One of the coolest things about covering technology in 2015 is that because virtually every industry has been upended by the Internet and software, just about every topic — from politics to culture to science — is also a story about technology. That includes music which, as artists seek out new (or any) ways to get paid while working with — or against — software companies, is as fertile a source as any for finding fascinating stories about our new digital lives.
That notion informs our annual Outside Valley conference, which brings together technologists, artists, and executives from both inside and outside of tech to try and figure out how to navigate and monetize creative industries like film and music in ways that are fair and without sacrificing innovation or access. Needless to say, there’s a lot of work left to be done; some of the panels at last year’s conference became so heated that I was afraid they’d devolve into an ultraviolent Sam Peckinpah film — albeit one starring the cast of Silicon Valley.
Luckily, at the end of the conference, we all got to unwind at San Francisco’s Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park — which announced its lineup yesterday — and we’ll be returning to the event this year. Among the nation’s major music festivals, Outside Lands is considerably more buttoned-up than, say, Bonnaroo which Pando visits in conjunction with our Pandoland conference in Nashville. Before Outside Lands I had never met a real-life “brogrammer” in person, but apparently they spawn fully-formed once a year in August from a pit in Golden Gate Park filled with toxic sludge, used condoms, and Swordfish DVDs.
Hey at least some of the bands aren’t terrible. Of course, like at all festivals it’s impossible to catch every band –nor would you want to — so just as I did for Bonnaroo’s 2015 lineup, here’s a guide to all 70 bands playing at Outside Lands, ranked by whether or not you should see them. (Full Disclosure: 70 is a lot of descriptions and so I used the same descriptions for the bands that overlap between Bonnaroo and Outside Lands).
1. Kendrick Lamar
This is Kendrick’s year. Love it or hate it, the heady Afro-poetics of To Pimp a Butterfly have made Kendrick the most-talked about hip-hop artist in the world. And this isn’t a Kanye West situation: We’re not talking about altercations with the paparazzi or celebrity significant others; we’re talking about the music. When was the last time that happened for an artist in any genre? But that’s Kendrick — his music is so singular and inspires such strong reactions that it transcends any other dialogue. Also, the dude is the full package: a fantastic performer and, Run the Jewels notwithstanding, the best live act in hip-hop right now.
2. Elton John
“Rocket Man”? “Your Song”? “Crocodile Rock”? “Tiny Dancer”? “Levon”? Look, Elton John is a legend and one of the greatest performers and songwriters of all time. Personally I prefer another piano man named Billy (who’s playing at Bonnaroo) but if you have the opportunity to see Elton and don’t take it, it might be time to ask yourself what you’re doing with your wasted hipster days.
3. Dan Deacon
Dan Deacon shows are total insanity, but the excitement this electronic artist fosters is more akin to that of a punk rock show as opposed to the Molly-fueled bro-downs of EDM concerts. Noisy, propulsive, and often hilarious, Deacon’s music is a reminder that computer music can still have a warm bloody heart at its center.
4. Tame Impala
Good music is fun to listen to while intoxicated. But great music makes even the soberest among us feel intoxicated. So it is with Australia’s psychedelic fivesome Tame Impala. Layers of guitars, cymbals, organs, and voices meld together into a singular rush of sound that washes over the listener’s senses like an opiate. The production is both rich and rough, sounding like an old vinyl record even when played through Spotify and computer speakers. And as such, it’s the kind of music that conjures a heartbreaking nostalgia for worlds past, even on first listen.
5. D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Within a 24 hour period last December, the world went from having no idea a D’Angelo comeback record was even coming, to falling face first in love with Black Messiah. The record is dark, challenging, and sonically dense, but still sexy and soulful. As great as Black Messiah is, however, it’s his landmark 2000 track “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” that I’ll get weak in the knees over during his Outside Lands set.
6. Hot Chip
It’s hard to believe that Hot Chip will release its seventh album this year. What’s even more impressive is that while indie and electronic trends have shifted wildly over Hot Chip’s career, the band has been remarkably steady, cranking out hit after hit of very nerdy, very catchy dance music. And live, the band’s deep catalog and energetic stage presence will make them one of the surest bets at the festival.
