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Class of 2012: A Look Back


Last year, I was privileged enough to start something that turned into a great feature here on Faronheit. That was the “Class of 2012“, in which I chose 10 artists whose profiles I expected to rise significantly that particular year. After unleashing those names in January, I spent the year following their progress to see if they made good on that initial promise.

Some of the artists, like Grimes, Frank Ocean and Purity Ring, turned out to be inspired choices. Grimes was the #1 most blogged about artist of 2012. Frank Ocean released a record that revitalized R&B and got him applause that led to earning the top spot on many a year-end “best of” list, plus a nomination for the Album of the Year Grammy. Purity Ring just plain made a great album called Shrines that got them the same sort of praise, though maybe on a slightly smaller scale. So those were the main success stories from that last class.

Others didn’t work out so well. Kreayshawn was a “controversial” choice, a girl with a couple decent hip hop singles to her name, but who many felt was annoying and attempting to destroy the very fabric of popular music today. She promised her album would “put the haters in their place,” but sadly it only gave them more fuel to throw on the fire. She’ll undoubtedly keep trying, but will anyone bother to listen? Then you had a band like Blonds, an indie pop duo out of Florida. Their debut album The Bad Ones came out last summer, and while it often sounded like a mixture of bands like Tennis and Cults, the hooks just weren’t quite there and neither were the reviews. It wasn’t a poor effort by any means, it may just have struck at the wrong time – when a bunch of similar-sounding bands had already taken over an already crowded field.

And now a few words on Lana Del Rey. Arguably speaking, she’s a success. Her record may have been so-so outside of a few strong singles, but where she failed musically she struck gold as a figurehead. She barely even toured in 2012, yet continued to gain popularity thanks to a bunch of modeling work and commercial appearances for high end merchandise. You could say that music was just a springboard for her towards something much larger. As she moves in a new direction, can acting be far behind? We’ll see what happens in 2013. In regards to someone like Nicolas Jaar, he spent most of 2012 waking up to the idea that his album Space is Only Noise continued to be discovered and gain new fans almost every day. I expected him to rush and release something new to capitalize on his slow burn rise in popularity, but he instead chose to make some more subtle movements. Okay, so maybe releasing a compilation of largely unreleased music via a cube called The Prism isn’t entirely subtle. But he did that, compiled a BBC Essential Mix featuring some of his favorite artists, remixed a Cat Power track, and unleashed a new single called “The Ego” late in the year. He also toured quite a bit, and I saw him perform twice, which he was great both times. Maybe we’ll have something new from him in 2013?

Speaking of that, a few of my Class of 2012 still haven’t peaked quite yet. Their debut full lengths were due in 2012, but ultimately got pushed back to 2013. In other words, this year is going to be a big year for all of them, though arguably last year was too. Charli XCX put out a couple singles, an EP and a mixtape in preparation for her debut, and continues to gain new fans through touring as well. A$AP Rocky‘s record LongLiveA$AP got delayed and will finally be out this month, but he toured quite a bit in 2012 with the A$AP Mob, and unleashed a couple singles and videos. Oh man, remember that music video he did with Lana Del Rey for her song “National Anthem”? He played JFK, which was really quite out of left field. Finally, there’s Azealia Banks. Her 2012 was pretty huge, with her 1991 EP and Fantasea mixtape both coming out to a fair amount of praise. Both didn’t quite meet the expectations of her earliest singles, but the hope is that her debut full length Broke With Expensive Taste will rise to the occasion when it comes out in February. Meanwhile she’s attracting enough attention in the last couple weeks thanks to a fresh feud with Angel Haze that seems almost purposely created to promote one another. Whatever it takes to keep your name in the headlines, I guess. So long as the music is good, I don’t care how you promote it.

So let’s tie these artists up in a neat little bow and file them away for another day. Most assuredly they’ll all continue working in 2013, some with greater success than others. I’m proud of each and every one of the Class of 2012, even the ones that didn’t do so well. I plan to continue to follow all of them for the foreseeable future, but probably won’t actively report on any of it unless it feels absolutely necessary. Instead, I’ve got to shift my focus to the new year, and a brand new class. There are 10 new artists I’ll be following for all of 2013, and I’m super excited to reveal them to you later this week!

