I experienced sheer perfection exactly once last school year. It started to rain early into Young the Giant’s headlining set at Dillo Day, the relief I needed after a muggy day of crowds and dancing. Not long after, the band performed “Titus Was Born,” my favorite track off Home of the Strange. I was high off an edible I’d bought specifically for the occasion, so when the song got to the bridge, and frontman Sameer Gadhia started singing, “Rainwater, rainwater / it’s falling on you,” I needed nothing else in that moment. I don’t throw around the word “baptismal” often, if ever, but after a year of academic and personal stress, that moment truly felt baptismal.
Such is the magic of Dillo Day, Northwestern’s annual student-run music festival. As Mayfest remembers it, the festival began in 1972 as Armadillo Day, when some students from Texas put on a concert to celebrate their state’s animal. Over the next four decades, it developed into what we know it as today, a debaucherous day on the Lakefill that tends to have a pretty good soundtrack. On a perpetually stressed campus, it’s a day when time stops. We wake up early of our own volition to brunch with a club or day drink in backyards. We spend the day with our closest friends, but run into nearly everyone we’ve ever met on this campus – and excitedly greet all of them. We explore a transformed Lakefill, full of vendors and activities and stages and people. We eat what we want: bagels and grilled cheeses from the Cheesie’s truck and late-night breakfast at Sargent. And we catch some sets along the way, both the subpar and the standout.
The Dillo Day lineup has become almost formulaic in our time at this university: a band to open, a hip-hop or R&B act to call the “daytime headliner,” a DJ, a rapper or band as the nighttime headliner – oh, and a fifth artist in the middle of it all to fill the gaps. But while we may sometimes take them for granted, Dillo lineups have featured musicians from Steve Aoki to OK Go, Smash Mouth to Chance the Rapper, just in the last 10 years.
It’s a fascinating phenomenon, bringing five artists of varying genres and calibers to play for a bunch of college students all on the same day. So in anticipation of Dillo Day 2019, I decided to look back at this decade of mainstage artists (so, not the second stage, regardless of how fun cupcakKe was last year), ranking them from worst to best. I ranked only based on the booking of the artist, not the actual performance, since I’ve only seen the last two Dillo Days. At the end of the day, it’s all my subjective opinion, but I tried to nuance it with research and check my own preferences whenever possible.
Mainly, I wanted to answer: What artists create the best conditions for the moment I experienced during Young the Giant’s set last year? Tom Hayden put it perfectly in a 2011 Daily column: “Dillo Day is stress relief, but more than that, it’s an outpouring of our successes, our failures, everything we’ve done all year to get to this point. It’s a time to forget what ails you and join everyone else on the Lakefill shouting in unison that we will persevere.” The last 10 years of mainstage lineups reflect the ups and downs of attending this university, even if Mayfest books each in search of that same cathartic outcome.
51. Super Mash Bros (2010 penultimate set)
Of all the artists Mayfest has booked for Dillo over the past 10 years, there’s only one I’ll say was a total waste of money – and that’s Super Mash Bros. The first time I listened to their music, I thought I’d found the wrong group: Did Mayfest really bring two meme DJs to … recreate mashups live of tracks that already exist? That’s something I wouldn’t want to hear at any party, let alone Dillo Day. It would’ve saved a few thousand dollars to just turn on a playlist with “Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em” backed up to “Sandstorm” backed up to “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!” I don’t think the drunk students would’ve noticed the difference.
50. Steve Aoki (2012 nighttime headliner)
Wikipedia tells me Steve Aoki “is widely known for his acrobatic crowd surfing stunts, throwing cake at fans, spraying champagne bottles, and riding rafts on the dance floor. .” Maybe that sounds fun to you, but to me, it just sounds like a huge frat party with an endless budget – and Aoki’s songs sound like the perfectly vapid, generic soundtrack for the event. But we can go to a frat party any day of the year! Dillo is supposed to bring something special, and as a headliner, Aoki falls far from the mark for the occasion.
49. Gramatik (2017 penultimate set)
OK, I might have a slight bias against live electronic acts (but not really, if you skip to the higher tier of this list). That being said, who is Gramatik? Judging from some minimal research before my first Dillo Day, nobody knows. It felt like the worst kind of booking – a fifth artist just to have a fifth artist, a slot to fill between Little Simz and MGMT.
48. Reel Big Fish (2012 middle set)
I’ll admit: I listen to “Sell Out” sometimes, when I happen to be in the mood for white guy reggae fusion and I’ve already cherry-picked my way through Sublime’s and 311’s catalogs. I don’t have a problem with Mayfest booking a one-hit wonder, only that the one hit in question came out 25 years ago. This one isn’t entirely Mayfest’s fault, though – Reel Big Fish has no reason to still be a nostalgia act in 2012 (or, for that matter, 2019). Talk about a sell out.
47. Guster (2010 second set)
The members of Guster met at their freshman orientation for Tufts in 1991, formed the band a year later and released an album before they even graduated. That timeline still aptly describes the band’s sound today – that is, a generic “college rock” relic of the ‘90s. Guster’s music isn’t painful to listen to, or the most boring thing, but it feels like a world apart from the sunny, dancey atmosphere of Dillo Day. I imagine most concertgoers let the band’s set soundtrack their midday naps.
