South By Southwest is one hell of a week. Think of the annual music conference and festival as one big starting point for the year in music. Artists flock to Austin to play for their lives, sometimes more than 10 or 15 showcases in a week, while industry folks and fans alike scramble to see and hear as much of it as possible. It’s one big infinite abyss of music and we pounded the pavement all week to absorb as much of it as we could.
One big thing to consider is that because SXSW is such a hustle, soundchecks are more of a luxury than a promise. More often than not, artists get a quick line check before they play and are at the mercy of the equipment and wiring of the stage they’re playing that day. So remember this adage: The best acts you’ll see at SXSW are the ones who got the luckiest with their soundcheck.
Below are the eight artists who set the bar for us and stood out during a week in which we saw as many as 10 bands a day. Put them on your radar for the year ahead and dig into their albums. And if when you’re done you’re thirsty for more, catch up with our full daily highlight recaps from of SXSW’s Music programming for notes on these and other notable acts from the week.
While this list is unranked, U.S. Girls were hands down the best band we saw at SXSW this year. On the heels of their eighth LP, In a Poem Unlimited (4AD), the Meghan Remy-led band put down perhaps the best performance we’ve ever seen at the festival. Their mid-week set at Cheer Up Charlie’s had it all: A complex eight-piece arrangement (later in the week at Hotel Vegas, it would be a nine-piece), fiery performances from every member of the band on every song and, best of all, Remy’s extravagant artistry. She was an impeccable bandleader on “Window Shades” and a benevolent disco diva on “M.A.H.” Remy and U.S. Girls have become a revelatory band cut from the same cloth as ABBA and Blondie, with a decidedly modern and avant-garde spin. Their appearances at this year’s festival ought to be bronzed and held up as a model for all future SXSW performers.
Tim Darcy is in control. The Ought frontman delivered the most impassioned vocal display of the week Thursday at the Sidewinder, breezing through songs from the band’s Merge-released Room Inside the World and a game-changing delivery of the band’s 2015 breakthrough track, “Beautiful Blue Sky.” Drummer Tim Keen’s performance was second only to the great Karriem Riggins of August Greene at SXSW, and overall Ought was one of the tightest units we saw. Darcy’s stately baritone vividly calls to mind Morrissey’s best, and his maturation as a singer is palpable. There isn’t a band that sounds quite like Ought right now.
What a game-changer. At a time when the #mumblerap movement is dominating the hip-hop scope, Duckwrth’s bohemian hip-hop, bursting with rock ‘n’ roll energy, is a breath of fresh air. The now L.A. artist’s short set at the Scoot Inn revealed a flamboyant and confident auteur who should be blowing up. A live bass player and DJ who also plays keys add more musicality to the generally DIY SXSW hip-hop formula of MC + DJ, and there was no singing over a backing track to boot. We dare you not to see Andre 3000 in Duckwrth’s Jared Lee. His Republic Records-released XTRA UGLY mixtape warrants multiple slaps.
Less than two weeks after Dacus’s highly anticipated sophomore LP Historian was released on Matador Records, the Richmond, Va.-based singer/guitarist and her band descended on SXSW for an incredible 17 sets. It was a remarkable feat, especially considering the emotional power packed into Dacus’s music. When we caught her (and our) final set of the week at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Sunday, we witnessed an artist who has taken a major leap forward in just a few short years. At only 22, Dacus is one of the brightest young songwriters in music right now. Live performances of songs like “Night Shift” and “Pillar of Truth” carried the same impact as they do on Historian, even without the horns and string sections that appear on that remarkable record.
This Atlanta-based electronic pop producer was our favorite pure discovery of the week, made when we hung around for an extra hour after the fantastic Liza Anne performance at the Pandora showcase at the Gatsby. The zesty bounce of his beats on songs like “Chemical (Blue)” and “Own It” were topped only by his sneakily beautiful voice. Oftentimes in the electro-pop world, producers let their glitchy sonics take the lead, but Demo Taped’s sound was a fully-formed experience that showed what a difference a truly unique talent behind the beat machine can make. Singing about depression in music that on its surface seems happy-go-lucky is an important way to further an oft-taboo conversation among millennials. Demo Taped’s Adam Alexander wears his good-natured heart on his sleeve and there is real lyrical substance to his music. It was also a pleasure to see him relish the experience and noticeably feed his own lively vibe to the audience. This is an art at SXSW.
Speedy Ortiz is back. Fabulous frontwoman Sadie Dupuis has mastered the balance of playing familiar material from her band’s early catalog while letting what’s on the horizon shine. We caught Speedy Ortiz twice during the week, and while the setlists were different, each was bookended with ear candy from the excellent Foil Deer and Major Arcana albums, and filled with gems—like the triumphant “Lucky 88”—from the band’s upcoming Twerp Verse (out April 27 on Carpark). Always eclectically dressed and with an array of ornate headpieces, Dupuis is so delightful to see and hear live. She frequently loses herself in the bombastic music played by her band, but always maintains her presence onstage, to the point that you can feel her cycling through the thoughts and emotions of her intriguing songwriting.
Bully’s music can be abrasive, mainly because the Nashville trio punish the speakers from beginning to end. There’s no “slow song” to be found, and singer Alicia Bognanno lays it all out on the table on every track. She contrasts her screaming choruses with melodious verses that give rise to a dark/light method of managing emotions. Where we might speak softly when going through the motions of trying to hold relationships together, inside our brains we’re actually going crazy. No band illustrates this feeling as well as Bully, and while they were the first band we saw all week, we couldn’t stop thinking about their explosive set at the Mohawk.
Impervious to the flux of shifty soundchecks and poor venue acoustics, Vile’s solo set at Cedar Street Courtyard was nothing short of gospel. There’s no new music on the horizon for Vile (that we know of), but he came to Austin to treat his fans and make new ones anyway. With his seven-album solo discography (including last year’s collaborative album with Courtney Barnett, Lotta Sea Lice), Vile is beginning to approach Jeff Tweedy and Stephen Malkmus in the canon of American songwriters—as one of Americana’s most important voices. Even when “talking in the back of a concert crowd” is the new “holding your cell phone up to take a million photos of the band,” Vile harnesses an audience’s attention like no other. You could hear a pin drop during his show. Set-closer “Peeping Tomboy” is the kind of surprise you don’t plan for at SXSW, but remember forever.