7. St. Vincent
Annie Clark has always been cooler than you, hanging with David Byrne in New York, shredding guitars and (presumably) hearts on tour, and reducing critics to hysterics again and again with each new album. But while she’s been bringing it pretty consistently since her 2007 debut, she outdid herself on last year’s self-titled release, sanding away any vestigial pretensions and ripping open her heart to spill out the contents onto a spiked bed of guitars and horns. (Like Byrne, she pays equal homage to both funk and feels). Before this album, you could deal with her coolness by saying, “Yeah, but she’s kind of pretentious.” Not anymore, so you might as well throw up your hands and join the cult.
I used to bristle when critics first referred to Wilco as “dad-rock” over a decade ago. There are few faster ways to dismiss a band than to compare it to your baseball-cap wearing, lawn-mowing suburban paterfamilias. (Johnny Rotten doesn’t mow lawns). But it also struck me as enormously lazy. If you found their 2002 magnum opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot boring and overrated, that’s fine. But tell me it’s because you think their sonic experiments are arbitrary and hollow, or that Jeff Tweedy’s sloppy singing and guitar-playing are grating rather than endearing. Don’t write them off as “dads” simply because they’re middle-aged white dudes who happen to embrace the traditions of American country and classic rock.
But as much as I hate to say it, in the years since the one-two punch of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, Wilco has become the dads we thought they were (metaphorically and, in some cases, biologically). Their last three albums dispensed almost entirely with the experimentation of their golden middle-period in favor of the kind of classic rock you hear every morning when you commute from the suburbs. The kind of music that, quite frankly, my dad would like.
This is all a long way of saying, if Wilco — a great live band no matter what — plays a bunch of songs from their 1999-2004 days, this is going to be a great show. But if not, it may be nothing special. Unless you’re my dad.
Take the interesting visuals and druggily danceable sounds of all those EDM artists at Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, but add melodies, musicality, and emotion.
10. Mac DeMarco
Everybody talks about how “rowdy” DeMarco’s shows get — which really just means he sometimes takes his clothes off and encourages hipsters to innocently mosh. But that’s not why you should see him. DeMarco is a great young songwriter with an energetic stage presence, which is reason enough to make time for his set.
11. Toro Y Moi
In 2009, Toro Y Moi (Chaz Bundick) was just another chillwave dude, synthing out with his bros poolside. But 6 years and 3 fantastic albums later, Bundick is a survivor not only of that silly short-lived microgenre but of the indie scene in general, which chews up and spits out artists in less time than it took to read a Carles blog post. And judging by early cuts off of his upcoming new album, Bundick is still evolving.
12. Speedy Ortiz
The dream of the 90s is alive with this female-fronted grunge revival band, who wouldn’t sound a lick out of place at Lollapalooza in 1993. With a much-buzzed about Kurt Cobain documentary coming out, this could be the year millennials rediscover the grody Seattle genre, and with dark, dreamy guitar riffs for miles, Speedy Ortiz is at the forefront of the comeback movement.
13. Sam Smith
If you don’t like Sam Smith even a little bit, it’s not a 100 percent guarantee that you’re a pretentious hater… but it’s pretty likely.
According to Wikipedia, the bandmembers met while working at a record store in Los Angeles — the kind of genesis story you don’t hear all that often anymore. Then again, nostalgia soaks through Allah-Las every jangling guitar lick, bringing to mind the Zombies, the Hollies, and a host of other psychedelic groove-mavens. And here my biases betray me — despite me trashing half the bands at Outside Lands for lacking originality, I’m coming out in full support of Allah-Las. Because, hey, if you’re going to rip somebody off, you might as well rip off the greatest genre in the history of rock and roll.
