In 2016, I attended at least part of 14 different music festivals on 48 different days. I saw at least part of 346 different sets, so it was a pretty big task to try and narrow it down to my favorites. But in this Best of Music 2016 feature, I’ve shared my 25 favorite festival sets of 2016. There were plenty of artists I saw multiple times, so I limited it to the best set from those artists — otherwise this list would feature HAIM three times.
I had just seen Death Cab for Cutie the previous weekend at Bonnaroo on the final day. It was a good set, but the following week at Firefly, they’d upstage themselves. They pulled out maybe my favorite song of theirs, “Photobooth,” saying that it was a request from The Staves. Though I enjoyed their latest record Kintsugi, they knew they had limited time during this festival set and only played two songs from their latest record while diving into their back catalog the rest of the time. They went back into time for “President of What?” before bringing out Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES to sing lead vocals on Plans cut “Brothers on a Hotel Bed,” a nice special treat. I always thought “Doors Unlocked and Open” was an underrated gem, and they played that a few songs before closing their set with “Transatlanticism.” I was all the way at the rail for this set, and with M83 about to start on the other side of the fest, I feigned anxiety and got carried over the railing and then ran around the entire crowd instead of through it to get to the set.
I saw CHVRCHES six times at festivals in 2016, but none were as great as being right up close for their set in the Bonnaroo sun. Though they played most of the same set I’d seen from them all year, but with the addition of “High Enough to Carry You Over” — a Martin Doherty-led track that sounds like it could’ve been a Lenny Kravitz ballad. The synthpop group has so many songs that are fun to sing along to, and the Bonnaroo crowd was all in. They played my two favorite tracks from their debut record “Gun” and “Recover” and shared a surprise with the crowd near the set’s end — “Bury It” with Hayley Williams of Paramore joining them on stage.
This was the last U.S. date of one of my favorite bands — except for Lollapalooza a few months later — and I found myself on the rail for the show. By this time I had seen them four times on the festival circuit, including a few weeks earlier at Shaky Knees where I was on the rail. It’s hard to kick a set into high gear faster than Wolf Alice playing “Your Loves Whore” and “You’re a Germ” to kick things off. This was my eighth time overall seeing the band live and it was awesome to see how into it the crowd up front was. I was using the rail as leverage to get massive air as I jumped around to my favorites. It’s been killer to see how the band has grown as performers, particularly lead vocalist Ellie Rowsell. The set left me desperately hoping we get album number two sooner rather than later.
The previous weekend I had rocked out to Guns ‘N’ Roses at the main stage, but this time I was curious to see what kind of crowd electropop prodigy Grimes would pull at the same time. I got a good spot in there early and was blown away by the amount of production she put into her show. There were all sorts of dancers and it seriously felt a bit like what a Cirque de Soleil show would be. This was also the windiest day of both weekends, I felt up to my throat in dust by this point, but Grimes didn’t let it negatively affect her show inside one of the tents. There were few moments I experienced with as much intensity as her closing song “Kill v. Maim.”
I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Courtney Barnett a ton since her critically-acclaimed album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. This set was just one day removed from her national coming-out party on Saturday Night Live — something very few independent artists get a chance to do. For her set at Hangout, I had just come off the high of seeing HAIM from the rail on another stage. After checking out a bit of Flume and not really enjoying it from my vantage point, I booked it to Courtney Barnett to grab a spot before she went on. I made friends with the group of people around me and when she hit the stage, it turned into a happy mosh to all her biggest hits. Her grungy set was broken up nicely into two parts by the soft ballad “Depreston,” which everyone around me seemed to know the words. She closed her set with “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” and it was the perfect way to end the Courtney Barnett Coming-Out Party.
This set convinced me that anytime Tycho plays a festival, it should take place at sunset. CRSSD Fest takes place at Waterfront Park, maybe the most beautiful place a festival hosts outside of The Gorge for Sasquatch. I grabbed a spot on the rail next to some people I’ve been friends with since middle school and elementary school and we were blown away by the mesmerizing layering of Scott Hansen and Co. Tycho live is a joy to witness as they recreate their sound with actual instruments. The chill vibes that were evident everywhere was the high point of the weekend for me and a reminder of how my favorite electronic music isn’t a bunch of bros yelling “WAIT FOR THE DROOPPPP” — this was a much smoother ride than the big room EDM that draws a lot of people to festivals. CRSSD has always done a good job of booking more underground electronic acts than other festivals and this was a crown jewel for them.
