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Top 10 Breakout Bands of 2011


November 15, 2011
Every year, there's a whole new crop of acts who go from essentially unknown to well-known, trading up from one-time obscurity to something resembling popularity. Sometimes, it comes due to scandalous, hysterical hype; othertimes, it's the end result of years of slow growth, where a cult following suddenly tips over into a broader audience. Other times, the phenomenon seems inexplicable. Here, then, is the class of 2011...

1. Austra

After a childhood as Canadian Opera Chorus chorister, Katie Stelmanis turned around and authored a debut solo LP, 2008's Join Us, that made all kinds of sense. Setting her huge, powerhouse voice against bombastic piano jams, Stelmanis's solo record was the kind of record made by an ex-chorister. Her subsequent evolution, into gothed-out electro-pop darkness as Austra, was a little bit less expected, but far more rapturously received. Her debut Austra LP, Feel it Break, was issued worldwide on Domino, and was widely, wisely hailed for its crisply-produced, brilliantly-staged take on Silent Shout-ish dark-and-disturbed electro. The album ended up in the running for the Polaris, and, inevitably, on scores of album-of-the-year lists.

2. Braids

Music nerds were been geeking out on Braids before the year began; loving their Vincent Moon video, or falling for frontman Raphaelle Standell-Preston's other killer project, Blue Hawaii. But, for the world-at-large, the young Canadian quartet were an unknown entity heading into 2011. That changed, swiftly, with the January release of their debut LP, Native Speaker; all chiming guitar patterns, watery electronics, and Standell-Preston's vivid voice. It was immediately one of the albums of the year, was duly nominated for a Polaris, and has slowly converted an ever-swelling following.

3. Cults

Way-hyped New Yorker lovebirds Cults exist on two levels: as unironic bubblegum band to be marketed to tweens, and as commentary on the bubblegum band as entity. Their secretly-spooky music —founded out of a fascination with the hive-mind and boasting samples of the Reverend Jim Jones exhorting followers to drink the Kool-Aid— makes twee, tinny, trebly, transistor-radio pop where the compression of old AM radio signals is seen as the symbolic twin of the compression of the MP3. This mock-vintage-yet-totally-contemporary sound perfectly reflects 2011, where the whole of music history is digitized online; everything old new and new old. Cults interpret this phenomenon like a pop band: sticky melodies, crazy big choruses, and the mighty pipes of Madeline Follin combining for a popular product pleasingly bubblegummy yet surprisingly salty.

4. EMA

Souterrain Transmissions
Erika M. Anderson's prior project, the noise duo Gowns, had a fervent following amongst a devoted few, but they were one of those acts doomed to be forever overlooked. That fate has not befallen EMA; Anderson's solo reincarnation. She's still making the same noise-caked, doom-laden, bleakly-funny, apocalyptic out-rock, but, this time, the world has been excited over every night; the budding hype beginning to build with the release of the very first EMA single. That it was "Grey Ship," a seven-minute dirge, spoke volumes about the willingness of Anderson's newfound audience; but the arrival of her brilliant Past Life Martyred Saints LP showed an accessibility, too. The album is dark and disturbing, yet wryly funny, and it features some seriously-good songwriting to hammer its growing-up-in-a-small-town themes home...

5. Iceage

What's Your Rupture?
The last time a hardcore combo so launched themselves on the indie psyche, it was probably Fucked Up in 2008. Danish teens Iceage tapped into a zeitgeisty yearning for old-school, hardcore-forged, head-kicking, moshpit-ready indie-rock on their New Brigade LP; which cranked out 12 songs in 24 minutes. But Iceage's burgeoning reputation rested largely on the laurels of their liveshow, already entered into internet lore as explosions of mania, violence, and communal hysteria. For old-timers who may've found other 2011 breakout bands too wistful/twee/goth/indie/female, Iceage recapture the buzz of that old Our Band Could Be Your Life era, serving up a healthy, hearty dose of teenage rebellion, masculine aggression, and political sedition.

6. Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile
After 2009's Childish Prodigy introduced Kurt Vile as a fuzzy, lo-fi songsmith, "there was," Vile says, "encouragement from Matador to make a 'step up' record." So, this year's Smoke Ring for My Halo smoothed the Philadelphian fingerpicker's rough edges, delivering a sweet, melodic, warm-sounding set steeped in the country-folk of Neil Young. Vile's fourth LP, it became easily his most widely-heard and well-acclaimed; scoring a Best New Music on Pitchfork (which is akin to the Cover of the Rolling Stone in this day and age) and denting the lower rungs of the Billboard chart. When the LP's opening jam, "Baby's Arms" ended up soundtracking a Bank of America commercial, Vile's music hit all sorts of unsuspecting ears, and put his daughter in "high-end diapers" to boot.

7. Purity Ring

Purity Ring
For a band that still only has three songs to their name, there's been almighty buzz building around Canadian electro-pop pair Purity Ring since back in January. And, well, if you've heard those three songs, you'd know why. (And, seriously, if you haven't, meet: "Ungirthed," "Lofticries," and "Belispeak.") Corin Roddick and Megan James make wondrous future pop; all giddy melodies, boinging beats, and pitch-shifted vox; equal parts cute and menacing. For much of the year, the duo were a semi-mysterious entity who'd never been seen, but by the time CMJ rolled around, they were on the road with chillwave champ Neon Indian, winning over added fans in old-fashioned live-on-stage fashion.

8. Smith Westerns

Smith Westerns
Fat Possum
Smith Westerns started stoking the hype machine back in 2009, when they swaggered onto the radar with a self-titled set of ultra-lo-fi, near-twee takes on classic garage riffs and Bolan-ish swagger. In 2010, they showed increasing scope with the playfully-titled "Imagine Pt.3," which split a vinyl side on a seven-inch with Magic Kids. And, in 2011, they defiantly crashed the crossover party; releasing a sophomore LP that upped the swagger, dialed in a '90s Brit-pop influence, and set the band on a course of year-long tour dates. Infamy momentarily intervened when Smith Westerns were on stage right before the disaster at Pukkelpop (and were initially mostly concerned with their broken stuff), but it was but a dark blip in a bright year. Now, with 2011 over, am I finally allowed to say that Cullen and Cameron Omori remind me of the hipster-garage-rock equivalent to the Nelson twins?

9. Tune-Yards

Merrill Garbus never thought she'd have the kind of 2011 she's had. Universal critical acclaim. Late night television appearances. Starring vibes at SXSW. "I never expected to be embraced so quickly, and so wholeheartedly," she admitted to me. "I always thought that being a professional musician would mean having to compromise something about myself." Instead, the fierce independence that reigned on 2009's best-of-the-past-decade-ish Bird-Brains is taken to brighter, bolder, kookier extremes on the killer Whokill. It's an album utterly idiosyncratic and singular, and that it took Garbus from cult act to crossover siren is one of 2011's most pleasing musical developments.

10. Youth Lagoon

Youth Lagoon
Fat Possum
Where many on this list came into 2011 as either known quantities or likely hype bands, Youth Lagoon began the year as an utter unknown. He was merely Trevor Powers, a Boise State University student trying to recreate the vibe of Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs in his bedroom. Ladled with open nostalgia for summers past —Powers effectively borrowing chillwave's faded-instamatic aesthetic and applying it to wonky piano ballads— these were intimate songs, made with insularity. This kind of super-personal project would’ve once sunk into obscurity, but after Powers threw a couple of files on Bandcamp early in 2011, he soon found his bashful, brittle, bruised balladry bathed in blog buzz, and breakout status swiftly cemented.
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