Festival season is best season. For music fans, few activities top seeing live performances, eating tons of great food, exploring new locales, and doing so with other like-minded people all there for the same reasons. Paste staffers and contributors attended many of these multi-day-long celebrations of music and cities and culture in 2015. Here are the 10 best we experienced.
10. Le Guess Who
The Dutch festival isn’t big on mainstream buzz, which is why you won’t see the usual suspects crowding the autumnal event’s line-up. But they do have a thing for star power, and showcasing artists in their best light, a taste that leads to the likes of Julia Holter performing in a 975 year-old church, avant icon Annette Peacock playing the kind of haunting solo show that would give David Lynch goosebumps, and Bradford Cox performing back-to-back sets as both Atlas Sound and Deerhunter. Bonus: Le Guess Who? is held in Utrecht—which means all the canals of Amsterdam and twice the coziness. —Laura Studarus
If you go into any store within Austin’s city limits during South by Southwest, chances are that the friendly clerk behind the counter will say something like, “y’all here for South by?” And you’ll think, “My, these Texans are friendly!” But if you try the same thing in New York during the CMJ Music Marathon, you’ll likely have to explain what the hell CMJ even is, because NYC don’t give a fuck about you and your silly little music conference. And ya know what? That’s part of what makes CMJ cool. There were a few years where it felt like the multi-day fest might get snatched up by the same corporations who have been pulling the strings at SXSW, but CMJ doesn’t take over its host city the way that SXSW does, and a Doritos stage at CMJ wouldn’t have much of an impact, since the venues are so spread out. This far-flung nature of NYC and the fact that CMJ takes place at the beginning of shiver weather (and not during spring break) means that only people who really care about music are attending and most of the bands playing aren’t just playing for exposure. It’s just like indie music used to be: you have to work harder to get to the good stuff, but that’s part of what makes it so rewarding. — Pat Healy
8. South by Southwest
Pardon the hype, and ignore the naysayers. Sure you’ll have to sort through the glut of options, but Texas’ premiere music event is exactly what you make of it. Aiming for bragging rights in a year’s time? You’ll probably earn a bit thanks to the conference’s proclivity for booking hype-heavy newbies. Wanna see a victory lap? Yup, there’s a few marquee-worthy names in the mix. Just aiming to throw back a few local brews while watching your friends’ band? Oh hey, you can do that too. Never has choosing your own adventure been more fun. —Laura Studarus
7. FYF Festival
When news broke that Frank Ocean’s FYF Festival headlining set had been cancelled on the week of the two-day Los Angeles event, my heart sank. Yet, this feeling of despair lasted but half an hour, until festival organizers quickly announced about as acceptable of a replacement as anyone could’ve imagined: Kanye West.
Kanye—joined on stage by Travis Scott and Rihanna—highlighted a fine Saturday slate of artists with Morrissey accepting Sunday headlining duties. But the big winner of the fest was far and away the flawless set by D’Angelo and The Vanguard. FKA Twigs put down an absolutely stunning display of her dark electro soul and interpretive dance, as Kaytranada, Flying Lotus and Nicolas Jaar led a slate of electronica heavyweights in the dance-forward Sports Arena stage.
