One of the greatest days to be a music fan is the day the Coachella poster comes out — not because we’re all going to this mythical desert party (though plenty of us are), but because it spells out, in the starkest terms available, the hierarchy of the entire music universe. You can tell how big an artist is, how well that artist is expected to draw, based on where that artist appears on the Coachella poster. The Coachella font size is the most merciless metric we have for figuring these things out. It’s better than album sales, better than Metacritic scores, and better than the Twitter trending chart. And right at the top of the year, it tells us a whole lot about the year we’re going to have. Let’s get into it.
I went to Coachella last year, for the first time, and I learned a few things there. For one thing, the kids with disposable income who go to this festival love music with beats. Any kind of beats, really. If there is a thumping electronic backbeat, they will be there for it. That’s true of the absurd and massive dance tent, which routinely brings in crowds larger than those at the main stages and which is basically its own festival. I’m guessing that most of the dance-tent kids don’t even venture out into the rest of the festival more than once or twice. But even in the rest of the festival, rap and dance-pop and electronic music all bring in crowds.
You know what doesn’t bring in crowds? Guitar-rock. Jack White was a headliner last year, but he didn’t get to close out the main stage on his night. Instead, someone made the (very canny, in retrospect) decision to put the Weeknd after White. He got a bigger crowd than White. I saw that sort of thing happening again and again. Cloud Nothings and Parquet Courts got pathetic little crowds, and anything remotely folky was easily drowned out by everything around it. The only real exception were the emo and post-hardcore bands, who had enthusiastic and built-in crowds, Brand New in particular. Also, the Rev. Horton Heat still packs them in way more than you might expect.
Also, Coachella is a drug festival rather than an alcohol festival. If you want to get drunk at Coachella, you have to do it in these shitty little beer gardens that only offer kinda-decent sightlines. The best beer they’ll have is, like, Heineken. And it costs enough that you can spend a rent payment trying to maintain a buzz over the weekend. It’s way, way easier for kids to sneak in weed or pills or whatever else, and that’s what they do. So the music that goes well with those drugs tends to work a lot better than the music that goes with drunkenness. Guns N’ Roses are one of the great alcohol bands of all time, and I’m worried about how they’re going to do in that context.
But anyway, let’s get into this year’s bands, starting with the headliners.
1. Guns N’ Roses are the year’s big story, like it or not. Ever since the rumors of a classic-lineup Guns N’ Roses reunion, unthinkable a year ago, started to circulate, it became pretty obvious that, if they did get back together, Coachella would be their coming-out party. It’s happening. We don’t yet know what form they’re going to take. Axl Rose has confirmed that it will be the first GN’R date. We know Slash will be there, and now we know Duff McKagan will be, too. They probably won’t do any Chinese Democracy songs. They probably also won’t do like classic-lineup GN’R used to do and keep everyone waiting for an hour and a half while they get fucked up backstage. (Coachella has to pay $1,000 for every minute the show goes past curfew. GN’R will presumably not want that eating into their pay.) But what will they do? It’ll be fascinating.
Keep in mind: These guys have hated each other for a long time. If rumors are correct, Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler and Matt Sorum won’t be involved. Axl Rose’s recent performances have sometimes been dreadful enough that they’ve become memes. The band’s whole boozy-outlaw-gang chemistry was once a huge part of their appeal, but how will they be if that chemistry is gone? They obviously have hits for days, and they know how to play to huge crowds. Do kids care? I think they probably do. AC/DC, last year, didn’t draw a Drake-sized crowd, but they still absolutely owned in their headlining spot. Guns N’ Roses, historically and commercially, are a bigger deal than AC/DC. I just hope GN’R don’t fall on their asses in front of everyone. The stakes are high.
2. What are LCD Soundsystem doing here? LCD Soundsystem have been broken up for five years. That’s not a long time. Arctic Monkeys side project the Last Shadow Puppets are also playing Coachella, and it’ll be their first show in five and a half years. They never broke up, but they’ve still been broken up longer than LCD. And at their peak, LCD were headlining festivals like Pitchfork, which is a fraction the size of Coachella. An LCD reunion is a big deal, but is it a big enough deal to headline Coachella?
I don’t doubt that LCD will be great live. They’ve never not been great live, and it’s fun to speculate about, say, the distant possibility that someone like David Bowie will join them onstage. They’re also a beat-driven band, which will help them with that crowd. But I can honestly imagine the Coachella organizers pulling a switch like they did with Jack White and the Weeknd last year, giving LCD’s stage-closing spot to Ellie Goulding, or even to Jack Ü if Jack Ü have enough guests.
3. Calvin Harris on the come-up! I don’t know if it’s been like this in previous years, but last year, the one real headliner of the festival was the guy who went on last on the last day. Last year, that was Drake. This year, it’s Calvin Harris. When Harris played Coachella two years ago, our own Chris DeVille said that he drew a bigger crowd than anyone else, all weekend. Harris is a sleepy and pedestrian dance producer, even if he does get a bunch of the credit for something like Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” and even if his presence does increase the likelihood of Taylor Swift stepping onto the Coachella stage. (Are they still together? I should know this, but I don’t.) In any case, Harris will pretty much run this weekend, and his set should be something to see, even if you don’t like his music. Harris incidentally is the first DJ to be billed as a main headliner at Coachella.
