There’s nothing quite like the joy of discovering a new favorite band. A handful of musicians come together to see what kind of sum results from the combination of parts. They struggle to find an audience in their hometown—sometimes for years—before the word leaks out through a music site or radio station or friend of a friend, and you give it a listen. You might recognize their influences, but there’s something brand new about the way that they’ve filtered their intake of the music that’s come before and tweaked it in a way that’s uniquely their own. And sometimes immediately, you know that this is a band that you’ll be paying attention for years to come.
We obviously didn’t listen to every new band in 2010, and the idea of defining what makes a band new this year is problematic (our definition apparently differs from the Grammys). But this list is about our favorite discoveries of the last 12 months—bands that we weren’t really following in 2009 even if they’d been around for a while. All of these were named Best of What’s Next at some point during the year.
So we know your list would look different. It might include bands like Dawes that we highlighted in 2009 or bands that we simply haven’t yet discovered. And we’re saving solo artists for their own lists. But we hope that this helps you make some new discoveries of your own.
Here are our 20 favorite new bands of 2010:
Hometown: New York City
Members: Brian Oblivion (guitar, keys), Madeline Follin (bass, drums, vocals)
For Fans Of: Passion Pit, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Dum Dum Girls
Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin, both 21, have only been making music together since February, but have already converted fans with their exuberant, danceable garage rock. Their first single was released on Gorilla vs. Bear’s Forest Family label this spring, followed by a tour. “It’s hard to get out of that hype of being an Internet buzz band,” Follin said, “and to actually make a name for yourself.”
Cults hopes to release its first full-length in January 2011. As for long-term goals, Oblivion says, “On the one hand, to play Madison Square Garden. On the other hand, Maddie and I both never really planned to be musicians in our lives, we just fell into this. We didn’t see it coming so we’re just riding it and seeing how far it can go.”—Caroline Klibanoff
19. First Aid Kit
Hometown: Stockholm, Sweden
Album: The Black and the Blue
Members: Johanna Söderberg (autoharp, keys, vocals), Klara Söderberg (guitar, vocals)
For Fans Of: Fleet Foxes, The Weepies, Samantha Crain
Photo by Eva Edsjö
The two sisters who make up First Aid Kit had never been to the United States before this March, when they shuttled over from Sweden to play at the 2010 South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. But from the country-tinged harmonies on their debut full-length, The Black and the Blue (released in May) you’d never know it. Nineteen-year-old Johanna Söderberg says that she and her 17-year-old sister Klara are “a bit obsessed” with American culture, endlessly inspired by the stories and sounds of the States’ country-western and folk music traditions. “The stories that they tell are usually tragic, horrible stories of murder and madness and greed,” she says. “I think we’re really inspired by that combination of beautiful harmonies and beautiful melodies and really sad lyrics.”
First Aid Kit’s music has the beauty-against-carnage feel of the best dusty, antiquated country records; lyrics about death and decay are set amid warm, luminous harmonies and delicate acoustic strumming. Despite the singers’ slight ages, The Black and the Blue touches on some pretty heavy themes—take the longing of the narrator in “Winter Is All Over You,” and “Hard Believer,” which was inspired by Klara’s conversations about religion with a Jehovah’s Witness. “She almost got him to quit,” Johanna says. “But now they’re friends.”
The Söderberg sisters recorded their album at home in Stockholm over a period of eight months, during weekends and breaks from school, with their father producing. They also recorded a gorgeous rendition of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” as a tribute to one of their favorite bands, whose debut LP they “listened to the record basically every day for three months,” Johanna admits. The duo is currently wrapping up a U.S. tour before heading back to Europe and spending the summer playing festivals—familiar territory for them, and not just thanks to their recent SXSW run. Johanna recalls the time they performed at an electronica festival in Sweden: “Guys in tattoos and piercings were crying,” she says. “It was really funny.”—Lindsay Eanet
18. Frankie Rose & the Outs
Album: Frankie Rose & the Outs
Band Members: Frankie Rose (vocals, guitar, drums), Caroline Yes! (bass), Kate Ryan (drums), Margot Bianca (guitar)
For Fans Of: Rilo Kiley, Neko Case, Husky Rescue
Frankie Rose has definitely paid her dues. She was the songwriter and drummer behind “Where Do You Run To?” on the Vivian Girls’ self-titled debut. After leaving the band, she played for Crystal Stilts. And when she left Crystal Stilts, she started drumming for Dum Dum Girls. Finally, her debut album with her band Frankie Rose & The Outs was finally released through Slumberland Records. The atmospheric, dreamy record, recorded last winter, features Rose on guitar/drums/vocals, Caroline Yes on bass, Margot Bianca on guitar, and Kate Ryan on drums. And now, with her own band, she’s doing what she wants.
“It’s really great,” Rose told Paste earlier this year. “The ladies in my band, they’re so awesome. They’re so supportive, and by no means am I totally leading the ship or anything. We all make decisions about how much we want to do something or not do something, [and] we all just want to keep it mellow. But it’s great to be playing my own music and play guitar—it’s what I’ve wanted to do for so long.”Evan Minsker
17. Magic Kids
Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.
