For the last several years, the prevailing wisdom about CMJ, the festival that takes place chiefly in New York and Brooklyn every October, is that it’s an event without a purpose. Currently in its 34th year, it’s long since been eclipsed by larger events — specifically, South by Southwest, which began seven years after CMJ and has since dwarfed it in size. There’s also the idea of seeing scores of bands in and around the city over the space of a week has lost its novelty. A commonly heard refrain is that CMJ is like “any other week in New York,” just slightly more chaotic and slightly less egalitarian. This year’s festival had few marquee acts, no consensus buzz band and none of the frenzied enthusiasm that typically accompanies competitors operating at twice its scale.
Ultimately, though, all of those things ended up working in its favor. A funny thing happens when a festival begins to scale down: The choices become more interesting. This year’s CMJ, which has as one of its stated purposes providing exposure to new bands, took place just days after the announcement of the closing of a third independent venue in Brooklyn meaning, at least for the time being, the city’s options for seeing young bands are becoming more limited. That fact, coupled with the increasing soullessness and chaos of SXSW (this year’s edition was particularly miserable) make CMJ seem both scrappier and more rewarding. Subtract the pressing urgency to see a hotly-tipped band, the snaking lines that turn showgoing into a trial and the boorish behavior that have come to define Austin in March, and CMJ begins to feel like it’s about something else entirely — namely, music. More than any other year in recent memory, CMJ felt refreshingly relaxed, the opportunity to simply see bands because you wanted to, not because you felt you ought to. It was the anti-SXSW, in the best possible sense.
It’s still far from perfect. This year’s lineup showed a dismaying lack of diversity, particularly when it came to hip-hop and international acts, and there were few discoveries that could be described as truly revelatory. That said, for fans of the ever-widening spectrum of what could loosely be termed “indie rock,” there was plenty to enjoy. I have no intention of returning to Austin in 2015, but am looking forward to next year’s CMJ with measured optimism. Here are the 10 best things I saw this year.
Honorable Mention: Protomartyr, America’s best contemporary rock band, excluded from my official tally only because they are, at this point, a Known Quantity. That said, they remain exceptional. Frontman Joe Casey is America’s drunk uncle, grabbing the microphone at the wedding after too many Wild Turkeys and letting everyone know what he really thinks of them.
10. Geronimo! at the Exploding in Sound showcase at Silent Barn on Saturday, October 25
The Chicago band played their next-to-last show at CMJ, drawing mostly on material from Cheap Trick, one of the year’s most underrated rock records. For a band in their final hours, they were in fine form. Their songs were ragged and relentless, powered by Kelly Johnson’s blown-voicebox hollering, guitars pitching and heaving like a mechanical bull. Early in the set they played “1000 Realities,” which spirals and convulses around the repeated mantra, “I’m just a palm tree swaying in a hurricane.” Their set matched that furious gale force.
9. Courtship Ritual at the Godmode/Driftless showcase at Babycastles on Friday, October 24
The Brooklyn band Courtship Ritual specialize in songs that feel both shadowy and just out of reach. Over the course of their riveting set, they sounded like Pylon after a Vodka Dramamine; the instrumentation was sparse and rickety, and frontwoman Monica Salazar’s moody, drifting voice perfectly suited to the duo’s ghostly songs. There were subtle elements of electronic music, post-punk and even the mellower end of goth, but the mood overall was bewitching and sublime.
8. Ultimate Painting at the Trouble in Mind Showcase at Cake Shop on Thursday, October 23
The music of U.K. group Ultimate Painting — comprised of members of Veronica Falls and Mazes — recalls both the crystalline Kiwipop of bands like the Bats and the Verlaines and the druggy, sluggish rock of the Velvet Underground. On record, that can sound beautiful but studied, but at Cake Shop they were mesmerizing, threading guitars carefully and elegantly, creating a loose latticework that supported dour, downcast vocal melodies. Their cover of the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” turned the song inside-out, making it feel trancelike and hallucinogenic.
