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Top 10 Headliners at North American Festivals: Winter 2015 Power Rankings

on March 17, 2015, 12:00am
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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 selects this year’s top 10 headliners at North American festivals. 

Nina Corcoran (NC): When we sat down to figure out this year’s winter power rankings for North American music festivals, much of the discussion revolved around lineup similarities, gender inequality, and the speed at which festival promoters rushed out the announcements. This is by far the earliest we’ve known about the festivals’ acts. Given the unanimity between each festival’s headliners, it seemed like the result of not having the usual oohs and ahs of unique big name surprises. Take a step back, though, and this year’s summer is shaping up to have some of the best headliners in recent years.

Björk has already had one hell of a year. Turning your heartbreak and recovery into musical form for an album is draining. Top that off with a surprise LP release, a MoMA retrospective, and another innovative tour? Things are looking pretty heavy. Iceland’s unofficial queen is holding her head up high as usual and handles it all with grace. Getting to see Vulnicura tracks live is bound to wreck you, especially when Björk will be giving it her all.

There’s a lot of heartfelt intimacy coming up from the rest of this year’s headliners. Sufjan Stevens will sing fondly about his mother and stepfather. Beck will strip things down in support of his Grammy-winning Morning Phase. Bon Iver’s reunion will see the first 20 rows collectively sobbing to “Skinny Love”. Even Drake will get softhearted talking about his surprise release onstage. There’s a lot of emotional connectivity behind the headliners on our list. Then again, shouldn’t that always be the case? Headliners are artists that we hold close to our heart and, therefore, we get emotional when seeing them up there on the main stage. It’s not like Sleater-Kinney-caliber reunions happen every day.

Bjork at Carnegie Hall

Photo by Robert Altman

Ben Kaye (BK): With all due respect to Björk, that MoMa exhibit is getting panned. But that said, her Vulnicura performance is getting an abundance of praise. I walked away from her Bonnaroo set in 2013 (I think to rest up for late night), and the stories I heard afterward led me to regret that decision. So yes, I’m completely thrilled to have this gorgeous new record and the opportunity to see her perform at Governors Ball.

It is interesting that the headliners seem to lack the big, bombastic, holy-hell-that’s-loud rock and roll that for the longest time seemed to be what headlining was made of. You’ve got your Modest Mouses, your Tame Impalas, and yeah, your The Whos, but like Nina pointed out, you’ve got a lot more Becks and Drakes. Somehow AC/DC just isn’t doing it for me in that category, and the fact that Jack White was so ubiquitous last year means he’s not carrying as much weight this year. That’s not to say either show isn’t going to melt faces, but they’re certainly not the most fascinating bill-toppers.

Speaking of Tame Impala, another thing that’s caught my attention this year are bands in headlining spots even if it seems like they’re not at that point of their career yet. Tame Impala and Bon Iver have only released two albums apiece; the same was true of Kendrick Lamar until he dropped his third this week. When I kept seeing Kendrick’s name listed so high on bills, I was as blown away as I was by seeing Hozier’s (though, frankly, not as thrown off by it). Without meaning any disrespect, it’s really shocking to see the young Compton MC listed fourth at Bonnaroo, especially after being tucked down so low in 2012 that he was behind Mac Miller and Childish Gambino. More power to him, but wow, that’s some bill-climbing right there.

Tame Impala Live by Evie Cheung

Photo by Evie Cheung

Danielle Janota (DJ): I feel that Kendrick may have climbed the lineup so fast because fests are itching for more hip-hop/rap headliners. Last year, most fests pulled the Outkast card. For organizers, Outkast was a godsend because they satisfied the need for a hip-hop headliner and they boast a robust discography. Maybe there just weren’t any similar options in 2015. So Kendrick, a newer act who still pulls a lot of weight, was probably the next best thing.

As for the lack of loud, bombastic headliners, I thought the same thing at first glance. Seeing Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, and Beck at the top of bills immediately reminded me of Portlandia’s “Battle of the Gentle Bands.” It will be interesting to see how they fare on the main stages because they could put everyone to sleep or, as Nina mentioned, create a deeply emotional experience. I’m obviously hoping for and expecting the latter. The only big fest that seems really blaring is Coachella. Jack White, AC/DC, and Drake all scream headliner material to me. And I think all three acts will put on fiery shows.

Speaking of AC/DC, I’m always interested in the golden oldies the fests manage to scoop up. This year, AC/DC, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Billy Joel, The Who, and Robert Plant snagged some of the top spots. And even though those are big names, I wonder how festivalgoers will react to them since they seem to be opting for newer acts with personal value over classic acts with headliner value. Deep down I feel that there will always be a place at fests for nostalgia, especially for acts that are still hot like Macca. But fests are changing; I wonder if organizers will respond to that in the future.

Image (1) billyjoeljazzfest32013dianatalyansky.jpg for post 392407

Photo by Diana Talyansky

NC: After seeing Kendrick several times in a row at festivals, I was wondering the same thing as Ben. Does having a phenomenal (if not iconic) LP let you shoot to the top of the bill, or is it a matter of promoters looking to appeal to hip-hop heads? Kendrick is always an entertaining performer, so that plays a big hand, too.

A lot of the discussion that’s popped up about the resurgence (or is it an acceptance?) of “dad rock” addressed the heightened appeal of older acts. As a lot of these festivals bump up their prices yet again, they’re cutting off some of the younger festivalgoers who can’t afford to spend the money. Hitting up the older demographic seems smart. To be honest, I frequently think about what it will be like to attend festivals as a 40- or 50-year-old. Feeling out of place at an event made for people who love music, not young people who love music, would be awful. A lot of those golden oldies, especially McCartney and The Who, seem like bands everyone grew up with at some point in their life, even if just via commercials using their songs. Danielle is right that most of us have a soft spot for nostalgia, a void that those acts certainly fill, but part of me hopes those are the bands that bridge the biggest age gap in its audience. I would love to see a more central theme of community among festivalgoers. Acts like Elton John and AC/DC seem likely to do just that.