SXSW 2012: Final Thoughts + Photos

Four days, 32 artists, and one physically/mentally tired guy. That about sums up my SXSW 2012 experience. While I was stumbling around Austin in a haze the last hour of the last day, my first trip to SXSW was a wonderful experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. After hearing so many great things about the city and the conference/festival, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and simply had to go just once, just to see what it was like. The end result was largely what I expected it to be, but with a few surprises thrown in as well. My hope here is to chronicle the things I think worked about SXSW, and a few that didn’t. Also, if you click past the jump, you can see all the photos I took while in Austin. If you’d like to read about individual performances that I saw last week, have a look at the following daily reports:

Wednesday
Thursday
Friday
Saturday

The Good
Perhaps the thing that makes SXSW truly great is the sheer size of it all. There are literally thousands of bands performing over a handful of days, almost all of them within the span of about 2 square miles. Getting around from show to show isn’t bad, whether you’re on foot or feel the need to take a pedicab. Of course 6th Street can get a little packed during peak hours and create some slow downs, but it’s never anything too unmanageable, even if you need to get somewhere fast. The wide array of shows and showcases happening at any given time can also create a bit of a headache, as it’s not exactly easy to pick and choose if there are 6 artists you want to see all performing at once. Learning the city and the locations of all the venues both legitimate and illegitimate goes a long way towards helping you make such tough choices based purely on conveniece and distance from where you’re currently at. Do you go see Cloud Nothings playing down the block, or do you walk 6 blocks to see Grimes? As I see it, the decision is pretty much already made for you.

Yet there are also a few SXSW music moments that you can’t always plan for, simply because they weren’t planned. There weren’t many “secret” shows this year so much as there were secret guests like Kanye West jumping on stage at the 2 Chainz show or Eminem showing up to support 50 Cent or Bruce Springsteen bringing out everyone from Jimmy Cliff to members of Arcade Fire to Tom Morello and Alejandro Escovedo. Those extra thrills only make the experience more special. Also a major contributor: the people. Austin is already something of a cultural melting pot, but with music fans and artists coming into town from all over the world, the diversity factor multiplies by about 10. But here’s the thing aboug most music fans: they’re good, friendly people. You could strike up a great conversation with the person standing next to you in line and not blink an eye. Everybody was there because they love music, and the easiest conversation starter was always finding out who they’re most excited to see while in town. The only time I ever saw anybody get angry was when a couple of people cut in line trying to get into a show. The reaction was less anger and more, “That wasn’t cool, guys.” If we as a society behaved more like everyone in Austin at SXSW did, the world would be a more peaceful place. Unless of course you’re at an A$AP Rocky show and somebody’s throwing full beer cans at the stage. That near-riot situation was a showcase of the worst side of humanity.

But outside of good music, good people and good weather, good food is another thing Austin is known for. There were food trucks and street vendors on most corners, each specializing in a different type of cuisine. You could get breakfast tacos at one place, and some Korean version of spaghetti at another. There was plenty of BBQ to be found too. If you’re a fan of slow-roasted meats that are tender and delicious, you didn’t have to walk more than a block in downtown Austin to find some. For the cheapskates, there were also a bunch of showcases giving away free food. It’s worth noting that like grocery store samples, the “food” they give you for free is often small and may not be of the highest quality. It also gets snatched up almost immediately for those reasons as well. You’re costing yourself a potentially great meal if you’re not paying for it.

