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The Top 20 Indie Picks Of ACL 2012

posted October 11, 2012, 1:12 pm by Ben Oliver | Filed Under Editorial, Festivals, General Interest, Live Show Reviews, Music News, Video | comment 2 Comments

Tags: ACL 2012, Austin City Limits Fest, ACL, Austin City Limits, Crystal Castles, Tegan & Sara, The War On Drugs, Austin City Limits Festival, Alabama Shakes, The Civil Wars


Who doesn’t love a music festival, right?  It’s all the best parts of a concert–music, friends, alcohol and drugs…just lots and lots more of them!  Each year, more and more of them are popping up all over the place.  As you probably already know, one of the most popular fests each year is Austin City Limits. And it has to be one of the most incredible line ups this year–hell, maybe even one of the best ever!  We’re talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy & The Stooges, Florence+The Machine, M83, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, The Avett Brothers, Childish Gambino, The Black Keys, and countless others! Is it just us, or does 2012 seem like the year that each fest is trying to out do and top each other?

The larger indie music sites always publish guides which present a good summary to the impressive bill, but who doesn’t already know about most of these celebrity performers?  Of course most attending will certainly want to see The War On Drugs, Crystal Castles, The Civil Wars, Tegan & Sara, Alabama Shakes, Gotye, and The Afghan Whigs. But for each of these, there are a ton of massively talented, vastly underrated artists like Gary Clark Jr., Andrew Bird, and The Weeknd,

Anyone who has ever been or considered going to experience a massive event like this knows what it feels like when looking towards the bottom of the schedule. It can almost feel like reading a foreign language, seeing bands listed that you have never heard of.  That’s where we come in to help.  Live music festivals are still, despite all the advanced technology of 2012, one of the best methods of discovering new music. We are intending this to be a primer for armchair quarterback fans like us.  We aren’t providing first hand coverage, but are watching the live stream coverage on YouTube like many of you.  These are some artists already turning up everywhere this year, and others we expect to follow them very soon. The list includes everything from pop to hip-hop to EDM to folk. So in our best and on going effort to cover the best in indie music, we present our Top 20 Indie Picks Of ACL 2012. The list is not presented in any logical or sequential order whatsoever:

1.  Bombay Bicycle Club

The band members have never wasted much time. Frontman Jack Steadman, guitarist Jamie MacColl (grandson of folk legend Ewan, nephew of the late Kirsty), bassist Ed Nash and drummer Suren de Saram formed the band at school in north London in 2006. They won a competition to play at that year’s V festival, released two EPs the next year and wrote their debut album, I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose, while still at school. It came out in 2009 and went gold.

This is where most new bands would take a year or so to regroup and plot their next move. Instead, Bombay Bicycle Club took a left-turn with 2010’s folk-influenced Flaws, which included covers of Joanna Newsom and John Martyn. Their label was initially reluctant to release a second album so soon, and an acoustic one at that, but Flaws grazed the top 10. Currently touring with Vacationer as opening support, the band also released A Different Kind Of Fix in 2011.

For fans of: Vacationer, Friendly Fires, Mumford & Sons, Two Door Cinema Club, Tokyo Police Club

2.  Kishi Bashi

Having collaborated and toured with indie strangelings of Montreal, Regina Spektor, and Sondre Lerche, singer, violinist, and composer, K Ishibashi (aka Kishi Bashi), embarks on a epic orchestral solo project. His solo live show is a dazzling array of looping and vocal/violin gymnastics. K is also singer of the NYC synth rock band Jupiter One.

A lush array of looping and vocal/violin gymnastics… Kishi Bashi’s debut full-length, 151a, is a bright and soaring avant-pop record written primarily on violin – Kishi Bashi’s main instrument which has brought him to record and tour with the likes of Regina Spector, Sondre Lerche, Alexi Murdoch, of Montreal and more.

Kishi Bashi collaborated with of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes on that band’s new album, Paralytic Stalks. This last endeavor he credits with some of his most recent musical growth, acknowledging that Barnes pushed him to new heights of creativity, forcing him to explore a broader use of his primary instrument: the violin. This experimentation affected his loop-based live show and led to him write more of the new record with violin rather than piano or guitar, loosening him from the grip of habit and expanding his palette. Kishi Bashi uses Japanese singing as another of many layers, doing so without any trace of gimmickry, and achieving what, to Western ears, must sound like an expression of the ineffable.

From the deconstructed doo-wop of “Wonder Woman, Wonder Me,” a 21st century transmission of Smile-era Brian Wilson to the menacing marriage of Eastern hues and Western operatics in “Beat the Bright out of Me,” this album is a mediation between opposing drives, offering possible reconciliation but never promising it. Kishi Bashi played and produced 151a entirely himself.

For fans of: Purity Ring, Wild Child, Reptar, Lower Dens, Vactationer

3.  Kimbra

Heard of her?

Maybe you know her from her hit singles Cameo Lover, Good Intent and Two Way Street, or you’re one of the many voters that helped put all three in the ranks of Triple J’s Hottest 100 – the world’s biggest music poll. Maybe you’re one of the 12,000,000+ total views of her stylish videos on YouTube. Or the fact that she won the ARIA for 2011 Best Female Artist. Perhaps you better recognise her from her duet with Gotyé on the world-conquering Somebody That I Used To Know, a chart-topping hit in 11 countries world-wide, and No. 1 for 8 weeks on the Australian singles chart. The name may ring a bell from any one of her electric live shows, including performances at Splendour In The Grass, Big Day Out, Meredith, Parklife and a sold-out national headline tour, with forthcoming shows including Groovin’ The Moo.

The point is: if you don’t know Kimbra by now, then you’re in an ever-diminishing minority.

But the story goes further back. Spending her early years gigging around her native New Zealand, it was only once Kimbra borrowed a small eight-track recorder from her school’s musical department that her songwriting blossomed in earnest. After agree furious period of creativity, including the inklings that would become her debut album, she was discovered by manager Mark Richardson of OutPost Management at the tender age of 17, who enabled her to relocate to Melbourne to follow her musical career. She’s been carving her own path ever since.

