The 20 Best New Bands of 2012

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Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.

We had a great time digging through all the different nominees for Best New Band sent in by all our writers. Turns out it was a fertile year up north for new music. Four of the 20 bands on our list hail from Canada. They were joined by bands from the cold climates of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, Stockholm and Edinburgh. And while Brooklyn still proves to be a fertile ground for indie rock, only one New York act made our list—equaling towns like Charleston, S.C., and Richmond, Va.

Our criteria “new” simply means “new to us,” a band or solo act we haven’t covered in any significant way prior to 2012. We eliminated established artists with new bands (sorry, Divine Fits) or new names (sorry, Father John Misty). Some of these acts blew up big enough this year that you probably couldn’t avoid hearing them. But unless you spent all your time this year hunting for the next great band, there should be plenty for you to discover among our 20 favorites. Let us know what bands you fell in love with this year in the comments section below.

20. Poliça
Hometown: Minneapolis
Album: Give You the Ghost
For Fans Of: Frankie Rose, The XX 
The Minnesotan quartet’s debut combines hip-hop and R&B beats with Channy Leaneagh’s vocals—always saturated in Auto-Tune and atmospheric delay—creating one of the best crossover records of the year so far. The band, in existence officially for less than a year, originated from a couple now-defunct projects. Frontwoman Leaneagh co-founded and played in folk duo Roma di Luna from 2006-2011 while Poliça’s producer, beat-maker and musical contributor Ryan Olson served as the spark behind the indie super-collective, Gayngs. ‘The band started pretty much from friendships,” Leaneagh says. “I was on tour with [Olson] for Gayngs and we just decided we would try working on some stuff together in between tours and then he brought the other guys on. We were all in the Minneapolis music scene. He knew them well and thought they would be perfect for the project and we’d get along well.”

The groove they’ve achieved is not only apparent on Poliça’s 11-track debut, Give Up the Ghost, but a critical element of their live sets. Songs seem as comfortable seeping out of hipster enclaves as they would in sweaty clubs. “Violent Games” grinds in urgency as Leaneagh repeatedly wails. But even with such diverse influences as Aaliyah, Missy Elliot, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and “way too much Bryan McKnight,” Leaneagh adds with a laugh, the root of Poliça remains in the group’s artful, deeply personal songwriting. “I’m still writing folk songs in Poliça, too—the same kind of traditional topics that people have been writing about since the beginning of time: love lost and love found, heartbreak and finding strength through singing about those things. Like when you sing the blues to kind of lighten your load, lighten your soul.”
Hilary Saunders

19. Django Django
Hometown: Edinburgh, Scotland
Album: Django Django
For Fans Of: Spoon, The Who, Of Montreal 
Any description of Django Django’s music or review of their self-titled debut album, which was released in the U.S. in October, is sure to include the word “psychedelic.” The label is appropriate, considering the album’s expansiveness, its warbling, reverberating effects and the wide spectrum of imagery it evokes. To call them a “psychedelic rock band,” however, at least according to songwriter, producer and drummer Dave Maclean, is nearly tantamount to a slap in the face. “We’re into film and art and ideas being the catalyst for what people call psychedelia, but we’re not sitting around looking at lava lamps,” he explains. “It’s not what we do. To me, acid house and techno are more psychedelic because they have a repetitive, trance-y build. I don’t think there’s such a thing as psychedelic rock, and if there is, it’s a bit tired and cliched. I think we’re just into ideas, symbolism and dreams and painting, all those things that make up escapism.”

The band learned to cultivate such abstract ideas, which aren’t specific to any particular artistic discipline, when they met in art school in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they studied painting and architecture. After graduating in 2002, Maclean and eventual Django Django synth player Tommy Grace ran an art gallery for four years before finally getting around to the whole music thing in 2007, when a pair of songs Maclean put on MySpace ended up receiving a little more attention than he had anticipated. People called for a 7” and people called for live shows, so Maclean rounded up his old classmates and obliged his new fans. Despite the sense that Maclean prefers a more clinical approach to song composition, pasting together scraps of sound in a darkened bedroom, over the seemingly more organic process of getting together with bandmates, jamming and seeing what emerges as a result, Django Django is a remarkably cohesive album.—Ryan Bort

18. Mac Demarco
Hometown: Montreal, Canada
Album: 2
For Fans Of: Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, Ty Segall
The prolific Mac Demarco is many things—sleazy crooner, goofy prankster, world-weary troubadour—often all at the same time. The bedroom psych-pop musician, previously known for his cassette-issued work as Makeout Videotape, kicked off 2012 with the very catchy, very schizophrenic Rock and Roll Night Club EP, which jumps from glammy love songs to rockabilly jams to spoken-word faux radio show announcements with zero regard for the listeners’ expectations. With such a playful irony-loving approach and deader-than-deadpan vocals, It was hard to tell where he’d go next.

