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Lollapalooza Then & Now: Looking Back at 10 Acts' Debuts and Returns

It's not just an American institution—it's the perfect festival to track the careers of artists like Metallica, Skrillex, Green Day, Childish Gambino and more

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After eight years on the road and a decade in Chicago, Lollapalooza is an icon of the American music festival circuit—and that's naturally going to mean some delectable waves of déjà vu. Scores of acts have come back to Lolla for seconds (and thirds, fourths, fifths), and 2015 is no different, with Florence + the Machinethe WeekndBrand NewMetallica and Bassnectar among the returnees. 

Perhaps comeback performers aren't inherently that interesting—oh, they've got a new album, great, get 'em back on the bill—but the best artists refuse to return with the same old narrative. They wear their career arcs on their sleeves, those ascensions from barely attended side-stage sets to headlining juggernauts. Even big names who spent dark years as nostalgia-only groups have been bitten by that reinvigorating Lolla bug, along with long-dormant bands returning to regain earlier success with ballyhooed reunions.

With Lollapalooza 2015 around the corner (livestream it on Fuse!), these are 10 of the festival's coolest, most powerful debuts and returns.

Read all of our Lollapalooza 2015 coverage!

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Green Day: 1994 and 2010

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: LOLAPOLOOZA  Photo of Billie Joe ARMSTRONG and GREEN DAY, Billie Joe Armstrong  (Photo by Ebet Ro
Green Day at Lolla '94 (Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

The Bay Area-bred trio were just riding the first huge success of their breakthrough album Dookie when they joined the 1994 main stage line-up, back when Lolla was still a traveling festival. But with several years of live shows under their belts, Green Day brought a sound much bigger than you’d expect from three guys with one hit song (“Longview”). 

Fast-forward to 2010: The conquering heroes of the stage (both concert and theater: see American Idiot: The Musical) won the night with an epic 29-song rollercoaster of a set that reminded everyone that these stalwarts were not only masters at helming a festival set, but had soundtracked over 15 years of fans’ lives. –Jessica Letkemann

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Lady Gaga: 2007 and 2010

CHICAGO - AUGUST 04: Singer/musician Lady Gaga performs at Lollapalooza 2007 in Grant Park on August 4, 2007 in Chicago.  (Ph
Gaga at Lolla '07 (Jason Squires/WireImage)

When she danced onto the small BMI stage in the second afternoon of Lollapalooza 2007, only a few hundred people witnessed the future Mother Monster’s pre-Fame, pre-hit, pre-blonde performance alongside DJ Lady Starlight. The 45-minute synthy pop set, which included a couple of tunes that would appear on The Fame a year later, was carried out by a bikini-and-shades clad Gaga on a simply set-up stage in the blazing Chicago heat. The scene could not have possibly been more humble compared to the headlining extravaganza Lady Gaga stormed Lollapalooza with three years (and many hits) later. She owned several thousand fans of several generations (ages 7-70 and beyond) with a full-scale Monster Ball production that included dancers, multiple set- and costume-changes and, of course, the music everyone came to see, from “Alejandro” and “Bad Romance” to “Telephone” and “Yoü And I.” –Jessica Letkemann

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Bassnectar: 2009, 2012 and 2015

MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 11: Bassnectar performs onstage during Bonnaroo 2010 at This Tent on June 11, 2010 in Manchester, Tenne
Bassnectar in 2010 (Jason Merritt/FilmMagic)

You could feel it in the air: EDM was on the verge of having its widespread American moment, and Bassnectar's 2009 Lollapalooza set was evidence, a pulsating mass of glitches and thundering bass that drove crowds into a craze. Three years later, more of America was onboard, but that didn't change the attack or mission statement of the man born Lorin Ashton. He was simply a harder ticket to obtain, drawing crowds that were suddenly a little tougher to fight through on the way to the front. Now, like clockwork, Bassnectar's back for try No. 3, a mere month removed from his new album Into the Sun. What to expect? He closes out the festival Sunday night, and you can be sure even the slightest of dance junkies won't be ready to call it quits just yet. –Kevin Rutherford

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Snoop Dogg: 1997 and 2009

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - AUGUST 16: Snoop Dogg performs as part of the Lollapalooza Tour 1997 at Shoreline Amphitheatre on August
Snoop at Lolla '97 (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

A good chunk of acts who've played Lollapalooza at least twice have done so with little space between their appearances—not always back-to-back years, but think two-, three-, sometimes four-year gaps. Not Snoop Dogg. The rap legend made his majestic return to Lolla in 2009 after a 12-year sabbatical. For context, when he performed in 1997, he was still releasing albums as Snoop Doggy Dogg; he lost the middle name the following year.

A simple moniker tweak wasn't the only difference 12 years made, though. In '97, Snoop had under under his belt two albums that helped immortalize West Coast hip hop and gangsta rap. That he'd been charged with murder—and acquitted—the year before indicated that he lived the life rather than simply spoke on it. By 2009? Yeah, he still ran into his share of legal trouble, but he was the lovable uncle who could still incite mass singalongs of "Gin and Juice"—which he did, and it was awesome. –Kevin Rutherford

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The Black Keys: 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012

CHICAGO - AUGUST 1: Patrick Carney (L) and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys perform as part of Lollapalooza 2008 at Grant Park
The Black Keys at Lolla '08 (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

It's not difficult to get from Akron, Ohio, to Chicago—anywhere between a five- and five-and-a-half-hour drive, depending on traffic. So to have hosted the Black Keys five different times over an eight-festival period (2005-2012) doesn't seem out of the ordinary for Lollapalooza—and that's before one considers the band's standing as one of the only modern rock acts that throngs of people give a serious damn about. But don't think for a second the Keys' many appearances were due to the locale; each performance was wily placed with a new album of material fresh in the minds of onlookers. 

