The Five Best (and Five Worst) Lollapalooza Lineups Ever
Towering highs (Rage!) and woeful lows (311!) from the annual alt-rock prom
Without Lollapalooza, it feels like we’d be missing an entire generation — a huge void between The Simpsons and the Gathering of the Juggalos. The iconic summer bacchanal — a touring concern from 1991 to 1997 and a fixture at Chicago’s Grant Park since 2005, with only a brief hiccup or two in between — deserves at least as much credit as Nirvana (who themselves never got to play it, as they were booked the year of Kurt Cobain’s death) for not just defining what we ’90s kids called “alternative,” but for the inclusiveness it gave the term. Here’s where so many of us got the idea that alternative rap, alternative country, and alternative metal all belonged somewhere; many a cassette-collecting teenager used Lollapalooza as a huge part of the discovery process.
When the touring incarnation finally shut down (after a successful 2003 reboot led to a canceled 2004 fiasco), the festival’s cultural import might’ve waned a bit, but it’s still providing a showcase for a new generation of musical inventors, from Lady Gaga to Kanye to Daft Punk. (This weekend, the 2013 edition graces us with Nine Inch Nails, Kendrick Lamar, Disclosure, and at least 27 other must-see acts.) Unsurprisingly, those old enough to remember its original, self-contained touring form still prefer those days, but the Chicago years have their champions, too. So here’s a guide to the premier touring festival’s greatest peaks and most quizzical valleys.
Best #5: 1995
The nexus of the ’90s was well-represented by this cross-section of slacker totems (a deep-jamming Sonic Youth, a deeply weird Pavement, and actual superstar Beck financing it all), plus phantasmagoric rappers (an increasingly dark Cypress Hill, the proto-Dilla Pharcyde, and Coolio working “the shadow of the valley of death” into the year’s most Weird Al-certified pop song). Plus, we got A-list harbingers of coming breakthroughs, from ska-punk (Clueless MVPs the Mighty Mighty Bosstones) to “electronica” (the ubiquitous-before-he-was-actually-ubiquitous Moby) to Lilith Fair starlets (the ever-iconoclastic Sinead O’Connor). Meanwhile, the Jesus Lizard were still considered Main Stage material.
Best #4: 1994
This was not the festival where L7’s Donita Sparks pulled a tampon out of herself and threw it into the crowd (Reading, 1992), nor was it where Green Day challenged the crowd to a mud fight (Woodstock ’94, only the second-worst Woodstock). But it was the one that collected those freaks for an entire tour, not to mention established legend George Clinton, future legends Boredoms, and peak-era Smashing Pumpkins, featuring the then-budding ego of Billy Corgan (who allegedly kept Pavement off the lineup either because he hated them, or because they didn’t understand what he meant and could really give a fuck). The Breeders might have been the most Lollapalooza band of all time, with the ex-Pixies bassist on a headlining stage singing about a bong in a radio hit that, we promise, is not a reggae song. Most of these acts are still popular. And ’94 was the proper context to relaunch the now-Buddhist Beastie Boys as models of sanity.
Best #3: 2010
Five years after the touring model was declared a bust, the original alt-fest hit the jackpot with instant big-timers in what we’ll someday paradoxically refer to as “arena indie rock”: Arcade Fire, Spoon, the National, and the xx (whose debut album actually had plenty of guitar). The non-headlining acts rocked even harder: Against Me! at their underrated Bruciest, Gogol Bordello swinging at their piñata of shredded world-punk, and Fuck Buttons sharpening themselves for future Olympic endeavors. Non-alt alternatives included soul ambassadors Mavis Staples and Raphael Saadiq — certainly not dabblers — and pop’s subculture-obsessed princess, Lady Gaga. The reunited Soundgarden were arguably a more comfortable fit here than on the 1996 tour.
Best #2: 1991
The inaugural Lollapalooza was its starkest, keynoted musically by the art-funk-metal of Perry Farrell’s own Jane’s Addiction, but spiritually by Ice-T, who introduced his shock-metal band Body Count, the perfect vehicle for skewering double standards of censorship (protestors got “Cop Killer” taken off the CD, but not “KKK Bitch”). Living Colour and Nine Inch Nails proved that heavy-metal virtuosity could be more than guitar solos, while Violent Femmes and Butthole Surfers fed offbeat voices and riffs into a washing machine with broken glass for detergent. As for revitalized icons Siouxsie Sioux and Henry Rollins, their music kept getting bleaker and heavier.
