Rather than focusing primarily on specific albums or songs (as most end-of-the-year lists do), I’ve decided to represent more broadly the artists behind the music with this list—while also discussing their 2011 releases. In particular, these are bands and musicians who put out some of my favorite music this year, but have yet to find breakthrough success. They vary greatly in music type, career span, and level of output, but all met my criteria for being underrated in 2011. I took several factors into consideration—listener numbers on Last.fm, fans on Facebook, YouTube video views, etc—and grudgingly narrowed a massive list down to 25 of the ‘best, least popular.’ Some represent wholly underrated realms of music, while others I suspect simply haven’t caught the right wave yet. For ease, loose genre classifications are listed next to each act (sometimes in the artists’ own words). The list is unranked.
Note: To avoid redundancy, I’ve excluded the musicians from my “10 Young Rap Projects Who Deserve More Attention” article with the exception of Pyramid Vritra—who was only briefly mentioned. Needless to say, many of them could have been on this list.
Skeleton$ (experimental pop)
Criminally slept-on New York trio Skeletons (also Skeleton$) released another experimental pop masterpiece this year. PEOPLE—their 8th LP (streaming here)—explores the human experience through lyrical stories based upon true events which occurred in the New York area, from gang violence (“L’il Rich”) to a fatal Black Friday trampling (“Walmart and the Ghost of Jimmy Damour”). Originally the solo moniker of Matt Mehlan, Skeletons has transformed several times over the past decade with a shifting set of additional members (The Girl-Faced Boys, The Kings of All Cities, etc.). For live shows, the project has sometimes become Skeletons Big Band, an orchestra of strings, brass, saxophones, guitars, piano, and percussion, which is now slated to release an album as well (The Bus). Earlier this year, Mehlan collaborated with Kasai Allstars and Konono N°1 for the wonderful Congotronics vs Rockers project. He also directed a fantastic video for the single “More Than One Thing” (from PEOPLE) which features appearances by members of Skeletons, Dirty Projectors, Light Asylum, Zs, NOMO, and many, many others (“one person per lyric”!):
Jonti (psych-soul / electronic / hip-hop)
As always, Stones Throw Records put out a ton of amazing new music this year and further expanded their comprehensive roster. One of their most exciting new additions is 23-year-old Jonti Daneliwitz (formerly known as Danimals / Djanimals) whose work was first teased on the 2010 Clouds Over The Pacific sampler. This year, Jonti released his marvelous debut LP, Twirligig—a kaleidoscopic blend of psych-soul, electronic, and hip-hop. Unsurprisingly, Jonti lists Madlib, Stereolab, and The Beach Boys among his major influences. Though originally from South Africa, Daneliwitz moved to Australia about a decade ago. There, he began his foray into music as Danimals and became a member of indie psych-rock act Sherlock’s Daughter. Precluding the release of Twirligig, Jonti compiled some of his early work as a Stones Throw podcast (Sine & Moon) and recorded a song with OFWGKTA’s Hodgy Beats (“Nagoya“). Jonti plans to release Twirligig‘s “brother album,” Tokorats, sometime next year and has an entirely different LP in the works as well.
Sister Crayon (“Electronic/Trip-Hop/Soul”)
Sacramento-based trip-hop act Sister Crayon released their outstanding debut LP, Bellow (fully streaming here) this year on Manimal Vinyl Records. Befitting of its title, the album summons a powerful atmosphere of haunting melodies and operatic vocals, punctuated by carefully crafted beats. Originally the solo moniker of lead singer Terra Lopez (SSG interview here), Sister Crayon has since expanded and settled as a trio with the addition of Danielle Fernandez and Jeffrey LaTour. The band embarked on their first full U.S. tour a few months ago in support of The Album Leaf, after which the two remixed one another. Last year, they released a split 7″ with Manimal rostermates Warpaint on which they covered David Bowie‘s “The Bewlay Brothers“. A few of their songs have also been featured in the reality TV series The Real L Word. Most recently, Sister Crayon have been working on new material and are preparing to release an EP of covers.
23-year-old LA-based beatsmith Knxwledge (aka Glen Boothe; also ҜИЖЩLΞDGΞ) has been releasing some of the smoothest beat tapes on the net for a while now, but this year he outdid himself with two new LPs and ten new EPs (all fully streaming here). Taking cues from J Dilla and his friend Mndsgn, Knx crafts a layered blend of tricky beats, jazz and soul grooves, distorted synths, and quirky vocal tidbits, with a result often reminiscent of Madlib. Last year, he released his vinyl debut, Klouds (with artwork by Teebs), on the Ireland-based beatmaker hub All City Records, as well as SKR∆WBERRiES—the first of his fruit-themed album series (followed by K∆NN∆LOUPE, MANGO, and Gwapes). Knx also produced two tracks on Blu‘s much-buzzed B. LP, Jesus, released earlier this year.
Pyramid Vritra (“Avant-Garde-Pop-Psych-Hop”)
NRK and OFWGKTA are undoubtedly two of the most exciting young hip-hop collectives on the come up right now. They formed around the same time with many of the same influences, but on opposite coasts and with very different attitudes—creating something of a yin yang dynamic. Considering that Pyramid Vritra (aka Hal Williams; ½ of The Jet Age of Tomorrow) is a member of both groups, he may very well stand at the epicenter of an emerging hip-hop taijitu. In any case, this ‘OFWGKTANRK’ “Avant-Garde-Pop-Psych-Hop” prodigy released his debut LP, The Story of Marsha Lotus (streaming here), recently on fledgling London-based “Stoner Pop” label Stroll On Records. The record builds around revamped versions of Vritra’s 2010 identity split (as Δ Vritra and Walter Flowers) and features a guest appearance by fellow NRK member KC 2.0. Vritra also recently dropped a free album which he describes as a “prelude” to his first full album (The Story Of Marsha Lotus could be considered an EP), due out sometime next year.