Roskilde 2016 Festival Review: The 20 Best Songs

Alongside 130,000 music fans in Denmark, the world seemed just a little bit kinder


“How could people get so unkind?”

Those words were uttered by Neil Young during his performance of “Human Highway”, but they could’ve been spoken by any artist throughout the 2016 edition of Roskilde, an international festival — the biggest in Northern Europe — crammed with the world’s most brilliant artists, each terribly affected by and questioning the harsh realities of today’s world. There were the British artists having to face the consequences of Brexit. There were the Danish artists coming to terms with the groups pushing their own country to have to face a similar vote. Turkish artist Gaye Su Akyol attempted to parse a terrorist attack in an airport in her home country. The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians had been scattered to countries around the world by oppression and war, their leader unable to attend due to an inability to leave the US while seeking refugee status. American artists like Vince Staples discussed the violence, pain, and racial issues of their home country. And musical warlock (both in terms of rocking and speaking out against injustice) Neil Young attacked environmental issues head-on.

Crowd // Photo by Lior Phillips

And though the world’s worries seemed at the front of the mind throughout Roskilde, the joy, the power, and the unconquerable love of music pierced through it all, puncturing any residue of pain. Even my personal range of emotions was matched by the distance between stages. Good thing is, if you walk far and long enough, your feet get so numb that walking feels immaterial. I will say, though, mud proves to be a reliable aid for wielding a ruthless barrage of semi-aerobic dance moves — who knew you could back-bend and do the splits without necessarily even wanting to? Boxed wine and festival beer, urinals lining the walls like propaganda posters, and scandi-pop, metal, and rock stars crafting intelligent, future-forward sounds — Roskilde’s got it.

MØ // Photo by Lior Phillips

So when humanity is unkind, it’s freeing to know that we can all run away to Denmark, clump together into a little love bubble with 130,000 strangers, and experience mind-bending, heart-mending sounds. Maybe through that kind of experience, people can start to get a little kinder.


20. Reykjavíkurdætur – “Tista”


Female Icelandic rap troupe Reykjavikurdaetur features nearly 20 members, though the number at performances fluctuates. At the bombastic Roskilde Festival, during the official warm-up days, it was difficult to count exactly how many people crowded onto the stage, their intense concoction of mosh-wrestling spilling off the edges of the stage. The Daughters of Reykjavik (as their name translates to) arrived wearing lightly opaque plastic jumpsuits — of medical scrubs — over underwear, though those coverings were in varied states of disarray by the time they got through wrestling across the stage, ripping them apart, and dragging each other from one end to the other by the feet. Their set featured crowds roaring to songs like “Hæpið” and “Ógeðsleg”, which show their preferred lyrical agenda — everything from the politics of their homeland to sexual violence. New track “Tista” stole it all, though, the most passionate, visceral performance of the set just one song in, boding well for whatever’s next for this inspiring crew.


19. Whitney – “So Sad”


Of course Whitney would sound great covering the Everly Brothers. The golden, nostalgic haze and dramatic vocals on their strong debut, Light Upon the Lake, should’ve made the compatibility obvious, but the song still came out of the sweet grass of left field. “So Sad” does, after all, feature teardrop vocal lines, mellow heartbreak, and shuffling acoustic guitars, fitting in with the other highlights of their set. “It breaks my heart to see us part/ So sad to watch love go bad,” Julien Ehrlich sang in his waif-like falsetto, Max Kakacek’s guitar following in lilting arcs. “This is the first time we are playing at a big festival,” they announced. But with a charming performance like that and a well-worn melody like this one, they felt like they’d been doing this for a while.


