The 20 Best New Bands of 2011

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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.

20. The Lumineers
Hometown: Denver
Members: Wesley Schultz (vocals/guitar/piano), Jeremiah Fraites (drums, yells), Neyla Peckarek (cello, piano)
**For Fans Of:* The Head and the Heart, Ryan Adams, The Avett Brothers 

Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites forged their band from the sparks of pain and built upon that foundation with a persevering gleam of hope, so it’s fitting that the band’s name is an imaginary term for the shine that comes from porcelain veneers used in dentistry. Schultz and Fraites grew up in the same small town in Ramsey, N.J., but it wasn’t until Fraites’ older brother, also Schultz’s good friend, lost his life to a drug overdose that The Lumineers were formed.

After a short stint paying their dues to the New York music scene, on a whim, the two of them decided to uproot to Denver. The first order of business was to place an ad for a cello player. That’s when they found their missing link, the charming Neyla Pekarek. The trio then went on to mix and master their own seven-track EP, an impressive at-home venture. Now, gearing up for the release of a debut album around the new year, they have a few wishes. “Get a bigger van—we’re in a soccer mom van with LUMINRS vanity plates,” Shultz says. “Make music that makes you smile, cry and stomp your foot simultaneously. Make music for years with these dear friends of mine. Be proud of our music. Play Letterman and Europe.”—Alexandra Fletcher

19. Generationals
Hometown: New Orleans
Band Members: Ted Joyner (vocals, guitar), Grant Widmer (guitars, vocals)
Album: Actor-Caster
For Fans Of: Apples In Stereo, Dr. Dog, The Strokes 

New Orleans indie-pop duo Generationals released their second full-length album, Actor-Caster, several months before we talked to them for our “Best of What’s Next” issue. But guitarist/vocalist Grant Widmer, while flattered by the recognition, isn’t even sure what the title means: “Is that something that’s usually used to describe a debut album or something? It definitely feels cool, though—better than being ‘Best of What Used to Be.’”

Widmer and partner Ted Joyner have a connection that’s deeper than ever. But, as Widmer attests, being in a band with your best friend “is a tricky balance to walk. I definitely think it would be easier sometimes to have two people who have a sheerly professional relationship—because then there wouldn’t be any reason not to just lay it all out there. And I think we did have to navigate through that when we first started. But where we are now, we have confidence in what we’re doing that no amount of criticism from the other guy is going to wound our egos that much. … We’ve kind of joined our artistic visions to the point where, if there’s any kind of criticism, it’s coming from the place of trying to make sure the vision is clear and that the album that comes out is going to be as good as possible.”—Ryan Reed

18. Caveman
Hometown: New York
Band Members: Matthew Iwanusa, Jimmy Carbonetti, Stefan Marolachakis, Sam Hopkins, Jeff Berrall
Album: Coco Beware
For Fans Of: Andrew Bird, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, The National

“Listenable” is the best way to describe Caveman’s debut album, CoCo Beware. The album, with all of its clacking drums, gently strummed rail-thin guitars and careful, pleasant melodies, is instantly catchy and likable on a first listen. Songs like “Decide” “Thankful” and “Easy Water”—easily the album’s standout cuts—plod along like lazy, slowed-down versions of early Shins tracks, and that’s a great thing.

Frontman Matthew Iwanusa’s relaxed take on guitar-based rock is a unique sound that isn’t really trying to offend or take any unexpected twists or turns. Instead, the album is almost comforting by creating instantly recognizable, hummable melodies that feel just as familiar on the first listen as they do the 10th. It’s a strong, cohesive opening statement from a group of talented musicians that only gets better with repeated listens.—Tyler Kane

17. The Belle Brigade
Hometown: Los Angeles
Band Members: Ethan Gruska, Barbara Gruska
Album: The Belle Brigade
For Fans Of: The Indigo Girls, Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers

There’s nothing particularly complicated about The Belle Brigade. The band, made up of brother/sister duo Ethan and Barbara Gruska, writes simple songs about common themes like being in love, loneliness and feeling like an outcast. But it works.