In 2005, the duo was beginning to demand attention on the heels of 2004's critically acclaimed Rubber Factory. By 2007, Magic Potion, the Black Keys' first Nonesuch album, was out. The next year, there was the Danger Mouse-produced Attack & Release, and Brothers preceded the 2010 gig. El Camino was out in time for 2012, and by then the transformation was complete: From buzzy blues rockers barely hitting the Billboard 200 to multiple No. 1 singles and inarguable headliner status. 

Oh, and other bands playing the Keys' stage back in 2005? Louis XIV and the Bravery. So yeah, things went pretty well for the boys from Akron. –Kevin Rutherford

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Childish Gambino: 2012 and 2014

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 05: Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino performs during 2012 Lollapalooza at Grant Park on August 5, 201
Gambino at Lolla 2012 (Timothy Hiatt/WireImage)

Maybe it's not accurate to say that Childish Gambino wasn't taken seriously at Lollapalooza 2012; he did have a couple hundred thousand sales of his debut album Camp and a modest amount of critical acclaim. But Donald Glover's rap career was still seen by many as novelty, sort of an oh-look-he-can-rap-too mentality that didn't discredit the music but rather the authenticity of the moment. 

Once he returned to Chicago two years later, he had Because the Internet, a record that snatched even more rave reviews and made the phrase "GRAMMY-nominated Childish Gambino" a real, undisputed thing. The difference was almost astonishing: 2012 Bino made an ebullient introduction under the starlight, but 2014 found him more focused, more determined, more sure in his ability to pull off Hawaiian short-shorts—and the crowd was with him every step of the way. –Kevin Rutherford

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Nine Inch Nails: 1991, 2008 and 2013

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - JULY 26: Trent Reznor (R) of Nine Inch Nails performs as a part of at Lollapalooza 1991 at Shoreline Amph
Nine Inch Nails at Lolla '91 (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

“Head Like A Hole” and “Down In It” were the Pretty Hate Machine staples that had burned a swath through rock radio when Nine Inch Nails signed on to the inaugural Lollapalooza traveling carnival in 1991. With just one album out, Trent Reznor and company nevertheless lit up their mid-bill slot in a lean, ferocious snarl night after night. Nine Inch Nails returned to Lolla in 2008, but it was 2013's Hesitation Marks-era NIN that mesmerized and haunted with their powerful headlining set. –Jessica Letkemann

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Soundgarden: 1992, 1996 and 2010

Chris Cornell of Soundgarden   (Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage)
Soundgarden at Lolla '92 (Steve Eichner/WireImage)

Soundgarden’s three stints on the Lollapalooza stage have all come at watershed moments for the Seattle band. They’d been working hard for a few years already when Badmotorfinger made their star rise nationally with tracks like “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Outshined.” Though they snagged a surprisingly early afternoon slot a year later at Lolla '92, the fierce drop-D guitar attack melded with Chris Cornell’s wail made sure to pack fans in even though the sun hadn’t set. 

By the time they rocked the 1996 main stage in the penultimate slot, Soundgarden were ubiquitous in rock, having notched top-selling albums with both 1994’s Superunknown (No. 1) and 1996’s Down On The Upside (No. 2). They played as only a band at the top of their game can. After breaking up in 1997, it was a shock and a delight for the band to reform in 2010 and play one of its first reunion gigs headlining Lollapalooza, as tight as ever. –Jessica Letkemann

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Skrillex: 2011 and 2014

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 03: Skrillex performs during 2014 Lollapalooza at Grant Park on August 3, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.  (P
Skrillex at Lolla 2014 (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

The thing about Skrillex at Lollapalooza is that in 2011, the coverage of the now-ubiquitous EDM head honcho was less Skrillex and more Sonny—that is, Sonny Moore, the former frontman of post-hardcore darlings From First to Last. Dance music resonated in America by then, but it was still that brand new thing on the corner for the general public, held as a passing fad that you could use to piss off your grandparents—remember the dubstep jokes for days and days? Point is, 2011 found Skrillex in his introduction period, with "electronic dance music" just becoming a viable radio-shilled commodity. 

While Skrillex's return to Lollapalooza was only three years later, by then it was a whole new scenario. If EDM was a passing fad, its moment wasn't (and still isn't) over, and Sonny Moore was one of its kings, returning to the homeland to present his many spoils, by then especially in the form of his debut full-length Recess. Not that he had to change much—the rest of the country simply caught up. –Kevin Rutherford

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Metallica: 1996 and 2015

ROCKFORD, IL - JUNE 30: James Hetfield (L) of Metallica performs as part of Lollapalooza 1996 at Winnebago County Fairgrounds
Metallica at Lolla '96 (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Metallica have never not reigned as metal kings. But back in 1996, when the group took on the task of rocking America all summer on the Lollapalooza tour, the idea of a metal band headlining was a little odd to many. But, 15 years into their career, they already carried an arsenal that included Kill ‘Em All, Master of Puppets, …And Justice For All and their 1991 self-titled. Now set to close out night one of Lollapalooza 2015—an amazing 34 years into their headbanging ride—Metallica should unleash some kind of monster as fierce as their last foray on Lolla's main stage. –Jessica Letkemann

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