Stereogum’s 40 Best New Bands of 2011
Last year, right around the time summer turned to fall, we at Stereogum published our list of the 40 best new bands of the year. The idea of a “new” band is a pretty nebulous one, since many of the kids we listed were probably planning out their musical ventures in their basements since they were 11, but these were all artists who started to make a dent in our collective consciousness last year. This year, we’ve got another crop of 40 new artists who deserve your attention. So here we go again.
A few clarifications are probably in order. This may be a Best New Bands list, but plenty of the people on it aren’t new, and plenty of the artists listed aren’t bands. A few of the groups on our list (Wild Flag, CANT) may include people you already know, but they’ve all got new artistic ventures going. Others may have released music before last year’s list ran, but they’ve really come into their own in the past 12 months. And a pretty huge chunk of our list is dedicated to solo artists: Rappers, producers, people who might not make their music with guitars or bass or drums but who are nevertheless doing exciting things.
Also, the word “best” is, as ever, entirely up for debate. We’ve discussed and argued and engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat over our selections, and they represent our own totally subjective favorites. You’re welcome to tell us your own; that’s what the comments section is for.
We’re not ranking these artists; they’re all listed alphabetically below. And to help you get familiar, we’ve included free MP3s and all relevant information on each and every one of these artists. Let’s get started, shall we?
On his ace debut album Dr. Lecter, this red-bearded rhyme animal delivers 42 minutes of riotous Queens shit-talk as if the mid-’90s had never ended. As he’s blasting us with one clever quote after the next, Bronson finds room to pay tribute to marginal sports heroes, coin a few stomach-turning sexaphors, and go into gluttonous detail about his cooking skills. He makes fun rap music, point blank, and not enough people are doing that. Also, he may sound a whole lot like Ghostface Killah, but when you hear present-day Ghost alongside Bronson on the collaborative track “Meteor Hammer,” you’ll hear that the student has become the master.
FROM: Queens, NY
ORDER: Dr. Lecter LP, out now via Fine Fabric Delegates. [Buy]
For the past few years, this Providence producer has been one of the key figures in the reemergence of Harlem rap great Cam’ron; he’s crafted delirious bangers like “Get It In Ohio” for Cam. And live videos of Araab chopping up Cannibal Corpse and beating his MPC beat machine into jelly have been circulating for a hot minute. But Araab really took center stage with the release of the 2011 instrumental album Electronic Dream, in which he transformed a grip of cheesed-out Euro-house anthems into gorgeously evil trapped-inside-your-head music. He’s a headphones auteur for a short-attention-span era.
FROM: Providence, RI
ORDER: Electronic Dream LP, out via Duke. [Buy]
This gold-toothed slow-spitter calls Harlem home, but his danky, slithery Hulkshare hits “Purple Swag” and “Peso” evoke the crawling psychedelic soul of old-school Southern rap. The indelibly eye-grabbing viral videos for those songs develop the ASAP aesthetic even further, turning the visual language of a ’90s Rap City episode into an acid-tripping haze. Also, nobody in rap has better hats than this guy.
FROM: New York, NY
On her own, the Toronto singer Katie Stelmanis made quirky synthetic art-pop. But as the leader of the band Austra, Stelmanis is a different beast entirely: A gothic electro-pop siren wailing and cooing and sighing over her band’s languid, stretched-out thump. Feel It Break, Austra’s excellent debut album, sustains its rippling cheer from the first minute to the last. And onstage, the band cuts a striking figure indeed; they’re the rare group who understands how to stage a mesmerising show without letting their most theatrical aspects overwhelm them.
FROM: Toronto, ON
This New Jersey indie-pop quartet is signed to the Slumberland label, and that’s exactly where they belong. Like the Pains of Being Pure At Heart and Crystal Stilts before them, Big Troubles play the sort of jumpy, twee, occasionally forlorn power-pop that could’ve been made 20 years ago, but they do it with such flair and such feeling that they never seem self-consciously retro. “Love is in the air, but I don’t care, cause I don’t want to love anyone,” croons frontman Alex Craig on “Sad Girls,” distilling decades’ worth of smartly self-loathing Smiths worship into one line.
