Weekend one of the Coachella Music & Arts Festival commences this Friday on the sun-bleached polo fields of Indio, Calif. And with a lineup ranging from massive (Lady Gaga, Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, Lorde), to old-school (New Order, Guided by Voices, DJ Shadow, Hans Zimmer) to up–and-coming, it’s sure to be a festival to remember.
But will any moment of Coachella 2017 be as memorable as our top picks from the past 18 years? We’ll soon find out…
15. It’s the Freakin’ Weekend With Phoenix and R. Kelly (2013)
Saturday at Coachella ’13 was a day of surprise collaborations, including Solange Knowles lending guest vocals to the xx’s cover of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire” and an unbilled John Legend joining Italian DJ Benny Benassi in the dance tent for a performance of “Dance the Pain Away.” But there was no Saturday surprise collaboration as truly surprising as the one that took place on the main stage during French alt-pop band Phoenix’s headlining set, when they were joined by a very unexpected guest, when R&B lothario R. Kelly sauntered out singing the familiar refrain of his 2003 party-starting smash, “Ignition.” Then Phoenix joined in to mash it up with the band’s breakthrough single “1901.” It was utterly, head-scratchingly random, and it shouldn’t have worked… but it did work, quite brilliantly, creating what shall henceforth be known as “Ignition (1901 Remix).”
14. Sia’s Not-So-Cheap Thrills (2016)
Calling Sia’s historic Coachella set a mere “concert” does it a massive injustice. To borrow a phrase from Sia’s sixth album, this was acting. This was performance art. As the wig-topped pop provocateur appeared onstage looking like a living art installation, her breakaway gown “gave birth” to a litter of contemporary dancers — and that was just during the first verse of the opening number! After that, over the course of an awe-inspiring hour featuring avant choreography by Ryan Heffington; dramatically angst-y plotlines; and virtual cameos by Kristen Wiig, Paul Dano, Gaby Hoffman, Tig Notaro, and Maddie Ziegler, Sia challenged and redefined the very notions of what a live festival experience can be. Sia truly is the greatest.
13. A Whole Lotta Axl Rose-ie (2016)
Day two of last year’s Coachella was basically “Cameochella,” featuring an array of surprise appearances by everyone from a triumphant and defiant Kesha, to a mini-N.W.A. reunion, to even a virtual Bernie Sanders. But perhaps no cameo was as shocking as when schoolboy-suited axeman Angus Young pranced out during Guns N’ Roses’ main stage reunion set to perform AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” and “Riff Raff” — with GNR’s Axl Rose on impressively screechy lead vocals. “Since I can’t run around for you, we’re going to bring out a friend to put a little life into things for us. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Angus Young!” an obviously excited Rose, sitting on the throne he famously borrowed from Dave Grohl with his still-broken foot propped up in a cast. Suffice to say, even if Rose’s foot hadn’t healed by the time he joined AC/DC for the remainder of the group’s Rock or Bust tour the following month, this was a must-see tour. Rose, a longtime massive AC/DC fan, sounded perfect in this role.
12. Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani Put on a Hella Good Performance (2014)
Coachella 2014 was also cameo-filled, with surprise appearances by Billie Joe Armstrong, Debbie Harry, Justin Bieber, Slash, Jay Z, Mary J. Blige, and even this year’s Coachella no-show, Beyoncé. But the Great Hatted One’s all-star set was still the standout of the weekend. Nelly, Busta Rhymes, Puff Daddy, Diplo, and Snoop Dogg all joined in on the fun, but the crowd really got “happy” when Pharrell’s bestie and future Voice co-star Gwen Stefani emerged — looking amazing less than two months after giving birth to her third child — to sing “Hollaback Girl” (which Pharrell produced in 2004 as one half of the hit-making Neptunes team). “My album’s called GIRL,” Pharrell announced, “and I can tell you right now, there’s only one incredible, historical, most important, incredibly talented, f***ing awesome, rad girl in world.” (Video below contains profanity.)
