Taking place over the UK’s August bank holiday weekend, the twin Reading and Leeds Festivals may be seen as younger siblings to the longer-running Glastonbury Festival, but they offer no less a rite of passage for fans of rock, grime and hip-hop. As thousands of mosh-pit survivors can attest, the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances have become some of the most talked-about gigs of all time.
20: LCD Soundsystem (2010)
A year before they announced their hiatus, LCD Soundsystem performed at Reading Festival on the NME/Radio 1 stage in 2010, delivering a barnstorming performance of pogo-worthy dance-punk and euphoric electro-rock. “I’m an asshole, but not the kind of asshole who says, ‘You’re the greatest crowd,’ every time he plays,” frontman James Murphy told the crowd. “But so far you’re the best crowd we’ve had at Reading!” Running through a setlist containing many of the best LCD Soundsystem songs, among them the acerbic Daft Punk Is Playing at My House and the heartfelt All My Friends, the incendiary New York City group were at the peak of their imperial phase and brought energy in abundance to this highlight among the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances.
19: Oasis (2000)
For one their final truly outstanding shows, Oasis kept the Britpop flame alight throughout their Main Stage performance at Reading Festival in 2000. Just six months after the release of the group’s fourth studio album, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants, the audience clamoured for classic hits such as Live Forever and Wonderwall, and the Gallagher brothers answered with an extraordinary and grandiose setlist, singer Liam Gallagher evoking the same no-nonsense attitude of Oasis’ early days. A pivotal moment in their history, this is a monumental standout among the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances.
18: Foals (2016)
When indie-rock band Foals were announced as co-headliners with dance act Disclosure for the 2016 Reading and Leeds Festival, there was some Twitter chatter as to whether this was a risky move by the organisers. As it turned out, Yannis Philippakis and his bandmates more than proved they were worthy of a place on the bill, delivering a passionate and fiery setlist of danceable alt-rock which, thanks to flamethrower displays and Philippakis’ impromptu stage dive, caused fans to get hot under the collar. As a further riposte to the sceptics, they even finished the show by inviting the Disclosure DJs onstage to perform Two Steps, Twice with them. Surefire evidence that you should never pay attention to what people say on Twitter, Foals gave the doubters a sonic shadow ban they’ll never forget.
17: The Libertines (2010)
Finally deciding to make amends after a six-year absence, Pete Doherty and Carl Barât announced in the NME that The Libertines would be reuniting for a “one-off” performance at Reading and Leeds Festival in 2010. They did not disappoint. Rising to the challenge as if they had unfinished business, both Doherty and Barât were on riotously ramshackle form throughout, reminding their fans just how much they had been missed. Having comfortably delivered one of the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances in recent memory, The Libertines would go on to make their reformation permanent in 2014. This moment of pure triumph showed everyone that they could pick up exactly where they left off.
16: Fall Out Boy (2013)
Re-emerging after a four-year hiatus, Fall Out Boy made a triumphant return to the UK in 2013 and turned in one of the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances of all time. Delivering an electrifying set on the Main Stage, the pop-punk favourites launched into tracks from their fifth album, Save Rock And Roll, before unleashing a storm of emo-laced energy in the shape of This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race; Sugar, We’re Goin Down; and Saturday, the latter a fan favourite from their debut album, Take This To Your Grave. However, it was their career-defining hit Dance, Dance that really got the crowd going, prompting an immense singalong from the enthralled festival gathering.
15: Suede (1997)
With Britpop’s glory days fading fast, 1997 was a strange time for British music. However, with their boundless energy and unwavering determination, Suede’s headline performance on the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festival in 1997 not only proved that British music was alive and well, but also that Brett Anderson and his bandmates were one of the most exceptional live acts of the decade. Delivering a career-spanning performance with an unstoppable fervour, the group reminded everyone that the euphoric and celebratory essence of Britpop should never be taken for granted.