46. Peter Bjorn and John (2011 third set)
Can you imagine a crowd of drunk Northwestern students whistling along to “Young Folks” on the Lakefill? Now imagine it’s four years after the song came out. I can’t either. Sure, Peter Bjorn and John can appeal to artsy indie kids – I mean, they’re Swedish – but this is the same year that Mayfest brought the New Pornographers, the heroes of all artsy indie kids at the turn of the decade. I like to consider myself part of that demographic, meaning I would’ve shouted along to “The Bleeding Heart Show,” stuck around to dance to Chiddy Bang, then decided it was time for a nap by the time Peter Bjorn and John went onstage.
45. Joey Bada$$ (2018 second set, daytime headliner)
Mayfest has a lot of power. That’s nothing groundbreaking, of course; the group annually spends six-figure sums to bring hot and rising artists for that day of release after our year of being too hard on ourselves. But if minoring in critical theory at this school has taught me anything, it’s that we ought to question things like power – so let’s unpack this a bit.
By bringing an artist to Dillo Day, Mayfest does three things. One, it endorses an artist as “cool.” Sometimes that entails putting a stamp of approval on an artist we already know. Others, it means introducing the student body to a new artist and telling us we need to pay attention to them. Two, Mayfest gives that artist a platform. That band, rapper, singer or DJ gets a stage for an hour to do what they see fit, with the promise that hundreds to thousands of students will be there watching and listening. And three, Mayfest pays the artist. And college shows can be especially enticing financial options given that artists tend to earn a flat fee, rather than one based on ticket sales.
What does this have to do with Joey Bada$$? In April 2017, the rapper released his socially charged second album All Amerikkkan Bada$$, grappling with realities of being Black in America and Donald Trump's presidency. The songs sound developed and interesting, and some are pretty damn catchy. All this makes him seem like a perfect daytime headliner.
But the following January, Bada$$ confirmed rumors of a collaboration with XXXtentacion, the since-deceased rapper accused of violently abusing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and physically assaulting fans. Since then, Bada$$ has perhaps been XXX’s most vehement mainstream supporter. He was the biggest feature on the controversial rapper’s second album ? in March, in addition to supposedly recording that yet-unreleased mixtape with him.
That detracts from Bada$$'s appeal at Dillo Day. It’s definitely not a good look for Mayfest – long-criticized for booking few women on its lineups, sometimes none at all – to pay a hefty sum to a domestic abuse apologist, give him a stage for an hour (calling him a headliner) and tell the student body we ought to care about his work. At the same time, it’s appealing for Mayfest to give that platform to a person of color presenting critiques of contemporary systems of oppression.
But there are other artists doing that same work, some even more explicitly, without the baggage that Joey Bada$$ carries. Yes, if Bada$$ truly cares about calling out and dismantling oppression, he shouldn’t champion someone with explicit disregard for women. But moreover, if Mayfest truly wants to book socially relevant, politically engaging, musically exciting performers, not to mention create an environment that supports women and their artistry, it shouldn’t throw its support behind performers with questionable-at-best alignments.
44. Odesza (2015 penultimate set)
Summer 2015 must’ve been the best summer for Odesza, and the worst for major festivals hoping to show off an original lineup. The EDM duo played Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Firefly, Sasquatch! and Hangout, among others. Looking back, it seems pretty uninspired that Mayfest booked Odesza for that same year’s Dillo. Even though the festival was canceled due to weather, most students could just see the duo at their local music festival that summer.
43. OK Go (2014 opener)
The best thing about OK Go is, of course, the music videos. They always bored me, but if I took one thing away from gifted education in middle school, it’s that nerdy kids tend to be fascinated by OK Go music videos and the production level behind them.
That doesn’t mean nerdy kids – a large, important constituency at this university – are into OK Go’s music. The grand scale of the band’s music videos makes up for something lacking in its generic songs. Looking at it a bit more optimistically, I guess I could say the band’s music acts as a means to an end product of a neat video – but remember, I don’t like the videos either. Mayfest might have been better off showing OK Go music videos for an hour than having the band open Dillo Day with its most interesting element stripped away.
42. Lunice (2013 penultimate slot)
If I stumbled back onto the Lakefill the evening of Dillo Day 2013, drunk for the second time that day in preparation for Wiz Khalifa’s headlining set (so on second thought, maybe under the influence of something more fitting), Lunice’s frenetic electronic music would just stress me out. If I stuck it out for 10 minutes, that stress would turn to boredom and confusion. I hear everything from buckets to bubbles in Lunice’s music – it’s trying to be interesting, even if it tends to fail.
41. Cashmere Cat (2016 penultimate set)
Cashmere Cat doesn’t make bad music by any stretch. That being said, the best thing about his music is that he’s worked with Ariana Grande (who once played a character named Cat on Victorious, lest we forget), and I’m going to guess a surprise appearance from Ari wouldn’t really fit into Mayfest’s budget. Sans Ariana Grande, the anchor of Cashmere Cat’s catalog is a 2012 hit called “Mirror Maru,” sonically interesting but a bit too chill to precede a ScHoolboy Q headline.
40. Rhymefest (2010 middle set)
A community activist in his hometown of Chicago, not to mention a songwriter with credits like Grammy-winner “Jesus Walks” and Oscar-winner “Glory,” Rhymefest would be a perfect mid-tier CTSS speaker. I can’t see him being as compelling of a Dillo Day performer, though, since his biggest hits aren’t even his songs. While it’s admirable of Mayfest to recognize such a thought-provoking local figure, Rhymefest sadly isn’t the exciting rapper students look for at Dillo.