15. Natalie Prass
Natalie Prass accomplishes what only a few singer-songwriters like Sufjan Stevens can on her debut album: She’s able to maintain a sense of close intimacy despite surrounding her voice with lush strings and horns which despite their bombast never overwhelm her. That’s also a good indicator that her voice and performance will absolutely soar in a live setting — even one as non-optimal as a giant festival like Outside Lands.
If I had to pick a “winner” of SXSW for music, METZ would definitely be in the running, unleashing their big, nasty guitar rock anthems on an unsuspecting Austin. With a new album coming in May and a bit of a grunge revival taking shape, METZ stands to be the loud noisemaker wing of this movement.
17. Billy Idol
Billy Idol is whatever. “White Wedding” is cool. But ever since I scoffed at Lionel Richie, only to see him deliver a showstopping performance at Bonnaroo, I’m not going to hate on the washed-up 80s artists at these things. They know how to perform.
18. The Black Keys
It’s been so gradual you might not have even noticed, but the Black Keys have gotten just a little worse with each successive album. Last year’s Turn Blue was their most boring yet, but as bands are wont to do they will likely play the shit out of it on tour this year. That’s a shame, but don’t write them off yet. As performers, they care about showing audiences a good time, and if they play even a handful of tracks off those mean and minimal first three releases, it will be worth it.
19. RL Grime
EDM, the term used to describe the collection of subgenres and producers within contemporary electronic music (and just as importantly, the culture surrounding it) is one of the few segments of the music industry that’s truly booming. Too bad for me because almost none of it is aligned with my tastes or my lifestyle or my personality.
But while RL Grime — born Henry Steinway — started out spinning the same kinds of records as Avicii and Tiesto, he’s since shown a remarkable versatility, composing punishing rap remixes that are often more impressive than the original track, and collaborating with rising hip-hop stars like Big Sean. I’m curious then to check out his live show which should have the energy and outrageousness of guys like Skrillex, but with music that possesses a bit more variety and substance than those never-ending warbling wonky bro-step songs.
20. Laura Marling
I was never wild about British folk singer Laura Marling, but she was mesmerizing at SXSW, putting on one of the most intimate performances of the festival. Depending on the size of the stage they put her on, that intimacy may or may not translate to Outside Lands. But as Frank Ocean proved last year at Bonnaroo, a great performer can make even the biggest, noisiest, and most crowded audiences feel close and small.
21. Leon Bridges
Look, if you can mimic Otis Redding and even pull it off a little bit? I don’t care if the music’s original. There aren’t enough Otis Redding-style songs and probably never will be.
I saw this female-fronted Toronto band at SXSW and, like their Canadian heritage suggests, they were simply… nice. Nice melodies, nice riffs, nice lyrics… but instead of coming off as boring, there’s a cumulative effect to these good vibes that made them one of the most purely joyful sets I saw in Austin. Grab some kind bud and enjoy.
23. Django Django
I dig this band. Their drummer’s brother was in the Beta Band, and they obviously shared notes. Laid-back and adventurous all at once, Django Django is the closest thing I’ve heard to the Beta Band since its premature demise in 2004.
24. First Aid Kit
With friends and colleagues like Jack White, Conor Oberst, and The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, this Swedish country-folk duo admittedly lacks the talent of the company they keep. Nevertheless, their no-bullshit approach to classic Americana songwriting recalls the glory days of 90s alt-country, when acts like Whiskeytown, Gillian Welch, and Neko Case ruled, well, not the world, but definitely my Discman.
25. Fantastic Negrito
Just a couple months ago, Fantastic Negrito was an obscure unsigned Oakland artist. But since winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest last month, the soul singer has played shows at SXSW and now Outside Lands is next.
26. St. Paul & The Broken Bones
We were lucky enough to host St. Paul & The Broken Bones at our inaugural festival in Nashville last year, and they absolutely killed it. There are plenty of neo-soul acts trying to do their thing at Outside Lands and in bars across the country. But few of them have a voice like Paul Janeway, a devout Christian and former preacher who may or may not be the best evidence we’ve got for the existence of God.