It’s crazy how much Chance the Rapper has grown in just a couple of years. I had seen him the previous year at SXSW and Life is Beautiful, and though both sets were fun, he took the party to new levels at Outside Lands. Though his set was a little briefer than scheduled due to a late start, he packed in a lot of hits in a short window of time. I was there with a couple friends I’ve known for going on 15 years and we all rocked out to Chance and his band. His verse from Action Bronson’s “Baby Blue” and his track “Blessings” were the two highlights for me. It had me hyped to see him a few months later at the Greek at his own gig. This set went a long ways towards making me believe in Chance as a legitimate second-tier festival headliner in 2017 — and that’s what he’ll be doing at Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, and Boston Calling among others.
The set that immediately preceded Chance the Rapper’s at Outside Lands was this epic nostalgia-fest. I had seen Third Eye Blind a few months earlier at Bonnaroo, and while that was fun, they’re infinitely more enjoyable when surrounded by friends you’ve known since the band’s prime. Lead singer Stephan Jenkins clearly relished playing his hometown festival, saying he rode his bicycle into Outside Lands. I’m one of the few people who’ve stayed paying attention to the band long since their 1997 self-titled smash, and “Everything is Easy” from their last full album was one of the set’s high moments for me. Sprinkling in more obscure gems with smashes like “Never Let You Go” and the heart-tugging “Motorcycle Drive By,” the set was well curated. A four-song medley in honor of David Bowie was a nice touch before closing it with maybe the best sing-along of the ’90s, “Semi-Charmed Life.” I’ll hold that moment dear forever.
I went back home to the Bay for a rare weekend off in October — 50% of it was for my 10-year high school reunion, the other 50% was to attend one day of Treasure Island and see Sigur Ros for the first time since Outside Lands 2012 — my very first festival. I had actually managed to talk our class president into coming to the fest’s final day — and though weather delayed sets and completely cancelled James Blake’s, the payoff was massive once Sigur Ros finally took the stage. A lot of the crowd had cleared out after Purity Ring, so it was easy for us to get a spot close to the stage. This band is proof that you don’t need to understand the language of someone for them to make you feel all the feels — the sound of the vocals washing over us was enough to keep us warm. They really brought it for this headline set.
I had the amazing opportunity to see M83 three times in four weekends. At Sasquatch, I got to experience it in the pit as two of my new friends tripped on acid and took in one of the most excellent light shows and emotional sets of the weekend. At Bonnaroo, they served as a great appetizer to LCD Soundsystem and a late-night Tame Impala set, maybe the best run of bands at a festival in 2016. At Firefly, I booked it from a Death Cab set on a stage across the festival by feigning anxiety and getting pulled over the rail by security so that I could secure a spot right up close in the middle.
That viral social media post about naming 10 albums that had a major effect on you as a teenager instantly made me think of Saves the Day’s 2001 record Stay What You Are — an album that I played over and over around the time I saw them a half-decade later at The Fillmore in SF as an 18-year-old. I learned every words to this record, and when FYF Fest booked them to play it from beginning to end for its 15th anniversary, I immediately circled it as my can’t-miss set of the weekend. The band — and crowd — didn’t disappoint. I was surrounded by at least a half-dozen super fans, most of them new friends since I moved to LA a few years ago. It felt like I was at Emo Nite, everyone was really into the show and the band fed off the energy. Playing it front-to-back meant kicking the set off with “At Your Funeral” — one of the best anthems of my youth. The song “Freakish” will always make me think of my best friend who sadly passed away years earlier. In high school we carpooled together, and I would go to his house next door and he was never ready to leave on time, always with that song playing on a loop as he got ready. When they played it, I really felt like he was in the crowd with me, and it was a powerful reminder of how live music at its best can trigger feelings like that in you.
