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Coachella 2013: 10 Must-See Acts

Trent Reznor of How to Destroy Angels, Grimes, Sixto Rodriguez.

All the attention given every year to the headliners at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival is a huge distraction from what's best about the annual gathering in the SoCal desert: a lineup deep with the most compelling new sounds in rock, pop, dance and more. This year is no different, delivering over two weekends (April 12th-14th and April 19th-21st) a rich variety of acts ranging from fresh young artists not long out of high school to veteran players taking surprising left turns to create some of their best work. Following are 10 acts lower down the bill not to be missed.

By Steve Appleford

Joe Newman of Alt-J performs in Berlin, Germany.

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Alt-J

This Cambridge, U.K. quartet is awash in nonstop Radiohead comparisons, which are apt less for their sound than a shared appetite for experimentation and genre confusion. On their debut album, An Awesome Wave, Alt-J drift beyond the modern rock flavors of the moment to a sound joyously complex, blending folk warmth with bristling rock and electronics in songs about the geometry of emotion and favorite movies and books. (It's no surprise that their original name was Films.) Alt-J is named after a computer keystroke (for creating a ∆), which is sort of explained in the song "Tessellate," as frontman Joe Newman sings, "Triangles are my favorite shape." Likewise, Alt-J is both obscure and strangely accessible.

Kurt Vile performs in London, England.

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Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile moves at his own pace, comfortable and on edge as singer-writer or leading a full band. Alone with a guitar, Vile croaks and purrs evocatively, landing somewhere between Neil Young’s On the Beach and the Nineties lo-fi folk sound. But he can also whip up a storm of noisy melody (2009's "Freak Train"), equal parts sharp edges and psychedelic swirl. This week's release of Wakin on a Pretty Daze is his fifth, and shows him stretching way out on the 9:24 title song. His Coachella showcase will only invite more of the same.

Russell Mael of Sparks performs in London, United Kingdom.

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Sparks

Brothers Ron and Russell Mael rose from Los Angeles as masterminds of a theatrical sound that rolls playfully from pop to hard-edge rock to disco-era electronic tunes with Giorgio Moroder ("No. 1 in Heaven"). Russell is historically the excitable falsetto frontman and Ron the twitchy dude behind the keyboard in the Charlie Chaplin mustache. Their flamboyant signature albums, Kimono My House from 1974 and 1975’s Indiscreet, were despised by American critics at the time, and beloved by an international cult that has rarely faded through the decades. Sparks arrive at Coachella to perform a stripped-down stage show called "Two Hands One Mouth," with the Maels alone onstage.

Trent Reznor of How to Destroy Angels performs in Hollywood, California.

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How to Destroy Angels

When Trent Reznor "retired" Nine Inch Nails from the road with a series of farewell concerts in 2009, fans inevitably wondered when they’d next see the groundbreaking artist in action. After Reznor picked up an Oscar with soundtrack collaborator Atticus Ross for their brooding sounds in 2010's The Social Network, fans were rewarded with the announcement of a new band: How to Destroy Angels, a collaboration with Ross, Rob Sheridan and Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig, on vocals. After a pair of EPs, their album debut, Welcome Oblivion, was a mingling of the ominous and embracing, set in Reznor's sweet spot of industrial-strength distortion and electronics. Now that Reznor has reformed NIN for both live and studio work, his How to Destroy Angels may slide into the background, which makes their appearance in the desert something not to be missed.

Jamie Smith of the XX performs in London, England.

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Jamie XX (of the xx) DJ set

As a member of the xx, producer/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Smith has found his own private corner of modern music-making, actively blending of-the-moment electro beats and samples with bits of steel drum, percussion and keyboard. The Mercury Prize-winning indie rock band returns this week to one of the big Coachella stages, performing their whispery songs on love won and lost from last year's Coexist. Smith remains deeply committed to the xx trio, but he's kept busy between tours as a world-traveling producer, remixer and in-demand club DJ. (See his surprising 2010 collaboration with the late Gil Scott-Heron, We're New Here, and his remixes of Radiohead's "Bloom.") Aside from the xx’s Coachella performances, Smith will appear solo in front of the EDM contingent for a DJ set certain to contain echoes from his obsessions with the electronic and deeply emotional.

Nick Cave performs in Sydney, Australia.

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Nick Cave (with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman)

Nick Cave is an active man, for decades now making music, movies and writing books, so it's fitting that the vampiric Australian would fill his Coachella desert dancecard not only with the Bad Seeds but also with the otherwise disbanded Grinderman. Cave and the Bad Seeds have been on the road burning up stages with a set list that includes bleak new tunes from the just-released Push the Sky Away album. But despite a 2011 breakup, Cave has reunited the hard-rocking, noisier Grinderman quartet (which shares members with the Bad Seeds) for two weekends just to play Coachella. Named after a Memphis Slim tune, Grinderman delivers hallucinatory gloom and outrage of a wilder, less contained flavor than the Bad Seeds. See them both. At least one of these acts may never pass this way again.

Rodriguez performs in London, United Kingdom.

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Rodriguez

Like most of the U.S., virtually no one from the Coachella nation had heard of Sixto Rodriguez even a year ago. He was an obscure Detroit singer-songwriter of genuine humanity and grace whose career began and ended with two albums at the beginning of the Seventies, before disappearing into anonymity and wild rumors of an onstage suicide. Decades later, he became the subject of the new Oscar-winning doc Waiting for Sugar Man, which revealed him working odd jobs while becoming (unbeknownst to him) a massive superstar in South Africa. The new spotlight reignited Rodriguez's career, and he recently told Rolling Stone he has 30 new songs ready to record. Look for a mixture of old and new during his Sunday afternoon sets.

Grimes performs in Nassau, Bahamas.

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Grimes

Canadian Claire Boucher (a.k.a. Grimes) makes danceable art-rock that bounces forcefully through smart pop and electronic textures, with a nod to colorful Eighties dancefloor divas without ever feeling retro. Last year's Visions, her third solo album, mingles soulful melody with abstractions both heavy and effervescent. Airy vocals occasionally take on an Asian pop sheen as she sings of "Infinite Love Without Fulfillment," the album's opening track, which repeats the bittersweet line, "I will wait for you when you want me to . . . I'll leave you if you want to!" on endless loop. She'll find some comfort amid the dancing Coachella multitudes.