds are Chance will reign supreme at Boston Calling, but those Mumford boys will draw a mammoth crowd.
Best Gets: Sigur Rós stil doesn’t have a new album out, but they’re always a spectacle live, so there’s that. Oh, there’s Bon Iver, too. They skipped over both Governors Ball and Panorama, so they’re a steal. Same goes for The xx. Then there’s Run the Jewels. Whoa, there’s also Solange? In many ways, this lineup’s like a Magic Eye picture in that the longer you stare, the more likely you’re going to find one of your favorite acts. Ha, there’s Wolf Parade!
Added Value: If the best gets weren’t enough to fill out your weekend, well, you can always lean on a superb undercard that features some signature additions like Mitski, Modern Baseball, Pup, Piebald, and Danny Brown or a who’s who of every lineup this summer, specifically Car Seat Headrest, Tegan and Sara, Cage the Elephant, Major Lazer, etc. It’s your choice.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Even the lower line is great. Singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus will have a whole new collection of tunes to absorb, and Chicago outfit Whitney are always good for a little summer love. Wait, what the hell is Strand of Oaks doing at the bottom there? Good lord.
Final Thoughts: If you couldn’t tell from the exasperated read, Boston Calling is a lineup full of surprises, and much of that is indebted to how the festival has really taken its time to curate a dense bill. Maybe it’s because they solidified their offerings into one festival as opposed to two — always a smarter idea — but this year feels stronger than ever. Granted, we haven’t seen what every festival this year will offer, but this is currently the essential fiesta to attend on the east coast.
09. Riot Fest
MVP Headliner: It’s gotta be Queens of the Stone Age, right? The obvious answer would be Jawbreaker, whose much ballyhooed reunion has a bunch of emo punks in a frenzy, but when Josh Homme and co. drop that single, all hell will break loose — and certainly at Riot Fest. The desert rockers are a perfect addition for the festival’s fringe-y brand and arguably the most relevant name at the top. Whereas Nine Inch Nails and Jawbreaker will bring the hits and the nostalgia, respectively, Queens will bring a little bit of the future with them.
Best Gets: New Order is a solid pick and essentially the unspoken fourth headliner. Paramore fits into the festival like the sleek corner of a 25-piece jigsaw puzzle, and M.I.A. and Prophets of Rage arrive at a time when everyone wants to purge their political angst.
Added Value: While this writer couldn’t care less about full-album performances, thousands of fans love ’em and Riot Fest booked a few notable performances: Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Let’s Face It, Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret, and that dog.’s Retreat from the Sun. The latter performance being the most ideal of the bunch.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: The undercard has constantly been a struggle for Riot Fest, who have traditionally focused on trending emo or pop punk of today and yesteryear, but this lineup has a little more diversity, ranging from Tobacco to Dessa to Shabazz Palaces to Saul Williams. Nice work.
Final Thoughts: Riot Fest has a brand and knows it all too well. They’re not looking to reinvent the wheel; they want to keep driving it. This year, they make a strong statement by booking two of their biggest headliners to date in Nine Inch Nails and Queens, while also being one of the few festivals to actually find a proper reunion act. Granted, Jawbreaker isn’t turning as many heads as, say, The Replacements or the Misfits, but they’re still quite a catch and a rare one at that. Toss in some freaks, a few Remember When sets, and a corndog and you’ve got yourself a fun fall weekend.
08. Fuji Rock
MVP Headliner: One tiny glimpse at the Fuji Rock lineup and you’ll be suffering 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 are in the mix, too. You’ll be wondering if festivalgoers will survive the talent. MVP Headliner? That’s a Bjork/Aphex-Twin/Gorillaz supergroup, of course.
Best Gets: I mean, we mentioned Aphex Twin and Björk were playing Fuji Rock, right? Because Aphex Twin and Björk are playing 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’ve got 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, and you’ll be buying a ticket post-haste.
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’ve got quite the compelling afternoon.