39. B.o.B (2011 nighttime headliner)
2011 was a simpler time for B.o.B – fresh off his breakout debut B.o.B. Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray and years before he became the world’s most vocal flat-earther. Songs like “Nothin’ On You,” “Airplanes” and “So Good” banged (and still do). But with just one album out, B.o.B was far from headliner material in 2011. Did he even have enough music for an hourlong set? At the same time, “Airplanes” only deserves to be performed at night, and it must've felt perfect on the Lakefill, under the stars, weeks before the end of another school year.
38. Kill the Noise (2011 fourth set)
Kill the Noise sounds exactly like the off-brand Skrillex that Mayfest would’ve wanted to book in 2011, and there’s something to be said for knowing what you want.
37. Daniel Caesar (2018 penultimate set)
Now’s as good a time as any to clarify something: I could never actually book a Dillo Day, and I totally admire the work of everyone on Mayfest who puts on the festival. I believe criticism is healthy and list rankings are fun, but I’m not trying to say I could do it better, by any stretch of my imagination.
That being said, if I were booking Dillo Day, I would set some rules for the lineup. One of the most important? No slow music after the sun goes down. The prospect of day drinking to fuel an afternoon and evening of music before a night of partying is a more reliable motivator for students to wake up early than any 9 a.m. discussion section could ever be. So by the time it’s 7 or 8 p.m., a fair portion of the Dillo crowd is tired, putting off ingesting more substances until the headliner’s about to go on. We need upbeat music to keep us going.
That’s what puts Daniel Caesar so low on this list. I know you think his music is so beautiful and sweet and it’s you and your boyfriend’s song or whatever, but to me, it’s a little too sleepy for Dillo Day. It’s fine music otherwise, but the Lakefill on the Saturday before reading week is its own world, one that needs its energy replenished once the sun goes down.
36. N.A.S.A. (2011 penultimate set)
I have to give it to N.A.S.A., a DJ duo I hadn’t heard of until I put this list together: Who else could pair Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O and Wu-Tang Clan founding member Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the same track? That’s about where my praise of the group stops, though. The songs are fun enough, but like with Cashmere Cat, the most interesting thing N.A.S.A. could’ve done during its Dillo set would've been bringing out Kanye West, Lykke Li and Santigold. What a scene that would’ve been, though.
35. Big Boi (2012 penultimate set)
For the notorious 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Outkast worked separately, with Big Boi and André 3000 each making one respective album for the project. André’s record gets praise for experimenting with the boundaries of R&B, but Big Boi’s half is an hour of straight jams. Everyone loves “The Way You Move,” and “Last Call” doesn’t get enough attention for going as hard as it does.
Big Boi released his first proper solo album after that in 2010, an acclaimed project with an equally impressive title, Sir Lucious Left Foot … The Son of Chico Dusty. It wasn’t popular in the way that ScHoolboy Q's and 2 Chainz’s acclaimed projects were, though, and as Big Boi taught us on “The Way You Move,” his music is best enjoyed when you know the words to sing along. Months after he came to Dillo, he released a much less interesting record, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. It’s a downward trend Mayfest shouldn’t want to be associated with.
I’m missing the point, though: Everyone just wants to hear “Hey Ya!” And regardless of how hard his bars still go, Big Boi can’t give us that – only Outkast can. There’s always something cooler than being cool.
34. MGMT (2017 nighttime headliner)
Somehow, Mayfest tells us, MGMT was the most-requested artist on the group’s annual Dillo Day poll. I don’t know what kind of nostalgia was in the air in 2017, but I’m here for it. “Electric Feel” and “Kids” continued to slap 10 years later, and “Time to Pretend” is the growing up anthem we deserve as college students. The following year, MGMT released its best album since the duo gave us those hits on Oracular Spectacular, and Andrew and Ben previewed a few of those synthier songs during their Dillo set.
The band’s two middle albums, then, are the issue, with exactly zero songs that the average Northwestern student would – or should – know. Dancing to “Kids” live may have been an enticing prospect, but I don’t think the student body knew how many songs they’d have to bear to get to that point. For those of us who did, and welcomed it, MGMT proved the perfect headliner. For those who didn’t, well, you still got to dance to “Kids” at the end, and that ought to be worth something.
33. Kendrick Lamar (2012 second set)
Unquestionably, Kendrick Lamar is one of the preeminent musicians of the 2010s. He’s a true artist, with something important to say and the skill to say it well. There’s a reason he has a Pulitzer, after all.
So it’s a little disappointing that Mayfest brought him in 2012, before he had a chance to start making his impact. good kid, m.A.A.d city didn’t come out till that October, and he only had one single out before his Dillo performance: “The Recipe,” which ended up as a bonus track on the album. Kendrick’s 2011 debut, Section.80, showed ambition, but he didn’t perfect his style and message until m.A.A.d city.
Maybe it felt exciting to watch Kendrick Lamar’s post-Dillo rise, but I bet it felt like missing out too. If Mayfest had booked him as a headliner just one year later, when a crowd of thousands could’ve sang along to “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Backseat Freestyle,” Kendrick might’ve topped this list. The group has a great track record of being ahead of the curve on major artists – it was just too far ahead for Kendrick.
32. Wiz Khalifa (2013 nighttime headliner)
NBN’s fall 2013 cover story, “Who’s The Headliner?” reported that Mayfest didn’t fully confirm Dillo Day's nighttime headliner in 2013 until the day before the festival, after the group’s previous pick canceled a week out. Under the circumstances, Wiz Khalifa is far from a bad result. By 2013, he came with a small arsenal of party hits: “Black and Yellow,” “Young, Wild and Free,” “Work Hard, Play Hard.” He didn’t have anything special to provide the festival, but at that point, he didn’t need to – Mayfest hired him to do a job, and he was capable of doing it.
