10 Must-See Artists at SXSW in 2012

With this year's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference kicking off next week, Sound Affects assembles a list of 10 acts to check out on your visit to Austin, Texas.

The challenge: coming up with a list of 10--not 25, not 100 (really NPR, 100?), but 10--must-see music events at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas this year. For the music lover, the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (taking place March 13th to 18th) presents an Olympic task that involves winnowing over 1000 performing artists down to a manageable shortlist, and then shoehorning one’s must-see happenings into a roughly four-day period. Do the math: for even the most disciplined music fan, we’re talking a maximum of six evening slots, and maybe a potential half-dozen day party slots (assuming one attends to essentials such as eating, schmoozing, and checking mail). Throw in a few random touches like running into Lou Barlow playing the convention center food court, and we’re looking at perhaps 50, tops.

Thankfully, SXSW has gone one better, expanding to a fifth night (corresponding with a Pitchfork showcase held on the eve of the festival last year). Having scanned the most recently-available list of announced showcase slots, we present for your consideration, a list of “oh see this” artists. I had a friend last year who kept things simple--he simply went traveled to wherever his favorite UK band was playing, and ended up going to a lot of parties and gaining broader exposure through a wide range of support acts. Our list strives to provide some degree of balance in the musical diet. So who’s on yours? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

1. Sharon Van Etten

Each year, there are artists who sit atop critic choice lists, the likes of Bon Iver, Animal Collective, and TV on the Radio who are recognized as good and good for you. Joining this select company is Sharon Van Etten, enjoying universal acclaim for Tramp, released last month on the heels of her previously lauded release, Epic (2010). Coming a long way since she confidently took the stage as a soloist to open the Pitchfork Festival in 2010, Van Etten mixes self-effacing banter with intimate songs that showcase the heartbreak and vulnerability of failing relationships. Her last few tours have seen her augment her acoustic sound with a full ensemble, who she refers to sheepishly as the “Creepy Creeps”. If Tramp bears a similarity to some other contemplative Brooklyn artists, consider the who’s who of guests: members of the National, Walkmen, Zach Condon of Beirut, and Juliana Barwick. Van Etten will be part of a banner NPR lineup with Andrew Bird, Dan Deacon, and Alabama Shakes. When she’s not performing, you’re just as likely to run into her at a show, or spinning some OMD at a house party.

(Wed. Mar 14, Stubbs, 9 PM; Thu. Mar 15, Mohawk Patio, 12:35 AM.)

2. Main Attrakionz

In a DIY underground world known for prodigious activity, Main Attrakionz seem to be in constant motion. The Oakland rap duo of Squadda Bambino and rapper Mondre M.A.N released one of 2011’s more compelling releases, 808 and Dark Grapes II, one of as many as eight mixtapes in circulation last year. Collaborating with producer Clams Casino, they reach ethereal heights on mesmerizing tracks such as “Bossalinis and Fooliyones” (which samples Glasser’s otherworldly vocals) and ‘70s soft-rock hook-laden cuts like “Perfect Sounds” and “Mondre Mo Murda”. All the while, they ground their dreamscapes with gritty lyrics (check out their collaboration with Harlem rapper ASAP Rocky “Take 1”, with its hipster smackdown). Main Attrakionz were a fresh, alternative sound last fall at the CMJ Marathon, and it will be fascinating to see where (and with whom) they pop up at SXSW, given their affinity with another Clams Casino collaborator, Lil’ B (who was part of a star studded finale at last year’s Fader Fort party, book-ended by surprise guest appearances by Bon Iver and P. Diddy).

(Wed. Mar 14, Treasure Island, 12:50 AM, Showcases TBA.)

3. Grimes

Claire Boucher (the Montreal-based artist known as Grimes) mixes in a soaring falsetto voice with an encyclopedic parade of musical influences, weaving together elements as disparate as Celtic rhythms, old time-player piano-imbued trip-hop, industrial beats and noise samples, tribal drums, soothing strings, and operatic vocals. Her breakout single “Vanessa” revealed an otherworldly quality: a haunting dance track, its K-pop inspired video looks like an avant garde remix of a Gap ad. Her bright future is a function not only of her self-awareness of the myriad of musical influences she has weaved into her work, but the fact that under her sunny disposition, she’s a tireless perfectionist, prepping like an anxious producer and then cutting into her material with a laser-like focus, often losing herself in the trance-like effect of her own music. Her SXSW appearances -- including an intriguing set with fellow Montreal buzz artists Purity Ring in one of Austin’s best acoustic environments, the Central Presbyterian Church -- promise to be a treat, as well as a showcase for her latest release, Visions.

(Thur. Mar 15, Central Presbyterian Church, 11:30 PM; Fri. Mar 16, Clive Bar, 11:30 PM.)

4. Bear in Heaven

This year marks a return of number of breakout indie artists on recent hiatus. Due out on April 2nd, I Love You, It’s Cool is the highly anticipated release by Bear in Heaven, whose relentless touring in support of the 2010 breakout Beast Rest Forth Mouth catapulted them to new levels of acclaim. As a live act, Bear in Heaven snuck up on many, a more modest blending of southern psychedelic rock and New Wave electronica on disc which suddenly took on a whole new life on stage. Singer Jon Philpot’s soaring vocals and stage personality contrasts with the tight rhythm of Adam Wills on guitar and Joe Stickney’s intense drumming. The group’s consistent ability to work the audiences into a frenzy, whether it is playing home town shows in Williamsburg or large festival audiences at the likes of Austin City Limits, bears similarity to other bands whose sound expands to fit the space they’re playing such as Muse or Mutemath. Bear in Heaven’s latest single “Reflection of You”, channels the sound of British supergroup Electronic. Fans can count on countless opportunities, given the ensemble’s workaholic penchant.

(Tue. Mar 13, Mohawk Patio, 11 PM; Thu. Mar 15, Mohawk Patio, 10:30 PM.)

5. Thee Oh Sees

Started by John Dwyer over a decade ago, Thee Oh Sees have achieved steady word-of-mouth acclaim due to the boisterous nature of their live shows, which combine punk energy with roots rock, garage, and psychobilly flourishes. The group’s latest release, Carrion Crawler/The Dream (2011), finally does justice to their live show by capturing their ability and raucous energy on album. As live artists, Thee Oh Sees’ chemistry and skill is on display in sets where the wheels seem poised to fly off, and yet the band members exhibit the discipline to rein each other in. For the uninitiated, imagine the musicianship of the Drive by Truckers, amped up by the energy of the Legendary Shack Shakers or the Pogues. With critical acclaim for their studio work catching up to their raves as a live act, and with the ensemble seemingly able to draw from their extensive repertoire (including eight albums in five years), Thee Oh Sees’ shows are positioned to be among SXSW’s highlights.

(Wed. Mar 15, Red 7 Patio, 9 PM; Wed. Mar 15, Beauty Bar, 1:15 AM.)

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