Coachella invented the modern music festival, drafting the blueprint for genre-hopping lineups that place equal emphasis on fads and classics. Ever since the inaugural two-day celebration in 1999, Coachella has been imitated, expanded, and replicated, all to various degrees of success. Why did the Southern Californian festival have such an impact? It’s combination of desert destination and clever curation has kept Coachella at the epicenter of pop culture for over two decades. With the 2023 iteration of the festival under way—this year headlined by Bad Bunny, Blackpink, and Frank Ocean, er, Blink-182—it’s a good time to look back at the sets that defined Coachella in the public imagination.
30. LCD Soundsystem (2007)
LCD Soundsystem are mainstays of Coachella, appearing four times since 2004. Of these, the most legendary is the second time they played the festival. It was in 2007, just weeks after they released Sound Of Silver, their second album and the record that’s roundly considered their masterpiece. Armed with this dynamic new album and hits that already seemed like classics, the group ruled the Sahara tent, prompting the packed crowd to dance with abandon.
29. Jane’s Addiction (2001)
Jane’s Addiction got there first once again. Perry Farrell rounded up his gallery of rogues so they could headline Coachella in 2001, just two years into the festival’s history and only a decade after Farrell launched his own trailblazing festival with Lollapalooza. By reuniting for this big gig, Jane’s set the precedent for alt-rock superstars sucking up their differences for the greater good (and the greater paycheck).
28. Outkast (2014)
Outkast made a plan for their 2014 reunion and stuck to it, never deviating from the blueprint they unveiled at their Coachella headlining spot. Perhaps that dedication to their design made their performances seem a little rote by the end of the year, yet it was an undeniable thrill to see Andre 3000 and Big Boi once again share a stage at Coachella. Tensions and rust were evident but that just made the whole event more exciting.
27. Lana Del Rey (2014)
The specter of her shaky Saturday Night Live performance still haunted Lana Del Rey when she played Coachella in 2014. That year, she delivered the album Ultraviolence, a Dan Auerbach production that unveiled an increasingly assured LDR, and that confidence translated onto the stage in a fashion that can still be disarming.
26. Pharrell Williams (2014)
A Coachella performance in 2014 served as a victory lap for Pharrell Williams, the Neptunes mastermind and superproducer who’d just had a solo hit with “Happy.” He wasn’t flying alone at Coachella: Pharrell brought out Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, and Nelly—guest appearances that hammered home just how far and wide Pharrell’s reach was at the time.
25. Phoenix (2010)
Phoenix happened to be in Iceland when the country succumbed to volcanic eruptions. They managed to navigate a departure but their lighting tech couldn’t find a way out of the country, so Phoenix performed their 2010 set under the glow of white lights: the stark setting made an indelible impression, helping to highlight the melodic structure behind the band’s stylish, disaffected indie-pop.
24. The Flaming Lips (2004)
Nobody looking at the Flaming Lips at the dawn of the 1990s would’ve pegged them as crowd pleasers, but that’s precisely what they became in the 2000s as they learned how to scale their weirdness for the masses. Props like a plastic bubble allowing lead singer Wayne Coyne to surf the crowd with ease let the Lips gain the attention of the massive audience, but what impresses all these years later is how the band knows their fans will follow them down every weird path they pursue.
23. Jay-Z (2010)
Jay-Z became the first solo rapper to headline Coachella in 2010—perhaps a little bit late in the game for the festival to feature a hip-hop slot in the top slot, yet this honor underscored how Hova belonged in a class of his own. Plugging the recent “The Blueprint 3,” Jay-Z piled on the hits, but also found space to have Beyonce join him on “Young Forever.”
22. Arcade Fire (2005)
Arcade Fire returned to Coachella many times over the years, playing the festival five times, including a headlining slot in 2014. That appearance captured them at the height of their arena rock powers, but it was their first appearance in 2005, with a raw, nervy energy, that still captivates: listening to the set now, it’s clear why the group would spend the next decade as the reigning champions of indie rock.
21. Nas, Illmatic with Jay-Z and Diddy (2014)
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of his landmark debut Illmatic, Nas played the 1994 album in full, then hauled out Jay-Z for “Dead Presidents II” and Diddy for “Hate Me Now.” The superstars underscored Nas’ reputation as an MC while giving the retro-minded set a bit of a contemporary kick.