Kimbra’s debut record Vows, three and-a-half years in the making, charts not only her growth and development musically over this time, but personally as well. Recorded and arranged both at home and across various studios, it presents her unique worldview on life and love. Even at twenty-one years of age, Kimbra already possesses the maturity and musical sophistication of the mavericks she is so often compared to – from vocal legends Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley, to radicals the likes of Prince, and contemporary artists such as Björk and Janelle Monaé.

Vows was self-produced and with the refined skills of Francois Tetaz (Bertie Blackman, Gotye); whose focus on imagery taught her to treat the album like a film and Australian Urban export M-Phazes (Amerie, Pharoahe Monch) If Vows is a film then, what is it about?

A smoky romance one scene, a film noir the next – Vows is a genre-defying, an eclectic journey of joyful triumph and a darker introspection. A dazzling, colourful soundtrack to travel its conceptual groove through a mix of styles. Migrating confidently from triumphant neo-pop built on stacked harmonies and joyful hooks, to moodier, reflective moments that showcase her sophisticated vocals. Upon release, Vows swiftly achieved critical and commercial success. Debuting at No. 3 in Kimbra’s native New Zealand (Gold Status), and at No. 5 in the Australian album charts and soon attained Platinum status within three weeks of release. Subsequently, Vows has been shortlisted for the AMP Awards.

Having signed an international deal with Warner Music, Kimbra, complemented by her band of funky virtuosos, is now set to take on the States. With a slew of SXSW showcase gigs; touring the nation in support of Gotyé, with further dates confirmed with Foster The People she’s preparing to unleash Vows to the USA this May. She’s making in-roads with the country’s most eclectic production and writing talent, whose combined CV’s mirror Kimbra’s own multifaceted influences. Co-writing with soul star John Legend, recording with iconic producer Mike Elizondo (Dr Dre, Fiona Apple) as well as working with Greg Kurstin (The Bird and The Bee, The Flaming Lips, Foster The People) plus Mark Foster & A-Trak and Keefus Green (Mike Patton, Mini Mansions). Kimbra is rapidly establishing herself both locally and internationally as a significant talent. A fresh, exciting creative spirit in today’s music industry.

For fans of: Gardens & Villa, Young The Giant, Civil Wars, Walk The Moon, Little Dragon

4.  Big K.R.I.T.

Imagine Kanye West being born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi. Now imagine him being produced by Organized Noize. That imagery would create music almost identical to the Crooked Letter state’s next hip-hop heavyweight, Big K.R.I.T. (“king remembered in time”). The 24-year-old rapper slash producer defied the odds of both his personal life and hip-hop’s current landscape to be the most in-demand and respected rookie on the Cinematic Music Group/Def Jam Records roster.

Now, the rap game has received a breath of country fresh air: an artist that insists on remaining an individual and feeding his growing audience with feel-good rhythms and “rhymes with morals.” Big K.R.I.T. is in fact The Truth. Within a month of acquiring his deal he was not only critically acclaimed and courted for interviews by media giants like XXL, The Source, Rapradar.com and MTV.com, he gained fans in his own peer group– from buzzing newbies (Wiz Khalifa, Currensy and Smoke Dza) to living legends (Ludacris, Bun B). Today whether it’s hip-hop lovers in the skyscraping offices of Def Jam or those in the small town of Meridian, Miss., they’re all feeling the synergy being churned by the birth of rap’s next royalty. So until Mr. King Remembered In Time releases his 2011 Def Jam debut all hip-hop can do is witness a reign on the rise.

For fans of: El-P, Kendrick Lamar, Ludacris, Dom Kennedy, Jay Rock

5.  POLICA

POLIÇA began as a collaboration between fellow Gayngs’ members Channy Casselle and Ryan Olson in June of 2011. By July they had completed 11 songs, made the key additions of drummers Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson, bass player Chris Bierdan, and headed into the studio. After Mike Noyce (Bon Iver) lent his voice on Lay Your Cards Out and Wandering Star, the record was brought to Austin, TX to be mixed with Jim Eno (Spoon). In a few days, the LP was completed and the band Poliça was formed. On stage, the original beats composed by Olson play amongst Channy’s passionate vocals & an intense rhythm section, that lead to a description somewhere in the area of electro-r&b goth-pop.

Born out of the break-up of a recent relationship, the majority of Give You The Ghost reflects the difficulty of facing up to your mistakes and making peace with them; an exorcism via exciting new musical possibilities. “The recurring theme of this record is ‘what in the hell just happened and who in the hell am I anyways’” says Channy. This redemptive mood is key for the track ‘Dark Star’, released online late last year amidst a viral whirlwind. Backed by smooth brass breakdowns throughout and mid-tempo loping rhythms, it’s typical of Poliça’s often meditative content fused with the addictive refrain “Ain’t a man who can pull me down from my Dark Star”.

First sashaying single proper ‘Lay Your Cards Out’ and the dreamy ‘Wandering Star’ both feature Mike Noyce of Bon Iver on vocals and are equally as deliciously funk laden as they are hypnotic, with more ratatat drums from Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson, propelling the lush arrangements and slinky bass, provided by Chris Bierden.

The name Poliça refers to the word ‘policy’, meaning a definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency, suggesting they were formed out of necessity. Which is exactly how this album feels and sounds; urgent, original and genre defying, Poliça are absolutely essential in 2012.

For fans of: Frankie Rose, Sharon Van Etten, We Are Augustines, Twin Shadow, Blood Orange

6.  Moon Duo

Formed in San Francisco in 2009 by Wooden Shijps guitarist Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada, Moon Duo’s first two critically acclaimed EPs, Killing Time (2009) and Escape (2010), fused the futuristic pylon hum and transistor reverb of Suicide or Silver Apples with the heat-haze fuzz of American rock ‘n’ roll to create tracks of blistering, 12-cylinder space rock.

Their debut album Mazes, recorded in San Francisco and mixed in Berlin during 2010 as the band prepared to move to the mountains of Colorado, explores a far broader, lighter, sound. That’s most clear on the dreamy organ and skipping riff of the title track, which recalls the Velvet Underground, or the handclaps and swinging organ bloops over the potent shredding and guttural riff delivered by Johnson in When You Cut. Throughout, Mazes is the sound of Moon Duo carving out their own identity, looking to the horizon, and moving forward.