18. Slayer – “Raining Blood”


Looking at the schedule, you couldn’t miss the lightning bolt stamped right next to the name Slayer. That symbol was reserved for “HIGH ENERGY CONCERTS,” sets at which there would be “expected moshing, dancing, etc.” And when Kerry King and Gary Holt picked out the iconic guitar riff to “Raining Blood”, that lightning bolt still felt like an understatement. I could’ve sworn I felt a zap up the spine with every chord. The sign of the horns was raised high throughout, bodies bouncing in manic energy with Paul Bostaph beating out on his hulking, Venus flytrap-like drum kit. Tom Araya’s raw growls and stampeding bass led the charge, but the guitarists stole much of the visual attention: King with his massive chain and demonic guitar and Holt with his wild-flung hair and shirt bearing the words “Kill the Kardashians.” Those head-banging riffs continue to cause dangerous HIGH ENERGY, even 30 years on.


17. Calypso Rose – “Fire Fire”


We should all hope that we have the energy and enthusiasm of Calypso Rose when we reach the ripe age of 76. The Tobago native has been performing for decades, and with a live show like this one, there’s no reason to think she’ll stop anytime soon. She and her top-tier calypso band closed their set with the pulsating “Fire Fire”. Rose weaved her microphone back and forth between her legs like a fancy basketball dribbler and later pulled back her jacket to show off her wriggling hips. To play a full set, let alone to close it with such massive energy, is a testament to her impressive stage presence and longevity. The continued chanting of her name and multiple group bows from the band felt utterly fitting.


16. Santigold – “Disparate Youth”


When Santigold released 99¢ earlier this year, her critiques of consumerism overpowered the music, leaving her pop thrills stuck on the sales rack. But in live performance, Santi White’s energy burns brighter than all of the jumbled videos, backup dancers, and the like. That’s particularly true when paired with the massive pop hook of a song like “Disparate Youth”, White’s vibrant dance moves accentuated by her oversized Byrne-ian shoulder pads, making her silhouette even more mesmeric. The dancers looking bemusedly at their selfie-stick-held phones still seems like a bit of an unfocused artistic criticism, but a chorus like that speaks for itself.


15. Red Hot Chilli Peppers – “Under the Bridge”


Though touring in support of The Getaway, the Red Hot Chili Peppers knew better than to try and overload the massive first-night crowd with their new album. That’s not because The Getaway is a relatively understated affair that might not do well live — in fact, the title song and the live debut of “Detroit” fared pretty well. But RHCP are at the point in their career where they’ve amassed so many hits that any set needs to be jam-packed. And after a set that already featured more than its fair share of mega-jams (“By the Way”, “Dani California”, “Scar Tissue”, etc.), the crowd still needed more, all chanting “Red Hot” until the band returned (including the two girls in the front row wearing chili pepper costumes). And when they returned, Josh Klinghoffer and Chad Smith locked into a groove, Flea walked around on his hands, and Anthony Kiedis grinned like a Cheshire cat. They’re still the same goofy, talented kids that wrote “Under the Bridge”, the undoubtedly massive hook sung by thousands, filling the Roskilde night sky to a point where if it were a smidgen louder, it could very well have popped the air like a balloon.


14. Vince Staples – “Señorita”


Vince Staples goes from zero to 60 in less than a second. The young California rapper walked onstage with a mischievous grin, hands on his hips, looking as calm as could be. Moments later, he was leaping into the air as if jet-propelled, constantly floating off the stage. But as a chronicler of the harsh reality of Long Beach, that makes sense — Staples captures all of the brilliant life just as well as the violence and oppression. No song captures that reality and explosive personality as succinctly as “Señorita”, Vince steely-eyed and spitting intensely. The crowd nodded and roared along to the Christian Rich beat, the menace and darkness of the track creeping out slowly, the bass rattling heavy and low with ominous intensity.


13. Guardian Alien – “Spiritual Emergency”


Experimental duo Guardian Alien don’t make the kind of music that makes picking out a best “song” an easy task. The band have lived in many different incarnations, but now act as the duo of drummer Greg Fox and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Alexandra Drewchin. The two produced giant slabs of spasmodic noise, locking into grooves only to tear them apart into chaos. A particular highlight of the set carried strains of the DNA to the title track of 2014’s Spiritual Emergency, Fox ripping into a polyrhythmic hustle while Drewchin arched her back, tearing at the strings of her Lucite guitar. “I could rip you apart,” she seemed to repeat, though perhaps that’s just my brain filling in the narrative in between the clusters of sound. There was nothing else quite like Guardian Alien at Roskilde, the two approaching their own art with a meditative, sublime sort of drone.


