Though established acts like Tove Lo and Bleachers made appearances at South By Southwest in Austin this year, the music festival is more about discovering artists looking for more exposure and/or promoting new releases. Among the 40-plus bands I saw this year, these 15 new(ish) artists stood out for their energy and originality.
1. Ibeyi (sounds like Kelela, Erykah Badu)
Blending contemporary R&B with Afro-Cuban rhythms and percussion instruments derived from Yoruba culture, sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz are doing something that no one else is doing in music right now. Naomi switches between a synth deck, a cajón, and a batá drum set, creating a polyrhythmic playground of beats on which the sisters’ harmonies and Lisa-Kaindé’s keyboard can frolic. That’s not to say Ibeyi’s music amounts to fun and games; rather, songs like “Mama Says” explore their mother’s solitude in the wake of their father’s death, and “Yanira” eulogizes their older sister. Ibeyi bring ancient traditions and ultra-modern influences together, remaining true to the heartache they’ve suffered but also capturing the exhilarating feeling of discovering new, wholly unexplored musical territory.
2. BØRNS (sounds like: Queen, Little Daylight)
California transplant Garrett Borns and his band have inherited the glam-rock bombast of ’80s stalwarts like Queen while sounding eminently of-the-moment. BØRNS is a stunning live performer, complementing gloriously catchy gems like “10,000 Emerald Pools” with androgynous, Jagger-esque vamping in between the soaring electric guitar parts he plays. It’s hard to imagine a world in which singles like “Electric Love” don’t permeate the international airwaves, so be sure to namedrop BØRNS and catch a live show before he totally blows up.
3. Leon Bridges (sounds like Sam Cooke, St. Paul and the Broken Bones)
Comparing Texas crooner Leon Bridges to Sam Cooke is valid but also too easy. Complemented by his exceptional backing band, which includes members of indie group White Denim, he puts some rock muscle into the body of Motown-influenced soul that we’ll see on his anticipated début LP later this year. Right down to his natty gray suit and the pair of perfectly in-sync backup singers that encase his voice in harmonies, Bridges’s act mines retro gold without sounding overly derivative, thanks in part to the electric instruments that gain more traction live than they do on record. At the end of South By Southwest, Bridges walked away with the prestigious Grulke Prize for Developing U.S. Act, a duly deserved honor to cap off a weeklong winning streak in Austin.
4. Torres (sounds like Waxahatchee, Joy Division)
When you go see Torres live for the first time, don’t forget your earplugs. The volume sneaks up on you, as McKenzie Scott has a tendency to start a song softly and then launch into reverb-drenched squalls of post-punk guitar noise, even throwing in the occasional metal scream as on “Strange Hellos”. South By Southwest this year was (pleasantly) crawling with badass, female-fronted rock bands, and Torres stands out thanks to Scott’s ability to find shades of pain and playfulness within the deep tones of her alto voice. Music critics and disaffected college kids alike will surely be spinning her new album Sprinter nonstop when it drops in May.
5. James Vincent McMorrow (sounds like Bon Iver, Damien Rice)
Singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow is already a sensation in his native Ireland, but a warm welcome into American popular music appears to be on the horizon. Comparisons to Bon Iver are inevitable; he builds songs around simple, droning organ chords and sings in a sky-high falsetto resembling Justin Vernon’s. While the latter performer maintains a fairly even-keeled tone throughout his music, McMorrow lets his vocal rip in songs like “Cavalier”, reaching vein-popping notes that Mariah or Whitney would likely applaud. In experimenting with the outer limits of his vocal instrument, McMorrow has found a way to make the ubiquitous sound of the male singer-songwriter feel vitally novel and interesting.
From Little Simz to James Bay
6. Little Simz (sounds like Nicki Minaj, Busta Rhymes)
The world needs to get ready for this fiery spark of a rapper from London. Just old enough to drink in the States, Simbi Ajikawo has been releasing mix tapes since she was 16, gaining attention from Jay Z and Dizzee Rascal along the way. Her subject matter is bold and confrontational without belying her youth; she gives advice to her younger self on “Time Capsule” and takes on male skeptics on “Devour”. Anyone who can get every single person in a convention center meeting room on their feet, clapping and rapping along on her hooks, deserves to be throwing down in far larger venues, and her talent suggests that doing so is just a matter of time.
7. Ryn Weaver (sounds like Florence + the Machine, Haim)
Big-voiced singer Ryn Weaver owns a stage like she already knows she’s a star. Sounding like Florence Welch, Jr., and head-banging her brown mane like the fourth Haim sister, Weaver puts an alternative spin on triumphant, hook-laden pop music. Songs like “OctaHate” sound just as catchy and uplifting as chart-dominating singles like Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” or Tove Lo’s “Not on Drugs”, though there’s a canny introspection to her lyrics on songs like “Promises” that prove she’s just as much a back-office songwriter as she is an ace performer.
