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Top 10 Music Festivals: Winter 2016 Power Rankings

Our early impressions on what is shaping up to be an exciting festival season

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Feature image by Adam Kivel and Cap Blackard

Everyone has a favorite season. Some people like spring, when snow melts and flowers bloom. Some people are into autumn, with all the leaves changing colors and apple cider and shit. I personally like Season of the Witch (2011), the fantasy adventure film starring Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman. My close second favorite is festival season, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance it’s one of your favorites, too. Lucky for you and I, this year’s festival season is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.

With lineups dropping earlier than ever, we already have a pretty decent idea of how things are shaking out this year. With what we know thus far, we’ve assembled a top-10 festival power ranking. Surprising to no one, we’re excited about a lot of the festivals that have LCD Soundsystem at the top. A little more surprising is how much more exciting the indie-leaning festivals are than those that aim for mainstream appeal. These fests are leading the pack with lineups largely dominated by less than populist acts. It’s an interesting trend and one that has shaken up the status quo when it comes to festival rankings.

Read on for our rankings and thoughts on the top festivals that have released their lineups so far. David, Danielle, Collin, and I will be keeping these power rankings coming for the next few months while festival season continues to shape up, so keep an eye out for those, and keep an eye out for us at any fest you attend in 2016.

–Pat Levy
Staff Writer

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10. Moogfest

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After the 2014 incarnation of Moogfest lost roughly $1.5 million, the festival took 2015 off to recoup and reorganize. While the 2016 headliners may not hold a candle to the 2014 lineup of Kraftwerk, Pet Shop Boys, and M.I.A., the fest has still put together a cutting-edge collection of artists that make it stand out. It has something for fans of all kinds of more left-field sounds: R&B and art pop (Blood Orange, Dawn, Empress Of, Julia Holter), exciting newer dance acts (Floating Points, Jlin, Lunice, Rabit), and more experimental artists (Grouper, Tim Hecker, Ben Frost, Laurel Halo). Adding headliners like Gary Numan, GZA, Laurie Anderson, and Explosions in the Sky make the festival a vast stretch of disparate but intriguing acts, many of which only play a handful of US dates a year. The fest spent less on the headliners and more on putting together an undercard that truly stands out and gives people a reason to travel from all over for. –David Sackllah

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09. Shaky Knees Festival

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The only thing more impressive than Shaky Knees’ hearty lineup is the fact that such a young, niche festival continuously cements itself as one of the season’s best, challenging even the largest musical gatherings. Over the past four years, organizers have grown the fest slowly, but surely, by upgrading it to more scenic locations while maintaining standout lineups. Like past years, the 2016 bill boasts a solid collection of rock-leaning favorites from the ’90s and early aughts, most namely My Morning Jacket, Jane’s Addiction, and At the Drive-In. Organizers did a great job at balancing those blistering sets with more polished ones like Florence and the Machine, Explosions in the Sky, and The 1975. From top to bottom, the Shaky Knees lineup is a millennial’s angsty teen dream. –-Danielle Janota

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08. Bonnaroo Music Festival

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This year marks Bonnaroo’s 15th birthday, so bleeding-heart Bonnaroovians didn’t need much convincing to book a trip back to the Farm. However, what they got seems pretty middle-of-the-road in terms of this year’s premier festivals, though those two sets from Dead & Company wisely hearken back to Roo’s origins as a jam band orgy. For those who don’t care for that kind of thing, there are consolation prizes all over this bad boy (unless you’re into EDM, in which case you get … The Chainsmokers?). The big score here is a noticeable increase in diversity from past years, with top acts such as Mavis Staples, Blood Orange, and hell, Judd Apatow all giving us something to look forward to. If you squint hard and pretend Macklemore doesn’t exist, this could be one of the best Roos yet. –Collin Brennan

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07. Sasquatch! Music Festival

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Sasquatch’s lineup doesn’t have an immediate wow-factor to it. They don’t have enormous headliners (nothing against The Cure, Florence & the Machine, or Disclosure, but all three of those would be the third headliner at any other fest), but they have one of the best undercards of any festival. For their 15th anniversary, Sasquatch has put together one of the most consistent undercards, full of bands worth seeing from front to back. Electronic music? Check (Jamie xx, Caribou, Tycho, Four Tet, Todd Terje). Hip Hop? Check (A$AP Rocky, Digable Planets, Vince Staples, Vic Mensa). An amount of exciting indie acts I would get in trouble for listing too many of? Check (Kurt Vile, Yo La Tengo, Titus Andronicus, Speedy Ortiz, La Luz, Tacocat). Top it all off with a great comedy lineup that will surely add more talent to an already stacked roster (Todd Barry, The Lucas Bros., Lauren Lapkus, and Scharpling & Wurster lead the pack so far). Sasquatch might not be jockeying for your attention with big-name headliners, but their undercard makes the fest more than worth your time. –Pat Levy

