The Best of SXSW

Sep 25

Every year, the SXSW website offers a list of every single artist playing at the SXSW Music Festival for the year. And every year, there’s an independent (and unofficial) initiative to compile all of these songs into a single torrent.

It’s a great way to expand your musical boundaries and discover music you wouldn’t have otherwise listened to. (I’ve discovered several of my favorite artists this way.) But the bundle is massive—there are over 1200 tracks included in 2018’s bundle—and there’s a lot of noise to wade through.

When I first discovered the bundle in 2009, I decided to undertake an annual challenge: listen to every song, whittle down the collection to the 50 best tracks, and make a CD bundle.

This process takes a while, but I’ve nailed down a pretty solid routine:

  1. Import the songs into my music library (I’ve found that Banshee works really well for this, despite its age) and sort the songs alphabetically by Artist Name.
  2. Create a new smart playlist (this is where Banshee comes in handy) of songs that don’t have a rating.
  3. Listen to every song and rate it as you go. Garbage songs get deleted immediately; underwhelming songs get 2 stars; songs that are a little catchy, but nothing special, get 3 stars; songs that I really like get 4 stars; absolute favorites get 5.
  4. Once I make it through all of the songs, I’ll delete all of the 2-stars and 3-stars and start over from the top, adjusting the ratings as I go.

When all is said and done, I’ll end up with the top fifty songs spread across three CDs, and an additional bonus CD of honorable mentions.

Listening to the music is two-thirds of the fun; the rest lies in designing the cover art for the album. A couple of years in, I added a constraint to keep things challenging: the theme of the design has to be inspired by the name of the first song.

In recent years, as work has picked up and I’ve dedicated more of my spare time to personal projects, I’ve had fewer opportunities to listen to music in such a scientific manner, so I’m a few years behind. A few months ago, I finally finished the SXSW 2015 list, and am currently working on 2016’s collection.

Here’s the art for the box and each sleeve. The sleeves were done a couple of weeks after the box, so the theme isn’t quite consistent, but I don’t mind too much: