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Top 10 Music Festivals and Headliners in North America: Summer 2015 Power Rankings

Our Festival Outlookers take one last glance at the wet 'n' hot season

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Welcome to Festival Outlook, a supplemental column that provides more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, our staff updates our seasonal power rankings with regards to North America’s top music festivals and headliners. Rest assured, things have changed since this past spring.

Philip Cosores: Well guys, we are now wrapping up another year of music festivals and all the writers involved in this conversation represents a lot of ground covered and a lot of hours logged out in the sun watching bands. With my iPhone Health app, I can now safely say that Coachella involves the most total walking (from parking lot to fest and back) than any of the other three day festivals, though Lollapalooza would beat it by a landslide if I didn’t have access to a cool golf cart shuttle and FYF is not too far behind.

So, what have we learned this year? It’s not surprising that legacy acts like Elton John and Paul McCartney are still great headliners, but it was somewhat surprising how well an act like AC/DC fit into the mould. But maybe more interesting than the old acts we knew would be great are the younger acts asserting themselves as festival forces: Florence and the Machine, Alabama Shakes, Chance the Rapper, and Tame Impala, to name a few. Earlier in the year, those acts didn’t look that impressive on a festival lineup, and now we know that not only will they draw large crowds, but they will deliver.

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Michael Roffman: Philip, you and I just literally just finished discussing the idea of one-offs and why a few of our top headliners have only appeared at one or two festivals tops. A part of me wondered if that is fair as a qualifying measure, at least for this list, but I think it’s not only fair but even more exemplary. How much of a misfire was it to have OutKast on every lineup last year? Not economically, of course, but it cheapened the reunion considerably, which in turn made so many festivals, who had them booked as one of their few (if not their only) unique acts, seem so uninspiring and forgettable. No, the one-offs are essential.

But, you have to be creative, and you have to utilize some major foresight. Look, Coachella is always going to have the surprises, namely because they’re the earliest festival of the year. That’s likely why so many brands like Bonnaroo and Governors Ball announced their lineups around the same time this year — way back in the frosty, not-so-summery days of January. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. If you’re smart, you can think a little outside the box, and possibly go after some names that might not have any new album to support or even someone that has never entertained the idea of festivals.

Or, you can take a gamble and go small, as you suggested. One of the joys this year was seeing these younger acts graduating to the top of the bill amongst so many mid-size festivals. They likely couldn’t handle the big crowds at, say, a Big Four festival, but I’m also not necessarily sure that’s so solid of a statement, either. I think taking more risks on younger talent is a smart way of thinking, and it allows the festival scene to thrive because you’re building broader narratives. If any of those acts you tossed out Philip were given top billing at Bonnaroo or Outside Lands next year, I think it would be great. We don’t always need the blue chip headliners.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

Nina Corcoran: There comes a moment when festival lineups leak that you see these small acts billed as headliners and think … really? It’s rarely a jab at their talent and more so the simple realization that bands we’ve seen at mid-sized clubs merely two or three years ago are already drawing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of fans out to see them. This year pulled second-string fellas off the benches, patted them on the back, and sent them out into the field to see if they were ready to make that varsity starting lineup. Most of them proved they not only have what it takes, but they can intrigue the likes of casual, uninterested onlookers. It’s more than exciting to watch. It’s inspiring.

Tame Impala swung through Boston four years ago to play a 475-person capacity venue. In the following year, they sold out a 1100-person capacity venue … months in advance. Barely two years later, kids turned up at Boston Calling confused as to why Beck headlined instead of Tame Impala. (I know, I know. They later realized why.) Seeing the Aussie psych act blow up that quickly and wow crowds that double in size over the course of months promises a growing attention rate, and devotion, to acts on the rise.

