AUSTIN, Texas -- This may come as news to some people -- particularly the naysayers who attended the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, which concluded a five-night run Sunday -- but rock is alive and well.

Firsthand evidence was readily available over five straight nights, when the top of my skull was blown off (metaphorically speaking) with regularity, usually by a band that I was seeing for the first time.

Yet to hear some people talk, you'd think the music industry was playing out the climactic scenes in "Apocalypse Now," with frustrated record executives cupping their pony-tailed heads in their hands muttering, "The horror, the horror."

The words of Miles Copeland, the record-selling guru who puts Sting in car commercials and runs the Ark 21 record label, served as a succinct summary of the view from inside the music asylum: "Our business is in a state of total confusion."

Or, perhaps the head of MCA Records in Nashville, Tony Brown, said it best: "Our music now is totally boring, and I'm partly responsible -- we've let radio manipulate us."

Though the $14 billion-a-year industry has never been more successful, there was a sense of atrophy, as radio formats become increasingly narrow and rigid under ever-expanding, profit-conscious corporate regimes and record labels pump out acts built on formula: rap-rock, teen-pop, gangsta-rap, country-pop. This helplessness was magnified at a panel of writers and editors from the late great rock magazine Creem, where critic Ben Edmonds declared that the reason for the current malaise in music-magazine writing is that "the music isn't as good as it used to be."

Balderdash, Mr. Edmonds. You, of all people, should know that the view from the top is rarely conducive to creativity or innovation. To find the good stuff, you always work from the bottom up. Please, follow me on a guided tour of the greatness under your nose, the underground bands from around the globe that rocked my world at this year's 15th annual conference:

Mellow -- Though the Jeopardy category "Great French Rock Bands" would stump even the most knowledgeable contestant, since no one I know can name more than two, a new generation is making up for lost time, led by this Parisian sextet. They were the pipers knocking at the gates of dawn, building swirling sound castles out of vintage synthesizers in a way that Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett might appreciate. Hypnotic drum beats echoed the hippie-era precision of German wunderkinds Can, and a spritz of French cream topped it all off: the lazy, hazy, slightly smirky melodies that Serge Gainsbourg made famous.

Tahiti-80 -- Yes, another French band that not only didn't embarrass itself, but swept a packed club off its feet. Though this combo's delightfully melodic debut also could be frightfully fey-sounding in its weaker moments, the live show bared the teeth beneath the wispy smile. Xavier Boyer was a vision of floppy haired charisma, driving the band with John Lennon-like rhythm guitar strumming and funneling his sensitivity training through British Invasion-style tunes propelled by pumping Euro-disco beats. Boyer earned extra points for covering A.R. Kane's dream-pop obscurity "Man from Outer Space."

The Fire Show -- I planned to take in one song from these home boys and then split (only because it seems a tad strange to visit Austin to see bands that play several times a year in Chicago), but I ended up staying for the whole set, mesmerized by a performance that layered strangled bursts of invective from guitar and voice over deceptively laid-back beats. Taut, angular guitar riffs via Gang of Four's Andy Gill and Keith Levine-era Public Image Ltd. sliced through a spacious, bottom-heavy mix that suggested the influence of dub reggae without actually sounding like it.

Aterciopelados -- With the Spanish-American population growing faster than any other ethnic demographic, it is only a matter of time before record executives begin to exploit the potential of the rock en espanol goldmine. When they do, bands like Colombia's Aterciopelados will be at the forefront. The quintet had a clubful of hopped-up Latin kids in a tizzy with anthemic melodies, trip-hop colorations and madly sensual tropical rhythms drawn from five albums, topped off by Andrea Echeverri's Patti Smith-like sensuality and boho-rebel stage presence.

Los Super Seven -- In what has become an Austin tradition, this Latin-rock supergroup -- consisting of members of Los Lobos, Tejano singer Ruben Ramos, country crooners Rick Trevino and Raul Malo, plus a supporting cast that expanded the lineup to as many as 12 members -- once again rocked the house at a taco stand on Congress Avenue, only a few blocks from the home of former Gov. George W. Bush. In several respects, this gang of cabelloros was only slightly more respectful of Latin tradition than the iconoclastic Aterciopelados, with Malo in particular sounding like Cuba's answer to Roy Orbison. The incantatory call and response vocals were never slack or nostalgic, particularly with Ramos snapping like a cobra when he took the lead. And David Hidalgo's abstract guitar leads, free of cliches and long on mind-bending freshness, pushed the sound even further from its border origins.

Electric Wizard -- With head-banging trolls patrolling the foot of the stage, flailing their wooly-mammoth coiffures in time to the Wizard's Godzilla-like beats, these stoner-rock icons from England stripped away all the leather-and-codpiece silliness from early '70s metal (or most of it, anyway) and salvaged all the good stuff: the two-ton riffs, the lava-flow rhythms, the wallet chains. The trio topped off a night of romantic odes to dope, death and Satan with a thunderous sprint through Pink Floyd's space-rock classic "Interstellar Overdrive" (Electric Wizard will perform March 30 at Double Door).

Idlewild -- These manic Scottsmen pay tribute to a specific period in American indie-rock, 1987-91, honing in on the serrated guitars of the Pixies, the corrosive tunefulness of Nirvana, the exuberance of Superchunk. It's all been done before, but that doesn't stop this quartet from hurling its short, sharp shocks of melody against the wall of complacency (Idlewild will headline Tuesday, March 20, at Double Door).

South by Southwest was also a place where veteran performers who had been shunted to the margins of the mainstream could still stake their claim to music for music's sake. There was David Byrne singing beautiful, hymnlike melodies over body-bumping beats and soaring violins, Ike Turner improbably leading his Kings of Rhythm through a set of swaggering blues standards, punctuated by the leader's chaotic, almost postmodern guitar leads, and the Soft Boys playing their first ever North American show outside New York.

The British quartet was celebrating the re-release of its long-buried classic, "Underwater Moonlight," with a batch of two-decade-old songs that sounded as fresh as anything out of England at the moment. The guitars of Robyn Hitchcock and Kimberly Rew cut with diamond-hard precision, Rew the eternal power-pop kid with his pudding-bowl haircut gleefully coaxing mayhem from his instrument, while the spider fingers of the towering, taciturn Hitchcock scurried to keep up. "I Wanna Destroy You" did just that, while "Insanely Jealous" and "Queen of Eyes" brought it all back home: the jangle and jump of those guitars, the heavenliness of those three-part harmonies, the wicked humor and poetic confusion expressed by those lyrics. One of the great lost bands of the '70s was back, and the world was a better place for it (the Soft Boys will headline March 30 at Metro).

At South by Southwest 2001, the Soft Boys had plenty of company. At a time when the rock mainstream is sucking wind, the global underground has never been more full of possibility.

Greg Kot is the Tribune's rock critic.