While FYF seemed to stray from its punk roots and started developing a new kind of genre-all-encompassing identity, acts like Death Grips, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Savages and Hop Along, still made it feel like the grassroots, gritty L.A. punk fest that it began as. The festival’s second year at its new—and now permanent—L.A. Memorial Coliseum and Exposition Park location, slowly smoothed out some of the logistical kinks of the year before and FYF could be well on its way to becoming Southern California’s can’t miss stepchild to Coachella. —Adrian Spinelli
6. Pop Montreal
FOMO usually runs rampant at music fests. “Damn, I wanna see THIS band so badly, but they’re playing at the exact same time THAT band are playing on the other stage!” That doesn’t happen much at POP Montreal, though. And it’s not because their rosters aren’t stellar. They are! POP alums include Arcade Fire (before AND after they were big), Grimes, Ty Segall and more. POP is organized so well and it’s such a manageable fest that you’re usually able to take in everything you want to see. There are only about 50 venues hosting the 400 or so acts. There’s a lot of emphasis on acts that hail from the area, a type of regional pride you don’t necessarily find at other fests, and POP also showcases a perfect mix of established artists, industry vets, and up-and-comers. — Pat Healy
5. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
This free-flowing and strictly non-commercial festival has been a San Francisco favorite for 15 years, bridging generations and styles in an a good-vibrations celebration of roots music. The free festival comes courtesy of banjo-loving financier Warren Hellman, who even after his death in 2011 made sure to set aside funds to continue his annual gift to the city. The gorgeous Golden Gate Park setting thrives on surprise collaborations, like the all-star performance of Big Star’s Third featuring Jody Stephens, Mike Mills and Wilco’s Pat Sansone and Robyn Hitchcock, and The Sadies performing The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It’s a joyous festival where acts like Nick Lowe, Charles Bradley, Neko Case and DeVotchKa can blend with Americana royalty like Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Dave Alvin, Buddy Miller and annual festival closer, Emmylou Harris, her gorgeous voice carrying across the meadow at sunset. —Eric Swedlund
It doesn’t take long to realize Pickathon is not like other music festivals. My indoctrination came in 2013, after years of unfairly lumping it in with every other festival where sardined hipsters pay too much for tickets, food and water, only to catch a distanced glimpse of [hot new band] while live-Tweeting the whole thing. #killingit
Now obviously, I’m a bit of a cynical shit. So the fact that Pickathon—which celebrated its 17th year—won me over in a matter of hours speaks volumes. Simply put: It’s one of, if not the cleanest, friendliest and best-run music festivals in the country. —Mark Lore
Read his full review here.
3. Outside Lands
San Francisco’s eighth annual Outside Lands turned up the volume and nourished concertgoers in Golden Gate Park with more than 60 artists, including headliners like Elton John, Mumford & Sons, Kendrick Lamar, Sam Smith, D’Angelo and Billy Idol. But Outside Lands stood out because of it’s both a music and culinary festival. Dubbed the “world’s only gourmet rock festival,” over 78 restaurants, 38 wineries, 32 breweries and 10 cocktail bars from California served up local delectables and poured some of the region’s finest from noon to 10 p.m. each day. —Abra Cohen
Read her full feature here.
2. PDX Pop Now
For a dozen years now, an all-volunteer group of music supporters in Portland have been responsible for PDX Pop Now, a three-day festival honoring the hometown scene by booking nothing but local acts, keeping the event all ages, and not charging admission. And as they keep proving year after year, this isn’t some cobbled together lineup of unknowns but rather one that is thoughtfully curated for maximum impact. Hence why the 2015 edition put a huge spotlight on the city’s hip-hop community including inspiring performances by Vinne DeWayne and blossom; welcomed outre acts such as avant-jazz ensemble Blue Cranes and the deep electronics of XFA; and a Saturday night one-two punch of beloved indie trio Modern Kin and the psych pop of Nurses. —Robert Ham
1. Iceland Airwaves
The late autumn fest, which takes place in a variety of venues across Sigur Rós’ hometown, actually lives up to the hype. It helps that they book the kind of artists likely to end up on your year-end lists (‘sup Beach House, Hot Chip, and Father John Misty?), while still also managing to take chances. Lots of ‘em. From the extensive lineup of Iceland-based artists that possess both names we may need a pronunciation guide to get through and music we’re bound to love (Here’s looking at you Kiasmos, Grísalappalísa, and Hjaltalín!) to international newbies we’re just now meeting (Hello, Anna B Savage, Sea Change, Bo Ningen!) there’s a lot of high quality acts to sort through. Even with Björk bowing out of her headlining set and John Grant (aka Iceland’s favorite adopted son) taking her place alongside the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, it’s difficult to pick a fight with the event’s high quality, more is more is MORE mentality. In a sea of smorgasbord-style music festivals, Iceland Airwaves manages a rare feat creating not just white noise, but an actual experience. —Laura Studarus