Each March, hundreds of thousands of visitors descend on Austin, Texas, to keep things weird, to gorge themselves on brisket and queso, and for South by Southwest, which kickstarts the 2018 festival season. Now in its 32nd year, SXSW is where young acts aim to please big industry players, and underground favorites hope to grow their following, playing bars, restaurants, rock clubs, honky-tonks, churches, and all the spaces in between. For festivalgoers, the city is transformed into the ultimate playground, with live music spouting from the dark and damp interior of the Barracuda to the raucous Mohawk and everywhere in between. This year’s festival took place from March 12 to 18, and while it’s nearly impossible to pick the absolute best artists from SXSW, we’ve narrowed down some of our favorites.
On Fine but Dying, Liza Anne’s latest album, out via Arts & Crafts, the Georgia-based singer pairs infectious pop guitars with fiery lyrics tackling heavy topics, like her own struggles with mental health. That darker side came through in her live performance, where the singer’s bubblegum facade — she was outfitted in a pale-pink jumpsuit and raspberry beret — belied an unapologetic fierceness, as when she launched into “I Love You, But I Need Another Year.” “I hope you like this song,” she told the crowd, “but if you don’t, I don’t care, because I fucking love it.”
Liza Anne plays the Mercury Lounge on May 9
With her new album, Historian, piling up rave reviews, Lucy Dacus is having a very good 2018. Still, even the singer-songwriter’s happiest tracks can trigger feelings of heartbreak. Or, in some cases, hunger: Nick Offerman called the Virginia native’s sophomore album “delicious.” “This young lady has a voice that I would liken to smoking a bong that’s been filled with a tincture of laudanum — that’s opium syrup — while laying in one of those meat jelly molds, and having gravy just slowly dripped on your face,” he said, while introducing Dacus at the benefit night Audible Impact on March 13. Leave it to Ron Swanson to compare a singer to a meat bath, and mean it as a compliment.
At the Sidewinder on March 14, the twenty-year-old New York native dazzled both musically and sartorially, pairing shimmering purple velvet pants with a neon-pink sweatshirt, all topped off with his signature bowl cut. This, after all, is a singer just as at home in the pages of Vogue as of Billboard. Leading a band of similarly offbeat young hipsters, including his little sister, Dapperton attracted a crowd of cool kids for a set of sunny indie pop bangers off his latest EP, You Think You’re a Comic!, and last year’s Yellow and Such.
Despite some technical difficulties early on, the Israeli indie pop group sailed into its SXSW performance at Blackheart on March 13 with swagger. Climbing onto the amplifiers and raising her voice to the rafters, lead singer Yael Shoshana Cohen laced the band’s manic folk-rock energy with tragic romance, as if Lana Del Rey was fronting the Magnetic Zeros.
With a sound that pulls from both Nineties emo and college-rock staples like the Feelies and Talking Heads, this Montreal-based quartet brought its DIY vibes to Austin with post-punk fury at Barracuda Backyard on March 14. After a three-year hiatus, and last year’s solo release from singer-guitarist Tim Darcy, the band bounced back this year with a new label and a new record, Room Inside the World, out now.
Ought play the Music Hall of Williamsburg on April 6
One of the buzziest bands of the week, this Manchester, England–based gothpop outfit drew fans lining up around the block to get into its performance at the British Music Embassy showcase on March 13. Drummer Ciara Doran and vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie began writing songs after meeting at a liquor store, later filling out their ranks with the addition of bassist Charlie Wood and guitarist Hugo Silvani. The quartet is inspired by Eighties synthpop acts like the Cure and Cocteau Twins, but darkens its sound with heavy guitars and gothic dream-girl vocals.
Pale Waves play Bowery Ballroom on April 13
Southern Cali’s lo-fi indie darling isn’t new to the SXSW circuit, but he brought a variety of sounds to the Pitchfork stage on March 16, from reflective folk-like tunes to dance floor anthems inspired by Nineties house. Shamir Bailey’s irresistible charisma was on display when he introduced “Straight Boy,” off the album Revelations. “Are there any straight boys in the audience?” he asked, laughing, before singing the first verse: “Can someone tell me why/I always seem to let these/Straight boys ruin my life?/I guess I’m just too nice.”
At twenty years old, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison is possessed of a world-weary wisdom far beyond her years, with her debut studio album, Clean, serving as exhibit A. In front of a packed crowd at Cheer Up Charlies on March 16, the native of Nashville, Tennessee, sang “emopop bangers” about boys, anxiety, and envy-inducing cool girls, before letting rip on “Your Dog,” an outspoken track about confronting an emotionally abusive relationship: “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog/That you drag around/A collar on my neck tied to a pole/Leave me in the freezing cold.”
Soccer Mommy play Elsewhere on May 2, Rough Trade NYC on May 4, and National Sawdust on June 7 with Liz Phair
Clad in Day-Glo-colored raincoats, the eight members of this East London–based electropop group mounted the stage at Latitude 30 on March 17, ringing handbells as they took position around diminutive lead vocalist Orono Noguchi. With members hailing from different parts of the world, the band is a testament to the benefits of globalism, with a sound and aesthetic sufficiently playful enough to distract fans from the current political climate.
Superorganism play Music Hall of Williamsburg on April 5
The San Diego–based garage rockers, named after lead singer Nathan Williams’s fear of the ocean, have been around for a decade, but showed no signs of slowing down at one of SXSW’s most epic performances on March 16: True to form, the ever-rebellious Williams closed out his band’s set at the Mohawk’s “All Are Welcome” party with a two-story stage dive.