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20 Best New Bands of 2011

By

August 30
"New" is obviously a subjective —if not loaded— term, especially in a year in which The Guardian's New Band of the Day column featured Destroyer, nine albums and 15 years' worth of "new." So, for this list, we tried to take a hard-line stance that didn't just equate 'new' with 'breakout,' or, indeed, 'new to me.' Most of these acts had released little-to-no music b'fore 2011, and certainly hadn't found anything resembling hype. Anyone who splashed onto the blogosphere last year was considered no longer 'new.' Anyone whose 2011 Breakout we could see coming last year wasn't counted. Here, 'new' is taken semi-seriously, most of the time...

1. Austra

Elias Bender Ronnenfelt of Ice age performs
Jordi Vidal/Contributor/Redferns/Getty Images

Well, "new," here you are. Austra's debut 12-inch, "The Beat and the Pulse," done dropped in 2010, and I've been listening to Katie Stelmanis' since the one-time child chorister bust out her impressive solo album, 2008's Join Us. But it's hard to deny the splash she's made in 2011: first signing to Domino, then killing it at SXSW, then releasing one of the records of the year, with her debut Feel it Break, which soon scored a Polaris Music Prize nomination. Austra finds Stelmanis reinventing herself as electro-goth chanteuse, building a sparklingly-produced set from beats, synths, and orchestral highlights. But just like when she was a solo piano-pounder —and when she was a child chorister, too— the star of the show is Stelmanis's voice: big, booming, and beautiful.

2. Bobby

Bobby
Partisan

Bobby feature, quite notably, two Mountain Man members, Molly Sarle and Amelia Randall Meath, in their midst. That's how they were introduced, too, on Bobby's first publicly-released song, the brilliant "Sore Spores," where Sarle's soulful singing straddled a strange, loping jam of somehow-R&B-ish psychedelic indie-rock. Yet Bobby isn't a side-project, more a loose collective; a broken social scene of Bennington College pals. Their leader is a chap named Tom Greenberg, and they have an almost-jam-band feel. Bobby's self-titled debut LP —due out late June— is full of loosely-knitted, warm-hearted songs that routinely roll out to six minutes; and they tend to sound their best at their dreamiest, when they close their eyes and get lost in 'the vibe.'

3. Colleen Green

Colleen Green
Colleen Green

Here's where the rules get thrown away. Colleen Green had already cranked out two cassettes and one Bandcamp file-batch before 2011 arrived. And I was definitely dancing the night away to her fast, fun, neo-pop-punk jams back in those long-gone days of 2010. But, given she didn't have anything widely available 'til Hardly Art put out her "Green One" 7-inch in March, and given this year's SXSW served as a coming-out party for her, and given she's like totally awesome, let's just slap a "new" crown atop Queen Colleen. Anyone digging the super-melodic, over-saturated, lo-fidelity sound of past buzzy buzz-bands like Dum Dum Girls, Cloud Nothings, Best Coast, etc, will find much to love here. And, hopefully, before 2011 is out, we'll have a whole proper Colleen Green LP to love.

4. Craft Spells

Craft Spells
Captured Tracks

Without wishing to begin every entry with a caveat: yes, Craft Spells put out their first single, "Party Talk," in 2010. On Captured Tracks, no less, the Brooklyn-based label that pretty much owned 2010. So, they were definitely around last year; especially given how good a jam "Party Talk" is. But when their debut LP, Idle Labor, arrived in March, it felt like falling in love all over again. The promise of those first two singles, "Party Talk" and "After the Moment," flourished across a whole album, and people took notice. Especially anyone who loves twee pop, or Beach Fossils' magical jangle. I have no quantifiable statistic for this, but Idle Labor feels like a real word-of-mouth record, bound to reverberate more throughout 2011 the longer the year goes on.

5. The Deeep

The Deeep
Not Not Fun

Most 2011 new-band lists would be jacked for Grimes, the amazing Montréal dame currently swamped in buzz; but given I was all over Grimes last year, that's not happening here. Her Canadian comrades The Deeep are doing something just as shadowy, strange, and awesome, if thus far under-the-radar. The Toronto duo's debut LP, Life Light, is a sketchy sonic séance pitting fried electronic noise against the echo-saturated soul-singing of Isla Craig. For most of the LP, their music veers more towards the experimental; opener "Meadow Dust" setting the tone with eight minutes of rhythmless chaos. But super-slow slow-jam closer "Slow Coaster" suggests a pop future for The Deeep, its bump'd-bass, blunt beats, and slurred singing amounting to a clubland nightmare of quarter-speed dream-pop.