Final Thoughts: Live somewhere near Japan? Well, this is a top-flight festival, and why are you even bothering reading this? Surely, you should be looking at your tickets, counting down the days until Fuji Rock is here? Is Japan a long flight away? Well, considering the unique experience this will surely be, from Björk on down to discovering amazing Japanese artists you haven’t yet heard, there’s enough here to convince you to plunk the money down to get there.
07. Rolling Loud
MVP Headliner: King Kendrick reigns supreme at the apex of Rolling Loud, carrying all the cache and power of To Pimp a Butterfly and adding a brand-new album, DAMN., to the fold. This will be the rapper’s second high-profile date since the album’s release, so all eyes will be zoomed in on the event.
Best Gets: While having stars like Future and Lil Wayne around doesn’t hurt, everyone right now is talking about Migos. The “Bad and Boujee” trio aren’t exactly unknown around the festival circuit, but their recent spike in attention will surely garner a larger crowd in hot anticipation of that tune. When you’ve got the buzz like they do (and considering their massive hooks and charisma, that blush is unlikely to fade anytime soon), a fascinating, powerful set is sure to follow.
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 are going to be blowing up that weekend.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Up-and-comers from scenes around the continent pepper this lineup, sure to give attendees a taste of a bunch of different hip-hop flavors. Chicago’s Mick Jenkins and Toronto’s Jazz Cartier are standouts in that respect, but this one has 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 is 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 a deep talent pool from which to draw, and this lineup fails that entirely. There has been a palpable hole in the festival market for a best-in-class rap-centric offering, and this year 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.
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. Now a month 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, is easily the best booking done by the festival, achieving a cultural moment that no other festival is really capable of.
Added Value: In terms of the acts that Coachella has that aren’t particularly unique, there is 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 will likely feel like a rapidly turning knob through the stations.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Newcomers big and small populate much of the bottom half of the Coachella lineup. Mitski, NAO, SURVIVE, and Sampha all enter 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 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. Outside Lands
MVP Headliner: While they might not be the youngest kids on the block anymore, it’s hard to beat the opportunity to see The Who. For years, the rumors and proclamations about the classic rock legends’ “final” tour have made them an in-demand act. And though the dates are still trickling out, one of these years will eventually be your last chance, and you won’t want to have missed it. With only a few festival dates on the docket at the moment, their spot at Outside Lands seems like a home run. And while Metallica, Lorde, and Gorillaz round out the top of the bill well, offering something for every age, Townshend, Daltrey, and co. are a must-see.
Best Gets: Much like the melange of genres and age ranges at the very top of the bill, the next tier of artists at Outside Lands scatters its appeal among a wide range of attendees. Among those, it’s hard to argue with A Tribe Called Quest, Fleet Foxes, and Queens of the Stone Age. None of those is exactly a jaw-dropping sighting this summer, with festival stops aplenty, but those are stone-cold classic people-pleasers. Everybody in San Francisco will find one of those to fit into their early evening schedule.
Added Value: The Bay Area has a long legacy of eccentric, powerful hip-hop, and this year’s Outside Lands follows suit. Beyond Tribe near the top, the festival features plenty of rap and R&B stars. Add in ScHoolboy Q and Action Bronson with surely thrilling sets, and toss in Kaytranada for a beat-heavy dance party. And Dr. Octagon? Yeah, that’s gonna get a bit weird in the most delightful way.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Oh, did we mention there’ll be some great hip-hop? That batch could very well be highlighted by a couple of up-and-coming female rappers that’ll thrill. Noname just released her superb debut, Telefone, last year, and the Chicago native’s beaming presence and powerful songwriting make her just as compelling live. Meanwhile, Oakland’s Kamaiyah had quite a summer in 2016 and will surely get a great reception when repping the Bay at Outside Lands.
