11 Festivals That Were Actually Worth Going to This Year

Festivals can be sweltering, crowded, and expensive, but sometimes it pays off with one perfect weekend.

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16 December 2016, 10:21am

Peeling sunburns. Ringing ears. Sinus infections. It's no secret that a large chunk of music festivals can leave you worse for the wear. Luckily, throughout 2016, more and more promoters dreamed up events that hit your senses in more restrained, thought-out ways, favoring eclectic bookings and non-traditional show spaces over the uninhibited hedonism of mainstage EDM.

Around the world, punters had the chance to experience classic techno in the genre's birthplace, drum and bass on a moving glacier, experimental bleeps amidst former mining towers, and a full-on aquatic dance party around a lake. In alphabetical order below are 11 of the events that offered something unexpected this year, and made festivals actually worth going to. —David Garber

1. Fascinoma Festival - Atlixco, Puebla, Mexico

Photo via Facebook.

The first installment of Mexico's Fascinoma was proof that festivals can still be about the music. The modest, two-day getaway took place at resort in Atlixco, Puebla—a small city three hours outside of Mexico City—and divided programming across a pair of stages and a couple scattered bars. Food was available at the resort's own restaurant, so you didn't have to face the peril of choice between 20 different food trucks and break the bank.

That simplicity made the music even easier to enjoy, since there was nothing to distract you from the Fascinoma's diverse lineup of international stars—among them, Mala, Gaslamp Killer, Palms Trax, Kode 9, Larry Heard—and homegrown talents, like Siete Catorce and White Visitation. In other words, you were free to get lost in the tunes, rather than the sprawling campgrounds.—Valeria Anzaldo

2. It's Not U It's Me's Power Plant Series - Toronto, Canada

Photo by Aaron Wynia.

Because of its early last call, insufficient public transit options, skyrocketing real estate prices, and prohibitive zoning regulations, the city of Toronto makes throwing a non-corporate, well-curated electronic festival of any size no easy feat. That's why grassroots collective It's Not U It's Me get kudos for navigating all the bureaucratic headaches and pulling off their inaugural summer series at the Power Plant, a spacious, three-story contemporary art gallery overlooking the city's waterfront.

While the organizers might have drawn inspiration from similar events at New York City's MoMA PS1 and London's Institute of Contemporary Art, the lineup was second-to-none, with local and international talent including Detroit techno trailblazers Claude Young, Rick Wilhite, and DJ Stingray; Berlin-based producer Avalon Emerson; Discwoman rising star Volvox; and Orphx's Christina Sealey. With its safety-first mandate and careful attention to details like sound setup and venue layout, it seemed to be exactly the sort of thing the "Music City" needs. Hopefully it'll become an annual tradition.—Max Mertens

3. Lightning in a Bottle - Bradley, California

Photo by Jamie Rosenberg.

Burning Man has given birth to an entire spectrum of dusty transformational festivals on the West Coast—a scene defined by its DIY aesthetic, heady house and techno, and zealous embrace of—for want of a better expression—"hippie shit."

Held in a dried-out reservoir in Central California, Lightning in a Bottle is one of the most talked-about events in this scene, and its sixteenth edition was its biggest to date. Over the years, the fest has acted as a launchpad of sorts for artist collective the Do LaB's ideas about human connection and environmental sustainability. By bringing together music, art, conversation, immersive theater, and a lot of recycling and water conservation initiatives, LiB has established itself a hugely positive force on the West Coast festival scene.

Jamie xx's vinyl-centric, mainstage set was flawless, albeit briefly interrupted by a naked psychonaut who tried to rush the stage mid-set while sporting an erection. But LiB's about an awful lot more than the lineup. I sat inside the so-called Witch's Den for a solid hour, smelling jars of foraged plant matter and tonging elixirs, and eavesdropped on a spiraling conversation about gender fluidity going on The Village educational area. While some have bemoaned the festival's expansion into the relative mainstream—some have taken to dubbing it the "Coachella of the Transformational Scene"—, you can't argue with 25,000 people coming together to express themselves. —Ross Gardiner

4. Melt! Festival - Gräfenhainichen, Germany

Photo via. STAR-MEDIA.