FROM: Brooklyn, NY
Though rightfully earned attention surrounded Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen and their respective songwriting abilities, Grizzly Bear’s most important member just might be bassist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor, the band’s chief architect of sonic mood. In his solo venture CANT, Taylor follows these inclinations into more shadowy, weird electronic soundscapes, never quite pushing his vocals all the way forward but never hiding them, either. The fact that CANT made the list is hardly a surprise, given who’s involved; but Taylor’s project merits inclusion on its own delicate strangeness, Grizzly Bear affiliation or no.
FROM: Brooklyn, NY
In a sense, there’s not a lot to say about local indie pop outfit Caveman – in terms of arguing for their inclusion, the general versatility and downright replayability of debut CoCo Beware does most of the legwork. Songs like “Decide” and “Thankful” set up simple, spare, darn pretty melodies, and it doesn’t hurt that dudes can harmonize a little. Maybe calling them this year’s Local Natives would be a decent comp, but Caveman’s music is lot more low-key and spaced out. People are gonna vibe on this.
FROM: Brooklyn, NY
ORDER: CoCo Beware LP, out digitally on Magic Man! Records. [Buy]
This New Jersey physical therapist started out by putting together dizzy, ethereal beats for rappers like Lil B and Soulja Boy in his spare time, never expecting any sort of career to emerge from it. But things changed when he released his Instrumental Mixtape as a free download and the world realized that his slippery, evocative tracks often sounded a whole lot better when nobody was rapping over them. These days, he’s releasing his own warped tracks on the adventurous electronic label Tri Angle and playing to crowds of forward-thinking dance fans at Astoria’s P.S.1, while still finding time to make gluey, mind-expanding rap beats for clients like Main Attrakionz.
FROM: Nutley, NJ
This Brooklyn BTW is what could’ve happened if Against Me! took after the Birthday Party or the Swans instead of the Clash. Frontman (and former Love As Laughter bassist) Sean Ragon has a nasal bleat worthy of Tom Gabel, but he and his band put that voice in service of apocalyptic campfire dirges that don’t really scan as “goth” because they stomp too hard. Ragon has been cranking out home-recorded music since 2007, but his band really came into its own with the release of its 2011 self-titled album, a beautifully ugly pile-up of violins and acoustic guitars and half-forgotten gypsy melodies. It’s heavy stuff.
FROM: Brooklyn, NY
Alex Zhang Hungtai was born in Taiwan, and he lives in Montreal, but the place his music really comes from is a skewed, squalid vision of 1950s America — the same place that the Cramps and Suicide came from. As Dirty Beaches, Hungtai makes a rough, blasted-out form of rockabilly, one coated with the grime of a half century of greaser movies and bad memories. Badlands, his debut album, is equal parts blood and hair-grease.
FROM: Vancouver, BC
This duo likes to say that it comes from the internet, not from any specific geographical region, and that sounds about right. Thus far, they’ve gotten press for their chillwave jokes and for their vocal love of Korean pop music, but the music on their two Ruin EPs demands as much attention as their click-baiting public personas. On those releases, they display a take on the woozy bedroom pop of the moment that’s faster, more percussive, and more indebted to early-90s dance-pop than anything we’ve heard lately. Their anthem “So Close To Paradise” wafts gorgeously dazed melody around a rippling breakbeat in a way that would make a young St. Etienne proud.
FROM: Minneapolis, MN
Leading the late, lamented drone-punk trio Gowns, Erika M. Anderson lent her devastating wail to some truly intense, harrowing music. Since that band broke up and she went solo, Anderson’s music has become less experimental but no less of an emotional minefield. And while the raw grain of her voice might awaken memories of Courtney Love or Liz Phair, Anderson’s gift for strained melody is something that belongs entirely to her. And though she’s charming and fun onstage and in interviews, Anderson’s album Past Life Modern Saints is one of the year’s bleakest LPs, as well as the most impressive.
