1. The Cool Kids, with The Bake Sale EP
On first listen, I hoped that mainstream hip-hop would gravitate toward The Cool Kids. They enjoyed great success this year largely due to their lively stage presence, but some mainstreamers have mocked them for their back-to-basics beats, emphasis on rhyme, and most of all for their neo-hipster wardrobe. They aren’t the only ones doing it well, but The Cool Kids most clearly represent the best of hip-hop: sarcastic lyrics about inflated egos, danceable beats, and easy to comprehend original rhymes that get you thinking, but not too much.
2. Fleet Foxes, with Fleet Foxes/Sun Giant EP
I stayed further away than usual from the indie press this year and I still heard more than I could handle about this band. The truth is that Fleet Foxes have combined the essential elements from many different artists, old and new, and their sound is nothing innovative—it’s just crafted with superior precision. Sounding much like an early My Morning Jacket album, the two records show an emotional and melodic complexity that isn’t gimmicky like so many other new artists. Fleet Foxes have little flare to wear on their sleeve, but it’s too easy to give a cursory listen and pass them off as more reverb-drenched American, folk-rock-star wannabes, as I did. I suggest you spend some time with this one.
3. Los Campesinos! Hold On Now, Youngster/We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed)
For “emo” despisers out there, think hard about why you hate “emo.”
Is it the fussy singing style? Is it the trite, oversimplified lyrics, or perhaps the tiresome muted electric guitars on repeat in the background of every song?
Well, Los Campesinos! take all of the above in moderation and inject a heavy dose of dissonance powered by violin, boy-girl harmonies, and beautifully distorted single-note electric guitar harmonies. Their creative timing teetering on the brink of musical schizophrenia, Los Campesinos! bring to mind bittersweet high school romance and friendships in a way perfectly suited to sharp violin crescendos and twin electric guitars behind a whiny voice full of bitter sarcasm.
4. Santogold, with Santogold
With highly varied production (including MIA’s partner Switch) and an eclectic musical base, Santogold created a party album, giving her distinctive take such varied genres as reggae, hip-hop, R&B electronic, and pop rock music in one fell swoop. Misfires aside, ambition like this is hard to come by and I can only hope it leads to a better-balanced work in the future.
5. Honorable Mentions: MGMT, She & Him, Cut Copy
None of these really deserve a full spot, so they’ll all split the fifth one.