31. The New Pornographers (2011 opener, daytime headliner)
It’s a complicated question, how much I’m going to base this ranking off my own taste. I mean, on one hand, it’s my list, and part of what makes this fun is it being totally subjective. But on the other hand, I want to be fair and evaluate this based off the booking decision itself, and a large part of that means gauging what the student body would like.
All that to say, I’m a huge fan of The New Pornographers, the collective of Vancouver’s finest rock musicians from Neko Case to Dan Bejar (of Destroyer fame). Hell, I’m just a fan of Canadian rock collectives – and late ‘00s/early ‘10s Mayfest seems to be too, since Broken Social Scene and NU-alumnus-turned-Arcade-Fire-keyboardist Will Butler also played Dillo Day 2008.
It pains me to put The New Pornographers in the solid middle of this list, but their booking seems bizarre to me. Their last great album came out in 2005, and I can’t imagine them as a common name among college students in 2011, let alone the sort of thing they’d want to listen to to kick off a day of debauchery. In all fairness, I could be underestimating the student body here – in a story announcing the booking, The Daily quoted a Communication freshman who endorsed the band as “funky, kind of new, fun.” (I’ll give her two out of three for a band that released its first record in 2001.)
I know I would’ve been front row to catch a glimpse of Neko Case and sing the band’s anthemic choruses had I gone to this university in 2011. I just wonder how many other students would’ve been excited to join me.
30. The Mowgli’s (2016 opener)
I go through phases with The Mowgli’s. See, I’m from Kansas City, and so is Colin Dieden, one of the singers for the hippie-pop collective. So on one hand, I’m immensely proud of the band, a feeling rooted in the four amazingly fun hometown performances I’ve seen. (I saw them perform in a Chipotle once. It was pretty cool.) But on the other hand, the band’s music is kind of basic, right? The majority of it is overwhelmingly optimistic and sunny, almost to the point of predictability.
What better artist to open Dillo Day, though, than an energetic band with a full set of summertime anthems? Not all Dillo artists need to push the student body toward something new and cool – some just need to entertain for an hour. As openers, The Mowgli’s can do that just fine.
29. A$AP Ferg (2019 nighttime headliner)
The rapper so nice, Mayfest brought him twice? That’s a little much for A$AP Ferg, which is why his second appearance ranks lower on this list than his first. Mayfest gets some credit for re-trying part of its canceled 2015 lineup, a collection of four standout artists and Odesza. But the world was paying more attention to Ferg in 2015 than we are today, with his features on songs by Haim, Ariana Grande and Fall Out Boy. In 2019, he feels like a left-field booking for a headliner. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it’s a confident move from Mayfest that I admire on some level – but I wonder if 2015’s second-set artist can fill headliner shoes just four years later.
28. Ryan Hemsworth (2014 penultimate set)
There’s an ambient undertone to Ryan Hemsworth’s electronic work, which has “summer on the Lakefill” written all over it for me. It’s cool and chill, a damn good background soundtrack rather than dance tracks. When you’re going on before 2 Chainz, that’s probably the right vibe.
27. Porches (2017 opener)
So remember that fake rule I made, no slow music at night? Mayfest followed it when the group put Porches, the spacey synth-rock project of Aaron Maine, first on its 2017 lineup. So I guess I can’t fully complain – especially considering Porches is the sort of artist whose concert I would go to on my own. At the same time, though, the opener ought to have some level of energy as well, to get the audience excited for its day ahead. Porches can’t quite accomplish that with its muted, disaffected mood music. But it ended up as the perfect precursor for the gray, chilly day on the Lakefill that Dillo Day 2017 shaped up to be.
26. Chiddy Bang (2011 second set)
I can’t describe Chiddy Bang’s music better than Eric Renner Brown does in a 2011 NBN preview of the duo’s Dillo set: “a brainy, but fun and party-ready product that is often irresistible.” Finding one hit in "Mind Your Manners," Chiddy Bang may not quite have been the future of pop-adjacent hip-hop, but Chiddy and Xaphoon didn’t take themselves too seriously and had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
25. Anna Lunoe (2019 middle set)
If you expected 3OH!3 based on Mayfest’s “Error 303” teaser, don’t hold a grudge against Australian producer Anna Lunoe, whose current single is called “303.” Her music is clubby and danceable, with more intriguing production than its poppy vocal elements might imply. It’s a far cry from the regressive drops and flashing lights of the DJs toward the bottom of this list – an up-and-comer bringing her fresh perspective to the genre.
24. Saint Motel (2015 opener, daytime headliner)
Saint Motel consistently puts on a fun set – when I saw the band at a 2017 festival in Kansas City, frontman A/J Jackson rode a Ferris wheel during set-closer “Move.” The band hadn’t released “Move,” or anything off its more developed second album saintmotelevision, when it got booked for Dillo 2015, but still had a collection of exciting, movement-inducing pop music. It’s different than the sort of music coming out of other pop-rock bands at the time, with that earlier work relying on horns and piano almost more than guitar. On as stacked a lineup as Dillo Day 2015, which also featured the mature pop stylings of Charli XCX later in the day, it’s hard to give Saint Motel the full points for passion and creativity the band probably deserves. The would-be lineup relied on the band’s lovable energy, though, placing this crowd-pleasing performance before back-to-back sets from the fringes of pop, A$AP Ferg and Charli.