There’s something quite heartwarming about seeing these bands climb higher up the bills with a growing stampede right on their tails. Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, and Billy Joel all won’t be budging anytime soon. They’ve mastered the art of live performances for festival-sized crowds. Seeing today’s rising acts adjust their shows so that the kids in the way back find it entertaining–be it Ratatat’s updated light show or Florence and the Machine urging a crowdsurfer to come onstage for a hug at Governors Ball–has me excited to see where they will fall in next year’s lineups. Even moreso, the mid-tier acts that will fill their shoes.

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

Danielle Janota: Agreed. Who would have known that junior acts like Chance the Rapper, who played an unfortunately quiet set due to sound issues at Lolla’s pint-sized BMI Stage two years ago, would now be the weekend favorite at Pitchfork? It’s truly a fairy tale ending. Well, hopefully not an ending for Chance. But, you know.

One of the most interesting parts about doing these power rankings is not only seeing which acts shone through, but which ones we quickly forgot about. Back in March, Paul McCartney and Kendrick Lamar made our top winter 10 lists, but what went wrong with Björk, Sleater-Kinney, and Sufjan Stevens?

Without a doubt, all of them are great performers. But when you’ve got a year’s worth of festival sets to compare them to, and you try to remember which ones really shook your bones and drew tears from your eyes, it’s obviously going to be the cathartic ones like Kanye West and Florence.

I think that human element is something we often forget about when making our initial top 10 lists. No matter how good a lineup looks on paper, at the end of the day, we’re all just festivalgoers looking to be entertained. When the sun goes down and you’re filled to the brim with craft beer and adrenaline, is it really that surprising to go for the obvious headliner?

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Collin Brennan: I think you hit on something important, Danielle, in that the bands that look best on paper aren’t always the ones we remember at the end of the summer. So much depends upon the context of the performance, those small details like Florence and the Machine facing off against a lightning storm at Lollapalooza, or The Jesus and Mary Chain blasting through Psychocandy at near-deafening levels to close out the first night of FYF. Those were visceral experiences, the kind that literally shook our bones and (in the case of TJMC) definitely worsened our tinnitus.

The obvious headliners lend themselves to these kinds of experiences, if only because they bring out the diehards in larger numbers. One problem I’ve always had with festivals is how noncommittal the crowd can be; you don’t get people screaming their heads off in the back rows, as you would even on a typical Wednesday night at the Metro or the Music Hall of Williamsburg. But when you’ve got Paul McCartney leading thousands in a singalong of “Hey Jude” or Kanye finding Rihanna in the crowd for a spontaneous duet — those are the kinds of snapshots that can only happen at festivals. The best acts aren’t always the ones that try the hardest. Sometimes, they’re just the ones who can make you feel like you’re a part of something bigger.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Nick LeTellier: Reading through everyone’s thoughts, its obvious that when it comes to festival headliners we’re all craving the same thing: to experience a memorable performance that leaves us begging for more and feeling privileged to have been in attendance to witness it. We hold headliners to a higher standard than undercard festival acts, and rightfully so. They’re for the most part the reason our wristband cost hundreds of dollars. So when we walk out the gates at the end of a night on a buzzing high, the price and bodily fatigue all seems worth it.

The headliners that will consistently stand out are the ones who are able to keep our attention for two hours and keep us immersed in their performance, while ignoring the countless number of distractions that come with a festival setting. A performer who can make me forget about bathroom lines, the fact that I haven’t eaten all day, or updating my Instagram are clearly demanding some sort of respect and doing something right. So it’s not surprising to see legacy acts top our rankings, as we clearly have the most amount of respect for these artists and tend to give them our full attention.

However, it’s always special when we find ourselves giving up-and-coming headliners like Florence and the Machine, Chance the Rapper, or Tame Impala the same type of respect and attention.

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Photo by Killian Young

Ben Kaye: Looking back at our winter rankings, I’m noticing just two artists who have stayed on the list, and that to me is the most interesting and exciting part of this. In the beginning of the year, it’s like a fantasy draft, where we try to peg the acts that are going to make the big plays. But then an MC1 like Drake can fizzle out and have a below-average year, and someone considered second string like Chance can step in and simply run all over everyone.

