South By Southwest (SXSW), the annual set of music, interactive, and film festivals in Austin, Texas, has grown into a strange breed of monster.
On the music side, a superabundance of DIY acts, all of which cover expenses out of pocket, flaunt their wares alongside seven-figure corporate-sponsored extravaganzas courtesy of Apple (Coldplay), Samsung (Jay Z & Kanye West), and Doritos (Lady Gaga). Buttoned-up, hors d'oeuvres-nibbling execs rub shoulders with tattooed, finger-lickin’ hipsters over their mutual love of music and barbecue.
Despite the confusing mélange, SXSW remains one of the last bastions of hope for up-and-coming bands yearning to be discovered by A&R execs. This year, over 2,000 bands descended on the Downtown area to gain the affections of some 80,000 attendees and hopefully achieve the “next big thing” designation.
Here are the breakout musical acts from the 2014 edition of SXSW.
Led by the talented, striking front woman Hannah Reid, whose husky voice sounds like a more ethereal Florence Welch, this trip-hop group met at the UK’s University of Nottingham and feature moody, ambient keyboard-driven tunes piqued by plaintive guitar lines. They gained some plaudits for their cameo on Disclosure’s album, Settle, and were the highlight of the MTV Woodie Awards showcase at SXSW. London Grammar’s critically acclaimed debut album, If You Wait, will be released in the U.S. on March 25.
This funky UK five-piece has been enshrouded in mystery (and misinformation). Prior to catching the tail end of their set at SXSW, I’d read reports that they were a duo (false) and that they were black (also false). There are potential issues of racial appropriation here, since they’re named Jungle, they play funk, and their music videos have featured mostly black people dancing, but I’ll reserve judgment on that until I know more. The one thing I’m sure of is that these Brits have some very, very catchy, funky tunes imbued with a side of soul.
Chance the Rapper
This 20-year-old rapper from the South Side of Chicago gained the respect of the hip-hop community with his stellar second mixtape, Acid Rap, and, like contemporaries Drake and Childish Gambino, deftly combines spoken word, breakneck flow, and the occasional soulful croon. He’s collaborated with many top artists, including Lil Wayne, Skrillex, and even Justin Bieber, and won the MTV Woodie Award for Best Video for “Everybody’s Something.” He made headlines at SXSW when his show early Wednesday morning was cut short—amid a loud chorus of boos—by the fire marshal for being over-capacity.
This all-female noise pop quintet hails from Dublin, Ireland, and packs their three-minute ditties with fuzzy guitars and soothing melodies (think: Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls), as well as reverb and bass-heavy garage rock tunes. It’s not the most original sound you’ve ever heard, but damned it if isn’t catchy. Their debut full-length, Cursing the Sea, was released on March 11.
This British singer-songwriter has been kicking around for some time and gained the attention of the mainstream after penning the Icona Pop hit “I Love It.” Her songs range from mach-10 electro-pop, as on the track “SuperLove,” to a more punk-pop sound, a la Siouxsie Sioux or Blondie. She wowed the crowd at a Tumblr party at The Mohawk with her soaring vocals and animated stage presence. Her third album will be out later this year.
Samuel T. Herring, the lead singer of this North Carolina synthpop trio, is an absolute force of nature. He shimmies, he shakes, he waves his arms, his eyes bug out of his head—all in the service of some wonderfully breezy pop ditties. These fellas have been around for a while, and their fourth album, Singles, comes out March 25, but this may finally be their time to shine. Check out Herring’s moves (above) on Letterman, where the band made their TV debut performing the single “Seasons (Waiting On You).” He’s electric.
This New York City-based rock foursome formed in 2012, back when many of the members were working as bartenders in Manhattan, and tell sordid tales of life in the Big Apple. It’s comprised of three Americans and one Brit, Joshua Hubbard, ex-guitarist of The Paddingtons and Dirty Pretty Things (and one-time paramour of Agyness Deyn). Their punk-y songs are amplified by their raucous live sets, and their debut album, MANHATTAN, was released in late February and featured production by John Hill, who also produced for Wavves and Santigold.
The Fool, the first album by this all-female psych-rock trio from L.A., was mixed by Radiohead knob-twirler Nigel Godrich and, though it was well received, didn’t gain the kudos it deserved. Their sophomore full-length, Warpaint, released in January, expands on the promise of their debut with its collection of emotionally vulnerable dream pop ballads. You’ll find yourself lost in their hazy, melancholic chimera as I did when whilst taking in their set during SPIN magazine’s annual day party at Stubb’s BBQ.
A folk singer-songwriter hailing from St. Louis, Olsen began her career as a backup singer for Bonnie Prince Billy, but has since struck out on her own with her debut album with a full band, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, released in February. The keyboards and guitars complement Olsen’s ever-changing, enchanting voice, which can emit feelings of gaiety one moment and somber reflection the next. There’s a plurality to her voice so that, with each subsequent listen, you’ll discover new textures and moods.
Most gathered in the outdoor Chevrolet Courtyard to take in one of the first performances of Julian Casablancas and the Voidz, the latest project from the blasé Strokes front man, but the evening’s highlight was Poliça, a synth-heavy alt-rock group hailing from Minneapolis. They’re led by singer Channy Leaneagh, a spritely ball of energy whose powerful, crescendoing voice is complemented by a pair of frenetic drummers. Catch them live. You won't be disappointed.