SXSW 2014 was a strange one. The festival's jubilant atmosphere was shattered this year by both the loss of life and the feeling that the event's massive growth may well have reached a negative tipping point. However, during the post-event discussion, it's worth noting that new music worthy of attention was still pervasive — even if it was a bit harder to hear in the midst of the chaos.
Of the 40 or so sets we witnessed last week, these are the five artists worthy of your musical time — and attention — this year.
Chet Faker (The Mohawk, Friday, March 14)
Faker's setup was minimal, but his impact on the audience was massive. He played solo, flanked by a keyboard and drum machine, and expertly maneuvered between the two to build layers of sound and create "laptop soul."
The music was dark, danceable and hypnotic, and the audience stopped talking and locked in to focus on Faker's short set. There wasn't much banter due to the timeframe: Faker wisely chose to focus on material from his upcoming full-length debut Built on Glass, and the combination of his unique, moody vocals and the carefully constructed rhythms resonated through the room. Fans of dance and R&B music will be equally impressed.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones (Weather Up, Thursday, March 13)
We recommended this set before the festival as part of our 30 Days, 30 Artists series. Frontman Paul Janeway looks more like a band manager than a soul icon, but his high-wattage showmanship and Stax-worthy vocal sound made the parking lot at Weather Up feel like the coolest spot to be in Austin that day. A huge crowd of various ages applauded wildly for the band's Memphis and Muscle Shoals workouts, which recall your favorite Stax and Hi Records tracks from the '60s.
Janeway prowled the stage and worked the audience like a club veteran while the tight band made him look good — it's hard to believe that Janeway only quit his day job a year ago. In a recent interview, he mentioned that his goal was to move an audience as well as he'd once seen Prince do. That sounded ridiculous until we saw just how good the guy is. He's a born entertainer, even if he's a little late to the party. This is music for everyone, and as perfect a summer porch soundtrack as you could wish for.
London Grammar (Stubb's, Friday, March 14)
Also part of our 30 Days, 30 Artists series, it's refreshing to see a band who has its craft honed and polished. Such was the case with the fully formed London Grammar. Fans of both Florence and the Machine and Zero 7 will find much to like here: the band's sound is mellow, but with strong and melancholy female vocals from Hannah Reid and carefully crafted guitar and synth flourishes from Dot Major and Dan Rothman. This is music for arenas, and the huge organ and bass sounds blasting through the Stubb's PA felt like a harbinger of the band's inevitable rise this year.
Wye Oak (The Parish, Thursday, March 13)
Despite lush production from John Congleton and stellar reviews, Wye Oak's 2011 album Civilian seemed to escape the zeitgeist. Based on Thursday night's preview of the upcoming LP Shriek, that is unlikely to happen again. The band has made the unconventional decision to move away from guitar-based sounds, though the new material doesn't suffer as a result. Songs like "The Tower" are tuneful, yet a little haunted (St. Vincent fans will nod in approval).
Jenn Wasner's ability to carry a great melody but also introduce a strong sense of uncertainty and discordance is remarkable, and her musical connection with multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack is obvious. The two seem to have found the sound they've been looking for, and The Parish audience noticed. The usual comings and goings during SXSW sets slowed to a crawl as the new material went storming though the room. It's going to be a great record, and we were all glad to hear it begin.
Angel Olsen (The Mohawk, Wednesday, March 12)
Fuzzy guitars, massive tunes, and beautiful noise were the early signs that this could be a legendary set. It had a bit of country and folk, a lot of rock 'n' roll attitude, and a sense that Olsen is about to move to the forefront of her songwriting peers by raising her voice. The stomping songs from her new album Burn Your Fire For No Witness sounded fantastic in the Mohawk's crowded indoor room.
Olsen's decision to go electric on the album really suits her vocals and writing. Like Courtney Barnett's indie-yet-twangy new material, there's a sense that Olsen is a unique voice that's been sorely missing from modern music. The resulting show had an audience member near us checking his phone for Olsen tickets in his hometown. It was an impressive feat at a festival that's hard to please.