Of course, your legacies like Roger Waters and Paul McCartney are almost guaranteed to have memorable performances. However, having acts like that balanced alongside all these young guns we’ve mentioned is what’s going to keep the festival landscape vital and enjoyable. So often we run into this debate about the overcrowded scene, the redundant bills. I think what we’ve learned this year is that there is a way to avoid all that, it just requires some forward thinking and a bit of risk. You can have Billy Joel line up next to Florence and the Machine and have a massive success, you just need to trust in the music and the fans.

I’ve noticed a trend with these summers: Moan and bitch about who’s not playing or how much festival A is just a rehash of festival D. But in retrospect, how great was this festival season? How many truly memorable sets did we all get to witness, whether from soon-to-be headliners (hi, Alabama Shakes), headliners ascendant (is there anything Chance can’t do?), or legendary double-whammies (Roger Waters with My Pink Jacket, what?!)? Despite how overwhelmed we may all be feeling about the sheer number of these events, I think 2015 proved there’s plenty of life left in the North American Music Festival experience. If festivals can latch onto what went oh-so-right this year and expand on their riskier maneuvers, next year could be the best summer yet.

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

Click ahead to read the summer power rankings for our top 10 North American music festivals and headliners of 2015.

Top 10 Music Festivals

10. Made in America

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With Jay Z as its founder, Made in America has cultivated its reputation as a festival with unique lineups due to the eclectic tastes of its patrons, as well as his vast network of musician friends. It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Carter is married to Beyoncé, who delivered this year’s jaw-dropping, headlining performance (which was also her first full concert in about a year). Situated in the scenic Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the fourth year in its original host city of Philadelphia, Made in America also worked as a strong showcase for local talent (Marian Hill, Hop Along) and stars from hip-hop’s past (De La Soul) and present (Mick Jenkins, Vic Mensa). The full-force arrival of the Beyhive pushed the grounds to the limits in terms of capacity, but navigating the jam-packed crowd was worthwhile to see the likes of Beyoncé, The Weeknd (in one of his first performances after the release of Beauty Behind the Madness, no less) and J. Cole. –Killian Young

Top 10 Music Festivals

09. Sasquatch!

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Sasquatch! managed to do a few things very right this year. One was adding Sleater-Kinney for a rare festival appearance. Another was crafting a remarkably solid top-to-bottom lineup, with acts like Modest Mouse, Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, and Robert Plant topping a bill that featured smart, well-received bookings of Kate Tempest, Natalie Prass, and The Districts at the bottom. One of the most disappointing aspects of the festival was the faith they put in Kendrick Lamar, who has now put in a series of disappointing festival headlining spots. If Kendrick had delivered, Sasquatch! might be near the top of this list. –Philip Cosores

Top 10 Music Festivals

08. Austin City Limits

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Explosions in the Sky notwithstanding, there’s little missing from this year’s lineup of Austin City Limits. C3 Presents assembled an ideal hodgepodge of this year’s must-see headliners (Florence and The Machine, The Weeknd) and rock ‘n’ roll staples (The Strokes, Foo Fighters), in addition to some fancy autumn sparkles (Disclosure, Kurt Vile and the Violators). Now that Drake’s gone ahead and dropped that collaboration with Future, his appearance looks all the more interesting, and with Alabama Shakes in tow, perhaps Brittany Howard will want to do a fun Thunderbitch pop-up show in Austin. There’s also a vigilant undercard of folk, alternative country, and folk rock to satiate the purists who still shake in their boots at seeing Bassnectar on the lineup. It’s cool, you’re not alone, y’all. –Michael Roffman

Top 10 Music Festivals

07. Bonnaroo

Bonnaroo 2015 lineup

It’s hot. It’s dirty. It’s exhausting. Yet, anyone returning home from experiencing a weekend at Bonnaroo immediately begins to miss The Farm. Performances by Kendrick Lamar, Billy Joel, Mumford and Sons, Slayer, Alabama Shakes, two Superjams, Florence and the Machine, and Earth Wind and Fire featuring surprise appearances from Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper are just a few top memories from a long list of special moments that occurred in Manchester, TN this year. Bonnaroo provides a unique, immersive, and non-stop four-day festival experience that defines what a North American music festival should be. –Nick LeTellier

