The 20 Best Coachella Sets of All Time
In the classic Japanese film Rashomon, four characters tell the same story from four completely different perspectives, giving accounts so conflicting that it's impossible to know what really happened. Coachella is kind of the same way, times about 20,000 perspectives.
When we asked L.A. Weekly writers to name their all-time favorite Coachella sets, over 120 different performances entered the conversation. Friends and readers suggested dozens more. In the end, these were the 20 that stood out the most, both of terms of how often they were cited and how much they've become part of our collective memories of America's first great annual music festival. By this time next year, Guns N' Roses may join this list, or another artist from the 2016 lineup no one could have predicted. That's what makes Coachella so great; just when you think it's starting to lose its mojo, another headliner or Sahara tent DJ or unheralded Gobi tent newcomer seizes their moment and becomes part of the festival's mythology.
Based on the sheer number of different sets our writers proposed for this list, Coachella's best year was either 2015 (probably just because it's the most fresh in our minds) or 2005, when Arcade Fire debuted, Chemical Brothers owned the dance tent, and Bauhaus turned everyone into an honorary goth for the night. The worst year? Despite headlining sets by Bjork and Oasis, it was apparently 2002. Only Beck's surprise appearance with DJ Z-Trip that year made a lasting impression on anyone we surveyed.
20. LCD Soundsystem, Sahara Tent, 2007
James Murphy's disco-punk crew will be playing Coachella for the fourth time this year. Anyone who saw them in the tiny Gobi tent in 2004 can claim "I was there" bragging rights, and they graduated to the main stage in 2010 without missing a beat. But the LCD Coachella set for the ages came in 2007, when they were the hands-down highlight of a stacked Sahara tent lineup that also included sets by The Rapture, Justice and MSTRKRFT. With Murphy hooting and hollering at the helm, LCD Soundsystem's full live incarnation, including members of Hot Chip and !!!, stormed through renditions of anthems like "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" and "North American Scum" that were even harder and funkier than the studio versions, whipping the sweaty Sahara crowd into a pogo-ing frenzy. If they can capture that same magic at this year's festival, they'll cement their status as one of the greatest live dance music acts of all time — Andy Hermann
19. Arcade Fire, Outdoor Stage, 2005
Over Coachella’s history, no band has seen their rise aided by the event like Arcade Fire. The Canadian indie rockers have played the festival four times, including twice as headliners; who could forget the LED beachballs of 2011 or the special appearance from Blondie’s Debbie Harry in 2014? But it was the first time that kickstarted the band’s legend, a sunset appearance on the Outdoor stage in 2005. From percussion on motorcycle helmets to a feverish conclusion with “Rebellion (Lies)” that left guitarist Richard Reed Parry drained and motionless on the stage, the set saw a young band rising to the occasion of a large audience in a beautiful setting. Eleven years later, Arcade Fire have more than lived up to the hype this performance created. — Philip Cosores
18. Underworld, Outdoor Stage, 1999
The inaugural Coachella festival fell somewhere between a rock show and a rave — and in 1999, that was still a novel concept. (Who the hell, we thought at the time, would put together a bill with Morrissey and Richie Hawtin?) When Underworld played, though, it made sense. By this time, anyone who hit the party scene (or saw Trainspotting) at least knew Underworld for the dance floor anthem "Born Slippy." But the group brought us more than a hit. Live-music-lovers could look towards the stage and watch a show; the rest of us could find a groove that mimicked the ebb and flow of a DJ set and just dance. Out in the crowd, it was a peak for the party of a lifetime, where you can't quite remember what was played, but you remember the sweat-sticky feeling of your baggy jeans, the bliss of dancing alone and the joy of bumping into friends. Seventeen years later, I struggle to recall all the details, but the emotions that set provoked (the first of several Underworld shows I would attend over the years) haven't dissipated. (Note: Videos from Coachella '99 are limited and usually of poor quality; this clip is not from Coachella, but was shot around the same time.) — Liz Ohanesian
17. Madonna, Sahara Tent, 2006
I may have seen most of it from atop a wobbly porta-potty, but Madonna’s 2006 appearance in the Sahara tent was a sexy spectacle that I’ll never forget. The late addition set (she was never on Coachella’s famous flyer) marked a turning point for the fest that, some might say, wasn’t all positive — but if you were there, in the moment, it was perfect. Maybe we could longer call the desert shindig "edgy" or "indie" with the biggest pop star in the world shaking her ass (which did look good, by the way) for the massive crowd, but that was OK. Humping and thumping about in her leotarded Confessions guise, Ms. M brought a discotheque unity to the desert that’s only gotten bigger as dance music’s popularity has grown. With her signature sassy banter, bodacious back-up dancers, and a short but sweet mix of effervescent pop jams old and new (“Ray of Light” was a righteous choice), Madonna single-handedly took the “too-cool” out of Coachella and allowed us all the not-so-guilty pleasure of finding the groove and letting ourselves go. — Lina Lecaro