Late 2011 saw the release of the darker, mostly instrumental Horror Tour EP around the band’s fall tour of Eastern Europe; Record Store Day 2012 brought a limited edition LP Mazes Remixed which featured remixes by the likes of Sonic Boom, Psychic Ills, and Purling Hiss. Now Moon Duo are set to release Circles, their second full-length LP with Souterrain Transmissions. The band will also set off on a worldwide tour in support of the album in October and November.

Circles is the product of a long winter’s isolation in the Rocky Mountains, though the road to its fruition stretched over six months and several locations. The groundwork for the album was laid at the band’s home in Blue River, Colorado in the early months of 2012, where all songs were written, and the preliminary tracks recorded. For two weeks in early April, Moon Duo moved into a small apartment above Lucky Cat Recordings in San Francisco for an additional recording session with engineer Phil Manley (Trans Am, Life Coach). Like its predecessor, the album was mixed and tweaked at Kaiku Studios in Berlin.

Inspiration for many of the songs themes, as well as the title Circles, came from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay by the same name, on the symbol and nature of “the flying Perfect.” From the opening lines: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” And so it goes. Rust never sleeps.

For fans of: Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, Peaking Lights, Woods, Dirty Beaches

7.  Freelance Whales

To call them multi-instrumentalists might be a little overdone.  The kids in Freelance Whales are really just collectors, at heart. They don’t really fancy buffalo nickels or Victorian furniture, but over the past two years, they’ve been collecting instruments, ghost stories, and dream-logs.  Somehow, from this strange compost heap of little sounds and quiet thoughts, songs started to rise up like steam from the ground.

The first performance of these songs took place in January of 2009, in Staten Island’s abandoned farm colony, a dilapidated geriatric ward, in one of New York’s lesser visited boroughs. A seemingly never-ending jigsaw of small rooms, the farm colony ate them whole and threatened to never regurgitate them. And even though the onlookers were only spiritual presences, the group was still palpably nervous and visibly cold.  After a bit of singing, strumming and stomping asbestos, they realized that they’d found a good crowd.  They heard a bit of clapping from an adjacent room, also some laughing, but not a single soul asked about their record.

Weathervanes, the groups debut LP, finished tracking just a few nights earlier.  Swirling with organic and synthetic textures, interlocking rhythmic patterns, and light harmonic vocals, the record works to tell a simple, pre-adolescent love story: a young male falls in love with the spectral young femme who haunts his childhood home.   He chases her in his dreams but finds her to be mostly elusive.  He imagines her alive, and wonders if someday he’ll take on her responsibilities of ghosting, or if maybe he’ll join her, elsewhere.

Since their brief residency at the Farm Colony, Freelance Whales have taken to city streets, subway platforms, and stages with their swirling nostalgia.  Many people who found them playing in those public spaces, managed to forget what train they were supposed to take; some of them forgot what language they originally spoke.  And so, after playing in New York City, almost exclusively, for about a year, they embarked on their first tour of the United States, and Canada.  They saw buffalos posted on hilltops, armies of windmills, and lots of lovely people who let the music run their blood in reverse.

They are also currently the MTV Push band of the week!

For fans of: Geographer, Local Natives, Alt-J, Ra Ra Riot, Stars

8.  The Lumineers

Twenty years ago, Wesley Schultz saw the future.

Back then, growing up in the New York City suburb of Ramsey, New Jersey, Wesley spent his days drawing side by side with his best friend, Josh Fraites. Today, as bandleader of The Lumineers, Wesley’s replaced his pencil with a guitar, his drawings with songs, and plays side by side with Joshua’s younger brother Jeremiah. He still practices a lot, and it still turns out good.

But The Lumineers’ story didn’t come so easily.

It begins in 2002, the year Jeremiah’s brother, Josh, died from a drug overdose at 19. Amidst the loss and grief, Wes and Jer found solace in music, writing songs and playing gigs around New York. After battling the city’s cutthroat music scene and impossibly high cost of living, the two decided to expand their horizons. They packed everything they owned—nothing more than a couple suitcases of clothes and a trailer full of musical instruments—and headed for Denver, Colorado. It was less a pilgrimage than act of stubborn hopefulness.

The first thing they did in Denver was place a Craigslist ad for a cellist, and the first person to respond was Neyla Pekarek, a classically trained Denver native. As a trio, they began playing at the Meadowlark, a gritty basement club where the city’s most talented songwriters gathered every Tuesday for an open mic and dollar PBRs. Neyla softened Wes and Jer’s rough edges while expanding her skills to mandolin and piano. And so The Lumineers sound took shape; an amalgam of heart-swelling stomp-and-clap acoustic rock, classic pop, and front-porch folk.

In 2011, an eponymous, self-recorded EP led to a self-booked tour, and before long The Lumineers started attracting devout fans, first across the Western US, then back in their old East Coast stamping grounds. Young, old and in-between, they’re drawn by songs like “Ho Hey” and “Stubborn Love,” Americana-inflected barnburners in the vein of the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. They’re drawn by songs like “Slow it Down” and “Dead Sea,” slow, sultry ballads that suggest the raw revelations of Jeff Buckley and Ryan Adams. They’re drawn by the live Lumineers experience—a coming-together in musical solidarity against isolation, adversity, and despair.

The roots revival of the last few years has primed listeners for a new generation of rustic, heart-on-the-sleeve music—the kind that nods to tradition while setting off into uncharted territory. The Lumineers walk that line with an unerring gift for timeless melodies and soul-stirring lyrics. It will all be on display soon, on the band’s first full-length album, due April 3rd via Dualtone Records.

Born out of sorrow, powered by passion, ripened by hard work, The Lumineers have found their sound when the world needs it most.

For fans of: Grouplove, Kopecky Family Band, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, The Avett Brothers, Imagine Dragons

9.  Caveman

Caveman was born in New York in January of 2010, when a group of friends decided it was time to put aside their boyhood ways and start being men. The sound they crafted in that large, dark room is equal parts chamber pop, dreamscape, and horror film score. At a Caveman show you will hear four-part harmonies, spaced-out guitars, synths, and, yes, much drumming. This has been a gallant year for the band, as since their first birthday they have shared the stage with bands such as Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, White Rabbits, Here We Go Magic, Cursive, Amazing Baby, and Blue Oyster Cult. They recently went into the Loveboat studio with Nick Stumpf (French Kicks) to commit their songs to record.