FROM: Los Angeles, CA
This R&B singer-songwriter was signed to Def Jam and co-writing songs for Justin Bieber before anyone really noticed. But when he linked up with the L.A. skate-rap collective Odd Future and released the free online album Nostalgia, Ultra., things clicked into place. Since then, Ocean’s Coachella drug-love lament “Novacane” has gotten major radio rotation, and he’s gone on to sing a pair of hooks on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne album. But this isn’t just an industry success story; Ocean’s light melodic touch and his confessional but conversational lyrics would make Nostalgia, Ultra. a new soul classic even if it hadn’t led the world to discover him.
FROM: Los Angeles, CA
ORDER: Nostalgia, Ultra LP is out now. [Free Download]
Denver experimental pop duo Gauntlet Hair incited the hype cycle about as soon as they got going; a couple of tracks made the rounds earlier this year and soon a record deal with Dead Oceans was in place. Gauntlet Hair makes choppy, woozy pop not unlike the music of NYC local pop experimenter Oberhofer, but their version is a little darker and weirder. You can hear a little Avey Tare in it at times, which is not a bad thing. Not a bad thing, at all.
FROM: Denver, CO
Grimes, whose real name is Claire Boucher, is still figuring things out, sonically. Her music a pleasant slapdash of sounds, channeling everything from Mariah Carey to Black Dice in her still-forming avant pop. But, according to last year’s Geidi Primes, a release that was available for free before recently being reissued, the ideas are strong enough that we’re willing to be patient.
FROM: Montreal, QC
Up-and-coming producer Holy Other isn’t a super outgoing dude, and within his music resides the uneasy twitch of the notoriously-shadowy Burial’s work, so we just walked into the easiest comparison ever. Songs like “Touch” channel a slow lurch built around bright vocal lines pushed high into the mix. Also, dude has a totally bangin’ Soundcloud page and in an era overpacked with artist remixes, he knocks out interesting interpretations of others’ material at an alarmingly high clip.
FROM: Manchester, UK
Maria Lindén and Fredrick Balck are Swedish engineers of computer-borne shoegaze, and together they form I Break Horses. On songs like standout album track “Hearts,” they create an immersive wall of sound, that while twittering and deep, mingles around nodes of bright notes. It’s joyous, but tinged with bittersweetness, too. You get lost in it pretty easily, which in this case, is a very good thing.
For being teenage warlords on punk-inspired destruction, the kids in Iceage seem pretty nice. But their music, if you’re just going by that, is brash, forceful, loud and obsessively aggressive. It didn’t take long to catch on; after tracks like “Broken Bone” and “White Rune” surfaced, basically everybody and their mother was rushing home to Wikipedia “D-beat.” Former Stereogum writer Brandon Stosuy wrote that “the young Gravity-nodding no-wave-infused post-anarcho-punk crew’s self-titled debut was one of my favorite albums of 2011, a record that bursts through a dozen songs in under 25 minutes, nailing a particular aesthetic I didn’t realize had so much life left in it.” Preach bro! Nothing is wrong in the state of Denmark, dudes.
FROM: Copenhagen, Denmark
The elusive dubstep master Burial co-produced “Night Air,” this London singer’s near-perfect late-2010 single, but Jamie Woon doesn’t really have anything to do with dubstep. Instead, he’s a straight-up pop singer with a gift for creating a sense of place and time. “Night Air” captures the way the atmosphere gains a uniquely still quality when you’re walking by yourself late at night. “Should” is pure R&B regret made precise and streamlined. Mirrorwriting, Woon’s debut album, is clearly the work of a pro; Woon is, after all, a graduate of the same performing-arts school that produced Amy Winehouse and Adele. But it’s the work of a pro who does things like filming a video of himself singing a capella in a boat, as it drifts through a Cambodian swamp — a pro striving to become something more, and succeeding.
FROM: London, UK
At some point, the singer-songwriter Lizzy Grant realized that nobody was paying her any attention, so she forged herself a new identity: A willowy, glamorous, rap-referencing burnout named Lana Del Rey. Suddenly, people started paying attention. A few other Del Rey songs are floating around YouTube, but the lion’s share of that attention comes from the absolutely gorgeous one-two punch of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” the two sides of a single that isn’t even out yet. On those tracks, Del Rey updates the Nancy Sinatra/Fiona Apple stoned-siren style for a TMZ era, turning disjointed images of decadent California cool into straight-up beautiful melodies.
