This weekend, Coachella returned to Indio and the small Southern California town once again became the center of the music world. Guns N’ Roses turned the desert into the jungle, Calvin Harris found love with Rihanna, Sia had some video help from Kristin Wiig, three-fifths of N.W.A got together and Diplo did double duty with Major Lazer and Jack Ü. Our team went in search of the festival’s most memorable performances, moments and meals. These are the 50 best things we saw.
Best Changing of the Guard: Guns N’ Roses
“You know where you arrrrrrre?” shrieked Axl Rose during one of the indisputable wins of Guns N’ Roses’ imperfect but well-embraced reunion set. “You’re in the jungle, Coachelllllaaaa!” Sure, that was one way of looking at it, and not a wrong one. When the Sunset Strip metal icons whipped out the biggest and loudest heaters in their holster – “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Live and Let Die” – this barely legal crowd crowed like Eighties heshers jagging on trucker speed. But there were a few distractions from the uncut GN’F’nR experience. For instance, the fact that injured Axl was glued to his guitar-flanked “throne” on loan from Dave Grohl (though he did manage a confusing number of T-shirt, jacket and hat changes), and, more to the point, that he and Slash barely acknowledged each other’s existence. That real deal guitar hero could have carried the night with his wildly expressive shredding alone (his solo cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” was proof enough), but Axl didn’t seem truly fired up until he brought out his new axe-wielding bestie, Angus Young. A couple of hours after AC/DC confirmed Rose as their new frontman, there he was hollering “Whole Lotta Rosie” like his busted leg depended on it.
Best Hopeless Romantic: Calvin Harris
Calvin Harris’ Coachella-ending performance was a series of hands-in-the-air EDM cool-outs where the recorded voices of singers like Ellie Goulding (“I Need Your Love”), Florence Welch (“Sweet Nothing”) and Ayah Marar (“Thinking About You”) sang pretty platitudes about love and togetherness between hard and heavy barrages of electro house. Basically, it was epic feel-good stuff made for raving, transmitted from mid-air, center stage, where the Scottish DJ was just a wee silhouette atop an LED boomerang, surrounded on all sides by racing images of mechanized wormholes and squiggly lines. Though, in a shift from joy and romance, Big Sean, in neon palm tree shirt, did stop by to cleanly execute a pair of spiteful breakup anthems, “Open Wide” and “IDFWU.” English soul howler John Newman closed the set with a fierce rendition of “Blame,” but it was the night’s biggest guest, Rihanna, who best encapsulated Harris’ theme with their ode to hopeless romanticism, “We Found Love.” And not for nothing, RiRi outdid Sean’s outfit with fringe and sequin-spangled USA jacket. When she spread her arms, she looked like an eagle, and the starry-eyed audience swooned all over again.
Best Reunion (Dance Edition): LCD Soundsystem
The monumental, moon-sized disco ball was back above the Coachella mainstage on Friday, as the reunited LCD Soundsystem delivered a headline set that was as forceful and eccentric as ever, the band’s fourth performance since reconvening after a five-year break. In many ways, LCD Soundsystem is a mashup of many qualities of the Coachella tradition: adept at both rock and electronics, danceable and thought-provoking, idiosyncratic and down to earth. Leader James Murphy is a man obsessed with culture and a good clattering beat, leading the New York band through a 15-song set with anxious ease. On “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” he frantically banged intense percussion into his mic and later paid tribute to a musical hero with a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
He was a typically amusing host. As the undulating rhythm of “Yeah” began, Murphy looked across the field to a row of palm trees bathed in colored blinking lights and joked that the band “spent a lot of money” to get those lights shining on the trees. “They’re a little out of sync.” Late in the evening, he revealed that he’d been working on limiting how much he talked between songs (which is usually a lot), and that the band had earned enough time to add an additional song to the set. “I don’t know if that’s good for you,” he said, “but it’s good for us.”
Best Reunion (Rap Edition): Ice Cube and N.W.A
“How many of you heard of the World’s Most Dangerous Group?” Ice Cube shouted to a crowd already bouncing in front of his main stage performance. He was talking about N.W.A, who have already enjoyed an eventful year: the acclaimed feature film, Straight Outta Compton, induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and an amusing war of words with Gene Simmons about the definition of rock & roll. A reunion at Coachella seemed inevitable. Cube was joined onstage by his onetime collaborators DJ Yella and MC Ren, ripping into “Straight Outta Compton,” “Dopeman” (with son and film likeness O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and the notorious “Fuck Tha Police,” which Cube claimed he’d been warned backstage not to perform. The song remained jarringly current with images of black men famously killed in recent confrontations with police. The one disappointment, obviously, was the absence of Dr. Dre, but Snoop arrived on a low-rider bicycle draped in a robe and jewelry to flow with style through “Go to Church” and Dre’s solo epic “The Next Episode.”
