Intern Uprising: Music We Missed In 2011
Every year, an insurmountable pile of new music is released, and we at NPR do our best to cover it — to play music we think you'll love. There are only so many days in a year.
NPR Music interns Becky Sullivan, Charlie Kaplan, Clare Flynn and Kwasi Ansu recently spoke to All Things Considered host Robert Siegel and NPR Music editor Frannie Kelley about four acts NPR didn't cover this year — and why we should have paid more attention to them. You can hear songs from each of those below, as well as more groups the NPR Music interns say did such good work this year, we'd be fools to miss them again in 2012.
Take a listen, and tell us (in the comments, or tweet @nprmusic) who else we need to keep an eye on next year.
This California band doesn't have an album out yet or even MP3s to download online, but it has received frenzied standing ovations while touring the country with The Civil Wars. Like that band, Milo Greene also makes folk-tinged music with perfectly blended male-female harmonies, but they marry that sound with thunderous live drums and infectious singalong choruses. When my bosses ignored my emails about this band, I organized our own intern-produced Deskless Concert Series, and invited Milo Greene to perform three stripped-down, acoustic songs as our first guests. Watch that performance below. With the release of its debut album coming in 2012, Milo Greene is ready to blow up. --Clare Flynn
The New York native has previously appeared as a member of Sufjan Stevens' and Sharon Van Etten's bands, but is poised to release a sophomore album next year that has the potential to make her a star in her own right. Full of gorgeous, overlapping vocal loops and contributions from Stevens, the album is a beautifully melodic piece of art dressed up for 2012. Harps, thick bass beats, electric guitar, tambourine and swirly, skittering synth lines — it's all here. Even over this lush, enveloping backdrop, Martino's resonant voice is always the undeniable centerpiece. --Clare Flynn
This band from New Hampshire has stuck with me since the first time I dug its debut album, For Physical Fitness, out of NPR Music's massive pile of incoming mail. It's an album crammed with well-crafted songs that soar, twist and never blend into one another. Some are head-bobbing rockers that push relentlessly forward with chugging electric guitar. Others are softer, more melancholy ballads with throbbing bass and subtle whooshing electronic noises. Nearly every track is a standout, and that's remarkable from a band most people have never heard. --Clare Flynn
The British folktronica artist seemed to be everywhere this year — she performed at Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding reception, the National Tree Lighting Ceremony, countless music festivals and on SNL — but she somehow managed to remain below the radar. I've been unable to tear myself away from her irresistible debut album, Lights, since it came out this spring. Originally written on an acoustic guitar, Goulding's music mixes the delicate melodies of folk and pop music with modern dance beats and electronic sampling. Goulding has been in the recording studio on and off throughout her tours in the U.S. this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see new material from her in the near future. --Clare Flynn
Yellow Ostrich previously released several EPs and a full-length album, The Mistress, on Bandcamp. Recently signed with Barsuk Records, Yellow Ostrich re-released The Mistress earlier this year, and a second full-length album, Strange Land, is due out in March. Combining pounding tribal drums, jaunty electric guitar and loops of singer and Wisconsin native Alex Schaaf's sprightly voice, this band's music is a bright mix of sounds and a joy to listen to. --Clare Flynn
Mark my words: This song will be in a commercial in 2012. This West Coast band is a project captained by Girls drummer Darren Weiss, and its sound is infectious. Eat your heart out, Simba. --Kwasi Ansu
Bear Hands will be the MGMT of 2012, and not just because both rep Wesleyan University. The group's post-punk indie music and awesome music videos have had Brooklyn abuzz for a couple years now, but with the release of the new video for "High Society," it's poised to strike. --Kwasi Ansu
Big Gigantic is a unique duo that is currently killing it in the festival scene. Consisting of drummer Jeremy Salken and DJ/saxophonist Dominic Lalli, Big Gigantic combines jazz melodies with electronic wompage. They've found their niche, and it's an interesting sound that cannot be ignored in 2012. --Kwasi Ansu
Alex Clare is already big in the U.K. after the release of his album in July. He combines his soulful voice with electronic beats in a James Blake sort of way, and creates a hybridized genre that sounds like nothing else. --Kwasi Ansu
