Coachella: Top 11 sets in 11 years

I’ve attended 11 Coachellas in a row, dating back to 2007. I’d just turned 18, and at the time you could say that my music tastes were still developing. There’ve been a number of monumental musical moments in my life – bands I’ve discovered or shows I’ve seen – that have impacted my listening habits in profound ways. But above all, I’d consider Coachella to be the most influential guide in all my years of being a music fan. In those years, I’ve seen the festival’s brand and presentation evolve drastically. Not only has the musical programming changed completely, but so have things like crowd demographics, pricing, camping, and food and alcohol options. At this point, Coachella isn’t even really seen as the “hip” or “cool” thing to do anymore. It’s obviously a total blast, but right now, the sheer number of festivals around the world is staggering. Going to Coachella is something that seemingly everyone does right now. Even my 60-year-old mom attends every year. Nonetheless, it’s still the one weekend out of the year that I look forward to the most.

Some years have been better than others, but each year, I’ve walked away from Coachella having had my mind blown by several acts throughout the weekend. With the 2018 edition just a couple days away, I’ve done some reflecting on all the amazing shows I’ve witnessed. Trying to narrow down all the sets I’ve seen throughout the years into one “best of” list was excruciating, but I tried my hardest. Here are my top 11 favorite sets throughout all my years of attending the iconic desert bash. And in case you were wondering, no, I did not see Gesaffelstein in 2015. My mistake. But enjoy!

11. Deadmau5 (2010)

Deadmau5’s godly Sahara Tent set in 2010 was a mindblower, and my first real introduction to the big room EDM scene. But it also felt like a game-changer from a live music perspective. Sure, Daft Punk had introduced the pyramid in 2006, but after Deadmau5 debuted the eye-popping cube set-up here, it ushered in a new era where seemingly every DJ in the game was busting out their own special, high-tech LED lighting set-up. In any case, this set was prime Deadmau5; hot off the heels of his biggest album For Lack Of A Better Name. The energy in that tent was at a fever pitch. He straight up dazzled the crowd, dropping his anthemic electro-house hits “Ghosts n’ Stuff” and “Strobe,” in addition to his aforementioned overwhelming, sensory-overload lighting display. As my friend Adria said about a hundred times that night, “Deadmau5 BLEWWWW MY MIIIIIIIND.” Me too, Adria. Me too.

10. The Strokes (2011)

One thing is for certain about Coachella: no year will ever top 2011. No chance. And The Strokes are one of the big reasons why. Having already been pummeled on Friday and Saturday with legendary sets from Arcade Fire, Crystal Castles, Animal Collective, and the Chemical Brothers, Sunday night was showing no signs of slowing down. My brother and I camped out on the Main Stage that day and saw the raucous Death From Above 1979 reunion, and a classy nostalgia-fueled set from new wave veterans Duran Duran. And then came The Strokes, one of my favorite bands of all time, and one that has permanently defined my music listening. They sounded tight and crisp, they ripped through a perfect greatest hits set list, the lights and energy were magnificent, and Julian Casablancas was as drunk and entertaining as I’d hoped. It was a set that had me smiling from ear to ear. And when it was over, my brother and I remembered that Kanye was coming on next (a rare night where there were TWO headliners). Lord have mercy!

9. My Bloody Valentine (2009)

Without question, this was the LOUDEST set I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was brutal, punishing, but absolutely, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Just an all-around stunning sonic display that only My Bloody Valentine can achieve. Their 2009 reunion show was pure class through and through. Coachella’s Main Stage sound system proved it could handle their notoriously deafening noise levels (*cough* FYF *cough*). All the other stages except for the Sahara were shut down to accommodate them. It’s crazy to look back at this set and remember that they played a prime subheadling spot on the biggest stage. It’s another sign of just how much Coachella’s musical lineup has evolved throughout the years. Nowadays, they’d probably be tossed into the Mojave tent against a headliner. As a rock band, My Bloody Valentine has done more to impact my listening habits than just about any that’s ever existed. Noise-rock is my number one. And this set put me on the pathway to discovering so much more within the genre.

