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The 20 Best Bands We Saw at SXSW 2016

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We did it. We survived another year in Austin. From tacos to torrential rain storms leaving us stranded on Willie Nelson’s Ranch, South by Southwest 2016 was certain an adventure. And yes, of course, we witnessed some incredible live music. Here are the 20 best bands we saw at SXSW 2016, in alphabetical order.

1. Anderson .Paak

Curious if SXSW had a clear-cut winner? Here’s your guy. Anderson.Paak is a destroyer. We profiled him in a Best of What’s Next back in December and man-oh-man was that sentiment confirmed at SXSW. Paak brings an R&B infused hip-hop style, whether he’s dancing across the stage singing through his brilliant LP Malibu, or whether he’s playing the drums and singing at the same time. His set opened with him and BJ The Chicago kid (who’d played just before him on the same stage) doing “Waters” off of Malibu and Paak went on to run the gamut on the album. The 9th Wonder & Callum Conner produced “The Season/Carry Me” is one of this year’s finest productions and Paak’s “Heart 1985-86 World Tour” T-shirt came out when he tore of his blue and orange leopard print letterman jacket. The dude has crazy style (and even wore a jacket emblazoned with Bart Simpson heads at a later set at Pandora’s Discovery Den.) At that same Discovery Den set, Paak switched up the setlist from the earlier show and dropped “Animals” from Dr. Dre’s Compton album, in which he was prominently featured as a vocalist throughout. This was an artist you wanted to see more than once and for a dude who was already riding high after his recent signing to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, he’ll likely leave SXSW as music’s newest bona fide star. “Yes lawd!” —Adrian Spinelli

2. Beach Slang

“Hi we’re Beach Slang and we’re here to punch you in the heart!” singer James Alex said as Beach Slang opened the day with a noon-time set on Friday. Alex’s charisma is through the roof, his velvet sport coat was a staple all week and Beach Slang held their own when I saw them across multiple showcases during the week. The power-punk outfit from Philadelphia demanded attention on stage and got it every time with tracks off of 2015’s Polyvinyl release The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us. They’re a pop punk that you want to keep listening to, ‘cause despite the moments when they might be reminiscent of late 00’s radio bands, Alex is still as punk as they come. —Adrian Spinelli

3. Bambara
Bambara is loud, in the best possible way—the kind of loud where you feel the noise-rock trio’s music in your entire body, with those frantic drums replacing your heartbeat. Their set on Saturday afternoon was like a much-needed jolt of energy to carry us through the final day of SXSW. —Bonnie Stiernberg

4. Charlie XCX & Sophie

This was one of those sets that you’re only gonna see at SXSW. It was English pop starlet Charli XCX’s first time playing live with digi-pop producer Sophie (a product of the futuristic label PC Music’s roster) and it was a face-melting affair. Extravagant lights flashed (nobody did lighting better than Hype Hotel throughout the week), smoke machines breezed across the stage and it seemed as if every time I looked up, I’d catch a different glimpse of XCX’s silhouette. There was mystique, there was the 1 am set factor that turned Hype Hotel into a quasi-rave for an hour and there was Charli XCX owning the stage like a fucking pop star. She made it seem easy and had confidence levels that were ready to blow through the roof of the indoor stage. The J-pop forged PC Music beats from Sophie paired so well with Charli and the result was pop music like we’d never heard it before. —Adrian Spinelli

5. Day Wave

Oakland’s Day Wave positively must be on your radar. The band, led by frontman Jackson Phillips has dialed-in a brand of indie pop that’s been getting them air play across the globe and tracks from the new Hard To Read EP were money. Phillips and guitarist Kevin Friedman (who was also a part of Phillips’ last band, Carousel) have really smooth vocal harmonies and cuts like “Gone” and OG single “Drag” are flat out good pop songs, devoid of the douchiness that some pop rock bands sport. Get into ‘em. You’re welcome. —Adrian Spinelli

6. Diet Cig

Ahhh…my SXSW spirit animals. The NY-based wild punk duo lifted up the spirits of every room they played in. Diet Cig was the only band I caught three times over the course of the week and they were a much-needed shot in the arm every time. Early Saturday afternoon—the festival’s final day—I was struggling until I made my way to Do512’s showcase and watched singer Alex Luciano bounce around on stage, singing and pushing her guitar to the limits. Drummer Noah Bowman was breaking sticks left and right and it was like we’d stepped into a page out of Where The Wild Things Are, the indie rock edition. Luciano is never not smiling ear to ear and I had more fun watching these kids play than just about anything all week long. Their set punctuates with the catchy single “Harvard”, where both band members are at their finest. I dare you to see Diet Cig play live and not totally fall for their happy-go-lucky energy. I double dog dare you. —Adrian Spinelli

