In musical and experiential terms, SXSW 2016 was an outright success. (Unofficial) Drake appearance aside, the festival continued last year’s pivot from big-name branding to a renewed focus on artist discovery, showcasing over 2,200 acts from around the globe. The sheer scope of the event makes it impossible to catch every lauded "next big thing," but of the 68 showcase acts we watched this year, here are eight destined to become your new favorite artists.
A spiritual descendant of genre-blending artists like Beth Orton and Everything But The Girl, Lapsley (Holly Fletcher) mixes electronics and smart singer-songwriter material to intriguing effect. The young vocalist showed an ease with performance and stage patter that belied her age (she’s 19), and she looked ready to carry a venue like Stubb’s on her own. The outdoor amphitheater isn’t an ideal spot for quiet material, but the audience dialed into Lapsley’s powerful vocals. The crowd reacted fervently to her European hit “Hurt Me,” but the remainder of the rock-solid set had us ordering her debut LP, Long Way Home, the next morning.
We’d noted Mitski as "singer-songwriter" without being familiar with her work, but upon venue entry, it seemed proper to revise that to "emotionally pummeling, searing rock." The power onstage was bigger than the sum of the trio playing it, and the strength of feeling in the lyrics found ideal accompaniment in this pared-down format. Mitski’s voice should count as an extra instrument: Where loud rock shows often muddy vocals, her lyrics were clear and her tonal shifts were striking. This is an artist with a confident vision and visceral delivery.
New York’s Sunflower Bean was everything one might want from an afternoon showcase: ramshackle, familiar, upbeat, and damn catchy. The music feels tailor-made for fans of labels like 4AD and vintage indie-pop like Luna and The Darling Buds. There’s never a bad time to deploy a big, loping bass line countered by a jangly guitar progression: This is proof that indie needn’t be obtuse. The melodies and sonic punch are here, though some of the songs feel just a touch underdeveloped. The raw talent the trio showed was formidable, and we’ll be happy to see what comes next. Sunflower Bean could be massive.
Despite being slotted at peak day-drinking hour (5:30 pm) in the sweaty, unforgiving indoor space at Cheer Up Charlies, Kevin Morby delivered a set focused on new material with aplomb. Morby’s slightly nasal delivery recalls Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan, and this distinctive tone often achieves the cool feat of feeling like the narrator stands apart from (and transcends) the song. Songs like “I Have Been to the Mountain" and the others he debuted portend great things for new album Singing Saw, which arrives mid-April.
The music of Empress Of is sometimes described as bedroom pop, but Lorely Rodriguez’s set at Hype Hotel was having none of it. The dance and beat elements of the music were turned up in the live format, leading to a 1 am dance party inside the roomy Fair Market. Rodriguez’s vocals pierce through the booming bass and percussion, making the electronic melodies more organic and human. These are songs equally pleasing on your headphones and in the nightclub, and the brief festival set left our group wishing the 2 am curfew wasn’t right around the corner.
Jesse y Joy
An arena band in Mexico, Jesse y Joy's appearance in Spotify’s parking lot caused quite the kerfuffle. Those denied entry perched on nearby sidewalks and higher ground to catch a glimpse of their heroes, whose latest disc features guests ranging from Alejandro Sanz to Juan Luis Guerra. The four-time Latin Grammy winners surprised the audience by opting to perform roughly half of their set in English, even throwing in a cover of Alanis Morrissette’s “Ironic” to win over a crowd they assumed might be unfamiliar with their work. Fervent fans sang every word, and newbies marveled at the group’s massive band and pristine pop.
Like fellow Dr. Dre collaborator Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak seems equally at home in the studio and onstage. The singer, rapper, and drummer fired up an overflowing Coppertank crowd with cuts from his new album, Malibu. The showcases from Dre’s 2015 Compton may have gotten curious fans in the door, but .Paak’s full-band approach with his Free Nationals group kept everyone there until the end. His sound blends hip-hop, funk, and soul in a distinctly Californian manner: The songs breathe and feel alive and evoke good feelings and warm climates. The man can do it all. The crowd ate up the numbers where he sang while playing drums, and the band even threw in a bit of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” to amp up audience reaction. His ascent to the big leagues should be imminent.
Watching Cloves at The Sidewinder, we felt a wave of nostalgia for a similar set we saw 10 years ago when a young singer-songwriter named Feist tamed a noisy room by commanding their attention with beautiful vocals and strong melodies. Cloves has all that potential — and perhaps even more. Her bluesy vocals show a bit of her professed Amy Winehouse love, but there’s quality songcraft here too. Tracks like “Frail Love” from her new EP XIII wouldn’t sound out of place on an Adele record. There’s a connection between the two in the sense that Cloves pares things down to the core, and her songs pack an emotional wallop that stands in contrast to a modest stage persona. If you told us that she’d be the biggest breakout star this year, we wouldn’t argue the point.
Honorable mentions: Caveman, Declan McKenna, Still Corners, Horse Thief.