The most ear-pleasing quality of the band is the way their DNA-sharing vocal chords are able to vibrate perfectly together, creating full, textured harmonies that seem to rise above the instrumentation while flowing along it. There is certainly something about familial bonds and the way they provide an added connectivity in music that’s just not present in other acts. The album’s best song “Losers” is an excellent example of this. It transforms a straightforward acoustic guitar and vocal piece into a powerful, anthemic rejection of societal opinions concerning those it deems not up to snuff.

The Belle Brigade is a fine debut albumfull of breezy melodies straight from the highways of California; it’s damn near impossible not to bob along to the freewheeling music the pair has compiled for this first LP. There’s sure to be more of the same to look forward to in the future.—Wyndham Wyeth

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16. Rubblebucket
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Members: Alex Toth (Trumpet/Vocals/Bandleader), Kalmia Traver (Lead Vocals/Tenor Sax), Adam Dotson (Trombone/Vocals), Dave Cole (Drums), Darby Wolf (Keyboards), Craig Myers (Percussion), Mark Stewart (Bass), Ian Hersey (Guitar)
Album: Omega La La
For Fans Of: Dirty Projectors, Fela Kuti, Vampire Weekend 

For Rubblebucket vocalist Kalmia Traver and her gang—including bandleader/trumpet player (and Traver’s boyfriend) Alex Toth—the exhausting exchange of performance, of devoting one’s entire body and spirit to music, is what makes life worthwhile. They’ve been categorized by the curious genre tag “yes-wave,” a label used to describe bands who are both good at their instruments and project positive vibes. But Rubbebucket are pretty hard to pin-down sonically—their line-up sports an array of horns, keys, and percussion; their dense soundscapes are equally hooky and technical, bouncing from sublime pop hooks (like on the effortless back-porch soul of “Raining”) to rhythmically challenging clatter (the furious synth-twitch breakdown that propels the second half of “Breatherz”). The tunes aren’t easily pigeonholed into jam-band, funk, or indie rock scenes, so “yes-wave” might just be as good a description as any—but Traver isn’t worried about labels in the first place.

“It’s hard for us to find a home within any genre,” Traver says. “And you can spin that good or bad. And that’s actually been a frustration of mine. You meet somebody on the street, and they ask, ‘What kind of band are you?’ It takes so many sentences to explain it, but that being said, ‘yes-wave’ doesn’t really explain anything at all. So I just think it’s funny, and I also connect with that word, ‘yes-wave.’ It sounds fun, and from what I understand, the spirit behind it is sort of what we’re all about, which is being good at your instruments and really devoting a lot of time to mastering the music, and then being positive and sending ‘yes’ energy out into the world.”—Ryan Reed

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15. Kopecky Family Band
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Members: Kelsey Kopecky (vocals, keys), Gabe Simon (vocals/guitar), Corey Oxendine (bass), Markus Midkiff (cello), Steven Holmes (violin), David Krohn (drums)
Album: The Disaster EP
For Fans Of: Arcade Fire, Stars, Eisley 

The Kopecky Family Band isn’t actually a family, whatever Google would have you think. Despite multiple search results for Gabe Kopecky, the vocalist and guitar player actually has the decidedly less Polish surname of Simon. The band’s namesake derives singularly from Kelsey Kopecky, a maternal-yet-feisty songstress who spends days off babysitting for her booking agent.

Still, the six-piece outfit is a close coterie of friends. In fact, Simon attributes their songwriting prowess to the ability to perform a Vulcan mind meld of sorts. “[Kelsey] and I have this natural ability to sing together and predict what each other will end up doing,” says Simon. “One time we were on this writing retreat and started signing the exact same melody at the exact same time. It wasn’t another song, it was something we both came up with,” he said.