Carson O’Shoney: There’s a fine line with these old-dude headliners. Sometimes I’m ecstatic to see them on top of lineups; other times they just bore me. I guess it depends on the act. Half of The Who on their last legs doesn’t interest me too much, but Macca put on probably the best headlining set I’ve ever seen at Bonnaroo a few years ago. Elton John was a blast at the farm last year, but I’m having trouble getting that excited for Billy Joel. Having an enormous, instantly recognizable name like that on your lineup legitimizes things in a way, though. It might make more serious music fans upset, but getting the casual music fan to commit to attending a huge festival takes one or two of those acts. Smaller festivals like Boston Calling and Shaky Knees have the luxury of not having to sell an entire city’s population’s worth of tickets, so they can focus on the perfect headliners for the demographic they’re shooting for. Luckily, this year’s slate has a little something for everyone.

Kendrick Lamar // Photo by Philip Cosores

Photo by Philip Cosores

BK: I think Carson’s right in saying that having an act with a well-documented, beloved history adds a level of legitimacy to a bill, but not only because it makes the thing accessible for casual fans. Having a legacy name atop a bill honors something about why music festivals are here in the first place. Without those musicians, these festivals don’t exist. Now, I’m not saying Billy Joel led to Deadmau5 in any sort of direct way, but in few other art forms is acknowledging and respecting your forebears as precious a thing as it is in music.

Also, I’m going to defend Joel to the death. That’s just me and I totally understand that, but I’m 1000 percent more excited for him than I was for Elton John. (As Carson alluded to when he noted the opposite, this is probably because I’m more intimately familiar with Joel’s material.) I’m intrigued by Mumford & Sons, fascinated by Kendrick, and downright pumped for Joel.

So yeah, I think these legacy acts are some of the most important names on any lineup, and often some of the most exciting. A Boston Calling or a Shaky Knees doesn’t need those performers, sure, but can you imagine if a Paul McCartney or a Neil Young or a Fleetwood Mac headlined one of those shows? How epic would that feel? Like Nina mentioned, it’s such a glorious thing to witness the sort of age-defying joy that bands like that can bring to an event. I know we’re seeing young guns like Kendrick and Drake and let’s even say Mumford and Bon Iver taking top spots, and I’m never going to argue that shouldn’t be the case. But give me a band with a catalog of 10 or more albums and whose name will make my dad jealous of my job.

Photo by Joshua Mellin

Photo by Joshua Mellin

NC: As for the younger acts, I’ve got a feeling we have a good chance of seeing history in the making. I’m not talking about decade-defining moments the way The Who destroying their equipment was or the permanence of AC/DC’s ‎riffs in pop culture (shout out to Zack Attack on lead guitar). I can’t help but think Tame Impala’s next album has the capability to push them into near-stadium heights of fame. They’re gathering a cult following akin to other psych bands, but the difference is in the production. They make the retro sound new again, and they do it damn well — so well that I went to my parents’ at Christmastime and found their own copy of Lonerism sitting in the kitchen. Tame Impala is ready to break into that next level of fame.

Which leads to the other thing I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: the comfort of familiarity. So many of these headliners are adored, but they’re acts many festivalgoers have seen before. They lack the surprise factor. The reason they were asked to return, however, is because they know how to please a crowd. My Morning Jacket play festivals nearly every year, but they routinely put on one of the best live shows. Beck is still that blonde Cali dude jumping around the stage, but man, he always makes it look so cool. Bon Iver lay some harmonies down and line up horns onstage, sure, but those bare chords in “The Wolves (Act I and II)” still give me chills. Sometimes things are going so well that there’s no need to change things up.

But not everyone feels that way. Take Mumford & Sons for example. Their backyard folk got them on the radio, but they’re ditching the hoedown sound for electric guitars. Who knows how that change will pan out. We only have one song to base predictions on, but I imagine they’re going to cash in that commercial fame and turn up the stage design. Why not become the rock stars your music gave you access to becoming? Whether or not they’re any good at it, however, is open for debate.

Mumford and Sons

DJ: Oh Mumford, how I despise thee. I realize that their touring power is nearly unmatched, and I applaud any musician that can become successful in the mainstream, because that in itself is a feat. But they’ve become a gimmick. And I really can’t fathom how a single band could pull 75 percent of an entire festival away from The Postal Service at Lolla 2013.  Like you said, though, Nina, they’re changing up their sound, and their PR team really wants us to know that. So who knows?  Maybe this year, I and other Mumford dissenters will have a change of heart.

As for familiarity, I think we’ve all kind of learned to accept the recycled bands once a fest starts. When you’re in the festival mindset, it’s hard to be a complete Debbie Downer, even if you’re not a fan of certain bands that weekend. We’ve weighed and ranked our top 10 festivals based on different measures of appeal, but it’s interesting to see how that list changes once the season starts. An unfortunate-looking lineup can quickly become dazzling by a recycled headliner that unexpectedly blows everyone away. That phenomenon has occurred for me several times in the past for acts like Phoenix and The Killers. At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see what surprises are in store.

I think we can all agree that as a whole, whether they’re young or old, mainstream or obscure, recycled or new, plenty of unique headliners lie before us. No single fest is better than another, and every region seems to boast a headliner of value. That sounds so diplomatic, but this year, it’s the honest-to-god truth. So here’s to the 2015 festival season. May the weather be nice, the lines short, and the craft beer cold.

Click on to see our top ten North American festival headliners…

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