SXSW Superlatives: Best in show, from Alabama Shakes to Youth Lagoon

More that 2,000 artists performed at the South By Southwest music conference this year. Sadly, I only saw a few dozen, and in bits. (However, more and more I’m led to believe that the 20-minute set is the way to go.) 

Below, I assign random and unscientific superlatives to some of the bands I saw, including shout-outs to Youth Lagoon, U.S. Royalty, Matthew Dear and Escort.
Where are Bruce Springsteen, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent and Eminem, Fiona Apple, Mumford & Sons and the other biggest acts? Check out “The 20 Things You Missed at SXSW 2012.”
Most improved: Sharon Van Etten. I enjoyed this songwriter”s set last week, but what a difference electric makes. Now her arrangements are fleshier, her live shows more transcendent, and her voice as a singer and songwriter is better heard. She”s a bigger deal now and she knows it, in all the right ways.
Band that seemingly played the most shows the most days: Garden & Villa. Even if you wanted to avoid them – I didn”t – you couldn”t have missed them.
Most buzzed-about live band: Cloud Nothings. Elemental, punk, sheer and aware.
Most buzzed-about songwriting: Youth Lagoon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Most surprising live triumph: U.S. Royalty. Initially, I thought, “This isn”t my thing.” But then guitarist singed my eyebrows with a solo and singer John Thornley opened up his lungs, threw himself down on his knees, flattened his back to the floor and hit the high note, just like he should, like “ungh.” This was my thing. And now I nuzzle their album “Mirrors.”
Band that sounds most like the National: NO. Oh yes.
Most deserving of leather pants: Matthew Dear. This electronic vet has been around for a dozen years, but this current full-band incarnation is loud, wiley, and opens Dears hands up for some sensual performances. Combining deep house with memorable melodies, Dear builds every song up to a dizzying climax. He”s a pro, he can wear whatever he wants.
Most crush-worthy: Wild Belle. Frontlady Natalie Bergman has a magnetic stage presence, but her brother Elliott and the other members were equally engaged with each other and well-rehearsed. Dreamy.
Longest lines: Fader Fort and Hotel Vegan. Pretty close competition for brain-wasting waits.
Best band/venue combination: The Audran Sequence at Hoek”s Death Metal Pizza
Best advantage on a drunk college-aged crowd: A$AP Rocky. His hype men just don”t stop, he”s weird, he”s high and he knew why you were in Austin. But DO NOT steal any of his fans’ or crews’ doo-rag.
Best hidden venue: Easy Tiger. I’d tell you where the stage is, but then it wouldn’t be hidden anymore, would it?
Most loud: The Men. I want this noise-garage band to play big rooms just as much as any fan, but hearing them in a tiny room like Beauty Bar was an extra thrill. They maximize on minimum space, as it were.
Best send-off to bed: Nachtmystium. For as heavy as they are, their sound is clear as a bell, each song fully realized on stage with epic, black gravitas. It”s perfect nacht music.
Best religious experience: M. Ward at Central Presbyterian. This West Coast songwriter may not be a religious songwriter, but the was something inherently peaceful and heightened about his tinier tunes played to the rafters. Backing band members like Mike Coykendall didn”t overplay, and let the space between pews and balcony fill up on its own.
Best party band: Escort. These guys look like they haven”t even graduated college yet, but they already got their degree from Soul Train University. People react when stunning frontwoman Adeline Michèle sings.
Best tiny detail: Hobson. Put on a decent testosterone-fueled hip-hop show, but the colored contacts: creepy. I couldn”t look away.
Best celebrity cameo: Bill Murray at Jack White”s show.
Best hair: Strand Of Oaks. Timothy Showalter”s mannered rock and folk-influenced tunes are always a treat, but those locks! His whole band were just asking for a good old-fashioned braid.
Best band to invite to your family’s Thanksgiving: Sea of Bees. They seem so polite, they’re super-cute, intelligent and conversational. It’s good to see bands who are just happy to be there.
Best food truck: Coolhaus Ice Cream. Customized ice cream sandwiches in unusual flavors (Guinness, Candied Bacon, Flapjack, Bourbon Pecan Pie) and an edible wrapper.
Best opener-headliner combo: Nas and Sleigh Bells
Best banter: Future of the Left. I can”t even say anything as funny as them.
Biggest cancellation: Yelawolf. Had emergency spleen surgery earlier in the week. Wuss.
Band that needs to cook longer: Kwes. I see what you”re going for, and I like it. Just be ready to entertain next time.
Coolest singer: Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. This whole band looks like the other folks you see in line at the CSA or at the PTA meeting, but out from Brittany comes this gospel of funk and soul, head back, guitar in hand, unrelenting.

Best hip-hop comeback: Slaughterhouse. This album is going to be big, bigger than 5’9″.
Best dressed: Peelander-Z. Eat your heart out, Santigold.
Best band I didn”t get to see: Poliça. Dream-psych-pop absence. Was it as good as it was in my head?