I had fallen in love with singer-songwriter Julien Baker’s debut album just a few months earlier and was really looking forward to finally seeing her live. I saw Anderson Paak for the first time well across town and had to basically run from his show to catch this one. It was extra special because Baker was playing inside a tiny church — I couldn’t think of any better place to take in her music in a live setting for the first time. She had the crowd in stunned silence for the duration, from the opening moments of “Blacktop” until the end of the show. She might have broken every single person in that church’s heart. You could have heard a pin drop during the set-closing “Something” — my favorite track from the record. If this was at all what going to church was actually like, I might have gone.
The main lure to bring me back to Sasquatch for the second straight year — other than the beautiful Gorge — was to FINALLY see The Cure. There were few better back-to-back songs than hearing “In Between Days” followed by “Just Like Heaven” while rocking out in the center of the pit. Robert Smith and his band seemed to really enjoy playing on the edge of the cliff and sprinkled tons of highlights throughout their set. I was a bit miffed that they ONLY did two encores, ending their set nearly an hour earlier than what was listed on the schedule. Perhaps this had to do with the surprisingly low turnout, but they made the most of the time they utilized. Hearing “Disintegration” and “Boys Don’t Cry” was the best way to wrap up an epic Sunday night at the fest.
Anytime The Killers have been announced as a festival headliner, I’ve read message boards and Reddits react with a overwhelming “meh.” But there’s no denying in my mind that they are a great fit for headlining festivals, and they probably come cheaper than a lot of them. At Governors Ball’s second day, rain starting coming down heavily in the late afternoon. My friends and I took shelter under the one beer tent near the main stage for the 30 minutes before The Killers were supposed to play as it really began to come down hard. The hard rain came to a stop, and almost immediately, The Killers took the stage and kicked into “Mr. Brightside” — which sent us and hundreds others running towards the main stage. It ended up being one of the best sing-along sets I saw all year as you forget just how many memorable songs the band has penned. Brandon Flowers is an incredible showman and he really milked the crowd and took us on a rollercoaster. From “Bling (Confessions of a King)” to “Somebody Told Me” to a cover of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and Interpol’s “Obstacle 1” to “Runaways” to “All These Things That I’ve Done” — there was never a lull. The encore-closing “When You Were Young” was a tremendous way to close what ended up being the last night of the fest after Sunday was canceled due to weather concerns.
Earlier in the day, before The Killers would play, I had found a prime spot near the front of the crowd to see HAIM perform for the second time in three weeks. By this time I was basically best friends with Este Haim in my mind, and we made eye contact and she smiled as I was once again the only dude in a sea full of girls rocking out to their set and singing every word. What made this set extra special and standout from killer sets at Hangout and later Bonnaroo was when the rain started coming down while it was still warm out. Nobody panicked, everybody seemed to accept it as part of the show and Este later poured a bottle of water on herself to show solidarity to the crowd. Though they played a brief 10-song set, it was high moment after high moment, including two new songs I’ve grown to love.
Goldenvoice got their millions of dollars worth as Guns ‘N’ Roses blew away everyone’s expectations on their first night headlining the fest. Though Axl Rose was in Dave Grohl’s throne due to a broken bone in his foot, Rose’s vocals sounded vintage 1991, a miracle given how clips are floating around the internet of his voice sounding terrible. Slash took solo after solo and the band proved they had what it takes to mount the insurmountable — a lengthy tour — without falling apart. My two roommates and I were all dressed like different versions of David Bowie (my excellent idea) and by the time GnR took the stage, us and everyone around us was out of water. It was a question of who could last longer, us or the band, and we managed to make it through their two-and-a-half hour marathon set. The song “Sweet Child O Mine” is one of my all-time favorites and I never thought I’d get to experience it live from those who brought it to us. Hearing it immediately brought the biggest smile on my face. They fucking brought out Angus Young for AC/DC tracks “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff Raff” for chrissakes, and followed it up with an amazing cover of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. They threw in a cover of The Who’s “The Seeker” in their encore, never neglecting to pull out all the stops for this once-in-a-lifetime festival experience.
