The arrival of the Coachella lineup is a big moment for music dorks for a few different reasons. For one thing, if you’re making the trip to Indio this year — something you’d probably already figured out before the lineup emerged — then it’s nice to know who you’re seeing. For another, Coachella is the first real major American festival to come out, though a few smaller ones already unveiled their lineups. So even if you’re not going, you’ll get a pretty good idea of who’s dominating the festival rotation this year. And finally — and maybe most importantly — the festival’s poster spells out, in brutal font-size relief, the pecking order of music in general. You might not know where your favorite acts stand in the world at large until you see that act’s name spelled out on the Coachella poster. Every year, the poster tells a few different stories. And as we’ve done in previous years, we’re about to take a look at those stories. So let’s get into it.
1. This might be the best set of headliners that Coachella has ever had. Radiohead, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar: you honestly can’t do a whole lot better than that. All three are enormously, massively popular. All three have made, by critical estimations, three of the best albums of the past two years. Unless you want to be a dick about Radiohead, there is no nostalgia act among this year’s headliners, which is a big plus. And there’s also no randomly huge EDM DJ holding down one of those spots, and no bland Jack Johnson crossover figure. It’s all killer, and any one of them would be worth making the trip to the desert to see. Radiohead are festival veterans with a long history of playing moving, mind-bending, life-altering festival sets. Kendrick Lamar has been headlining smaller festivals for years, but his place on this bill marks his ascent to a new level and his chance to perform for what will probably be the biggest crowd he’s ever seen in his home state. And as for Beyoncé, well…
2. Beyoncé is the real headliner of Coachella 2017. If you’ve been going to festivals for a few years, there is already a very good chance that you’ve seen Radiohead or Kendrick Lamar rock a big crowd in a big field. But Beyoncé is a different story. For one thing, she doesn’t need Coachella. She never plays festivals, and she can fill a stadium on her own. Coachella is lucky to have her. For another, she follows two-time headliner Björk as only the second female headliner in Coachella’s 17-year history, which is some kind of tragedy. Hopefully, the floodgates will open after her. Based on what I saw in the crowd the last time I went to Coachella, the kids in the desert are going to be way more amped for the hard, sharp immediacy of Beyoncé than for the intense insularity of Radiohead or Kendrick. And Beyoncé knows what to do on a big stage, so I’m pretty sure she’ll have some special things planned. At the very least, a Jay Z cameo seems likely.
3. Kendrick Lamar’s set is going to be fascinating to behold. Coachella has had rap headliners before: Beastie Boys, Jay Z, Kanye West, Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, OutKast, Drake, Rage Against The Machine if they even count. But with the possible exception of OutKast, all of them have made what I guess you’d call arena-rap: Slow, discernible, easy to rap along with. Kendrick, on the other hand, makes fast, wordy, intricate, cerebral music. I’m a bit worried that, if you aren’t within 500 feet of the stage, you won’t understand too much of what he’s saying; fast cadences have a way of getting swallowed up in festival echo. But Kendrick is an old hand at festivals by this point, and he knows that this is a big moment for him; I’m sure he’ll respond accordingly. Also, since To Pimp A Butterfly will be two years old by the time Coachella rolls around, I wonder if he’ll have some new music out by then. And that raises another point.
4. We might be getting some new albums. Kendrick is the biggest question mark, and until the Coachella poster came out, I never even thought to wonder whether he’d have a new studio LP out this soon. But some other names haven’t released new music in a while, and it’s worth wondering whether their long-in-the-works records will arrive by April. Albums from Lorde and Future Islands would be nice, and the high placement of the relatively obscure Toronto rapper Nav makes me think his collaborative project with Metro Boomin will be out by then. Meanwhile, Governor’s Ball released its lineup this morning, and there are some things to be gleaned there, as well. It seems unlikely that Gov Ball headliners Tool will have their germinating-forever album out by then, but Phoenix, who are also headlining, will probably have a new record ready.
5. The one-down-from-headliner spot is strong, as well. When you’re on your way to see the headliner, it’s a good idea to camp out in front of the main stage for whoever’s playing beforehand. And Coachella has a great track record of picking cresting artists for that spot, giving them the co-headliner nod and making sure that something special will happen even if the headliner bombs. This year, the artists in that spot are the xx, Bon Iver, and Lorde. They’re all great! They’re all perfect for Coachella! They all have a good shot at headlining the festival two or three years from now!