It's hard to beat the magic of this three-day weekender in Ferropolis. Set amidst the "City of Iron"—an open-air museum dedicated to the town's history of iron mining—the location itself is enough to make you gasp in awe, a dystopian-looking playground filled with giant metal tentacles that once dug precious metals out of the Earth, right next to an artificial lake.

In recent years, the event has reinvented itself somewhat, treating festival-goers to new stages and expanding its already diverse line-up. This year, Melt! seemed to invest more into one-of-a-kind scene players than big headliners, bringing in everyone from the inflatable hot dog-toting Peaches, to melodic tech artist Kollektiv Turmstrasse, to queer collective Yo!Sissy. But it also stayed true to its beloved traditions, such never-stopping, free-to-enter Sleepless Floor stage. We'll never forget the gigantic cranes looming over everyone as we danced on the peninsula till dawn.—Thomas Vorreyer

5. Moogfest - Durham, North Carolina

Photo by Graham Morrison, courtesy of Moogfest.

Several months before this year's Moogfest, the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 2, which mandated that all transgender people use the public facilities of the sex listed on their birth certificates, and authorized the state to trump any local laws protecting LGBTQ rights. The organizers of the Durham festival released a statement opposing the bill: "This discriminatory law not only runs counter to the basic principles of equality, fairness, and justice," it read. "It is a direct affront to our principled mission."

Moogfest's 2016 programming underscored its commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Between performances by electronic pioneers like Gary Numan, Laurie Anderson, and The Orb, and younger practitioners like The Black Madonna, Grimes, and Oneohtrix Point Never, keynote speeches and panel discussions celebrated the roots and future of the medium, including programming blocks on Afrofuturism and cyberfeminism. From Grouper's intimate set in the city's stately Carolina Theater, to a double-header in a church featuring Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter, to Sunn O))) punishing anyone unlucky enough to forget their earplugs at an outdoor stage, Moogfest 2016 was living proof that festivals can coexist with cities.—Max Mertens

6. Movement - Detroit, Michigan

Photo by Lyndon French.

Everyone knows the real parties during this Detroit fest happen after hours, but a celebration of all corners of the dancefloor in the birthplace of one of its most fruitful genres make Movement a can't-miss bet. Recent years have seen the folks behind the fest embrace a more expansive vision of what electronic music can be, this year enlisting—of course—techno icons like Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson, as well as Jersey club upstarts like Sliink, and future-disco boundary pushers like the Black Madonna and Honey Soundsystem.

A personal highlight of my sweaty Memorial Day weekend was Sunday's block of programming, which saw Skrillex's label OWSLA taking over a stage that felt like a darkened parking garage. REZZ played some dark bassy ambience, before Josh Pan threw down a chest-caving set, and then Mija took to the stage to pay tribute to the city's history with a few acid techno firebombs. Later in the year, Mija ended up going on a tour called 'FK A GENRE,' which is actually a pretty apt description of Movement's ethos, too.—Colin Joyce

7. Secret Solstice - Reykjavik, Iceland

Photos by Michael James Murray.

The moment we really knew we were on a volcanic rock some 300km away from the icy straits of Greenland was when our snowmobile/party bus broke down on the side of an Interstellar-esque glacier, where the English producer Artwork and Los Angeles' Droog were playing inside. These sorts of experiences—dumbstruck by the audacity of the promoters, and at the mercy of the elements—were hallmarks of Iceland's Secret Solstice festival.

Headlined by Radiohead, Die Antwoord, Deftones, and Goldie, and supported by an undercard of house and techno acts like Jamie Jones, Skream, Apollonia, and Visionquest, the 17,000-capacity festival in central Reykjavik made its third outing in June, during the summer solstice. Partying in unrelenting daylight for 72 hours straight was a disorienting experience, one certainly not helped by the bountiful cases of Viking lager on hand. But the brimming energy of the solar-powered Nordic locals was enough to pull you through any circadian weirdness.

