20 years ago, Americans thought music festivals were something that would swing into town on a nationwide tour, the same bill in every city that it played in. Or, it was something their parents did in the ’60s. But how times have changed, with events taking a cue from European models, using the last couple decades to establish cultural events with their own identities.
So what makes a festival good? A great lineup is a big factor, as there are only a few events in which that takes a back seat to the lifestyle and communal aspects — something like Lightning In A Bottle or even Burning Man — but there is also so much else to be taken into account. Location is key, as the environment of a music festival is a huge element in its lasting effect and marketability. Art installations, food, beer, wine, and activities are are all factors that make or break some fests. The following are the 20 best festivals in the world that stand out when compared to the field, with a bit of an emphasis placed on the US, since that’s where we call home.
There’s a reason that Outside Lands sells out so quickly every year, and its stellar music lineup is only part of it. Set in San Francisco’s scenic Golden Gate Park, the event draws in locals from all over the Bay, with more seasoned festival goers able to enjoy the fest’s commitment to legacy acts along with things like Winelands, Beerlands, a comedy tent called The Barbary, Chocolands, and some of the best cuisine at any music festival.
For younger fans, though, it’s more about the music, with this year’s bill featuring top-tier acts like The Weeknd, Future, Odesza, and Bon Iver. After years of being criticized for a lack of female headliners, OSL came through this year as well, with Janet Jackson and Florence + The Machine booked. More information can be found here.
No festival in the world is quite as symbolic as Indio, California’s Coachella. Part of it comes with how the even leads off the festival season in the US, often times providing the first taste of what fans in other markets have to look forward to. Part of it is just the scene that it has created, with the fashionable and the beautiful flocking to the desert paradise that has become a rite of passage for many of the area’s youth. And a big part of it is in the execution. You’ll see quite a few Goldenvoice fests on this list, and they know how to throw an event better than anyone else. Coachella is stunning to look at, including massive art displays, colorfully lit palm trees, and gorgeous natural surroundings. From its installations to its “Best of LA” cuisine, all elements are accounted for.
What makes this year special? Beyonce, for one, in what promises to be a one-off for the ages to makes up for her having to cancel last year due to pregnancy. Eminem and The Weeknd are also launching their tours that will see them headline fests around the worlds, while Migos, Cardi B, SZA, and St. Vincent are just a few of the names who everyone will be watching to see their new festival sets. More information can be found here.
All Points East
You won’t find many new events on this list, since it is hard to determine if it will function as well as it looks, but the docket for London’s All Points East make it undeniable. Beginning with a more traditional weekend festival that will include the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Bjork, Lorde, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The xx, the event will shift for the next weekend, with more curated “Headline” shows with Catfish And The Bottlemen, The National, and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. For a fan of indie music, it plays like a history-spanning look at the genre, where you can see legends like Patti Smith along with upstarts like The War On Drugs.
Adding to the draw, between these two-weekend events will be what is called In The Neighborhood, where Victoria Park will be open for free to the public to enjoy nightly films, street food, activities, local music, and pop-up bars. The entire program feels like a landmark moment for London music festivals, and makes us desperate to take a trip across the pond. More information can be found here.
Maybe the most amazing aspect of Lollapalooza is its mutability. After making a name for itself in the ’90s as a traveling rock festival, it put its roots down permanently in Chicago to become one of the most successful American music festivals to date. It sells out yearly, turning the massive Grant Park footprint into a wonderland for music lovers. Perhaps no other fest has learned how to work as well with brands to help their festival’s efficiency, and if you are upgrading to VIP, the experience at Lolla is second to none. And with other editions in Germany and Latin America, the Lolla brand might be the strongest global presence in the festival world.
This year’s headliners are strong, including Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, and Arctic Monkeys, while Latin America got the liked of Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Killers. The biggest knock has been the lack of women near the top of the American bill, which is a fair thing to call the fest out for. But better than anyone else this year, Lolla’s American lineup reflects what is current and what is to come in music, including nabbing Vampire Weekend ahead of its much anticipated new album. More information can be found here.
Austin City Limits
The Texas capital of Austin is known for its music, and while South By Southwest is certainly a scene to itself, it’s more of a media conference than a festival. ACL, though, is the city doing what it does best, throwing a gigantic party that is still the only festival besides Coachella that can pull off two weekends. Held in Zilker Park, the event spun off from the popular local music series that airs on PBS, and has been running strong since 2002. With additional features like Austin Eats, ACL Cares, and the ACL Art Market, it has truly gone from just a music festival to something more well-rounded.