6. The Coachella/Governor’s Ball lineup wars are over, and Coachella won. As recently as two years ago, I was writing about the “lineup wars” between Coachella and its main East Coast competitor, New York’s Governor’s Ball, which tends to announce its lineup within a day of Coachella. Since then, of course, Coachella promoters Goldenvoice have intruded on Gov Ball’s territory, starting up the competing Panorama festival. And now, perhaps as a result, those wars are over, and Coachella has won an absolute fatality.
Look: Gov Ball looks like a fun festival. It has Tool, who remain a massive draw. Its lower reaches feature a few quality names who won’t be at Coachella: Rae Sremmurd, a Mark Ronson/Kevin Parker showdown of some sort, Charli XCX, Franz Ferdinand, Danny Brown, Skepta. Zane Lowe is doing something at Gov Ball, which is weird. YG really should be playing at Coachella, given geography and all, but he’s doing Gov Ball instead. And Gov Ball’s lineup has more interesting acts in its lower reaches than the top-heavy Coachella lineup does. Still, Radiohead/Beyoncé/Kendrick Lamar just destroys the Gov Ball headlining troika of Tool/Chance The Rapper/Phoenix. It isn’t even close. I love Chance more than many of my own family members, but he cannot hang with that crew.
7. Goldenvoice must’ve blown all its money on the headliners. As impressive as the big names on that Coachella poster are, things get a little grisly when you get further down. Bastille? The Head And The Heart? Capital Cities? The Preservation Hall Jazz Band? Mac DeMarco again? Toots And The Maytals? These are all people within the festival rotation, and some of them have made some great music. But Coachella is supposed to be on the cutting edge of this whole festival business, and they should probably leaving these guys to the second-tier fests in Denver or Florida or wherever.
8. Some people are way more popular than you would’ve thought. Justice, who released their third album to a general shrug last year and who have been in the festival ranks for about a decade now, are billed third from the top on Sunday. On Friday, Travis Scott, a gifted rap mimic who plays wild shows and who is notorious for inciting riots and acting like a butthead at big festival shows, is also billed third from the top. New Order, who are legends but who are long in the tooth and who have played way too many of these festivals, are awfully close to the top of the bill. So are Empire Of The Sun, who are still eating off of “Walking On A Dream,” a song that is now nine years old. UK festival standbys Two Door Cinema Club, noted Drake adversary Tory Lanez, and the revamped Crystal Castles are all higher on the bill than I would’ve ever expected. But along those same terms, shout out to Father John Misty, Future Islands, Schoolboy Q, Nicolas Jaar, and Kaytranada, all of whom have made the leap into the upper reaches of the poster.
9. Some people are way less popular than you would’ve thought. This is where things get brutal. Riz Ahmed is well on his way to becoming a movie star, and yet his Swet Shop Boys are second from the bottom on Saturday. The Avalanches, playing their first US show in a decade and a half, are getting the small-print treatment. Nigerian originator King Sunny Adé is way down near the bottom of the bill, though, if it’s any consolation, he is going to absolutely kill it. I could say the same about Mitski, whose intense presence and sharp, clear sonics are absolutely built for a starmaking Coachella appearance even if she has to contend with being way too low on the poster. Sadly, I cannot say the same about Car Seat Headrest, who are in the Parquet Courts Memorial “scratchy indie band plays to a couple of hundred bored people at two in the afternoon in a giant tent” spot. Denzel Curry, Warpaint, Thundercat, Shura, Whitney, Twin Peaks, and Preoccupations are all showing up in the smallest possible font size. So are Austin synth-wavers S U R V I V E. From one perspective, they’re lucky to be on this bill. From another, two of those guys scored Stranger Things, which means they helped set the sound of 2016. In any case, if you’re high and bored in the afternoon, they are going to be fucking amazing.
