We Ranked Every Splendour In The Grass Line-Up From “Worst” To Best
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In late July, tens of thousands of people will descend on the North Byron Parklands for Splendour In The Grass.
Twenty years is a long, long time for any Australian music festival, and Splendour has had to deal with more hiccups than most over the years. After happily operating out of Belongil Fields for nine years, they were forced to uproot and move across the border to Woodford while they waited on approval for a new site at Yelgun. In 2012 they shifted back again to Belongil temporarily, before finally settling in at their (hopefully) permanent set in North Byron.
But throughout the upheaval, Splendour has consistently delivered — in fact, Splendour has always delivered. Its teething stage was basically non-existent: in only its third year it landed Placebo and Coldplay as headliners, a huge get for any festival, let alone one so young.
Since then, everyone from Kanye West to Lana Del Rey, Outkast to The Strokes and Jane’s Addiction to Arctic Monkeys have walked through Splendour’s gates. But of all the great line-ups we’ve seen fly past over the years, which one reigns supreme?
Is the it the year Kanye and Coldplay cracked apart the Amphitheatre at Woodfordia? Or when Lana Del Rey first introduced the Splendour crowd to the flower crown in 2012? Or maybe when Outkast sang ‘Ms. Jackson’ to a crowd of 25,000 in 2014?
To determine Splendour’s finest hour, we’ve gone to work coldly ranking each edition’s line-up. But before you pull out the sharpened pitchforks, keep this mind: the best year will always be the one you had the most fun at. That’s how drugs work.
#20 — 2009
Jane’s Addiction pulled out of the line-up after drummer Stephen Perkins almost lost his arm to a Staph infection (fair cop), so the headliners were spread a little thin in 2009. Nevertheless, the Flaming Lips managed to cause a suitable rukkus when Wayne Coyne spent a big chunk of the set inside a giant ball on the crowd’s shoulders, but MGMT proved once again why they are consistently rated one of the worst live bands around.
#19 — 2001
In their first year, Splendour caught two acts at the height of their powers: Powderfinger and Michael Franti & Spearhead. The Brisbane rock legends were coming off the back of their biggest album Odyssey Number Five, while Franti was asserting himself as one of the best and most beloved festival headliners in the game.
#18 — 2002
What Splendour’s second year lacked in big headliners, it more than made up for in stellar local talent. They brought Grinspoon (in the middle of their ‘Chemical Heart’ fame, no less), 1200 Techniques, george, Magic Dirt, Jebediah, a young John Butler Trio, Melbourne’s Cut Copy and The Sleepy Jackson to Belongil Fields… not bad for a festival only a year old.
#17 — 2008
While Wolfmother would later take to throwing shade at triple j on stage and releasing album after album of basically the same song, in 2008 they were the most popular they arguably would ever be.
They topped a bill that was again filled with local greats: The Vines, The Presets, The Living End, PNAU– Splendour even nabbed Gold Coast’s Operator Please for that brief moment when they were a household name. It was a solid foundation, leaving the headliners Sigur Ros and Devo with a little too much catching up to do.
#16 — 2007
2007 was all about the Brits: Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Klaxons — if a band didn’t speak with an English accent, we apparently didn’t want to know them. It made for a stark change from the local focus of the years before, and while those UK acts all brought their A-game, the Australian touch was missed.
#15 — 2013
The story of 2013 is not who was on the line-up, but who actually turned up. When Frank Ocean pulled out at the eleventh hour, he was replaced by a young New Zealander going by the name of Lorde.
Despite only having a few known songs under her belt, the dynamo born Ella Yelich-O’Connor held the Supertop crowd in the palm of her hand for a full hour. It was a telling sign of things to come: today, Lorde is headlining Coachella, while Frank Ocean is still cancelling concerts at every opportunity.
#14 — 2020
For the festival’s 20th year, they rounded up some old favourites: The Strokes and Flume would return to headline, just like they did in 2016, as would Tyler, The Creator, who just finished up a big festival run here a few months ago.
But if the headliners are slightly lacking, there’s a lot of good stuff under the hood: King Krule, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Petit Biscuit, Baker Boy, King Princess, Thelma Plum, JPEGMAFIA, Denzel Curry, Mura Masa, Sampa The Great, IDLES, Tierra Whack, Cry Club — it’s a good year to get along to the smaller stages and find your new favourite act.
#13 — 2018
What a change a few years can make. In 2018 Lorde returned to North Byron Parklands, but this time she was leading the pack, having released her stunning record Melodrama the year earlier. She was joined by Kendrick, still flying high after the release of DAMN., and everyone’s favourite buttoned-up indie rockers Vampire Weekend.
But the biggest sets came from the local favourites: PNAU, having retaken the mantle of Australia’s favourite dance group with the album Changa, ripped the crowd a new one, and Sydney crew Gang of Youths brought everyone to joyous tears at the Amphitheatre.
#12 — 2005
In 2005, Moby became the first electronic act ever to headline Splendour, a pretty bold move for what was still largely an alternative rock festival. It signalled a major pivot in the festival’s direction, and it obviously worked — after 2005 SITG would begin stacking on the dance acts in earnest, and these days electronic acts make up a significant portion of the line-up.
#11 — 2004
Splendour has a history of choosing wildly contrasting headliners, and no year better represents this than 2008. English songwriter PJ Harvey, iconic hip-hop group Jurassic 5 and American rock legends MC5 sat side by side at the top of the bill. It made for an interesting, if oddly disparate, year.