27. Sky Ferreira
With an aggressively topless album cover and a drug arrest under her belt, perhaps the most surprising thing about Sky Ferreira is that when her record finally came out, it was a well-executed, well-produced, and tightly-constructed pop album that harkened back to a time when people still cared about that.
28. Twin Peaks
Of all the big guitar rock bands that are staking a claim in 2015, Twin Peaks is the least ashamed to revel in catchy riffs, influenced as much by 60s rock like the Kinks as by grunge and pre-grunge acts like the Pixies. Don’t overthink this one — Twin Peaks is some of the cleanest fun you can have at a music festival.
29. Laura Stirling
Because when you’re peaking there’s nothing better than watching a woman who looks like Link from Legend of Zelda playing the violin.
30. DJ Mustard — DJ Mustard is among the most exciting young hip-hop producers in the country and has worked with 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and scores of other establishing and up-and-coming rappers. And I would put higher on the list except that unless he brings with him an army of secret guests, most of the rapping you’ll hear will be prerecorded (that’s often true even when rappers do show up). That said, it’s never a bad thing to hear a DJ with good taste and good skills spin good records.
31. The Sam Chase — Despite Bonnaroo’s bluegrass and roots rock bonafides, the bands that Outside Lands booked within these classic American genres are a far more consistent crop than the ones scheduled to play in Manchester this June. The Sam Chase is another group of San Francisco natives and their record, Will Never Die, feels far more authentic than some of the cleaner, brighter Americana acts that merely use the trappings of the genre to play the same toothless conventional pop music that accomplishes little except selling cars and selling cheap emotions in network dramedies.
32. Langhorne Slim & The Law — Again, Outside Lands is out-Bonnarooing Bonnaroo. Its Americana offerings outpace the Tennessee festivals in quality, if not in volume. Langhorne Slim is no exception, who even came to prominence years ago as a Bonnaroo mainstay.
33. Alex Bleeker and the Freaks — Alex Bleeker is the bassist for the slow chilling indie dudes of Real Estate, a band that makes a virtue out of laziness. Or is it more effortlessness than laziness? It’s hard to tell, but the result is the rock equivalent of comfort television. But if Real Estate is Friends then the Freaks are like its less accomplished spin-off Joey. I’m sure there are worse ways to spend whatever sunny afternoon slot the Freaks will occupy at Outside Lands but depending on who else is playing, attendees may want to dream bigger.
34. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe — Karl Denson’s songs are pretty corny, but sometimes it’s nice to watch somebody who’s incredibly good at an instrument just play it. And so it is with Denson and the saxophone.
35. Glass Animals – Smooth and chill pop music that still keeps things a little weird and unsettling.
36. Strand of Oaks – Guitar person playing guitar songs for guitar people. I dig it.
37. The Tropics A San Francisco-based band with only five songs that I could find to their name, none of which has more than 2800 listens. Maybe they won the opportunity to play at an SF Battle of the Bands or maybe they have friends in high places… whatever the reason, the Tropics make catchy occasionally ragged guitar rock that more than justifies their inclusion on the lineup, which includes a ton of far more famous — and far less talented — bands.
38. Unknown Mortal Orchestra — Like Tame Impala, but not as good. Still good, though.
39. DMA’s – Britpop revivalists that rip off the catchiest — and cheesiest — British 90s bands.
40. The Devil Makes Three — A perfectly fine old-timey folk band with a knack for catchy choruses. The kind of band that comes a dime a dozen at Bonnaroo, but here at Outside Lands, which doesn’t pad its lineup with one bluegrass band after another, you could do worse.
41. Robert DeLong — Postal Service-inspired electronic indie pop, with just a touch of Skrillex bro-step for the kids. It’s fine.
42. Angus and Julia Stone — This painfully photogenic brother and sister songwriting team writes music that’s great for soundtracking your first mortgage payment or driving to meet your financial advisor. It’s so sterile, suburban, and… adult. But hey, it’s well-produced and catchy and cute and…ahhh stop! This is how it starts…
43. George Ezra — Musically and mathematically speaking, George Ezra is no different than every other folky bluesy vanilla male pop star on the planet. But what sets him apart is his ever-so-gravelly baritone which, while in no way off-putting, is at least a unique asset among Europe’s current pop music royalty. Though if people are that concerned over what’s ostensibly a beautiful voice, can you imagine if Morrissey or David Byrne had come on the scene in 2015?