Remix Artist Collective (RAC) is a group of three international DJs that produces electronic-based remixes of songs in a way that expands beyond the archetypal "club remix." It often incorporates synth vibes to give a more trancey feel to each song. --Kwasi Ansu
You might know Mark Sultan better as the BBQ half of a beloved garage duo called the King Khan and BBQ Show. But Sultan might just be the more talented of the two, and to my delight, he cranked out two LPs and three singles this year. For a taste of Sultan's songwriting, listen to "Satisfied and Lazy," a brief cut on the LP Whenever I Want. Satisfaction and laziness manifest here as jangly guitars, cluttered drums and joyous yelling. And what a voice he's got — he belts out the words at the top of his lungs, yet he's dead-on with pitch and tone. Underneath the vocals, all the details are in place: a speedwalking bass line, pinpoint hand claps and a hint of vocal harmonies in the background. The man has averaged about two albums a year in the last decade, so I'll venture that it's very likely we'll see something from him in 2012. --Becky Sullivan
Dylan Baldi's bet is about to pay off. At the end of 2009, his homegrown project Cloud Nothings was invited to open for lo-fi all-stars Woods and Real Estate. So Baldi dropped out of college to pursue music full-time. Early this year, the band put out its first real record, Cloud Nothings, which opened eyes to its infectious power pop. "Understand at All," the album's opener, immediately introduced us to Baldi's M.O. with its hooky refrains and stupidly hummable melodies. Cloud Nothings did well on the CMJ charts, and the band lived up to the hype at SXSW. It's already released a couple tracks from its upcoming record Attack on Memory (Jan. 24), and it sure sounds like we're in for a treat. --Becky Sullivan
It seems so very Portland that Radiation City's debut album, The Hands that Take You, appeared originally — and exclusively — on cassette tape this February. Not many people outside of Oregon took notice, and the album didn't even migrate to CD until September. But if "The Color of Industry" is any indication, this quartet might pull in a little more attention in 2012. Like most of the album, the song is supremely accessible. Lizzy Ellison nails the chromatic flourishes in her lead vocals, and the tight harmonies that follow are charming, à la classic Brazilian pop. They hit the tour circuit near the end of 2011, so look for them to turn a few more heads next year. --Becky Sullivan
San Francisco-based producer and designer Scott Hansen has been putting together cerebral electronica since 2002 under the name Tycho. Earlier this year, he dropped Dive, his fifth full-length album. His minimalist, atmosphere-driven style evokes acts like Boards of Canada, but Dive still sounds fresh. The album opens with "A Walk," a beautiful introduction to Hansen's meticulousness. An achingly spare synthesizer ostinato starts things off, and the track builds so slowly to its warm ending that you might be left wondering just how you got from one to the other. Hansen's day job is graphic design, and he surfaced in the public consciousness in 2008 after designing a poster for the Artists for Obama campaign — so perhaps we'll hear from him again come fall. --Becky Sullivan
Luke Vibert has been concocting sample-based electronica and trip-hop since the early '90s, steadily building his reputation as a crack producer. Wagon Christ might be his best-known alias, and 2011 brought us that moniker's sixth album, Toomorrow. If you're not already a Vibert fan, then "Chunkothy" is as good an introduction as any. As in most of his work, Vibert took a slew of samples, all from synthesizers or found sound (he rarely lifts from pre-existing music) and manipulated them until the amiable "Chunkothy" emerged. Vibert is steeped in hip-hop tradition, and that shows in the track's good-natured drum-kit groove. He's put out seven full-lengths and two EPs in the last five years, so the chances are high that 2012 will yield yet another. --Becky Sullivan
Flushing, Queens, rapper Action Bronson is that kid from your high-school football team who used to get 74s on all his math tests but could make you laugh so hard that both of you would get in trouble for disrupting class. He's got an irresistibly charming combination of silliness and wit and, on this year's Dr. Lecter, the beats to match. He rightfully gets compared to Ghostface Killah a lot, but Bronson is less "Can It Be All So Simple" and more the "Heart Street Directions" skit — smoking cigarettes in the parking lot when he's supposed to be in class, making you pee your pants a little. --Charlie Kaplan
Can I blame NPR for not covering Rick Ross this year? On one hand, no; the gargantuan Miami rapper hasn't put out a solo record since 2010's Teflon Don; he's dealt with a fair number of PR disasters; his biggest hit this year — "John," a collaboration with Lil Wayne from Tha Carter IV — was little more than a glorified remix of a track from his last album, and the chorus of that song is "I'm not a star." Maybe he was giving NPR a pass.