Secret Solstice smashed the exhausted idea that a "destination festival" needs to be somewhere hot and sunny. In addition to the glacier raves, the organizers threw the world's first concert in an active volcano and brought Kerri Chandler and his piano to Iceland's oldest natural geyser swimming pool. It's a long way to go for a party, but there's truly nothing like Secret Solstice. —Ross Gardiner

8. Simple Things - Bristol, UK

Photo by Max Foster.

Simple Things is unlike any other UK festival on the calendar. It takes place in a city rather than a field, during the grey month of October rather than the hot swell of summer, and it only lasts one day. The headline, really, is the programming. Booking acts as wildly disparate as Powell and Kano, the Teklife crew and Charlotte Church, the Bristol festival is a masterclass not only in putting on great shows, but in engendering identity through curation. The festival offers a totally unpretentious environment, but is also not afraid to indulge totally extravagant-sounding stuff—Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's perfoming in a Planetarium, for example.

It doesn't seem at all unreasonable to say that the roster of acts on show would likely never come together in any other context—that is to say, Simple Things is a unique proposition in just how seamlessly it melds contemplative, boundary-pushing with actual, taps-aff hedonism. And what's the point in even the most esoteric of lineups if nobody has any fun? It's here that Simple Things is out on its own, filling the venues and side-streets of the city with an energy that lasts well beyond the final act. —Angus Harrison

9. Symbiosis Gathering - Oakdale, California

Photo courtesy of Symbiosis Gathering.

"Yeah, but does it have a lake?" Symbiosis Gathering would be one of the best festivals in the US even without all the water basins, but its geographical assets lead it right to the throne. It's impossible to understate how revitalizing it is to scrape your broken Sunday self off the floor of your boiling tent and splash around in an actual body of water, to the sound of chunky house music.

Symbiosis is held in Oakdale, California just a couple of weeks after The Burn, when most festival-goers are mentally limber and physically docile, their bodies frosted with Playa dust and their arms splayed open to strangers. This welcoming energy drifts between all the diversions the fest has on offer: the art installations, the yoga and learning spaces, and, of course, the dance floors. FKA Twigs and RL Grime were the main stage headliners this year, while Claude VonStroke, Lee Foss, Seth Troxler, Justin Martin, and the Desert Hearts crew rounded off the underground sounds.

As with Lightning in a Bottle, the real fun to be had at Symbiosis is in climbing on sculptures and getting into absurd conversations with crispy Burners. Next year will see Symbiosis leave its home in Oakdale and head to Oregon for a total solar eclipse, partnering with eleven transformational festivals from around the world—including Costa Rica's Envision, and Australia's Rainbow Serpent and Bass Coast—for what will likely be one of the major highlights of 2017.—Ross Gardiner

10. Trip Metal Festival - Detroit, Michigan

The same weekend that Movement descended upon downtown Detroit, the Michigan weirdos in Wolf Eyes were throwing a fest of their own, just a short drive away. Taking its name from a surrealist meme largely propagated by the band's own John Olson, the event offered a kind of unifying theory of music for freaks. Midwest experimentalists shared bills with modular synth forerunner Morton Subotnick and techno-futurist Hieroglyphic Being, who was in turn set to collaborate with members of the astral-minded jazz troupe Sun Ra Arkestra. Genres were obliterated; cosmic eyes were opened; a juggalo got into a fistfight. As a single billboard—their only real marketing for the event aside from a Facebook page—in town promised, the shows at the Mexicantown venue El Club cost $0 to attend. So it was a weekend that felt free, and literally was.—Colin Joyce

11. Tropico - Acapulco, Mexico

Photo via Youtube.

This December's Tropico was a weekend-long jaunt through the beaches of Acapulco, replete with palm trees, pina coladas, and massive iguanas galore. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, performing the classic Pet Sounds; Bonobo, performing his forthcoming album, Migration; and Todd Terje took the limelight, while upstart DJs from the Mexican underground—like Moon Runner, Salon Acapulco, and Daniel Maloso—filled out the undercard. The party roved from leafy enclaves, to midnight pool parties, to beachside sunrise sets, running for almost 72 hours straight. Tropico packed far more punch than seemed reasonable for a 4500-person capacity festival, but when you couldn't handle the rave, you could just stumble to the beach and sleep it off.—Jemayel Khawaja

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