Final Thoughts: A festival in the shining confines of Golden Gate Park starts off with a great advantage, but the Outside Lands crew have filled their lineup with some music that will waft atop the Bay breeze beautifully. There are some super-by-the-book acts that’ll draw in everyone (I mean, we didn’t even mention Future Islands yet), and then there are some hyper-niche acts (I mean, Dr. Octagon?!), and somehow it all comes together.
MVP Headliner: It’s a rare feat that a festival can offer four headliners that all feel equally impressive. But with a particularly diverse group that includes Nine Inch Nails (rock), Frank Ocean (R&B, making up for his cancellation two years ago), Missy Elliott (hip-hip, in her lone festival appearance of the year), and Bjork (unclassifiable songs that are practically alien), FYF made each slot at the top of their billing count.
Best Gets: Another spattering of near-headliners, like A Tribe Called Quest, Solange, and Iggy Pop, lends prestige to the lineup, while attention towards the local LA scene with artists like Flying Lotus and Anderson .Paak give FYF its identity. And let’s not forget something like the Cap’N Jazz reunion, a move from a festival whose booking is constantly maturing, but still throws a bone like this to its longtime supporters.
Added Value: Don’t forget that the festival also offers some of the most highly regarded music of the last year. Angel Olsen will be bringing her new-found rock swagger to LA, Noname will celebrate her new home with her insightful rhymes, and Nicolas Jaar will offer up his moody, singular electronic soundscapes to the festival’s most adventurous ears.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: Like Pitchfork in Chicago, FYF populates its undercard with a host of buzzy, artistically adventurous artists that aren’t festival regulars. This year will include Arca, Big Thief, and Kelly Lee Owens as artists the critics adore and regular fans might still be experiencing for the first time.
Final Thoughts: If there was any question left after the last few years saw headliners like Kanye West, The Strokes, Kendrick Lamar, and LCD Soundsystem, FYF Fest is no longer a burgeoning music festival. It’s now operating as a counterpoint to its big sibling, Coachella, less interested at appeasing the masses and more seeking the LA twentysomethings with discerning taste. For anyone that’s grown a little too old for Coachella, it’s a welcome alternative, while the overlap of interest is still very large.
And bonus points go to FYF for putting their money where their mouth is. While more attention from the media is going into criticizing festivals for failure to curate diverse offerings, FYF not only accepts that challenge, but shows how a festival can still look enticing with a lineup that represents more than just a single contingent of society. It’s more than just a great lineup for 2017. This is the future.
03. Primavera Sound
MVP Headliner: There isn’t a single jewel in the Primavera Sound crown that shines brightest, but Arcade Fire certainly pack the biggest capability. While the band will be headlining a fair share of more mainstream fests over the course of the year, there’s reason to believe that this marquee performance among like-minded artists might result in something truly special.
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 doesn’t appear to be the case, making his appearance at Primavera all the bigger of a deal. Add to the equation artists like Grace Jones, Van Morrison, Slayer, Descendents, Seu Jorge, and Broken Social Scene and you have a festival defined by its good gets.
Added Value: Yeah, Frank Ocean, The xx, Bon Iver, and Solange aren’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, Grandaddy, Japandroids, and Flying Lotus, Primavera boasts a remarkably dense lineup with top-tier artists represented at every level of the lineup.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: The small fonts of the Primavera lineup are like a treasure trove of up-and-coming musicians. The fact that they book 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 bodes well for the dozens of artists that are unfamiliar at first glance.
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. Who knows, maybe it will repeat?
02. Rock Werchter
MVP Headliner: The perfect trifecta: Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and Foo Fighters. Need we shout and/or sob more? Probably not, but we will anyway. These are three of the biggest, if not the three biggest, rock bands of the last two decades, taking turns bringing tears of joy to the eyes of the blissfully lucky attendees. Whether you’re personally more into the indie glory of Arcade Fire, the continuously evolving wonder of Radiohead, or the feel-good alt power of the Foos, you’ll find all three out on life-altering performances. Haven’t seen any of the three? (Or even if you have!) Rock Werchter is a bucket list situation folks; don’t miss your opportunity.