14: Queens Of The Stone Age (2005)
Promising to deliver lullabies to paralyse, as per the title of their fourth album, Queens Of The Stone Age’s 2005 performance at Reading Festival was an electrifying spectacle that showcased the band’s raw power and unhinged energy. From the moment they stepped on to the Main Stage, the group captivated the crowd with their blistering “robot rock” riffs, thunderous drums and Josh Homme’s commanding stage presence. A perfect mix of their hard-hitting classics, from Go With The Flow to Little Sister, the band’s set kept the crowd moshing boisterously throughout. Homme’s tight-knit chemistry with his bandmates was palpable, too, and this standout among the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances almost single-handedly guaranteed Queens Of The Stone Age’s place as one of the most powerful and dynamic rock acts of their era.
13: Eminem (2001)
Though many at the time questioned whether hip-hop artists had what it took to headline Reading and Leeds Festival, Eminem’s show-stealing performance in 2000 proved all the disbelievers wrong. The rapper was on ferocious form throughout, running through career-making hits such as The Real Slim Shady and The Way I Am, all but challenging the 55,000-strong crowd to keep up with his breakneck flow. By leading the way for other hip-hop acts who have since gone on to take to the mic at the festival, Eminem effectively set the bar for the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances of the future.
12: My Chemical Romance (2011)
For their only UK festival appearance of the year, My Chemical Romance topped the Reading and Leeds bill in 2011. From laser displays and fireworks to an epic guest appearance from Queen’s Brian May on a cover of We Will Rock You, the group pulled out all the stops to ensure an unforgettable show stuffed with many of the best My Chemical Romance songs. As the band ran through fiery blasts of pop-punk such as I’m Not Okay (I Promise) and Famous Last Words, singer Gerard Way fought against being drowned out by the voices screaming his lyrics back at him. Undoubtedly one of their finest moments as a live act, MCR’s entry among the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances elevated them from emo cult heroes to genuine rock’n’roll legends.
11: Muse (2006)
Despite having just released their fourth album, Black Holes And Revelations, Matt Bellamy refused to believe that Muse had truly “made it” until they headlined Reading and Leeds Festival. For just that occasion, in 2006, the band put on a live extravaganza that will be talked about for years to come, running through newer hits such as Supermassive Black Hole and Starlight, as well as crowd-pleasers including Hysteria and Feeling Good. Not only proving they were worthy headliners, but also that they deserved to be considered one of the best live bands of their generation, Muse’s rousing and bombastic performance was so otherworldly you’d half expect a flying saucer to come down and beam them off the stage.
10: Kendrick Lamar (2018)
Kendrick Lamar was in fine form during his 2018 headline sets at Reading and Leeds Festivals. One of the first new hip-hop artists to top the bill, “Kung-Fu Kenny” stormed the stage, opening his flawless DAMN.-era set with DNA. and closing it with HUMBLE., then dropping Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe as an encore. Over the years, the Reading and Leeds Festivals have increasingly seen hip-hop and grime artists come to the fore, expanding the weekend’s appeal beyond its core rock and metal audience.
9: Foo Fighters (2005)
The same year that Foo Fighters headlined Reading, frontman Dave Grohl officially declared it the greatest festival of all time, stating, “I fucking love Reading so much… I’ve been to so many festivals, but this is the only one I love – the others suck.” Treating fans to a hard-hitting set list including songs such as Times Like These, All My Life and Monkey Wrench, Foo Fighters easily delivered one of the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances of all time. To mark the occasion, Grohl even got behind the drum kit, changing places with the late Taylor Hawkins for Cold Day In The Sun. The last time Grohl played drums at Reading was as part of Nirvana, during his other legendary group’s 1992 performance.
8: Green Day (2004)
Nobody could touch Green Day in 2004. Just weeks before the release of their landmark American Idiot album, and on the verge of ascending from famed punk trio to ultimate stadium-fillers, the Bay Area icons headlined one of the biggest stages in the UK. Opening their set with American Idiot’s title track, Billie Joe Armstrong and co let fans know what to expect from Green Day’s forthcoming album, while the remainder of the performance cycled through many of the best Green Day songs – Basket Case and When I Come Around among them – and even made space for covers of Ramones (Blitzkrieg Bop), Buzzcocks (Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)) and Queen (We Are The Champions).
