Every October there’s one week of crazy madness in New York City as a thousand or so bands and a couple thousand music fans and tastemakers descend on Brooklyn and the East Village like a veritable swarm of locusts to separate the wheat from the chaff, to wheedle out the musicians that have a solid chance of becoming the next big thing. The College Music Journal’s Music Marathon, which you probably know as just CMJ, is an absolute whirlwind of running espresso-fueled around New York to seek out your favorite new artists in crowded, dark clubs – it’s more than worth it though, as you end up coming away with a mental arsenal of bands with overabounding potential. I was lucky enough to see 25 bands this year, established acts and new upstarts alike, and now I can’t get out of my bed, but it was totally worth it.
These five artists were the cream of the crop:
I have been on the most crippling Deerhunter kick for the past year (it’s sometimes a struggle for me to listen to anything else), so it’s no surprise that watching Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox play as his solo project Atlas Sound in the lobby of the beautiful Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan was the highlight of my CMJ. The fact that I was sitting on the floor right in front of the monitors probably elevated the experience some, but watching Cox burn through a forty-minute set of new material from Parallax, which will drop November 8, armed with just an acoustic guitar and a bunch of pedals, was totally hypnotizing and completely mind-blowing. I was really happy to see him perform “Flagstaff,” the official first single from the record, a really creepy and beautiful song – it was completely mesmerizing to watch Cox craft it from nothing.
Atlas Sound - "Flagstaff" (mp3)
Denver’s Gauntlet Hair deliver bright scuzzy guitar and big bass drumbeats that are totally irresistible on their recent self-titled release (one of my favorite records of 2011), but live their intense, infectious energy blew me away. You can’t really call their recorded songs “restrained,” but they certainly are compared to the whirlwind dual-guitar onslaught of their live show, which somehow manages to stay tight, probably thanks to the fact that Gauntlet Hair’s frontman and drummer have been playing music together since they were fifteen. The crowd at Shea Stadium, where I saw the band deliver one of the best sets I’ve seen this year, demanded more songs even as the band went over their allotted set time. It’s easy to compare the nervous energy of the quartet’s stop-start, rhythm-obsessed songs (not to mention Andy Rauworth’s often-unhinged voice) to that of Oberhofer, but Gauntlet Hair’s taste for epic amounts of reverb and some electronic percussive elements differentiate them. Check out “Top Bunk,” one of he best tracks from their debut LP.
Gauntlet Hair - "Top Bunk" (mp3)
Florida’s Jacuzzi Boys played around two AM at the show of theirs I caught, in a sweaty warehouse decorated with strange but awesome graffiti art and lots of Christmas lights, to a fairly drunken crowd who lapped up their tight, hyper-danceable surf-inspired lo-fi and hilarious stage banter with relish – the entire room was dancing, all the way to the back (yours truly included). Even if you’re sitting sober at your computer the three-piece’s songs are irresistible – the title track from their new record Glazin’ is a punk love song of the highest caliber that’ll likely wind up being the catchiest thing you hear all day.
Jacuzzi Boys - "Glazin'" (mp3)
Balkans are an incredibly promising and very young quartet from Atlanta who allege to have a bad reputation in their hometown for setting off fireworks on stage. Their live shows have calmed down a little with age – they’re all practically old men at 21 by now – but their songs have a kind of jittery energy that shows no signs of going anywhere. Their self-titled debut is like the Strokes’ Is This It updated to 2011, if that band had recruited the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser circa Bows + Arrows to wail in his whiskey-drunk Ernest Hemingway way over all that spiraling bright guitar. It helps that Balkans have a drummer named Stanley Vergilis who can tear up his kit with enough double bass to make most metal drummers jealous, and that their frontman Frankie Broyles’ voice is limber enough to go from yelping jarringly about isolation to leading his band along with a cold and supple monotone that’s always mixed just below his and Brett Miller’s intertwined, forceful guitars, so as not to distract from that effortless, stunning complexity. Though Broyles claimed to be losing his voice when I caught their show at Manhattan’s Cake Shop, the only ostensible difference I could hear was that he yelped his way through super-intense slow-jammed versions of songs like “Georganne” and “Edita V” a little quieter. Balkans’ first record came out in May and it’s self-titled and awesome. “Let You Have It” is their current single, give it a listen.
Balkans - "Let You Have It" (mp3)
Grimes’ Claire Boucher was plagued by sound issues during her set at Shea Stadium, but when she was on, she was on, jamming her way through a set of mostly new material (presumably stuff that’ll appear on her forthcoming LP Visions) with naught but a DIY plyboard table covered in samplers, a keyboard, some backup dancers, and her own elastic falsetto – the latter sweet in a hypnotizing, spell-casting kind of way, even when she couldn’t hear herself sing. The highlight of her set was probably its as-yet-untitled last song, but opener “Oblivion” was predictably awesome.
Grimes - "Oblivion" (mp3)
It's also worth giving a listen or two to these up-and-coming acts.
Young Prisms: Reverb-heavy boy-girl San Francisco quintet churning out languid, guitar-driven shoegaze. Their newest release is the LP Friends for Now on Kanine. "Staying Awake" (mp3)
Pujol: Nashville garage-punk three-piece with endless guitar hooks. Their brief LP Nasty, Brutish, and Short is out now. "Mayday" (mp3)
Vacationer: Tropical-inflected, electro-influenced, bass-heavy chillwave. They've been steadily releasing tracks on the internet, but there's no album news yet. "Gone"
Acid Baby Jesus: The Greek Black Lips. They have a self-titled LP out now. "Hospitals"
Colleen Green: Boston-area Best Coast. Her Green One EP is out now. "Rabid Love"