South by Southwest, Austin’s annual music festival (March 17–21), is the biggest in the nation, almost to a fault. How is someone supposed to see all of the nearly 2,000 international music acts over just five days? (You might have to skip that show with the banjo-playing DJ. But that’s okay.) SXSW’s diverse music selection and intimate club venues make up for the sheer numbers — and if you sneak these handpicked fest faves into your schedule and follow our short list of tips for things to know before you go, your SXSW experience will be unforgettable. And maybe even life-altering. (Hey, you never know.)
10 ACTS NOT TO MISS AND A SAMPLE OF THEIR MUSIC
The xx London
This trio landed on every 2009 top 10 list that matters (Rolling Stone, the Guardian, Pitchfork Media) with a debut album that stripped the poppier spectrum of hip-hop to the bone. Cosingers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Smith croon about romance over paper-thin synth beeps and guitar plinks, yet despite the minimalism, the melodies stick.
Toro Y Moi Columbia, South Carolina
The term blisscore describes indie acts that combine the synthy, R&B-tinged pop sounds of the ’80s with effects like thick reverb and looped samples — think Debbie Gibson through a Purple Haze. One-man band Toro Y Moi is the brightest new act in the blisscore crowd, mixing dreamy soundscapes with infectious, memorable pop songs.
Darker My Love Los Angeles
SXSW never has a shortage of psychedelic rock bands, but Darker My Love leads this genre with more aggression and punch than their droning, feedback-soaked peers. The reason: They add a hearty pinch of Black Sabbath-like urgency. With a new album dropping this summer, expect to hear some new tracks.
Midlake Denton, Texas
Midlake eschewed most modern rock trends with their 2006 breakout record The Trials of Van Occupanther, citing Fleetwood Mac and America as inspirations. Four years later, they’ve regressed further, mining the late ’60s sounds of Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull to craft a darker, urgent folk-rock sound on their most confident record yet, The Courage of Others.
They’ll win for quirkiest SXSW band name, and their heart-on-the-sleeve take on post-punk — think Bloc Party crossing paths with U2 — should keep fans at the gig long after chuckling at the name.
Blue Scholars Seattle
Seattle’s hip-hop renaissance will send a number of ambassadors to this year’s SXSW, but Blue Scholars remain the Northwest’s best-known duo with an approach that’s equal parts positive and uncompromising. At last year’s SXSW, they worked a capacity club into a frenzy of hands in the air; expect a raucous repeat.
Fool’s Gold Los Angeles
Fool’s Gold embraces the Afropop genre via meandering songs ripe with chanting, horn sections, and aimless choruses. As such, you may never hear Fool’s Gold burn up the pop charts, but no matter; this band’s authentic celebration of Afropop will prove more intimate — and dance-worthy — at SXSW as a result.
White Ghost Shivers Austin
Say it with me: Prohibition-era vaudeville jazz. Weird, right? But this group has steadily built a fan base over the past decade in SXSW’s hometown, avoiding the pitfalls of the ’90s swing-dance fad by dabbling in genres like Western swing, calypso, and Meatloaf-era metal.
Efterklang Copenhagen, Denmark
While no strangers to SXSW in their 10-year run, this Danish band’s February major-label debut on prestigious 4AD records would make you think otherwise. Their rebirth in Magic Chairs eschews the band’s more experimental past, and they explode with an orchestral pop that’s more epic than hipster icon Sufjan Stevens — yet more accessible than the Polyphonic Spree.
This quartet deep-fries the best of classic punk and garage bands like 13th Floor Elevators, X, and the Ramones into crispy, danceable delights. Harmony vocals, fuzz-dripping solos, and hooky choruses will keep songs like “Always Wrong” and “Biggest Nugget of Them All” stuck in your head long after you’ve rocked out to them in a tiny SXSW nightclub.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GOMAKE A LIST, CHECK IT TWICE: You’ll panic if you don’t prepare a personal schedule before the hectic fest starts. Along with favorite bands, pick a few sleepers in case your dream concert sells out — and with such tiny venues, it’s definitely possible.
AVOID THE FRAY: When you get hungry around SXSW’s main strip of venues, Austin’s cabs and bike-taxis will speed you to better barbecue and Tex-Mex spots outside the crowded fest nexus of 6th Street.
HOTEL (IN) CALIFORNIA: Hopefully, you’ve booked a room by now, since most hotels fill up by the end of February. If not, you can probably still find a good bed at least 10 miles up the highway from the Convention Center.
ENJOY A FREE AFTERNOON: SXSW doesn’t officially endorse most free daytime concerts around downtown, but we’d be remiss not to recommend a few, especially in the case of nighttime schedule conflicts. Search Google and you’ll find showtimes. Also, check your favorite bands’ MySpace pages. Unofficial SXSW shows are often listed there too.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE: Austinites tend to warm up to visitors, especially if you chat them up at a concert you both happen to like. They’re the quickest route to the best local music, food, and afterparty recommendations.