Marques Toliver and more...
Have you ever thought that what soul music really needs is a lot more violin? If you have, then Marques Toliver is definitely what you’re looking for, and even if you haven’t, he’s likely to change your opinion on the matter as soon as you see him. We’re not talking soaring string accompaniments here either; Toliver is a classically trained musician whose sound is formed by sharp pulls of his bow and bursts of pizzicato. His perfectly smooth and soulful voice should jar with his violin playing, but in fact the unique contract works wonderfully. Toliver has actually been on the scene for a couple of years, but he recently began his ascent towards the recognition he deserves with the release of his debut EP, Butterflies Are Not Free. No plans for a full-length album have been announced as yet, but it can’t happen soon enough: here’s hoping 2012 is his year. Alan Ashton-Smith
Saxophonist Greg Ward has, so far, fashioned his fitted shards and phonic juggernaut into a delightful brand of sharp jazz. His playing is effortless but the rata-tat-tat-tat polyrhythms of his drummer Damien Reid suggest something else in the undercurrents. His bassist Joe Sanders has a bunch of tricks up his sleeve to match, making “Sectionate City” sound more like an abstract soundtrack piece spawned by synthpop. So with only two albums under his belt, where does Ward go from here? Hopefully, he’ll get weirder. His music certainly deserves it. The song forms that he plays around with and the band he has enlisted is the kind of musical combination that just begs for some flat out, wall-splattering exploration. Two albums in, Ward is keeping things restrained on his part, which is probably a wise move. But if you ask me, the thing to take him from talent-to-watch to legend-in-his-boots is to unleash his inner Tim Berne. John Garratt
The Weeknd’s brand of drugged-out, downtempo and downcast R&B may not, at first glance, seem the type of thing ready to conquer mainstream airwaves. But the climate of the genre is shifting. The undisputed king of 2011’s pop/hip-hop/R&B hybridity, Drake, is moving units and racking up fawning reviews more quickly than you can say “grandpa sweater”. And it’s Drake who many credit with breaking the Weeknd into the open, hyping Abel Tesfaye’s project on his personal Twitter feed. Later, Drake would turn in a career-highlight verse on the Weeknd’s “The Zone”. The Weeknd would return the favor by stealing the show on Drake’s “Crew Love” from this year’s Take Care. But the Weeknd shouldn’t—and won’t—be confined to Drake’s shadow. Tesfaye and his producers, Doc McKinney and Illangelo, are willing to go where Drake won’t, deeper into the moral ambiguities of a party lifestyle and deeper into the spaced-out, minimal production purveyed by Drake’s maestro, Noah “40” Shebib. The Weeknd has plans to drop a new mixtape, Echoes of Silence, before the end of the year. It would crown a meteoric 2011 for the young singer; imagine what he’ll have ready for us in the year to come. Corey Beasley
Raleigh, North Carolina’s Whatever Brains, on first listen, seems just too weird to break out. The band makes garage rock sped up to the brink of disintegration, with airy, treble-light guitars and furious drums and bleating vocals. The group’s 2011 eponymous debut, with 17 tracks at 40 minutes, is an exercise in sensory overload—punk muscle stripped down to a furious, and jarring, clattering of bones. But here’s the thing: Behind all that seeming mess, the songs are too damn good. These guys have all the eccentric charm of early Pavement, they just prefer speed-freak hysteria to slacker shuffling. In each of their brief, spasmic songs, the band drops fierce, slicing riffs over lo-fi fuzz and leaves any other garage lurking bands in the dust. This is what rock music should sound like—unraveling at the edges, too fast for its own good, ready to collapse at any moment—but it’s also a lesson in pop concision, in making the most of using a hook the least amount of times. With a new record in the works for 2012, and their late-2011 debut just starting to make waves, Whatever Brains is poised to make a big move, and the band surely deserves the attention. When that break comes, try and keep up. Matthew Fiander
It’s safe to say that White Denim’s 2011 release D is one of the most musically adventurous, versatile, and listenable albums released this year. Their combination of styles has the ability to draw fans of all ages and tastes, and their musical prowess is telling enough that they have many, many more ideas up their sleeve. Meanwhile, their live performances are even more riveting—their studio recording is just a teaser. It takes time to build a following, but White Denim is doing it. They toured the country this fall as the opening act for Manchester Orchestra and the Dear Hunter, but they packed clubs hours in advance of the headliner to play only a 30-minute set. Screams of “We came to see you!” were met with raucous applause as the quartet dove headfirst into songs both from their new record and previous ones. Anyone new to the band could be heard afterwards trying to figure out, “Who were those guys?” With their early 2012 tour opening with Wilco, it’s pretty likely you’ll know they are pretty soon, too. Jonathan Kosakow
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.