16. Chemical Brothers, Sahara Tent, 2005
The Chemical Brothers could very well be considered one of the mascot acts of Coachella. After top billing the first three years, the bombastic pair moved to the Sahara tent’s ginormous, womb-like space for their return in 2005. The Sahara proved to be a perfect fit for the standard-bearing visuals and lights of the duo's most memorable Coachella performance. That night, the Chemicals took it somewhere else. It was like riding Space Mountain, backwards, for the first time, with way more than two people per car. You couldn’t really see anything, but there were lots of flashes, lots of vibrations, lots of heaving, and lots of screaming. And it went on for 20 songs, dive after ascension, loop after loop, drop after drop. It was awesome. — Lily Moayeri
Photo by Christopher Victorio
15. Kanye West, Coachella Stage, 2011
While he didn’t launch the trend of hip-hop festival headliners — you can credit Jay-Z for that in 2010 — Kanye West sure set the standard. Coming off the major success and widespread critical acclaim of his 2010 master opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and still suffering from the death of his mother, Kanye was at his most introspective as he took the Coachella main stage in 2011. This was a pained, lonely, disturbed Kanye, a pre-Yeezus Kanye still years away from reaching his next critical evolution. Arguably one of the most crucial bookings in his career at the time, the 2011 Coachella performance served as the intro to the wildly ambitious, rap-as-art performer we love (and love to hate) today. Backed by graceful ballet dancers and a grandiose set, Kanye challenged the traditional, rock-reliant setting of Coachella's main stage to transcend rap as a genre and awaken the full potential of the festival set as performance art. — John Ochoa
Darkside at Coachella 2014
14. Darkside, Gobi Tent, 2014
The first thing to consider is the wind. On the second night of the first weekend of Coachella 2014, a desert windstorm was in effect, creating a dramatic ambiance and making the chandeliers inside the Gobi sway. The tent wasn't packed, but those assembled early were in on the secret of Darkside, the New York duo featuring guitarist Dave Harrington and producer Nicolas Jaar. "They're rebooting the energy in the room!" one crowd member exclaimed when the duo launched their set with several minutes of distortion. Whether or not that was true, Darkside made that tent their own — playing sprawling, spaced-out versions of nearly everything on their only album, Psychic. It was sexual, it was spiritual, it was rare. The duo announced their hiatus four months later, and while reunion rumors swirl, it's likely that they'll never again play a venue so intimate. — Katie Bain
13. The White Stripes, Coachella Stage, 2003
Jack White has played the desert so many times with his various projects, it's easy to forget that his first and still greatest band, The White Stripes, has appeared there only once. But boy, did they make it count. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were ostensibly the Sunday night headliners in 2003, but they were thoroughly upstaged by Jack and his "big sister" Meg, who blazed through a 17-song set with more fire, fury and stage presence than seemed possible for a mere guitar/drums duo. Coming less than a month after the release of the career-defining album Elephant, the set catapulted The White Stripes from cult band to legit festival headliners, set Jack White on the path to rock superstardom, and helped turn "Seven Nation Army" into one of the most popular chant-along anthems of the new millennium. — Andy Hermann
12. Roger Waters, Coachella Stage, 2008
Many Coachella fans raised eyebrows when the festival announced former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters among the headliners in 2008. It was the first year Goldenvoice took a chance on such a legacy classic rock act to close out the main stage, and a vocal contingent of indie-leaning fans bombarded digital media with protests. Taking the stage to the strains of The Wall track, “In the Flesh,” Waters and his crack band powered through Pink Floyd favorites “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Sheep.” During the latter song, Waters’ giant inflatable pig prop came loose from its tether and floated away. Including a run through the entirety of Dark Side of the Moon, Waters’ crowd-pleasing set paved the way for more legacy rockers like Paul McCartney to headline future Coachella lineups. — Scott T. Sterling
11. Amy Winehouse, Gobi Tent, 2007
Booking festivals is a tricky business; lineups are set months in advance, which sometimes leads to red-hot artists playing to overflow crowds on secondary stages. Such was the case when Amy Winehouse played to a packed (and extremely sweaty) daytime crowd in the intimate Gobi tent, right when "Rehab" was blowing up radio and every blog and newspaper in America was touting her as the Next Big Thing. Even seemingly somewhat out of it, teetering unsteadily on her "Fuck Me Pumps," Wino still delivered a mesmerizing performance, backed by the always on-point Dap-Kings, chatting happily with the crowd between songs, and crooning soon-to-be-classics like "You Know I'm No Good" and "Tears Dry on Their Own" with casual virtuosity. Sadly, her first Coachella appearance would also be her last; she was booked to return in 2009, but it became one cancelled gig among many as her career and life unraveled. But for those of us lucky enough to squeeze into the Gobi in 2007, we got to witness one of the greats. — Andy Hermann
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.