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06. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has built up a solid reputation as the fest your parents want to go to more than you do, but that doesn’t make the lineup any less impressive. Acts like My Morning Jacket, Lauryn Hill, and J. Cole, who would be headlining almost any other festival, don’t even make the top two lines of this. Instead, the festival got seemingly every ‘90s or legacy act who have made the festival rounds in the past five years (Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder) and put them on the same bill. Beyond that, they managed to wrangle up some legendary names that don’t typically hit the festival circuit, including Paul Simon and Van Morrison. Another interesting part of the fest is that it doesn’t cater to the traditional summer festival format, focusing less on indie rock and more on jazz, soul, and some New Orleans favorites like Mystikal and Big Freedia. While the daily lineups may not be stacked from morning to night with must-see acts, it should be more than worth venturing out for. –David Sackllah

05. Levitation

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It’s wild to think about what LEVITATION has accomplished in the past few years. Formerly Austin Psych Fest, the festival moved from Downtown Austin to an idyllic ranch out by the airport in 2013, and the lineup has grown tremendously each year since, culminating last year with the first 13th Floor Elevators show in 40 years. 2016’s lineup may be its strongest yet, centered around Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds. It’s far from a throwback lineup, though, as Animal Collective, Flying Lotus, and Caribou round out the remainder of the headliners. The festival dropped “psych” from the name last year, and while every act on the lineup could be “psych”-influenced tangentially, there’s much more variety: metal (Sleep, Sunn O)), Boris), electronic (Oneohtrix Point Never, Nicolas Jaar), and some classic indie artists (Slowdive, Royal Trux, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo playing separately). There are still plenty of familiar acts like Ty Segall, Parquet Courts, and Black Mountain, but mostly the festival has put together a knockout group of artists who are giving an already great festival a fresh edge. –David Sackllah

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04. Boston Calling Music Festival: Spring

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Here’s lookin’ at you, Boston Calling. You’re the only festival on this list to give women equal representation at a time when women (sorry, dudes) are pretty much dominating music. I see you over there, Courtney Barnett, strumming that guitar and singing your sad songs about Australian suburbs. Hello, Sia and Robyn and the sisters of HAIM — wait, all of you are on this bill? This shit is out of control. And just to throw the guys a bone, we can’t stress enough just how excited we are for Sufjan Stevens, Vince Staples, and those plucky underdogs The Front Bottoms. Boston, we hear you loud and clear. –Collin Brennan

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03. Governors Ball Music Festival

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Some festivals age in people years. Governors Ball ages in dog years. Think about it: over the course of just five summers, New York City’s premier music festival has grown from a single-day concert to a three-day juggernaut that somehow managed to snag both Kanye West and local heartthrobs The Strokes. Who’s to say if this kind of growth is sustainable, but we’re definitely down to ride this wave out to Randall’s Island for as long as we can. Other highlights at the top of the lineup include Jamie xx, The Killers (yes, The Killers, fight me), and a triumphant post-Paris version of Eagles of Death Metal. We can’t fault the lack of LCD Soundsystem, because every damn festival has LCD Soundsystem, and the same shit gets boring after a while. –Collin Brennan

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02. Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

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Surprise, surprise. The Coachella bill is totally stacked. Due to the fest’s proximity to LA, it always has a home-court advantage, allowing it to pull off a number of appearances that aren’t possible at any other major fest. This year, though, not only is the lineup brimming with top-tier performers, but much of the mainstream EDM and indie fluff was replaced with exciting relevant acts (Sia and Grimes), legacy acts (Guns & Roses and Ice Cube), and elusive acts (Death Grips and SOPHIE). Top this tasty lineup with the first (?) leg of LCD Soundsystem’s reunion tour, and we’re all left salivating. –-Danielle Janota

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01. Primavera Sound Festival

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New material from Radiohead. I could stop listing reasons why Primavera Sound is the best festival lineup right there if I wanted to. But I won’t, because so much of the lineup deserves mention. The Barcelona festival has been gradually blossoming into one of the premier festivals on the planet, and this year’s lineup cements their status as such. With Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Sigur Rós top-lining the event, they have the strongest group of headliners of any festival. Add to that acts like PJ Harvey (with new material as well), Brian Wilson (performing Pet Sounds), and an under card full of exciting indie talent (Neon Indian, Chairlift, Savages, and Beach Slang to name a few) as well as an impressive hip-hop turnout (Pusha T, Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs) and you’ve got yourself a near perfect lineup. Even the tiny font holds a number of gems (Har Mar Superstar, Alex G, Black Lips, and Julien Baker). Make no mistake, people. This is as good as it gets. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone can come close to topping Primavera in 2016. –Pat Levy

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