7. Dune Rats at Glasslands on Tuesday, October 21
Australia’s Dune Rats sound like Jeff the Brotherhood covering Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight, but replacing all of the lyrics with weed references. Their set was irresistibly rambunctious: They projected sloppiness, falling all over one another, hoisting their instruments above their heads and heaving their bodies across the stage, but the songs remained impossibly tight, impish punk rock delivered with rollercoaster velocity.
6. Grass is Green at the Exploding in Sound Showcase at Silent Barn on Saturday, October 25
The effect of listening to Boston’s Grass is Green is roughly similar to lying on your back while someone drops a cinder block on your chest from 20 stories up. On Saturday, they played knotty, twisting songs with mean-eyed intensity, making their point with both volume and weight. There were elements of late-’90s math rock in the cockeyed construction of their songs, but they played with far more fury and brutality — the pummeling sound of music-as-collapsing building.
5. Negative Scanner at the Trouble in Mind showcase at Cake Shop on Thursday, October 23
Chicago’s Negative Scanner have the same potency and urgency of bands like Screaming Females and Against Me!, and seem to operate out of not merely joy, but a sense of physical necessity. Their songs rang out like sirens: Rebecca Flores has a big, bellowing voice, and it’s perfectly suited to the band’s mile-a-minute, heart-attack punk rock. She delivered each syllable as if it ended in an exclamation point, and the total impact of the band’s riotous music was like being violently shaken awake.
4. Tweens at the Brooklyn Vegan Showcase at Baby’s All Right on Friday, October 24
Tweens erupted with the heat and force of a comet, cannonballing riffs coupled with feral, furious vocals. They pull off a savvy trick, blending bar-rock sensibilities with punk’s ruthlessness and drive. Frontwoman Bridget Battle belts out big, bruising melody lines, and the band has a kind of match-to-flint urgency that makes every note feel panicked and arresting.
3. Charly Bliss at the Knitting Factory on Tuesday, October 21
Charly Bliss are Pixie Stix emptied into a Jolt can — a pulse-racing combination of sugar and adrenaline. Their set at the Knitting Factory was rapture from start to finish: Vocalist Eva Hendricks leapt and bounded across the stage, part pugilist, part double-dutch champion. Her endless enthusiasm and infectious stage presence is the group’s greatest asset. Which is to take nothing away from their songs, which are irresistible in their own right. Big, fluorescent blasts of power and melody, they exude a sense of joy and abandon and display an almost supernatural knack for pop hooks. They are, simply put, a success story waiting to happen.
2. Shamir at the Godmode/Driftless showcase at Babycastles on Friday, October 24
The 19-year-old singer Shamir took the stage flanked by two backing vocalists and a sax player and proceeded to deliver a set that paired the rocketing vibrancy of Chicago house with the razor-edged punk/dance spirit of early-’00s DFA. The result was one of the week’s most exuberant sets, a jaw-dropping display of poise and charisma accompanied by some of the year’s most joyful and propulsive dance music. Shamir has a stunning, flexible voice, and it wriggled its way effortlessly through steadily-percolating rhythms and sudden, rapturous blasts of saxophone. By the end of his set, the room had become a breathless, sweaty discotheque, bodies weaving in collective euphoria.
1. Dilly Dally at the Brooklyn Vegan showcase at Baby’s All Right on Friday, October 24
The Canadian group Dilly Dally exude a combination of nonchalance and expertly concealed nervousness. Their songs are bloody-knuckled marvels, big, hammering numbers that are grainy and gritty and yet still centered around clear and cunning pop melodies — it’s like sucking into a milkshake and getting a mouthful of sand. The reference points are all late ’90s — there are nods to Nirvana and L7 in both the charred scrap metal guitars and Katie Monks’s roaring, blown-throat vocals. Their force and power was breathtaking, the sound of a band discovering itself in real-time and reveling in the possibilities.