Top 10 Music Festivals

06. Pitchfork

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Even a torrential downpour and a evacuation couldn’t put a dent in this fine-tuned festival. Since its inception 10 years ago, Pitchfork has become a staple for Chicago’s music scene, and this year, organizers wanted to celebrate that fact. Pitchfork gave special attention to Chicago-bred acts like Wilco, Vic Mensa, and Chance The Rapper who would be able to connect with fans in a local, personal way. Pair those Windy City vibes with an impeccable lineup, perfect crowd size, and grade-A experiential marketing from Topshop, Dark Horse Wine, and Goose Island, and you’ve got one of the best fests of the year. –Danielle Janota

Top 10 Music Festivals

05. Eaux Claires

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It’s hard to know what to expect from a brand new music festival, but when the curators happen to be two of the biggest names in indie rock—Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner—chances are it’s going to be an experience. Those who ventured to Eau Claire, Wisconsin this past July found a festival off the beaten path in both the phrase’s literal and figurative meaning. Located away from the city proper, Eaux Claires thrived along the banks of Chippewa River, which provided a unique space for creativity in all forms. As was reiterated by almost every act on the lineup, the festival was for the music — it wasn’t a scene. Sufjan Stevens boasted that he never plays festivals, namely because he “is agoraphobic and terrified of contracting lyme disease or an STD or whatever.” But more to the point he doesn’t play them because the appreciation wasn’t there. The consensus was that Eaux Claires was a special place for musicians and their fans, for art to breathe and be enjoyed. –Amanda Roscoe Mayo

Top 10 Music Festivals

04. Newport Folk Festival

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Newport Folk Festival formed in 1959, spinning off from George Wein’s successful jazz festival, with its focus on rock and folk making it the earliest non-classical festival in the United States — that alone makes it iconic. Throw in massive headliners like Roger Waters and a superstar combo (Gillian Welch, Blake Mills, Deer Tick, Robyn Hitchock, etc.) honoring Bob Dylan, incredible surprise sets (James Taylor, My Morning Jacket), and the Atlantic Ocean lapping against the festival’s edge, and you’ve got yourself an epic weekend without all the cutthroat barrier drama. It’s as relaxed as a festival can get, making it a perfect fit for Sufjan Stevens, Angel Olsen, and anyone who, honestly, just wants to enjoy music from the comfort of a beach chair with their toddlers in lap. –Ben Kaye

Top 10 Music Festivals

03. Shaky Knees

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Tim Sweetwood got a lot of things right this year. The move to Central Park in the middle of downtown Atlanta, Georgia was a godsend, providing an accessibility and the proverbial leg space that just didn’t exist in years past. It also helps that his headliners truly delivered, from The Strokes’ vintage, career-spanning set to Tame Impala’s glimpse of a future for rock ‘n’ roll. The genre is admittedly a little shaky right now (no pun intended), but the three days at Shaky Knees felt like a friendly consolation that things are going to be alright for those who just want to hear dudes and dudettes tell stories with guitars. They could probably stand to use a few more female singer-songwriters — even if Zella Day and The Heartless Bastards were very, very solid — but altogether this might be the most honest festival to ever hit the South. –Michael Roffman

Top 10 Music Festivals

02. FYF

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This summer, FYF and founder/organizer Sean Carlson got a lot of flak from the true believers because they deigned to book an eclectic festival that strayed further away from the all-punk formula of years past. Whatever. It’s hard to pay too much attention to the haters when your fest has the clout to pull Kanye West in as a last-minute headliner. And it’s not like punk is entirely missing from FYF’s double helix — Joyce Manor and Metz saw huge crowds on Saturday, while Hop Along, Andrew Jackson Jihad, and Title Fight made sure Sunday was anything but lazy. But the best part about this iteration had nothing to do with the bands, punk or otherwise. After years of allergy-inducing dust storms and mile-long treks between stages, FYF finally grew up and started acting like a proper festival, complete with local food vendors, surprisingly decent bathrooms, and all-around chill vibes. We’ll be back next year, for sure. –Collin Brennan

