Every fall for the last 24 years, hordes of musicians, music-business types, college-radio programmers and fans have descended upon New York for the CMJ Music Marathon. The event includes discussion panels and seminars about the business, but what's most interesting are the concerts: This year, nearly 1,000 bands played at 56 venues over four manic days. Everyone's looking to discover the next Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Marilyn Manson (all then-unknown acts that garnered major attention from gigs at the Marathon), and most of the bands playing the convention are looking to become the next big thing.
It really is a marathon, with acts taking the stage at all hours of the day (and night). Loads of name acts — from Sonic Youth to TV on the Radio — performed at the convention, (click for photos), but we were most interested in catching the bands that are flying slightly below the radar. So, thanks to the New York subway system and more than a few cabs, we managed to find 10 acts that we believe are destined for big things. (Yes, quite a few of them are Canadian, but Montreal and Toronto are two of the most thriving scenes in North America at the moment.) Think of us as clerks in your local cool record store — except we're not going to sneer at you if you ignore what we say and buy the new Good Charlotte album instead.
Why: Singer/songwriter Adem is also the bassist for the band Fridge, but that won't begin to prepare you for the stately beauty of his songs. His music isn't for every mood: The songs are sloooooow, with a folk flavor, aching choruses and understated musical accompaniment (acoustic guitars, autoharp, string bass, hand-held percussion). It's definitely not something you put on when you want to rock out — the album isn't called Homesongs for nothing — but if you like beautiful melodies that unravel slowly, you won't find anything better this year.
Who: Arcade Fire
Why: If a single band was the buzz of the ball, it's this sprawling Montreal ensemble. Combining rock energy with violins, accordions, all manner of guitars and, in a live setting, anything they can beat with drumsticks, the band's sound is that of controlled chaos: The instruments meshing with Win Butler's shaky, almost David Byrne-like yelp into a beautiful, caterwauling sound that seems as if it could spin out of control at any moment. That air of imminent destruction is just one reason the Arcade Fire's music is so exciting.
Who: The Concretes
What: The Concretes
Why: Sweden's newest exports are unique for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that they sound absolutely nothing like the garage-rock crowd that came into vogue in 2002 thanks to the Hives. A curious but sublime conflation of '60s girl-groups, Mazzy Star and the sweet side of the Velvet Underground, the eight-member collective is dynamic, romantic and soft. Plus, they sing in cute Swedish accents and dress like they're going to the prom.
Why: Two guitarists that look like back-up members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a bassist who could fill in for any member of Hot Hot Heat and a longhaired drummer who's probably auditioned for Slayer. Oh, yeah: there's also lead singer Nirmala Basnayake, a pint-sized powerhouse who struts around the stage with such unabashed sexiness that she makes Karen O look like a shrinking violet. Their debut EP, History, is one of the most visceral, confident and thrilling bows in recent memory, as the Toronto natives rip through seven songs of their self-described "death disco" in just over 24 minutes.
Who: The Dears
What: No Cities Left
Why: If you crossed the graceful side of Blur with the Smiths and Tindersticks, you might come close to the sound of the Dears. A unisex six-piece, the Montreal group plays sumptuous, sophisticated and elegant orchestral rock with epic horns, keyboards and soaring strings. Britpop is not only back, but alive and well in Quebec.
Who: Death From Above 1979
What: You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine
Why: Girls kiss each other, beers fly and utter mayhem breaks out in the moshpit: That's a typical Death From Above 1979 concert experience. Who needs guitars? The Toronto dirtbag duo — who reportedly met in prison and live in a former funeral parlor — forgo the traditional six-string crunch in favor of an immense, intense barrage of of metallic bass, machine-gun drums and howling vocals.
Who: Hope of the States
What: The Lost Riots
Why: England's Hope of the States don't do anything by half: The seven-piece band includes three guitarists (two of whom double on keyboards) and a full-time violinist; they play big, sweeping, majestic songs with loads of echo and big themes; and they perform in front of fast-moving films that include lots of Cold War-era American military footage. The twist? They're all in their early 20s. How a bunch of young guys came up with such a huge concept — let alone their sound, which combines the bombastic elements of Radiohead with the sonics of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and vocals reminiscent of early '90s mumblers like Dinosaur Jr. and the Afghan Whigs — is just part of this band's unique allure.
What: Summer In Abaddon
Why: California's Pinback puts a new spin on indie-pop, adding complexity with sweet melodies and intricate song structure. On their most recent LP, Summer in Abaddon, the band's airy vocals are layered over delicate piano chords; percussion is occasionally treated as an afterthought, though it plays a starring role on the rock track "AFK." Thick basslines hold court over pop songs like "Fortress," while carefully crafted lyrics govern more atmospheric tracks like "The Yellow Ones." The band's music seems spare at first, but repeated listens reveal layers of dynamic instrumentals and smart lyrical structures.
Who: Q and Not U
Why: With their third album, Power, the Washington, D.C., funk-punkers strike the right balance between the arty hardcore of fellow District alumni Fugazi and the sexed-up balladry of Purple Rain-era Prince. On the first single, "Wonderful People," singer/guitarist Chris Richards belts out comical pickup lines like the Purple One on helium while a four-on-the-floor disco beat and squiggly synthesizers boogie in the background. Throw in some jagged guitars, sing-song choruses and an extended flute solo or two, and you've got an experimental disco/punk album where Green Day meets the Village People — with a flute player.
Who: Straylight Run
What: Straylight Run
Why: This Long Island band (whose debut album will enter the Billboard albums chart at #100 next week) makes emo music for the optimistic masses. The group, which features former Taking Back Sunday members John Nolan and Shaun Cooper, combines the melancholy genre's moody and introspective lyrics with brighter hooks, energetic rhythms and the occasional power chord — although the group's soaring keyboards and vocal harmonies leave no shortage of melodrama. Fronted by Nolan and his sister Michelle, Straylight Run's debut album is optimistic, dramatic and upbeat, and unashamed of its emo soul, as evidence by song titles like "Existentialism on Prom Night," "Another Word for Desperate" and "Sympathy for the Martyr."