20. Guns N’ Roses (2016)
For years, even decades, Guns N’ Roses remained perhaps the most tantalizing reunion possibility for Coachella. That day finally arrived in 2016 and, in typical GNR fashion, it wasn’t easy. Axl Rose broke a bone in his foot, so he wound up performing the set seated on a throne, but that just added an eccentric flair to a set that showed the kinetic chemistry of Axl, Slash, and Duff McKagan hadn’t diminished. That special blend was accentuated by the guest appearance of Angus Young, who came on stage to play “Whole Lotta Rosie” with a Guns N’ Roses who were eager to cosplay as AC/DC.
19. The Cure (2009)
The Cure pushed Coachella to its limits and found its breaking point: namely, a third encore. By the time Robert Smith brought his band out for that last stretch, they had already played for two and a half hours, a mammoth length for a festival slot. As they launched into “Boys Don’t Cry,” the festival pulled the plug on the Cure, thereby cementing the set’s legendary status.
18. Pavement (2010)
Pavement performed at the original Coachella in 1999, a group ready to find greener pastures elsewhere. By the time they decided to reunite in 2010, they were a band who played with purpose, tightening their loose ends without eliminating their eccentricities. All of that could be seen on that Coachella set, which provided the template for the shows they’d play for the remainder of 2010.
17. Bauhaus (2005)
Among bands that never seemed a contender for a reunion, the goth legends Bauhaus were near the top of the list. Their 2005 performance did lead to a subsequent tour and album but the exciting thing about their Coachella set is how the prickly tension within the group gave their performance real energy and grit.
16. Madonna (2006)
Madonna did not storm into Coachella and play a headlining set. Supporting her recently released Confessions On A Dance Floor album, she snuck onto the bill at the Sahara tent, playing a vibrant 30-minute set that focused on her new, disco-flavored material. Maybe there was a hint of retro style in her ABBA interpolations but the emphasis on new music and the brevity of the set made Madonna seem the furthest thing from a legacy artist.
15. Lady Gaga (2017)
Stepping in for Beyonce, who had to bow out at the last minute, Lady Gaga marshaled a spectacular set at the drop of a hat. Instead of whittling her performance to suit a multipurpose crowd, Gaga decided to please and provoke in equal measure, resulting in a giddy, exciting set that seems fearless: she’s happy to flop as long as it elicits a reaction.
14. My Bloody Valentine (2009)
My Bloody Valentine finally returned to action in 2009, appearing just before the Cure on the main stage. Still a few years removed from their astonishing comeback mbv, My Bloody Valentine concentrated on their catalog, managing to conjure their ear-shattering magic with ease.
13. Kendrick Lamar (2017)
Just a handful of days after releasing Damn, Kendrick Lamar headlined Coachella and played nearly the entire album. That record amounted to a hefty part of his 19-song set, but he found space for appearances by Travis Scott, Future, and ScHoolboy Q, guest spots that helped his set seem like the epicenter of hip-hop in 2017.
12. Rage Against the Machine (1999/2007)
Rage Against the Machine played the first Coachella in 1999, just as the festival was getting its wings and the band was losing theirs. By 2007, the band was ready for the first of its sporadic reunions, one that was kicked off by their headlining appearance at Coachella and then spun into a series of performances over the next two years. The Coachella appearance remains a highlight of this jaunt: the band seemed reinvigorated and ready to exorcize the ghosts of the George W. Bush administration.
11. Iggy & the Stooges (2003)
Iggy Pop’s improbable comeback with the Stooges began at Coachella in 2003, when the wild man singer rejoined the Asheton brothers with Mike Watt in tow. The Stooges would get tighter and heavier as they continued their reunion over the next decade but this 2003 set at Coachella has a pent-up feral energy that can still burn.
10. Blur (2013)
Reuniting with guitarist Graham Coxon for the first time in over a decade, Blur had a triumphant comeback in 2013. Relying heavily on their Britpop classics—they even had Phil Daniels come out to bellow the verses to “Parklife”—Blur nevertheless seemed nervy and vital, thanks to the group’s intrinsic chemistry.
9. Jack White (2015)
Jack White is no stranger to the Coachella stage. Way back in 2003 he played the festival with the White Stripes, delivering a memorable set with his former bandmate (and wife) Meg White, yet his 2015 appearance at Coachella carried an air of triumph. Wrapping up his supporting tour for Lazaretto, his second solo album, White drew upon his rich songbook with a band who were eager to follow his hair-trigger turns, resulting in a rousing celebration of his blues-rock strengths.