8. The Chemical Brothers (2011)

Another entry from 2011, this was the closing set of Friday night, and an absolute powerhouse performance from the iconic electronic duo. Despite a late start, the Chemical Brothers put on an incendiary show featuring their bonkers lighting rig, massive video screens, and spine-tingling big beat stylings. This was a total adrenaline rush from start to finish. As they opened with classic “Galvanize,” the glowruption occurred: 5 straight minutes of raining glowsticks all over the Main Stage crowd. It was a moment of pure ecstasy, and the energy never let up as they sped through hits like “Swoon” and “Hey Boy, Hey Girl.” The sheer professionalism of the group was apparent, and it demonstrated that even 20 years into their career, they were still at the top of their game. And here we are, still clamoring for their return.

7. Arcade Fire (2011)

Two words: ball drop. That phrase is really all you need to describe the ecstasy and wonder that came with Arcade Fire’s glorious headlining set. That moment when the first chorus of “Wake Up” hit and the giant glowing blow-up balls started descending from the top of the Main Stage was the most symbolic moment of Coachella’s immaculate 2011 edition. Brilliant stage presence, presentation, artistry, and skill are on display at every Arcade Fire concert, and their sets in 2005, 2007, and 2014 were electrifying. But this one was particularly magical. This was the band at the height of their critical and commercial buzz – their career peak – and they delivered an epic indie rock spectacle the likes of which we might never see again. And those Arcade Fire Balls! The pandemonium that ensued was downright inspiring. It was a moment that anointed Arcade Fire as bonafide legends, and another indication that Coachella 2011 was the best of them all.

6. Refused (2012)

2012 featured not one, but two reunions of legendary ’90s post-hardcore groups: At The Drive-In and Refused. While At The Drive-In were awesome, it was Refused who threw down the most energetic and violent show of the weekend. One of their first shows in 13 years, the band closed the Outdoor Theater against their polar-opposite Swedish brethren, the Swedish House Mafia. Perfect counter-programming, obviously. And they ended up delivering the most ferocious and perfect reunion show I’ve ever seen, with rain ominously drizzling from the skies and complementing the dark, rebellious vibe that the rabid crowd absolutely ate up. Snarling with political defiance and an energy that never let up, it was as though Refused had never split in the first place. Singer Dennis Lyxzen’s stage presence was like a wild animal. One of the tightest live bands I’ve seen, and a triumphant return for one of punk’s greatest. When they played “New Noise,” it was pure mayhem. CAN I SCREAM?!

5. Kanye West (2011)

Kanye West’s festival-closing performance in 2011 was the first hip-hop show I’d seen that I thought was truly transcendent. At that point, Kanye was finally an icon. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time (and still is today). And this set solidified his icon status. Opening with “Dark Fantasy,” he flew in on a crane RIGHT ABOVE my brother and me. He had 100 costumed dancers on stage, a monolithic backdrop, and flames and sparks shooting out from the rafters. Also, Justin Vernon and Pusha T came out and performed their parts flawlessly. Kanye raced through a career-spanning setlist in three distinct cinematic parts, and performed with unbridled confidence and passion. It was a tight and dynamic set and Kanye appeared gracious throughout. It was the most fitting send-off to my favorite year of Coachella ever.

4. Kendrick Lamar (2017)

Last year, Coachella gave me the best birthday present: Kendrick Lamar performing his DAMN. live show for the first time ever. This set was much like Kanye’s in 2011; a moment that solidified Kendrick as the most dynamic rapper of his generation. And like Kanye’s, it was beautifully cinematic in execution: trippy Samurai-inspired video interludes, a stunning light show and stage presentation, and even optical illusions. It marked the live debut of all the songs on DAMN., which had been released just days earlier. And mostly, Kendrick’s charisma and bravado brought down the house. He truly is an incredible live performer. Everything about the show amounted to what felt like a moment in time. And like Kanye’s set in 2011, it was a truly transcendent rap concert. It was a journey and a spectacle, but also a showcase of one of the most honest and vital artists of our time. Having just seen amazing sets from Hans Zimmer and Lorde earlier that day, this performance topped off one of the best days of concert-going in my life.