Best Gets: Though they’ve only started to release their lineup, the fact that they stacked the top of it with every single artist a fan could ask for has to qualify as a major get. In addition to the big three, the organizers added in fellow heavy hitters like Lorde, Future Islands, James Blake, and more. There may not be a single booking that sets them apart as unique, but they’re certainly on their own in having nabbed every imaginable festival star and jammed them together into a dizzyingly top-strong lineup.
Added Value: After sorting out the top couple of tiers, having any value left over is a blessing. And while they might not be critical darlings, the next few lines on the lineup feature the kind of bands that everyone can recognize as an interesting spectacle, even if they’re not favorites. Wouldn’t you want to catch five minutes of Imagine Dragons or Linkin Park, even just for the story? Or better yet, System of a Down or Kings of Leon, who might just turn in a great show?
Can’t-Miss Rookies: This lineup is so top-heavy that we need to single out the lesser-known artists more as sophomores than rookies. Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel will surely wow with her tender yet powerful piano. Belgian indie pop outfit Bazart will also surely charm and impress. And though already popular stateside, artists like Glass Animals will perform early in the day at this massive event.
Final Thoughts: Now with a complete lineup that includes super-fun festival acts like Royal Blood, The Pretenders, and Bonobo, it’s hard to see this one losing any steam any time soon. Add to that beer and baguettes, superb stages, and gorgeous grounds, and you’ve got the complete package. Rock Werchter was ahead of its time in 2008 with Radiohead and Kings of Leon (and an absolutely amazing festival experience), and this one appears to be topping it threefold!
MVP Headliner: Sorry Ed Sheeran, but Katy Perry absolutely deserves your spot. The same goes for Biffy Clyro, The National, or The xx. Sure, it’s a British festival and things work differently over there — ahem, Kasabian — but the Teenage Dream has had four No. 1 singles in the UK, and she’s inarguably a global phenomenon. So, yeah, it’s a little strange to see Perry so low on Glastonbury’s poster, especially given that she’ll be high in demand come summer. While recent single “Chained to the Rhythm” didn’t exactly do “Roar” numbers for her, she’s back with another left hook — the Migos-featuring cunnilingus jam “Bon Appétit” — that has all the makings of a crossover hit. Still, it’s commendable that she was even booked considering she’s yet to appear at a single North American music festival. Fucking baffling.
Best Gets: Seeing Foo Fighters back in the mix of things is refreshing, though much of that allure will depend on their setlists (shake it up, fellas), as is the return of The National, Haim, and, yes, Radiohead. The latter veteran has been piecing together truly compelling sets as of late, and with the festival so close to their forthcoming reissue of OK Computer, god only knows what they have in store for the Glastonbury crowd. Don’t expect a full-album performance of the landmark 1997 record — they’re too smart to do something lame like that — but fans would be wise to brush up on the B-sides and unreleased tracks that are being packaged with the reissue.
Added Value: Did you ever see The Bee Gees? Well, how about a third of them? Prediction: Barry Gibb is going to own the festival.
Can’t-Miss Rookies: So far, there aren’t too many “rookies” on the bill, as they’re likely to be announced later, but if we’re taking the bottom-tier acts into consideration: The Cinematic Orchestra is worth catching simply to hear them perform “To Build a Home”, Martha Wainwright confirms talent runs entirely throughout the Wainwright family, and Mercury Prize-nominated singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan is out supporting a very good record right now.
Final Thoughts: Glastonbury has always come across like the Michael Bay of music festivals, a place where larger-than-life headliners can share up to three or four lines on any given bill. Some might argue it’s a little overkill, and this year only solidifies that notion (for Christ’s sake, Lorde is listed on the fourth line, and she’s currently headlining dozens of North American festivals), but at a time when lineups are a total snoozefest and countless acts are being ignored for SEO-friendly fare, Glastonbury looks like heaven. What’s more, it actually looks like a destination festival worthy of all the mud and mayhem.