The 20 Best Bands We Saw at SXSW 2016

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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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