My friends and I spent the first quarter of this set in the general admission crowd, but later found someone to sneak us into the pit for the rest of the show. It was amazing seeing this legendary band from up close, surrounded by people who no doubt grew up on the band. There was so much room in the pit to move around and everyone was having the time of their life. Pete Townshend is the nerdiest rock star in a great way and Roger Daltrey is still a fucking rock star. Incredible stage production. I thought it would be impossible to top “Baba O’Riley” into “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — complete with a killer stage setup, but then Roger Waters would take the stage an hour later and melt my brain.
Kendrick Lamar is headlining this year’s Coachella. I have a feeling King Kendrick earned the slot by dominating his headlining performance at FYF Fest this past August. Starting things off with the “untitled 07” track from his mixtape untitled unmastered, I was amazed by how many people were into some of the deeper cuts from his collection of bangers. He brought the house down with “Backstreet Freestyle,” brought out rising rapper Isaiah Rashad for a song, and then turned the show into a massive party later on with “King Kunta.” His production was unlike anything I saw the previous year as festival headliner, adding some great video stuff like Bill O’Reilly losing his mind and other assorted intriguing messages. Kendrick has earned his spot as one of the best live rappers in the world, vastly improving on sets from just a couple of years ago. The entire festival rapped along to “Alright,” sending the crowd home happy on the epic first night of arguably the best FYF Fest bill in history.
2016 was Anderson Paak’s coming out party. After delivering what I considered my favorite album of 2016 with Malibu in January, Paak went on a tear. His official coming-out party took place consecutive weekends in Indio, however. After bringing out T.I. and Gary Clark Jr. the first weekend, Paak brought out the big guns for his set the following weekend. Kendrick Lamar made an appearance and the two did “Backseat Freestyle” to the loud pop of the crowd. Later on, Dr. Dre came out and did “The Next Episode,” “Still D.R.E.” and “California Love” with Paak — this all came after Paak delivered his own hit-filled set, including what was my favorite song of the year, “Come Down.” It was the kind of set that word-of-mouth traveled quickly and it was the one festival set of the year that everyone wishes they were at but very few got to actually enjoy. I talked up Paak to two of my friends all weekend long and got them to come — my one friend immediately followed it up by buying Malibu on vinyl at Amoeba when we got back to LA.
It took me a few times seeing Tame Impala live to completely fall in love. It was probably their Shaky Knees set in 2015 when they took the next step to second-tier festival headliner, and then a few months later when I saw them back-to-back nights at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Those shows made me feel like I was on psychedelics even though I was stone-cold sober. So when they were announced as a late-night set at this past Bonnaroo, there’s a reason why it was one of the most anticipated shows of the weekend. The 1 AM start time approached quickly and my friend and I found a spot in the middle of the crowd about a half hour before they went on. It seemed like everyone around us was tripping balls hard. Pulling heavily from their 2015 epic Currents, the band took the crowd on a turbulent ride of emotions. It was almost hard to handle. The highlight was hearing “Eventually,” maybe my favorite song of the decade, and feeling all the feels that came with it. It was a legendary way to close out the second night of Bonnaroo.
There were some concerns Saturday night that Pearl Jam wasn’t going to be able to perform at all. A major wind advisory forced people back to camp after HAIM wrapped up their set on the secondary stage. I was dead tired from getting no sleep the night before and knew if I went back to my camp all the way on the other side, there was no way I was dragging myself back into the festival later that night. Pearl Jam is the main reason I was at Bonnaroo, I’d never seen them — a bucket list band for me. So I lingered around the area behind the stages. And then I stumbled into the artist hospitality area, walking right by the guard stationed at the entrance. What followed was free booze and chit-chat with some people, including saying hey to Halsey. When they announced the festival was re-opened, I slipped a couple of free Bud Light tall cans into my pocket and walked towards the main stage. Already there was a pretty big line to get into the pit. I found a spot where I slipped into the line, then I handed one of my extra beers to the guy I cut in line and said “Happy Bonnaroo!” He was all “Fuck yeah!” and I was all of a sudden ingratiated into that group of people. I rocked out hard to this Pearl Jam set with two brothers, the older one closer to my age. They played seven songs from Ten. They played my two favorite gems from Vitalogy — “Nothingman” and “Better Man” and their encore included “Comfortably Numb” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” covers. It was one of the best rock n roll shows I’d ever seen.
