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50 Best Things We Saw at Coachella 2014

Surprising cameos, sizzling superstars and real-live desert rock: the most memorable moments from Weekend One

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Koury Angelo

For two weekends every year, there is an oasis in the California desert, when the Empire Polo Club in Indio transforms into the music festival known as Coachella. This past weekend, around 90,000 fans a day came to see a couple of hundred musical acts (and nearly as many special guest stars). From Skrillex, Arcade Fire, and Pharrell Williams to the artisanal ice cream, our team found the very best parts of the festival. Join us for the 50 greatest moments of Coachella — just like being there, but without the sunburn and sandstorms. By Steve Appleford, Matt Diehl and Gavin Edwards

 

Dana Distortion

Most Insane EDM Presentation: Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun rocked a way-more-than-capacity crowd in the Sahara tent with a show that included computer animations, live musicians and a group of live dancers dressed as cyborgs (the plot was, er, unclear). Overall, it came off as a cross between the boat show and a German stage production of Battlestar Galactica — a perfectly trippy backdrop for dancing your head off.

Lindsey Best

Best Psychedelic Dance Party: MGMT

Coachella regulars and MGMT co-founders Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden are not flashy dudes, but they do know how to deliver a show. On the fields of Indio for their afternoon set, MGMT's hits and most recent songs were drenched in Peter Max splashes of color, computerized effects and a giant jellyfish floating across the big screen. As the duo at the center of MGMT led fans through this vibrant color field of sound and sight, they sometimes stood calmly side-by-side at their keyboards. "Flash Delirium" and "The Youth" were rich and energized, while fans danced on the grass and nearby performance artists held long cables of about 30 balloons each to flap violently into the sky.

Dana Distortion

Best Costumes: Pet Shop Boys

Musically, the Pet Shop Boys were as excellent as expected, playing remixed versions of old favorites like "West End Girls" and "Rent," and bolstering them with new songs that were just as literate, melancholy and danceable. But what made their set truly memorable was the constant parade of costumes donned by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe: big black bristleblock jackets seemingly designed by Pinhead from Hellraiser, minotaur masks, a disco ball over Lowe's head (and a mirror-covered derby for Tennant). Even the duo's roadies were made to wear bright orange lab jackets and glasses, making them look like mad-scientist ravers.

Koury Angelo

Most Anticipated Reunion: Outkast

No act on opening day was met with more anticipation than Outkast, eight years after going silent at the height of their popularity and powers. When the big moment arrived, fans were packed on the grass and stretched nearly to the second stage as opening songs "B.O.B" (a.k.a. "Bombs Over Baghdad"), "Gasoline Dreams" and "ATLiens" flowed in an excited, frantic rush of classic rhymes. Janelle Monáe turned up for a funky "Tightrope," the first and best of several guests in what has become a tradition among Coachella's epic hip-hop headliners.

In other ways, Outkast's long-awaited return to the stage didn't exactly match the energy and inspiration of Coachella peers past like Jay Z, Kanye and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, but the high points were as great as you remembered them. "The Way You Move," "Ms. Jackson" and "So Fresh, So Clean" collided muscular hip-hop and flamboyant musical flourishes. Their live band (including horns) was tight and at ease with the warmest romantic R&B grooves, but partners André 3000 and Big Boi spent a lot of time onstage in a transparent cube, as wild images of tigers and disembodied lips were flashed onto its walls. It was an intriguing theatrical prop but kept the star duo in the dark and distant from the 60,000 fans desperate to see and hear them after waiting forever-ever.

"Hey Ya" was wild and joyous, arriving near the end of their planned 90-minute set, but Outkast ran out their time before the venue's curfew. The plug was pulled, and Outkast could only promise to "See you next week, Coachella." 

Koury Angelo

Best Dance Act With Rock-Band Tendencies: Disclosure

Thousands of people came ready to dance at Disclosure's set: Their debut album, Settle, made a lot of friends last year. But brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence weren't quite ready to host a rave: they kept pausing between songs and saying things like "Coachella, this next song is called 'You and Me.'" They both had drum kits to play, as if they were trying to prove that they weren't just checking Twitter onstage. But the show worked anyway, because it's impossible not to dance to songs like "When a Fire Starts to Burn." And it didn't hurt that their surprise guest on "F for You" was Mary J. Blige.

Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage

Best Unexpected Cover Song: AlunaGeorge

During his set, Beck took on Donna Summer's disco hit "I Feel Love" on the main stage, which proved a startling but groovy highlight of the festival. But AlunaGeorge proved one of Coachella 2014's sleeper acts: Their early-evening set in the Gobi tent Sunday was absolutely crammed, spilling out onto the field as girls in crochet bikinis mouthed every lyric sung by the U.K. electronic-R&B duo's sexily charismatic vocalist Aluna Francis. But AlunaGeorge's already-large crowd grew exponentially when the group busted into its slinky cover of Montell Jordan's chart-topping 1995 New Jack Swing anthem "This Is How We Do It," causing concertgoers to rush towards Gobi from all directions as Francis' voice singing Jordan's catchy chorus emanated across the field.

Joseph Llanes

Most Eye-Popping Set By an Obscure Act: Woodkid

The artist known as Woodkid is a man of many disguises. He's a successful designer and music director named Yoann Lemoine who has worked with Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift, among others. But for his Coachella debut on Friday, he brought all his visual talents to bear from the opening moments of his Woodkid set: flashing lights, a big horn section, drums pounding, a video screen of Gothic arches seemingly rushing toward the toward the crowd. It was unexpected and sort of epic, even if it meant Woodkid wasn't the flashiest part of his own set. It delivered his music in epic fashion.

Koury Angelo

Best Indie-Rock Guitar Jams: Warpaint

"Are you guys ready to dance? Get ready. It's time," Emily Kokal told the crowd in the Mojave tent on Saturday, introducing the new tune "Disco/Very," from the band's new self-titled album, sung by bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg. As QOTSA's Josh Homme watched from the side of the stage, the sound was exotic and danceable, while the album outtake "No Way Out" balanced the soothing and the brooding. But many of the band's most memorable moments came when the eccentric rock guitars of Kokal and Theresa Wayman kicked in, like the quick bolts of electricity shaking through "Undertow." Maybe the best was saved for last, as the band gathered in a circle around drummer Stella Mozgawa and dove into an extended indie rock windout on "Elephants," colliding layers of guitar with rhythm as fans moved in closer, joining in their noisy meditation.

Dana Distortion

Best Old-School Punk-Rock Stage Persona: Toy Dolls

Toy Dolls are veteran makers of playful (not so angry) old-school punk rock, founded in 1979, and their place on Sunday's bill was a nod to the genuine punk roots of promoter Goldenvoice Productions, which created Coachella. The U.K. trio rocked as tight as ever Sunday, dressed in matching gray schoolboy jackets with red piping and short red ties. Cute, but the band can still rock like younger men, frantically crisscrossing the stage, bouncing and kicking to the beats and riffs in a stage act that seemed both random and completely choreographed, as only punk rock can. They peeled off the jackets for "Credit Crunch Christmas" and told nasty stories from the road on "Spiders in the Dressing Room." It was a refreshing bit of snarling noise and melody from the days before punk went to Broadway.

Joseph Llanes

Best Afternoon in the Park Ahead of a Dust Storm: City and Colour

For listeners willing and able to get to the polo fields of Coachella at an earlier hour (after a late night out with Outkast or Anti-Flag), the polo fields of Indio were a good place to ease into the day and take in some epic folk rock in the form of Canada's passionate and sophisticated City and Colour. The mid-afternoon set was several hours ahead of the windstorm to come, and unfolded like a pleasant concert in the park, with ideal weather and fans grooving on the grass. Leader Dallas Green sings in a voice soft and forceful, at home within the quietest ballads and at the center of bigger rock guitar explosions, of which there were many, such as the bluesy, blasting "Fragile Bird." That bite also extended deep into his lyrics, as he sang of the end of California as paradise, doomed to being "wiped out by the ring of fire or a great earthquake" on the otherwise sensitive and dreamy "Golden State." Maybe he saw the weather report.

Joseph Llanes

Loudest Clean-Cut Band: Foster the People

Foster the People's main-stage set began unexpectedly with a sudden clang of noise that suggested hidden muscle behind the smooth melodies and clean-cut image. But on a stage covered in prop stalagmites that made it look like their own Fortress of Solitude — an icy theme at odds with the desert winds on front of them — the trio embraced churchy organ on "Miss You" but also veered occasionally into tougher bits of rock amid the pop. For the Eighties synth wall of sound on forceful "Call It What You Want," singer Mark Foster wandered toward the back to begin banging a drum hard, turning things up convincingly for a guy wearing a letter jacket (minus the letter).

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Best Spaceship: Skrillex

Skrillex took the stage for his headlining set in a DJ booth that looked like a mini-me Millennium Falcon. As expected, the EDM superstar brought along the big guns for his electro odyssey in the desert: crazy alien light-show visuals and an energetic hype man who pumped up a crowd heavy on baseball hats, muscle T-shirts and calf-length shorts that pumped their fists in the air religiously. He played an eclectic set varying in tempo and genre — hip-hop (with an A$AP Rocky guest spot), trap, dubstep, electro and house, with a smattering of his own hits like "Bangarang." It was as thick, loud and relentless as expected and amped up a hugely enthusiastic crowd despite the ongoing sandstorm building in intensity.