The Bad
For all the great things that happen in Austin during SXSW, it’s not a perfect situation by any means. First and foremost among the issues is overcrowding. Things may get cramped when you’re walking down the street, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening inside many of the venues. Jam packed to the gills, trying to get anywhere close to the action was tough, let alone trying to make your way back to the exit. When things did get that bad, the waiting games began. Lines built up outside venues that were a city block or more long, everyone beholden to the “one in, one out” policy. Pitchfork’s evening showcase at Central Presbyterian Church was the height of madness, and I stood in line for 3 hours, missing Fiona Apple, just to get into the 500 capacity venue. Was it worth it? Eh, kinda. Every performance I saw there was a revelation, which is more than I can say about the other venues in town. I’m not entirely sure how all these sound engineers stay employed given how many times I saw an artist ask for a levels adjustment or something broke. I know these artists don’t get a soundcheck during SXSW and they want to put on the best show possible, but constantly stopping or even aborting some songs right in the middle because of a small issue takes away whatever mojo that might have developed in the meantime. The worst night of all was at Clive Bar, where Tycho played without any sub-bass, New Build’s monitors weren’t functioning properly, and Grimes was forced to start her set even after everything wasn’t tested to see if it was working properly (it wasn’t).

Sound issues are just one half of the paradoxes that SXSW presents. The other is overextension. While SXSW can be a great thing for artists (performing in front of music industry bigwigs brings all sorts of exposure along with it), agreeing to play 3 shows a day for 4 days in a row can put you near death’s door. Touring is tough enough when you’ve got one show every night for 3 weeks straight, but SXSW is a marathon compared to that long distance run. Artists function on little to no sleep and can easily blow out their voices from singing too much. On Thursday night I saw Grimes play a perfect show at Central Presbyterian Church. 24 hours later, she had performed at least twice more before arriving at Clive Bar with a voice that was barely there. She fought against it as hard as she could, and eventually had to call it quits in a set that was also plagued with sound problems. It was a valiant effort, but likely left most of the crowd disappointed. Then again, everyone was so kind, understanding and enthusiastic, it probably didn’t matter as much as I thought it did.

Finally, I want to mention the hierarchy that is SXSW. Your amount of access is almost entirely based upon your status within the music industry. If you’re not part of the industry and are simply looking to see some free music, there’s lots to choose from if you don’t mind a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. If there was a line anywhere, it was almost guaranteed the general public would not be allowed in, as those with badges or wristbands automatically had first dibs. Among the badges and wristbands, only the badges were given priority access into any venue. Every badge would be allowed in before any wristbands would, no matter when they showed up. Of course if I had a badge I probably wouldn’t be complaining about it, it’s just that there were so many of them. There must have been at least a dozen shows I tried to get into but was denied because the room was already filled with badges. Granted, badges cost around $900 and you should be getting something for that money, but it would be more fair if they offerend some balance like for every 100 badges let in, 10 wristbands also get in. Alas, wristband holders got the shorter end of the stick, while the general public was more shafted than anything.

To Conclude
SXSW is something that every obsessive music fan should attend at least once in their lives. It can be a genuine blast if you let it, and only gets better the more access you have. Not but a few years ago, the several day conference/festival served as a proving and development ground for new music talent. Today, that’s not really the case anymore. You may discover your new favorite band while wandering around Austin, but for the most part our discoveries are contained to the hype cycle on the good ‘ol Internet. Then again, were it not for SXSW I never would have stumbled into the band Tearist and one of the most batshit crazy/weird live shows I’ve ever seen. I’m still not sure whether it was supremely stupid or incredibly clever, but if you like incomprehensible psych-pop and somebody showing an iron beam who’s boss with a lead pipe, Tearist could be for you. Outside of the occasional exposure to an artist you didn’t intend to see, you’re quite in control of your own destiny. Unless you’re the adventuresome type willing to walk into a venue without knowing or caring who’s performing, most identify and target acts based on personal tastes or recommendations of others. With so many choices, you can use the time to check a few acts off your personal bucket list. That’s what I did, and though I didn’t get to see every artist I wanted to, I feel like what I did see was extremely worthwhile anyways, with the aforementioned issues or not. I hope I get to go again, be it next year or in 10 years. And if you didn’t go, I hope you take the opportunity to get to Austin soon. It’s a great American city, and the Live Music Capital of the World for a reason.

