The Head and The Heart
The Head and the Heart are a nuzzly six-piece of chill-pill kids from Seattle, who whisper and harmonize and strike anti-poseur poses when performing the ten songs on their debut set of charming alt-folk rock, a record that coincided with one of the year’s hottest record-label feeding frenzies. They trade lead vocals and shakers like true utopians, and their songs rise and fall with the ambrosial lilts that appeal to the heart if not to the head and certainly to the festival crowds across America in 2011 who were wowed by the band’s rousing sing-along sets. Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell are the two frontmen singers and acoustic strummers, but everyone’s favorite is fiddler/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen, who provides restless charisma and wholehearted backing vocals. As the post-Mumford new folk revival continues to unfold, the Head and The Heart stood out for a simple reason… They brought the best songs to the party. Steve Leftridge
While Kendrick Lamar’s name is new to most music listeners in 2011, the guy’s been rapping for nearly as long as he’s been able to form complete sentences. He signed his contract with Top Dawg Entertainment at 16 years old, severely outrapped Charles Hamilton as a crowd member in a viral YouTube video and released his own take on most of Tha Carter III‘s beats when he was still known as K. Dot. The guy’s got cosigns from artists as high up as Dr. Dre for good reason, his lyricism a deft revival of the sort of world-conscious, gangster-aware point of view West Coast scions Ice Cube and 2Pac (who Lamar dedicates ten minutes of time to at each concert) made so viscerally popular during the Golden Age. He raps like a man much wiser than his 24 years on Earth would bely, and of all the young rappers to emerge from the blogosphere in the past couple years none have equalled Lamar’s ability to speak to both his generation and generations past so comfortably. David Amidon
With two major releases in the last 14 months, and a series of rave performances at the Pitchfork festival and CMJ, 2011 was a breakout year for Nika Rosa Danilova, the artist known as Zola Jesus. Nika achieved initial recognition for a series of singles and a raw debut album that had her narrowly labeled as the poster child of a Goth revival. While drawing comparisons with the likes of Kate Bush, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Cocteau Twins, Nika seemed poised for a major impact: a track like “I Can’t Stand” with her plaintive vocals, pulsating strings, and precision percussion, all against an atmospheric background demonstrated her potential to cross genres, integrating elements of classical, experimental and industrial music.
With the release of Conatus in Oct 2011, on the heels of the full length album Stridulum II in the fall of 2010, Nika deserves recognition as one of the top emerging artists of the year, realizing her potential through the release of one of the most unique works of the year. While her earlier work hinted at her ability to draw upon disparate styles, on Conatus, Nika achieves her full potential, combining soaring vocals, industrial beats, and a sense of foreboding to forge a unique musical blend. Nika’s musical vision is a function of the splendid isolation that comes with being raised in the town of Merrill, located in a remote rural area of North-Central Wisconsin, studies in philosophy and classical music training that has her poised to expand the narrow boundaries of the indie singer-songwriter genre. Zola Jesus is an artist to watch: rare is it for an artist to demonstrate so much growth over a short period of time, particularly in light of her prodigious output over the last 12 to 18 months. With her track record of collaboration, Nika is poised to have a deep impact on electronic indie pop. Dennis Shin
Corin Roddick and Megan James are from the future. They, many years from now, built a time machine, packed up some (then vintage) synths, and came back to the year 2011 (Because what other year would they have possibly chosen? Don’t think about it too much.) It’s the only explanation. They’ve taken familiar touchstones—the Knife, decades of IDM, the much maligned witchhouse movement—and woven them into something fresh and singular. Together, as Purity Ring, the duo makes woozy, slightly insidious electro-pop, all manipulated vocals and steel-tipped hooks. James has a girlish, innocent voice, all the better to deliver lines about drilling holes in eyelids and haunted beds. Roddick plays to James’s strengths, shifting and looping her vocals, layering them on top of his stuttering beats until they become another instrument, part-human and part-machine. So far, Purity Ring has released only three tracks. 2012 will see, with any luck, a full album. Fingers crossed. Corey Beasley
An invariable part of music is the trend. Every year it seems there is some sort of new trend that brings forth all sorts of new artists. In 2011, one of these trends was that of “chillwave”, a term that, despite my disdain at its usage, is somewhat telling of the artists that fall under its nomenclature (Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Neon Indian). The beauty of Warm Ghost, and their debut record Narrows, is that they don’t sound like they’re trying to fall into a trend. Instead, Narrows sounds like the product of two artists (Paul Duncan and Oliver Chapoy) who know how to take a highly permutable instrument like a synthesizer and make music both emotionally resonant and deeply haunting. 2011 saw two great releases from the band (the EP Uncut Diamond and Narrows), both of which establish them as something much greater than just another artist following a trend. Warm Ghost’s sound, while not unfamiliar, is entirely their own, and it’s a sound that stood out distinctly amongst all the great music of 2011. Brice Ezell