Honestly, Coachella would probably do a lot better if it went full-on pop. Talking to the kids on the ground last year, there were at least a few who were crazily amped at the idea that Ariana Grande would come out onstage with the Weeknd. Ariana Grande could totally headline Coachella. So could Beyoncé or Rihanna or Swift, and I have to think that it’s Coachella’s lingering image of itself as a rock festival (as well as, like, institutional sexism) keeping this from happening. Booking a populist DJ like Harris as the final headliner seems like a half-step in that direction, but I imagine Harris being way more popular with the actual festivalgoers than GN’R or LCD.
4. Some new albums are coming out. A lot of new albums are coming out sometime this year, and they remain shrouded in mystery. The fact that some of these bands are playing Coachella is a welcome indicator that those albums could be out by springtime. It’s not foolproof; the Weeknd and Tame Impala both released their 2015 albums months after the festival. But it’s something. So we should look forward to new albums from M83, the Kills, Bat For Lashes, SZA, Sheer Mag, and maybe AlunaGeorge. Also, Run The Jewels played last year (and fucking killed it, obviously), and groups never play Coachella twice in the same album cycle. I’m hoping and praying that this means we’ll get Run The Jewels 3 in the next few months.
5. Some artists are way more popular than you think. Shout out to Rancid, my favorite band in the world now and forever, for getting that primo font-size real estate. They’re in the same line as Sia and Major Lazer! That’s amazing! (Coachella is a safe space for ’90s California punk, which is why I almost cried with delight while watching Bad Religion last year.) Also, Ice Cube gets the second-from-headliner spot, one down from Guns N’ Roses. There’s no way that happens if the movie Straight Outta Compton doesn’t exist. (Cube should be great, by the way.) Other artists whose names are bigger than I might have expected: Flume, the Kills, Halsey, James Bay, Miike Snow, RL Grime, Volbeat. Are people still checking for 2ManyDJs like that? Or Of Monsters And Men? Pete Yorn is still a thing? Apparently so! At this point, it seems possible that Cold War Kids have compromising photos of Goldenvoice executives, given how often they show up near the top of the card. And the real punching-above-his-weight-class champion is Sufjan Stevens, who is absolutely not suited for a festival like this but who still gets third-from-top billing. More on that below.
6. Some artists are way less popular than you think. When you’re making your Coachella schedules, spare a few thoughts for those languishing in tiny-font purgatory, some of whom seem like they’d do well at a festival like this: Matthew Dear, Young Fathers, SOPHIE, Alvvays, Skepta. Deafheaven are the only metal band on the bill (unless you count GN’R), and they released one of last year’s best albums; that’s not enough to get them out of the sixth line. Great ’90s dream-poppers Lush are playing Coachella before their reunion tour starts, which means this will be their first show in decades, but that’s not enough to get them past Silversun Pickups. Critics treat Deerhunter like a big deal, but Coachella poster designers do not agree. Also, Coachella isn’t that safe a space for ’90s California punk, considering how far down the Vandals are. So it goes.
7. Some of these people are absolutely going to kill it. Coachella is a great place for euphoric dance-pop, which comes off extraordinarily well in a packed-in tent, so if you’re going, make sure to see the following people: M83, Chvrches, Grimes, Purity Ring, Shamir, Years & Years, AlunaGeorge. I expect all of them to kill it, and I expect a couple of them to have career-highlight performances. It’s also a great place for exuberant rap music, so clear out schedule space for Rae Sremmurd especially, and also for A$AP Rocky, Anderson .Paak, and DJ Mustard, as long as Mustard’s not playing the dance tent. Run The Jewels are a sure thing; Vince Staples could go one way or the other. Skepta is going to be fucking incredible. Savages and HEALTH are guitar-rock, but they’re revved-up and exciting guitar-rock, so they’ll be fine. Bat For Lashes has mastered the art of festival sweep. DMA’s are an Australian band playing anthemic Britpop, which makes them perfect for Coachella, since Australian fans always show out. All these people are built for this.
8. Some of these people are going to flop. Last year, Swans and Drive Like Jehu kicked a lot of ass, but it sucked to walk into an airport-sized tent and see like 30 people watching them. People love to say that sets like those are your favorite, but nobody goes to festivals to stand in huge empty spaces. It’s not fun. And some of the acts on this year’s bill are just not built for this.
Sufjan Stevens makes lovely and delicate music, which means he is going to spend his entire set making sad jokes about whichever louder artist is bleeding over from another stage and ruining his set. (That’s unless he decides to go for full Age Of Adz-style theatricality, and I hope I never see that again.) Even though she’s a legend with a monster voice, I see Mavis Staples having a tough time out there. When the Damned play to nobody at two in the afternoon, it’s going to be a sad sight. Deerhunter, Rhye, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Autolux might all be in for rough days at the office; this is not a friendly environment for nuanced indie. As much as I love seeing DIY punks like Girlpool and Sheer Mag, as well as kindred spirits Ex Hex, on the bill and getting paid, I have a hard time imagining them drawing the big and appreciative crowds they deserve. Also, some of the people on this bill just suck. Don’t go see G-Eazy. Just don’t.
9. I have no idea how some of these people are going to do, and that’s exciting. Kamasi Washington’s sprawling and abstract space-jazz could go over like a wet fart at Coachella, but it could also make for absolutely ideal music for lying on the ground of one of the tents, enjoying a high and recharging for the next thing. It could also be an absolutely transcendent experience. If I were going this year, I would want to find out which. Deafheaven’s heaving gloom-metal is another fascinating question-mark. And I don’t know if people will show up for Chris Stapleton’s deeply felt, expertly executed old-school outlaw country, but I can’t imagine a better sunset act.