That’s probably why his second record of 2012, the aptly named 2, came as such a surprise. Demarco took a turn for the unexpectedly real, with songs that get to life at its dullest—life where the only solace from boredom, sadness, suburban ennui lie in your favorite brand of cigarettes (“Ode to Victory”) and your favorite kind of women “My Kind of Woman”). Standout “Cooking Up Something Good” is a tale of dad making drugs in the basement that is so brilliantly disguised as a pop song that it’s destined to appear on Breaking Bad. Entertainment rarely make summons bleakness that compellingly consumable.—Jessica Gentile

17. Danny Brown
Hometown:   Detroit  
Album: Radio
For Fans Of:   OutKast, A-Trak
On the day Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s little sister was born, his older cousin introduced him to LL Cool J’s debut, Radio. “We went to the basement and it was on vinyl and shit,” Brown reflects. “We pulled it out on vinyl and we just listened to it in its entirety and I think that’s when I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do…I think I was like trying to rap to myself hearing that right then.”

The 31-year-old Brown might not be as discovered as some of his younger, radio-embracing peers. But he’s got something better going for him than that, starting with a time-tested voice and some one-of-a-kind, ghetto-flamboyant style (he’s maybe the only person you’ve seen wearing hybrid Adidas hi-top cowboy boots). That voice, though. It’s unlike anything in mainstream hip hop—a sort of high-pitched squawk capable of channeling hilarious cracks and intimidating commands all within a few lines, a sound is now forever married to Brown’s effortless rhymes. It comes from years and years of simply being a fan of all music and studying how it’s done: “I was just listening cause I didn’t really understand how to make a song. I had to listen to songs to understand sixteen bars and hooks. And my hooks sucked at first. The vocals had just started to get a little more extreme.”—Tyler Kane

16. King Tuff
Hometown: Brattleboro, Vt.
Album: King Tuff
For Fans Of: Surfer Blood, Yuck
“There’s nothin’ better than alone and stoned,” Kyle Thomas sings on the second song of his self-titled sophomore album. “Listenin’ to music on your headphones,” he continues the line, and it might as well be the modus operandi of his Sub Pop debut as King Tuff. Used to be, the man with a penchant for glammed-out, lo-fi pop perfection played his should-be hits for a select few; now, Thomas has a legit producer and a much-bigger set of songs to show for his efforts. The results, especially when they give equal time to his natural charm and knob-twiddler Bobby Harlow’s clearly natural talent (“Keep On Movin’”), are nothing short of spectacular.

Moreover, there’s a sense of wing-spreading throughout this record, which is no small feat for the ADD-afflicted Thomas, who moonlights in a myriad of bands, from the also-Sub-Pop-affilliated Happy Birthday, to the folk-influenced Feathers and the metal-by-way-of-J-Mascis’-drumming Witch. On King Tuff, anthemic, Weezer-esque rock (“Bad Thing”) happily cohabitates with rollicking country jams (“Baby Just Break”) as if all these styles should just hang out on the regular. Thing is, the world would be a whole lot better if they did.—Austin L. Ray

15. Purity Ring
Hometown: Toronto, Canada
Album: Shrines
For Fans Of: Zola Jesus, JJ
Purity Ring could not have found a more perfect label home than 4AD, where their weird-but-accessible take on darkly accented beauty is a perfect fit. And the sounds on Shrines are definitely dark. Despite vocalist Megan James’ breathy, near-angelic singing voice (which is occasionally autotuned to within an inch of being creepy), she’s often singing about some decidedly un-pretty things. (“Fineshrine” has a chorus that’s about getting your ribcage cracked open and your heart poked, while other tracks reference dead flesh left on hillsides, ghosts and other assorted good times.)

