This year, Southern California got two Coachellas for the price of one. The unprecedented model of having identical festivals on consecutive weekends not only meant that more fans got to have fun in the blazing sun, it also gave the artists two chances to bring their A-game to the desert. Set lists and stage banter varied slightly from one weekend to the next — and unannounced guest like Rihanna and Usher only pimped their acts the first time around — but when all the dust settles, attendees from both ‘Chellas have similar stories about the bands, DJs and rappers (virtual and otherwise) who blew their minds on the polo field.
PHOTOS: Behind The Scenes At Coachella 2012
Even over two weekends, it’s a daunting task to see each of the 148 bands who played on Coachella’s five stages – but we sure as hell tried. Here’s the 10 acts who made it worth the double down.
10. Azealia Banks
What — you expected Azealia Banks to perform for the whole 45 minutes allotted to her set? No dice, buddy. Instead, Banks’ audience got 20 minutes of raw, hypnotic hip-hop, with back-up dancers, covers (Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” anyone?) and of course “212,” one of the most deliriously exciting songs performed all weekend. Fans wanted more, understandably, but we’ll be hearing a lot from Ms. Banks over the next few years.
9. Swedish House Mafia
The Black Keys were technically the Friday night headliner, but anyone who stuck around after the duo’s set of gritty rock ‘n blues would argue that the evening was really owned by the trio of Axwell, Steve Angello and Sebastian Ingrosso. Swedish House Mafia brought their beats to the booming main-stage sound system and dazzled the Coachella crowd with a 90-minute closing set of hand-raising, glowstick-waving dance anthems, accompanied by a stunning display of lasers, fireballs and assorted pyrotechnics that lit up the Indio sky like the 4th of July. Once just wasn’t enough for Ingrosso, who took SHM’s party to the dance tent on both Saturdays and treated the Sahara crowd to an edgy DJ set that soundtracked the sunset.
8. Jeff Mangum
There were no theatrics or stage tricks in Jeff Mangum’s Coachella performances — fellow instrumentalists were scarce, and the video screens flanking the Outdoor Stage didn’t even broadcast the reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel singer-songwriter. Yet the reluctance to seize attention created an intimate atmosphere, in which every onlooker was invested in seeing this magical, quiet man that hasn’t performed his songs in a decade. By the time “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” was unfurled, Mangum was drowned out by his audience, as that’s exactly how it should have been.
Pete Shelly and Steve Diggle — founding members of Britain’s Buzzcocks — are both pushing 60, but the post-punk godfathers hit the stage with the ferocity of angry young men during their afternoon sets. The quartet had kids a third of their age circling in the pit as they tore through their catalog of underground hits like “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen in Love.” Both times they played, the buzz of their spunky three-chord guitar riffs spilled far beyond the barriers of the packed Gobi tent.
Kicking off her new tour on Coachella’s outdoor stage, Feist pulled out all the stops for her desert debut. Backed by an orchestra and a bevy of backup singers, the Canadian indie queen added gorgeous new textures and striking details to her whimsical tunes, giving her audience one of the weekend’s most charming and classiest performances.
You’ve got to feel a little sorry for any band who gets booked against Radiohead. Hip-hop heavyweight A$AP Rocky and dance maven Kaskade drew faithful followers to their respective tents on the Saturday nights, but it was no surprise that most eyes were on the main stage when Thom Yorke and the boys began both of their marathon headlining sets. Drawing heavily on material from their “King of Limbs” and “In Rainbows” albums, the band bombarded the crowd with a sensory-overloading set of lush, atmospheric ballads and jagged techno-tinged rockers, highlighted by a new visual display that could burn retinas from across the field.
Making their first Coachella appearance since 2005, French synth-pop group M83 delivered one of Friday night’s most kinetic performances. Punctuated by driving dance beats, lush new-wave chords and irresistible sing-along melodies, the band packed the Mojave tent both weekends and left the rapturous crowds screaming for more of the band’s soaring tunes long after they’d left the stage.
A whopping 14 years after their last show, Swedish punk-rockers Refused showed the kids how it was done during their epic reunion shows at Coachella. Tracks like “New Noise” and “Liberation Frequency” sounded just as urgent in 2012 as they did on “The Shape of Punk To Come,” and even if you weren’t down with frontman Dennis Lyxzen’s anti-capitalist diatribes between songs, it was hard not to be moved when he emotionally thanked his audience for helping make the reunion possible. It was a genuine sentiment in between the mosh pits, which, taking a cue from Pulp, were pretty hardcore.
2. Bon Iver
In a span of about five years, Bon Iver has grown from the intimate lo-fi project of Justin Vernon into a hulking, spacious collection of skilled musicians backing Vernon’s vision. Torn panels and blinking lamps created a hushed environment for Bon Iver to rattle off lush “Bon Iver” arrangements like “Holocene,” “Beth/Rest” and “Calgary,” while “Skinny Love,” the painful, personal send-off from Vernon’s debut album, was turned into an anthemic scream-along. There were showier performances at Coachella this year, but none that were quite this consistent.
1. Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg
Yes, there was a Tupac hologram. But at the end of both weekends, there was also Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, legendary MCs who have been spreading California love for two decades. With the many guests — living and dead — that graced Dre and Snoop’s stage, the performance felt like the ultimate hip-hop variety show, and took its audience on a tour of the past (Kurupt, Warren G) and present (Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa). Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre are too seasoned not to command their own show, though, and we’re still bobbing our heads to G-funk classics like “Nuthin But a ‘G’ Thang,” “Still D.R.E.” and “Gin and Juice.” We won’t forget about Dre (and Snoop) for a long time.