Band Members: Bennett Foster (vocals, guitar), Will McElroy (keyboard), Ben Bauermeister (drums), Michael Peery (bass, vocals), Alex Gates (guitar vocals)
For Fans Of: The Beach Boys, Jens Lekman, Belle & Sebastian
Photo by Alejandra Sabillon
What is Magic Kids? Well, for starters: “A television channel in Peru or something.” “A really low-budget daycare center in Memphis.” “A children’s company that may or may not be a scam, according to Google.”
These are a few things that Will McElroy and Bennett Foster, both members of the Memphis, Tenn. quintet, have learned share their band’s name. Its actual origin is similarly non sequitur: “I had a funny movie poster that I bought like 10 years ago from a junk store for this movie called Magic Kid,” McElroy says. “I’ve never seen the movie, but I thought the name sounded better than the other hundred names that we had thought up.”
As their moniker suggests, Magic Kids make music that’s both obsessively orchestrated and simplistically childlike, filled with strings, horns and sing-along harmonies. A spinoff of Memphis punk act The Barbaras, the group has a seven-inch record (the infectious “Hey Boy” with B-side “Good To Be”) on venerable Memphis garage imprint Goner, and another seven-inch (a split with recent tourmates The Smith Westerns) out via Fat Possum. Fresh off their first proper tour with blog sensation Girls, you’ll have to excuse the Kids if they seem a bit bewildered. “When we were doing The Barbaras, we were learning how to play our instruments,” McElroy says. “We were just figuring things out. Pop music was still a novel concept to us.”
In March, Magic Kids headed into the studio with engineer Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Britney Spears) to work on Memphis (out Aug. 31), their debut full-length for True Panther Sounds (the label behind Girls and Hunx and His Punx). “We like to take our time,” Foster says. “We really take it slow. We like to smell the flowers the whole way. We’ve never had to think of it as an obligation.”—Austin L. Ray
16. Best Coast
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: Crazy For You
Members: Bethany Cosentino, Bobb Bruno
For Fans Of: Neko Case, Vivian Girls, Rilo Kiley
Before singer/guitarist Bethany Cosentino was crafting two-minute, beach-fuzzy sonic diary entries with Best Coast, she weathered an earnest singer-songwriter stint in her teens and a more recent drone-y period with a band called Pocahaunted. Within the past year and a half, though, she and bandmate Bobb Bruno have recorded enough 7-inches for a family to eat dinner off of, all released in small batches on boutique labels Group Tightener, Art Fag, Black Iris and PPM. Cosentino (a former Fader intern) and bandmate Bobb Bruno are released their debut LP in July after a tour with the Vivian Girls.
“I don’t own a lot of 7-inches myself,” Cosentino told Paste. “However, I’m obsessed with buying girl group singles and ‘50s and ‘60s singles on 45s. ... My dad actually was a big classic rock and oldies radio kind of guy. I can remember being picked up from school and ‘Be My Baby’ was on the radio 20 times a day. I remember hearing that song and really loving it but not understanding that it was an actual sound. I was really young. When I was about 18, my best friend had a Ronettes ‘best of’ CD in her dorm room when I went to visit her. When we listened to it, it was snowing. It was the first time I had experienced a bunch of Ronettes songs. I had only heard the obvious ones. I thought it was so beautiful, like a Martin Scorsese movie.—Reed Fischer
Hometown: Lafayette, La.
Album: Givers EP
Band Members: Kirby Campbell (drums, vocals), Taylor Guarisco (vocals, guitar), Will Henderson (keyboards, samples, saxophone, flute, vocals), Tiffany “Teddy” Lamson (vocals, percussion, ukulele, guitar), Josh LeBlanc (bass, trumpet),
For Fans Of: Dirty Projectors, Mates of State, Vampire Weekend
Givers came into 2010 with lots of momentum. Late last year, the feel-good Louisiana quintet was drafted to tour with arty darlings Dirty Projectors; that coup was followed shortly by the release of Givers’ self-titled debut EP, which zydeco label Valcour Records broke genre-ranks to distribute.
It’s easy to see why: the face-painted, feather-bedecked band of multi-instrumentalists make delightfully breezy, lucid-dream pop, Will Henderson’s keyboard whirling away while Josh LeBlanc’s Dixieland horns rough up Kirby Campbell’s steady Afro-pop drums. Standout EP track “Ceiling of Plankton” recalls the oddball sugar of The Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips and proves the young band knows how to experiment without abandoning danceable melodies or life-affirming lyrics.
“And when you notice that your heart is bleeding, mine is bleeding, too,” lead vocalists Tiffany “Teddy” Lamson and Taylor Gaurisco sing over an echo of xylophone plinks and warm cymbal rushes. Whether trading leads with Gaurisco or blending back into the harmonic haze, Lamson sounds both achingly distant and incredibly close, like Leslie Feist’s kid sister after an all-nighter has left her smoky tenor cracked and courageous in all the right places.
