9 New Bands to See at South By Southwest (SXSW): Welcome to Music’s March Madness

For those of you who prefer music to hoops, this music festival is nothing less than our March Madness; a thoroughly overwhelming onslaught of unknown bands, fresh sounds and new obsessions.

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Bhi Bhiman performs on Feb. 8, 2013, in London.

South By Southwest – my favorite time of year.

For those of you who prefer music to hoops, this music festival is nothing less than our March Madness; a thoroughly overwhelming onslaught of unknown bands, fresh sounds and new obsessions. The game changer this year for me has been Spotify, and the increasing array of “sxsw 2013” playlists that have cropped up by users who have scanned the bands, filtered through the thousands of albums and cataloged the singles that won them over. All week I’ve been listening on random play, discovering new groups and growing giddy over the creativity that’s about to be unleashed on Austin, Texas.

(MORE: The Must-See Films at the SXSW Film Festival)

Now I don’t pretend to be the world’s most comprehensive SXSW investigator. I haven’t listened to every band or singer – not even close. But I have spent a fair amount of time listening to artists that I haven’t heard before, and have found a few sure-fire winners. I hope buried somewhere in this list is a new sound that you enjoy too.

Here’s my first glance through the program – nine bands worth checking out:

1. On An On: “Ghosts.”

If I’m being honest, the one SXSW song that I’ve listened to most is “Ghosts,” by the moody, ethereal and distorted rock group On An On. Consider me enamored (Playing several shows March 13-16):


2. Leagues: “Spotlight.”

There’s a little Vampire Weekend here – and also a bit of M83, with a pinch of The Black Keys. Yes, Grey’s Anatomy apparently featured this song, but I don’t watch that ridiculous TV show, so “Spotlight” is still new to me (Playing several shows March 14-16):


(MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage – SXSW 2013)

3. Kitten: “Chinatown.”

There’s hints of Metric in Kitten’s sound, an ‘80s vibe that is punchy, catchy and absolutely dance-worthy (Playing several shows March 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16):


4. The Orwells: “Halloween All Year.”

Here’s one of my guilty pleasures: The Orwells, straight out of suburban Elmhurst, Illinois, embracing the old-school distorted screeches. I sang along with their music video, would cherish the change to sing along with them in person (Playing March 15 and 16):


5. The Eastern Sea: “The Match.”

Mellow, measured but oh so beautiful, The Eastern Sea had me from the first lyric. I love the structure of “The Match,” so precise in hitting the marks while still unfolding in unrestrained vocals. It’s lingered in my memory, this beautiful harmony (Playing shows March 10, 12, 13, 15 and 16):


6. Widowspeak: “The Dark Age”

Last year, it was all about Sharon van Etten; this year, the Brooklyn sound that caught my ear Widowspeak, an edgy rock group that layers guitar exclamations atop a Beach House-ish cerebral foundation (Playing shows March 12-16):


7. Spires That In the Sunset Rise: “Winter Song”

I fully admit I’m a sucker for ambient music and epic instrumental rock. What I love about the latest album from the Wisconsin-based group Spires That in the Sunset Rise is the cocophony of strings that melds together to become “Winter Song.” You probably won’t dance much at a STITSR show, but I’m betting it will be plenty memorable (Playing shows  March 14, 15 and 17):

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/59182314″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

8. Wildcat! Wildcat!: “Mr. Quiche”

If I left SXSW 2012 with Neon Indian cycling through my dreams, this year it might be Wildcat! Wildcat! I love the staccato electronic rock, I love the frantic opening measures, I love the fleeting falsetto in the background – and god how I love the music video (Playing shows March 11, 13-16)


9. Bhi Bhiman: “Guttersnipe”

Sometimes you’ve just got the pipes. That’s true for Bhi Bhiman, a first-generation Sri Lankan-American folk-rock recording artist who will be playing Austin next week. When I hit 1:22-1:52 in the song below, I was blown away, launched into orbit on the vocals of a singer with a surprising depth and range: “I’m riding home on the line…I’m well on my way to feeeeeeeeelin’ FIIIIINE.” This is joyous sensory overload (Playing shows March 14):


More music, film and tech analysis — read TIME’s complete SXSW 2013 coverage