12. Grimes – “Kill v. Maim”


At times during Grimes’ set at Roskilde, she seemed worried about a language barrier. “I know you probably don’t understand anything I’m saying,” she smiled. “Does anyone speak English?” And even if not everyone understood her inter-song banter, they certainly understood the language of rave-up fun that permeated her set. It hit all the high points of her catalog, opening on the sublime “Realiti” and a delirious rendition of “Scream”, Grimes hopping across the stage like a fluorescent bunny, the backup dancers like mini clones. And though she might’ve been singing to a backing track, that made her all the more able to bring the party to new explosive heights with the visceral “Kill v. Maim”.


11. Courtney Barnett – “Depreston”


For most indie rockers, “Depreston” would act as the breath of fresh air, the low-energy ballad snuck between the big tunes to give the band a moment of rest. Courtney Barnett, though, is not most indie rockers. The songwriter pays attention to life’s smallest moments, imbuing them with all of the passion and attention of the big hooks. And while upbeat jams like “Dead Fox”, “Avant Gardener”, and “Pedestrian at Best” all hit pretty dang hard, it was the relatively low-key “Depreston” that stole the show. The Roskilde crowd sang along to every word, the mass of accented voices nearly louder than the golden, surfy guitar pattern. The moment overwhelmed Barnett for a moment, a smirk and chuckle escaping from her otherwise cool and calm front.


10. Anderson . Paak – “Room in Here”


One of the most charismatic voices in hip-hop, Anderson.Paak crooned, rapped, grooved, and drummed — and he did all of that on the amazingly sexy “Room in Here” alone. “Ain’t nobody but you and me in here/ Yeah, what can we do in here?” he sang, and his smooth delivery made it feel like he was singing to each and every person directly. Clad in a brilliant, red windbreaker and retro-cool round sunglasses, .Paak played the casanova role perfectly, but that’s just one facet of his vibrant style, one he showed off throughout his diverse, 2 p.m. party-starting, fist-clenching set.


09. PJ Harvey – “50ft Queenie”


PJ Harvey performs like a coiled spring, all vicious energy threatening to explode at any moment. As she pushed through her Thursday night set, unspooling songs from this year’s Hope Six Demolition Project, the crowd continued to feed that potential explosion with extreme enthusiasm. The legendary singer-songwriter took it all in, never losing focus for a second, all fervent intensity from her head to her toes. And then it all exploded on the classic “50ft Queenie”, Harvey prowling the stage, slashing her arms for emphasis, pouncing down to one knee only to burst back up to a towering pose seconds later. All the while, her fierce falsetto remained in as fine form as ever, delivering the song in all its overconfident glory.


08. Tenacious D – “Tribute”


Tenacious D’s prime-time Thursday night set felt a lot like watching an episode of their TV show or their now 10-year-old film, The Pick of Destiny. They even played into that rehearsed, stiff feeling, “accidentally” revealing that they were playing to a backing track — but of course, only to build the narrative of Kyle Gass quitting the band and the resulting “Dude I Totally Miss You”. Every second of the set felt rehearsed, performed down to a T (specifically Jack Black’s giant, green, dragon-adorned T). That didn’t keep the Roskilde crowd from reveling in every second of it, singing along to every one of Black’s extravagant metal vocal runs and guitar riffs. There’s something goofy about listening to any massive festival crowd sing along to “Fuck Her Gently”, but that’s especially true through thick Danish accents. But the truest, most honest moment came near the set’s end, when the band interrupted “Tribute” for Black to lead the crowd in a pair of sing-alongs: “Space Oddity” and “Darling Nikki”. He went on to offer tribute to David Bowie, Prince, Garry Shandling, and Glenn Frey in a touching moment that reminded why the D started all this to begin with: They love to rock.