8. Roger Waters (2008)
The first classic rocker to embrace Coachella, Roger Waters delivered a stadium spectacle within the confines of a festival. He’d been touring The Dark Side Of The Moon since 2006, the first time he brought a Pink Floyd standard out on the road with all the flair Floyd had in the 1970s. Waters transported that show to Coachella, playing the 1973 perennial and fleshing it out with other Pink Floyd classics, all accompanied by such attention-grabbers as a giant floating pig.
7. Amy Winehouse (2007)
Not a headliner in 2007, Amy Winehouse was nevertheless at her peak that year, with “Rehab” ascending the charts right at the moment she played the Gobi Tent. “Rehab” turned Winehouse into one of the biggest stars of 2007 and her performance—backed by the unflappable retro-soul outfit the Dap-Kings—captured her charisma, along with hinting at the troubles that she’d never shake.
6. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg & Tupac hologram (2012)
All eyes were on the Tupac Shakur hologram back in 2012, a technology that seemed simultaneously visionary and hokey. Over a decade later, holograms have yet to take the concert industry by storm, leaving the ghostly appearance of Tupac during Dr. Dre’s headlining set a relic of a future that never came to pass. Another way to look at it is that Dr. Dre knows what it takes to put on a show. A few years before his 2015 comeback Comeback, Dre needed to play the hits, so he brought out Snoop Dogg and fired up the hologram, which was enough to give the set an electrifying jolt of energy.
5. Kanye West (2011)
Returning to Coachella five years after his last-minute 2006 set, Kanye West pulled out the stops for his 2011 headlining appearance. Fresh off of his masterful My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West designed a spectacle where dancers vied with an elaborate stage show filled with shifting backdrops and graced by guest spots by Pusha T and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. This was Kanye at his peak, balancing art, ego, and emotion in a way that’s still bracing.
4. Pixies (2004)
Pixies put aside all their lingering animosity and barreled through their catalog during their slot at 2004’s Coachella—an appearance that happened just before headliners Radiohead, one of many bands whose existence is impossible to imagine without these classic college rockers. Such unexpected marquee reunions would soon become old hat at Coachella but there was an excitement surrounding the Pixies’ revival, not only because this reconciliation seemed impossible just a few years before but because Pixies were playing with a power and purpose that was missing toward the end of their initial run.
3. Beyonce (2018)
Slated to perform in 2017, Beyonce canceled due to pregnancy, so she planned her 2018 headlining set as a blowout, complete with a reunion with Destiny’s Child, as well as cameos from her sister Solange and husband Jay-Z. The embrace of Beyonce’s past and present instantly earned the set the nickname of “Beychella,” a sign of how she overtook the festival. Accurate as it may be in one sense, that nickname distracts from how Beyonce looked beyond herself, structuring the set as a celebration of Black pride, and threading references to the civil rights movement throughout her performance.
2. Prince (2008)
During the last decade of his life, Prince specialized in transforming public spaces into his own private playground. He did it at the Super Bowl, he did it at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he once again did it at Coachella in 2008. He joined the lineup very late that year, just weeks before the festival, then proceeded to dominate all discourse thanks to a set that saluted his longtime colleagues—both Sheila E. and Morris Day made appearances—while also relying on his crowd-pleasing classics, all performed with enough energy to suggest they were written yesterday. That would’ve been enough but he also filled his set with covers, reworking Radiohead’s “Creep,” the B-52's’ “Rock Lobster” and the Beatles’ “Come Together” so they sounded thoroughly like him, delivering surprises that can still thrill years later.
1. Daft Punk (2006)
Like many seismic events, Daft Punk’s 2006 headlining set at Coachella’s Sahara Tent seemed to come out of nowhere. Human After All, the French duo’s 2005 album, was their first record that didn’t appear to exist at the edge of the zeitgeist, so it didn’t seem as if either the group or the audience were primed for an epochal performance, which is precisely what happened. Performing at the top of a massive LED pyramid, Daft Punk reworked their catalog to deliver an intoxicating, pulsating party—one so irresistible a crowd of 40,000 people reportedly rushed a tent that could only hold a quarter of that size. This oversized spectacle confirmed that EDM wasn’t underground: it was firmly in the center of pop culture.