#10 — 2017
Splendour 2017 will be defined by the festival’s veterans. Queens Of The Stone Age are returning after 12 years, LCD Soundsystem are back after “farewelling” Australia in 2010, Sigur Ros are backing up their stunning performance from just last year.
#9 — 2003
For their third trick, Splendour managed to pull but two rabbits out of the hat: Coldplay and Placebo. In 2003, Coldplay were still worlds away from the sins of Mylo Xyloto, and were instead riding the high from their best ever record A Rush Of Blood To The Head, while Placebo brought their brand spanking new album, Sleeping With Ghosts.
SITG didn’t just pull through with the headliners, they also packed the middle with some of the best Aussie rock names ever: The Superjesus, The Living End, Powderfinger — hell, even Jet were there.
#8 — 2006
You know what we were saying before about contrasting headliners? Here’s another one. American alternative icons Sonic Youth topped the bill on the Saturday, while on Sunday Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson lead the charge. It was also only the second time an electronic act had made it near the top of the line-up with English producer DJ Shadow — who followed Moby’s example from 2005.
#7 — 2010
The Temper Trap in the middle of ‘Sweet Disposition’ madness. Mumford & Sons in the middle of Sigh No More madness. Pixies and The Strokes just being mad. The first line of 2010’s line-up boasted more great names than most festivals could gather in years, and the rest of the bill delivered just as much, with the Scissor Sisters, Florence And The Machine, Empire Of The Sun, The Ting Tings (remember ‘That’s Not My Name’?), Goldfrapp, Band Of Horses — and even the “last” Australian appearance from LCD Soundsystem.
#6 — 2019
A top line of Childish Gambino, Tame Impala, Chance The Rapper, and SZA (and Catfish and the Bottlemen, but that was a curious placement) made for one of the strongest headliner groups in recent year. Childish’s set was particularly emotional and charged, as he tore through tracks like ‘This Is America’ and ‘Redbone’.
And while Chance the Rapper broke hearts by pulling out at the last second — replaced by the Hilltop Hoods — stellar sets from Tame, SZA, Santigold, Broods, What So Not, and Lil Simz helped to heal the pain.
#5 — 2015
Speaking of Florence And The Machine, the UK act were elevated to the headlining status in 2015 — and for good reason. Florence Welch and co. delivered one of the greatest sets in Splendour’s history, holding forth over a packed Amphitheature on a bitterly cold Byron night.
It was also the year Tame Impala premiered Currents, and Mark Ronson played ‘Uptown Funk’ to a crowd that kept dancing even while it was pouring with icy rain.
#4 — 2016
There are not many festivals that have the guts to present a three-hour headlining set, but Splendour did just that with The Cure in 2016. It’s a testament to their faith in the audience that they booked it, and clearly it paid off, as tens of thousands of people were still in the Amphitheatre as the last notes rang out.
2016 was also bursting with local talent, from Flume to Courtney Barnett to Illy to The Preatures to Violent Soho — and a glorious, tear-jerking performance from Gang Of Youths.
#3 — 2012
When Lana Del Rey emerged from New York seemingly fully-formed in 2011, we had a lot of questions. Was she just a label-created persona targeting indie fans? Was her career entirely bankrolled by her parents? Was Lana Del Rey even her real name? In 2017 we know all the answers, but back in 2012 Del Rey was still the subject of much intrigue, which made her appearance at Splendour all the more hotly-anticipated.
2012 was also the year Splendour reasserted itself as a great rock festival, with Smashing Pumpkins, Jack White, At The Drive In, Metric, Band Of Skulls and Mudhoney all secured. Finished off with a big dash of indie with Bloc Party, The Shins, Miike Snow and a little band called Tame Impala, and 2012 made for a thoroughly solid year.
#2 — 2014
Outkast may have dominated the Splendour chatter in 2014, but it was the acts hidden in the middle tier that made the year truly memorable. With incredible performances from the likes of Darkside, Violent Soho, Danny Brown, Kelis, City & Colour, Peking Duk and Grouplove, 2014 set the bar for years to come.
The biggest highlight of the festival nearly didn’t even happen. At the last second, Two Door Cinema Club pulled out, to be replaced by Foals (an even bigger coup), and their replacement set will go down as one of the best in the festival’s history.
#1 — 2011
In 40 years time, music fans of our day will be asked a few questions: “Where were you when Amy Winehouse released Back To Black”, “Do you remember the first time you watched the ‘Formation’ video” — and most importantly, “Did you see Kanye West tour My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?”
The rapper’s fifth studio album is widely regarded as one of the greatest records of all time, and Splendour in 2011 was Australia’s sole chance to see it performed live so close to its release (he would be back in 2012 for Big Day Out and some solo dates). Kanye brought its power, its vulnerability, its humility and its triumph to a standing-room only crowd at Woodfordia, delivering the defining set of Splendour’s history.
Kanye may have set the bar high, but plenty of other acts rose to meet it. The Mars Volta, The Hives, Pulp, Jane’s Addiction and Regina Spektor (another exclusive) all lay down spectacular and challenging performances. Even without the international presence, 2011 was filled out with an A-list cast of locals: The Grates, Pnau, The Vines, Children Collide, Cut Copy, The Panics — and early sets from future legends like Kimbra and Gotye.
Jules LeFevre grew up in Byron Bay and is a Splendour regular. Once she got second degree burns after spilling instant coffee on herself at the back of the Mix Up tent. She is on Twitter.