Coachella returns to the desert this weekend (April 14-16) with Bad Bunny, Blackpink and Frank Ocean taking the much-coveted headline spots. Unlike many festivals, where artists put on an abbreviated version of their performances in hopes of reaching new fans with chart-friendly hits, Coachella is an opportunity for over-the-top performance and a legacy-defining gig. Some musicians rehearse for months in advance, prepping the smallest of details so they can create their own world on the stage (see: Beychella, 2018). Others resurrect their pals from the dead to regale desert revellers (see: Tupac’s hologram, 2012)
Since the festival first launched in Indio, California in 1999, the diversity of those deemed worthy to top the bill has continued to change with the musical landscape. What once was a festival aiming to attract alternative rock fans is now a mecca for every genre you can imagine: K-pop to hip-hop and every sound in-between get a look-in for the top spot. But although these artists may not have sonics in common, their sets all altered the path of the festival and the wider music world. From history-making moments to younger acts proving their legendary status, this is the story of Coachella in 10 key headline sets.
Rage Against The Machine (1999)
Rage Against The Machine had already taken on ‘the voice of a generation’ status before they performed at the inaugural edition in 1999. At the time, the incendiary band was an easy choice for festival promoters who wanted Coachella to become the “anti-Woodstock”, and their performance certainly hit that mark while playing their hits ‘Testify’, ‘Guerilla Radio’ and ‘Killing In The Name’. Later, the California band admitted to returning their performance fee to the fest, noting that promoters hadn’t made money in their first year, and would return in 2007.
Daft Punk (2006)
Coachella’s Sahara Tent, the dance-driven corner of the fest, has hosted massive acts but no sets as seismic as The Robots’. They transformed the desert stage with a towering LED neon pyramid, which then-manager Busy P claimed attracted 40,000 fans eager, despite the fact that the tent could only hold 10,000. The set marked a career-high for the French duo, featured in their industry-altering final tour, Alive 2006/7, and proved a transformative moment for EDM in the US, even if they eventually wanted to distance themselves from the tag. Either way, it proved the staying power and legitimacy of electronic music at a festival known for rock and pop acts.
Kanye West (2011)
Kanye may have a fickle relationship with Coachella (he dropped off the festival’s line-up just days before its 2022 iteration) but in 2011 he was completely present, sharing his biggest hits with fans in a performance that hip-hop lovers still discuss to this day. The set took place five months after he released ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ (2010), with West enlisting choreographers, art directors and spending months rehearsing to bring the album to life on stage. The 90-minute set came with ballerinas, guest spots from Pusha T and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and a list of massive hits from ‘Good Life’ to ‘Runaway’. But more importantly, the set showed off Ye’s precision and dedication as an artist, and marked a time when his creativity was still (mainly) at the centre of conversations about his music.
Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre (2012)
When Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre headlined in 2012 they took the Coachella tradition of bringing surprise guests out on stage to the next level. The California legends started off strong, with Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and 50 Cent joining them during their set. But all of that paled in comparison to the duo being joined by their fellow West Coast rapper, Tupac Shakur in hologram form: the rapper was killed in 1996 but was digitally resurrected for ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘2 of Amerika’z Most Wanted’. Though the visuals from the performance went on to win an Academy Award, it also sparked a debate around the ethics of resurrecting dead performers via technological mediums.
Radiohead have taken the Coachella stage multiple times in their career, but their 2012 performance – which came at the heels of their eighth album ‘The King of Limbs’ – is still one of their best. The two-hour career-spanning set was transformative for attendees (Katy Perry famously called it “spiritual”) and stood out during a time when the industry as a whole was validating the impact of electronic music.
Lady Gaga (2017)
In 2017, Beyoncé was set to take the headline spot at Coachella but had to pull out after announcing she was pregnant with twins. Up stepped a more than deserving Lady Gaga, who’d just headlined the Super Bowl two months prior. She rolled out ‘Just Dance’, ‘Telephone’ and ‘Love Game’ and even brought some stripped-back moments from her recently-released ‘Joanne’. In fact, Gaga was so confident in her own chops that she didn’t bring out a surprise guest, just her piano, choreography and charismatic confidence.
Kendrick Lamar (2017)
Kendrick Lamar’s headlining set took place just three days after the release of his Pulitzer Prize-winning album ‘Damn’, providing an ample crowning moment for the King. It all fed into his groundbreaking set, where Lamar mixed in political commentary, even airing footage of Fox News commentators criticising the lyrics to his protest anthem ‘Alright’. The bill-topping spot was also a chance for the rapper to give multiple tracks a live debut and it was the first time many fans heard ‘DNA’, ‘Lust’, and his massive hit, ‘Humble’ for the first time. Spectacular stuff.
Elaborate costumes, Historic Black College and University performers, an entire backing band on rafters, two hours of Grammy Award-winning hits and a moment so remarkable fans renamed the festival after her. Beyoncé not only made history as the first Black woman to ever headline Coachella in 2018 but upped the stakes for any performer that dared to take the festival’s mainstage after her. The performance itself and the rigorous weeks leading up to it were even documented in the Netflix special Homecoming (2019) that shined a light on the new mother of twins as she spent countless hours preparing for the performance that could be summed up in one word: Beychella.
Harry Styles (2022)
When Harry Styles took the top spot at Coachella in 2022, he not only proved himself a powerful performer but launched one of the biggest albums of its time. It was the live debut of ‘Late Night Talking’ and ‘Boyfriends’ from his now gargantuan ‘Harry’s House’, and also the first time many saw him stake his claim as a “rock god”. Lizzo and Shania Twain came along for the ride, and the show marked the start of his imperial phase.
Billie Eilish (2022)
With a 25-song hit-filled set, surprise appearances from Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, and more earnest energy than most bill-toppers could muster, a then-20-year-old Billie Eilish made history as the youngest-ever Coachella headliner. Following on from 2019’s packed launch of her When We All Fall Asleep tour, she aired cuts from her second album ‘Happier Than Ever’ and at one point, joked that she “should not be headlining this shit” – it was crystal clear that she had every right to be there.