While the Family has four or five new demos and is working on four or five more, they don’t expect their debut full length to come until next year.—Allie Conti

14. Tennis
Hometown: Denver
Band Members: Patrick Riley, Alaina Moore
Album: Cape Dory
For Fans Of: Best Coast, Neko Case, The Four Seasons

Landlocked in Denver, Tennis’ Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore had almost no sailing experience when they first decided to venture out on the open ocean. But a lack of sea legs was no match for the couple’s thirst for adventure and desire to live minimally. They began devoting every spare hour to the study of all things nautical. “We would test each other at breakfast,” Riley says, “tie knots during lunch, and talk about hypothetical situations during dinner. It literally had taken over our lives.”

Once he and Moore had consumed every textbook they could find on the subject, they dipped into their life savings and cast off on an epic voyage. After spending more than half a year together on their boat, the adventurers returned home to find that life on the high seas had changed them. “We ran into an issue,” Riley says, “with not being able to communicate our experiences with sailing to the community around us. Friends and family couldn’t possibly understand things like having coffee at 6:00am while a sting-ray jumps out of the water just in front of your bow. We found ourselves with such heavy nostalgia that we had to funnel it somewhere. That place was music.”

Rily and Moore began writing and recording songs inspired by their journey. The project has resulted in debut Cape Dory, a record about exploration, devotion and life on the ocean, all set to sunshine melodies and the rhythm of the waves.—Wyndham Wyeth

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13. David Wax Museum
Hometown: Boston, Mass.
Members: David Wax and Suz Slezak
Album: Everything Is Saved
For Fans Of: Calexico, The Low Anthem, Devotchka

It’s with that same sort of relentless mentality that David Wax Museum approaches its live craft. In 2010 alone, David Wax and Suz Slezak played over 200 shows, welcoming everything from house parties to major music festivals. As rigorous as their touring schedule was, the members of David Wax Museum flourished as performers as the result of playing night in and night out. “I think that really helped us hone our live show,” Wax admits. “It really helped us come into our own as a live band.”

While the Boston-based folk duo recorded a good portion of its latest record Everything Is Saved in early 2010, David Wax and Suz Slezak spent much of the year testing and tweaking their songs in front of their audiences. As a result, their record exudes a sense of confidence stemming from a lengthy process of musical trial and error, blending a seamless mix of Mexican and American folk into the group’s triumphant sound. Wax’s immersion in Mexican folk music jumps out at first listen. After traveling to Mexico through a fellowship to study son mexicano, he absorbed the informal musical teaching process through learning by ear and playing along with others. Although David Wax Museum technically can be considered a duo, David Wax Museum has performed with over 10 people at a time, mirroring the sonic swells innate within the band’s songs.—Max Blau

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12. Of Monsters and Men
Hometown: Reykjavik, Iceland
Members: Ragnar þórhallsson (acoustic guitar, vocals), Árni Guðjónsson (accordion, keys), Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (acoustic guitar, vocals), Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson (drums), Kristján Páll Kristjánsson (bass), Brynjar Leifsson (electric guitar)
Album: My Head Is An Animal
For Fans Of: Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, The xx

It all began back in 2010, when Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir decided to add more members to her then-solo project. With three more members, Of Monsters and Men entered last year’s The Icelandic Music Experiments: Músiktilraunir, a nationwide “battle of the bands” competition. Hilmarsdóttir and her new bandmates won over the audience—and the judges—with their catchy number “Little Talks,” and went on to win the entire competition.