For fans of: Here We Go Magic, Kishi bashi, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Yellow Ostrich, Widowspeak

 

10.  The Whigs

With their new album Enjoy The Company, The Whigs have created a raucous ode to rock and roll. From the opening track, an exhilarating eight-minute mission statement called “Staying Alive,” the record offers a powerful sonic rendering of a band opening up to the depth of their past and kicking open the doors to their future. But most of all, this is the undeniably established sound of a band affirming their legacy in the American rock and roll paradigm.

While The Whigs recorded their second record Mission Control at famed Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood and their third release In The Dark in Athens, the making of Enjoy The Company was a dramatically different affair. This time the group sought the guidance of veteran producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr, Son Volt, Sonic Youth) and the solitude of Dreamland Studios housed in a historic church in rural Woodstock, New York. “We went out there to record without any distractions,” bassist Timothy Deaux explains. “There were no girlfriends there, no bars to go out to. It was just us and the music. Our last album focused on some pretty dark themes and with this one I think there’s a newfound sense of optimism and purpose. We didn’t make a sugary record, but I think we are honestly feeling good about the band and our lives and it comes across in the sound.”

As a result, The Whigs latest features ten tracks of pure celebratory rock and roll fueled by the rhythms of the road, the classic albums that inspired them and nights spent together on stage. “When we’re out there driving from show to show, that’s my favorite time to get new song ideas,” Gispert says. “And the tracks we eventually picked for the album are the ones that we love playing live.”

The song “Gospel” mines a joyous guitar hook for a timeless FM radio feel while another track “Rock And Roll Forever” is a spirited hard riffing love letter to the power of primal rock. And after opening with the impassioned declaration of resilience in “Staying Alive,” the record perfectly bookends with an equally ardent proclamation entitled “Ours.” The song begins with reflective vocals over a lone guitar. Then, like some lost track from a beloved vinyl classic, the music builds, drums exploding accompanied by a volley of power chords. “That song was written about a child whose parents were teaching him how to share,” Gispert explains. “It’s not mine or yours, but ours. Our band, our music – it’s open to anybody.”

For fans of: The Features, Dead Confederate, Drive-By Truckers, Delta Spirit, Diamond Rugs

11.  Gardens & Villa

In the year of the saxophone, Santa Barbara’s Gardens & Villa give us the flute. And along the way, G&V effectively wipe clear the vaseline from the murky bedroom funk of recent days. G&V bang out instant classics — each crystal clear and immaculate, but no less sweeping or languid. Their debut is a youthful exploration of just how opulent and pop starkness can go. It also leaves an impression of California in the way that Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series or the pool party scene from The Graduate both do, always sensed more than stated outright.

Gardens & Villa channel all the taut pop precisions of 90s Britpop of bands like Blur (borrowed from the 60s anyhow), and send it through an 80s synth filter both undeniably coastal and modern. It’s Spoon’s Kill The Moonlight lost in a daydream, but with that same hungry energy. Gardens & Villa may simultaneously pull from Gary Numan, The Kinks and odder prog within one composition. And like a fine sweet tea, it’s made just that right kind of sugary — though even the most upbeat tunes have an undercurrent of the bittersweet and the lost at heart.

In 2010, Gardens & Villa traveled to Oregon to record their debut with visionary, vibemaster and labelmate Richard Swift. Together, they put some sand in the sheets of new wave (“Black Hills”) and pop some translucent funk (“Orange Blossom”). There’s also a level of effortless class maintained across the whole set. Each and every lush little gem explores the wonderful mystery between intuition and proficiency, between tension and repose.

For fans of: White Arrows, Oberhofer, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foster the People, Other Lives

12.  Wild Child

Indie-folk pop band from Austin, Texas, began as an acoustic duo consisting of Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins singing ukulele love songs written and shared over red wine and old photographs. With northern U.S. parks and fields as their backdrop and a tour van as their practice studio, Kelsey and Alexander formed their first ten songs, flawlessly documenting the ups and downs of a less than idealistic yet enchanting romance. Wild Child has evolved since then into a six-piece band, accenting the soulful vocals and folk-influenced instrumentation with lush strings, keys, bells, banjo and percussion.

Wild Child began recording their full-length album, “Pillow Talk,” in November 2010 with San Francisco producers Evan Magers and Alex Peterson. In the midst of the recording process, and in anticipation of their SXSW debut, Wild Child added drummer Carey McGraw, cellist Sadie Wolfe, keyboardist Evan Magers, bassist Christ D’Annunzio and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Mares to inject their own unique influences and playing styles into the mix.

Mastered by Grammy-winning engineer Erik Wofford, Wild Child’s debut album, “Pillow Talk,” features 15 tracks comprised of gorgeous harmonies, tempered rhythms and conflicted lyrics about love and loss. Ranging from the dazed and nostalgic “Silly Things” to the waltzy and wishful “I’ll Figure You Out,” the songs tell a rich tale of inconvenient matters of the heart with an irreverent, playful innocence that wanders in and out of reality and fantasy. From the somber and sweet “Darling Divine” to the rambunctiously infectious “Cocaine Hurricane,” the chemistry between Kelsey and Alexander is palpable and unique—seemingly sweet and young, ironic and honest atop a truly frenzied and unruly underneath.

For fans of: Kishi Bashi, Seryn, Mount Moriah, Yuna, St. Lucia

13.  The Features

Since releasing The Beginning EP in 2003, the Nashville-based combo The Features have established themselves as one of the most exciting and imaginative bands working today. Falling somewhere in the middle between mainstream and hipster their new album, Wilderness, demonstrates a spirit of musical adventure that continues to define and motivate.

