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Youngsters Yuck pulled off a neat trick putting themselves on the map, making their name by hearkening back to a sound first perfected around the time these early twentysomethings were born. Delivering straight-up guitar-driven punk-pop, Yuck is a throwback to the late ‘80s heyday of Dinosaur Jr. and early Superchunk, with a dash of Yo La Tengo’s indie noise tossed into the mix. On its self-titled debut, the group is reckless with its use of feedback and heavy riffs, though they’re always channeled through an intuitive sense of melody. The main reason why Yuck is so vital and vibrant, though, is that the band treats what came before it not with any bowed reverence or rose-tinted nostalgia, but with the exuberance and enthusiasm of discovering something as if it was all new—even if it’s only so for them. Arnold Pan
Shabazz Palaces—the new project from Digible Planet’s Ishmael Butler—makes a confounding noise. This is hip-hop, at least it has beats and there is rapping, but then again it totally isn’t. The music here is glitchy and disconnected, spacious and jagged at the edges. Over it, though, Butler’s flow is a throwback to the old school in the best, most versatile way possible. This combination of forward thinking and deference to tradition puts Shabazz Palaces in a fruitful musical limbo, one that the project exists in on its own. There isn’t another hip-hop record like Black Up in 2011, and even if there was it wouldn’t be as good. Butler has carved out his own innovative, dark path with Shabazz Palaces, and leaves himself plenty of room to grow. As we are exposed to more music, and become more savvy about understanding genres and their limitations, Butler comes the closest anyone has to creating a new genre. And even if we don’t know what the hell to call it, that’s an impressive feet, and one that will bear fruit for a long time to come. Matthew Fiander
As if the embodiment of a Springsteen sermon, Wild Flag delivers rock ‘n’ roll as humanist salvation. At a time when paeans to rock are often self-consciously accompanied with a wink and a reference, Wild Flag celebrates unironically the community forged between fans and artists (“Romance”), interrogates rock’s primal energy (“Boom”), and invites everyone to play along (“Electric Band”). All the while, Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole forge a sound that’s at once reminiscent of their respective, better-known projects and organically integrated. Some might quibble with this group of indie rock vets being tagged “new”, but they earn it honestly. Not content to let their considerable pedigrees carry them, the members of Wild Flag confidently blaze through their debut like eager next-big-things. David Bloom
You could have made a case for English producer-singer-pianist James Blake as one of the best new artists of 2010; he released three well-regarded EPs last year (March’s The Bells Sketch, May’s CMYK, and October’s Klavierwerke), as well as a game-changing cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” that demanded the headphone treatment for its earthshaking post-dubstep bass line. His 2011, though, was even better: February saw the release of his tremendous self-titled debut LP, which earned him a Mercury Prize nomination and legions of fans, and a month ago he dropped the Enough Thunder EP, which featured a pared-down Joni Mitchell cover and a haunting Bon Iver collaboration. That’s quite a catalog for a 23-year-old. Billy Hepfinger
While R&B music has enjoyed a recent flurry of fresh thinking and imagination, no one has been quite as sonically daring as the Weeknd. Dropping two free mixtapes (though the accomplished nature of both releases really stretches the meaning of the word) in House of Balloons and Thursday, the Toronto-based 21-year-old—real name Abel Tesfaye—built an immaculate sound utilising spooky 707 drum machines, reverb-heavy guitar licks and unobvious samples. Focusing less of melody and more on raw emotion, both records’ carry a decadent atmosphere as Tesfaye guides listeners through 18 tracks of cocaine-fuelled lust, loss and depression. That the music arrived before Tesfaye’s name or face became public knowledge only added to its mysterious nature, but his profile has been steadily on the rise since. Closing out the year in style, he took the lead on fellow Toronto-native and Young Money heavyweight Drake’s “Crew Love”, a symbol-heavy wonderland where the star is firmly resigned to supporting act on his own record as Tesfaye lowers the temperature on Drizzy’s already frosty sound. Dean Van Nguyen
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