There’s nothing like watching your favorite musician(s) perform live on an outdoor festival stage. Plus, the festival’s location can play as large a role in the event as the lineup, whether you’ve trekked to the Northwest for Capitol Hill Block Party, to Austin for SXSW or Manchester, Tennessee for Bonnaroo. And if you can’t make it to your desired city, you can probably just watch the entire thing streaming live from the comfort of your own couch — that’s just how ubiquitous these live, curated experiences are nowadays. The downside of this, of course, is feeling overwhelmed by sheer choice. That’s where we come in: Paste polled our writers and selected a Top Ten list of the best music festivals of 2016. Read up on our picks below.
One of the Southeast’s preeminent Americana music festivals also possesses one of the lengthiest trajectories. Begun in 1988, MerleFest has since become a much-anticipated springtime gathering, one that’s attended by music lovers from all across the globe. Ostensively a celebration of Merle Watson’s music and that of his fellow Appalachian tunesmiths, it was named for Watson’s son Eddy, who died tragically in a farm tractor accident a few years earlier.
Its setting, on the scenic campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, adds to the ambiance and the mellow vibe, but it’s the music that matters most. The list of influential artists who have previously performed there is impressive enough, but the organizers always up the ante, having already announced Zac Brown Band, Del McCoury Band, Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush and Peter Rowan as 2017 headliners. The idea of bluegrass in the foothills of the Blue Ridge certainly says it all. —Lee Zimmerman
Smaller and less mainstream than Seattle’s Bumbershoot, Capitol Hill Block Party gives festival-goers the opportunity to hear up-and-coming bands in an intimate neighborhood setting. The curators of Block Party do a good job of reserving their stages for incredible semi-underground acts, giving attendees that excitement of discovering the “next big thing” before they blow. This vibe, paired the setting on the streets of Seattle’s historically young, gay and bohemian neighborhood, gives Capitol Hill Block Party an accessible, local feeling. The preservation of this feeling is a feat in and of itself when put into context: a growing number of transplant technology industry bros are changing the face of Capitol Hill as Seattleites know it. Still, Block Party gracefully works to preserve the local music scene, devoting their energy to Pacific Northwest talent like punk Mommy Long Legs, glam-rock-inspired Thunderpussy and breakout rapper DoNormaal, then closing out nights with artists who have a slightly broader reach but still fit the mood: electronica’s Odesza, Scottish synth-pop standouts Chvrches and 2016’s breakout indie songwriter Car Seat Headrest. —Alexa Peters
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually attended Eaux Claires, the music festival co-founded by Justin Vernon and Bryce Dessner now in its second year. So if you’re looking for a firsthand account of what makes it such a great event, you can skip this entry. If you’re looking for a secondhand account, hey, you’re in luck. Anyone who attended Vernon’s press conference in September got an earful about the festival—from the man himself, of course, but also from locals and visitors alike. Located at a remote spot in the middle of the Wisconsin wilderness, where the only distraction from the music is the nature, the event boasts an impressive lineup that showcases the impeccable yet adventurous taste of its co-curators. And there’s always some remarkable surprise in store, such as Bon Iver performing its then-unreleased new album in its entirety. Who knows what 2017 has in store? —Stephen Deusner
Another year, another chance for the Reykjavik-based fest to live up to the hype. In a sea of smorgasbord-style music festivals, Iceland Airwaves manages a rare feat creating not just white noise, but an actual experience, thanks in no small part to their more is more booking mentality. There’s the ridiculous strong home team. (Hiya Kiasmos, Berndsen, and Reykjavíkurdætur.) The buzzy newcomers. (Sup, Let’s Eat Grandma, Leyya and Conner Youngblood?) And of course the legacy acts. (Björk WITH THE ICELAND SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA!) Throw in a city small enough to walk leisurely between venues but large enough to have several vegetarian-friendly restaurants and hot tub/pool locations, and you don’t just have a music festival, but an absolutely killer vacation memory in the making. Bonus: Next year, Airwaves expands to the Northern Icelandic city of Akureyri, so there’s no telling what delights are in store. —Laura Studarus
John Denver once waxed nostalgic about a “Rocky Mountain High,” and while he may not have had Telluride Bluegrass Festival specifically in mind, he might as well have. Nestled in the heart of the Rockies in the historic town of Telluride, Colorado, it’s one of Americana music’s most indelible institutions, a gathering of headline artists essential to a melting pot of bluegrass, folk, roots rock and pure invention. 44 years on, it’s still an easy, breezy affair, mostly confined to a single stage, which makes a ride on the lift from the mountain top both scenic and serene. Indeed, the surroundings can’t be beat; with the audience seated on lounge chairs in the cusp of the surrounding peaks, the vibe is unmistakably mellow. Take note: The mid-June temperatures shift dramatically, from the heat of the afternoon to chilly temperatures once the sun sets. No matter. Once there, that inner glow never dims. —Lee Zimmerman