Top 10 Music Festivals

01. Coachella

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Now a full six months removed from Coachella (meaning we’re now half a year away from the next one), the desert festival’s traditional booking of three headliners looks more like five or six, what with The Weeknd and Florence and the Machine, and maybe Tame Impala and the Alabama Shakes ascending to the heights that AC/DC, Drake, and Jack White had previously occupied. And while a number of acts would pop up on festival lineups throughout the year, Drake only played a few and both Jack White and AC/DC only did the one.

And even if we take the lineups out of the equation, Coachella as an event where the music world’s focus is in one singular location never happens at another festival, with other fest’s determining of “must-see acts” getting settled by simply watching the Chella live stream at home. It’s weird that with a whole year to top Coachella, no one did. But, that also speaks to why Coachella is what it is: the music festival in America by which all others are measured. –Philip Cosores

Top 10 Headliners

10. The Weeknd

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Photo by David Brendan Hall

There isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t hear “Can’t Feel My Face”. Whether it’s at Chipotle, or the gym, or every time I step into a Lyft, The Weeknd does his whole Michael Jackson schtick and everyone just goes apeshit. Probably because the song’s ludicrously catchy, but also because it’s just sticky enough to not become an irritating earworm that begs for a screwdriver to the brain. All year, that lustful adoration has translated into overwhelming crowds that would have been unthinkable for the PBR&B singer back in December. So, you can thank Fifty Shades of Grey and an album that can’t stop/won’t stop, because Abel Tesfaye is one of the hottest commodities on the market. –Michael Roffman

Top 10 Headliners

09. Tame Impala

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

“Mystery loves company, as the saying goes, and Tame Impala are about to yank rock ‘n’ roll back into the great unknown.” That’s what I wrote back in May, literally hours after their headlining set closed out Shaky Knees. This wasn’t a sensationalized moment; this was the makings of a believer. A couple years prior, I had seen them play at Austin City Limits, and while their live set was certainly impressive then, it didn’t carry the weight it does now. At the moment, Kevin Parker’s band of Australian misfits are working with their best material yet and, in turn, it’s informed their live performances to evolve their sound past the confines of anything they’ve ever recorded in the studio. That’s what makes them the most exciting act to see right now, if only for the fact that you won’t hear anything like it anywhere, not even on their own records. It’s also the only time that I can remember using the words “soulful” and “mindfuck” in the same sentence. –Michael Roffman

Top 10 Headliners

08. Chance the Rapper

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

No genre gets more ostracized at a festival than hip-hop. A rapper’s WPM ratio turns into an unofficial duel between fans and the artist, seeing who can keep up while many, especially those vaguely or entirely unfamiliar with the act, stand awkwardly, unsure if they should really be there. Chance the Rapper manages to eradicate this altogether. During his hometown headlining set at Pitchfork Festival, the young rapper launched through a medley of work both old and new, encouraging everyone to make those minutes full of joy, love, and energy in whatever that means for them — no matter what else anyone thinks. Chance prioritizes your comfort and enjoyment from start to long after he finishes. Feeling welcome has never felt so wonderful. –Nina Corcoran

Top 10 Headliners

07. Kendrick Lamar

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Kendrick Lamar should be No. 1 on this list. But he’s still articulating his own feelings about his album — this year’s year-end hopeful, To Pimp a Butterfly — and it’s that hesitation which keeps rattling him around on this list. Because really, we’ve seen when he can fully “bring it,” as he recently proved on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but we’ve also seen when he’s sat comfortably on the ice, as he did during his headlining slot at Sasquatch! back in May. He’s always great, no doubt about that, but he’s not always essential. Which, to say the least, is a shame given that he’s working with this year’s most engaging material yet. One could argue for next year, but you know how the times work. Yesterday’s business is tomorrow’s lost thoughts. Hmm, I should write that down. –Michael Roffman