Expect the glittery, communal, magic-schoolbus spirit of the Givers EP to remain intact on the band’s full-length debut, due this summer. In the coming months, they’ll take the heart-warming, booty-shaking show on the road, offering up their catchy cures for the recession blues throughout Louisiana and Texas (including a stop at SXSW). Labels are circling, but for now the band is happily independent. “We’re just keeping our hearts open and letting opportunities come to us,” says Lamson. “Touring with these guys and the energy of being on the road with them—I realized I could do this the rest of my life and be happy.”—Jeff Roedel
Album: Things are Not All Right
Members: Bill Roe (drums, lead vocals), Lisa Roe (guitar, backup vocals), Tyler J. Brock (bass, backup vocals), Anthony Cozzi (guitar, organ, backup vocals)
For Fans Of: Elvis Costello, Thin Lizzy, The Troggs
“It’s that finding a balance between all those things,” a frazzled-sounding Bill Roe says when asked how he juggles his band CoCoComa, his year-old record label Trouble in Mind and another one-year-old named Ronnie. “I don’t want to only focus on the label or the band and not pay attention to my daughter.” Much like his life, the music of CoCoComa (which also includes Roe’s wife, Lisa, on guitar) is fast-paced and exciting. It’s all hooks piled atop melodic garage rock and over before you know it.
In addition to playing San Francisco’s Budget Rock Festival in late October, Roe recently designed the cover for an LP from the band Nobunny. Meanwhile, he says, “We owe a single to this guy in Germany who put out our compilation [Spectrum of Sounds] LP. We were thinking of maybe doing a 12-inch EP.”—Austin L. Ray
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: Exquisite Corpse EP
Band Members: Emily Kokal (vocals, guitar), Jenny Lee Lindberg (vocals, bass), Theresa Wayman (vocals, guitar, keyboards)
For Fans Of: Bat for Lashes, Björk, Cat Power
“Girls tend to not take seriously the talents they could have,” says Theresa Wayman, one of Warpaint’s three frontwomen. “Maybe they sing or maybe they play guitar a little bit, but there aren’t many that want to become like Jimi Hendrix.”
There’s not much shredding in Warpaint’s electric ladyland, but there’s plenty of rock ’n’ roll aspiration. The trio’s dreamy shoegaze melodies are paired with post-punk dissonance and fueled by the bandmates’ pure magnetism and instrumental chops. Warpaint released its six-song debut EP, Exquisite Corpse, last October, then signed with Rough Trade mere days after the CMJ Music Marathon. Produced by Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, the EP is rife with tension and intrigue, with vocals held back for minutes at a time as the band builds walls of tension rivaling The Cure’s Disintegration. “Beetles” captivates with Wayman’s rap-singing wrung through an effects pedal, and “Billie Holiday” sets the sassy soul of Mary Wells’ “My Guy” adrift in a slow churn of three-part harmony and Mellotron, with pathos enough to rip open tear ducts.
It remains to be heard how Warpaint’s full-length debut, due this spring, will compare. After three different guys filled in for founding drummer and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg’s actress sister Shannyn Sossamon, Australian percussionist Stella Mozgawa will take to the kit for recording sessions in Portland this winter. The band also plans to try out drum machines, strings, piano and acoustic guitar—elements that don’t usually figure into Warpaint’s live show.
A few more rock legends will join Hendrix in their pantheon of inspiration, too. “We’re going to have Wilson-Phillips harmonies,” axewoman Emily Kokal jokes. “George Harrison’s ghost is going to tell me how to play guitar.”—Reed Fischer
12. The Middle East
Hometown: Townsville, Queensland, Australia
Album: The Recordings of the Middle East EP
Band Members: Mike Haydon (drums, accordion), Jordan Ireland (guitar, lead vocals), Rohin Jones (guitar, lead vocals), Jack Saltmiras (bass), Mark Myers, Bree Tranter, Joseph Ireland (all multi-instrumentalists)
For Fans Of: Bon Iver, Doves, The Antlers
Photo by Jordan Ireland
The history of The Middle East is decidedly less conflicted than the band’s name might suggest. The seven-piece formed in 2005 and played gigs around Townsville, a remote shore town in northeastern Australia, then disbanded when guitarist Jordan Ireland decamped to Germany. Now that he’s back, the band is up to its old tricks, creating densely layered songs that reside somewhere in the volatile territory between folk and post-rock. Their debut EP, released last October, at first seems to be all quiet moments and rich, delicate harmonies, but it’s sporadically interrupted by bursts of enthusiastic horns, drums, glockenspiel and squealing electric guitar.
Though the band has had a bit of fun with its name (the EP is titled The Recordings of the Middle East, and their MySpace handle is “visitthemiddleeast”) co-frontman Rohin Jones insists it doesn’t have any profound political meaning. “When we first started, we just needed a name for a poster for a show that we were doing. And I was watching a documentary on Yasir Arafat, and was like, ‘Why don’t we call the band The Middle East?’” he says. “I don’t think we’re trying to ‘say’ anything—though I guess it could seem like a controversial name, at the moment.”