44. Chet Faker — A good soulful voice laid over beats that are reminiscent of Portishead but without the spy movie vibe (I know, then what’s the point, right?) He’s perhaps best well-known for his cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” which he manages to make his own without being painfully self-aware about it. In other words, he’s fighting the good fight, but does little else.
45. Odesza — What the H&M employees put on early in the morning before the store gets too crowded. So still not very good, but somewhat more subtle and interesting than the brute force electronic music of Skrillex and Zedd.
46. MisterWives — Indie rock by way of Katy Perry. Should’ve gone full Katy Perry.
47. Giraffage — Terribly-named DJ whose actual music isn’t at all obnoxious. It might put you to sleep, but compared to some of the other acts on the lineup, that’s not such a bad thing?
48. Classixx — See Giraffage.
49. GIVERS — I don’t really get GIVERS. They’re from Louisiana, they have the lineup and the chops of a New Orleans jazz band, but they waste their time playing the same middle-of-the-road, Arcade-Fire-without-a-pulse indie rock that everybody plays. They’re probably the most underachieving band on the lineup.
50. The Family Crest — Big string-laden overdramatic rock music. Like ELO but 100 percent sincere. Aggressively uncool, which might be the one thing they’ve got going for them.
51. The Revivalists – Throwback soul band that takes its name too literally, reviving old genres capably enough, but without bringing much of anything new to the table.
52. Lake Street Dive I’ll never understand what compels people in their twenties to write music that only a fifty year old dad could like. And I don’t even mean a fifty year old dad today, but a fifty year old dad living in 1983 whose favorite album is Sports by Huey Lewis and the News. Then again, Outside Lands is in San Francisco, and if there’s anything the tech world has done to America, it’s made it once again hip to be square.
53. Nate Ruess The debut album from Fun frontman Nate Ruess isn’t out yet, but the first single, “Nothing Without Love”, is perfectly fine and far better than anything from his ex-bandmate’s project Bleachers, which landed at the very very bottom of my list of Bonnaroo 2015 worth seeing. And with such a small catalog, he’ll probably also play those two Fun songs which are totally and legitimately tolerable.
54. Hooray For The Riff Raff — Old-fashioned rock. No connection to the rapper Riff Raff. Not interested.
55. SZA — The problem with SZA is that she never goes “full weird.” The R&B singer is too odd to be terribly catchy, but not odd enough to approach some kind of truly original new sound.
56. Shakey Graves — Great name, wasted.
57. Benjamin Booker — A guy who woke up one day and decided there weren’t enough bands that sounded like Pete Yorn. Which isn’t terrible per se, but, you know, um, what?
58. Milky Chance A Starbucks band through and through, Milky Chance is safe, soft, and not interesting enough to distract you from surfing the Internet, or even reading a sandwich board. You’re probably going to want to check your phone a lot, but good luck getting service with all those other cell phones crowding the network. And if you do like Milky Chance? That’s okay, only I don’t think music is for you. The wine tasting tent, however, I think you would find delightful.
59. G-Eazy — When it comes to more mainstream genres of hip-hop, this is a weak year at Outside Lands: No Young Thug, no Lil B, no Future. Instead we get G-Eazy, and nobody’s all that happy about it.
60. Iration — Do people still listen to white boy reggae in California? Why won’t the 90s end for you???
61. James Bay — I get that having a good singing voice is pretty important to the majority of music listeners. But for so many of these guys, that’s all they’ve got going for them (and a pretty face, of course). But I’m not going to eat a literal shit-sandwich no matter how fresh and crisp the bread is. And that’s basically what James Bay is, a shit sandwich on a brioche bun.
