In addition to strong outings from reliable favorites, 2011 also saw an influx of promising new artists making bold opening statements. Here are a dozen we think you’d do well to keep your eye on in the year to come.
Nicolas Jaar's debut album, the indelibly patient and warm Space Is Only Noise, was one of 2011's best in any genre, and his presentation of its songs on-stage turned on spacey, exploratory playing by a four-piece group that managed to make live electronic music something other than a wan simulacrum. Jaar's meticulous but easy approach is all about slow, steady assembly, whether he's putting together one of his sumptuously soulful tracks or piloting a career that has already established him, at 21, as an ace producer, enterprising label head and sophisticated leader of what could well prove to be a new kind of live band. He also set up a label called Clown & Sunset and started a new duo project known as Darkside, both of which stand to expand in 2012. At the core of his abundant activity is a unique sound that borrows from house, techno, doleful jazz and textural ambient music all evoked and incorporated with a keen mind for how to keep such distinctions suggestive. Andy Battaglia
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper
Aly Spaltro, aka Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, recorded many of the songs on her album Mammoth Swoon in the basement of a Portland, Maine, video store where she used to work. It's a barebones collection of demos played mostly on electric guitar with occasional banjo, ukulele, tambourine or clapping but between her simple, lo-fi recordings, rough, soulful vocals, and disarming live shows, the now-Brooklyn-based 22-year-old has landed gigs with the likes of Beirut, Amanda Palmer and Ellie Goulding. She's currently recording her first studio album, to be released in 2012. Laura Leebove
Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz did something new in 2011: He finally took one of his Chicago ensembles on the road in November, playing Philadelphia and Baltimore, where his quintet Rolldown smoked Cuneiform Records' one-day jazz festival. Vibes can be doorbell-soft, but Adasiewicz smacks the metal bars so hard they almost leap off the malletboard. "I've been playing pretty hard these days," Adasiewicz admitted to me, "really digging into the amount of overtone madness that the vibraphone can produce." You can hear as much on debut by the slamming trio Starlicker with cornetist Rob Mazurek and Tortoise drummer John Herndon. By contrast, Adasiewicz often plays pretty on Spacer, the sophomore outing by his trio Sun Rooms; the standout "Bobbie" is all about showcasing Eric Boeren's lovely plaintive melody. In June, Adasiewicz played a spacious duo with roaring saxophonist Peter Brotzmann at NYC's Vision Fest, and they hope to tour the States in 2012, when Sun Rooms hits some European festivals, and a CD's due from Living By Lanterns, the new-stars big band Jason co-leads with drummer Mike Reed. Those vibes'll be ringing out all over. Kevin Whitehead
In 2011, former Rasputina and Antony & the Johnsons cellist Julia Kent released arguably the prettiest album of the year with Green and Grey, a mesmerizing set of solo cello and field recordings, enhanced with electronics and loops. Employing a DIY approach becoming increasingly prevalent in the industry, Kent recorded Green and Grey in a spare room in her apartment, achieving the lush harmonics, pristine acoustics, and seamless editing previously associated only with proper studio recordings. Embracing the digital music age and technology freed Kent to bypass the narrow traditional avenues of recording and allowed her the musical freedom to create an album dictated solely by her own vision, without sacrificing sound quality or the ability to reach larger markets. Already working on a new recording for a 2012 release, expect more of the compelling fusion of classical cello and found sound as she continues her self-education in home recording and expands her palette of electronics and effects experimentation. Dave Sumner
Some rappers want to bring the '80s back, but Kendrick Lamar's only reason for doing so is to put the decade on trial. Section.80's case for the prosecution is ironclad, the '87-born Compton MC pegging his 20-something peers as "the dysfunctional bastards of the Ronald Reagan era, young men that learned to do everything spiteful." His tendency to bring that kind of insight in the form of some of the year's most carefully constructed tracks has earned him co-signs from West Coast legends like Snoop and Dre. Lamar's yet another indicator, and maybe the most talented, of a self-aware generation of MCs that take their own personalized approach to the gangsta sociology of Ice Cube and Tupac. His breakout track "A.D.H.D." says it all: "Looking around and all I see is a big crowd that's product of me/ And they probably relatives, relevant for a rebel's dream." Nate Patrin
Sons of Fathers
David Beck and Paul Cauthen's pride in releasing one of 2011's more promising country/folk debuts was downgraded by the intervention of Beck Hansen's legal team, who persuaded them to change their moniker from Beck & Cauthen to Sons of Fathers the aforementioned album's title. Fortunately, nothing can take away the songwriting duo's brotherly harmonies, their band's ruckus-raising live shows, and finely-honed, geographically-inspired tunes like "Weather Balloons," "Wind Turbines," "Flatland" and "The Country." Beck, an acoustic bassist like his father, Bill Whitbeck, and Cauthen, an acoustic guitarist and jam-band escapee, hail from San Marcos and Tyler, Texas, respectively, and have been together since 2009. They currently reside in Austin where, at least for the time being, they're playing Momo's and Threadgill's on a regular basis (request "Ruthless" it's a scorcher). Expect to find the quintet further afield in 2012, however, as word of their terrific Lloyd Maines-produced album and barn-burning ways continues to spread beyond the flatlands. Richard Gehr