23. 2 Chainz (2014 nighttime headliner)
Sometimes, the most fun part of Dillo Day is getting messy. 2 Chainz circa 2014 – tracks like “Birthday Song” and “I Luv Dem Strippers” – is the perfect soundtrack for drinking a little too much, texting an ex or a classroom crush, or embarrassing yourself in the crowd by just going for it.
22. Hayden James (2016 middle set)
Hayden James’ music is a vibe. I can’t quite qualify what that means, but basically, it checks all my boxes for what good electronic music on Dillo Day should be. It captures the relaxed feeling of an evening on the Lakefill, but there’s enough of a beat to dance to if that’s more your speed. It’s varied enough to keep your attention for a full hourlong set, and my biggest issue with electronic shows tends to be that I get distracted. Even if it’s cool too, it’s something most students surely hadn’t heard before – hopefully meaning that Mayfest gave some a new favorite.
21. Cold War Kids (2012 opener, daytime headliner)
OK, I’ve seen Cold War Kids three times, so I’m really tempering my biases by not placing the band higher on this list. But let me tell you a story. The third time I saw them, with Foster the People at the Aragon in December 2017, frontman Nathan Willett had all but lost his voice. He still put on the hell of a show I know the band for: ripping on guitar, banging the piano and probably hurting his voice more in the process.
That’s the thing – Cold War Kids are performers, through and through. They’re kind of an outlier on any Dillo lineup for being as hard of a rock band as they are. (They began turning toward a more pop-inflected sound on the album that followed their Dillo performance, 2013’s Dear Miss Lonelyhearts.) But that’s not a bad thing for a festival that often boxes itself in by trying to book a certain type of indie pop band, or mainstream party rapper, or empty electronic act.
And while Cold War Kids had a long and varied career since their Dillo performance, the earlier songs have always been live standouts. Every time I’ve seen them, I know when Willett sits down at the piano and pounds out the chords of “We Used to Vacation,” does a little howl to kick off “Mexican Dogs,” or tells us it’s the last song and launches into the total burner that is “Something Is Not Right With Me,” I’m in for a treat.
20. Cults (2014 middle set)
The middle set is probably easiest to skip – it’s usually right after the can’t-miss “daytime headliner,” prime time for a nap before the (hopefully) exciting performances the night brings. So it’s a great place for Mayfest to slot an artist who definitely won’t appeal to everyone, but is interesting nonetheless. That’s Cults, the airy, pre-bedroom pop duo anchored by singer Madeline Follin’s distinct soprano voice. They would’ve been more at home at the WNUR-booked second stage that debuted in 2014, so placing them on the mainstage lineup is a refreshing treat for alternative listeners among a stage often dominated by electronic and hip-hop.
19. A$AP Ferg (2015 second set)
When I first planned this list, it worked in my mind because I thought I’d only be writing about each artist once. But then Mayfest threw me the curveball of bringing A$AP Ferg back as a headliner after the tragic cancellation of Dillo Day 2015. Ferg’s always been more of a midday set performer to me, though – a pretty intriguing rapper, but never the sort of musician for everyone to rally around.
18. Regina Spektor (2010 opener, daytime headliner)
It’s hard not to smile when listening to Regina Spektor sing. She’s a fantastic blend of silly and classically trained – many Bienen students could take a note – known for contorting her delicate voice in ways you never expect. It’s a little off to bring the irreverent, piano-playing, anti-folk performer for Dillo, as a daytime headliner no less, but in the same endearing way that her music can sound a little off sometimes.
Look at it another way, though – a singer with lyrics like “Someone next door is fucking to one of my songs” and “A little bag of cocaine, but who’s the girl wearing my dress?” along with a whole song called “Poor Little Rich Boy” belongs nowhere but Northwestern University on Armadillo Day.
17. Walk the Moon (2013 opener, daytime headliner)
“Shut Up and Dance” thrust Walk the Moon into the pop sphere after its September 2014 release. If you didn’t know the band from its 2012 self-titled debut and the coming-of-age song “Anna Sun,” though, did you listen to any cool music? Even with one album out by the time of its Dillo performance, Walk the Moon is a band that wears the ambiguous “daytime headliner” title well, consistently known for its high-energy live sets. I’ve seen a lot of concerts, but few moments have compared to when Walk the Moon performed “I Can Lift a Car” at my favorite outdoor venue in Kansas City last year. I left the concert sweaty, breathless and without much of a voice from a night of jumping and shouting – because you just can’t not with Walk the Moon.
16. DRAM (2017 second set, daytime headliner)
DRAM played Summer Breeze, UChicago’s answer to Dillo Day, right after his Dillo set in 2017, and that’s a situation I don’t know how to read. On one hand, it means Mayfest’s booking choice was unoriginal, since UChicago got the same thing; on the other, it means Mayfest was on the pulse of what’s hot, since DRAM was clearly in-demand. Ever the optimist (as DRAM tends to be, as well), I’ll take the second interpretation – especially since Dillo got the fresh energy from DRAM’s first set of the day.
“Broccoli” stayed in rotation on party playlists throughout the whole year, but the rapper-singer brings a whole arsenal of good vibes to back it up. It’s music that makes you smile – and yes, maybe UChicago students need that more than we do, but we deserve happiness too.