8. Houndmouth (sounds like: Deer Tick, Blitzen Trapper)
Indiana folk-rockers Houndmouth give off the air of being the four coolest alternative kids in school playing music just for fun, but over the course of their two LPs they’ve evolved into mature artists breaking a new trail through the dense forest of contemporary Americana. Their songs typically revolve around simple chord progressions, yet, like Bob Dylan or Gillian Welch, they excel at dreaming up and inhabiting compelling personae in their lyrics, such as the ex-con in “Penitentiary” or self-destructive, lovesick women in “Gasoline” and “Houston Train”. Matt Myers is an effortlessly proficient guitar soloist, and Katie Toupin’s gritty-smooth vocal stands out alone or in harmony with her bandmates. Houndmouth’s recently released album Little Neon Limelight charms on first blush, and their live shows are infectious, brimming over with youthful energy but also suggesting the refinement of true visionaries coming into their own.
9. Parlour Tricks (sounds like Haerts, Heart)
New York six-piece Parlour Tricks underpins spiraling three-part harmonies with bone-rattling synth beats, finding surprising areas of overlap between musical theater and electropop. Parlour Tricks was crowned “Best New York Pop Band” by The Village Voice in 2014, and it’s high time for audiences beyond their hometown to share in the glory. Lead singer Lily Claire and her two backup vocalists cut powerful figures in black gowns, and their harmonies share a tautness with Lucius and the Dirty Projectors. New songs “Requiem” and “Lovesongs” portend great things for the band’s next compilation, due out in 2015.
10. James Bay (sounds like: Hozier, Vance Joy)
British folk crooner James Bay seems poised for stardom, sounding like a less macabre version of Hozier or a less twee Vance Joy. Bay’s songs are shamelessly earnest, marrying lyrics about desire and devotion with crescendoing climaxes on viral tracks like “Hold Back the River”. His sound is easy on the ears, tugging at your heartstrings with every beat, and in live performances he manages to summon an immense onrush of sound with just a guitar, some percussion, and his powerful, note-perfect voice.
From The Ting Tings to Odesza
11. The Ting Tings (sounds like Talking Heads, Little Boots)
This funky trio, influenced equally by New Wave rock and electronica, has been nominated for a slew of awards in their native UK, and South By Southwest found them winning over audiences this side of the Atlantic. Combining brass jams, perky beats, handclaps, chugging funk guitars, and Katie White’s tidal wave of vocals, the Ting Tings sound like Ph.D. candidates in musicology who spend their weekends twirling glow sticks at underground raves.
12. Vince Staples (sounds like Earl Sweatshirt, Common)
In a time when the shameful persistence of racial injustice in America is impossible to ignore, Long Beach rapper Vince Staples is exactly the straight-talker that our country needs. In his live show, the song “Hands Up” becomes a brilliant piece of performance art, transforming a dominant trope of live music (“put your hands up!”) into an act of political activism in solidarity with nationwide protests against police brutality. At just 21, Staples is precocious, prophetic even in his wisdom, without sacrificing the exuberance of a young performer experimenting with different dimensions of his still evolving voice.
13. Wolf Alice (sounds like Garbage, Nirvana)
UK band Wolf Alice’s sound emerges out of the tension between thunderous, ’90s-inflected rock guitars and lead singer Ellie Roswell’s clear-as-a-bell vocal. These songs are all about modulation, building from Roswell’s near-whisper to Riot grrrl screams that would warm Kathleen Hanna’s heart while giving audience members goosebumps — see, for instance, “Storms”. Performing in a dark, moderately sized bar, Wolf Alice makes every molecule of the space vibrate, lending the grandeur of an arena show to any live affair.
14. Mother Falcon (sounds like: Typhoon, the Family Crest)
Austin natives Mother Falcon, a choral folk collective boasting upwards of a dozen performers at any given show, bring the string-heavy drama to their dynamic, constantly modulating compositions. From moments of quiet tremolo vocals to bursts of shouting and multipart harmonies, there’s never a dull moment at a Mother Falcon show, and fans of similarly elaborate acts Typhoon and the Family Crest will find plenty to dig into in their music.
15. Odesza (sounds like: Autre Ne Veut, ASTR)
Finding a sweet spot between sparkly electropop and beat-heavy house music, the Seattle-based duo Odesza serve up ample portions of synthesized ear candy, underpinned by a percussive foundation provided by actual drum kits. In performance, Harrison Mills (stage name Catacombkid) and Clayton Knight (aka. Beaches Beaches) alternate between kinetic stints on drums and arm-waving manipulations of their synth decks, ultimately leaving no body in the audience unmoved.
Other standout SXSW artists worth checking out (if you already haven’t): San Fermin, Courtney Barnett, Best Coast, Luluc, Laura Marling, Milky Chance, Waxahatchee, Demi Louise, Kristin Diable, the Barberettes, Alvvays, Stromae, Hello Wheels, Tobias Jesso Jr., Only Real, Riders Against the Storm, Scarlet Tanager, Moving Panoramas, and Amason,
Narrowing the field to 15 artists was nearly impossible, so for more SXSW glory, you can check out my “South By Southwest Faves 2015” playlist on Spotify at this link.