BEST COMEBACK: LAURYN HILL
She may have lost some vocal range as the years have passed, but, boy, did Lauryn Hill show that she’s still one hell of a singer during her joyously funky set on the main stage. Dressed in a blue and white striped dress, Hill sang in a sexy rasp on “Everything Is Everything”; rapped in quicksilver bursts on “Lost Ones”; trilled playfully on the Fugees’ “Ooh La La La”; and even scolded the soundman with charming I’m-not-mad-just-disappointed sass. Her band was an able match for her singing, playing with flex and fire (the horn charts exploded with old school R&B brio). Hill’s had a bit of a struggle with live shows for a while now — if she’s not feeling it, the crowd knows, and she’s made a habit of being hours late for gigs. On this day, though, she was on time, all game, and on point. –DAVID MARCHESE
BEST FESTIVAL NEWCOMERS: TAME IMPALA
During their set on the Outdoor Theatre as the sun sank below the palm trees, the Perth, Australia, quartet proved to be one of the best new bands to hit the festival circuit: their set was a genre-blurring fusion of Hendrix-style psych-rock rave-ups, Black Sabbath’s fuzz-bomb power, and dreamy melodies. On “Solitude is Bliss,” off their 2010 debut Innerspeaker, Tame Impala were so clearly in tune with each other, so intently focused, it was impossible not to feel the kinetic energy sparking onstage. The group also drew one of the most diverse crowds of the day: teens, retirees, preppies, and hippies. “I’m buying the album, like, now,” a young blond girl said to her pals. –WILLIAM GOODMAN
BEST COLLAB: ODD FUTURE AND PHARRELL
Odd Future played a typically chaotic set full of reckless stage dives, frothing chants, and abrasive sound effects. Hodgy Beats donned a wolf mask offered up from the crowd, Left Brain menacingly brandished an inflatable cactus, Mike G swung a light saber, and Tyler the Creator cursed Complex magazine for exposing the location of the group’s missing member Earl Sweatshirt. And then, a beam of light cut through the eye of the storm: Pharrell Williams arrived to perform the crew’s remix of N.E.R.D’s “Inside of Clouds.” Tyler was so star-struck that he nearly missed an opportunity to shout “Wolf Gang!” in tandem with his idol. He was grinning ear to ear instead. –CHRIS MARTINS
BEST DANCE PARTY: MAGNETIC MAN
I was allowed on stage to watch Magnetic Man’s first U.S. show, and I won’t soon forget what I saw — thousands of people throwing their hands in the air in unison, pitching and yawing as one. Call me a rube, but it was jaw-dropping. The trio, consisting of big shot U.K. dubstep producers Artwork, Benga, and Skream, played puppetmasters with their chest-rattling bass and oddly stately synth lines. (For such pounding, dance-inducing music, the hooks and vocal melody samples give off an imperious, almost austere quality.) The trio’s self-titled debut was released in the U.S. on April 12, six months after it came out in their native land, where they’re considered a supergroup. If the crowd at Coachella can be considered bellwethers, Magnetic Man are well on their way to similar status on this side of the ocean. Get ready to dance. –D.M.
WORST CASE OF BODILY HARM: SKRILLEX
The way the mostly teenaged crowd members at the Sahara tent were flipping out for this electronic music up-and-comer’s thunderously percussive and often thrillingly abrasive dance tracks (dude owes a serious debt to whoever’s responsible for the sound of a dial-up modem), you knew someone was going to get hurt. Then someone did. A skinny, shirtless fella dancing like a dangling noodle a few feet in front of me stumbled, tried to break his fall, and broke his arm. A medic quickly arrived and took the poor guy to safety. The people around him didn’t miss a mosh, lost as they were in Skrillex’s aggressively physical electro-spazz collage, which was given an assist by Korn singer Jonathan Davis and guitarist Munky for the furious, frenetic “Get Up.” The most intense set of Day 1. –D.M.
BEST PERSONALITY: ROBYN
I stuck to electronic music for the most part and heard the festival’s entire arsenal of big beats, tweaked vocal samples, and synthesized instruments. Deep into the night, when the searing heat had given way to brisk desert cool, Robyn delivered what I’d been missing: personality. After hours of watching non-descript dudes bob behind laptops, an irrepressible Swedish pop oddball was just what the fest needed. Ingeniously constructed dance-pop marvels such as “Dancing On My Own” and “Bad Gal” had the crowd singing along, but the most powerful energy came from the platinum-haired, buzz-cutted singer herself, dressed in a tight multi-colored pants and corset combo. She danced and strutted, dry-humped her keyboard, threw karate chops and kicks, and at all times radiated the charisma of someone who was in heaven in front of a crowd. She may sing about fembots, but Robyn was full of life. –D.M.