FROM: Los Angeles, CA
Though we don’t really mean to put their bodies of work side by side –- they’re not too similar — Grimes and Laurel Halo are two artists on this list whose brightest and best is yet to come on the strength of their still-forming ideas. We saw Laurel at P.S.1 and she knocked us over and made us feel wonky, her keyboard/synth setup cascading a droning, massively effective grandeur. Laurel, too, is the proprietor of a bangin’ Soundcloud page which puts the “bangin’ Soundcloud page” cumulative total at three.
FROM: Brooklyn, NY
Darkwave duo Light Asylum made a bunch of noise earlier this year, both literally and metaphorically, and were hurriedly signed to Mexican Summer. It’s danceable and demonic, shady pop anchored in a different era (Depeche Mode, we can’t help but think), and the fact that they emerged as one of the most reliably exciting live performers in New York didn’t exactly damage their candidacy. Their debut EP In Tension is a must-have, and we’re dying for more.
FROM: Brooklyn, NY
The Tumblr Space Age Hustle came up with a pretty great descriptor for this insanely prolific Oakland duo and for their spaced-out hip-hop contemporaries: “cloud rap.” In their furious barrage of lo-fi internet-only releases, Main Attrakionz and their Green Ova Undergrounds crew turned classic ’90s struggle-rap into something hazy, psychedelic, and endemically confused; it’s a stoned and vulnerable take on a classic sound. And though not all of their bazillions of 2011 releases are worth your time, 808s & Dark Grapes II, the duo’s latest free online release, is a strong release from one end to the other and an excellent diving-in point for the uninitiated.
FROM: Oakland, CA
“Huzzah,” the song that launched this guttural Brooklyn rapper, opens with a boast about drunk-driving a Mazda minivan on a Wednesday, and that should give you some idea what you’re in for here. eXquire is the sort of proudly unreformed New York rap good we don’t meet too often anymore. His slurry diatribes show a sharp eye for detail and a nasty sense of humor but absolutely nothing in the way of social graces. His beats, from avant-garde rap lifers like El-P and Necro, give his shit-talk the unsettling context it needs. And his no-budget videos, shot in dirty apartments or dirtier liquor stores, are proof positive that Giuliani and Bloomberg still haven’t eradicated all traces of the old, weird New York.
FROM: Brooklyn, NY
If you went to see Hermosa Beach hardcore legends the Circle Jerks at any point in the last five years, you might’ve gone home disappointed. The band looked sloppy and bored, and the wildly dreadlocked, notoriously sarcastic frontman Keith Morris carried himself like a man who’s been doing the same job for too long. So Morris ditched his old bandmates, hooking up with Burning Brides frontman Dimitri Coats and a couple of punk veterans and founded OFF!, a band who makes super-rudimentary trash-can hardcore like 1981 never ended. Their debut album, The First Four EPs, collects the band’s 7″ singles, and its 16 songs are over in 18 minutes. Onstage, Morris looks like a man reborn, and his band kicks up a furious racket with all the urgency that the Circle Jerks somehow lost.
FROM: Los Angeles, CA
The music of married Madison, WI duo Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis is less than immediate, but its inclusion on L.A. label Not Not Fun might give you a few hints; it’s psych-drenched rock that radiates an interesting pulse. Indra Dunis’s submerged vocals and the duo’s use of drum machines and other electronic percussion sometimes wade into dubby territory, but it just as easily switches directions, emerging as incandescent psych. It’s a little tricky to figure out, but it’s an entirely worthwhile voyage into weird zones.
FROM: Madison, WI
Canadian duo Purity Ring, comprised of Megan James and Corin Roddick, is the latest electro pop duo earning important cosigns and hoarding heaps of hype; naturally, they’ve only got a handful of tracks on the web for consumption. Their music is escalating, florid, chopped-up pop, and and songs like “Ungirthed” and “Lofticries” quickly become the subject of addiction, utilizing a hypnotic dub drone accented with bright vocal work. Though certainly within the realm of those artists employing whispering, ghost-y vocals, the singing on Purity Ring’s songs feels warmer and more human than say, anything Salem’s done. Word on the (indie rock blog) street is that the forthcoming, as-of-yet-untitled debut is something quite special; we’re stoked to check it out.