07. New Order – “Your Silent Face”


As New Order continue along the festival path, they show no signs of slowing down. With several members now at or nearing 60, the legendary new wave outfit continue to play set after set full of fan favorites with the same energy as the next generation of musicians that they inspired. Backed by the most engaging visual display of the festival (including some controversial footage of the 1936 Olympic games by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl), Bernard Sumner and co. played the hits and did so with gusto. “Ceremony”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”, “Temptation, “Blue Monday”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” … the list goes on and on, all gigantic songs played with the passion and power that they deserve. And yet the highlight of the set proved to be one of the more subtle songs. While waves of synth surrounded it, the relatively stripped-down “Your Silent Face” felt especially resonant. “Sound formed in a vacuum/ May seem a waste of time/ It’s always been just the same,” Sumner crooned. And while we all have been in a place where those sentiments seem accurate, the song proved the exact opposite. In desperate times, this kind of expression is vital. And even if it leads to someone saying, “So why don’t you piss off,” there’s no denying the power of having said something.


06. Gaye su Akyol “Develerle Yaşıyorum”


Gaye Su Akyol arrived at Roskilde with a heavy heart. The Turkish musician carried the weight of the recent terror attack in her home country, the resulting emotions crying out through her music, a blend of traditional Turkish sounds and Western indie rock. “This was shit,” she said, to put it bluntly. “They are really sad and I’m sorry for the situation. All of us have to live these bad things.” To reinforce the unavoidable pain, she then began a song written centuries ago about politics in Istanbul. “I’m sorry it’s all still the same,” she shrugged. The song that followed arched and swayed, a hypnotic display of the deep fuel powering her music.


05. Blood Orange – “Best to You”


Though Dev Hynes only released new album Freetown Sound a week or so prior to the performance, the crowd that packed the Avalon tent seemed ready to follow every single word out of the Blood Orange mastermind’s mouth and figure out the dance moves to every single sensual groove. That’s especially impressive considering the album often plays out like reading his diary; he performed with that same intense level of vulnerability, and yet he was also ironically instantly relatable. From his extreme connection to his audience to his hypnotic dance moves, Hynes seems ready to take the next step towards taking on the mantle of Michael Jackson and Prince, the R&B star this world needs now more than ever — especially considering his celebration of life in all of its beauties and rejection of the world’s inequalities and oppressions. New track “Best to You” embodied that intense connection, the summery synths and echoed percussion augmenting his soulful croon deep into the night.


04. Orchestra of Syrian Musicians and Damon Albarn + Guests – “Out of Time”


Festivals are seen as massive, never-ending parties, but when you can get a little reminder of the important things in life along with the dance party, it’s a true win-win. Such was the case with the performance of The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, a set that essentially kicked off Roskilde 2016. True, there were speeches made, but for every thoughtful comment from a participant there was a soothing, dance-friendly groove that did the same job of uniting the attendees and musicians alike.

Damon Albarn had a hand in bringing together this collective of musicians. The group had backed Albarn years ago in Damascus, and he was so moved by the people and the city that he’s continued to work with them; unfortunately, since the rise in violence and conflict in the country, bringing the musicians back together meant dealing with refugee laws and the like, an especially prominent issue considering the world political situation. “Closing borders leads to isolation, and isolation leads to ignorance, and when you’re ignorant of your neighbors, you don’t trust them, you don’t communicate,” Albarn said before introducing the band. “So keep borders open.”