In its inaugural year, Panorama Festival (organized by Goldenvoice, also known as the creators of Stagecoach, Hangout Fest and Coachella) really brought it. And by “it,” I mean an enviable lineup (LCD Soundsystem Kendrick Lamar! Broken Social Scene! Sufjan Stevens Arcade Fire! Sia!), gorgeous design, air-conditioned bathrooms, tented stages to provide shade, water-refilling areas and even a “misting” station, where onlookers could sit and get cool under clouds of water droplets. Maybe the New York City-based fest was trying extra-hard to impress — like the way you do in a new relationship before your partner gets to know the real you — but I certainly wasn’t complaining. —Rachel Brodsky
For 46 years, Bumbershoot has shaken the ground the Space Needle stands on, bringing the best performers to play Seattle’s premier Labor Day music festival. One of only two music festivals held at the Seattle Center (the other being Northwest Folklife), Bumbershoot brings some heavy Top-40 pop and electronic acts while also working to remember the musical heart of the city: grunge, indie-folk and punk rock. Last year, for instance, saw performances from pop-music sensations Fetty Wap, KYGO and Bryson Tiller, as well as from Seattle’s punk queen Lisa Prank, local experimental indie band Deep Sea Diver and Washington’s home-state heroes Death Cab for Cutie. What’s more, Bumbershoot offers comedy, theatre, visual arts and dance, making this one of the most varied and interesting arts festivals in North America. —Alexa Peters
In its inaugural year, this Boomer-centric music festival embraced its status as Oldchella, not only gearing its all-star lineup toward the aged and infirm, but rethinking the entire festival format. Gourmet food vendors sold $18 lobster mac and cheese, and renowned chefs created multi-course pre-show feasts. There was only one stage instead of three or four, which meant no overlap in sound of schedule. The line-up may have pre-empted any sense of discovery, but it did allow ticket holders to check several big acts off their bucket lists: Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan opening for the Stones, Neil Young jamming righteously on his 1,576,422nd performance of “Down by the River,” Roger Waters lambasting the president-elect with a floating pig. The crowd was hardly AARP either: Instead, the demographic ran from septuagenarians all the way down to their great-grandkids, which means this event proved every bit as relevant as Youngchella. —Stephen Deusner
There are two schools of thought concerning Austin’s annual South by Southwest: One is that it’s an overblown, long-ago-commercialized shit show (for lack of a better word) with too much to see and too little time or energy in which to see it. (That, and it turns out that badges actually get you nowhere, because LINES.) The other, more optimistic line of thinking (aka mine) is, how could something involving the vibrant, walkable Austin, breakfast tacos, warm weather, keynote speakers like Michelle freaking Obama and an endless parade of music be a bad thing? Listen: I don’t have feet of steel or even the energy of a 22-year-old. But it’s hard not to get sucked into the Spring Break For Music Fans gaiety that SXSW emits. Even if the longtime fest, which also expands to feature tech and film, is top-heavy with brands, the feeling of imminent discovery is what keeps us coming back year after year. —Rachel Brodsky
Paste itself was created by and for cultural omnivores, folks whose love of well-crafted art knows no bounds, and no music fest this year (or any other, if you ask me) exemplifies that insatiable hunger for depth and variety quite like Bonnaroo. The festival, once upon a time a backwoods bastion of jam band-ery and underground hip-hop, is today a genre-spanning juggernaut, attracting enormous names across the spectrums of indie and classic rock, hip-hop, EDM, folk and everything after—for the well-rounded music lover, a Bonnaroo lineup poster might as well be pornographic. This year’s fest maintained that status quo in spades, hosting performances from a legion of Paste favorites: Pearl Jam and LCD Soundsystem, Tame Impala and Father John Misty, Blood Orange and Leon Bridges, Lucius and on and on and on. Make no mistake: Bonnaroo, set on a 700-acre farm in tiny Manchester during the sweltering Tennessee summer, is an overwhelming, exhausting mess. No other music fest has simultaneously made me yearn for it to 1) last forever and 2) end immediately quite like this one does. But ‘Roo is ultimately exemplified by its signature attraction, SuperJam, in which a slew of unlike artists are thrown together on a stage to make collaborative magic: both are unpredictable and all over the place, yet beautifully boundary-obliterating, and always one of a kind. I saw a sign at my first Bonnaroo that I’ll never forget as long as I live: it read, “Smile. Bonnaroo is a beautiful place.” I’ll high-five to that.—Scott Russell