2011 is nearing it’s end, and as I prepare my “Year In Music” post I decided I wanted to make a special post to talk about my year long venture into the world of the Indies. It’s actually been longer than a year that I’ve been lightly searching through the Indie lands for new music and something a bit inspiring, this year I got more serious about it.
Last year, there were a bunch of Indie artists that I happened to hear about and fell in love with, only to later realize that while I was thinking they were New Artists, a bunch of them had a slew of Albums, Mixtapes and EP’s out already. Sick of always being so behind the curve, I was determined to keep an edge on the Indie scene and try to discover more artists on the cusp of exposure (and not when the Hipsters are already deeming them sell-outs or posers… I want to be able to call them that myself *laugh)
As far as finding new music, I use a bunch of different outlets. The most helpful have been the internet radio site LastFm whose recommendations work really well. Also popular online music site Pitchfork has a frequent number of updates and samples of music they deem worthy, and they are quite diverse in the type of music they put up. HipsterRunOff is also very helpful, although a lot of the posts are very cynical they do expose under the radar artists. And than Metacritic, just to give me an idea of what the critics are raving about. Aside from those main ones, I occasionally will check the more mainstream publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and Entertainment Weekly and occasionally they are helpful (but generally, they are as behind as me and once an artist hits their pages I normally have already heard of the act).
Honestly though, I didn’t do that great a job in my search. As the year is over, and I’m reading a bunch of other “Best of 2011” lists I see that I really didn’t even scratch the surface of the Indie scene. Of course I did find some great music, there’s a number of acts I still didn’t even listen to. And even some of the highly praised acts I read about didn’t impress me much when I listened to previews and samples of their work. If in 90 seconds I wasn’t in love with the music or at least intrigued, I moved on.
What I was left with were sounds, voices and tones that were right up my alley. And since my tastes are diverse, the Indie acts I discovered were very broad and diverse themselves. Some of the artists, like a James Blake or Jamie xx, are very forward thinking, throwing tradition out the window and making something new with their sound. And than there are some acts, like Twin Shadow or How to Dress Well, that pay respect to a sound of the past but put a slightly new spin on things.
Some acts even stick to a basic blueprint of the melodic and conceptual song structure of the mainstream, but take it to crazy new levels. Like Local Natives and Cage the Elephant (pictured to your left), who make very catchy music but make it a little more edgy and unique with surprising vocal techniques or just random instrumentation that you wouldn’t think would fit but pleasantly does just that.
So over the past year, I’ve grabbed maybe 10 or 15 really great albums with fresh new sounds that work for me. But even than, there are some drawbacks to the Indie world. Even within those albums there are complaints.
Two of the biggest issues for me are as follows, for one there are times when a number of Indie groups become indistinguishable from each other. I blame it partially on some of these groups being around the same age thus having very similar influences. But I know groups like The Morning Benders and Beach House deliver nice music but if I heard them on the radio I wouldn’t know which is which (read my review of both acts latest releases here). They both have that very melancholy ambient sound with nasally vocals. There’s also a lot of Indie Electronic groups that make good music but generally do sound in the same vein.
And outside of the same sounding groups, certain artists have very limited sounds their full albums come off as same-sounding as well. Which, brings to mind another issue that sometimes an artists EP is miles better than an full LP because they can’t create a full albums worth of great tracks, only 5 or 8 tracks. I wrote about this earlier when it came to MillionYoung (pictured to your right) whose EP “Be So True” made such a better statement than his LP “Replicants” (read the review here) which was a little too redundant. And it seems this is the same issue with Beach Fossils who I recently downloaded. The tracks from their recent EP seem to flow better than the whole of their full album (but I haven’t given them proper listening time so I’ll shut up)
The other main issue with the Indie groups is their vocals. I was raised and still prefer most times R&B and Pop, so vocal technique is something I listen for. A stellar voice isn’t necessary, just the feeling that the artist enjoys singing and tries to do unique things with their voice is important, and you don’t get a lot of that in the Indie scene. Not only is there very little flair vocally, but I’d venture to say that MOST of the Indie lead singers are very whiny and nasally sounding, and some just straight up mumble their lyrics. Which actually makes the lyrics and concepts of songs hard to comprehend. This isn’t always an issue, if their backing music is strong enough you can ignore it.
Bottom Line, I’ve listened to so much this year I’ve become used to it. And really if it all flows well together, that’s the most important part. All the other short comings can be overlooked if the overall vibe and tone of the art is pleasant.
So in my year long search, these are some of the gems… the top artists that I personally feel expressed themselves the best and gave listeners something new and enjoyable.
Local Natives, the Southern California based group gave me possibly my favorite discovery of the year in their debut “Gorilla Manor” (read review here). They sound like a typical garage band, but softer somehow. They go crazy with different types of instruments and arrangements but melody seems to be key with them. And their lead singer Kelcey Ayer is also quite impressive, not the strongest voice but he’s not afraid to belt it out. They deliver some really great music, and deserve to be paid attention to by the main stream. I think of everybody I’ve listened to, if they blow up they won’t have to depart too far from their style.
TuneYards, Merrill Garbus is just uber-experimental. Her sound, found on her sophomore album “whokill” (review here), is a weird mash-up of Hip Hop, Folk, Pop, Jazz and even Electronica and Jazz at times. She’s also a great storyteller who uses her voice in very different and off-kilter ways. Her sound really pops and is exciting to the ears, in both it’s standing out and being completely fresh, and in the subtle homages she gives to the music that inspired her.
How to Dress Well, talk about lo-fi and muddle vocals and the debut album “Love Remains” from Tom Krell is a good example (again, follow the link for review here). And while that would normally turn listeners off, his use of harmonies and melodies is so reminiscent of 90’s R&B. Yet the overall sound is something totally different altogether, it’s very unique and forward thinking, and I think as a producer Krell can go pretty far in possibly changing the landscape of R&B and Pop.
Sleigh Bells, the only case in Noise Pop that I’ve heard so far that’s actually bearable. This Brooklyn duo does a great job of going full on “11” with the volume on their debut album “Treats” (review!) and adding various elements to their tracks to make it pop louder than anything you’ve ever heard. Still they keep a sensibility about it, the track lengths aren’t over long, and they manage to have really catchy lyrics on top of their sounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hooked up with someone in the mainstream world and created a radio hit or three. (and Beyonce, PLEASE release the track you did with them somehow! would love to hear it)
Dirty Projectors, even though I stumbled upon them last year they really are the most forward thinking out of the box artists I’ve heard in a long while. Their 7th official album “Bitte Orca” really blew my mind (as you can read in the review here), it’s folk-electronic-r&b and anything else you might want to throw in there. The beat patterns and song structures are so off, but they work so well. They are truly modern day geniuses in giving us something totally fresh… and looks like mainstream acts are already taking notice. They released a collaboration album with Bjork this year.
Toro Y Moi, his album “Underneath the Pine” isn’t great (you know the deal, here!) but the overall vibe is just one I love. The tone of the album and it’s track are a great mix of 70’s Disco/Funk sounds with “chillwave”-y and very subtle electronic futuristic type feelings. He may not be cut out vocally to play with the big boys, but his vision should translate well in producing for others.
So there you have it, my trip through the Indies. Overall a great trip, and it really did give me a different perspective of the mainstream music world. The execs just really don’t know what they are doing anymore, and the mainstream crowds seem to be so easily impressed. The great thing about the Indies, is you can find everything you want in a song, artist or album… you just have to search pretty hard. I didn’t do a great search, but there’s always next year right.