WORST SET: CEE LO GREEN
The Southern hit maker rolled onstage nearly 30 minutes late, sweaty and looking confused, to a chorus of “Booooo!”s. His excuse? “Oh, I just landed,” he said, giggling as he awkwardly awaited his all-girl backing band’s signal. From there it went downhill. They opened with the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” then drifted off. Even the most bangin’ R&B tracks from Gnarls Barkley’s smash debut, “Crazy” and “Smily Face,” sounded slight and even lost. The crowd wasn’t having it. The booing continued and when Green and his ladies finally kicked into a sloppy and rushed rendition of his hit “F*ck You,” the half-hearted sing-along during its expletive-filled chorus seemed directed at Cee Lo himself. Then, just when it couldn’t get any worse, it did. The band started a cover Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” and the plug was pulled. –W.G.
BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT: THE BLACK KEYS
Friday was drummer Patrick Carney’s 31st birthday, but the gift went to the massive crowd gathered at the main Coachella stage for the Akron, OH, blues-rock band’s set. Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach stopped the show midway to embarrass his rhythmically inclined pal, insisting the throng wish him a spirited “Happy Birthday.” But from there it was all blues business, and Auerbach cranked out enough note-bending solos to make B.B. King froth at the mouth. Playing as a four-piece, the Keys sounded tight after months supporting their Grammy-winning 2010 album, Brothers. But on their last track, “I Got Mine,” Auerbach and Carney played as if they’d just formed, as a duo, as brothers, ripping and rolling onstage. –W.G.
BEST AUDIO ASSAULT: SLEIGH BELLS
It was fitting that Sleigh Bells opened with the famous riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The duo’s sound is loudly dooming and willfully puerile, and they rocked hard enough to elicit as many devil horn finger formations as bouncing hip-hop hands. Alexis Krauss screeched, rapped, and head-banged over the sounds of Derek Miller shredding guitar, silhouetted by a massive wall of Marshall stacks. The knobs were no doubt turned to 11 for their larger than life skronk. –C.M.
WORST TIME TO BE A GOTH: COLD CAVE
Dark-wave druids Cold Cave did their albums one better, emphasizing live energy over ennui, but that must’ve made it all the more exhausting to play at peak heat whilst swathed in all black. To make matters worse, main man Wes Eisold was wearing a thigh-length knit sweater, hanging down over tight jeans that tapered into a pair of heeled boots. Effects dude Dominic Fernow wore black leather, while Jennifer Clavin was wrapped in a body-hugging black dress as they all tweaked, crossed, and clanged various knobs, wires, and keys. With the new song “Confetti,” Eisold sung, “You look so good on the outside.” True, but on the inside they were marinating. –C.M.
BEST RAVE FROM HELL: CRYSTAL CASTLES
It didn’t hurt that Crystal Castles noise-smith Ethan Kath looked like a militant grim reaper in his oversized parka, but it was his wailing electro-goth banshee of a bandmate, Alice Glass, who made this nighttime gig feel like the last party in the second circle of hell. While fog spewed out and strobe lights flickered, she’d throw herself on the ground, curl up into a fetal position, and then crawl into the crowd where she’d writhe and squeal in the hands of the rabid pit. It was a terrifying spectacle, enhanced by the fact that she was sporting a huge cast on her left foot, and mostly using her crutch as a stage prop. –C.M.
WORST RETREAD: KINGS OF LEON
Before the Nashville quartet’s headlining set at the main stage, the gargantuan LED screens lit up with the words, “Kings of Leon World Tour 2010.” And that pretty much summed it up. The Followills played their greatest hits, focusing on tracks from their last two albums, 2008’s blockbuster Only by the Night and 2010’s Come Around Sundown, and didn’t offer much in the way of new (a key word at Coachella 2011), except a video show that bordered on ’80s schlock rock with its slow-mo glorification of the band as true rock stars. And they are, albeit a polished version. Their sound was glossy and catchy, almost too practiced, and they didn’t exude much personality or even talk, really, except when singer-guitarist Caleb offered this telling bit: “We played Coachella back in the day and I didn’t wear a shirt” — cue screams! — “I’ve gained a few pounds since then.” But when KoL closed down the Polo Fields with the one-two punch of “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody,” it was the biggest sing-along of Coachella Day 1. –W.G.