The band is green enough that it doesn’t even have proper press photos, though all of the members recently quit their day jobs for their current spring tour. The route won’t land the band anywhere near southwestern Asia, but will take them across Australia and to the U.S., including stops at SXSW and Coachella. “We’re definitely not the most let’s-go-crazy kind of band,” Jones says. “Nothing really dramatic has hap- pened on this tour. Oh, actually, I broke my collarbone … I’m still kind of healing and it’s still kind of painful, but I’m fine. Doing great!”—Alexandria Symonds
11. Lost in the Trees
Hometown: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Album: All Alone in an Empty House
Band Members: Ari Picker (vocals, guitar), Drew Anagnost (cello), Mark Daumen (tuba, bass), Leah Gibson (cello), Emma Nadeau (French horn, bells, accordion, vocals), Jenavieve Varga (violin), Yan Westerlund (drums)
For Fans Of: Arcade Fire, Mark Mothersbaugh, Antonio Vivaldi
As a budding high-school musician, Ari Picker didn’t know how to read or write music until he’d already started jamming with a bunch of string players, and he’d never listened to classical music before enrolling at Berklee to study film scoring. He took to it fast, though. “It was almost a kind of religious experience for me to go to class and learn about these different [composers],” he says, “because—and I don’t know what the right word is—but they’re just very magical people.”
Soon after, Picker abandoned film scoring and assembled Lost in the Trees, a band that fused his newfound love of classical music with the uninhibited honesty of beloved folkies like Joni Mitchell. Picker eventually decamped from Boston to his hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C., and he estimates that more than two dozen members—many with similar backgrounds—have since cycled in and out of the band. “It’s been a really weird experience,” he says, “bringing [in] kids that have been in a conservatory—or certainly not on a rock club stage.”
After putting out a few albums on local imprint Trekky Records, Lost in the Trees signed to Anti- and recorded its LP All Alone in an Empty House with producer Scott Solter (St. Vincent, The Mountain Goats, Okkervil River). It’s mountaintop chamber music, a happy marriage of old folk traditions and even older orchestral ones. And Picker hasn’t forgotten where he first caught the music bug; his Project Symphony takes Lost in the Trees into high-school classrooms, working with students to perform Picker’s and other artists’ original symphonic compositions alongside professional musicians in a concert hall. “It’s just kind of a really warm feeling when I heard any sort of piece from that era,” he says. It’s a feeling he’s doing his best to spread.—Josh Jackson
10. April Smith and the Great Picture Show
Album: Songs for a Sinking Ship
Band Members: April Smith (vocals, guitar), Elliot Jacobson (drums), Brandon Lowry (keyboards), Marty O’Kane (guitar), Stevens (bass)
For Fans Of: Amanda Palmer, Erin McKeown, The Andrews Sisters
Photo by Michelle McSwain
Judging from some tracks on her new album Songs for a Sinking Ship, Brooklyn singer/songwriter April Smith is quite the burlesque bad girl. Verbally smacking down the competition for her man’s affections (“Dixie Boy”) and confessing to sins apparently too atrocious to mention (“Terrible Things”), Smith takes a ride into the annals of vintage Mason-Dixon pop, packing a sound full of sassy hooks and swinging rhythms.
When I meet her at a generic SoHo deli on an early December afternoon, it becomes clear that the real April Smith is far less confrontational than her music suggests. The first sign is when she whips out her camera to play a video of her border collie, Scout, hamming it up before a bath. And the enthusiasm with which she explains converting her band’s old tour bus to run on alternative fuel confirms it. “You have to make sure the engine and injection pump are willing to run on vegetable oil,” Smith says over egg sandwiches before heading to a charity gig for an eco-friendly clothing line. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”
A devout vegetarian with a contagious smile, she’s definitely more Southern Comfort than Wild Turkey, but she revels in the melodramatic, TV-inspired whimsy she concocts with her four-piece band, The Great Picture Show. “Terrible Things,” for example, is actually an ode to Dexter, the Showtime series about a morally ambiguous serial killer. “I’m a huge TV addict—it’s really bad, especially when it’s cold out,” Smith says. “I’ll only go outside to walk my dog, and the rest of the time, the TV’s always on.” Law & Order, Californication (which recently licensed “Terrible Things” for its online promos) as well as shows and books about historical shipwrecks round out her suitably noir pop-cultural interests.
