What better time of the year is there for a list like this? After all, discovering each one of these up-and-coming standouts was like finding a Christmas-morning surprise under the tree.
We’ve compiled 10 favorites from these 2011 discoveries, along with five more honorable-mention recommendations. Pour a tall glass of egg nog and throw another chestnut on the fire … Here are Something Else! Reviews’ favorite unsigned acts from 2011:
ANNIE DRESSNER, “STRANGERS WHO KNEW EACH OTHER’S NAMES” (One Track Mind, POP): Early, perhaps too-easy comparisons have already been made between Dressner and Mazzy Star, the early 1990s oneiric-rock band, maybe because her vocals can have the same echoing drowsiness. But Dressner doesn’t share Mazzy Star’s sometimes frustratingly unfocused laconicism — not to mention its dark strung-out psychedelia. “Strangers,” as with the rest of Dressner’s terrific new album, is too close in on its subject matter to even flirt with that kind of detachment. Instead, her voice has a twilight poignancy, this majestic loneliness, and nowhere on her 2011 release is that more true than here, on its title track. — Nick DeRiso
WILL MARTINA – THE DAM LEVELS (JAZZ): This Australian jazz cellist’s sound has a lightly dancing quality to it, and he brings his chamber music background into every track, infusing a certain measure of formality into the project that assures it never runs off the tracks or becomes too abrasive or off putting. He is able to move between plucking and bowing cleanly, straddling the line between a lead instrument and an accompanying with ease, because his playing is very fluid. — S. Victor Aaron
THIRD INTERNATIONAL – BEAUTIFUL ACCIDENT (BLUES): This is a different kind of blues record, one with a joltingly modern menace. New Jersey’s The Third International, led by Andrew Pearson and featuring King Crimson’s Ian McDonald, brilliantly updates a time-weathered genre by focusing on texture as much as lyrical content. In fact, sometimes the words are simply enveloped by the rising rabble of crunchy R&B riffs, prog-rock influenced song structures and pounding rhythms. A great find. — Nick DeRiso
FALLON CUSH — FALLON CUSH (POP): Fallon Cush grows more confident with each passing song on their self-titled debut. Perhaps because singer Steve Smith put this together on the fly, enlivened by passion and not weighed down by heavy planning. Smith, who wrote all of the songs, began by assembling a group of well-known Australian musicians including bassist Bill Gibson (perhaps best known for his stint with the Lemonheads). Fallon Cush was then recorded simply on an old-fashioned 16-track, and at break-neck speed, as the group put down 10 songs in just 7 days in Sydney. There is so much to love about the results. Nifty and polished though they may be, they of course only hint at where this amalgam could go. — Nick DeRiso
VINCENT LYN, “STOLEN MOMENTS’ (One Track Mind, JAZZ): Lyn, who in the middle of his music career had taken the plunge into acting in various successful Hong Kong-based films, isn’t afraid to add a twist to Oliver Nelson’s sacred song. Opening the number on solo piano, he plays the familiar theme first with delicate grace and then swiftly moves into an aggressive dance … kind of like a martial arts fighter he’s portrayed in his films. He takes a majestic, revered song and makes it into a tough groover. — S. Victor Aaron
STELLA BY STARLIGHT, ‘JULIE’ (One Track Mind, POP): South Carolina’s Stella by Starlight is an entertaining electropop amalgam of modern and distinctly old-school sounds, one part mixtape-from-your-dad’s-vinyl-collection and another part post-modern-hipster-songcraft. “Julie” (download it here) starts like one of those glistening summer gloaming songs from the Beach Boys, then gears up into a flinty Bay City Rollers riff before Nathan Fowler — the keyboardist making all of these sounds — begins brilliantly stringing together phrases. Here’s where it gets interesting, as they tumble out, definitively updating those shag-carpeted initial influences. — Nick DeRiso
TOM FULLER – ASK (ROCK): The Chicago-based Tom Fuller Band doesn’t hide its influences. In fact, they strut around in them, like bell-bottomed 1970s throwbacks. That starts with “Lovers,” a song with this fuzzy Badfinger-ish muscularity. Fuller’s voice, an insistent whine then a gruff snarl, is Lennon-like in its nimble directness. He eventually gives way to a wow-man wah-wah solo, completing the old-school vibe like a mirror ball spinning. The template is set for a comfy trip to shag-carpeted fun on Ask, which includes guest turns by drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and guitarist Brian Ray from Paul McCartney’s current working group. — Nick DeRiso
TURN AROUND NORMAN – WE TURN AROUND (FUSION JAZZ): Members of Baltimore improv music combo Turn Around Norman have been around a lot of jazz greatness. Combined with the unpredictable but never timid personality of Baltimore’s experimental music scene, and the guys in TAN possess the means to take listeners on a wild, fun and heady ride. Three major songwriting voices also do much to make this a varied set of music, but coherency manifests itself it in the rugged, forceful and often dramatic way they perform. Live in the studio with few edits, this sounds much like I’d imagine they’d sound like on stage. Meaning, We Turn Around comes off as an honest rendering of the band’s uncommon personality. — S. Victor Aaron
THEIR OCEAN – STILL WATERS (ROCK): The Chicago-based psychedelic R&B/indie rock group has described itself as “a cross between Hall and Oates and Arcade Fire, if they were friends with the Soulquarians.” As funny as that sounds, that’s about right. It’s that kind of record. Yet, Still Waters doesn’t come off as derivative, mostly because of its open-ended song structure. While Their Ocean has absorbed these varied influences, they aren’t, strictly speaking, defined by them. — Nick DeRiso
PABLO EMBON – SECOND CHANCES (FUSION JAZZ): Experimental, yet very approachable, the Argentina-born Embon’s 2011 project is an ear-friendly blend of the best elements of straight-ahead jazz, classical, fusion and free jazz forms. That means thrilling runs on the acoustic piano, skidding throwback synthesizer, interesting polyrhythms and gutsy turns on the saxophone, often all within the confines of one track. — Nick DeRiso
2011 HONORABLE MENTIONS: Haley Dreis, a singer-songwriter who topped our unsigned-acts list in 2010, returned with a terrific EP called Taking Time … The talented young trumpeter Marquis Hill stepped out with his first project as a leader, New Gospel … Tom Levin’s Tooth and Claw was sumptuous, vaguely fatalistic, like a more mainstream Tom Waits … Ben Monder’s Frisell-ishly impressionistic approach was on display to great effect on his collaboration with Aaron Shragge, The Key Is In The Window … and Clear’s Never Falling Again showed how Joni Mitchell’s hard-eyed observations could be transformed for a new generation.