7: Biffy Clyro (2013)
Bringing Reading and Leeds Festivals to a close is no easy task, yet Biffy Clyro went above and beyond in 2013, delivering the weekend’s clear highlight. There were pyrotechnics aplenty throughout the Scottish trio’s set, with frontman Simon Neil even setting his Stratocaster alight during the group’s performance of The Captain. After an unforgettable 90 minutes, Biffy Clyro ensured that night’s place among the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances by ending with an emotional performance of Mountains.
6: Radiohead (1994)
Having had to cancel their planned 1993 Reading Festival slot after frontman Thom Yorke contracted laryngitis, Radiohead made up for lost time with a set that opened with a surprise cover of Tim Buckley’s Sing A Song For You – from the cult singer-songwriter’s Happy Sad album – before running through early Radiohead hits such as Creep, My Iron Lung and Anyone Can Play Guitar. The group would make their first Reading and Leeds Festival headline performances 15 years later, in 2009, alongside Arctic Monkeys and Kings Of Leon.
5: Metallica (1997)
Though Metallica weren’t at their creative peak in the late 90s, the four horsemen delivered a Reading set that remains unbeaten for energy and ferocity. After casually strolling onstage to jam No Remorse, the group launched into So What?, a classic punk anthem from UK hardcore outfit Anti-Nowhere League; relying on signature riffs alone – no fireworks or high-concept staging – they got heads banging and pits moshing for the rest of the night. Claiming Reading and Leeds Festivals for their own, Metallica would be back in 2003, 2008 and 2015.
4: Paramore (2014)
After being second on the bill in both 2010 and 2012, Paramore took the top spot for the 2014 Reading and Leeds Festivals, sharing the Friday-night headline slot with Queens Of The Stone Age. Though a power outage threatened to derail their Reading show, Hayley Williams and co were unfazed, delivering an acoustic rendition of The Only Exception with a resolve that cemented that night’s set among the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances of all time. When the sound system came back on, Paramore picked up from where they left off, inviting an excited fan in a dinosaur onesie onstage during the Riot! album highlight Misery Business before closing their set with Ain’t It Fun.
3: Rage Against The Machine (2000)
Though low on the bill for 2000’s Reading and Leeds Festivals, Rage Against The Machine pulled one of the largest crowds of the weekend as they effortlessly ran through their assortment of politically charged nu-metal hits. The band returned as headliners in 2008, dressed this time as Guantanamo Bay detainees as they delivered another unmissable show, their message and repertoire having lost none of its power in the intervening years.
2: Linkin Park (2003)
With their amalgamation of rap and metal, Linkin Park were seemingly tailor-made for the Reading and Leeds Festivals. Claiming a headline slot for their first ever UK festival appearance, the group’s 2003 booking followed the release of their second album, Meteora, and it remains legendary among the best Reading and Leeds Festival performances. Despite only having two albums under their belt at this point, Chester Bennington and co proved that the best Linkin Park songs – Papercut, Faint, Numb and One Step Closer among them – had already become anthems.
1: Nirvana (1992)
One of Nirvana’s biggest, most famous shows is also notable for being their final UK performance. A year after the release of Nevermind, Nirvana were arguably the most talked-about band in the world, and their Reading performance has assumed legendary status in both the band and the festival’s history. Never shy of undercutting the moment, Kurt Cobain took to the stage in a wheelchair and wig, meekly singing the opening lines of Bette Midler’s The Rose before quickly collapsing to the ground. From then on, however, Nirvana’s set was no joke, with spine-tingling performances of Come As You Are, Lithium, Breed and Smells Like Teen Spirit ensuring its place at the top of our list of the best Reading and Leeds Festival performance. Over three decades later, it seems impossible to beat.
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