The proceeding set was a testament to the beauty and love that can come from open borders. The orchestra was joined by a steady flow of guests — Bassekou Kouyate of Mali, Julia Holter from the US, Noura Mint Seymali of Mauritania, musicians from Senegal, Tunisia, and more — augmenting and shaping the trilling sounds of the reed instrument ney, the limber strings of the qanun, the swooning orchestra, bouncy percussion, and lush choir. Each musician entered the stage thrilled to be sharing their music with the world, many adding an enthusiastic Danish greeting or shouting a hearty hello to Roskilde. As the giddy curator, a droning take on Blur’s “Out of Time” (from 2003’s Think Tank) with Albarn on acoustic guitar and Kouyate agilely plucking the ngoni proved a sweet, mystic high.


03. MØ – “Waste of Time”


For years, has seemed on the verge of much-deserved pop superstardom. But now having seen her take on the massive Orange stage at Roskilde, it’s reassuring to know that she’s seen that way in her home country. Though Karen Marie Ørsted has appeared at the festival in the past, this was her first opportunity on the headlining stage, and she owned it with absolute tenacity. Sporting a shirt that read “Refugees Welcome”, she walked the edges of the stage like she owned it, excited by the prospect rather than daunted by the massive scope. The home crowd showed her plenty of love (including more than a few in the crowd dressed in her spitting image), and she returned the favor, performing a career-encompassing set. There were new, summer sun-soaked songs, recently released beats like the sublime “Final Song”, and early gems like “Pilgrim”. But, more than any other track, her performance of “Waste of Time” showed the confidence and prowess that proves her capable of delivering on stages like this all around the world, not just at home. She bounced on the balls of her feet, constantly in motion, braided ponytail swinging wildly.


02. LCD Soundsystem – “Someone Great”


It’s unsurprising that New Order played Roskilde that same evening. James Murphy and his band, LCD Soundsystem, have always been aware of their debts to the dance music proprietors that came before. But at this point, fresh on a hotly anticipated reunion tour and nearly a decade and a half out from their debut, they feel like elder statesmen and yet still like adrenalized kids. They continue to evolve and gain new perspective, interpreting their songs in new ways when they could just as easily trot out a vanilla rendition.

Playing the final night of Roskilde after the biggest Danish act going, MØ, LCD Soundsystem had a lot to live up to — but then again they’ve been worried about losing their edge from the start. That awareness and perspective shone loudest during “Someone Great”, the song retaining more raw emotion than perhaps any rendition I’ve seen of it. The musicians sound tighter than ever, locking into that methodical, loopy mind-bend, churning away at the subconscious. Murphy delivered his lines with a surprising grit, stretching things out to show their weight. “And it keeps coming ’til the day it stops,” he repeated, the line drawing more energy out of him with each repetition. It seems as if LCD Soundsystem grow in power as they continue this reunion, and it’ll be astonishing to see what level they can reach when enough of these days keep coming.


01. Neil Young – “Out on the Weekend”


It’s hard to pick a single highlight from a jam-packed festival performance from a living legend, especially one that lasted three hours. But Neil Young’s set acted as a microcosm of his entire career, showcasing the longevity and passion he’s been known for, fighting back against the world’s injustices. Daisies in potted plants lined the stage, and women dressed in Western gear spread hay around the ground. Young entered the stage wearing a T-shirt featuring the logo for his new live album, Earth, and a big floppy hat that looked uncannily similar to Hogwart’s sorting hat. But at times the set felt composed of superhuman strength — the still magic “Heart of Gold”, the burnished “Alabama”, the always rollicking “Rockin’ in the Free World”. His performance is as much a highlight of his songwriting as it is raw and pure traditional instrument playing, the talented band Promise of the Real providing the perfect platform for his iconic vocals. The heart-wrenching “Out on the Weekend” may have topped the rest, though, people swirling around, tears dripping down their faces. “Can’t relate to joy, he tries to speak and can’t begin to say,” Young sang, framed by the darkening sky. While on the big, uptempo songs, he moved around the stage eagerly, as if playing guitar still for the very first time. But on “Out on the Weekend”, he was singing and, in fact, feeling these words for the very first time, an astonishing beauty for an icon at this point in his career.

Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Roskilde Festival 2016.