With SXSW music now spanning five days and bringing 2,000 bands to town, culling your "must-see" list is more daunting than ever. While big names like Spoon, The Church, and yes, even Kanye West will make their mark this year, the festival's ultimate aim is music discovery.
When done right, a trip to SX ends with a list of new favorite acts that you've been lucky enough to hear first. To help kickstart your picks, here are 10 acts we feel are taking the leap from SXSW to stardom this year, along with suggested spots to catch them this week.
A highlight of our 2014 SXSW, Angel Olsen's unhinged country-folk combines the spine-tingling emotive power of Neko Case with a raw alt-country energy. Olsen is a veteran of Bonnie "Prince" Billy's band, and is similarly tough to pin down. While some of her tunes sound like transmissions from a 1950s country radio, others are full of indie-rock squelch and crunch. The lyrics lean toward heartbreak and loneliness, and the music from last year's brilliant Burn Your Fire For No Witness (done with Grammy winner John Congleton) resonates in a way that begs for a larger audience. Be prepared for greatness.
Where: The Mohawk/House Of Vans, Tuesday at 1 am
He's only playing a single showcase, but catch Vic Mensa before he explodes later this year. You may have already caught him singing with Kanye West and Sia on Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary show or as Disclosure's opening act on their 2014 U.S. tour. Mensa's sound is made for the dance floor — his new song, "Down On My Luck," has a suddenly ubiquitous London dance sound — but his previous work with Chance The Rapper means that Mensa's style is a bit tougher to pin down. There's a feeling that, like Frank Ocean on Watch The Throne, Mensa may become the next huge, in-demand artist for features and hooks, so catch him in a bar setting now.
Where: The Main, Tuesday at 1 am
Fans of London Grammar, Beth Orton or The Sundays will find plenty to like in the work of young Tamsin Wilson. Her sound is spare folk augmented with dreamy guitars and echoes — it's headphone music for rainy winter days. Wilsen's bio cites Mazzy Star and Cocteau Twins as influences, which fits considering there's a big emphasis on atmosphere here, but her confident voice and lyricism are up to the challenge. This set will likely make everyone quit playing with their phones and talking — this is thoughtful, beautiful stuff that stops you in your tracks.
Where: Brass House, Friday at 2 pm or El Sapo, Friday at 5 pm
It's tough to dislike Twerps — these songs are chirpy, fun and insanely catchy. The Melbourne band comes fully approved from the talent-finding geniuses at Merge Records (Spoon, Arcade Fire) and is touring behind new release Range Anxiety. The record reminds us of Dean Wareham's work with Luna, combining a lazy charm with shimmery guitars and lots of space between notes. The hazy charm of these simple songs seems custom-made for a SX spring day, so get ready to smile, sway and raise a glass.
Where: Hype Hotel (Fair Market), Thursday at 3 pm or Waterloo Records, Friday at 1 pm
Courtney Barnett's Avant Gardner was a breakout indie hit in 2014 — a spacey ode to panic attacks and home gardening which was so clever it seemed tough to top. Barnett's vocal style might be compared to a young Aussie Lucinda Williams — it's drawling and slow in a way that makes listeners pay closer attention to her witty and pithy lyrics. Barnett's band plays loud (and sound like they dig '90s indie a lot) in a way that gives their singer power without blasting over the top of her, and adds an intentional messiness to the tunes. Barnett almost didn't make our list simply because she's already headed to bigger things. Go early for her sets, because they'll be packed.
Where: Red 7, Monday at 11:15 pm or Mohawk/House Of Vans, Wednesday at 4:15 pm
Already gaining steam thanks to opening slots on tours with Ryan Adams and Jenny Lewis, the retro-pop of Natalie Prass has attracted major praise from Pitchfork and The Guardian. Her self-titled record (put together with help from Matthew E. White) sounds lifted from Hi Records or Muscle Shoals — the listener is one step from expecting Ann Peebles or Al Green to sing the choruses. This is soulful music that is uplifting despite sad lyrical themes, and there's a great tension between the vocal heartbreak and the musical beauty. If you've ever put "Son of a Preacher Man" on a mixtape, this one's for you.
Where: Weather Up, Wednesday at 5:20 pm or Hype Hotel (Fair Market), Thursday at noon
Kate Tempest is tough to describe, but she reminds us of The Streets and Jamie T — it's British rap poetry in a story-song format. The songs are jarring, manic and busy, and they feel like the product of someone young in a big, bustling city. Tempest has a Mercury Music Prize for her albums and a Ted Hughes Award for her poetry ... and she's also a playwright. Tempest is an interesting product of her age; she applies the hip-hop template to her personal experience, and in the process shows just how broad that genre has become. This may not be for everyone — but it won't be boring.
Where: Latitude 30, Tuesday at 10 pm or Maggie Mae's, Friday at 9:10 pm
Until The Ribbon Breaks
If you liked Chet Faker's sets at SXSW 2014, Until The Ribbon Breaks may be for you. These Brits combine massive beats with sensitive vocals, with results similar to The Weeknd (who they've remixed) and Phantogram (who they've opened for). This isn't uplifting music — titles like "Pressure" and "Revolution Indifference" give you the idea — but it sure is pretty. The production feels expensive and massive, making this music to dance to if you can stop brooding long enough. Bring your earplugs.
Where: Holy Mountain, Wednesday at 1 pm or Home Slice Pizza, Friday at 5 pm
Perhaps the most hyped act of the festival, much is expected from Texas native and retro-soul phenom Bridges, who looks to break out with Gary Clark Jr.- or Alabama Shakes-style mass appeal. Bridges' two-song demo was produced by members of Austin's own White Denim, and early buzz from blog Gorilla vs. Bear brought massive attention to the young singer before he'd ever done any touring. Fans of Sam Cooke or Solomon Burke will be very pleased with this gig, and the early word from shows at C-Boy's last month was fantastic. Get there early.
Where: Spotify House, Wednesday at 2:30 pm or Hype Hotel (Fair Market), Thursday at midnight
Fans of electronic music need little introduction to Odesza. In addition to their album, In Return, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard's electronic chart, the duo opened for Pretty Lights and even played Coachella. This music plays nice with both the EDM and indie-pop crowds considering there's a good deal of uplift, but it isn't vacuous and the tunes have proper verses, melodies and hooks. This is a proper pick for an hour of dancing, and it may mark the rare electronic act that you'll actually feel good about seeing.
Where: Spotify House, Tuesday at 5 pm or The Gatsby, Wednesday at 5 pm