FROM: Edmonton, AB
This South London producer gets press for goofy reasons: He wears a gigantic African-style mask and Drake loves him. That’s cool and all, but he’s on this list for the way his self-titled debut album pushes the international future-shock sounds of dubstep and bass-music toward a slick, breezy form of soul-pop. London is always good at stuff like this, and SBTRKT’s Little Dragon collab “Wildfire” does to dubstep what Neneh Cherry once did to rap or Yazz did to acid-house: It takes a dangerous underground sound and turns it into bright, shiny double-dutch music. Summer afternoon soundtracks depend on stuff like this.
FROM: London, UK
Shabazz Palaces is the heady hip hop project from former Digable Planets member Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, an outfit that focuses on spacey grooves and warped, overtly technical rapping. The beats are knotty, the rhymes complex, and the paths the music takes are largely exploratory. Riding the strength of two solid EPs from 2010 — Of Light and Shabazz Palaces — Sub Pop debut Black Up lives up to the promise of those recordings while cleaning up the sound, but not dismissing all the songs’ signature haze. Also, you don’t have to go much further than the songs’ titles to understand what kind of headspace Butler’s in here — just look at the name of the attached MP3. That’s for real.
FROM: Seattle, WA
Much has been made of the Austin scene lately, and buttressing this spike in interest is a flock of Austin bands, one of them being Pure X. On their debut, Pleasure, singer Nate Grace and his bandmates churn out slow-to-build, reverby rock drenched in contemplative, sometimes sorrowful, moods. It’s a grower, and that’s not to say there’s no immediacy; you’re going to want these songs to grow on you. It’s like buying a suit that you plan on growing into, cuz once you’ve grown into it, you’re going to look like a total badass. A rock suit.
FROM: Austin, TX
Nate Grace’s Pure X bandmate, Jesse Jenkins, dates Stefanie Franciotti, who makes music as Sleep ? Over. So, if you want to get in on the ground floor of the Austin scene, you could do worse (it helps that they all live in the same house, too). Sleep ? Over’s medium is weirded-out disco funk, not unlike the music of Nite Jewel, but Franciotti’s music might be a touch more layered and starrier.
FROM: Austin, TX
Combing the dark outer fringes of evil-sounding, post Three 6 Mafia Internet rap is Miami teenager SPACEGHOSTPURPP, who communicates something of a demonic rawness in his wide swatch of homemade mixtapes. A perpetrator of the slowed-up rap style popular with neo-acts like SPACEGHOST ally ASAP Rocky, there’s a lot of potential paired with the usual homemade roughness. But, when we caught a glimpse of SPACEGHOSTPURRP during his first ever live performance, he segued from Three 6 Mafia’s “Slob On My Knob” into his own “Suck A Dick For 2011,” and the touchpoint was, at that point, unmistakably obvious. A torchbearer for the next generation of chopped and screwed rap, here’s to hoping SPACEGHOST succeeds away from the dark, deep corners of the Internet.
FROM: Miami, FL
ORDER: The Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 mixtape is available for free download. [Free Download]
Sometimes, a name tells you all you need to know. As Star Slinger, the young Manchester producer Darren Williams (not this guy) creates twinkly bedroom beats, then throws them onto the internet for free download. He’s remixed acts as disparate as Deerhunter, the Go! Team, and Toro Y Moi, transforming all of them into loping, sundazed boom-bap. If J Dilla was an underemployed British kid with a laptop and too much time on his hands in 2011, he might’ve turned into something like this.
FROM: Manchester, UK
Plenty of bands have given us their best Joy Division impressions over the years, but none has quite approximated that prickly back-of-the-neck chill that Martin Hannett helped the band find on its “She Lost Control” intro. Enter the Soft Moon, an act dedicated to just that feeling. On his alter-ego’s self-titled late-2010 debut, San Fransican Luis Vasquez hones in on only the spookiest elements of British postpunk and comes up with one of the year’s sharpest, most evocative debuts.