For fans of: The Whigs, Heartless Bastards,  Portugal.The Man, Sleeper Agent, Pujol

14.  Zola Jesus

In the last three years Nika Roza Danilova has gone from being an outsider experimental teenage noise-maker to a full fledged internationally celebrated electronic pop musician. It was a huge feat to accomplish, and despite her age (young), her geography (mid-western, desolate), her accelerated scholastic requirements (high school and college were completed in three years each) and her diminutive physical size (4”11, 90 lbs) she has triumphed. She has emerged as a figurehead—a self-produced, self-designed, self-taught independent woman.

Zola Jesus is not a singer; she is a musician. Zola Jesus is not a band; it is a solo project. That is not to say the people who have helped her along the way were not deeply important. Her irreplaceable live band, who’s drummer Nick Johnson lends a hand on several tracks here, and her friend Brian Foote who co-produced this album in addition to the live string players (Sean McCann, Ryan York) who contribute here were all crucial in the process. Nika however, is a woman who can command a room, any room, without needing a band, a stage, or even a microphone. Her voice is unmistakable; it cuts right to the core.

Conatus is a huge leap forward in production, instrumentation and song structure. It says it all in the definition of the title: the will to keep on, to move forward. From thumping ballads to electronic glitch, no sound goes unexplored on her new record. It is an icy exploration in refined chaos and controlled madness, an effort to break through capability and access a sonic world that crumbles as it shines.

For fans of: Grimes, Perfume Genius, Chelsea Wolfe, Active Child, Esben and the Witch

15.  A-Trak

No longer is it a crime to mash a hip-hop acappella into a techno track. In this arena, A-Trak, aka Alain Macklovitch, leads the pack. The 27 year-old Montreal native rides the line between hip-hop and electronic beats in a refreshing hybrid of everything ass-shaking.” (BPM Magazine, issue 86)

Very few DJs can jump from club sets to high-profile festival performances, to Kanye West’s larger-than-life stadium shows with ease. In today’s DJ culture, A-Trak holds a truly unique place. He and partner Nick Catchdubs founded America’s most trendsetting new label, Fool’s Gold, launching the careers of artists such as Kid Sister and Kid Cudi. Fool’s Gold’s mission to merge all aspects of club music was already outlined in Trizzy’s original mix tape manifesto, Dirty South Dance (2007), which set the tone for his own production.

He is now one of the most sought-after remixers in electronic music, and his remixes for the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Boys Noize have become undeniable mainstays in DJ sets the world over. 2009 saw the release of two critically acclaimed DJ mixes, Infinity +1 and Fabriclive 45, as well as the birth of Duck Sauce, his collaboration with Armand Van Helden. The duo’s radio smash “aNYway” cemented itself as the dance anthem of the year, A-Trak’s first true chart-topper with two videos in international rotation and across-the-board support from Pete Tong to Busy P, David Guetta to 2manydjs. Not bad for a kid whom many viewed as a 90’s turntablism prodigy. Indeed, Alain’s career began at age 15 when he won the 1997 DMC World Championships and proceeded to take home every other DJ title known to man. He then toured the globe, first alongside Q-Bert’s Invisibl Skratch Piklz and then with Craze and the Allies. In 2004, he was handpicked by Kanye to be his tour DJ. A near decade of youthful meanderings was captured on his acclaimed DVD Sunglasses Is A Must.

Somewhere along the line, A-Trak also became a streetwear culture icon, collaborating with Nike, New Era, Kidrobot, Zoo York and pretty much every designer worth his salt. And all the while, his brother morphed into the lead singing lothario in the acclaimed electro-pop sensation Chromeo. The last couple of years have seen Trizzy headlining tours and festival stages the world over. Add to that scratching on Common’s classic Be, Kanye’s Late Registration and Graduation, and Kid Cudi’s Man On The Moon, as well as producing Kid Sister’s debut album Ultraviolet, songs with Lupe Fiasco, and original releases with Stones Throw and Kitsune.

After years of schlepping vinyl, accumulating air miles and dressing smart, A-Trak has finally become the man to call to make the kids dance. Ask him and he’ll tell you that this is the moment he’s been waiting for his whole career.

For fans of: Kimbra, Caspa, Diplo, Major Lazer, The Hood Internet

16.  The Black Lips

Arabia Mountain, the sixth studio album and fourth Vice Records release by the Black Lips, finds the hell-raising Atlanta quartet digging deep into the roots of their exposed-nerve sound and simultaneously exploring surprising new possibilities in their music – or as one of their new songs puts it, “lookin’ in a new direction.” Singer-guitarist Cole Alexander explains, “We tried to do what we do best, and keep it raw, but we also opened up to working with a producer and experimenting with new sounds. We tried to keep doing what we’re doing, while expanding and growing at the same time.”

The Lips – Alexander, singer-bassist Jared Swilley, singer-guitarist Ian St. Pé, and singer-drummer Joe Bradley – had never collaborated with a producer before embarking on their current album. This time, however, the band set out to work with one of the producers on their short list: Mark Ronson, the English producer known for both his sharply-honed solo albums Version and Record Collection and his production work for the likes of Sean Paul, Nas, Adele, Kaiser Chiefs, Duran Duran, Lily Allen, and most notably U.K. soul-pop diva Amy Winehouse’s international breakthrough Back to Black.

“When that came out, we thought, for mainstream pop, this has a cool retro sensibility that we appreciate,” Cole says. “We knew he had the potential to get an older sound. We’re not purists who just want to sound old, but there are certain recording techniques that were used a long time ago that sound really good, and can be used in today’s context. We felt he understood that.”

While the Lips have by no means turned their backs on the storming punk and garage-rock that is the core of their confrontational style, working with Ronson allowed them to work at a more relaxed pace and refine their song-oriented side. “We’ve gone in and done a whole album in a week,” Cole says. “After our last album, we plateaued with that approach. We decided to spend a lot of time and actually work on this record. It ended up taking a year and a half, which is the longest we’ve ever spent. We had some good pop songs in the past, but they got buried in the swampy production. Beefing up the production made a difference. It was a little outside the box for us, and a little outside Mark’s box as well.”

Although the majority of Arabia Mountain was cut with Ronson at MetroSonic Recording Studios in Brooklyn, two songs, “Go Out and Get It” and “Bicentennial Man,” were recorded by Lockett Pundt of Deerhunter in Atlanta. Cole says, “We did those two songs on four-track cassette, and that’s old-school Black Lips – that’s how we first started recording. I just really like cassette sounds. It’s really compact and punchy.”