15. Daya (2019 penultimate set)
Dillo Day has been missing something that Summer Breeze has had recently, though: Mid-tier pop stars with a few bops whose music you may or may not have forgotten about, but still slaps regardless. Two years ago, UChicago’s festival brought “2 On” singer Tinashe, who I vote for dutifully in every poll and hope will appear on the Dillo lineup every year; this year, to my extreme jealousy, UChicago students got to see Becky G perform her hit “Shower” live in the Year of Our Lord 2019.
So it heartened me to see Mayfest finally come around to the trend this year, and in full force, by booking Daya, the impressively big voice behind hits of two years ago including “Sit Still, Look Pretty” and the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” She’s far from dated and still a pop star in her own right, with more mature music preceding a sophomore album, including the club-influenced new single “Insomnia.” In fact, at only 20 years old and having recently come out as bisexual, Daya has said she’s still growing up – and what better place for that than college?
14. ScHoolboy Q (2016 nighttime headliner)
For a rap headliner, ScHoolboy Q’s name doesn’t carry the same amount of star power as someone like 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa or even B.o.B. But Mayfest deserves praise for having the confidence to put a creative, sometimes difficult critical darling like ScHoolboy Q at the top of 2016’s lineup, rather than a typically popular MC. One of Q’s major triumphs, too, is bridging his world of aggressive bars and lightly experimental production with some banging party music like “Man of the Year.”
Just eight days before his Dillo Day performance, ScHoolboy Q released “THat Part,” the Kanye-featuring standout single off his Blank Face LP that must’ve gone wild on the Lakefill. If Mayfest brought Q’s friend and labelmate Kendrick Lamar too early, the group brought ScHoolboy Q right on time.
13. Whitney (2018 opener)
Whitney is from Chicago, but that doesn’t make this an easy booking – the band’s Dillo set was a true get for Mayfest in my eyes. Since the 2016 debut album Light Upon the Lake, the jammy folk-rock band has been a giant of the city’s music scene, with its status only growing in anticipation of a still-unannounced second album. Factor in Whitney’s relaxed-yet-powerful songs, and there’s a near-perfect Dillo opener: music to ease you into a long day, important enough to reward the fans who come out for the first set.
12. Hippo Campus (2019 opener)
The day after my first Dillo, I saw Hippo Campus headline Metro, and it was an exponentially better and more polished set than MGMT the night before. Since then, the hard-working 20-somethings released a whole new EP and album, and added a fifth member, horn player DeCarlo Jackson. So if Whitney is the near-perfect Dillo opener, then Hippo Campus is perfection. The Minnesota boys make young, varied music that can draw fans from the pop, rock and electronic camps in equal measure, and like I said, they put on a hell of a live show. With two full-lengths and three EPs total, they’re almost too qualified to open Dillo – which makes their booking all the better, nearly guaranteed to draw the biggest crowd for a mainstage opener in a long time. If nothing else, they’re five cute boys who resemble the sort of guy from your history lecture who can distract you from taking notes for a bit. All the more motivation to get to the Lakefill early this year.
Have I mentioned that I’m not even going to this Dillo Day? My internship orientation starts the week before, so I’m begrudgingly missing what’s possibly the best Dillo lineup ever. But when I found out Hippo Campus was playing a Governors Ball pre-show in New York the Thursday before Dillo, you can damn well bet I bought a ticket. I’m not giving up my chance to experience such refined fun once again.
11. Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals (2016 second set, daytime headliner)
What is a daytime headliner, anyway? The thing about Dillo Day is (at least for as long as I’ve been here), every mainstage artist gets an hour for their set, so there’s no real hierarchy other than who’s closing the show. A typical music festival would just schedule its artists in descending order from most important on down, but Dillo Day places its second-most important artist in the middle of the day, usually the first or second set. I’ve come to understand this as a slot for a more up-and-coming artist whose music might fit better in sunlight than under stage lights, the first Dillo event of the day where everyone should make an appearance.
But basically, a daytime headliner is supposed to be Anderson .Paak circa 2016. The singer-rapper-drummer-bandleader released his sophomore full-length, Malibu, in January, but it’s a summer record through and through. Since he drums, his music has an impeccable sense of rhythm, the sort of sound to get you moving whether you want to or not. It’s hard to fit his music into the boundaries of pop, hip-hop, R&B or rock, and honestly, it’s just music that’s difficult to hate. He’s a true contrast to ScHoolboy Q’s heavier verses too, almost creating an actual daytime/nighttime dichotomy on the lineup. Hell, .Paak could’ve headlined the whole thing – but what fun is dancing to his music when it’s dark out?
10. Young the Giant (2018 nighttime headliner)
I’ve kept my preferences in check as best I can with some of these other artists, but that’s hard here because I have a history with Young the Giant. There was a point in my life when I barely knew what modern rock music was, until I watched the band perform “My Body” at the 2011 VMAs. Hundreds of screaming fans surrounded a small stage, and Sameer Gadhia, the singer, held two microphones, one of which had a heavy reverb effect. It was, quite possibly, the coolest musical thing I had seen in my 13 years on this earth. Afterward, I dove into commercial alternative rock, which led me to some more alternative stuff, which helped me discover nearly all my favorite artists today. Critics may write the band off as empty and derivative, but I still see passion and emotion in Young the Giant, the same thing I saw when Sameer was shouting into those microphones eight years ago.