I had just seen LCD Soundsystem’s warm-up show at the Fox Theater in Pomona (my favorite regular concert of 2016), a set that made me a super fan that learned all the words to the songs that became my favorites. Earlier in the night, I’d made friends with this beautiful Australian girl named Lara that looked like Rose Byrne (also Australian) and I got her and her friend to come to LCD Soundsystem’s set with me, promising it would be a highlight of the weekend. It didn’t take long to make believers out of them, and we quickly found most of my friends in the crowd. The song “Someone Great” hit me in the feels really hard. But the ultimate highlight was when LCD decided to pay homage to David Bowie by covering “Heroes,” and I asked Lara if she’d slow-dance with me and it was one of the more extraordinary moments I’ve experienced at a festival.
Desert Trip kicked into full gear when Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Co. took the stage as headliners of the first night. I don’t think any of us were ready for what they had in store. “Tonight, we’re not gonna make any age jokes, but welcome to the Palm Springs Retirement Home for Genteel English Musicians,” Jagger shouted to the appreciation of the monstrous crowd. Hearing Jagger sing “Wild Horses,” maybe my favorite Stones song ever, was a year-defining moment for me. Seeing them cover “Come Together” for the first time ever as a hat-tip to Paul McCartney, who’d play the following night? That was legendary. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a stronger run of live songs than “Miss You” into “Gimme Shelter” into “Sympathy for the Devil” into “Brown Sugar” into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” before the encore of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” My spine still tingles thinking about that last 45 minutes.
Radiohead was one of many bucket-list bands I finally got to see in 2016. I camped out at the main stage Saturday from about 3 PM, without leaving to grab so much as a bathroom break. When the lineup came out, I vowed I would get as close to Thom Yorke and the rest of them as I could. It’s great because when they play Coachella, I’ll be able to enjoy it from a vantage point further away without worry. I listened to their new record A Moon Shaped Pool the day it came out with headphones on my hammock in the backyard and immersed myself fully. When they kicked off their set with a handful of tracks from the record, I was wrapped up in it. There was a dude in the crowd with a sign that said “Hey Yorke, let’s pork” which Yorke addressed in a funny manner. Hearing “Everything in It’s Right Place” live brought me back to the scene in Vanilla Sky where Tom Cruise runs through Times Square and nobody is around . That song leading into “Idioteque” was fucking ecstasy. Watching Ed O’Brien as a jack-of-all-trades break out the shaker as the crowd shouted along to Yorke’s aggressive singing is a moment that’s burned in my brain. It would all be taken to another level when they closed the show with “Karma Police” — complete with Yorke playing the outro just him and his acoustic guitar. I left wondering how the fuck I’d live my life after seeing Radiohead live for the first time.
This is simply the greatest live show I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been part of a more immersive experience of live music. After sneaking into the pit for The Who, we had a spot dead center for Roger Waters. I had no clue what to expect but my expectations were high. They were quickly blown to shreds. His band was magical — with Lucius providing mesmerizing backup vocals on a number of songs, particularly “Great Gig in the Sky.” When the pyramid from Dark Side of the Moon formed around us, my roommate perfectly said “What is even happening to me right now?” The production that went into the stage design was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The video screens were lit up with political imagery, including Donald Trump as Hitler, and Waters was clearly using this massive stage to make a statement. It was an interesting decision given the crowd was full of baby-boomers that probably didn’t agree with him, but I appreciate what he was doing. He played “Wish You Were Here” before an intermission and I got a bit teary-eyed. When they closed the mythical concert with “Comfortably Numb,” I couldn’t even form words about what I had just seen. We drove all night to get back to LA so I could work the following morning at 6 AM. Though I was glassy-eyed, the minimal sleep was worth the most amazing concert adventure I’ve experienced yet.