Classical pianist Nils Frahm's Felt was a 2011 standout release because of its stark beauty, but it was also emblematic of the challenge faced by artists trained in traditional musics who embrace modern compositions and technology. Commercial success is often derived from a categorizable sound, but Felt employs an intriguing mix of solo piano, piano-string tinkering, and experimental recording techniques and electronic effects for a sublime musical fusion not easily pigeonholed. With a diverse discography under his belt including collaborations with classical cellist Anne Muller, ambient producer Peter Broderick and indie rock ensemble Efterklang, Frahm has proven his willingness to push his sound through genre barriers while simultaneously adopting their elements. Currently working on a recording to be released in 2012, Frahm's drive to mesh the music conventions of past and present should provide listeners across the music spectrum with something to enjoy and expand his appeal to a larger stage. Dave Sumner
After 2010, a year in which dance culture was looking back more assiduously than ever, you'd think producers might hang back from it a bit. Not so if anything, the number of records that resembled Chicago circa 1987 exploded in 2011, from Steve Bug's "Jack Is Back" to The Drawing Board, the debut of Toronto veterans Jonny White and Kenny Glasgow's duo, Art Department. That album is rooted in the sepulchral slow-mo vocals of tracks like Phuture's "Your Only Friend," and nods explicitly to the freaky Chicago classic "Donnie," by the It. Yet "retro" isn't how The Drawing Board comes across, despite its obvious antecedents Glasgow's yearning pitch and the tracks' moody quality (White told me Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, and Depeche Mode were heavy inspirations) are relatable to alt-rock sadfaces as much as chic European clubbers. Book the right festivals, and let's see what happens. Michaelangelo Matos
Porcelain Raft's kaleidoscopic guitar pop feels dislodged from place and time. There's a reason for that: Its primary member, Mauro Remiddi, spent the past 27 years moving between European countries. You can hear his restlessness is apparent in the wandering narratives, dawdling percussion and meandering guitar chords that flicker throughout each of his songs with a kind of elastic dreaminess. Remiddi's songs feel both far away and familiar; his reverb-soaked croon recalls John Lennon's work in the late '60s, and his gentle drones conjure both Neon Indian and Wild Nothing. The irony? Remiddi's moody songs take just a moment to inhabit, but a lifetime to leave. Marissa G. Muller
Veteran composer/pianist Misha Mengelberg, who's picky about drummers, says, "Tyshawn is the new Max Roach." Like Max he's a multi-threat. Sorey thinks drummers lack respect as composers, hence his stereotype-bucking, composerly 2009 album Koan for an unnervingly quiet trio. The 2011 album Oblique I was more of a rollicking blowout; as drummer or composer, he unites zigzag angularity with full-throttle swing. For the explosive drummer who can lay back too, hear also Paradoxical Frog with pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. They'll have a new one in 2012, when Sorey will also premier a new piece with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in Chicago, gig with his band Oblique and the co-op trio Fieldwork, and maybe finish a multi-instrumental solo album in progress. Sorey's all about the big picture: "My work encompasses musical, spiritual and worldly aspects, and I have no interest in locking into or excluding any one of them." Kevin Whitehead
Born from the ruins of California's favorite female-fronted cut ups, Mika Miko, Jennifer and Jessie Clavin bare their feelings in three-minute bursts of saccharine guitar pop. Their experiences direct their lyrics: In the handful of singles they released in 2011, the Clavins gamble on a lover who might not feel the same, asking them to come back, after the love has faded. On "Think of You," Jennifer asks "If I tell you that I love you, will you even be there?" That she asks question in a voice that is both plainspoken and pleading vocals immediately gains empathy. Their resilience and courage inspire us to take risks and, more importantly, to believe that they'll pay off. Marissa G. Muller
Canadian duo Megan James and Corin Roddick share the aesthetic and lyrical focus of moody impressionists James Blake and Mount Kimbie, but their demeanor is, well, a little more upbeat. Though James and Roddick formed Purity Ring while they were both living in Edmonton, they composed the handful of tracks they released this year long-distance, with Roddick beaming his instrumentals from Montreal and James volleying her vocals back from Halifax. Their physical disconnect isn’t apparent on their gooey tracks though, which sustain a bass-bliss even with their tiny ghost voices and anxious lyrics. That’s because James’s sweet vocals offset her tart words, which she plucks from old diary entries about familial pressures, loss, and isolation. Offset by Roddick’s billowy production, James’ peppy vocals anchor Roddick’s synth lines and sub-bass notes, while still leaving plenty of room for silence. Marissa G. Muller
In addition to strong outings from reliable favorites, 2011 also saw an influx of promising new artists making bold opening statements. Here are a dozen we think you'd do well to keep your eye on in the year to come.