While the 2018 lineup for ACL has not been revealed, last year saw the likes of Jay-Z, Chance The Rapper, and Gorillaz top the bill, and this year should be equally impressive. Maybe better is the fact that the festival has expanded beyond the Lone Star State, with Auckland City Limits now going strong, this year welcoming Beck, Future, and Justice down under. More information can be found here.
In the US, our music festivals often end pretty early, with Outside Lands and Lollapalooza turning off the sound at 10 PM. But in Europe, things are a bit different, and no event knows how to party all night like Barcelona’s Primavera Sound. That reputation has earned it a special place in festival-goers’ hearts, where seeing the sunrise on your way home from the event gives the fest a surreal, special glow. And its location along the water at Parc Del Forum is an ideal place to take in a festival, just walking distance from restaurants and activities, with the beach and local architecture offering scenic views.
Primavera Sound is also known for its lineups. This year will see The National, Arctic Monkeys, Lorde, Bjork, Nick Cave, and Migos all appear, making up for last year when one of its biggest gets, Frank Ocean, had to cancel. And the festival goes so much deeper than headliners, with artists like The Blaze, 0PN, Car Seat Headrest, Kelela, and Fever Ray adding to the impressive bill. More information can be found here.
For most festivals, taking a year off is the beginning of the end, signifying a failing health for the event. For Glastonbury, it’s tradition, with what is called a “fallow year” happening every four or so years in order to help the area near Pilton in the UK recover from the visits of the masses. It’s also helped the festival not suffer some of the same booking difficulties that others do, not having to suffer the pressure of putting together an amazing lineup every year.
The thing is, Primavera is known for its amazing lineups. It’s one of the few festivals (like Coachella) whom no one is really off the table for, meaning you’ll see acts like U2, Beyonce, Adele, The Rolling Stones, and Coldplay performing. It’s the biggest music festival in the UK, and makes a case for itself as being the tops in the world. That’s no joke. More information can be found here.
Day For Night
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Sending out a big thank you to our attendees as we close out Day 2. Your enthusiasm and energy are why we do what we do. We're looking forward to spending Day 3 with you. #DayforNight Credit(s): @jbajsel @saramarjorie @chadwadsworth_atx @rohofoto @theographics @katrina.barber @charles.reagan @iq3photography
Music festivals don’t all need to take place in vast fields. Day For Night in Houston is a different beast entirely. The event, which is only a few years old, instead inhabits an abandoned post office that happens to be designed by the same person who created the Astrodome. That gives it a vibe of the coolest warehouse party ever conceived, with immersive art installations found in every nook and cranny. It’s not all indoors — the biggest couple of stages are right outside the building — but the juxtaposition gives the young fest more personality than its much bigger cousins. Oh yeah, and it takes place in December. Take that, summer festivals,
Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about Day For Night the same way if it didn’t put together singular music lineups. Again, they are operating outside the box here, booking the like of Aphex Twin for his first (and only) US performance in years, along with Nine Inch Nails, Solange, and Thom Yorke within its last couple years. The lineups wouldn’t make total sense at other festivals, but Day For Night already knows what it is, serving fans who operate a bit more on the fringe than the mainstream. Something about that feels pure, like it still has a bit of the same spirit in which music festivals began. More information can be found here.
There are a lot of music festivals that take place in pretty places, and then there is Sasquatch at The Gorge in Central Washington. It’s not a misnomer, as the fest’s home amphitheater overlooks a stunning gorge, creating a setting for music that simply needs to be seen to be believed. It’s a trek to get to and you most likely would have to camp, but Sasquatch still holds the belief that a festival should be an adventure.
After a few years where the event seemed to lose its identity (2016 unsuccessfully tried to pair Major Lazer and Disclosure with The Cure; 2017 offered up Twenty One Pilots and a canceled Frank Ocean appearance), the festival is back to its roots for its 2018 edition topped by The National, Modest Mouse, and Bon Iver. More information can be found here.
Is it cheating to choose a festival that takes place at the exact same location as another festival from this list? Maybe, but to think that Stagecoach is simply Coachella with cowboy hats is sorely mistaken. There are line dancing lessons, a marketplace curated by Nikki Lane, the frickin’ Budweiser Clydesdales, and so much more that gives the annual attraction a spirit that is all its own.
Stagecoach also manages to book a country lineup that no others can compete with. This year features giants Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, and Florida Georgia Line, with people like Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves providing crossover appeal to more adventurous country fans. The festival does a remarkable job at celebrating country from its most pop to its most traditional, doing service to a genre that most people disregard. More information can be found here.
