The Best of SXSW 2009

Last April, when my blog was all of one month old, I reported on the best bands to come out of SXSW festival. It was a big undertaking for me, but it was worth it: I discovered such wonderful artists as Nicole Atkins, Clare & the Reasons and Stephanie Dosen, and it was the first post from my blog that garnered any attention outside of my wife and mom.

So in March of this year, I eagerly downloaded 6 GB of free music from artists represented at the SXSW Festival in Texas. In case you’re wondering, 6 GB = over 1,200 songs, but I was determined to get through it all and report back the best of what I heard. I was also eager to find the next big thing, the best unknown artist, someone to sweep me off my feet and reaffirm my faith in popular music.

Eight months later…

No, it didn’t take that long to get through the sheer number of songs. It was the sheer lack of talent that I had to deal with. I mean, I thought this was a music festival, fer Chrissake. But 90 percent of all the music fell into one of five categories:

  • Death metal. These songs usually began with a ripping guitar, drums on amphetamines, and an ungodly, throaty roar from the lead singer. Two seconds of this made me hit the delete button.
  • Hip-hop. I know there may have been some good stuff in there, but until I figure out what’s good about hip-hop, it would have gone right by me anyway. Delete.
  • Amy Winehouse wannabes. Take a retro 60s beat, a sassy female singer…you get the picture.
  • Folk/Bluegrass/Americana. There are so many artists that fall into this category that it takes a lot to stand out. Unfortunately, not many did.
  • Latino bands. I took a long listen to these, seeing as Spain has quite a number of power-pop fans. Who knows? Maybe their Spanish-speaking brethren across the pond had the same taste. But in the long run, I got frustrated with the fact that 1) I only speak one language, which ultimately led to 2) I couldn’t understand a damn word of what they said.

So what did that leave me with? Here are the few, the proud, the best of SXSW 2009:

  1. “Water and God” – All Get Out. I usually shy away from groups in which you can’t tell the name of the group apart from the names of the songs. But this song opens with a catchy melody on a synthesizer, then repeats the melody in the chorus. Like a theme. I think Mozart used to do that.
  2. “Lester” – The Golden Dogs. Happy pop that is somewhat reminiscent of Todd Rundgren, except the lead singer is female.
  3. “Coney Island” – Good Old War. The true gem of the lot. Uptempo, acoustic-driven pop with an inventive yet beautiful chord progression. Hearing this was almost worth wading through the other 1,200 crappy songs.
  4. “Oh My My” – Jill Barber. I almost hit the delete button, thinking this was another Amy Winehouse. But I was pleasantly surprised, as Barber takes you back another decade to the 1950s; her sweet, childlike voice brings to mind cabaret singers from Europe.
  5. “Oh! Pandora” – John Wesley Harding. Wow. How long has John Wesley Harding been making music? He’s as strong as ever on this cut, with a fantastic voice coming through clearly over basic AAA-driven rock.
  6. “Single Girls” – Laura Jansen. I’m a sucker for a female voice, a piano and a touch of strings. ‘Nuff said.
  7. “Rabbit Ears” – Pompeii. Straight-forward pop, light use of cello and a lead singer reminiscent of former Veruca Salt frontwoman Nina Gordon.
  8. “I’ll Play What You Want” – Toy Horses. Starts off sounding like Madness – big, thick Welsh accents, not the strongest voice, mind you – but then it turns into a nice Tin-Pan-Alley jaunt. I’ll definitely have to hear more of this.
  9. “Nighthawks” – Two Hours Traffic. I could not get this chord progression out of my head. It’s that inventive and addictive. That’s really all there is to the song, but that’s all it needs; the fast pace ushers you through quite easily.
  10. “July 23” – What Laura Says. Again, what happened to band names like “The (insert noun here)s”? Nevermind. Another catchy, poppy number with piano, tambourine, and Beach-Boys “ooh-ahh” choruses. Well, of course I’d like that. Duh.

Finished just in time for SXSW 2010. Here we go again…

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Peter Lee


  1. I agree with you completely about the Good Old War’s song being the highlight of the bunch. The whole album is just like that track (i.e., it’s full of good tunes and great harmonies). There’s a good-natured, sittin’-on-the-back-porch feel about the album that’s hard to beat — if you like that sort of thing. (I don’t usually, but it’s so well done that I’m effortlessly immersed in the mood they conjure up.)

  2. Hey! Thanks for including us in your top ten songs. We’re playing SXSW 2010 hope you can make it!

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