7. Dilly Dally

I had rushed off for a brisket sandwich in between sets and luckily got back just in time to see Canadian punks Dilly Dally torch the day time stage at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Wednesday. In an afternoon that featured the pared down vibes of Frankie Cosmos and Waxahatchee just before them on the outdoor stage, singer Katie Monks—wearing a badass over-sized silver pendant around her neck—and company totally shredded through tracks off of 2015’s excellent Sore. Guitarist Liz Ball was in her own world, head down, hair often draped down the front of her head and just wailed on the exit solo to “Desire.” But Monks’ nasal, scratched up vocals and general IDGAF aura, usher in a new form of post-punk that riled me up. —Adrian Spinelli

8. Hinds

I caught the last half of Hinds’ set at the Hype Hotel, but their no-frills three-part harmonies were echoing through the surrounding ‘hood when I walked up to the venue. Garage rock with a buoyant undertone, these Spanish up-and-comers made the cavernous makeshift venue feel like a house party—in a good way. Their sound may be unrefined, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the ride. —Dacey Orr

9. Iggy Pop
On Wednesday night I witnessed a 68-year-old man stage-dive. That man was Iggy Pop. It was, of course, incredible, as was the rest of his set with Josh Homme. The emphasis was on material from their new album, Post Pop Depression, but there were plenty of Iggy classics like “Lust for Life,” “The Passenger,” “China Girl,” and “Nightclubbing” tossed in for good measure. Homme is the perfect musical partner for Pop, holding his own on the hits, and the new material sounded strong among the timeless stuff. Iggy seemed truly appreciative of the large crowd at the Moody—so much so that he ran about a half hour long. —Bonnie Stiernberg

10. Lissie
We were met with a treat in the Revival Tent, where Lissie had taken to the stage with a bottle of wine and an acoustic guitar and begun making the best of it with a truly chilling unplugged set. The thunder added intensity to Lissie’s howling vocals and pleading lyrics while a rapt audience clung to her every word. The storm worsened and worsened during her performance, but it added a rapturous element to every note. “Further Away (Romance Police)” ran particularly hot, and I heard multiple people say they were happy the whole storm thing had happened—the first inkling that weather wasn’t going to stifle the good attitudes of this Willie crew. You had to come away from the experience with an immense respect for Lissie, both as a artist and, y’know, a human being—she most certainly had a dry trailer with a stocked bar she could’ve camped out in, but she made the entire day for many people and certainly won a bevy of lifetime fans for it. —Dacey Orr

11. Mail the Horse
This Brooklyn folk-rock group isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but you don’t always have to in order to do great things musically. So it’s hard to get angry when a song sounds a little like a country version of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”—it’s a popular sound for a reason. Mail the Horse held their own on a stacked bill at the Athens in Austin showcase at the Side Bar on Saturday afternoon, keeping things feeling familiar and warm, just like they did when they paid a visit to our studios recently. —Bonnie Stiernberg

12. Margo Price
It’s time to quit hailing new artists as country’s saviors—if the last few years are any indicator, country is doing just fine. But Margo Price is certainly the next name to rise to legend-like fame, and her performance at Weather Up for the Billy Reid Shindig (always a sure bet during SXSW) was only more evidence to that increasingly obvious statement. Highlights included “Tennessee Song” and, of course, closer “Hurtin’ on the Bottle.”—Dacey Orr

13. Mick Jenkins

I’d seen Chicago’s Jenkins open up for Joey Bada$$ last year and he seemed to fall victim to the pitfalls that many hip-hop openers often do: You try too hard to hype the crowd as an opener and the message of your music gets lost in favor of pomp and glow. This was not the case on the latter, more hip-hop heavy, part of Wednesday night’s Bonfire Session showcase. Jenkins commanded the crowd and performed tracks like “The Waters” and “Jazz” off of his The Water[s] mixtape. Even tracks from the newer Wave[s] album had the crowd firing with bouncy exuberance. Jenkins effortlessly fed the underlying message of overcoming industry traps and personifying the body of water in which young artists like him navigate, throughout his set and never felt preachy. This was finally the star in the making I expected to see after spinning The Water[s] countless times since 2014 and in 2016, he might’ve finally arrived. —Adrian Spinelli

14. Saint Pé
Ian St. Pé’s always been a frontman at heart, and in the former Black Lips guitarist’s new band (aptly named Saint Pé), he doesn’t need to share the spotlight with anyone. That’s not to say his bandmates are inconsequential; on the contrary, Saint Pé features an impressive collection of members of Turf War, Concord America and Zoners. But Saint Pé is called Saint Pé for a reason, and it’s very much his project. On Saturday at Side Bar, Saint Pé kept it loose, cracking jokes and playing songs from the band’s recently released EP, Secular Music, as well as some of his work from the Black Lips (“Time”) and Diamond Rugs (featuring a special appearance by his D-Rugs cohort T. Hardy Morris). —Bonnie Stiernberg