Smith’s megaphone optimism remains front and center throughout the tumultuous old-timey jams on Songs for a Sinking Ship, recorded with the $13,000 she raised last year via website Kickstarter. “If you’re going down, you may as well have a smile on your face,” she says. “If times are bad, at least we’re having fun.”—Sean Edgar
9. Dum Dum Girls
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: I Will Be
Band Members: Dee Dee (vocals, guitar), Bambi (bass), Jules (guitar, vocals), Frankie Rose (drums, vocals)
For Fans Of: Vivian Girls, The Raveonettes, The Angels
When Dee Dee (née Kristin Gundred) started posting songs to her MySpace page a couple years ago under the moniker Dum Dum Girls, she was just looking to share recordings with a few close friends and her husband Brandon Welchez, lead singer for the San Diego, Calif-based band Crocodiles. “My husband was touring a lot with his band, so I’d put a song up on MySpace and then send him an email like, ‘Hey, I put a song up. Check it out.’ Then, occasionally, I’d tell another friend to check it out,” says Dee Dee, who previously performed as the singer/drummer of San Diego trio Grand Ole Party under her real name. “Eventually, I decided to add a couple friends. It started out very modest with no real intention.”
Despite those unassuming beginnings, the songs—which filtered ‘60s girl-group harmonies and ‘90s shoegaze through a lo-fi wall of sound—found their way to the ears of Blank Dogs’ Mike Sniper (who released the Yours Alone EP on his young Captured Tracks label) and Hozac Records head Todd Novak (who released the band’s “Longhair” 7-inch). Even then, when Dum Dum Girls signed with Sub Pop last summer—and when it was announced that Dee Dee would produce her project’s debut LP with Richard Gotteher, who co-wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and has produced bands like Go-Gos and Blondie—it seemed something of a leap.
But as befits its Cartesian title, Dum Dum Girls’ debut I Will Be (out today) is a full realization of Dee Dee’s early sonic sketches. With Gotteher reworking her home recordings, the album is a beguiling pairing of classic production and modern sensibility, with tracks like “Jail La La” and “Blank Girl” (and a cover of Sonny & Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go”) draped in vintage reverb. Dee Dee has recruited similarly-surnameless friends Bambi, Jules and Frankie Rose (formerly of Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts) to round out the band for its upcoming live shows; they’ll spend most of April and May on the road in the U.S. and Europe. And while interest in the band will probably only increase once the album is released, the once semi-anonymous artist wants to be judged solely by her music. “I just don’t want to be anything,” Dee Dee says, “other than what the songs and the show put out there.”—Stephen Slaybaugh
8. Local Natives
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: Gorilla Manor
Band Members: Kelcey Ayer (vocals, keyboard), Matt Frazier (drums), Ryan Hahn (vocals, guitar), Andy Hamm (bass), Taylor Rice (vocals, guitar)
For Fans Of: Andrew Bird, Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend
The band now known as Local Natives formed in Orange County, Calif. three years ago. The quintet has since relocated a few dozen miles north to Los Angeles, and its debut LP, Gorilla Manor is named after the old house they shared in Silver Lake, but they haven’t yet built a reputation suited to their name—they keep getting yanked across the pond.
Local Natives’ rich, CSNY-spun harmonies, churning folk-guitar lines and ebullient percussion first stirred the overseas press at last year’s SXSW conference. This January, the guys found themselves devouring lamb burgers and guzzling hard cider in London during their third European visit in less than a year, still ecstatic about playing for more than 4,000 fans at the Brixton Academy in December, their biggest show to date. Success abroad is sweet, says guitarist and sometime lead singer Taylor Rice, though he admits it’s frustrating that he can’t pronounce the name of the French TV show—Ce Soir ou Jamais, translated as Tonight or Never—on which the band just gave yet another characteristically full-bodied performance. “What we need to do in the van,” he says, “is listen to Rosetta Stone between every single show and try to learn all of the languages.”
The taut song structures of Gorilla Manor, arising from self-inflicted jeers and slathered in the colorful muck of a fresh food fight, are the work of bandmates that spend 99 percent of their waking lives together. They’ll bond on a stateside tour this spring (“Playing the U.S. is very important to us,” Rice notes), but compared to the day-devouring drives which will propel the band around the U.S., the two-hour van rides between European cities are heavenly. “Every musician’s dream is to get to tour with your band all over the world,” Rice adds. “We’re lucky enough that it’s happening right now.”—Reed Fischer
7. Free Energy
Album: Stuck On Nothing
Band Members: Geoff Bucknum (guitar), Nicholas Shuminsky (drums), Paul Sprangers (vocals), Evan Wells (bass), Scott Wells (guitar)
For Fans Of: Tom Petty, Thin Lizzy, The Hold Steady
Free Energy’s debut album, Stuck On Nothing, starts with a cowbell, but really gets going when the good-time electric guitars launch into an extended harmonized solo. “We’re breaking out this time,” Paul Sprangers sings on the opening track. “Making out with the wind.”
Roll over, Leadbelly. Here comes America’s new folk music. “I don’t know what else is,” says Scott Wells, the quintet’s guitarist. “I think our national folk music is different types of pop music and probably the most perennially successful [pop] music is classic rock. It’s something everyone has in common. Even if you don’t like the music, you know it.”