When Mayfest announced Young the Giant as its headliner last year, few people I talked to were noticeably excited, but I advocated for the band at every chance I got. I had just seen Young the Giant for the first time the previous year (on a lineup that also included Dillo alumni Cold War Kids, funny enough), and it was worth the six-year wait. Even if Young the Giant’s sole pop success happened early in the band’s career with “Cough Syrup,” its music is still equally exciting today, especially after the denser 2016 album Home of the Strange that preceded the band’s Dillo appearance.
I know I wrote at the outset of this list that I wouldn’t factor in the bands’ actual performances, but I have to make an exception here, just to say that I was right – find me on person on this campus who didn’t enjoy Young the Giant’s set last year.
9. Danny Brown (2013 second set)
Danny Brown’s debut album, The Hybrid, ambitiously opens with a track called “Greatest Rapper Ever.” Since its March 2010 release, he’s been making good on that claim, carving out a space as one of the most reliably interesting artists in rap. He’s a documented fan of everything from late Bowie to the White Stripes to Run D.M.C., reflected through his own rapping over experimental, dissonant tracks with his idiosyncratic strained vocal tone.
Mayfest brought Brown when he was only two albums into the game, months before his career-defining third full-length Old. But Danny Brown has never not made sincerely fascinating songs, bars that amount to some of the most compelling music to ever grace the Dillo Day main stage. His music often lacks the shoutable choruses or sheer danceability typical of Dillo’s go-to rappers – all in favor of unadulterated performance.
8. Smash Mouth (2013 middle set)
Admit it: You want, more than anything, to shout “All Star” drunk on the Lakefill on a Saturday afternoon with your closest friends – and the band that made the song.
7. Miguel (2015 nighttime headliner)
On May 30, 2015, Miguel was exactly 30 days away from arriving at peak sex symbol status with the release of Wildheart. He’d flirted with it on his previous album, 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream, with songs like “How Many Drinks?” “Pussy Is Mine” and the endlessly seductive “Adorn.” The months and years leading up to June 29, 2015, traced a slow progression toward that title. In 2013, he invited Mariah Carey onto his bike on the sexily suggestive duet “#Beautiful”; in 2014, he carried Ludacris’ attempted comeback song “Good Lovin”; on May 8, 2015, he made “love birds” actually sound sexy on the stacked A$AP Rocky single “Everyday.”
But wait – four days before that and 26 days before he was scheduled to come to Dillo, on May 4, he released the sexiest song recorded this decade: “Coffee (Fucking).” His voice oozes sex as his performance shifts between soothing whispers and ecstatic shouts. I already knew I was gay by the time the song came out, but if I hadn’t, the fact that I was imagining Miguel singing directly to me would’ve surely sped up the process.
“Coffee” was the first single off Wildheart, an album on which a bare-chested Miguel poses in front of a nude woman. The record features lyrics like “I wanna fuck like we’re filming in the valley” and “yeah, get wild baby / so hot, goddamn I need a towel baby” to help you discern the central theme. Like I said: Wildheart was Miguel’s climax as a sex symbol.
If Dillo Day is our one day of reward a year, Northwestern students deserve to spend it lusting after Miguel’s perfect voice, sensual stage presence and general sexiness. And that makes the windstorm that canceled Dillo 2015 a bigger cockblock than any roommate who won’t give you the room for an hour.
6. TOKiMONSTA (2018 middle set)
Here’s the biggest reason why Mayfest needs to book more women, nonbinary people and people of color for Dillo Day: More often than not, they’re making more compelling music than their white man counterparts. TOKiMONSTA is a prime example. The LA producer had to re-learn how to hear music after two brain surgeries for her Moyamoya disease affected how her brain comprehends language and other stimuli. Her 2017 album Lune Rouge, released half a year before her Dillo performance, is a document of her recovery, featuring all songs she made as she rediscovered music.
That story is what makes the record so sonically intriguing – and what puts TOKiMONSTA above many of her peers in electronic music. On Lune Rouge, she’s fascinated with sheer sounds, creating a record simultaneously full of energy and reflection. She’s using electronic music as the vehicle for expression it ought to be, rather than empty party music. And that makes for a much more fun and memorable Dillo Day set.
5. Teyana Taylor (2019 second set, daytime headliner)
The Dillo Day rumor mill is always strong, and usually pretty accurate. I learned that in the run-up to my first Dillo, when an older friend told me she heard that Mayfest was bringing MGMT. I thought the booking seemed misplaced, if not random … until I got a press release a few days later saying MGMT would be the festival’s nighttime headliner. Now, I believe every reasonable booking rumor I hear, and so far they’ve all been true. (When I say reasonable, what I mean is there was no way in hell Mayfest could’ve brought Eminem last year, and no way in hell the group would’ve wanted to bring such an incendiary artist for a generally progressive student body.)
Yet, when someone told me the festival might be bringing G.O.O.D. Music’s R&B vocal powerhouse, Teyana Taylor, I had my doubts. Not only would she be the third woman on a lineup that's never featured a majority of women, announced after Anna Lunoe and Daya, but she was one of last year’s biggest breakouts in music. Taylor’s compact, soulful, technically impeccable record K.T.S.E. was a definite highlight of Kanye West’s five-album G.O.O.D. Music rollout, refreshing after four weeks of generally overhyped rap records (except, of course, for Pusha-T’s career-defining Daytona and the treasure that is “Ghost Town”). Not only is Taylor is a performer who knows her worth, leaving Jeremih’s Later That Night after she said she was undervalued and mistreated; she’s a performer with enough worth to carry that tour on her own, after Jeremih left instead.