FROM: San Francisco, CA
With his free mixtapes House of Balloons and Thursday, the 22-year-old Toronto R&B singer Abel Tesfaye has built an immersive mythology itself. He samples Beach House, collaborates with Drake, and builds desolate soundscapes around his songs about girls and drugs and clubs and girls on drugs in clubs. The whole thing constantly runs the risk of coming off a bit too cool, but it’s also vulnerable and empathetic music about a character (maybe the real Tesfaye, maybe not) too caught up in his own bullshit to see a way out.
FROM: Toronto, ON
ORDER: House Of Balloons and Thursday are both available for free download at The Weeknd’s website.
We’ve seen a lot of people try to describe the music of Portland, OR outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and we’re not sure anyone has gotten it all the way right yet. But, that’s not their fault; our guess is we won’t exactly approach the truth either in our own classification, but UMO’s jams are sort of like hip-hop overlaid with psych-rock. Though we’re only posting one track here, for the sake of continuity and stuff like that, the rest of the self-titled LP is worth tracking down, if only for the shallow reason of solving the puzzle. We bet you won’t figure it out, but you will listen to the record long after you’ve given up.
FROM: Portland, OR
This San Francisco psych-rock power trio had the misfortune to sort of share a name with one of this list’s most hyped-up honorees, but like the similarly monikered debauched-R&B project, they are very much worthy of your attention. Weekend don’t exactly update the classic Jesus and Mary Chain feedback-pop sound. Instead, they streamline it and turn it into an engine of pure rock power. Onstage, as on their late-2010 debut album Sports, they play incredibly loud, cranking out a pared-down and unpretentious variant of a style that never gets old.
FROM: San Francisco, CA
A frenzy of excitement surrounded this Portland band before anyone had heard them play a note; when two thirds of Sleater-Kinney get back together, that’ll happen. But Wild Flag, which features S-K’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss alongside Helium’s Mary Timony and the Minders’ Rebecca Cole, aren’t just a punk supergroup; they’re an actual band with actual chemistry of their own. Their self-titled debut album is a roaring blast of old-school proto-punk rave-ups and dizzy harmonies, and their live show is indisputable proof that guitar heroes still walk among us. It’s good to have them around.
FROM: Portland, OR, Washington, DC
Trevor Powers is a 22-year-old kid from Boise, Idaho who records at home in his bedroom, but The Year Of Hibernation, his debut album, sure doesn’t sound like the work of an isolated bedroom-pop type. As Youth Lagoon, Powers makes epic, wailing-from-mountaintops indie rock — the sort of thing that seems destined for thousands of future road-trip scream-alongs. Powers went from total obscurity to Fat Possum thanks to his debut Bandcamp track “July,” but “July” is a forceful and fully-formed piece of work, and it makes the case that Powers was always an indie star just waiting to be discovered.
FROM: Boise, ID
The self-titled debut from this young British band sounds like something that might’ve been sitting in a drawer for the past 19 years after Superchunk frontman and Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan just forgot to release it. It’s a powerful dose of old-school American indie rock, a relic of the time when fuzz pedals and yelped desperation ruled the day, before vintage keyboards and woodsy harmonies took over. And the thing about that old-school indie rock? It ruled.
FROM: London, UK, Hiroshima, Japan, New Jersey, Scotland
To recap, in alphabetical order:
01. Action Bronson
03. ASAP Rocky
05. Big Troubles
08. Clams Casino
09. Cult Of Youth
10. Dirty Beaches
11. Elite Gymnastics
13. Frank Ocean
14. Gauntlet Hair
16. Holy Other
17. I Break Horses
19. Jamie Woon
20. Lana Del Rey
21. Laurel Halo
22. Light Asylum
23. Main Attrakionz
24. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire
26. Peaking Lights
27. Pure X
28. Purity Ring
30. Shabazz Palaces
31. Sleep ? Over
33. Star Slinger
34. The Soft Moon
35. The Weeknd
36. Unknown Mortal Orchestra
38. Wild Flag
39. Youth Lagoon
Congratulations Class Of 2011.