But on the other hand, my god. How could NPR not cover Rick Ross this year? If NPR's history books read that this was a different rapper's year, it would be like when Kobe lost the '06 MVP, or when Ryan Gosling got snubbed for People's Sexiest Man Alive (an award for which Ross was somehow not nominated). To illustrate: If you add up all of Ross' songs and featured appearances, he had somewhere in the ballpark of at least 150 million views on YouTube of just the videos he put out this year. That number doesn't account for the innumerable other ways Ross has left his well-shod footprints all over music this year. He doesn't have Justin Bieber numbers, but the fact that a comparison to Bieber doesn't feel ridiculous should say something about Rick Ross; he's right, he's not a star. He's a pop sensation. --Charlie Kaplan
It's already happening. I criticized Meek Mill a lot in 2011, The Year of Our Boss. I said Maybach Music's talent pool was shallow and rebuffed my friends' endorsements by saying he was just riding Rick Ross' coattails. But with "House Party," the first single off Meek Mill's blistering Dreamchasers mixtape, the man is proving me wrong with swag and Lex Luger beats alone. Like Jason Terry or Ross himself, Meek Mill is what Bill Simmons calls an "Irrational Confidence Guy": He's only as good at what he does — or at least as convincing — because he believes in himself to an unreasonable and frankly undeniable degree. --Charlie Kaplan
Let's put the hype aside for one second, because it might be easy to forget that the much-heralded Azealia Banks hasn't even put out a record yet. If you want to get to know the flame-tongued LaGuardia grad, not the "Coolest Person Alive" whose "212" topped countless "Best of 2011" lists (guilty), you'll have to trust yourself to YouTube or Google Blog Search. Which is to say that, even though the news cycle might be inducing some fatigue, the best of Azealia Banks really is still to come. --Charlie Kaplan
Here's a dirty little secret: The best stuff Das Racist has ever done has never gone on sale. With all due respect to 2011's Relax, Heems, Kool AD and Dap have been at their best on mixtapes or away from the group. This year, they've maintained their trademark wit and goofiness on features like Mr. Muthaf — in eXquire's "Huzzah!" remix, Darwin Deez's "Where's the Chocolate?" and Dap's miniseries-meets-tour-diary Chillin Island. Heems, the group's entrepreneurial figurehead, has consistently struck gold with material released through his blog. In "Womyn" and "Computers," he's well-intentioned and bumbling; in "Swate," he's gravelly and nimble; in "I Want It Bad," he pulls off a great impression of the late Heavy D. Yet all the while he's charismatic, smart, self-aware and beguilingly tongue-in-cheek. --Charlie Kaplan
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Every year, there is an insurmountable pile of new music released and we at NPR do our best to cover it, to play music we think you'll love, to interview artists we think you'd be interested in, but we can't get to everything. There are only so many days in a year, so today, we're going to hear about four new recordings that we did not play.
NPR music editor Frannie Kelley and her team of interns are here to rectify that. Hiya.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: Good to see you again. Why don't you introduce our interns?
KELLEY: Okay. Starting on my right, Clare Flynn.
CLARE FLYNN, BYLINE: Hello there.
KELLEY: Kwasi Ansu.
KWASI ANSU, BYLINE: Present.
KELLEY: Becky Sullivan.
BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hey, guys.
KELLEY: And Charlie Kaplan.
CHARLIE KAPLAN, BYLINE: Hi.
SIEGEL: And our interns here are looking for stuff that's worth your attention.
KELLEY: They're our scouts. Yes.
SIEGEL: And Kwasi, does she pay attention to you?
ANSU: Usually, but I sent Frannie a link to this Alex Clare song I really like, a cover of Etta James, "Damn Your Eyes."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAMN YOUR EYES")
ALEX CLARE: (Singing) I can do what I want. I'm in complete control. That's what I tell myself. I got a mind of my own. I'll be all right alone. Don't need anybody else. I gave myself a good talking to. No more being a fool for you. I remember how you made me want to surrender. Damn your eyes.
SIEGEL: So that's Alex Clare?
ANSU: Yes, it is. And he just burst on the scene last summer in the UK and hasn't really gained that much popularity here, but he's very, very talented and soulful.
SIEGEL: Frannie, is Alex Clare now on your radar?
KELLEY: He is. I mean, it helps that he's covering one of my favorite artists of all time, Etta James, with this song. I liked his mix of sounds, sort of the old and the new.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAMN YOUR EYES")
CLARE: (Singing) Always the same. You say that you've changed. Somehow, you never do. I believe all your lies, look in your eyes. You make it all seem true.
SIEGEL: Let's hear some other good music that you didn't pay enough attention to. Clare Flynn, what was your ignored suggestion?