3. Sigur Rós (2013)

This set actually made me cry. Literally, I had tears running down my cheeks as Sigur Rós performed “Hoppípolla.” It was as though a vivid feeling of imagination and self-discovery had been injected straight into my veins. I looked over at my friends to my left, and then to the strangers to my right, and saw I was not alone. Here we were, all being transformed together, while most of the festival was watching Phoenix and R. Kelly at the Main Stage (LOL). But really, we were the lucky ones. Such is the power of the Icelandic post-rock band. Their ability to tap into your sense of nostalgic childlike wonder, and evoke feelings of sadness while being simultaneously comforting. And they performed with a whole backing orchestra too. Simply put, it was beautiful. Also, in a single breath, Jónsi held a falsetto note for one full minute exactly! I’m not crying, you’re crying.

2. Rage Against The Machine (2007)

Still to this day, this show was the most violent and galvanizing I’ve ever experienced. First of all, it was Rage Against The Machine’s reunion show – their first concert in 7 years. Also, they’re one of the biggest hard rock bands of all time (duh). This was back when Coachella sold single day tickets. I’ve never seen so many people excited for a single concert in my entire life. Fans camped out at the Main Stage ALL DAY for it. And once the band came onstage and ripped into “Testify,” the place became an absolute war-zone. For 90 straight minutes, the band tore through their biggest hits while the crowd pummeled the shit out of each other. I remember the chaos being inescapable. At one point, I fell into a mosh pit and thought I would be trampled to death. Thanks to a large Somoan guy who lifted me out, I’m still alive today. Only a band as vitriolic as Rage could incite such a passionate crowd reaction. Now that I’m a little older, I’m not sure I’d be able to physically handle something like that anymore.

1. Kraftwerk / Portishead / Prince (2008)

I include all three of these sets together for a couple reasons. One, all three artists are bonafide legends and among the most important musical acts of all time. Two, they played on the same day, same stage, back-to-back-to-back. Which in retrospect, is downright mind-boggling. It is hands-down the greatest live concert experience of my entire life. But it took place very early in my concert-going career, and I probably didn’t fully realize its significance at the time.

Kraftwerk completely warped minds with their pioneering electronica and eye-popping visual show. At one point, they even deployed actual robots in their places to perform “Robots.” Face-melting stuff. Next up, it was Portishead’s first US show in over a decade. They played a career-spanning set featuring their biggest hits as well as the fantastic new tracks from Third. Each passing second of the set ratcheted up the tension and thrills – from ominous opener “Silence” to cathartic closer “We Carry On.” Picking your favorite set ever is kinda like picking your favorite child. But if I have to do it, this would be THE ONE.

And then there was Prince! Now that the Purple One is no longer with us, this set carries so much more weight and significance. I can go on and on describing the power of this set. His live presence, his craftsmanship, his greatest-hits spanning set list, or his unreal cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” He even brought out some of his longtime collaborators like Sheila E and Morris Day & The Time. On my end, a short dude named Manny asked my brother, our friend Jordan, and I if he could stand in front of us to see better. He offered to share his bag of joints with us in return. Needless to say, Manny became our best friend that night. Sometimes I look back on this set and still can’t believe I was there to witness it. I’ll probably be chasing that feeling for the rest of my concert-going life.

Honorable Mentions:

Rodrigo y Gabriela (2007), A Place To Bury Strangers (2009), Gang Gang Dance (2009), Crystal Castles (2011), Lil B (2011), Mogwai (2014), Caribou (2015), Radiohead (2017), Hans Zimmer (2017)





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