11. Kanye West Literally Touches the Sky (2011)
Coachella has always been a massive affair, but leave it to 2011’s Sunday headliner to elevate the fest to an entire new level — literally, by arriving to the main stage via a glowing crane, rotating 30 feet above thousands of amazed spectators, and asking the musical question, “Can we get much higher?” (Video below contains profanity.)
10. Madonna Gets Into the Dance Tent Groove (2006)
The hype surrounding Madonna’s first-ever festival performance (in the dance tent, not on the main stage) was huge. But in retrospect, this was a worse idea than that time when she posed nude with Vanilla Ice. Practically all 60,000 Coachella attendees tried to shoehorn themselves into the 10,000-capacity space, and especially desperate fans even climbed atop nearby porta-potties to get a clearer glimpse of the leotarded diva — refusing to budge when the beefed-up security staff tried to yank them down, or even when the Andy Gumps’ flimsy plastic roofs started to buckle under their weight. When the woman of the hour was still nowhere to be seen 20 minutes after her advertised set time, and the crowd began to get restless, ominous visions of the Who in Cincinnati and other concert disasters raced through worried spectators’ minds. Those who eventually managed to see Madge were treated to a mere six songs. Others just counted their lucky stars that they’d made it out unscathed. (Madonna made Coachella news again in 2015, when she showed up for an awkward makeout session during Drake’s set.)
9. The Cure Refuse to Let Their Set Come to a Grinding Halt (2009)
The Goth legends closed 2009 Sunday in their usual fabulously gloomy and doomy style, and it seemed like frontman Robert Smith just didn’t want to leave. Coming out for his second encore, already past the midnight cutoff, he announced: “They say we can only play one song. Are we f***!” The house lights came on after “Three Imaginary Boys” and “Fire in Cairo,” and then the actual sound was cut off and the Jumbotron screens went black. But the Cure kept on playing, and fans just ran closer to the stage so they could hear the band play semi-unplugged versions of “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train.” Whatever fine Robert and company had to pay for breaking the sound curfew that night, it was worth it.
8. When Pigs Fly… at Coachella (2008)
During Roger Waters’s Sunday set, an inflatable pig emblazoned with the word “Obama” sailed into the desert sky, as the Floyd man performed “Pigs” from Pink Floyd’s 1977 anti-capitalist opus “Animals.” Roger said nothing political, letting the heavenward hog do all the talking; he merely glanced up and chuckled, “That’s my pig!” Was Roger saying Barack Obama, who’d be running in his first presidential election later that year, would only be elected “when pigs flew”? Whatever statement Roger was trying to make, that soaring swine made news when it went missing. A $10,000 reward was offered for its safe return; the poor pig was later found in scattered tatters across two Indio residents’ yards miles away.
7. Scarlett Johansson Finds Jesus… and Mary Chain (2007)
Unlike most Coachella rumors, the one about Scottish post-punks the J&MC dueting with Scarlett turned out to be true. The indie “it” girl’s appearance was anticlimactic, since she arrived onstage unannounced with her famous face obscured by a fedora, then just cooed almost inaudibly for the final 15 seconds of “Just Like Honey” before disappearing into the Indio sunset. But her cameo was nevertheless the talk of the fest for the remainder of the weekend, and it foreshadowed her actually credible music career, which she launched the following year with the Tom Waits covers album Anywhere I Lay My Head.
6. Prince “Creep”s Everyone Out (2008)
His Purple Majesty’s Radiohead cover is such the stuff of legend, video of it resurfaces every few years. Quick, watch it now — before it gets taken down again. Even if you were there back in 2008, it’s even better than you remember.
5. The Pixies Play the Most Gigantic Coachella Reunion Ever (2004)
Coachella has become the go-to festival for reunited bands and “heritage acts,” from Rage Against the Machine to Outkast to even Guns N’ Roses. But no Coachella reunion was ever as hyped — or as deservedly hyped — as the one by the Pixies. When Kim Deal, Frank Black, David Lovering, and Joey Santiago tore into a furious, jaw-dropping main stage set of proto-grunge classics like “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Debaser,” “Here Comes Your Man,” “Where Is My Mind,” and “Gigantic,” it was the perfect Coachella moment. The Pixies were a last-minute lineup addition in 2014 — albeit without Kim, and this time playing the much smaller Mojave Tent — but they ably recreated that old Coachella magic.
