The 20 greatest Download festival sets of all time

10. Linkin Park – Main Stage, 2014

For fans of a certain age, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory is a landmark album, a record that introduced an entire generation to guitar music. Fourteen years after its release the band rocked up at Download having agreed to play it in its entirety. Their set pulled in one of the largest crowds in recent memory, and gave 80,000 people an unforgettable nostalgia trip, made even more poignant with the passing of frontman Chester Bennington a few years later.

9. Guns N Roses - Main Stage, 2018

Guns N’ Roses have had a rocky relationship with Download festival. Their 2006 set ranks with the most underwhelming and disappointing appearances all time. So, they had much to prove when they returned in 2018 with Axl Rose rejoined by Slash and Duff McKagan. Thankfully, the reunion that we all craved didn’t let us down, as Axl arrived on time and led his band through a mammoth three hour set of some of the greatest rock anthems in history.

8. Rammstein – Main Stage, 2016

It had only been three years since Rammstein had made their Download bow in 2013, but our ears were still ringing from the sound of bombs when they returned in 2016. With no new material you might have thought that it would go down as just another run of the mill festival set from the band, but there is no such thing as an ordinary Rammstein show, and the billowing pink smoke that engulfed the area before they arrived onstage will be remembered by everyone who saw it.

7. AC/DC - Main Stage, 2010

Download bent over backwards to accommodate AC/DC back in 2010; their name didn’t appear on any t-shirts and they even got to bring their own stage just for them for the day. But once the band got up there all the fuss was forgotten, eclipsed by the joy of seeing the Young brothers onstage at Donington Park for the first time since the old Monsters Of Rock days. And, armed with a bulletproof set of rock’n’roll bangers and an actual train that burst through the stage, AC/DC had 100,000 people eating out of their hands.

6. Machine Head – Main Stage, 2007

It’s impossible not to think that if Machine Head had carried on the momentum of their The Blackening-era career they surely would have gone on to headline Download. In 2007 they were arguably the best band in metal, and they turned up on Download’s Main Stage in devastating form, making even Slayer (yes, that Slayer) look ordinary courtesy of a pulverising seven-song set that culminated in a staggering rendition of Davidian.

5. Slipknot – Main Stage, 2019

Slipknot have never put on a bad show, but there was a slight suspicion heading into their fourth headlining performance in 2019 that there best days may well be behind them. At this point we hadn’t heard the fantastic We Are Not Your Kind album, so the ferocity that the Iowans attacked us with that night was surprising. An opening one-two of People = Shit and (sic) set the tone for a rejuvenated Slipknot, who haven’t put a foot wrong since.

4. Tool – Main Stage, 2019

The endless wait for new material and some UK live shows from music's most enigmatic and mysterious band had gone on so long that many fans believed that there was to be no return from Tool. So, the anticipation that hung in the air on the last night of Download 2019 was palpable. Maynard James Keenan and co didn’t disappoint, using the video screens for their own psychedelic images and playing a set of transcendent, ethereal post-metal, the band turned a field in Leicestershire into a religious experience.

3. Iron Maiden – Main Stage, 2013

Any time Maiden come to Download you’re looking at something memorable, but 2013 had it all. With the band on their Maiden England Tour, revisiting 1988’s Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son setlist, it was a set of heavy metal manna from heaven, chocked full of some of the most anthemic songs our genre has ever produced. From the moment a Spitfire flew over the heads of the crowd at the start of the set before the band launched into opener Moonchild this became a show for the ages.

2. Rammstein – Main Stage, 2013

Download had waited many years to be burnt to a crisp by Rammstein. It finally happened in 2013 when the Germans closed the festival and made their Download bow. They were never going to come quietly, and from the second frontman Till Lindemann shot a missile into the night sky which exploded and shook the ground of Donington Park everyone was in thrall to their utterly bizarre and completely unique sensory overload of a set.

1. Slipknot – Main Stage, 2009

When the bill was announced for Download in 2009,  Slipknot were a controversial choice for a headliner. Some suggested that they had yet to earn their place at the top table, despite a decade of near perfect live shows under their belts.

Looking back today, it's hard to think of one single set shoving those words so hard and so far down the throats of those that made the claims. Slipknot at Download 2009 was one of those rare moments when a set went into legendary status mere minutes after it finished.

The highlights are almost certainly imbedded in your brain at this point; the four-song opening of songs from the band’s self-titled debut, the mass sing-a-long that opens Duality and the insane reaction from everyone present, from the front of the stage all the way to the burger vans at the back going crazy.

By the time they left with a venomous Spit It Out Slipknot had Download in the palm of their hand, where they’ve kept it ever since, the idea that they would play Donington as anything other than headliner put very much to bed. Without doubt, the greatest set this mighty festival has ever seen.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.