62. Green Velvet & Claude VonStroke: Get Real – The good thing about Outside Lands is that you get to go home at the end of each day. At Bonnaroo and other camping festivals, you have to drink yourself silly in order to sleep through the loud, repetitive EDM acts like Green Velvet & Claude VonStroke, who always tend to have three hour sets that don’t start until 2 AM.
63. Ryn Weaver — This woman’s probably going to be huge, so you could check her out to say you saw her before she blew up. Or you could not suffer through terrible music.
64. Axwell^Ingrosso – A lot of people don’t know this, but in 1975, the members of ABBA met a mysterious half-man half-goat creature on a camping trip outside Stockholm. And in what’s pretty typical behavior for these forest fiends, before long the goat-man challenged the Swedish pop band to a poker match.
On the final hand, ABBA guitarist Bjorn Ulvaeus went all in, wagering $ 40 and the eternal soul of Ingmar Bergman which he’d won off a half-snake half-ox last in a poker game last summer. The goat-creature hissed and rubbed his hooves together as if to suggest an air of craftiness, but they were hooves so they just made some clopping noises which everyone in attendance had to admit were pretty cute.
“I have nothing of the material world left to bet,” the goat-man simpered glibly. “But, as you may have guessed by now, I am no ordinary goat-fiend. If you win, Bjorn, I will grant every woman and man born in Sweden the gift of writing the most glorious songs the world has ever heard.”
Bjorn had read enough fairy tales to know these deals were never simple. “What’s the catch, goat-fiend?”
“The catch? Oh right, uh, um, let’s say… it only lasts for forty years. After that, the Swedish people will lose all ability to sing, play, and write music for all eternity. Whenever they open their mouths or strum a guitar, the world will scream in terror at the hideous noises emanating from these once-proud people–”
“Full house,” Bjorn said, winning the game and dooming his country to an eternity of awful music as soon as 2015 rolled around. The goat-boy vanished, ABBA went on to top the charts around the world, and 40 years later the Swedish house music act Axwell^Ingrosso formed and played at Outside Lands.
65. Porter Robinson — Hollywood’s gestation period for remakes and reboots of beloved films is shorter than ever. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman was released just five years after Sam Raimi wrapped up his take on the Marvel classic. Has the same thing happened to music? When Interpol ripped off Joy Division in 2002 at least there was a good 25 years or so separating the bands’ debut albums. Is our collective memory so short that we really need a record that revives the indie synth-wave stylings of Passion Pit and Neon Indian which saw its heyday way back in… 2009?
DJ person Porter Robinson clearly thinks so. His 2014 album Worlds is basically a carbon copy of Passion Pit’s Manners — a good album but hardly one that needed a sequel, not from Passion Pit themselves and definitely not from some cut-rate idea thief like Robinson. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best — or better yet, steal from someone who your target audience has already forgotten.
66. Devon Baldwin — An ex-American Idol contestant and San Francisco resident, Devon Baldwin is clearly trying to straddle the line between commercial R&B and weird-ass dark electro on the handful of tracks she’s got online, much like indie darling FKA Twigs. But that’s easier said than done, and Baldwin — like so many artists who attempt such a gambit — ends up sounding at once too weird to achieve commercial success and too conventional to achieve underground success.
67. Broods — It’s Lorde. It sounds exactly like Lorde. Why does this need to exist?
68. Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals — If mayonnaise was a band.
69. Mumford & Sons — They have that one song that sounds like all the other songs. Catch it on the way to the beer tent.
70. Slightly Stoopid — Of all the uninspired faux-reggae diet orange soda bands of the 90s, how is it that Slightly Stoopid is the one still playing huge rock festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands pretty much every year? Sure, their peers like 311, Incubus, and Sugar Ray are terrible too, but at least they scored a handful of bonafide hits in their day. Put Sugar Ray on stage at Bonnaroo and I guarantee two single 30-somethings will definitely, absolutely hook up and probably get married by the end of the weekend.
But nobody liked Slightly Stoopid then and nobody likes them now. They are worse than Smash Mouth. They are the worst.