The music portion of South by Southwest officially kicks off tonight in Austin, Texas. Over 2,200 acts will play 110 venues across five days. And that's just the official showcases. You can probably safely double that number if you include bands in town to play parties, free shows, and unofficial showcases. There's no place like it in the world to discover your new favorite band. It's also a complete mess. Like music itself these days, it's an embarrassment of riches stacked so high that most everything becomes noise. Unless you're Justin Timberlake, Prince, or Green Day, all of whom played last year's festival, the sheer numbers make it tough to stand out from the pack. And this year, Apple is bringing Coldplay, Pitbull, and Imagine Dragons to town. Doritos has Lady Gaga. Jay Z and Kanye will no doubt drop by. SXSW has become a pileup of corporate sponsors, impossible-to-get-into private parties, and yeah, those 2,200 other bands. Sometimes it's easy to think the best use of three hours during SXSW is to wait in line at Franklin Barbecue. At least that line ends in an experience you'll never forget.
Now for the good news. Like we said last year, whether you're headed to Austin or not, SXSW is still a pretty good barometer for what's next: Bands playing the Mohawk or Holy Mountain this week will be bands you're circling on your Lollapalooza or Pitchfork festival schedule this summer. Or next summer. Year in and year out, the SXSW schedule is the best annual tipsheet for new music. Period. But... no 50-song playlist, no "Best Bands Playing SXSW" list is going to be able to cover the spread or really help you navigate all that much. SXSW is too overwhelming — the choices so varied by genre, by country of origin, by experience level — that trying to make a playlist is a fool's errand. Or worse, just blatant clickbait.
So what to do? When in doubt, we go alphabetical. And there's a challenge in making an alphabetical list that isn't there when you're just picking 50 bands — you have to make choices, the same kind of choices you have to make every hour at SXSW. The rules of the exercise were this:
• Alphabetical order. Duh.
• It's about the strength of the songs. This is a playlist that should be every bit as worthwhile to someone not going to Austin as someone who is.
• We skipped the obvious superstars, and even no-brainer you-have-to-see-them folks like Angel Olson or London Grammar.
• In most cases, we chose acts with recent, brand-new, or forthcoming singles or albums.
• And oh yeah, X was tough (and it wasn't). The schedule has just one band on it that starts with X. Good thing we love X.
Without any futher ado, SXSW 2014 A-Z:
Ages and Ages, "Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)"
Because this is the sing-along of 2014. And it's as unapologetically joyful as the Polyphonic Spree or the Flaming Lips' best moments.
Birds of Tokyo, "Lanterns"
Because this is the more anthemic, much more mellow answer to Bad Meets Evil's "Lighters." Live, this should also be a giant sing-along.
, "Bitches Brew"
Because every last one of the other 2,199 folks leading bands at SXSW could learn something from Chino Moreno.
Doughbeezy, "I'm from Texas"
Because great hip-hop anthems have a sense of place. Houston's next great rap export knows exactly who he's repping.
Eagulls, "Nerve Endings"
Because while these young Brits sound nothing like Queens of the Stone Age, the effect is similar — they're constantly building tension and breaking it down by alternating between tightly wound and off-the-rails sloppy.
Future Islands, "Seasons (Waiting on You)"
Because we can't stop re-watching the recent Letterman appearance (above), which we go back and forth thinking is either great theater or 2014's best trainwreck.
Gossling, "That Feeling"
Because somewhere at SXSW there will be bottle service and sparklers. And this will be the soundtrack.
Pinata Protest, "Life on the Border"
Because Tex-Mex Punk. Like a bilingual Gaslight Anthem, but with accordions.
Quiet Company, "Fear and Fallacy Sitting in a Tree"
Because they head into SXSW with a home-court advantage and a just-recorded new set of songs. And because this, too, is a giant sing-along.
Run River North, "Fight to Keep"
Because modern folk this richly layered has a high degree of difficulty. And they nail the landing.
Spanish Gold, "Out on the Street"
Because while it cops an undeniable eighties vibe, the guitars effectively work overtime selling it as something thoroughly modern. And because smart money says that until there's a new Spoon album, this is Austin's best export of the year.
Ana Tijoux, "Somos Todos Erroristas" ("We Are All Errorists")
Because even if you don't speak español, this Chilean MC's voice carries some serious gravitas. Also because you may have heard her "1977" in Breaking Bad's fourth season.
The Unlikely Candidates, "Follow My Feet"
Because this should have been a much, much bigger radio hit. And where there's smoke there's usually fire.
Vintage Trouble, "Pelvis Pusher"
Because the live show is a rock 'n' roll throwback in all the right ways.
Wild Cub, "Thunder Clatter"
Because if the Talking Heads had made two or three more records it might've sounded like this.
X, "Los Angeles"
See : Every last one of the other 2,199 folks leading bands at SXSW could learn something from X.
Yellow Ostrich, "Shades"
Because Alex Schaaf is one of rock's great underrated frontmen.
Zeale, "Hope Dies"
Because this Austin rapper has a rare ability to flip between conscious and clever on a dime. And when he's working with a live band — as he most likely will at SXSW — the "M" in MC stands for "maestro."