South by Southwest, Best in Class: 12 Amazing ’12 Bands You Need to Hear Right Now

Thousands of bands vie for attention every year in Austin. The best you can hope for is some good buzz, lucky listens and unexpected surprises. Here are TIME’s picks for 12 amazing SXSW cuts

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Courtesy SXSW

Firehorse, out of Brooklyn: one of the best acts playing the South by Southwest Music Festival this week

There’s no way to see thousands of bands in only five days at the South by Southwest Music Festival. And that’s kind of the point; here’s a fest too big to fully strategize for, organize or attend. You have to pick your favorites, be open to some surprises and go with the flow. (See TIME’s complete coverage of SXSW 2012)

That’s how we’ve approached it here at TIME as well. A couple of first listens led us to this initial list of five bands that were catching early buzz ahead of the music festival. A second listen guided us into the ranks of the intimate singer-songwriters (including one retro-riffic love ballad by Brendan Benson and a swooning love song by the beguiling Sarah Siskind).

(MORE: SXSW: Dropping In on Dropbox’s Drew Houston)

Now here’s round three — a far more eclectic mix of indie rock, production masterpieces and fresh voices. If you’re looking for a weekend South by Southwest playlist, here’s a safe sampling of all that awaits you on the streets of Austin. Twelve bands you need to hear right now — in no particular order:

1. Girl in a Coma: This San Antonio group (learn more) has already amassed an impressive resume. They were signed by Joan Jett and then toured with the likes of the Pogues, Tegan and Sara and Morrissey. Their hit “Smart” is what caught my ear:

2. Teen Daze: Here’s a song that should have you hopping in 10 seconds flat. An electronic musician from Vancouver, Teen Daze (learn more) released his debut record in mid-2010, and his sound caught on as he orchestrated multiple tours across 2011. Now I’m one of his biggest fans. Here is his catchy mix “Let’s Groove,” which he released just last New Year’s Eve:

3. Michael Kiwanuka: This 24-year-old British soul musician (learn more) struck out on his own after working as a session guitarist. His debut EP “Tell Me a Tale” was released by Communion Records last June. Here is his heartfelt song “Home Again”:

4. Silverbus: South by Southwest attendees are already raving about Taiwanese rock group Silverbus (learn more). The band released its debut in January 2011 and then proceeded to tour Japan and Singapore. Now their epic instrumental track “Those Forgotten” has been hailed by an NPR reporter as the show of the year (thus far):

5.Wild Belle: Less than a month ago, the Guardian was singing the praises of Wild Belle (learn more), naming them new band of the day solely on the basis of the strength of a single song. That track was “Keep You,” and it’s a good one:

6. Oneohtrix Point Never: The recording name of Brooklyn-based experimental musician Daniel Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never (learn more) is known for composing ambient music via vintage synthesizers. Here’s one of his new songs, “Replica”:

7. Yellow Ostrich: The band began primarily as a one-man effort — by Wisconsin native Alex Schaaf — with the original tracks distributed for free via Bandcamp. Now with the addition of two other singers and instrumentalists, Yellow Ostrich (learn more) is taking SXSW by storm and earning rave reviews in the process. Here’s their song “Marathon Runner”:

8. Bright Moments: If there’s a peppier song at South by Southwest this year, I have yet to find it. “Travelers” is one of the creations of Kelly Pratt, who, as Bright Moments (learn more), crafted an album while secluded in his apartment throughout the winter of 2010. It was time well spent:

9. Lee Fields & the Expressions: Old is new again, at least as far as funk and soul are concerned. Lee Fields (learn more) released an album in 1969 and scored a couple of follow-ups in the 1970s before disappearing for a wide span of the 1980s. He broke back into the mainstream music scene with the 2008 record My World. Now he’s back performing in Austin; here’s his song “Faithful Man”:

10. The Milk Carton Kids: Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, two folksinger-songwriters, set aside their solo careers in 2011 to form the Milk Carton Kids (learn more), a sparse, minimalist concept that involves two guitars and two voices to create evocative harmonies. This is their song “There by Your Side”:

11. Lost in the Trees: The suicide of a musician’s mother has heavily influenced and defined his band’s sophomore effort. His name is Ari Picker, and he is one of the driving forces behind the North Carolina group Lost in the Trees (learn more). The group’s second record debuts later this month; here is an early track, “Red”:

12. Firehorse: Led by front woman Leah Siegel (daughter of NPR broadcaster Robert Siegel), the new Firehorse album and So They Ran Faster … arrives with a striking mix of catchy vocals, manipulated beats and hypnotic flourishes. Here’s the new Firehorse (learn more) song “Our Hearts”:

MORE: SXSW Interactive Goes Retro: A Celebration of Analog at a Digital Fest

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.