To dismiss Miami’s Ultra festival as merely a rave would be a huge mistake. Taking place every March, Ultra has become a festival behemoth, causing the world of dance music to descend on the same location for festivities that extend well beyond the event’s footprint. Booking an assortment of both live acts and DJ sets, it’s often the location where EDM artists choose to debut new music or try out new stage shows, putting it on the precipice of the live music game. To that end, it’s actually become something of an empire, with events also held around the world in such disparate locations as Croatia, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Mexico City, and Ibiza, just to name a few. And bonus points for any festival poster that uses artist’s logos.
This year, the festival offered up live sets from Empire Of The Sun, G-Eazy, and Azealia Banks, while the stacked DJ bill included The Chainsmokers, Porter Robinson’s Digital Self, Axwell & Ingrosso, Kaskade, DJ Snake, Tieto, Marshmello, and David Guetta. Basically, no one puts on an electronic music lineup like Ultra, and it has become the premier event for an entire genre. More information can be found here.
Let’s stay in South Florida for another genre event that is second to none. Rolling Loud‘s ascent to the hip-hop festival throne has been somewhat recent. But the genre has big shoes to fill following the end of Rock The Bells. And while there has been a bit of drama for Rolling Loud to find a home, this year’s move to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens should settle that. Think the fest is too young to deserve placement like this among the best in the world? Well, since its first run in 2015, it has already expanded to a Bay Area and Los Angeles edition. How’s that for a speedy takeover?
This year, Rolling Loud will offer up a pretty amazing hip-hop lineup, topped by headliners J. Cole, Travis Scott, and Future. But even below that are a wealth of top-tier artists, like Cardi B, Lil Uzi Vert, Migos, N.E.R.D., The Diplomats, Young Thug, Gucci Mane, 21 Savage, and Post Malone. But maybe the most intriguing name is Rick Ross, whose recent health scare had many wondering if they’d ever see him on stage again. More information can be found here.
In America, you simply don’t have fests with the history of Denmark’s Roskilde. Dating back to 1971 when it was founded by high school students, it has since become the largest festival in Northern Europe. While many might remember the festival for the tragic deaths of nine fans that occurred in 2000 during Pearl Jam’s performance, that devastating moment has become a part of the festival’s identity, with a memorial constructed on site and a ten-year tribute led by Patti Smith occurring in 2010. The fact that Roskilde could survive such a moment speaks to the festival’s spirit, with the event leading the charge to ban crowd surfing and help shape increased safety measures at festivals across Europe.
In 2018, Roskilde might have its best lineup yet, with the likes of Eminem, Bruno Mars, Nine Inch Nails, Cardi B, and Gorillaz topping the lists. Further down, Black Star, St. Vincent, Nick Cave, Massive Attack, David Byrne, My Bloody Valentine, Dua Lipa, and Interpol are also in on the action, giving the event a bill that isn’t just your typical summer festival fare, speaking to the elevated taste level that Roskilde prides itself on. More information can be found here.
While Sled Island didn’t incur the same sort of tragedy as Roskilde, it also has a chance to show its resilience when the city of Calgary experienced catastrophic flooding in 2013, resulting in the event’s cancelation. But that hasn’t really slowed down Sled Island. Sled is an example that many festivals follow and do well at, including Boise’s Treefort and San Francisco’s Noise Pop, where a festival is really an excuse to put your city on display. Most of the shows take place at the city’s many venues, turning the week of its running into a celebration of Calgary’s art scene. Oftentimes, this is the best way to experience a new city, by taking in the food and culture that it has to offer at a moment when it is putting its best foot forward. But for locals, it is a chance to support each other and welcome artists who might not normally include Calgary on a tour stop.
One of Sled Island’s coolest aspects is its guest curators, which have included Flying Lotus, Kathleen Hanna, and Andrew W.K. in the past. This year is Deerhoof, and the lineup includes The Flaming Lips, Dirty Projectors, Wye Oak, Shabazz Palaces, and Grouper. More information can be found here.
If you live in Los Angeles, you might remember when FYF Fest was just a bunch of bands at venues in Echo Park, with artists like Black Lips, Deerhunter, and No Age anchoring the bill. But oh has it grown, eventually moving to LA State Historic Park and now at its new home at Exposition Park. The booking of the festival improved quicker than its infrastructure, with Goldenvoice eventually coming on to turn around its reputation as a logistical nightmare. But these days, it has earned a reputation for its progressive bills, a commitment to showcasing the best of LA’s cuisine, and a taste level more concerned with what’s next and what’s cool as opposed to what will sell.
In its first year since parting ways with founder Sean Carlson following allegations and admission of sexual misconduct, FYF will have women anchor both nights of the fest, with Janet Jackson and Florence + The Machine. Also showing up will be Future, The xx, My Bloody Valentine, and St. Vincent. The event prides itself on being “the best weekend of the summer,” and more often than not, it achieves this goal. More information can be found here.