Best #1: 1993
“Our driver, Evan Bittner, danced onstage with us from time to time,” says writer and critics Andrew Beaujon of his time with D.C. indie-rockers Eggs. “One time he was riding his bike in West Virginia, and two dudes in a pickup drove by, stopped, and shouted something to the effect of, ‘Hey, you’re in Eggs, right?’ We may have never reached those guys without Lollapalooza, which brought all manner of alternative tribes together.”
If you can believe a guy who merely danced onstage with a band that wasn’t exactly bringing radio to its knees got recognized (in the not-exactly-indie hotspot of West Virginia), you can believe how powerful a glue the 1993 edition of Lolla was for pretty much every counterculture of the moment: Kim Gordon’s side project Free Kitten shared a stage with fantastically named industrialists the Genitorturers, riot grrrl godmothers Babes in Toyland gave way to prog-metal titans Tool from one tour leg to the next, a band as dark as Alice in Chains could make chart history with an acoustic EP, and a band as Beefheart-batty as Primus could make chart history with a Top Ten album. Meanwhile, Mercury Rev’s dreamy psychedelia and Rage Against the Machine’s nightstick-battered rap-metal coexisted with Arrested Development’s sunny-day Afrocentricity and Front 242’s button-mashing industrial. Lollapalooza 1993 was a Rubik’s cube with twice as many colors that didn’t give a fuck if you solved it.
Worst #5: 1997
Tricky was best heard via headphones and the explosive cowpunk of Old 97’s sounded better in a crowded club. That left the downtuned dirges of Korn and the gloomy theatrics Tool to set the dominant depressive mood, along with the post-Death Row identity crisis of Snoop Dogg, plus lots of electronic banner acts who couldn’t movie bodies like the absent, more spirited Chemical Brothers. Then there were the questionable Main Stage choices: James, Failure, and G. Love? It’s no surprise the festival took a break for six years after this barrel-scraping.
Worst #4: 2012
Welcome to Mediocre City: A-List Edition, with your tour guide Kevin Devine. It’s easy to find the likes of Passion Pit, J. Cole, Florence + the Machine, Alabama Shakes, Jeff the Brotherhood, Miike Snow, the Walkmen, and M83 pleasantly satisfying or fairly harmless when they’re the cement between strong powerhouse bricks on another bill. Lumped all together, though, these festival binding agents were the musical equivalent of that McNuggets “pink sludge” pic that “the fast food industry doesn’t want you to see.” We eat this stuff all the time and know that it’s not terribly substantial, but we only realize just how insubstantial when confronted with a big vat of it. Lollapalooza 2012 was that vat.
Worst #3: 1996
Metallica with haircuts — boo hoo. “Hero of the Day,” “King Nothing,” and “Until It Sleeps” are no worse than “In the Meantime” or “Possum Kingdom” or your own favorite alt-novelty. But except for Rancid and, uh, 311 circa “Don’t Stay Home,” no one booked on this tour was at the top of their game, from the once-meaty Ramones and Screaming Trees to the completely unnecessary Sponge and Psychotica. Sure, it was fun to see Steve Earle sharing a bill with the Wu-Tang Clan. But this was where the festival’s novelty took over and the booking got a little thoughtless.
Worst #2: 2011
Girl Talk and the Mountain Goats’ greatness can’t singlehandedly redeem a Carnival of Suck anchored by Eminem, Coldplay, and Foo Fighters, and sullied by 30 Seconds to Mars, City and Colour, Grace Potter, all four noun-the-noun bands (Foster the People, Portgual. The Man, Young the Elephant, Cage the Giant), and too-prominent spots for A Perfect Circle and Muse. Purgatory doesn’t await most of these acts, because they’ve already been there.
Worst #1: 2009
The flipside of Lolla 1993’s remarkable sum of its parts, this lineup couldn’t have been more oil and water. The “Budweiser Stage” Sunday lineup was as follows: Friendly Fires, Kaiser Chiefs, Neko Case, Lou Reed, and (of course) Jane’s Addiction. Imagine someone enjoying two of those sets consecutively. While Vampire Weekend, TV on the Radio, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, No Age, Animal Collective, the Decemberists, Deerhunter, Bat for Lashes, Passion Pit, and Band of Horses comprised an impressively complete (then-)indie cross-section, it lacked contextual glue — there’s no triumphant prevailing story here except for All Brooklyn Everything, and few of the above-named took on transformative new life in their live incarnations. How much 2000s indie can one take with only a respite courtesy of the Killers (not helping!) or Tool (hardly a band most would cite as a respite)? Lollapalooza 2009 played like a slapped-together list of Tumblr Livejournal tags with fewer people walking away with a new favorite band or interesting discovery than ever before.