Wells and Sprangers hail from tiny Red Wing, Minn., on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. They cut their musical teeth in Minneapolis before moving to Philadelphia, where they formed the band. It’s an appropriately blue-collar history for a group whose fist-pumping rock anthems induce visions of tie-dye and jean vests, beer in red plastic cups, and a general sense of some really memorable Friday night in suburban U.S.A. circa 1976. “We’re trying to make dance music—fun party rock,” Wells says, “stuff that’s unabashedly going for it, with a good beat, good groove and hopefully a catchy hook.”
It’s true that dance music has evolved since the end of the Vietnam War. But if you play “Bang Pop,” with its primal, pounding drums, high-neck guitar interludes and “oh-oh” harmony breakdown, you just might be inclined to shake a flared denim-clad leg, too. Free Engery wears its influences like a low-cut V-neck—thus the cowbell that kicks off the record. “I think a cowbell in rock ’n’ roll—it tells you right away it’s time to party,” Wells says. “Hopefully.”—Richard Parks
Hometown: Oxford, U.K.
Album: Beachcomber’s Windowsill
Band Members: Brian Briggs (vocals, guitar), Jon Ouin (vocals, guitar, cello,
keyboards), Oliver Steadman (vocals, guitar, bass), Robert Steadman (drums)
For Fans Of: Fanfarlo, Elbow, Belle & Sebastian
When British chamber-pop quartet Stornoway plays “Watching Birds,” from its debut LP Beachcomber’s Windowsill, frontman Brian Briggs is singing about what he knows: He earned his Ph.D in Ornithology at Oxford University with a special focus on ducks. “It’s kind of been a swap of what’s the career and what’s the hobby,” Briggs says. “I definitely still get out as often as I can, but [birdwatching has] had to take a backseat for now.”
His first week at Oxford, Briggs met a multi-instrumentalist named Jon Ouin, discovered they shared musical tastes and soon placed an ad for a rhythm section. The only person to respond was bassist Oliver Steadman, who brought his little brother Robert along to play drums. The band’s big break came at a gig with two people in the audience; one of them was a local DJ, Tim Bearder, who wasn’t put off by the small crowd. “He basically devoted this early breakfast show of his to Stornoway,” Briggs says. “... He basically locked himself in the studio, and got in trouble afterwards. He got suspended, but it’s been worth it. He’s ended up playing a big part in getting us to where we are.”
Beachcomber’s Windowsill debuted at #14 in the U.K. back in May, and the jaunty single “Zorbing” has been in regular rotation on Radio One. The album was released in the U.S. in August, just after the band’s first concerts in New York. Stornoway is taking off, but Briggs still puts his degree to work. “Pretty much all the songs have references to the outdoors, and some have references to birds,” he says, though he admits there’s a limit to combining his interests. “It’s difficult to write songs about ducks and sound romantic, but maybe I should give that a go.”—Josh Jackson
5. Surfer Blood
Hometown: West Palm Beach, Fla.
Album: Astro Coast
Members: Brian Black (bass), Thomas Fekete (guitar), Marcos Marchesani (percussion), John Paul Pitts (vocals, guitar), Tyler Schwarz (drums)
For Fans Of: Weezer, Pavement, The Shins
When Surfer Blood released its debut album, Astro Coast, in January 2010, most of the coverage focused has focused on the most novel aspect of the band’s biography: their roots in West Palm Beach, Fla., a city known more for its warm white sands than rock ‘n’ roll.
“Everyone who reviewed us had to make some sort of remark about fun in the sun,” says frontman John Paul Pitts. “Critics started labeling us as ‘surf rock.’ At first I was peeved about the term, but then I thought about it. We do have jangly guitars and a certain pep to the beat. I just always thought of ourselves more like a Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. guitar-fetish band. Those are my favorite bands, but I suppose calling us surf rock is just a little easier.”
Despite the annoyance of pigeonholing, it’s hard to imagine the warm, easy guitar riffs and oceanic imagery of the album having been born out of, say, Minnesota. Astro Coast was recorded just as the bandmates neared the end of college, and it hinges on an underlying angst culled from the guitar-heavy indie-rock of the late 1990s—half nostalgic, half anxious. “Parts of these songs definitely deal with that stage of your life where you’re thrown into the world, but you’re not sure how to do anything yet,” Pitts says. “It’s the time of your life where people you grew up with are moving all over the world, and you’re feeling that separation.”
Astro Coast is distinguished by a keen sense of place, but ultimately the Florida setting is incidental to the album’s themes. Pitts doesn’t romanticize West Palm Beach because it’s sunny, or even because he particularly likes it there; he clings to it because it’s home, a source of familiarity at a time in life when little else is stable. “Maybe in a way we couldn’t help but draw on our surroundings as a muse,” Pitts concedes. “I don’t go to the beach that often, and I haven’t surfed since I was 18 years old. But in Florida, you take a lot of stuff for granted. People take pictures of you and it’s only when you look at them later that you realize you’re surrounded by blue skies and palm trees.”—Evan Rytlewski
4. Freelance Whales
Band Members: Judah Dadone (vocals), Doris Cellar, Chuck Criss, Jake Hyman, Kevin Read (all multi-instrumentalists)
For Fans Of: The Postal Service, Sufjan Stevens, Passion Pit
When Freelance Whales frontman Judah Dadone was growing up on 20 acres of woods outside Wilmington, Del., his part-Cherokee nanny told him that horses and dogs—and sometimes kids—could see spirits. By age six, he began to make room for the ghost of a young girl he sensed living in his house. These memories, along with bits of dream journaling, weave their way loosely through Weathervanes, Freelance Whales’ debut LP on Frenchkiss Records.