Arabia Mountain careens through a typically wild catalog of subject matter: touring the Dali Museum, high (“Modern Art”), backwards masking and double suicide (“Mad Dog”), the superhero as molestation victim (“Spidey’s Curse”), the joys and perils of uncooked food (“Raw Meat”), the saga of the Atlanta Braves’ team mascot (“Noc-A-Homa”). “We went further with this record than we ever did in the past,” Cole says. “If you listen to the lyrics to some songs, they’re a little deeper, I think.”

While straight-ahead revved-up rock is not in short supply, the new collection pushes the band’s stylistic boundaries. “Family Tree” found its musical inspiration in a Bolivian folk tune heard on a compilation produced by the eclectic Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital. “Dumpster Dive” is a full-on plunge into Rolling Stones-style country. And “Don’t Mess My Baby” uses tribal drumming to convert a song that began life as Bobby Fuller-styled pop-rockabilly into something approaching South African township jive.

For fans of: Jay Reatard, Bass Drum Of Death, Thee Oh Sees, Moon Duo, Vivian Girls

17.  The Wombats

Within the butterfly-breaking cogs of the music industry, big numbers can bring big problems. And The Wombats’ numbers got big, fast. A platinum album with their 2007 debut ‘Guide To Love, Loss And Desperation’. Over 300,000 combined sales of their indie dancefloor smashes ‘Kill The Director’, ‘Let’s Dance To Joy Division’ (winner of the 2008 NME Award for Best Dancefloor Filler), ‘Backfire At The Disco’ and ‘Moving To New York’. A two year tour during which Liverpool’s biggest exports in a decade played to well over a million people, culminating in a massive homecoming Liverpool Arena show for 10,000 ecstatic local fans of their dark yet exuberant and infectious alt.pop.

“It was such a good way to round it off,” says drummer Dan Haggis. “We had a two day party after that. Obviously you can’t help but go ‘bloody hell, remember a couple of years ago in Liverpool, we’d be lucky if we sold out the Academy downstairs to 500 people. How did we get to this?’”

Big numbers, big gigs, but for a band with the intense work ethic of The Wombats (lest we forget, in the build-up to their breakthrough hit ‘Kill The Director’ in 2007 they played 50 tiny pub and club shows around the UK in almost as many days) they took their toll. Having continued their breakneck schedule for eighteen months solid, they came off a mammoth US tour in 2008 “pretty broken… physically and mentally.”

“We did a couple of months too long,” says Dan. “I had problems with my arms so every night going up onstage hurt, so it wasn’t really that enjoyable. I had a gig where I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I sat on the drums at Glasgow and you start feeling guilty because you think you should be having the best night of your life but I didn’t know why I was there.”

Over the summer of 2008, between festival dates, two more singles were recorded – the stop-gap classic ‘My Circuitboard City’ and their sardonic (anti-)Christmas song ‘Is This Christmas?’ before singer Matthew ‘Murph’ Murphy sat down to begin writing new material for album two. But in his new home in London, Murph found the loneliness, dislocation and routine of being off the road and writing in a big city difficult to cope with. He’d simply become too accustomed to the adulation of the stage.

“My downfall was I got used to it,” he admits, “and then when it all stopped it was a bit of a reality bite-back and I had to level myself out. It was my general unhappiness of not being on the road and being in a new city.”

“Every night for a couple of years to have always been on your way somewhere,” adds Dan, “always about to do a gig or an interview or whatever, always people interested in talking to you about music. Then suddenly stopping and not doing gigs and not having the adrenalin rush every night, it’s like hitting a brick wall.”

The few gigs that the band did play occasionally ended in near-death experiences. On his way home from a show in Skegness, Murph almost flipped his car on an icy motorway but emerged miraculously unscathed (the incident inspired a new song called ‘Motorphobia’). And during a trip to Dubai to play Liverpool Sound City, Dan had his own four-wheeled run-in with the reaper.

“It was fun but me and my girlfriend almost had a pretty serious accident,” he says. “We went dune buggy racing with no insurance, no anything. They just went ‘have you done this before?’ and we went ‘no, not really’ and they went ‘great! Put this on!’. We stuck this helmet on and went off over these dunes having a great time and ended up going too fast over one of them and basically coming off and crashing quite badly.”

With so much alienation and vehicular trauma around, it’s perhaps no wonder the first batch of songs Murph wrote in London in February 2009 were delivered to the record label and met with some concern. Lyrically they were the bleakest tracks Murph had ever written (he doesn’t expand on their subject matter) and musically they were heavier than heaven and louder than war.

“The initial thought was to do things relatively far away from what you’d be known for or what your comfort zone is,” he says, “which is maybe a good thing, but the first batch of songs that the label heard, they were like ‘who the hell is this?’”

Bassist Tord Øverland-Knudsen chips in. “They were much grungier. More like the 90s grungy thing, for those first four songs. We needed to get the energy back, make heavier music.”

Or, more accurately, Murph needed to get his Merseyside Mojo back. “I went back to my mum and dad’s house to recapture whatever former glory was once there. It was kind of miserable being locked away in a room for eight hours every day with just a little lampshade and piano. You kind of go round the bend, there was no reality to draw from. So I had to go up to Liverpool and get back to getting slaughtered and doing recreational things in order to find anything to draw on.”

Back in Liverpool, The Wombats Mk 2 instantly clicked. They plumped for a synthier sound, Murph’s keyboard often replacing the lead guitar, and the tunes poured forth in ever more innovative and colourful guises. Tracks such as ‘Perfect Disease’ (a working title, as they all are at present) took on the sonorous disco moods of Depeche Mode and Echo & The Bunnymen, lashed to The Killers’ arena pop sensibilities. One of the album’s “curveballs” ‘Fog’ came out sounding like nothing more than The Horrors covering Queen. Often only their intense catchiness marked these songs out as traditionally ‘Wombats’ at all: no matter where the sonics strayed, the tunes were always glint-in-the-sunlight perfect – better even than the dancefloor killers of their first chart onslaught.