After Músiktilraunir, the folk-pop quartet decided to expand its sound by adding two more members. Of Monsters and Men then began playing at venues around Iceland, taking over Iceland’s airwaves with “Little Talks” and earning a strong fan-base. Over the past year, the band has expanded its fanbase worldwide—its Facebook page shows requests to play gigs from the United States to England to Australia thanks to the YouTube video for the band’s single “Little Talks,” which has received over 180,000 views. The feedback, the group says, is part of what keeps them performing. “We like talking to people that like our music, we like hearing from them,” says þórhallsson. “We love making music for them.”—Caitlin Peterkin

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11. WU LYF
Hometown: Manchester, England
Band Members: Evans Kati, Thomas David Francis McClung, Ellery James Roberts, Joseph Louis Harlan Manning
Album: Go Tell Fire To the Mountain
For Fans Of: My Morning Jacket, Muse, Sigur Rós

For all the start-up bands out there trying to chase down a record deal or get a talent scout to one of their gigs, the four lads in WU LYF have been doing the opposite. When their song “Heavy Pop” showed up on the blog Gorilla vs. Bear at the end of 2009, there was little information to accompany it. As the buzz built, they ducked and dodged it, declining all interview requests and releasing a band photo showing a group of unidentified people in balaclavas. When labels came calling, they charged £50 for a copy of their demo, while charging fans a single quid to get into shows. And according to NME, they “told one legendary scout, ‘We’re on at 11 p.m. Don’t be late.’ He arrived at 10 to be informed they’d finished at nine.”

But for all the mischief and mystery, they’ve come out of hiding on their own terms, releasing Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. The album marries My Morning Jacket guitars with a wash of keyboards that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sigur Rós record. Punctuating it all are Roberts’ desperately barked lyrics about brotherhood, love and not selling out.

A year ago, they hadn’t played a show outside Manchester, but this past summer’s tour stops included France, Switzerland, Portugal, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the U.S. Plus, there’s another record already in the works.—Josh Jackson

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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10. Phantogram
Hometown: Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Band Members: Sarah Barthel, Josh Carter
Album: Eyelid Movies
For Fans Of: The XX, Beach House, Cocteau Twins

The general consensus is that electronic-pop duo Phantogram materialized from the ether, emerging from nowhere to produce the type of danceable tracks Salvador Dali might craft if he traded his paintbrush for a drum machine and analog synthesizer. This is nearly the truth; Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter’s “nowhere” is the obscure New York town of Saratoga Springs. The pair had no pedigree as previous members of lauded bands or grand industry connections when they wrote the songs that became 2010’s sleeper success story Eyelid Movies.

“We weren’t planning on making a debut record,” Barthel says. “Technically it was supposed to be our demo. It just caught on a lot faster than we expected.” The vocalist and keyboardist explains this with an air of disbelief in her voice while Phantogram prepares to soundcheck before their sold-out headlining show in Denver, a mere 1,800 miles from their quaint upstate New York home.

Common threads permeate Phantogram’s catalog—synthetic beats, organic guitar lines, Barthel’s angelic alto and Carter’s urgent tenor—but songs never run together. “Josh and I always want to keep things moving,” Sarah says. “We admire The Beatles, how every single song sounded different but it worked so well together. We’re always inspired and influenced by so many different artists that I don’t think we even could make all our songs sound the same,” she says.—Ryan Wasoba

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9. The Vaccines
Hometown: London
Members: Justin Young (vocals), Árni Hjörvar (bass), Freddie Cowan (guitar) and Pete Robertson (drums)
Album: What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?
For Fans Of: The Strokes, The Ramones, Interpol

Guitar rock is still alive and well in the U.K., with a new quartet of kids stirring things up in the British press every other week. This particular version hasn’t reinvented rock ’n’ roll, but they’ve sure kept it entertaining. Justin Young and Freddie Cowan started making music together about a year and a half ago, but it wasn’t until May of last year that the rhythm section came into place. A driving minute-and-a-half single “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra),” an appearance on Jools Holland and a record deal with Columbia later, and they’re poised to stir things up on this side of the pond, too.—Josh Jackson

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8. The Joy Formidable
Hometown: North Wales, U.K.
Band Members: Ritzy Bryan, Rhydian Dafydd, Matt Thomas
Album: The Big Roar
For Fans Of: Editors, Mew, Evanescence