“For me, the record is a sort of pre-adolescent love story between a young boy and his imaginary friend, or an actual ghost,” Dardone says. “Because he interacts with her mostly in his dreams, the logic of the lyrics undergoes a sort of distortion, or they tend towards the magically realistic.”
A few years ago, Brooklyn-based Dadone began gathering Weathervanes’ odd collection of instruments—a banjo from his stepfather, a harmonium from India, a water phone from the Lower East Side—and then used Craigslist to find bandmates from across the city to play them all.
The album captures that same whimsy with enough layers of peculiar instrumentation to make Sufjan Stevens jealous. And thanks again to Craigslist, Freelance Whales will be adding to that roster of strange instruments very soon. “Kevin Read and myself decided recently that we wanted to make an instrument that sounded like a chorus of Japanese flutes, which are typically made from bamboo,” Dadone says. “We looked on Craigslist and found an Amish family in Lancaster, Penn., who allowed us to come work on their farm for a few days, help them with their bamboo harvest, and keep a load of it for ourselves. If we’re not paralyzed by the irony of the Amish using Craigslist, and if our hand-craftiness doesn’t fail us, we may have a bamboo pipe organ by mid 2010.”—Josh Jackson
Album: Wild Smile
Members: Quinn Walker, Austin Fisher, Pan, Brian Aiken (all multi-instrumentalists)
For Fans Of: Yeasayer, Dirty Projectors, TV On the Radio
Between their 2009 self-titled EP and full-length debut Wild Smile, Brooklyn’s Suckers officially have released fewer than 20 songs. But the band has a wealth of material nobody has heard yet: They write about one song per practice and record almost everything as they go. “If we went through that digital recorder and went back throughout our writing history,” says multi-instrumentalist Quinn Walker, “I’d guess we have about 60 to 70 songs.”
Walker was understandably happy to finally see the release of Suckers’ first LP; it was long overdue for the band, who all met while growing up in Connecticut years ago. Cousins Walker and Austin Fisher grew up down the street from one another and started playing music together when they were seven years old. “We were fiddling around on keyboards and making bizarre children’s music,” Walker remembers. The four bandmates all moved to New York separately, then reconnected and started making the sweeping, anthemic pop music that graced their debut EP. The guys sing in chaotic harmony, each track features a variety of percussion and there’s a myriad of synthesizers, horns and guitars; the melodic, layered composition makes it hard to tell who’s doing what.
And now, with a new album under his belt, what does Walker want to do? “I’d like to be in the studio right now recording another album, to tell you the truth,” he says, noting that he prefers studio recording to playing live. He’d like the band to release four albums a year instead of taking what he calls “the more tasteful approach.”
“There’s definitely a certain energy and adrenaline rush playing live that you don’t get being in the studio,” Walker says. “But then there’s also this maddening joy when you’ve created something from scratch. The creative process is my favorite part about playing music.”—Evan Minsker
2. Sleigh Bells
Band Members: Alexis Krauss (vocals), Derek Miller (guitar)
For Fans Of: The Pipettes, Funkadelic, Swizz Beatz
The first 23 seconds of Sleigh Bells’ “Crown On the Ground” are beset by violent guitar squeals and lusty “ahhs”; then comes 22 seconds of brutally abrasive noise rounded out by three minutes of slick, sweet vocals, loud chants, foot-stomping percussion and a hundred other glorious things. It might be the best pop song of 2010.
In fall of last year, this Brooklyn duo’s handful of demos and slightly-larger handful of CMJ shows got the music world talking, and for good reason. Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller have expertly wedded screeching low-end distortion (Miller was in the hardcore band Poison the Well) to sweet pop vocals (in her youth, Krauss was in a manufactured teen-pop group called RubyBlue). They sound like My Bloody Valentine covering LL Cool J. And with this year’s release their debut LP Treats, the world will have to reckon with their fierceness.
“The sound was not and is not an aesthetic choice but a lack of resources which sometimes works to your advantage,” Miller told Paste via e-mail. Some artists might not consider any kind of lack as a good thing, but Sleigh Bells have done a lot with very little. Though the new album will have a cameo from a horn section (“heavily processed,” Miller promises), “we are going to remain a two-piece,” he says. “It makes more sense financially, and we like keeping it simple.”—Mark Krotov
1. Mumford and Sons
Album: Sigh No More
Band members: Marcus Mumford (vocals, acoustic guitar, kick drum, tambourine), Ted Dwane (double bass), Ben Lovett (keyboards), Winston Marshall (banjo)
For Fans Of: The Frames, Noah and the Whale, Langhorne Slim
“We’re pretty much useless,” says Ted Dwane. The Mumford & Sons bassist is calling from Australia’s Adelaide Airport, where Dwane, frontman Marcus Mumford, keyboardist Ben Lovett and banjo player “Country” Winston Marshall played the On The Bright Side music festival.