Some of the best festivals running at the moment are curated by artists. And while there are many we could highlight here, including Tyler, The Creator’s excellent Camp Flog Gnaw or The National’s new Homecoming, Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires hits on just about everything that artist curation does right. For one, it brings people to a place of the country they might not normally visit, taking place in 65K person town in Wisconsin. More importantly, though, is that really encapsulates the aesthetic of its founder, with Vernon offering up sets from collaborators and friends like Chance The Rapper, Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, and The National in the past. Of course, Vernon performs, too, and also manages to craft special performances within the program. In 2016, he gave his last album, 22, A Million, its debut, while the Day Of The Dead tribute album received its only live performance at the fest.
Interestingly, 2018 Eaux Claires isn’t even releasing its lineup in a traditional sense, or so Vernon has indicated. Vernon instead has been dropping names on social media as who is “highly likely” to make the event, with fans having to trust that this year will once again be awesome. More information can be found here.
Another artist-curated festival, FORM is different than anything else going. Hundred Waters is in charge of curating the event, but until recently, you couldn’t even buy tickets to it, as it was held by “invitation following application” with a donation recommended. Held in the “experimental community” of Arcosanti in Arizona, it’s wild to think of an event that looks at people’s websites and interests to decide if they would be a good creative fit for their event, but the flip side is that it kept the attendance at a manageable size and ensured that everyone was on a similar wavelength. Camping wasn’t an option initially, it was required. And even if the thought of such an untraditional festival isn’t that strange to you, you wouldn’t expect it to feature the likes of Skrillex and Father John Misty, as it did last year.
This year, FORM is selling tickets in a more traditional way. Chance The Rapper, Fleet Foxes, Blood Orange, Skrillex, Beach House, and Charli XCX will all perform, and while you still are asked to fill out a questionnaire, the option of not staying on site is now present. It is strictly 21+ and the festival does reserve the right to reject any applications it wants, while talks, panels, and workshops make for a more immersive experience than a regular rock festival. More information can be found here.
For a long time, New York City earned a reputation as not a music festival city. Events would pop up and ultimately suffer, with a major factor being the lack of suitable locations for a large-scale fest. Governors Ball gets credit as the festival to break this curse, starting in 2011 and ushering in a new era where NYC could hold multiple major yearly fests, including Panorama and The Meadows. But Governors Ball gets bonus points for being the first and for continuing strong when a competitor moved onto its turf, producing a lineup that always manages a few curve balls and looks to its home for inspiration.
This year, Govs Ball will be topped by Travis Scott, Jack White, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Eminem, with a Gaslight Anthem reunion and Diplo and Mark Ronson’s Silk City project standing as their particularly special gets for this year. The hope is that the festival’s biggest enemy — rain — stays away this year after forcing the cancelation of Kanye West’s 2016 headlining set. More information can be found here.
It might be the worst named festival on this list, but in just three short years, Madrid’s Mad Cool festival has earned its slot by putting together the kind of rock bills that dreams are made of. As if you needed a good reason to visit Spain in the summer, Mad Cool doesn’t just offer a single headliner on each day, but seemingly stuffs its weekend of programming with more headliner-worthy artists than other fests book across multiple years. That’s a big reason why from year one, it has been attracting more than 100K visitors each year.
But 2018’s edition is clearly the crown jewel of its still young life. Friday will offer up Pearl Jam, Tame Impala, Justice, Post Malone, and Fleet Foxes, while Saturday features Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, and Massive Attack. But the best day is the last, with Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Queens Of The Stone Age, Dua Lipa, Underworld, and Jack Johnson all scheduled to appear. No idea how this festival makes money with lineups like that, but we’ll for sure reap the benefits of their cavalier attitude towards booking. More information can be found here.
Reunions used to be the lifeblood of American music festivals, but these days, it feels like all of the good reunions have already happened. Chicago’s Riot Fest thinks otherwise, as it has become one of the last festivals whose yearly reveal offers up some band that you only hoped would get back together. Last year was Jawbreaker. The year before was The Misfits. Their punk leanings don’t make for the most inclusive lineup, but they make up for it by cramming a heaping spoonful of nostalgia to go with some of contemporary rock and rap’s best acts. Its success has allowed it to expand to Denver and Toronto, as well, though those incarnations are not currently active.
Riot Fest has yet to reveal its 2018 lineup, but we have no doubt that there are some surprises in store. Worst comes to worst, it will at least represent the Warped Tour of your dreams. More information can be found here.