Best Performance Art: Sia
When the lights went up on Sia, topped by her signature outsized bow and black-and-white wig, it was clear this would not be a typical Coachella set. The Australian ballad queen appeared perched atop a gigantic billowy dress that soon began to ripple and flap as if it contained a monster. It did, of sorts: Maddie Ziegler, the pint-sized dancer capable of conveying such emotional extremes through movement that the 13-year-old has become the personification of Sia’s id in a handful of music videos and, now, onstage. She wasn’t alone, either. While our hostess stood stock still in the corner belting out powerhouse pop hits like “Big Girls Cry,” “Chandelier” and “Diamonds” (which she wrote for Rihanna), small plays were acted out for each song starring the likes of Tig Notaro, Paul Dano and Kristen Wiig. Except, as the set progressed, there were more and more hints – small differences in motion, impossible camera angles, odd lighting – indicating that what played onscreen was recorded earlier despite its similarity to the action onstage. If that was disappointing at first – people screamed when it seemed Wiig was in their midst – in time, the possibility that it was dancers pretending to be actors added another layer of winking mystery to the proceedings, making for a magical reality that is, perhaps, all the more indicative of the internal workings of the artist. Or, you know, maybe she was just messing with us.
Best Anachronism: Jack Ü
As abused as the term “trendsetter” is, the Jack Ü dudes are nothing if not that – forward-thinking producers bringing the hyperactive sounds of modern rave (that’s Skrillex) and an arsenal of international body music (Diplo) to the pop charts. These are the guys who made the Biebs relevant, after all. And while Justin didn’t appear, other of-the-moment vocalists did, like AlunaGeorge, Kiesza and Post Malone, while the dÜo blasted out their throbbing cacophony of warped horns, pitched up voices, hi-hat clatter, laser zaps, bass and big hooks. However, Jack Ü’s future-crunk battle-station was perched atop a gigantic replica of a boxy Apple II computer, complete with a floppy disc that, at one point, proved itself big enough to cover Diplo’s entire body. ROYGBIV graphics and grayscale games played across the bulbous screen – one subbed in umlauts for asteroids while another sent the Ü snaking through a Wolfenstein-like maze – with breaks for the ancient operating system to call up jiggling images of pointillist palm trees and sadly rendered spheres. The only modern prop was Kanye West, who stood in front of the console and nodded his head during a remix of his 2010 cut, “Power.”
Best Abbreviated Slice of Surrealism: A$AP Rocky
A$AP Rocky took a trip into the strange during his short Coachella set Friday night. It began with a recorded message on the big screen from singer-actress Juliette Lewis, dressed as a flight attendant: “You are about to embark on a musical journey… If at any point people start to get unruly and push and pull, just push those motherfuckers back!” “Make some noise if you did some mushrooms tonight. Make some noise if you took LSD tonight,” he said, as he began “LSD” (a.k.a. “Love, Sex, Dreams”), a cosmic romantic track that sent him slowly levitating above the stage, rapping. Soon after, during “Jukebox Joints,” he rapped against the old-timey harmonies of a live barbershop quartet in striped vests and boater hats. Then came a cameo by Kanye West on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” but his mic seemed to go out after a few beats. Afterwards, himself cut off after his set ran overtime, Rocky threw his mic and stomped off.
Best Superstar Coronation: Halsey
“So, like, two years ago, I was a 19-year-old girl from New Jersey,” Halsey said to an adoring audience. “That’s not something I was proud of then but I’m proud to tell you that now.” That intimate moment came about halfway through a set that rivaled anything else for emotional intensity, provocative flare and brow-singeing pyrotechnics. Her style of arena-pop – panoramic electronic soundscapes that rumble to thick bass synths and shimmer with cybernetic frippery – was well-matched by rains of sparks, spurts of cold white flame and massive projections that placed her at the center of world-ending cyclones, android armies and Dune-like wastelands. She wrapped herself around a pole as a black-clad dancer spun circles above, duetted with her childhood hero Brendon Urie on Panic! At the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” and led the crowd in a sing-along to her own “New Americana.”
Best View: The Armpit
Since its debut in 1999, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has made sure to emphasize “art” in many forms, from performance to large-scale kinetic sculpture. Right in the center of the polo fields this year is something called “The Armpit,” an off-center, multi-level structure built from scrap wood. Like five other huge sculptures onsite, it was commissioned especially for Coachella. Festival goers lined up to walk inside, go up the steps, and discover rooms with video screens and footage of young and old men working on metal and wood or just sweeping out the garage. One screen read: “This is a place to just be.” It was also a place to get a rare view of the festival grounds, with a patio to take in the landscape and the sounds rising from the two outdoor stages, as the festival roars into the night.
Best Aerobic Workout: Major Lazer
Major Lazer’s dancehall-razing riot of a set was basically a fitness session. USC’s drumline opened the show (the horn section showed up later for stutter-stepping moombahton bomb “Bumaye”), and project mastermind Diplo stalked the stage in an all-white country club getup armed with a cricket bat while four gold spandex-spackled dancers twerked and jerked to the nonstop beat. Major Lazer and their many guests did more to inspire sweat in the audience than Sunday’s sweltering sun: Sean Paul assisted Jamaican toaster Nyla on “Light It Up” and teamed with soca star Machel Montano for “One Wine” and Danish indie-pop upstart MØ dropped in for “Lean On.” Hype man Walshy Fire issued most of the orders, which ranged from the standard, “Jump! Jump! Jump!” to more involved moves, like taking off a garment and whipping it overhead, getting ground-level low before leaping at the next air horn blast, and actually running several paces in either direction in the middle of a thousands-strong crowd. That last one happened during the sprightly “Sound Bang,” and the result wasn’t tiring so much as giddy-making, as everyone erratically pinballed off of one another to the relentless clash of steel drums.