SXSW: America’s Top Music Fest Returns. Five Buzz-Worthy Bands to Check Out

Thousands of bands over six days: How can anyone see them all? TIME picks five early standouts from the sprawling South By Southwest music festival

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Courtesy SXSW

The band Quiet Company plays Tuesday evening at the South By Southwest music festival

Okay music buffs, an opening caveat: I’m more of a Beacon Theatre guy than a regular at the Mercury Lounge. More KCRW than KEXP. By the time I’ve discovered a band, they have probably crossed the threshold of Pitchfork and “All Songs Considered.” So I fully admit here — I am not the Great Discoverer of the Hot New Band during my annual trips to South By Southwest. As I set out to wade through the hundreds of daily acts, the ones that catch my eye most have likely already gained some momentum with an outlet I read and trust.

Still, there are plenty of music fans just like me, who turn to SXSW each year less to bask in the glory of Bruce Springsteen, who is presenting a keynote this week, than in hopes of adding new groups and sounds to their playlists. By the time tUnE-yArDs played Austin last year, most music buffs already knew all about Merrill Garbus. But it was thanks to an online SXSW playlist that I was first introduced to “Bizness,” and now Garbus is one of my favorites.

(MORE: The 100 Greatest Songs of All-Time)

So take these recommendations with that knowledge in mind. These aren’t necessarily new breakthroughs, but rising stars of the indie music scene that are worth celebrating and watching. And if you’re like me, always on the hunt for something new to hear, I hope some of these fit the bill.

The South By Southwest music festival runs tonight through Sunday at dozens of venues across downtown Austin. I’ll have more picks and reports in the days ahead. As far as this evening is concerned, I’m probably most excited about seeing Quiet Company (10 p.m. at The Main). The first hit that’s already caught on from their new album: “You, Me & The Boatman”


Also tonight: Polica, playing 1 a.m. at the Bat Bar. Already a rising star ahead of the festival, they’ve been singled out for an NPR Music live webcast Thursday at 3:30 p.m. EST. The band’s meticulous and innovative use of autotune on their hit “Lay Your Cards Out” won me over from the first verse:


One of the new bands that I’ve now heard a couple of people buzzing about on the streets of Austin is Soft Swells, a duo out of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. It was definitely a sound that picked me up. While the beginning of South By Southwest was rainy and freezing, the weather cleared on Sunday, with a glorious 65-degree afternoon. Listening to the bouncy Soft Swells track “Every Little Things” from my iPad while basking in the sun set the tone for the week to follow (the band plays 8 p.m. Wednesday at Trinity Hall):


Another performer that’s new to me: Daughter, playing 11:30 p.m. Friday at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary. She’s already been singled out by many top pundits as one of the great vocalists to watch at this year’s festival, and her sparse, barren track “Landfill” is the kind of tune that lingers with you:


And on the hip-hop front, Sugar Tongue Slim (STS) plays 1:45 p.m. Thursday at The Parish. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying his cut “Here Tonight,” produced by the dynamic Will Power:


Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.

MORE: Full coverage of SXSW