Coachella Music Festival: The Complete Guide

Everyone from Jay-Z to MGMT will be performing, plus some lesser-known acts worth listening to



Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Today marks the first major sonic pilgrimage of summer season, as thousands flock to the desert in Indio, California for the 11th Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. 2010 has been an interesting experiment for the festival—Coachella promoters stirred up controversy when they announced they would be discontinuing single-day tickets, leaving fans only the option to purchase a $269 ticket for the full three days of the festival. While many fans cried at the financial constraints this move created, the festival seems not to have suffered, having sold out the entire weekend.

For those not lucky enough to make the trek out to Indio for the weekend (or, if you prefer, lucky enough to avoid baking under the sweltering heat of the sun), there are a variety of ways to join in on the festival fun without having to troll YouTube all night for videos. The Coachella site offers the opportunity for fans to live stream performances and build playlists of their favorite acts, either on Facebook or MySpace through a partnership with 5 REACT. Additionally, Verizon Wireless plans to offer select performances live streaming to mobile phones to subscribers of its V Cast Video service.

Whether you're about to head out to the desert, or planning to watch from home, we've compiled a list of the acts you're most likely to see, and—more importantly—the ones you should.



Little Dragon/Peacefrog

You're probably planning to see:
The music festival season kicks off in what might be the biggest way possible, in the form of one man: Hova. Hip hop's current "elder statesman" Jay-Z takes the stage as the headliner of the whole darn thing, having already proven at Glastonbury that rap can, in fact, command a crowd of tens of thousands.

Also playing one of the bigger time slots of the evening is the breezy, easy Vampire Weekend, who are sure to cash in on the success of their recent Contra release. Having surpassed their title as a little favorite in the blogosphere and transformed into a full-fledged band within popular culture, the college boys did well for themselves. Overhyped or not, the band's sound of marimbas, tambourines, and calypso rhythms set against the backdrop of the starry desert sky sounds nothing short of divine.

But we also recommend:
Sleigh Bells, the Brooklyn duo set to make waves this year. The band may not have an album to its name yet, but Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss burst out at CMJ, and their buzz was slowly building over 2009. They're an unlikely pair—Miller was part of hardcore band Poison the Well, while Krauss did time in a sugary pop group before becoming a schoolteacher. But Krauss has the swagger of a badass rap emcee and this hip-hop sensibility acts as the heartbeat pumping their blown-out, aggressive synth aesthetic, artfully (and simultaneously haphazardly) constructed by Miller. Their breakout song, the thrash-pop "Crown on the Ground" sounds, as one critic puts it, "like DMX's 'Party Up' re-imagined as an anthem for the skinny jeans crowd."

They've re-recorded many of their tracks, hopefully keeping some of the grit that makes them so refreshing, on their Treats LP, due out May 11th. (We also hear a little lady by the name of M.I.A. has been collaborating with them for their album, which can only signal good things.) If these videos are any indication, their live performance should be just the electric primer for the night ahead.

Little Dragon, the latest electro-pop import from Europe—Gothenburg, Sweden, more specifically—to enchant listeners in the U.S. Anyone who doesn't immediately fall in love with Yukimi Nagano, the Japanese-Swedish chanteuse of the band, after watching her sing live needs to go get their head checked. Her voice explores otherworldly territory as she slips in and out of a seductive lower register, and her earnestness makes it seem as though she's singing about something only the two of you understand. Little Dragon's dreamy brand of what has been termed "electronic soul," isn't so strange that it feels inaccessible, but rather contains just the right amount of quirk and joyous blips and glitches to spice up an otherwise straightforward jazz foundation. Their sophomore album Machine Dreams was released late last summer to glowing reviews, so the chance of seeing some new material in the warm desert night from the quartet seems nothing short of magical.

Wale, a Washington D.C. rapper who has been poised to change the rap game since his acclaimed breakout mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, in 2008. He released his first album, Attention Deficit, late last year, but it somehow got lost in the shuffle, overlooked and underappreciated. Besides being easily one of the hardest-working and most attentive rappers around, his talent alone sets him apart. Lyrical wordplay with references spanning sports and politics to the obscure pop culture trivia are only a part of Wale's canon; his ability to explore deeper themes of relationships and race without ever coming off contrived or cliché, and lyrics honest to the point where his work demands multiple listens is what sets him apart from other emcees considered part of the "new school." It's not as gloom and doom as it sounds, though; touring with go-go band UCB, a Wale live show is all about the funk and energy that lies at the root of his D.C. upbringing.

For those seeking a more frenetic start to the weekend marathon of music, they need look no further than the Sahara dance tent, where everyone's favorite house music producer bearing a giant mouse head will be spinning. He's called deadmau5, born Joel Zimmerman, and he's easily become one of the biggest DJs and producers in the dance music world in recent years. His live performances are as much about the visuals as they are about the sonic journey, and he promises Coachella is no exception.