15. Sunflower Bean

Perhaps the top band on my radar for the week was the last one I saw. While Sunflower Bean’s set visibly wore the wear of an 11-showcase week—not uncommon for most buzz bands at SXSW—the songs off of their engaging and interesting-at-every-turn debut Human Ceremony had the same luster that they have on the album. While Julia Cumming’s gorgeous voice is a standout on the record, it was Nick Kivlen’s off-into-space guitar musings that might slip past you if you don’t see this band live. Drummer Jacob Faber was frenetic and it became clear what a balanced three-piece the New York band is. The best moments were when the vocals stopped and the trio ventured into two-minute long instrumental explorations—none better than the final stretch of “I Was Home.” Through their own breed of psych rock, Sunflower Bean achieve what Foxygen failed to arrive at following We Are The 21st Ambassadors of Peace and Magic. Replace Foxygen’s gravitation to the glam approach to try and stand out with Sunflower Bean’s complete dedication to expansive and remarkable musicality, and you’ll see why the latter have crazy staying power with every note they play. —Adrian Spinelli

16. Sylvan Esso and Made of Oak

If you were anywhere else on Friday night at 1 am, you did it wrong. Amelia Randall Meath and Nick Sanborn debuted a handful of new tracks for the first half of their set that had the crowd in a total frenzy. By the time they dropped well-known bangers like “H.S.K.T.” and “Hey Mami” (Our No. 1 song of 2014) it was the best dance party I’d been to all week. The sweet outdoor stage setup at Mohawk can feel tightly packed for a popular artist’s set, but this was a harmonious slate for movement. The type of show where you look over at the stranger next to you and you’re both bouncing to the beat with the same shit-eating grin of delight on your face. Sylvan Esso’s debut was a bit of a phenomenon and considering the manner in which how well-received their new material was at this showcase, it hinted at much bigger things for Sylvan Esso on their next go round. —Adrian Spinelli

17. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down

Thao Nguyen is one of a kind. This could be the greatest rock band you’re not listening to enough of, and their set—consisting entirely of songs off of brilliant new album A Man Alive— was as powerful as they com. Thao was visibly sweating and as animated as any performer at the festival. Good things come in small packages and seeing Thao, in her shiny short black shorts and quaint shoes, shuffling through guitar pedals and getting lost in guitar riffs was crazy fun. The fire of “Astonishing Man” gave way to the emotion of “Millionaire” and then the absolute perfection of “Hand To God.” This was the type of set that makes you want to see Thao & The Get Down Stay Down again in bigger venues on tour for the full realization of their expansive sound. Lucky for everyone not in Austin, that tour starts Thursday. You’re welcome. —Adrian Spinelli

18. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks are extremely fun live, but still, no one at a Twin Peaks show ever seems to be having a better time than the band itself. They’re full of energy, and that joyfulness comes through in their music and infects everyone in the crowd. Their midday set at Sidewinder on Thursday was a total party, and it set the tone perfectly for the rest of the afternoon at the Noise Pop/APE showcase. —Bonnie Stiernberg

19. White Denim

Seeing White Denim play in Austin is a SXSW rite of passage. James Petralli hopped on the stage with a cigarette in his mouth and got right down to business on the guitar. The Austin-based psych rock demigods played tracks off of their new album Stiff (out Friday) and it was the perfect booking to follow-up Lucius’ breathtaking set on late Wednesday afternoon. Even without long-time guitarist Austin Jenkins and drummer Joshua Block—who helped produce Leon Bridges’ stellar debut and are now part of his touring band—Petralli and bassist Steve Terebecki comfortably led a band that has been one of the most consistent live acts in psych. —Adrian Spinelli

20. White Lung

If this band doesn’t blow up after SXSW, then the system is broken. “Hungry” might’ve been the best song I heard all week and singer Mish Barber-Way was a beyond powerful force on an early afternoon set on SXSW’s dreariest day. At 2013’s festival, there was some buzz about White Lung. But with the Canadian quartet embracing a pop-forward approach, their music is finally getting the recognition it rightfully deserves. This was powerful rock and roll that radiated hard enough to make the days drizzle not matter at all and it has us incredibly excited for their upcoming album, Paradise, due out May 6 on Domino. If that’s not enough, their band bio comes in the form of a Q&A with St. Vincent’s Annie Clark on their website. Talk about a co-sign. —Adrian Spinelli

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