“I felt like I was rebelling against what we were as a band,” Murph explains. “Somehow we’ve come back round and amalgamated bits of that into the newer stuff and it’ll hopefully make it better. There are elements that are so different from what people will think. There’s songs that are akin to the first album but it feels like we’ve escalated. I’m 100 per cent certain that some of the songs on this album are the best we’ve ever put out.”

First single ‘Tokyo (Vampires And Wolves)’ certainly fits that category – an instant radio hit that’s so insanely catchy it’s impossible not to spin again the second it’s finished. An ode to the Neon City? “It’s just a bit angsty,” says Murph. “The new album hasn’t got anything to do with touring, it just represents escapism and wanting to run away.”

This new batch of songs finds Murph’s lyrics developing a depth and personal confessional slant that’s rare in modern song-writing: take the blunt and startling theme of ‘Anti-D’ for starters, in which Murph likens himself to an anti-depressant. But fans of his more story-based writing will find much to enjoy in the synth-rock, disco-destroying brilliance of ‘I Never Knew I Was A Techno Fan’ – the tune where ‘Mr Brightside’ chats up La Roux in a drug-swamped Hoxton dive bar. Key line: “I’m in debt to you/But don’t feed me plant food”.

“That’s more of a story,” Murph says. “I went to a minimal techno rave in Shoreditch with my girlfriend. It was dirty, I didn’t stay there for long. I’ve never seen a longer queue for the toilets in my life. People had their hands up going ‘I actually need a wee’ and everyone in the queue would go ‘go on then’.”

The album has been recorded through 2010 over three sessions with three separate producers, all in LA – first U2 and REM producer Jacknife Lee brought his precise technological nous to ‘Anti-D’, then Eric Valentine helped them put together ‘Tokyo (Vampires And Wolves)’ and ‘Techno Fan’. And as we write they’re preparing to return to LA with Muse knob-twiddler Rich Costey to complete a record that will shock, impress and spin opinion on this most uncompromising of 21st Century pop bands.

“You take the electro and you take the grunge and you put it together with what we used to do on the first album,” says Tord, “then that’s what the album’s going to be.”

Dan nods, a sparkle in his eye. “It’s gonna be a whirlwind adventure.”

For fans of: Band of Skulls, Static Jacks, Two Door Cinema Club, Bombay Bicycle Club, Vampire Weekend

18.  Dry The River

“I think people are surprised when they come to see us live.” says Peter Liddle, heavily tattooed frontman of London’s Dry the River. “They expect us to be really calm and quiet but in some ways we’re the opposite.”

You can see why people get confused: this five-piece band has all the hallmarks of the latest folk sensation: elemental name, beards, acoustic guitars, even a violinist. But what sets Dry the River apart is a background in hardcore and post-punk bands, hence the tattoos, lyrics that read like a Steinbeck novel and a sonic palette that sweeps from gentle to giant like an incoming storm.

“Emo has become a term of derision, but originally it meant emotive hardcore – all these DC bands like Indian Summer, Rites of Spring, Antioch Arrow who wanted to move away from political music to express personal things in an intense and energetic way. They screamed and cried in their sets and more often than not sounded like an amplified food blender,” says Liddle. “But the underlying idea is cool: although it’s important to play with passion, I believe that there should be an emotional underpinning to all music and all performance.”

Dry the River’s origins lie with Liddle. Born in Norway to British parents, his early life was a shifting one thanks to his father’s work as an engineer in the oil industry. Ever-changing homes and schools gave Liddle a peculiar set of reference points: “I think I have a fixation with community and belonging, because that wasn’t something I had as a child.” And though his parents are only “quietly religious,” Liddle became fascinated by the iconography and language of the Roman Catholic Church at one of his many primary schools, where his voice was honed in the school choir. Though he’s not overtly religious, religious symbolism creeps into Dry the River’s lyrics, not least in Bible Belt and Shaker Hymns. “I think if you play with King James’ vocabulary it accesses a solemnity; something deep within people,” says the Leonard Cohen inspired singer. “It sets a tone that says this is some serious [ketchup].”

By the time Liddle returned to Newbury as a teenager, he and the various members of Dry the River – guitarist Matthew Taylor and violinist Will Harvey, plus Scott Miller (bass) and Jon Warren (drums) – were crossing paths in various bands on the DIY scene centred around Southampton, Reading and Newbury’s Waterside Youth Centre. “It was this cool, grimy little venue,” says the singer. “You could rehearse there, and they always put on local bands alongside touring artists, which really helped cultivate the scene. It meant you could sell out a decent venue with your 16 year old punk band.”

University took Liddle first to Bristol, where he studied anthropology, and then to London’s Kings College, where he enrolled in medical school.

“I don’t know if I wanted to save lives in a hands-on way,” he muses. “I saw myself more as a lab doctor than a people doctor. You know, spending a lot of time in a white coat looking down a microscope. I think in some ways I also wanted to look illness and mortality in the eye, to see how things like human dissection would affect me.”

Throughout his first degree, music had been a major distraction: “I was off touring with bands while I was writing my anthropology dissertation,” he says. “I would do stupid things like take three weeks off uni and not tell the lecturers.” At medical school, with ten years of band experience behind him, he resolved to put music on the back burner and focus on his studies. But in spite of his best efforts, the acoustic guitar in the corner was calling. Liddle started writing folky material in his hall of residence room and, on summer break, called on those old friends from the Reading scene – by now all living in London – to record them. “Initially the emphasis was on it being something distinct from our old bands – really gentle and lo-fi,” says Liddle. “Every time Jon tried to rock out I’d say, No, no, keep it stripped back.”

Following that session, Liddle embarked on a summer 2009 solo tour under the Dry the River name. On returning, he assembled the full band for a debut show at London’s Lexington, and found it was well attended by label A&R. Soon after, Liddle stopped telling the band to hold back. “When we started to do live shows, we found it felt wrong to restrain ourselves. Playing in a heavier way brought the songs a fresh intensity – it was more fun for us and for the crowd.”

In the ensuing months, the band’s snowballing success was to medicine’s detriment. On signing to Transgressive publishing, the band were able to quit their jobs and studies. “We went on tour straight after and went absolutely wild for six months,” says Taylor. “We just partied the whole [ketchup] time.” They clocked up some miles too, playing across Europe, the UK and even the Outer Hebrides.