Arteciopelados/Nacional Records

You're probably planning to see:
Brooklyn duo MGMT, who made their name a couple of years ago with a succession of impossibly catchy dance-rock singles. On those songs, MGMT established their sunny, of-the-moment sound (outré electronic flourishes, insistent disco beats, lyrics about the heady confusion of youth); on their new record, Congratulations, they borrow instead from the sky-high harmonies and baggy song structures of '60s psychedelia.

Also playing on Saturday: British glam rockers Muse, who pair muscular, distortion-heavy riffs with singer Matthew Bellamy's wildly emotive falsetto, to great effect; and The xx, a London band that's lately garnered an almost superhuman level of music-press buzz. The xx play lo-fi, skeletally arranged rock songs that seethe and swirl and refuse to build to moments of catharsis. They're scheduled to go on at 6:25 p.m., but properly deserve a late-night slot, as there may be no band at Coachella making music better suited to an afterparty.

But we also recommend:
Aterciopelados, a duo from Bogotá, Colombia (their name renders in English as "the Velvety Ones") who've leapt nimbly from genre to genre during their 18-year career. It's hard to predict what Aterciopelados' set list will sound like; the group is equally comfortable with blues-rock, dancehall workouts, slinky seduction ballads, and wide-eyed worldbeat pop. One constant will be the warm, seen-too-much voice of frontwoman Andrea Echeverri, whose singing can stir you even if you don't know a word of Spanish. Another will likely be a commitment to high-concept visual adventurousness (the music video for "Rompecabezas" puts the band in some kind of all-white rave lounge filled with pregnant women weeping tears of purple oil). Beyond that, it's best to keep an open mind; Aterciopelados are at their most enjoyable when you don't know what to expect.

Die Antwoord, a South African hip-hop group fronted by a sneering white man (Ninja) and a sleepy-eyed white woman (Yo-Landi Vi$$er) with some of the worst haircuts imaginable. In the past, Ninja and Yo-Landi have appeared in other groups, under other names, raising certain metatextual questions: How seriously should we take Die Antwoord? Are they a joke? (Listen to "Beat Boy," the group's eight-minute ode to hermaphrodites, clone sex, and menstrual blood. They're probably joking.) It's beside the point, anyway: the beats are real enough, homemade and gleefully trashy, and Ninja's thick Afrikaans accent, whether an affectation or not, twists his already bizarre lyrics into something like sculpture. Onstage and on wax, the group has more attitude than it knows what to do with. Die Antwoord may thrill or mystify you, but they're unlikely to leave you cold.

Old Crow Medicine Show, a Nashville string band whose music owes no obvious debt to anything recorded after the Truman administration. It's hard to overstate the charm of OCMS's patient, bittersweet songs, which stand astride generous foundations of banjo and acoustic guitar. The group is best known for "Wagon Wheel," an aching paean to love and travel that OCMS fiddler Ketch Secor fleshed out from a tossed-off Bob Dylan outtake (Dylan and Secor now share songwriting credits on the track). In "Wagon Wheel," as with all the band's best songs, high harmonies emerge unexpectedly from the mix, locking the song in whichever lobe of your brain keeps track of wistfulness.



Rusko/Mad Decent

You're probably planning to see:
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, who appears with his backing band/supergroup Atoms for Peace. (Among the Atoms are legendary producer Nigel Godrich and hyperkinetic Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.) On record, Yorke crafts moody, cerebral tunes that land somewhere between rock and IDM; in concert, his songs tend to gain a bit of bite.

There's also French electro-pop outfit Phoenix, whose Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, built on swooning choruses and chiming, candy-colored riffs, was one of 2009's most acclaimed albums; and Gorillaz, the unfailingly weird all-cartoon band into which Blur singer Damon Albarn has put most of his energy this decade. Gorillaz shows inevitably involve some kind of multimedia spectacle, but the real draw is the music, anchored by Albarn's keen pop instincts and love of all sounds greasy and sinister.

But we also recommend:
Yann Tiersen, a French composer best known to American audiences for his work on the Amélie film score. Stone-faced and frequently turtlenecked, Tiersen may be as close to a rock musician as someone can get while still calling themselves a "composer." His pieces revolve around fleet, eloquent chord progressions that travel emotional arcs every bit as recognizable as the ones you'll hear in an indie-rock playlist; Tiersen is essentially writing pop songs without lyrics, and the audience claps giddily along. Half the fun of a Tiersen show comes from wondering which instrument his ensemble will use next: accordion, piano, and violin form the backbone of most pieces, but banjos, xylophones, toy pianos, and typewriters have all been known to make an appearance. Catch his set and come late to Gorillaz.

Rusko, a producer and DJ hailing from London. While electro and dance-pop ruled music the last year or two, having babies with everything from rock to rap, bits of grime and bass started seeping into the mix, making dubstep the next big scene to take over. And when it comes to dubstep, no one is as exciting as Rusko. From the massive "Cockney Thug" with Caspa to the mesmerizing "Woo Boost," the Mad Decent signee has been pushing his bass-heavy sound to the masses in the last year. His live shows are nothing short of epic, turning normally respectable venues into frenzied, all-out sweaty dance parties. Rusko may be taking the Sahara dance tent's stage early on in the day, but it won't be surprising if he ends up being one of the weekend's most memorable acts.