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The 20 Best New Bands of 2011

December 7, 2011  |  7:45am
Our Best New Artist considerations are a little different than the Grammys so you won’t see Bon Iver. You also won’t see artists that broke bigger this year but have been covered in Paste before (like Cults, Givers, tUnE-yArDs, Reptar, Yuck and Lord Huron—some of whom were named among our Best New Bands of 2010). You won’t even see new bands made up of already established musicians (sorry Middle Brother, Wild Flag and Mister Heavenly) or solo artists (who’ll be getting their own list next week). What you will find is some great music from some exciting young bands that were brand new to us this year. Here are the 20 Best New Bands of 2011.

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5. The Head and the Heart
Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Album: The Head and the Heart
Members: Jonathan Russell (guitar, vocals), Josiah Johnson (guitar, vocals), Charity Rose Thielen (violin, vocals), Tyler Williams (drums), Chris Zasche (bass), Kenny Hensley (piano)
For Fans Of: Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Mumford & Sons

The Head and the Heart had already sold 10,000 copies of their independent debut when Sub Pop signed the group last November. They’d also opened for Vampire Weekend, played two sold-out shows with Dave Matthews, earned props from NPR and become the toast of Seattle’s indie folk scene. Not bad for a group whose full lineup didn’t come together until January 2010.

Scruffily handsome folkies are a dime a dozen in Seattle. What differentiates The Head and the Heart from the rest of the flannel-wearing pack, beyond the band’s unnaturally speedy climb from dive bars to an upcoming mainstage spot at Sasquatch, is its penchant for mixing rootsy Americana with orchestral, chest-swelling chamber-pop. Violin and piano help elevate the songs beyond their earthy origins, and three-part harmonies—anchored by co-frontmen Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, and boosted by the Cat-Power-gone-Appalachian crooning of violinist Charity Rose Thielen—sweeten the deal.—Andrew Leahey

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4. Typhoon
Hometown: Portland, Ore.
Members: Kyle Morton (vocals, guitar), Toby Yuuki Tanabe (bass, vocals), Tyler Allen Ferrin (trumpet, vocals), Devin Gallagher (percussion, glockenspiel, vocals), David Patrick Hall (guitar, vocals), Nora Zimmerly (percussion, toy piano, vocals), Alex Fitch (drums/vocals), Pieter Larsson Hilton (drums, vocals), Ryan McAlpin (trumpet, vocals), Jen Hufnagel (violin, vocals), Shannon Rose Steele (violin, vocals), Samantha Kushnick (cello), Eric Stipe (trumpet, vocals)
Album: A New Kind of House
For Fans Of: Sufjan Stevens, Lost in the Trees, Elbow

After garnering attention for an EP that came out this spring, A New Kind of House, the Portland band is starting to find stages all 13 members can actually fit on, including the one on the set of Late Night With David Letterman. It’s been a long road to get here, though. Morton and Tenobe have known each other since they were kids in Salem, Ore., and were part of the original Typhoon record in 2005 before the band went on hiatus a couple years later. “There was too much pressure, and it wasn’t really working,” Morton says. “There were a lot of interpersonal problems. We didn’t know what direction we were going in. We didn’t really even know who was writing the songs.”

The band reformed last year with new members from the Portland music community, several of whom had been Typhoon fans before joining. One of the most compelling things about Typhoon is the contrast between Morton’s darker lyrics and the triumphant music made by his bandmates. In general it’s the fun of having a dozen other members to play music with that keeps each musician going. It’s certainly not the money.

“We’re basically breaking even, if that,” says Morton. “With so many people, I don’t think anyone can ever accuse us of selling out, as long as we split the shares evenly—we’re splitting everything 14 ways.”—Josh Jackson

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3. The Civil Wars
Hometown: Santa Cruz, Calif./Florence, Ala.
Members: Joy Williams and John Paul White
Album: Barton Hollow
For Fans Of: The Swell Season, Buddy & Julie Miller, Ray LaMontagne

Their name may indicate otherwise, but internal discord has never been a problem for The Civil Wars. When they’re not cracking jokes or singing each other’s praises, Joy Williams and John Paul White are crafting striking harmonies even Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis would agree upon.

The pair—whose full-length debut Barton Hollow entered at #12 on the Billboard chart—may seem like a bit of an odd couple on paper. Williams is a chatty California native, originally hailing from Santa Cruz. White, who calls Alabama home and by his own admission is not quite comfortable with the spotlight, is talking to us while in line at an Ace Hardware.

However, they’ve managed to mix their styles together to create a sound unique to both of them. “I love the blend of what has happened, that I am collaborating very much with a Southern gentleman,” Williams says, adding, “If we hadn’t been in that same room together, there would have been no way we’d written what we’d written.”—Bonnie Stiernberg

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2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Hometown: Detroit
Band Members: Daniel Zott, Joshua Epstein
Album: It’s a Corporate World
For Fans Of: Surfer Blood, The Long Winters, Of Montreal

The first words associated with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. aren’t lyrics, but sponsors. Cheerios, Lysol, Hamburger Helper, Mac Tools, Ford, Good Year—these corporate names decorate the band’s signature attire, like a gimmick employed by a buzz band using cheap tricks to gain attention.

Detroit-based musicians Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott know this. They know their name is a misdirection from their thoughtful lyrics and carefully crafted melodies. Their lighthearted schtick and goofy aesthetic are distraction by design; the Michigan duo wanted to say everything with their music. “I think it’s cool that people can hear our name and then be forced to just judge us on our music because it doesn’t sound anything like what we thought it was going to sound like.” Epstein says.

The project arose from a chance encounter of two veteran musicians, both of whom had settled into a steady groove as established local artists. Zott fronted The Great Fiction, while Epstein led a band called silent Silent Years. “I think between the two of us, we’ve probably put out like 15 albums before putting out Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. stuff,” Epstein says.

But all the direct heartfelt moments and sardonic societal observations come from the same place. Their humor serves their earnestness, instead of detracting from it. Ultimately, Epstein and Zott tread the rare middle ground of writing serious music without always having a serious attitude. They remind us that it’s all right to be loose in an uptight existence, to remain cool in a corporate world.—Max Blau

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1. Alabama Shakes
Hometown: Athens, Ala.
Members: Brittany Howard, Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell, Steve Johnson
Album: Alabama Shakes EP
For fans of: Janis Joplin, Sharon Jones, Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding

To call the ascent of The Alabama Shakes meteoric might be a little hyberbolic, so let’s just stick to the facts: Two months ago, they set CMJ abuzz, their name on the lips of seemingly every journalist, publicist and all-around industry type in search of the “next big thing” at the festival. Now, despite having only a four-track EP to their name, the Athens, Ala. group’s song “You Ain’t Alone” can be heard in a Zale’s holiday jewelry commercial. They recently signed to ATO Records. On Feb. 22, they’ll cross the pond and make their London debut. The show is already sold out. In short, it’s a lot for a band whose members held day jobs as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

They’re certainly new to the scene, but give the Alabama Shakes EP a listen or two, and you’ll be convinced that Howard, Johnson, Heath Fogg and Zac Cockrell have been doing this for years—decades even. As our own Josh Jackson wrote when we named them one of our favorite live acts of 2011, “At some point, God decided to take the voices of Janis Joplin, Robert Plant and Tina Turner and roll them all up into the body of Brittany Howard. She also happens to front a band that sounds like it just sprouted fully formed from the clay of Muscle Shoals.”—Bonnie Stiernberg

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