4. Wayne Coyne Becomes Coachella’s Bubble Boy (2004)
Oklahoma eccentrics the Flaming Lips earned the title of Coolest Band at Coachella/in the World, when frontman Wayne reinvented the long-standing festival tradition of beachball-tossing by stepping inside a giant clear plastic bubble, then having roadies send him out into the crowd, where he rolled around gleefully like a giddy hamster in a habitrail for much of the Lips’ set. “I had a dream that I would arrive at Coachella in a bubble descended from outer space,” was his matter-of-fact explanation of this stunt, which he recreated at other festivals for years to come.
3. Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy Vamps It Up (2005)
As the bowel-rumbling strains of the Gothic granddaddies’ signature song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” instantly transformed Coachella’s once-sunny festival grounds into a creepy Blair Witch field, white-haired, spooky-eyed frontman Peter Murphy made the grandest entrance in Coachella history (yes, even grander than Wayne Coyne’s). Returning to the stage with Bauhaus for the first time since the group’s 1998 reunion tour, Peter descended from the rafters swaddled in a black batsuit, dangling midair in an inverted Christ pose. Unsurprisingly, this resurrection seemed to create an authentic religious experience for the thousands of Bauhaus fans who’d braved the heat all day in sticky PVC trousers, congealing pancake makeup, and layers of nonbreathable velvet and lace. After an hourlong set that included such dark delights as “She’s in Parties,” “Passion of Lovers,” “Kick in the Eye,” “Stigmata Martyr,” and “Rose Garden Funeral of Sores,” Peter intoned, “You can say now that you were there.” Then he vanished back into the desert darkness like a vampire bat.
2. Daft Punk’s Random Awesome Memories
Speaking of being able to say “you were there,” those who were fortunate enough to witness Daft Punk’s jaw-dropping 2006 Saturday set are still bragging about it. And Daft Punk mythology still surrounds Coachella. In 2011, it was rumored that the duo would join Kanye for “Stronger”; that didn’t happen. Then in 2013, when the Parisian popbots virtually debuted a snippet of their future hit “Get Lucky” on the festival’s Jumbotron screens as a trailer for their album Random Access Memories, they practically upstaged all the actual performing bands that day. The rumors soon flew that they’d join their French friends, 2013 Saturday headliners Phoenix — but as we’ve already mentioned R. Kelly dueted with Phoenix instead. This year, the speculation began anew with rumors that Daft Punk would replace Beyoncé on Saturday’s main stage after the pregnant diva canceled — but that slot went to Lady Gaga instead. Eleven years later, the French electro duo’s are still waiting for an encore… but thankfully, the entire 2006 show exists on YouTube, for those who missed out the first time or just want to access those old desert memories.
1. Holla for the Tupac Hologram (2012)
The superstars came out on the final day of Coachella 2012 — really, only at this festival would a surprise dance tent performance by a superstar like Rihanna not be the most talked-about event of the day. Instead, everyone was buzzing about another, much more surprising superstar cameo, by Tupac. Yes, the late Tupac Shakur. In hologram form. Tupac may have died in 1996, three years before the first Coachella festival took place, but that didn’t stop him, or at least his bizarrely lifelike 3D image, from joining Dr. Dre onstage. Call it better gigging through technology: About halfway through Dre’s 70-minute set, what appeared to be an actual shirtless Tupac appeared like a desert mirage, then traded rhymes with Dre’s co-billed Coachella partner, the flesh-and-blood Snoop Dogg, on “Come With Me,” “Hail Mary,” and “Gangsta Party.” Concertgoers seemed confused at first, and that confusion only increased when Tupac vaporized and vanished as quickly as he had materialized. All eyez were on him, so to speak, and then, poof — ‘Pac was gone. Thankfully, the hologram Tupac lives on… via a semi-active Twitter account. (Video below contains profanity.)