When not on tour, the five were living together in a house in Stratford, East London, in what can be described as near-medieval living conditions. “Pete sleeps on a mattress on the dining room floor,” says Taylor. “You have to climb over his head to get to the toilet in the night.” For at least one band member, it’s an improvement on what came before: “When Jonny was in hardcore bands he couch surfed for three years,” says Taylor. “It’s pretty normal behaviour on that scene.” The close living conditions and hard touring have fostered an impossibly tight bond between the band. “We know each other well enough to tell when people are actually pissed off,” says Taylor. “I guess in that respect it’s like living with four brothers – we rip it out of each other relentlessly, but we know when to leave each other alone.”

In March 2011, the band traveled to Bridgeport, Connecticut to record their debut album with producer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol), a man whose professional ethos was a perfect match. “We were looking for someone who could strike a balance between lo-fi and hi-fi,” says Liddle. “We wanted to record the bulk of it to tape, to use analogue stuff in favour of computer wizardry where possible, but without it sounding like an old folk record. I think we tried to preserve the fragility and honesty of the more stripped down tracks, but still get the intensity of the live show across too – to marry those two aspects of our music without it sounding incongruous.” In downtime, they played shows in New York, growing a grassroots following there with each passing week.

Back in Britain, the band’s progress remained rapid – videos of off-the-cuff acoustic performances became internet smashes, EPs sold out and festival bookings began to come in. In March 2011, they stormed South By South West, despite performing without a drummer for five of the six gigs due to visa troubles. “We decided we’d still use our amps and still be loud – we just played as if Jonny was there. For a couple of shows we put some drums on stage and kind of hit them when we could.”

In September 2011, the band sold out London’s Scala a clear five months before their debut album hits the shelves. When it does, the band hope their particular musical heritage and circuitous journey will shine through. “I’d be pleased if people felt that it’s not just another indie folk record,” says Liddle. “I think we’ve agonised over every note of it. It has some hooks and big melodies but it’s contemplative and considered too.”

Dry the River have laid the groundwork for a stellar year in 2012. Don’t call them the next great folk band. Just call them the next great band, full stop.

For fans of: We Are Augustines, Boy & Bear, Other Lives, Strand Of Oaks, Fleet Foxes

19.  Alt J

The quartet, Alt-J, first entered our consciousness with their debut release of ‘Bloodflood’ / ‘Tessellate’ in October 2011. Released on 7” via Loud & Quiet, it sparked a wave of interest in their brilliantly unique and compelling sound.

Radio support came through almost instantly from Radio 1’s Huw Stephens, Zane Lowe and Nick Grimshaw while the BBC Introducing team didn’t hesitate to get them booked in for a live session, which was broadcast on both Huw Stephens’ and Steve Lamaq’s shows. More recently they were selected to perform as part of Radio 1’s Festive Festival to showcase new, exciting acts for 2012 alongside Emeli Sande, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosuars, Jakwob, Dot Rotten and others. Previous artists to be given the same accolade have included Katy B, The Vaccines, Wretch 32, Plan B, Mumford & Sons, The xx, Florence & The Machine and Chase & Status.

Now signed to Infectious Music for their debut album (due May), next up for Alt-J is the release of two tracks that are sure to cement the early love shown to boys whilst also drawing in a wealth of new fans and supporters for 2012. ‘Matilda’ is a beautifully penned ode that gets under your skin and refuses to leave while ‘Fitz Pleasure’ brings out the raw, inspiringly inventive side of the bands music. Two impactful pieces that illustrate the spectrum of their influences and forward thinking approach to music for the year ahead, both polished off with Joe’s brilliantly distinctive vocals.

For fans of: Grouplove, Django Django, Friends, Polica, Yeasayer

20.  Band Of Skulls

Band of Skulls will release their highly anticipated second album Sweet Sour on February 21, 2012 via their own label, Electric Blues Records under exclusive license in the U.S. to Vagrant Records in partnership with Shangri-La Music. Sweet Sour is the follow-up to their debut album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey which was universally embraced by the U.S. media with early supporters at Entertainment Weekly naming them “Your Next Favorite Band.”

Following the success of Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, the band retreated to a studio in Norfolk UK to begin writing Sweet Sour. They returned to their home studio in Southampton to start the recording which they completed in Wales at Rockfield Studios. Sweet Sour was produced by Ian Davenport (Supergrass, Badly Drawn Boy) and mixed by Nick Launay (Grinderman, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire). Please see below for the complete Sweet Sour tracklisting.

On March 13th the band returns to Austin, TX on the first night of the SXSW Music Festival with a show at Antone’s to kick off their first U.S. tour in support of Sweet Sour. The band’s live show has been a constant highlight at previous festivals by the likes of SPIN (Best of Coachella) and Rolling Stone (Best of SXSW) amongst many others.

This past summer the band play the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee as well as two sold-out shows in Los Angeles and two sold-out shows in New York City. Nylon Guys was front and center at the first sold-out NYC gig and weighed in on the new album “based on the new tracks they played at Mercury Lounge last week, the Skulls want to show the alt-kids how real music should sound.” Please see below for complete tour itinerary.

In December, the band will release the first U.S. single ‘Sweet Sour’ off of the new album which will be available as a download at iTunes and other digital download stores. Fans can click here for a first look and listen of a track from the new album ‘The Devil Takes Care Of His Own.’ The band created the unique kung-fu themed video to accompany this first listen from Sweet Sour.

Band Of Skulls music continues to be scooped up by the licensing community and is currently being used in both the new Hugo Boss commercial and in the upcoming trailer for the 2012 film, 21 Jump Street and currently in The Hangover Part II.

Band Of Skulls are: Russell Marsden (guitar & vocals), Emma Richardson (bass & vocals) & Matt Hayward (drums)

For fans of: We Are Augustines, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Kills, Sleigh Bells,  Funeral Party

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2 Responses to “The Top 20 Indie Picks Of ACL 2012”

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    The Top 20 Indie Picks Of ACL 2012 | Music Emissions – Indie Music

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    The Top 20 Indie Picks Of ACL 2012 | Music Emissions – Indie Music

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