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15 must-see bands at SXSW 2014

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South By Southwest is like Spotify streaming IRL: free, near-limitless music intermittently interrupted by ads.

With over 1,800 official showcasing acts shoehorned into Austin city limits, music has a way of finding you during SXSW: in parking garages and side alleys, in backyards and laundromats, on bridges and, in one infamous Black Lips stunt, the drive-thru lane of a fast-food restaurant.

But as with Spotify, actually discovering exciting new bands can be difficult, if not daunting, without a starting point.

I approach SXSW the way other people do fantasy football drafts—with spreadsheets, highlighters, and back-up options for every conceivable scenario.

These are the 15 bands I’ll be scheduling my week around, with some more thrown onto a Spotify mix for good measure.

1) Clear Plastic Masks
Best bet: Thursday, Heartbreaker Banquet at Willie Nelson’s Luck ranch

This Nashville-via-NYC quartet has a killer side project with Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard called Thunderbitch. Still need convincing? Check the band’s debut EP, CPM.

2) Twin Peaks
Best bet: Friday, 2pm at Buffalo Billiards 

SXSW is boom or bust for buzz bands. At age 19 across the board and with an impressive indie debut, there will be no middle ground for Chicago’s Twin Peaks.

3) Spanish Gold
Best bet: Wednesday, 12pm at Lamberts

As if Adrian Quesada needed another side project… Spanish Gold pairs the Grammy-winning guitarist/producer with My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan and Hacienda's Dante Schwebel  for slinky AM gold.

4) Quilt
Best bet: Saturday, 1:30pm at Red 7 

Quilt would make an ideal opener for Roky Erickson’s annual Ice Cream Social. The trio’s Held in Splendor (Mexican Summer) evokes the feel-good 1967 spirit of the 13th Floor Elevators’ Easter Everywhere.

5) Curtis Harding
Best bet: Wednesday, 10:30pm at Trailer Space

In the spirit of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, former CeeLo Green backup singer Curtis Harding is a redemptive R&B crooner with a lifetime of dues paid and a suitcase full of heartache.

6) Avid Dancer
Best bet: Saturday, South By San Jose

Jacob Dillan Summers, a former U.S. Marine and the bedroom songwriter behind Avid Dancer, appears to only have one song to his name. It just so happens to one of the best songs of the year.

7) Odonis Odonis
Best bet: 11:20pm at Hotel Vegas

This Toronto trio throttles no-wave intensity with nails-on-chalkboard industrialism. There’s no way the band’s forthcoming full-length, Hard Boiled Soft Boiled, doesn’t go off live.

8) Love Inks
Best bet: Thursday, 1pm at Cherrywood Coffeehouse

This minimalist Austin trio won me over with its disarming cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking the Cow.” Last year’s Generation Club (Monofonus Press) is even better.

9) Timber Timbre
Best bet: Wednesday, 12:30am at Swan Dive Patio

With dark humor fit for a Wes Anderson film, 2011’s Creep On Creepin’ On earned Timber Timber a Mercury Prize nod. Judging from this NSFW velvet-room ballad, next month’s Hot Dreams will be a frontrunner this time around.

10) Sylvan Esso
Best bet: Thursday, 7:45pm at the Chevrolet Courtyard at Cedar Street

What started as a one-off remix turned into a full-fledged collaboration between Amelia Randall Meath and Nicholas Sanborn. The duo’s debut lands this summer, following dates with Wye Oak and Tune-Yards.

11) Dianne Coffee
Best bet: Saturday, 2:45pm at the Liberty

A former Disney voice actor, Shaun Fleming has rechristened himself as Diane Coffee and churned out a modern psych-pop classic, My Friend Fish (Western Vinyl) that slots perfectly between Girls’ Broken Dream Club and Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.

12) Ava Luna
Best Bet: Thursday, 12am at Victorian Room at the Driskill

If Prince wrote a record for The New Girl instead of just appearing on the show, it would sound like Ava Luna’s Electric Balloon, the year’s most thrilling and unpredictable party record.

13) Sturgill Simpson
Best bet: Saturday, 11pm, St. David’s Historic Sanctuary

Sturgill Simpson’s 2013 sleeper High Top Mountain captures classic country from a modern outlaw, the kind more comfortable on a “railroad of sin” than in Music City.

14) Lydia Loveless
Best bet: Tuesday, 8:35pm, at the Hole in the Wall

 “Honey don’t stop giving me head.” That’s the line that made my jaw drop for the first of several times listening to Lydia Loveless’s Bloodshot breakthrough, Somewhere Else. The 23-year-old alt-country songwriter from Columbus, Ohio, bucks expectations at every turn.

15) White Denim
Best bet: Saturday, 11pm at Clive Bar

Still the best live band in Austin. Period.

Photo of Twin Peaks by Ryan Ohm