SXSWx20: The best new music from the South by Southwest festival

Jim Carroll brings back the hottest sounds from the annual jamboree in Austin, Texas


There were two festivals in Austin last week. One featured bareback bronco riding, steer wrestling, pig races, roping, bull riding and, our favourite, mutton bustin’ (a small child holds onto a sheep for dear life).

The other featured variations of the above plus 2,000 assorted indie bands – but, in all probability, you probably found far more cowboys doing business and deals at South By Southwest (SXSW) than at Rodeo Austin.

SXSW is an event which seems to grow and expand every which way with every passing year. Originally established in 1987 as a local festival – for local people, more or less – SXSW has become a behemoth of an event. Between the music, film, interactive, education and eco strands, SXSW pulled in more than 313,000 people in 2013 and was worth $218 million to Austin. It’s a very big deal for the city.

Of course, not all agree with how SXSW has developed over the years, and there are many who feel that the event has lost its lustre, soul, purpose and mojo. But chances are, there were people who thought the same thing back in 1988 after the second one too place. The more things change, the more people pick faults and complain that it’s not like it used to be.

This year, though, there was an increased volume of such criticisms fuelled by a number of events. There was a tragic car crash which killed three SXSW-goers and injured more. There was also a Lady Gaga show and keynote speech – both of which divided opinion from the get-go – and increased branding, which has been a factor at the event for the last few years.

Yet the crowds and bands still come. There are now thousands who come to Austin for the free day-parties, and these people are as much a part of the event as the industry delegates who pay hundreds of dollars for their badges. You could criticise the big acts such as Gaga, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Soundgarden, Coldplay, Keith Urban and others who flock to Texas to avail of increased media profile (and fat fees from brands), but the best way to deal with this a-list mob is to ignore them and stick to the newbies.

That, then, was the task at SXSW: to cycle around Austin like a blue-arsed fly from morning till night in search of the best new acts in town. From the 100 or so shows we managed to catch this year at the best music festival in Texas (and probably the world), here are 20 acts you should check out.

So good we went to see him twice. LA-based soul-folk singer, Moses Sumney has charm galore. His beautiful, soft-as-a-feather, melancholic voice throws Chet Baker shadows here and there, while his wonderful tropical-folk tunes are chockablock with minimalist hooks. Truly, a name and voice to be reckoned with for the future.

The fact that the Glassnote label had already snapped the Los Angeles duo up before SXSW began ensured plenty of buzz for Liz Nisitico and Louie Diller. A wham-bam of giddy, gleeful electro-pop, Holychild’s songs already sound like big ol’ hits.

Visceral, energetic, politically charged and hugely savvy, London’s Fat White Family are a sweaty live tour-de-force. Thanks to debut album Champagne Holocaust , they’ve already a set full of killer tune and a frontman in Lias Saoudi with the performance muscle to match the mouth.

When you’ve a name like that, you’d better be good and Perfect Pussy most certainly are. From Syracuse, the five-strong band’s blend of noise, punk and riot grrrl attitude comes with a cherry on top courtesy of superb frontwoman Meredith Graves. Listen to new album Say Yes To Love and dig why they’re probably unstoppable.

Part of the Top Dawg crew who has already given us Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, SZA is cut from a different cloth. Accompanied by drummer and keyboardist, she throws moody, idiosyncratic lyrical shapes over the sweetest of boho-soul backings. New album Z will be one to reckon with.

Word is already out about Big Ups, thanks to their mesmerising Eighteen Hours of Static album. Live, the Brooklyn punks go straight for the jugular with edgy, life-affirming, angst-in- their-pants rock.

One of the biggest wows at SXSW. Kelela Mizanektristos’ set was chock-a-block with captivating slo-mo, dubby, dark soul. Live, she transforms her glorious Cut 4 Me album into glorious music for the real blue of the night. Truly, a different kind of lovers rock.

If any band won SXSW, it was these Baltimore veterans. Everywhere they went, the queues to see them followed. Credit it to a recent TV appearance on the Letterman TV show, but also to the fact that the time has come for the band’s superb synth-pop tunes. Frontman Samuel T Herring’s dancing was also something to behold. Not bad for an act making their SXSW debut after eight years and three albums.

Wet may come with an almost ungoogleable name, but the New York band also arrive with a beautiful blend of slo-mo sonic hugs. Between Kelly’s Zutrau’s beguiling vocals and the music’s Galaxie 500-ish wash of sound, Wet are a band making giant strides.

Your favourite new pop star from Sweden is ready for her close-up. Playing pitch-perfect, head-turning electronic pop with real grit and soul in the mix, Tove Lo is a striking live performer turning those tunes into strong, radio-ready tunes.

Thanks to last year’s macro tunes such as Bipp and Elle , there was a lot of attention here for the enigmatic British male producer with the female alias. For all his onstage shyness and reticence, Sophie rocked the house with a confident, cocky set of wonky, smart-as-heck, next-level club tunes.

There’s a likable bounce to what Thumpers are all about, a quality probably heightened and extenuated by a relentless gigging schedule. In Texas, their bright exuberance transforms Sound Of Screams and Galore into future indie dancefloor anthems. A very fine state of affairs.
Here’s a duo with pedigree. Featuring Amelia Meath from Mountain Man and Nick Sanborn from Megafun, Sylvan Esso are a whole lot of fun. While their live set is full of smashing looped and twisted beats, there’s still a distinct purity to the sound thanks to Meath’s vocals. Heady and lush.

Another Top Dawg rep at SXSW, Isaiah Rashad hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it’s easy to see why the label reckon they have another Good Kid on their hands here. Like Lamar, Rashad has a superb flow and brilliant observational vision, but he’s also a performer who clearly relishes the spotlight. Watch him soar.

Haunted avant-pop from the lanky Montreal lad with a great dramatic sensibility as well as a rake of superstar mates (there’s already been a tribute album to his work). Savage’s live performance was eclectic and unpredictable, but there is something about his poise and panache which demands further investigation.

Fronted by ex-Here We Go Magic’s Teeny Lieberson and featuring two of her sisters in the ranks, Teen’s super-smart, kooky songs come with a winning psych undertow. Veering between heavier wig-outs and super-harmonic jams, Teen sound very much like a band who’ve already worked out how to do the simple things right.

You can always tell a SXSW buzz band by the number of agents and promoters in the audience and such was the case for Brooklyn’s Great Good Fine OK. Smashing, sunny synth-pop with a bang of right-now off it.

Jungle probably doubled the number of shows they’ve played to date after a week at South By Southwest, as they appeared to be gigging at every bar and juke joint in town. A finely tuned mix of gigantic beats, showstopping soulful vocals and big-room riffs, Jungle are a band cocky enough to take on the world. And it sounds like they’ve a few more hot-to-trot tunes where Busy Earnin’ came from.

The Canadian’s debut album Pull My Hair Back was an electronic charmer and her one-woman show is equally impressive. There are no pyrotechnics or palaver as Lanza keeps busy pushing and pulling those smartly shaped songs. Reminded us of seeing Grimes for the first time here years before Eircom came calling.

Bold, brash and utterly bodacious rock’n’roll vibes from the Sydney five-piece. Cutting across various eras, tracks such as Is This How You Feel? roll across the room with clean, infectious, sassy riffs and jangles, powered by singer Isabella Manfredi’s strong, striking vocals. A band who ooze confidence.

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