Click past the jump for photos of many of the bands I saw at this year’s SXSW, in alphabetical order:

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SXSW 2012: Saturday

St. Patrick’s Day and SXSW collided this year, and the result was mayhem. People everywhere, and if they weren’t looking to see a band they were looking for a drink. In some cases it was both. There was plenty of fun to be had, but you had to keep a close eye on drunken revelers at shows – they were liable to do anything. I’m not going to get into it, except to say I barely avoided getting vomited on. But Saturday also meant the final day of SXSW Music, and the offerings were actually a little more meager than in days previous. Still, there was plenty to do and see if you were motivated enough, so here’s my recap of the fourth and final day of my SXSW adventure.

After 3 days of standing on my feet and walking everywhere, my body was ready to quit on me last night. I took that into account and slept later than usual to try and bring my energy back up for one more day of live music on the streets of Austin. It was mid-afternoon by the time I ventured out of my hotel room, and I headed straight for the outskirts and the Mess With Texas party. There were a few artists performing there I’d been wanting to see but hadn’t got around to. The first of them was 2:54, a British band made up of two sisters that have an affinity for shoegaze and 90s rock. They’re probably best experienced in total darkness, but there was still something gothic about their outdoor tent performance. They didn’t play for very long, but were remarkably good anyways. 2:54’s EP Scarlet is out now, and is deserving of your attention if you haven’t heard it yet.

Tanlines followed 2:54, though they were playing the big indoor stage instead of the small outside tent one. Despite not having released any albums yet (their debut Mixed Emotions comes out Tuesday), Tanlines earned the spot of pre-headliner. They’ve put out a few singles and a pair of EPs, not to mention a bunch of remixes, so based on all that and some good ‘ol hype, the band is doing pretty well. Their set went pretty well too, flush with mostly new material that got the crowd dancing. The set also proved the band has moved beyond simple, straight dance music and into something more complex and interesting. The duo are still a little awkward when it comes to stage banter, as percussionist Jesse Cohen’s go-to line was always “We’re Tanlines.” Seriously, he said it after almost every song. Maybe he thought we’d forgotten, or maybe he just wanted to make sure fans that were waiting on A$AP Rocky were fully aware of who they were and what kind of music they were making.

Speaking of A$AP Rocky, I was mainly at Mess With Texas to see him. As he’s another member of my Class of 2012, I was pretty much obligated to check up and find out what his live show is like. Well, first of all, he showed up an hour late. That wasn’t very cool. But when he did finally make it, along with his crew the A$AP Mob, he put on a show worth waiting an hour to see. The crowd was riled up and ready to go, and he gave them exactly what they wanted – cuts off his mixtape LIVELOVEA$AP. They sang/rapped along, hands in the air with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for huge hip hop stars like Jay-Z and Kanye West. “I don’t give a fuck what y’all do here; moshing, crowd surfing, throwing shit, or even fucking each other – just so long as you have a good time,” Rocky told the crowd. So cartons of water were being thrown around like crazy, smoke filled the air, and the A$AP Mob dove off the stage and into the crowd more than once. Rocky also told the crowd that he tried to come to SXSW last year to perform, but couldn’t afford the plane ticket. Clearly his situation has changed, what with a reported $3 million record deal. If you think he’s big now, just wait 6 months.

I wandered over to the polar opposite side of town and ACL: Live at the Moody with a small bit of extra time on my hands before Sleigh Bells were set to perform their only SXSW show. They were supposed to have another act on the bill to open for them, however it seems that slot was never filled. That meant my early arrival was more or less a waste of time. I stood inside the theater for an extra hour just waiting and anticipating. I’ve only seen Sleigh Bells in an outdoor festival setting, so when they took the stage with an intense light show, it was quite a different experience. Of course they started with “True Shred Guitar”, as the track was built almost solely for the purpose of opening a show. From there they bounced freely between their debut album Treats and their new one Reign of Terror. Obviously the older material got the better response, but I also think a couple of the newer songs just generally wouldn’t do well live. Actually, it’s just the slower ballads like “End of the Line” that kind of takes the show down a notch. You do need a breather now and then though. Of the new songs, “Demons” was by far the most potent, proving its status as the best thing on Reign of Terror. All the while Alexis Krauss danced around the stage, sometimes approached the barricade, and even crowd surfed once during “Rill Rill”. Derek Miller and the other guitarist are the spark in that live show, and Krauss is the flame. What an explosively good set.