10. Coachella has finally fully embraced rap. Rap has always been a presence at Coachella, but it’s sometimes felt as though the bookers regarded it as a footnote, even if the kids at the festival give a royal response to just about every rapper on the bill. This year, it appears that this has changed. It’s not just Kendrick Lamar, probably the greatest rapper of his era, ascending to that headliner spot. It’s also the breadth and vitality of the rappers on the bill: Future, Gucci Mane, Travis Scott, Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller, Lil Uzi Vert, Tory Lanez, Nav, Raury, French sensations PNL, grime king Stormzy, dance-rap prospect GoldLink, underground motormouth Denzel Curry, incisive duo Swet Shop Boys. I don’t love all those acts, and I can’t stand some of them, but they do represent a pretty good cross-section of things happening in rap right now. And the only legacy rapper on the bill is RZA, in there as half of Banks & Steelz, who exist only so that they can play festivals like this one. There are some glaring omissions; Migos, Lil Yachty, Rae Sremmurd, D.R.A.M., and especially YG should really be on this bill this year. Still, an impressive showing.
11. Coachella has not embraced underground rock at all. There are plenty of guitars on this year’s Coachella bill, but a lot of them come from the fairly faceless bands closer to the top of the bill, the ones whose music tends to show up in commercials. Further down, you’ll find a few noisy basement-rock types like Tacocat and Show Me The Body, the latter of whom apparently never agreed to play the festival. But there is no metal whatsoever, no hardcore, and precious little punk. Someone like Japandroids could’ve been a good fit for this festival, and as my colleague Ian Cohen has already pointed out on Twitter, the festival has also ignored just about every strain of emo that’s currently flowering. If you’ve ever been to the festival, this omission isn’t a total surprise; the year I went, plenty of rock bands played to crickets. Still, it’s striking. The closest we’ve come to one of Coachella’s standard punk rock nostalgia acts — a slot held down by conquering heroes like Bad Religion and Rancid in recent years — is Guided By Voices, a tremendously entertaining band of legends who are absolutely being sent out there to die. Coachella is not the environment for them.
12. Sorry, the Shins! Last year, James Mercer claimed that his Shins had delayed the release of their forthcoming album so that they could play Coachella. Well, you will note that the Shins are not playing Coachella. Maybe he’ll delay that release another year! There are plenty of other notable omissions, groups who you might think should play the festival this year but who won’t. There’s the aforementioned Japandroids and YG, and then there’s Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, the War On Drugs, Nine Inch Nails, Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, Solange, Angel Olsen, Zack De La Rocha, Sky Ferreira, Chromatics, and the Jesus And Mary Chain. All of them would’ve made sense on this bill, and none of them are on it. Also, Run The Jewels played the last two Coachellas, and it somehow seems weird that they aren’t doing this one.
13. Hans Zimmer? What the fuck? As many people have already noted, Oscar-winning film composer Zimmer is on this bill, weirdly close to the top, and nobody even knows what that might entail. If he goes out there with his recent collaborators Pharrell and Johnny Marr, it could be excruciating. But if he plays a half-hour of Inception BRAAAM noises to stoned kids at sunset, it could be life-changing.
14. DJ Snake is going to go over huge. Every year, Coachella books at least one EDM act who draws a fucking massive crowd, a bigger crowd than you could possibly ever expect, and who ends up overshadowing almost everyone else on the bill through sheer popularity. That spot has gone to people like Calvin Harris and Kaskade in the past. This year offers plenty of possibilities there: Martin Garrix, Porter Robinson & Madeo, the mystifyingly high-on-the-poster Justice. But my money is on DJ Snake, the French superstar who made “Turn Down For What” and who could be getting a Justin Bieber cameo.
15. There sure are a lot of DJs on this bill. The EDM festival business model may be dying, but Coachella has figured out a way around it. They’ve booked their own EDM festival, one that runs at the same time as the rest of the festival and sometimes bleeds over into it. Two years ago, I couldn’t even get into the enormous dance tent because the crowd was packed too close into and around it. Expect that to continue this year. There are so, so many people I’ve never heard of on that festival poster, and I’m not going to look them all up, so I just have to assume that they’re all DJs.
16. The big-name reunion era is over. Coachella has often been the site of big nostalgic cash-in band reunions. But two years ago, when I witnessed sad and tiny crowds for reunited bands like Ride and Drive Like Jehu, I thought the whole thing was drawing to a close. I was right. Guns N’ Roses, a special case, headlined last year. But this year, there’s just nothing like that on the bill. The closest thing to it is the Avalanches, who have already played a summer’s worth of European festivals and released an album, and even they are way, way down on the bill. So enjoy the calm before all the bands who reunited and then broke up start reuniting again.