Koury Angelo

Best Foodie Option: Kogi Food Truck

Music isn't the only thing to be psyched about at Coachella. Unlike many big festivals — where funnel cake is often the most gourmet dining option available — Coachella has turned its V.I.P. area into a foodie paradise, with booths representing acclaimed Los Angeles eateries like Alma, Eveleigh, Umami Burger, Orsa & Winston and Baco Mercat. Hoi polloi ticket holders, however, aren't shorted. This year, Coachella created a new food court area accessible to all called "The Terrace," which featured Salt & Straw's artisanal ice cream, a Stumptown Coffee bar, gourmet Thai flavors via Night + Market and Beer Belly's high-end, artery-clogging comfort food. The continual culinary star, however, remains the legendary Kogi food truck, with its filling and flavorful Mexican-Korean fusion (insider tip: get the kimchi upgrade for your short-rib burrito).

Dana Distortion

Best Sunset Moment: Neutral Milk Hotel

The mythic time at Coachella is sunset: the festival has even compiled stats on bands who have been playing the main stage when the sun dips behind the mountains (16 from the U.S., eight from England, one from France). This weekend's sunset moment belonged to Neutral Milk Hotel, who at 6:57p.m. yesterday were playing the title track to their beloved 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: a song about falling in love but knowing that someday it will end, like all things, in death.

The crowd was rapt, almost silent, knowing they were witnessing something rare. Jeff Mangum, leader of Neutral Milk Hotel, vanished for well over a decade before reuniting the band last year, and he came onstage looking like Howard Hughes in recluse mode, with a long beard and a baseball cap pulled down low. He greeted the crowd by saying, "Would you mind putting the cameras and cell phones away? Let's just be together, OK?" People complied, for the most part.

Neutral Milk Hotel lovingly recreated their old songs, drawing on both Aeroplane and the earlier On Avery Island, bolstering Mangum's guitar with a motley assortment of instruments: accordion, trombone, saw, even a banjo played with a bow. The group (as many as seven strong at some points) matched the dense tangle of Mangum's lyrics with music that veered between drones and melodies, and felt like ecstatic prayers, as if the fastest path to divinity was making a joyful noise.

A few hours later, Coachella would end the weekend with a triumphant set by the Arcade Fire: another artistic collective fond of instrument-swapping, Salvation Army aesthetics and ambitious theme records. But although the Arcade Fire had Debbie Harry onstage to sing "Heart of Glass," their predecessors owned the day. Neutral Milk Hotel's set climaxed with Mangum doing "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two" solo, singing about "secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight." In a corner of the Coachella grounds, Mangum unwrapped some of those secret songs and gave the 2014 festival some evanescent but indelible memories.

Dana Distortion

Hardest-Rocking Acoustic Guitarist: Frank Turner

"Who's up for a fucking sing-along?" Frank Turner asked an afternoon crowd. "It'll be like we were simultaneously seized by the spirit of rock & roll." Turner used to sing for a British hardcore band, but now he rocks almost as hard on songs like "Wessex Boy" with an acoustic six-string. With his backing band, he pounded his way through songs about life, death and music, pulling off the tough punk-folk combo, and so winning over the audience that he convinced them that it was a good idea to do jumping jacks during one song. "I would take you home to meet my mum," he told the crowd. "Maybe not all at the same time."

Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella

Best Cover: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion — more grizzled these days, but having lost none of their aggression — bashed their way through an excellent version of the early Beastie Boys single "She's On It" (from the Krush Groove soundtrack). Runners-up: Ms. Mr, doing LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean," only with more spastic dancing and pink hair, the Afghan Whigs' muscular take on "Heaven on Their Minds" from Jesus Christ Superstar, and Capital Cities' union of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" with Weezer's "Undone – The Sweater Song."

Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Coachella

Best-Represented Decade: The Eighties

"Some people said we didn't belong here," Ian Astbury, the iconoclastic frontman for the Cult, said onstage. In truth, bands that made their name during the "greed decade" tend to draw well at Coachella, and 2014 proved no different. In addition to the Cult, day one also featured the Replacements, along with Bryan Ferry crooning through some of his best known Eighties hits; day two, the Mojave tent headliners proved to be Pet Shop Boys and a strong set from the newly revamped Pixies, who kicked the asses of Kim Deal loyalist naysayers with new bassist Paz Lenchantin. And even if they don't actually hail from the Eighties, some of the most buzzed-about new acts — Blood Orange, Chvrches and the like — sound like they might as well be…

Koury Angelo

Best-Represented Fashion Statements: This Top 10

1. Crocheted bikinis 2. Crocheted anything else 3. Body paint 4. Beards 5. Fringe 6. Bandanas 7. Flags 8. Lace tops 9. Ironic T-shirts 10. Capes

Koury Angelo

Best Proof Coachella’s Dance Scene Isn’t Just About Brostep: The Yuma Tent

Lasers, beats, bass — works every time! Far from being a fair-weather trend, EDM seemed more pop-culture entrenched then ever from its hands-in-the-air popularity at Coachella 2014. The Sahara — Coachella's traditional dance tent — was continually the most packed square footage of the fest: Day one saw Glitch Mob absolutely destroy with dayglo synths, speaker-bursting low end and relentless beat barrages, not to mention face melting, arena-ready visuals. Dutch superstar DJ Martin Garrix followed with a pounding set of 4/4 electro-house, and the main stage was rocked with prime-time sets from Girl Talk and Calvin Harris. Even better, many dance artists made sly references to other popular Coachella genres in their sets, from Martin Garrix remixing Blur's "Song 2" to Glitch Mob freaking classic Prodigy during their sets to Girl Talk mashing up Lorde and M.I.A. to Skrillex dropping a mini-set of old-school hip-hop during his headlining appearance (not to mention bringing out A$AP Rocky for their collaboration, "Wild for the Night"). Even more shockingly, dance music at Coachella 2014 wasn't just for brosteppers: the clubtastic acts drew more women than almost any other, and even, gasp!, hipsters may be returning to the EDM fold. Enclosed and air conditioned, with a feel of a dark, sweaty nightclub, the Yuma tent was the coolest place to be, figuratively and literally. Indeed, even before the sun had set, the Yuma vibe felt like a little slice of Berlin at 4:00 a.m. in the desert, as more tastemaker DJs like Nina Kraviz and Damian Lazarus rocked ecstatic crowds with some of the most underground sounds heard at Coachella 2014.

Koury Angelo

Best Guest-a-Thon: Pharrell

Pharrell's set truly proved the height of sonic namedropping, with a deluge of hip-hop royalty launching just a few songs in. First Nelly appeared to kick up some superstardust rap on his 2002 hit "Hot in Herre," which Pharrell produced as part of hitmaking duo the Neptunes. Next up was a kinetic Busta Rhymes, who tore up the stage with his performance of another Neptunes joint, "Pass the Courvoisier." That was followed by a rebellious performance of "Lapdance" from Pharrell's group N.E.R.D., enhanced by a suitably bugged-out turn by Odd Future mastermind Tyler, the Creator. But when Snoop Dogg showed up to spit his two smash collaborations with Pharrell, "Beautiful" and "Drop It Like It's Hot," everything truly went to a higher level (see what we did there?) and the crowd was chanting along to every word. But that wasn't even it: He brought out Diplo for a version of Major Lazer's "Aerosol Can," then Gwen Stefani reprised "Hollaback Girl" to a mass sing-along. 

Joseph Llanes

Best Blue-Eyed Soul: John Newman

John Newman comes from the rich tradition of British blued-eyed soul, and his set at Coachella was an example of real excitement and reserve. Dressed in a bright white suit, Newman sang his newest U.K. single "Out of My Head" and then stopped for a long dramatic moment; then his legs buckled and he lunged across the stage in passion and agony, using the mic stand as support. Newman has already sold well over 1 million records in the U.K., and at Coachella looked determined for the work to get a few fans in the U.S. as well, looking sharp and feeling downhearted.

Koury Angelo

Best Way to Feed Short Attention Spans: Wandering

Since Coachella has six stages and acts adhere pretty closely to their posted performance times, it's totally possible to wander around and keep catching the last 10 minutes of various musicians' sets. Sure, you'll spend half your time in transit and you'll have trouble getting good sightlines. But you will get to see one alterna-hit after another: the Pixies doing "Vamos," Superchunk playing "Slack Motherfucker," MGMT busting out "Electric Feel."

Koury Angelo

Best Song Debut: A$AP Ferg

It wasn't a huge surprise that A$AP Ferg was rolling with other members of the A$AP Mob crew, but when he finished his set by bringing A$AP Rocky onstage, nobody expected they would debut a new song called "Multiply" — or that it would be an incredibly hot jam. By the end, the crowd was chanting "Even in my will/Keep it trill."

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