If, like me, you spent New Year’s Eve at home with family; and if, like me, the “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” broadcast ended up in your face; then perhaps (like me) you were left with the impression that pop music isn’t in the best of shape. If these artists represented the finest the mainstream had to offer in such a high-visibility airing, then things are looking pretty grim.
Take heart, dear reader. There is still fantastic music being made. Just look for it wherever Justin Bieber isn’t, and you might stumble upon it. Here’s a few artists worth watching in the coming year.
Snarky Puppy: This Texas ensemble has already started to make a name for itself in jam band and experimental jazz circles, but in 2013, Snarky Puppy should become a major festival draw and a consistent club attraction. The brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Michael League, the band – which features a core of full-time members, as well as a rotating cast of musical characters sometimes numbering as many as 30 musicians – brings serious funk to bear on ultra-modern new music compositions, songs that marry elements of jazz with dance music, rock and various other improvisational offshoots. Snarky Puppy’s most recent effort, “Ground Up,” showcases the band performing its transcendent music in the concert setting, and it is jaw-dropping in its blend of virtuosic musicianship, compelling harmonic construction and jubilant grooves. A Buffalo date is in the works for April. See www.snarkypuppy.com.
Two Door Cinema Club: This trio from Northern Ireland released its sophomore effort, “Beacon,” in the fall, in the process kicking the notion of the second album slump to the curb. Fronted by guitarist/vocalist Alex Trimble, the band plays indie rock that achieves the perfect balance between danceable grooves, hooks that worm their way into your heart without much effort, and unexpected harmonic and textural twists. Pop that doesn’t assume the listener is stupid, then. www.twodoorcinemaclub.com.
Biffy Clyro: Biffy Clyro hails from Scotland, and is one of the more exciting bands among the contemporary set of UK indie-rock outfits. What sets the group apart is its willful eclecticism – Biffy blends prog rock influences with a clear Pixies fascination. There are also elements of (gasp!) heavy metal at work, intermingled (bafflingly, but successfully) with the elegant post-rock stylings of Sunny Day Real Estate’s evergreen “How it Feels To Be Something On” album. A new album, “Opposites,” drops in February. Check out www.biffyclyro.com.
Electric Guest: A synth-based indie-rock outfit from Los Angeles. The band’s “Mondo” album was produced by Danger Mouse – a seal of approval for the hipster set, certainly, but also a genuine mark of sonic innovation. Like M83, but weirder. See www.electricguest.com.
Glass Animals: Here’s a band cutting against the grain of “more is always better and bigger is best” that has helped devalue popular music to the point of near-absurdity. A modern alternative music collective with a penchant for moody, synth-drenched bits of English soul that sound like the Blue Nile – if the Blue Nile happened to be covering Radiohead’s “Kid A” album – the group keeps an incredibly low profile, has no pictures of its members on its Facebook page and, when asked to describe its sound by a British online ezine, answered thus: “Like the sound of unicorns whispering, but with no cowbell … a weird, psychedelic cocktail of electronic and organic sound.” I like that. You might, too. You can find the band’s “Leaflings” EP on iTunes.
Kendrick Lamar: I’m not entirely sure what to make of him yet, but Lamar is clearly crazily talented, and just might be the artist hip-hop needs in order to reconnect with its old-school antecedents once again. Lamar’s “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. city” release oozes creativity, is richly layered and produced with considerable craftsmanship, and reveals the 25-year-old to be at the leading edge of some still amorphous movement in hip-hop. Witness www.kendricklamar.com.
Steven Wilson: OK, so Wilson is not some up-and-coming artist who is poised to get his “big break” in 2013. As the leader of Porcupine Tree, and already a revered solo artist, high-profile collaborator and 5.1 surround-sound engineer/producer du jour, Wilson is as big as he is ever likely to get in prog rock circles. But with the announcement that Wilson will release a new album, “The Raven That Refused To Sing (and Other Stories)” in the coming weeks, and follow that release with an ambitious full-band world tour, it seems likely that this is the year the world will realize that Wilson may well have moved on from Porcupine Tree. He’s a genius of modern music, unquestionably. Visit www.stevenwilsonhq.com. Wilson and band will play at the Town Ballroom on April 21.
L*A*W*: This guy is incredible. A singer, rapper and guitarist of considerable merit, L*A*W* backed Amy Winehouse and worked with P-Funk before releasing his own “Tha Planet 12 Syndrome” album. Not since Prince has R&B boasted such a genre-busting virtuoso. This should be huge. Scope out www.planet12law.com.
Atoms for Peace: It’s been a while since we’ve had a supergroup that was capable of living up to the collective heft signified by its member’s names. Atoms For Peace – Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, revered producer Nigel Godrich and David Byrne percussionist Mauro Refosco – will release its full-length debut, “Amok,” on Feb. 25. Preorder and sample via www.atomsforpeace.info.
Gavin Harrison & 05Ric: While Steven Wilson is busy doing his own thing, his Porcupine Tree bandmate Gavin Harrison has teamed with multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter 05Ric to form this prog-rock powerhouse. Harrison, widely (and rightly) regarded as one of the most accomplished drummers in contemporary rock music, seems to have found his perfect home away from home. The group’s new album, “The Man Who Sold Himself,” is a masterpiece – picture a mash-up of David Sylvian, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, with a tougher rock edge. KScopemusic.com/Gavinharrison05Ric.