Upon leaving that show, I came to the realization that one of my other Class of 2012 artists was getting ready to perform a few blocks away: Kreayshawn. So to Austin Music Hall it was, only to find out they were way behind on their showcase bill. It was a party being put on by celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, and as he said himself, sound issues forced them to delay some of the performances. So in order to get to Kreayshawn I had to sit through sets from Ed Sheeran, Cher Lloyd, and Dragonette. I’m not really going to comment on any of those sets, except to say all 3 are interesting and dynamic artists at different points of success right now. None of their music hits my sweet spot, but they’re all talented in their own ways. Due to the packed bill and delays, artists were being held to 20 minute sets. Kreayshawn’s was about that long, and she had time to do 4 of her tracks. The requisite “Bumpin Bumpin” and “Gucci Gucci” both made an appearance, and she also did a couple new ones as well. The first was about sniffing glue, which afterwards she told the crowd she doesn’t condone drug use. The second was about “the most important meal of the day” aka breakfast. It included the lyrical gem, “Grapes, what’s up? Breakfast!” And she’s supposed to be a rising voice in hip hop? Even I’m starting to doubt my decision to place her among my Class of 2012. Still, I will not pass official judgment until her debut album is out later this year.

If Kreayshawn’s set had happened on time, I would have been able to go see !!! perform. Alas, I missed their set, though I walked past their stage and heard a little of it on my way to try and see Givers for my last set of the night. Turns out a lot of other people wanted to see Givers too, and I wound up shut out there as well due to capacity. With that, I made the executive call to go and see a band I’ve seen a couple times before back in Chicago because that’s where they’re from too. That band was JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. They’ve been playing shows all over Austin this past week, 11 in total, and I wanted to see how they were faring after such a grueling schedule. Not only did they survive, they still sounded great too and with energy to spare. They’re probably more tired than I am, and I’m about ready to collapse. It felt fitting to end with a band from back home, as that’s where I’ll be headed soon anyways. Near the end of their set, the guys did a funked up cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, and the whole experience just felt like it came full circle. I’ve loved my time in Austin so much these last few days, the complete exhaustion aside, but I’m even more excited to go back to Chicago. SXSW has been so much fun, I may just try to do it again next year.

Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year

Welcome to 2012! I hope you all had a great New Year’s. For my Chinese readers, we’ll celebrate next month. I’m very pleased to kick off this fresh new year in a similar fashion to how we ended 2011: with a list. Typically I leave all the listmaking for December and Listmas, but in this particular case I wanted to set a few objectives for 2012 and stick by them. That is to say, I want to step out on a proverbial limb and predict what will be hot this upcoming year. So I have created what I’m calling the Class of 2012: 10 Artists to Watch This Year. These are artists that, if you haven’t heard of them yet, hopefully you’ll know much more about them by the end of the year. I’m expecting big things from all these artists, though to be clear “big” can be defined a few different ways in this case. A couple of them will sign minor league record deals and make a small splash on the indie circuit, going from completely unknown to only relatively unknown. Others will become enraptured in the hype cycle and achieve much critical acclaim and potentially indie stardom. And even a few might just break out huge, turning into the next music superstars. The grand hope is that all these artists will obtain some serious forward momentum and reach your radar screens sooner rather than later. My plan is to provide periodic updates on all 10 of these artists, keeping a close eye on where they’re at and what they’re doing, in addition to the site’s more typical cycle of album reviews and mp3 giveaways. Stick with me as we learn more about the Class of 2012 so we can say we discovered them together. Let’s start with some introductions, so click past the jump to learn more about these wonderful ladies and gentlemen and hear some music by each one of them as well.

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