So, I thought, she’s definitely too good for Dillo Day. But by the time a third person told me she’d be coming, I knew it had to be true. That prompted a new question: Would she take the title she deserved as daytime headliner? Sure enough, she would – making her the only woman on this list to be called a headliner.
On this year’s truly stacked Dillo lineup, Taylor is the rightful standout, an artist with palpable mass appeal who exudes coolness. Not only does she make up for a semi-disappointing nighttime headliner announcement and promise to be the day’s can’t-miss set, it’s my hope that her booking marks the beginning of an era of Mayfest paying attention to, recognizing and valuing the current pop music contributions of women of color.
The closing track off KTSE, “WTP,” incorporates samples from the film Paris Is Burning, the essential document of the New York ball scene and its queer of color contributions. It gives the album its closing line: “I want so much more, I want – I want my name to be a household product in the high fashion world.” Taylor is already well on her way, and it’s about time Mayfest cosigned such a career rise.
4. Chance the Rapper (2014 second set, daytime headliner)
Today, it’s the hope in the back of everyone’s mind upon moving to college in Chicago (well, Evanston): Maybe I’ll get to see Chance the Rapper perform! His skillful, fun, innovative second mixtape Acid Rap planted that thought in so many students for the first time – and precisely 13 months later, Mayfest delivered by booking Chance as its daytime headliner. The definition of a good ass job, if you ask me.
3. Charli XCX (2015 middle set)
Forget A$AP Ferg – if we’re looking back at The Dillo That Never Happened, the one who really deserves to come back and headline is Charli XCX. Everything she’s released since May 30, 2015, has fallen somewhere between entertaining and superb, a balance any great Dillo Day act should embody. I want nothing more than to enjoy the views in the crowd during “Boys,” make an idiot of myself by going too hard for “I Got It” and dance the night away with my friends to “1999.”
But let’s not forget, Charli was a perfect choice in 2015 too. Before she became one of the figureheads of experimental pop music with Vroom Vroom and Number 1 Angel, Charli made a record of perfectly bratty punk-inflected pop, Sucker. It came out just six months before her would’ve-been Dillo performance, and featured iconic anthems like “Break the Rules,” “Famous” and the title track, all perfect to shout along to during a mid-afternoon Dillo set.
There was also the song from the record that overshadowed all the others: “Boom Clap,” Charli’s contribution to the soundtrack for The Fault in Our Stars. Didn’t know it was made for the movie? That’s because it dominated summer 2014 in every possible way. Students might’ve been tired of it a year later, but for no good reason. It’s a genius, perfect pop song that puts its rhythmic elements at the forefront, contrasting restrained verses with a soaring chorus.
Summer 2015 was a transitional phase for Charli XCX, from defiant punk to cool, disaffected tumblr user. That, in and of itself, is perfectly Northwestern. We can be brats, but we’re cool too, just in our own way. It would’ve been the perfect crowd for Charli.
2. Little Simz (2017 middle set)
Before Little Simz, the last solo woman rapper Mayfest booked was Estelle in 2009. I know, you’re confused. Estelle? The “American Boy” singer? Yes, her voice is impeccable, but she raps too – check out “Wait a Minute (Just Touch),” the single before “American Boy.” (And let’s be real, she had some bars on “American Boy.”) All this to say, Estelle is amazing, and I’m sure she put on an impressive Dillo performance.
So it made little sense for Mayfest to wait so long to book another solo woman rapper. When Little Simz came eight years later, she proved the group shouldn’t have waited. She was one of the most interesting rappers out in 2017 – and she continues to hold that title today.
I’d venture to say most students hadn’t heard of Little Simz when Mayfest announced her, but they needed to. The London independent rapper was just 23 for her Dillo Day performance and had already released her second album, Stillness In Wonderland. It showed a mind at work, intricate verses with universal messages, the sort of rapper who deserves to blow up.
Little Simz was also the first solo woman of color Mayfest had brought since Estelle, and that’s an even more inexcusable fact. Mayfest rectified it by booking TOKiMONSTA the following year, then daytime headliner Teyana Taylor this year. I like to think Simz showed the group what talent it’d been missing out on.
1. Nelly (2010 nighttime headliner)
Nobody knows the first time they heard “Hot In Herre,” “Country Grammar (Hot Shit)” or “Ride Wit Me” – these songs just feel like they’ve always existed on dance floors and throwback playlists. But there was a point when these gems were just ideas. Then Cornell Iral Haynes Jr. stepped into the booth to lay down bars like, “I was like, good gracious, ass is bodacious / flirtatious, tryin’ to show patience.” You rarely hear him take a breath, like he has some important things to say and needs to get them out. “Why you at the bar if you ain’t poppin’ the bottles? / What good is all the fame if you ain’t fuckin’ the models?” It’s a message to share.
A 2011 NBN story detailing the process of booking 2010’s Dillo Day notes that Drake had originally taken an offer to be the headliner before backing out a month before the show, and justifies booking Nelly as a “throwback artist.” (They’re cheaper, easier to schedule and “proven to be crowd favorites.”) Yet before NU students were even back for Fall Quarter, Nelly released a new single – “Just a Dream,” the slow-burning hit that became his 18th to crack the top 40. Throwback, who?
All this makes Nelly the example of a perfect Dillo Day booking. He has hits – and a lot of them. He makes high-energy, danceable music that just about anyone can get into. And he’s relevant, the sort of artist you’d want to brag to your friends about seeing for free at your university. Nelly himself put it best: “Hot shit!”