Taken on its own, James’ vocal performance would be disarming, but when coupled with production partner Corin Roddick’s tracks—which evince the mad-scientist kineticism of a gifted and weird kid who’s just been exposed to the possibilities of electronic music, but not given the rulebook—the total impact is impressive. Roddick never seems able to finish a full bar’s worth of beats, with crescendos and clicks distracting him at every turn, yet somehow coalescing each track’s deep, full-bodied rhythms into something vital and complete.—Jason Ferguson

14. Vintage Trouble
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: The Bomb Shelter Sessions
For Fans Of: Alabama Shakes, Otis Redding, James Brown 
It feels a little odd to be declaring a band who’s already opened for Bon Jovi, had their music featured in a Honda commercial, delivered high-profile late-night TV performances and cultivated an army of fans in Europe (who refer to themselves as the “Troublemakers”) as “new.” The Los Angeles soul quartet’s debut album, The Bomb Shelter Sessions, came out stateside in 2012, but it’d already been out for over a year across the pond—a conscious choice on the band’s part. “It’s the dream, you know?,” says frontman Ty Taylor. ‘You think about like Tracy Chapman, Terence Trent [D’Arby], Jimi Hendrix and all the people who went to England first, and as a kid you say to yourself, ‘I’d like that to happen.’ So we had the opportunity.”

Watching Taylor perform, it’s easy to see how they took advantage of it. The charismatic frontman knows how to work a crowd, twirling mic stands and spinning across the stage with sweaty, rock ‘n’ roll intensity one moment before dialing it back for a soulful ballad the next.—Bonnie Stiernberg

13. Rayland Baxter
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
Album: Feathers & Fishhooks
For Fans Of: The Shins, Fruit Bats
With an impressive musical lineage in his veins courtesy of his father, multi-instrumentalist Bucky, Rayland Baxter may have been destined for a career playing music long before he knew it. However, in the relatively short amount of time it has been since Baxter realized his life’s true calling, the singer-songwriter has managed to cultivate his own niche within the scope of today’s vast landscape of acoustic-strumming folk meditators aiming for profound yet often landing on severely flat and repetitive.

What immediately becomes apparent in Baxter’s music is the ease at which the music and words flow from the start to finish of each track. Mirroring his personality, Baxter is intent on observing the beauty in simplicity through his music, which is understated and altogether refreshing. With an open-hearted approach to songwriting and the intent on reminding us all of the reasons it is great to be alive, Rayland Baxter is a welcomed addition to the ever-depressive amounts of media forced upon us on a daily level. On the track, “The Mtn Song,” Baxter confesses, “love is all I have to give,” which we can all undoubtedly assure him is more than enough. —Brian Tremml

12. Kishi Bashi
Hometown: Norfolk, Va.
Album: 151a
For Fans Of: Sigur Rós, Andrew Bird 
Kishi Bashi managed the paradoxical task of being the most ubiquitous, yet anonymous, musician of 2012. You might not have heard of songwriter/ multi-instrumentalist K (Kaoru) Ishibashi, but you’ve surely heard his music—his spritely tunes have been used in commercials for Windows 8, Sony and American Express this year alone. You might also know him as the touring violinist for Of Montreal and Regina Spector among other indie luminaries.

Bursting with vibrancy, his debut full-length 151a is rich with gorgeous, layered chamber pop of the highest order (check out “Bright Whites” for the most immediate proof). His violin playing alone is downright mesmerizing, ripe with plucking and looping, a bit like Owen Pallett, dramatic vocals and all. These songs are accessible yet intricate. There’s an occasional electronic flourish here, a Japanese lyric there and endless other idiosyncratic curveballs to keep your ears on their toes. But no matter the song, there’s a boundless creativity, energy and romanticism holding the whole thing together. Album standout, the soaring “Manchester” just about says it all “I haven’t felt this in love in a long time.”—Jessica Gentile

11. Allah-Las
Hometown: Los Angeles
Album: Allah-Las
For Fans Of: The Zombies, The Kinks
It may be December, but it’s never the wrong time to pop on a fantastic surf-pop record and dream of sunnier climates. This year’s proof is in the Allah-Las’ stellar self-titled debut. Produced by Nick Waterhouse—another one of our favorite newcomers this year—the album features the kind of warm, psychedelic sounds that classic-rock enthusiasts are always trying to convince you just don’t get made anymore these days. Naysayers and nostalgists (assuming they’ve got two ears and an affinity for reverb) will have no choice but to fall in love with the Allah-Las, and if their first effort is any indication of the career that lies ahead of them, so will everyone else.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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