Top 10 Headliners

06. Billy Joel

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Of all the legacy artists out there this year, Billy Joel was poised as the relative underdog. But anyone who doubted him must’ve forgotten how deep his catalog of hits really is. How can you not be all smiles with an encore that goes “Uptown Girl”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, “Big Shot”, “You May Be Right”, “Only the Good Die Young”? It’s true that you can see Joel playing most of these songs every month at Madison Square Garden, but only at Bonnaroo do you get 70,000 people belting along to “Piano Man”, and it’s hard to top that feeling. –Ben Kaye

Top 10 Headliners

05. Beyoncé

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Photo by Killian Young

Every year, Beyoncé’s name gets floated around as a potential festival headliner and every year most festivals miss on her, either from a lack of booking interest or an inability to get the price right. But her willingness to headline, and impress, at her husband’s Made in America Festival is further proof that Bey needs to do more festivals in the coming years, and that pop stars at major music festivals are not as taboo as they once were. Bey even went as far as to debut a new show at her summer fest appearance, indicating that a booking of Beyoncé wouldn’t just be the recycling of her previous arena run. –Philip Cosores

Top 10 Headliners

04. Kanye West

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Photo by Philip Cosores

Despite his ever-growing fame, Kanye West was the underdog of the festival season. Glastonbury festivalgoers signed a petition against him, and at FYF, he was merely a replacement. Despite the adversity, he still delivered increasingly explosive performances that not only silenced critics, but reaped new fans. People often forget that behind the egotism, he has a huge catalog of amazing albums, years of live performance experience, and an unmatched vision for stage production. Thus, festivalgoers can’t help but turn over a new leaf when they see Yeezy live; he’s the d-bag that just keeps on giving. –Danielle Janota

Top 10 Headliners

03. Florence and The Machine

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

We all have that one personal friend that we adore because no matter what, anytime we’re around them they leave us smiling with a warm full heart. This is the same way most of us feel after experiencing Florence and the Machine perform at a music festival. Even the most judgemental festival patrons would have a hard time coming up with negative critiques after witnessing Florence Welch light up a stage. It’s hard to imagine Florence and the Machine not making this list as long as they’re touring. Florence will continue to be a sure bet for a memorable and radiant festival headliner. –Nick LeTellier

Top 10 Headliners

02. Paul McCartney

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

Okay, so Paul McCartney didn’t bring out Kanye West or Rihanna during his headlining set at Lollapalooza this past August. But, he played a snippet of “FourFiveSeconds” and he sang alongside Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard (see above) for a fun and sassy rendition of “Get Back”. Plus, as expected, the whole “Hey Jude” sing-a-long proved to be another religious experience, a rare, spiritual moment that very few headliners (if any) could ever hope to offer. Strangely enough, however, it was “Back in the U.S.S.R.” that brought the crowd to Cloud9. Well, same with “Helter Skelter”. And the Abbey Road medley. Oh bollocks, the whole thing’s fucking great. Sir Paul, what would we do without you? –Michael Roffman

Top 10 Headliners

01. Roger Waters

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Photo by Ben Kaye

We were all mightily impressed when Roger Waters appeared on this year’s Newport Folk Festival bill — after all, the Pink Floyd founder hadn’t performed in two years, and hadn’t played a US fest in seven. But seeing his name on the bill was nothing compared to actually seeing him on stage. Joined by the unannounced My Morning Jacket, SNL’s legendary G.E. Smith, and at various points Lucius, Amy Helm, and Sara Watkins, the set was pure legend. There was a new original song (“Crystal Clear Brooks”); Floyd and solo rarities; and covers of Bob Dylan, John Prine, Levon Helm. With that sort of setlist and those guests, the performance was not only unique in the festival landscape, but in musical history. You just can’t beat that. –Ben Kaye

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