Our interview was delayed earlier in the day because Dwane lost his passport, only to find it several minutes later in his jacket pocket. “I can’t even hang on to my personal belongings,” he says. “Can’t cook. Can’t, I dunno, do paperwork. I don’t know, what else can’t we do? I’m not to be trusted with other people’s animals.” He mentions something about a friend’s hamster and a run-in with his cats. “But,” he finally admits, “touring is something I do really well.”
That’s fortunate, because Dwane and his bandmates have spent a considerable amount of the last year on the road. Their debut LP, Sigh No More—which pulls from the far corners of English and American folk, and beyond—was released in the U.K. last October, and came out Stateside in February. It’s gone platinum in the U.K., double platinum in Australia, and its lead single “Little Lion Man” was nominated this summer for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize.
The four first got together in 2007 at Bosun’s Locker, a pub in London’s Fulham borough where most of them had played, at some point, with fellow young folk singer Laura Marling. Since then, they—along with Marling and acts like Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit and Noah and the Whale—have been widely heralded as a British folk revival for the new century, dusting off and re-imagining ancient traditions in much the same way Fairport Convention and Pentangle did in the 1960s and ‘70s. Mumford & Sons don’t see their work that way, though. “It’s not at all cerebral,” Dwane says of his band’s songwriting process. “We just sort of try ’til it sounds good.”
So far, it’s been good enough to earn some seriously unbridled fan enthusiasm. When the band played Bonnaroo this summer, one of a few recent U.S. performances, each pause between their thunderous string-beats was punctuated by cracking voices and loud sniffles from the crowd. Old Crow Medicine Show, the comparatively-veteran Nashville-based string band who met Mumford & Sons for the first time at the festival—and cameoed during that set with a rousing take on their own song “Wagon Wheel”—share the connection. In an email, frontman Ketch Secor expressed his adoration in all caps: “THE MUMFORD BOYS HAVE SONGS, STRONG SONGS, SONGS WORTH REMEMBERING, DRIVING LONG DISTANCES UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF, LOVING SOMEONE UNDER THE SPELL OF; GOOD SONGS THAT LAST LONG AFTER THE TURNTABLE STOPS.”
This impassioned outpouring is rooted in Sigh No More, the band’s giddy, stylistic splatter-painting of a debut. The songs draw from traditional British music, but also from jazz and big band (Mumford and Lovett started playing in a jazz group together when they were 12), Anglican choral harmonies, gospel and Appalachian folk. The lyrics tell ancient tales of sin and redemption in simple, urgent language: “I’ll find strength in pain / And I will change my ways,” Mumford yawls on “The Cave.” The record is built upon the eternal tension of dualities, those pairs of words you internalize in Sunday School and try your best to forget when you walk outside into the world of gray: dark and light, hope and fear, head and heart, soul and body, give and take, night and day.
In early August, the band is at another airport—this time, Chicago’s O’Hare International—and Marcus Mumford takes the phone. He makes the requisite joke about his quartet having become “an airport band,” but then gets serious. When he was growing up, he explains, his parents were pastors, which essentially meant they specialized in crisis management: “When people are destroying their lives, my parents get a call.” But Mumford himself has long felt more ambiguous about human suffering—alternately moved by and indifferent to others’ attempts to change their lives for the better. Once, he moved on his own to Hong Kong and lived among 35 recovering heroin addicts; despite everything he saw there, when he returned to London, he remembers “going back to being a complete dickhead.” This muddy area between extremes is one of Sigh No More’s main themes. It isn’t an album about overcoming brokenness, evil, selfishness or anything else—it’s about failing to overcome, but finding redemption in the mess anyway.
“It’s a process that’s so normal for everyone, the process of, you know, being a dickhead and then trying to go about fixing that,” Mumford says. “That kind of twilight period between fucking up and fixing up, that kind of twilight period there, I find really fascinating.” Nowhere on the record is this better exhibited than on “Little Lion Man,” a folk-banger bursting with banjo, bass and foot-stomping percussion that’s likely the most joyful song ever written about being a total wreck. “Weep for yourself my man, you’ll never be what is in your heart / Weep, little lion man, you’re not as brave as you were at the start,” Mumford sings right before the shouted chorus: “But it was not your fault but mine / And it was your heart on the line / I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?”
In a world that so often tries to shoehorn experiences into the dueling categories of good and bad, black and white, it’s a liberating anthem saturated in what Mumford calls “grace” and Dwane calls “optimism.” Perhaps this, more than anything, is the source of the band’s growing appeal—its ability to navigate deftly between set categories, emotional and musical, with humility, humor and heart.—Rachel Dovey