WORST FRONTMAN: ARIEL PINK
It’s hard to know how much of Ariel Pink’s stage presence is a put-on and how much is genuine weirdness, but at a certain point, it doesn’t matter. When your shtick is being a too-cool-for-school guru of shabby chic who constantly fights the soundman over details that are indistinguishable from the audience, then performs with his back to his fans, well, good luck keeping those fans. Numerous fest-goers took the opportunity to nap under the cool tent, and there was plenty of room to stretch out. Pink’s grand finale involved him unplugging his mic then storming off the stage, only to have his flummoxed bandmates coax him back out to the spotlight, where he smoked a cigarette while they finished the set. –C.M.
BEST INCITEMENT TO FOLLOW THE LIGHT: YACHT
Shortly after leading his band through a slab of arty electro-punk heaven called “The Afterlife,” YACHT founder Jona Bechtolt had this to say: “Thank you very much, Coachella. Are you still okay in your bodies?” When the rapture comes, it will undoubtedly be sound-tracked by this Portland crew, and the march skyward will be led by arresting singer Claire L. Evans. With short bleached hair, and a skin-tight outfit consisting of a see-thru white shirt (white electrical tape strategically placed, of course) and alabaster yoga pants, she was pretty damn convincing when, on the new song “Dystopia,” she sung, “The earth is on fire…let the motherfucker burn.” –C.M.
BEST MARK-ZUCKERBERG-AS-ROCK-STAR IMPRESSION: !!!’S NIC OFFER
Sporting a frizzy ‘fro (a nerd natural?), !!! singer Nic Offer bore a striking resemblance to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, albeit reimagined as an uninhibited party animal. He vogued jerkily, strutted lankily, high-kicked in short shorts and flashed his untoned tummy, but did all with such aplomb that it was believable — infectious even. Meanwhile, the band played their version of the Talking Heads on a PCP bender, jamming out aggro, angular dance-punk that went well with all of the awkward crotch grabs and air-humping. –C.M.
WORST BAND NOT TO DANCE TO: CHEMICAL BROTHERS
The English electronica icons are indisputable innovators, so refined, distinct, and powerful is their gift for welding rock-like compositional structures — full of hooks, breakdowns, and riffs — to the ecstatic ebb and flow of dance music. But if you’re not keen on dancing (and not chemically elated), like I was after 12 hours of standing outside on the first day of Coachella, and instead just listened to the band’s night-closing set on the main stage — which kicked off at least 30 minutes after its scheduled start time of 11:40 — then the duo’s tracks start to sound like thin copies of each other. It’s one slowly rising, laser-sounding synth part after another; the same teapot whistle crescendos again and again; all played with the same emotional intensity and set to similar tempos. The music doesn’t breath — it hyperventilates. The sounds are designed for the body, and when the body’s been beaten down, those sounds struggled to move the mind. –D.M.
BEST SONG DEDICATION: THE DRUMS
“This song is all about my dentist,” Jonathan Pierce, singer for Brooklyn quintet the Drums, said onstage at the Gobi Tent. He must’ve really loved his dentist. On the snappy indie tune, called “Best Friend,” Pierce mourns the death of his closest pal over chiming guitars and a hard backbeat. Onstage the youngsters are a lively, fun bunch, especially skin-and-bones guitarist Adam Kessler, whose understated work and easy-cool flare (hip locks, solos) was magnetic. –W.G.
BEST HEART-MELTERS: WARPAINT
Let’s get it out of the way: Warpaint are four very good looking hipster heartthrob gals from Los Angeles (especially bob-haired bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg). But their music is really the sexiest thing about ’em. Their moody, icy indie-pop grooves are full of lusty group whispers that’ll melt you before the desert sun does. On “Undertow,” off their 2010 debut The Fool, singer-guitarist Emily Kokal rocks her hips and coos moody lyrics about love’s intricacies: “Now I’ve got you in the undertow.” Then she stepped back a few feet and howled like a mother wolf. Set highlight: Warpaint’s brooding twist on Mary Wells’ Motown classic “My Guy.” –W.G.
—Paul McCartney took a walk through the VIP section after hopping on the decks for a surprise DJ set with Afrojack. Best Coast‘s Bethany Cosentino, who sat on a curb a few feet away from the Beatle, seemed unimpressed. –C.M.
—The Mars Volta‘s Cedric Bixler surprised those who came out to see Omar Rodriguez Lopez shred solo, not only by singing lead for the entire set, but by sporting a close-cropped haircut that caused more confusion than kudos. Frequently overheard: “Is that Cedric?” “Nah, I don’t think so.” –C.M.
—Titus Andronicus singer Patrick Stickles issued a plea for his audience to take to Twitter in order to goad swag-rap ambassador Lil B (who practically lives online) into meeting up with him later. –C.M.