The Big Roar couldn’t be a more aptly titled debut for The Joy Formidable. The album’s first song “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie” is such a tidal wave of crashing drums, heavy guitar and lead singer Ritzy Bryan’s harsh/soft vocals, that it’s exhausting by the time it’s over. Joy Formidable sounds like a band made for large arenas and even larger crowds. Fittingly, Foo Fighters chose them for their arena-packing tour this year, and after with their sound evoking Metric and the best of ’90s-era rock, it’s hard to imagine any stadium not left a little shaken even before Dave Grohl and co. took the stage.

The Big Roar never relents, with standout tracks like “Whirring” and the album’s perfect closer “The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade.” Bryan’s vocals and the intense instrumentation blend beautifully throughout. The album would be great to utilize more of Dafydd, possibly giving the band a bit of an The xx feel, but we can always hope for the follow-up. The Joy Formidable create a sound that is uniquely their own, but nostalgic for rock of the past. If The Joy Formidable keeps making releases like this, they’ll be headlining those same venues soon enough.—Ross Bonaime

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7. Seryn
Hometown: Denton, Texas
Band Members: Trenton Wheeler, Nathan Allen, Aaron Stoner, Chelsea Bohrer, Chris Semmelbeck
Album: This Is Where We Are
For Fans Of: Mumford & Sons, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Bruce Cockburn 

The Denton, Texas, house where singer/banjoist/accordionist Trenton Wheeler, guitarist/banjoist Nathan Allen and bassist/cellist/trumpeter Aaron Stoner live also serves as Seryn’s studio, writing and rehearsal space. As highlighted by all those slashes, everyone in the band plays multiple instruments and sings along, which has come in handy in Denton’s thriving music community, where friends often jump up on stage with one another.

“It’s still like a small town, but everyone plays music,” Allen says. “There’s so much going on, and it’s not commercialized. There’s a pizza place in town where you can just go up to the counter, grab the calendar and write your name down on a date, and you’re playing a show there that day. So, you can play in front of people, and invite your friends, and kind of have a chance to make god-awful music in front of people enough times that you start figuring out what’s not god-awful.”

Seryn’s live presence—with each member swapping instruments and all five singing choruses at the top of their lung—can best be described as “joyful,” causing Paste to name their performance the best of this year’s SXSW and their song “We Will All Be Changed” one of the Best of 2011 (So Far).

“It’s so much fun, especially in the writing process when we’re picking up everything from some piano, kalimbas to clarinets and trombones and harmonicas,” says Wheeler. “Our studio and where we rehearse, it’s kind of like a middle school band hall. It’s just got a little bit of everything from the kiddie shakers and tambourines to what you would hear in concert bands and then random things like pump organs. In our living room, we actually have a marimba, a piano, a vibraphone, and I think five organs, half of which are working.”—Josh Jackson

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6. Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside
Hometown: Portland, Ore.
Band Members: Sallie Ford, Jeff Munger, Ford Tennis, Tyler Tornfelt
Album: Dirty Radio
For Fans Of: Those Darlins, Buck Owens, The Cramps

Sallie Ford  isn’t content with the state of modern music. If this isn’t clear from the hints of Etta James and others greats who came before her, Ford comes right out and says so in the opening track of Dirty Radio. “When I turn on the radio, it all sounds the same,” she laments in the first line of “I Swear.” “What have these people done to music? I just don’t care anymore.”

Ford sounds almost exasperated with the situation as she huffs and puffs her way through the song, and her solution to this quandary seems to be to take a look through her mom’s record collection. But rather than simply imitating her diverse influences, Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside decided to take a little bit of Bessie Smith and mix it with a dash of Tom Waits. The result is a delicious goulash of rockabilly and blues with just enough punk attitude to separate Ford’s sound from all the other homage-rock bands out there.—Wyndham Wyeth

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

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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