FLYNN: Well, one of my favorite bands of the year that I saw over the summer is this group from California called Milo Greene. And I sent an email to my bosses, Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton, because we do the series where we film bands behind my boss' desk.
SIEGEL: The Tiny Desk Concert series.
FLYNN: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And I thought this group would be perfect for it and...
SIEGEL: And they said, fantastic idea, let's get this group in here right away?
FLYNN: No. They didn't respond at all.
FLYNN: So I decided to do our own Tiny Desk Concert, sort of, only instead of filming behind a desk, we filmed on the roof of this building in Washington, D.C. This is a recording of their song, "1957."
SIEGEL: Kind of a small roof concert. Let's hear what Bob Boilen missed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1957")
MILO GREENE: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh, your house that sits behind me is covered in ivy green.
SIEGEL: I've got to say it sounds a little bit more like 1967 than 1957, not that this makes any difference with this group, but you like this piece a lot.
FLYNN: I love this. I love this band. They blend female and male harmonies perfectly and they're good. I love them so much.
SIEGEL: Milo Greene.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1957")
GREENE: (Singing) It takes me away. It takes me away. It takes me away. It takes me away. It takes me away.
SIEGEL: We're now onto Charlie Kaplan. Charlie, what was your unrequited suggestion?
KAPLAN: Well, I chose Rick Ross, who was arguably the biggest rapper of this year.
SIEGEL: He was?
KAPLAN: Yeah. He was enormous. He was everywhere. Rick Ross had an innumerable amount of hits in his own right and he was featured on an incredible amount of other rappers' songs. And it seems like everything he was on was just gold.
SIEGEL: What are we going to hear from Rick Ross?
KAPLAN: We're about to hear this song, "John," which is a song he did with Lil' Wayne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHN")
RICK ROSS: (Singing) Big black and an icy watch. Shoes on the coupe. I got a Nike shop. Count the profits. You could bring them in a Nike box. Grinding in my Jordans. Kick them off. They might high. Swish. I'm swimming in the yellow boss. In the red 911 looking devilish. Red beam make a (unintelligible) sit down. Thought he was bulletproof 'til he got hit the fifth time. Drop Palmolive in (unintelligible) dope. Make it come back even harder than before. Baby, I'm the only one that paid your car notes. Well connected, got killers off in Chicago.
SIEGEL: Well, Charlie, it's obviously the contemplative introspection of that number that attracted you so much to it.
KAPLAN: He's a deep guy.
SIEGEL: I'll take your word for it. On to Becky Sullivan. What was your moment here?
SULLIVAN: Well, I didn't pitch this, necessarily. Instead, there's been a guy who is one of my favorite garage rock artists who's been around for a while and his name is Mark Sultan. And so, if I had done something, it would have been this song called "Satisfied and Lazy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATISFIED AND LAZY")
MARK SULTAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible) doesn't mean that I don't really care. (Unintelligible).
SIEGEL: Frannie Kelley, this is music you let not get on our air at some time?
KELLEY: I'm kind of heartbroken.
ANSU: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Frannie has been actually really supportive of us this whole time and I hate to see her take this much flack because I know Clare can vouch for her here.
ANSU: And Becky, if you were up on this office, you would be able to say that she is really supportive and she really cares about what we have to say.
SIEGEL: Well, Frannie Kelley of NPR Music, thanks for bringing your interns.
KELLEY: Thank you for having us.
SIEGEL: Kwasi Ansu, Becky Sullivan, Clare Flynn and Charlie Kaplan, thanks to all of you.
KAPLAN: Thank you.
KELLEY: Thank you, Robert.
FLYNN: Thank you.
KAPLAN: Thanks, Robert. It's been great.
ANSU: Thanks a lot.
SIEGEL: And Frannie, thanks to you, too. Good to see you again.
KELLEY: Oh, well, thank you for having us on. You know, we all have things that we wish we could get on the radio and we can't. Has that ever happened to you?
SIEGEL: All the time. Yes.
KELLEY: Like when?
SIEGEL: Well, this year, you know, there's a piece of music that I had wanted to do a story about this year, but somebody else had it taken on another program, so we don't do that. It was - Steve Reich wrote something about the World Trade Center using auto-tuning on voices describing what had happened on 9/11. It was called "9/11 WTC World Trade Center."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9/11 WTC WORLD TRADE CENTER")
SIEGEL: If you just described to me what this piece was, I would have said, leave me alone. But when I heard it, it just - I found it very, very gripping and really captured something of what I felt, having been in New York on that day. But another show had it. So be it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9/11 WTC WORLD TRADE CENTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.