6. Dirty Beaches

Dirty Beaches
Zoo

Our old pal Sharon Van Etten once compared internet-comment-threads to a public toilet door. And, just as when you're forced into some scuzzy john, it's rare that you find anything enlightening written when you decide to scroll down. But reading some internet pundit dub Dirty Beaches as sounding "like Elvis yelling at us from hell" stuck with me, not so much in the comparison to Elvis, but the way that it evoked the subterranean evil of Alex Zhang Hungtai's ultra-lo-fi exhumation of greaser chic and rockabilly lip-curling. Admittedly, he sounds less like Elvis, more like Elvis-by-way-of-Alan-Vega; riding dead-zone trance-outs down terrifying Lost Highways of coughing, foggy, smoggy blues.

7. EMA

EMA
Souterrain Transmissions

Erika M. Anderson wasn't exactly an unknown commodity before 2011. She'd wielded her noisy guitar in Amps for Christ and Evangelista, and, most notably, been half of awesome LA duo Gowns, whose 2007 LP Red State was a terrifying, near-biblical portrait of life in the wastelands of, um, South Dakota. Yet, her EMA solo guise has introduced her to the world anew, and suddenly Anderson is looming as one of the year's most unexpected breakout acts. Her fearsome debut EMA LP, Past Life Martyred Saints, has captured the hearts and ears of scores more listeners than Gowns ever did, even as it mines the same line of scorched-Earth noise, spectral drone, eerie vocals, and lyrics bordering on satire. Largely due to the fact that it's undeniably brilliant.

8. Exitmusic

Exitmusic
Secretly Canadian

If you're an OK Computer tribute band, that's one thing. But, if you're out to make your own name for yourself, taking your rockband's handle from one of Radiohead's most iconic jams is a move both brazen and brave. If you back it up, kudos to you; if you fail, isn't it courting career suicide? New Yorker duo Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church seem like they're a band of enough ambition to work it; no mere Radiohead fanboys, but a dream-pop duo whose swirling atmospherics possess crazy crossover potential. Exitmusic's debut, four-song EP, From Silence, stacks layers of atmospheric guitar and etched electronics into swirling sonic symphonies, with Palladino's caroling voice drizzled over the top. I'm not going to guarantee they'll soon be huge, but it kind of feels like that.

9. Gross Magic

Gross Magic
Fat Possum

Gross Magic comes armed with '90s signifiers: his debut EP, Teen Jamz, verily dressed in nostalgic references to back-then. Yet, no matter how much the Brighton-based one-man-band —Sam McGarrigle to his ma— talks up his love of Nirvana, this is no grunge-era revivalism. Instead, it's more another case of a digital-era artist putting pop-cultural history into a blender. These vitamized jamz takes cues from Ariel Pink and even old-school Beck; refashioning the bright melodies of AM radio past into short, sharp, scrappy, noisy jams. Anyone who fell for Spectrals or Dom in 2010 will be in on this Gross Magic racket. McGarrigle's previous project, Hocus Tocus, found some scattered blog love, but nothing like the reception Gross Magic got this year.

10. I Break Horses

I Break Horses
Bella Union
Though she's taken her band-name from the classic Smog song, I Break Horses' leader Maria Lindén is hardly practicing slow, drawling, caustically-funny folk music. Instead, she makes widescreen shoegaze out of layers of reverbed-out guitars, dreamy synth sounds, and echoey vocals. It sounds like a sweet sonic amalgam of Beach House, Slowdive, and M83, and doesn't feel for a moment like some mindless fluff-on-the-needle recreation or cheap MBV pastiche. The debut I Break Horses LP, Hearts, instead, introduced Lindén with immediate album-of-the-year credentials; cresting on huge, swooning, blissed-out tracks like "I Kill Your Love, Baby!" and "Cancer." 2011 may have been the year of I Break Horses' debut, but Hearts sounds years-in-the-making.
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