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As Filmmaker’s contributors offer up summations of the year’s greatest achievements in film, I wanted to share some of the best new music I discovered in 2011. I tried to make picks that highlight musicians still flying under the radar (even by independent standards), or, in certain cases, artists tracking huge success through a unique, idiosyncratic, and independent mindset.

Here are my picks in alpha order, along with Soundcloud streams and (where available) music videos:

Air France – “It Feels Good to Be Around You
Following in the tradition of The Avalanches, Sweden’s Air France have made a name for themselves crafting complex, beat-driven found-sound puzzles. Unfortunately, also like The Avalanches, the band is frustratingly elusive, having released only one EP and this single track in their first half-decade of existence. It would be easy to write Air France off if their slim output wasn’t so damn impressive. “It Feels Good to Be Around You” continues the group’s flawless track record, melding a number of distinct styles and melodies into one chugging, vibrant track.

City Center – “Puppers”

This song, the first on City Center’s stellar K-Records debut, begins as a nostalgic remembrance of a childhood love (Who wasn’t made for the sun? / Where was I going to run? / Anywhere that you would) before taking a darker turn by detailing that same love’s eventual drug overdose (At first your stomach felt raw / Then our friends had the heads of dogs / But you said, “I still love them all / …then you said / “Take me to the hospital.”) It’s a wonderfully affecting narrative, vague enough to leave the listener guessing, but armed with enough heart-wrenching specifics to pack a serious emotional punch.

Destroyer – “Bay of Pigs

Late last year, Deerhunter front-man Bradford Cox predicted that 2011 would be the year of the saxophone, a prophecy that Destroyer’s brilliant adult contemporary throwback Kaputt paid off. Marrying the lite jazz synths of late Roxy Music to front-man Dan Bejar’s trademark stream-of-consciousness drawl, Kaputt offers 8-tracks of atmospheric skewed pop. Oddly enough, there’s no better place to start than with 11-minute closer “Bay of Pigs”, a seafaring epic that slow-builds from muddy ambience to soaring sing-along.

Drake – “HYFR

Like his mentor Kanye West did last year, Drake spent 2011 crafting a monster of a hip-hop record. Take Care is remarkable for its frenzy of R&B hooks, clever one-liners, and ace production; but what makes it truly stand apart are the numerous idiosyncrasies that Drake lays bare for the whole world to pick apart. Take “HYFR” for instance, a rhythmically-skewed duet with Lil Wayne that hides some of Drake’s deeply-felt neuroses in plain sight. “Are you high right now? / Do you ever get nervous? / You making money?” Wayne nags during the chorus, functioning as a strangely blunt stand-in for Drake’s inner-psyche. And though the 25-year-old rapper never directly answers any of Wayne’s questions, it should be clear from the whole of Take Care that Drake has a lot more on his mind than simple stardom.

Grouper – “Alien Observer

For years now Liz Harris (AKA Grouper) has been hiding beautiful melodies beneath her trademark haze of keyboard and guitar tone. And that haze has only thickened with this year’s Alien Observer / Dream Loss, an ambitious double-album vinyl-only release. Harris’ songs tread close to ambience, yet maintain unexpected shades of structure; just enough to keep the listener above water. “Alien Observer”, the collection’s most traditional ‘song’ is a compelling example of the strange, dream-like realm that Harris seems to have taken up permanent residence within.

John Maus – “Believer

Avant-pop artist John Maus borrowed a page from friend and collaborator Ariel Pink for his 2011 breakthrough album, We Must Become the Pitiless of Ourselves. Copping Pink’s synth-drenched aesthetic, while adding in his own off-putting guttural vocals, Maus crafted an album that doesn’t sound quite like anything I’ve ever heard before. Album closer “Believer” is as good an entry point as any. Four minutes of unfiltered psychedelic star-gazing, “Believer” shines remarkably bright for something so indefinable.

Johnny Foreigner – “You Vs. Everything

My favorite piece of music journalism this year was Johnny Foreigner front-man Alexei Berrow’s manic rant in response to an NME piece titled, “Why I Don’t Care About Record Store Day.” Needless to say, Berrow and his band-mates do care about Record Store Day, or more accurately, about the experience of collecting physical documents of the music they love. This idea plays out across the post-emo trio’s third and best album, Johnny Foreigner vs. Everything, a sprawling 17-track mission statement, packed to the brim with melody, energy, and passion. As Berrow puts it on his blog – “The innate value of bands is worth more than a bunch of noises, and these records, however small the run, or low the sales, mean a whole lot more than what they contain.

Josh T. Pearson – “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ

Easily the most memorable concert I saw this year was a showcase at SXSW featuring solo-artists David Thomas Broughton and Josh T Pearson. Both Broughton and Pearson borrow tropes from the singer-songwriter handbook for their live shows, and each one simultaneously challenges the audience by working severe, avant garde elements into their acts. While Broughton literally deconstructs and dismantles his songwriting process live on stage, Pearson takes the opposite tact, stretching his songs to enormous lengths, improvising as he goes, until what he’s playing is more a meditation than a song. Last of the Great Country Gentlemen, Pearson’s debut solo album, captures this process beautifully. Recorded over two days in Berlin, supposedly following a split from his wife, the album’s closest comparison point might be Jeff Buckley’s soulfully-meandering Live at Sin-E.

Laura Arkana met Peter Broderick – “Souvenirs
Multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick (not to be confused with distribution guru Peter Broderick) managed to have a huge 2011 without even putting out an album of his own. Across the year, Broderick relocated to Berlin, where he released a full-length collaboration with longtime friend Nils Frahm (under the name Oliveray), a score for the documentary Confluence, a smattering of 7’’ and one-off singles, and most notably, the gorgeous folk collaboration that this song is taken from. German folk singer Laura Arkana is a huge new talent, one whose songwriting ability is a perfect match for Broderick’s diverse musical palette. Arkana’s songs are wintry time capsules, embellished with light-finger picking and swelling strings to create a sound reminiscent of Nico. And though the language that Arkana sings in is foreign, the emotions that she draws upon are universal and deeply felt.

Yuck – “Georgia”

It seems like the spirit of 90s indie rock is being resurrected on a near daily basis by young bands paying blatant homage to their pasty slacker forefathers. So kudos to UK guitar-pop outfit Yuck for borrowing this old aesthetic and managing to make it feel fresh once again. The songwriting on Yuck’s self-titled debut, though clearly indebted to everyone from Dinosaur Jr. to Pavement, is so strong; the melodies so crisp, that it’s hard to harp too long on influences. Take for instance “Georgia”, a simple twee-pop gem that clocks a surprising amount of mileage out of chugging guitars, girl-guy vocal harmonies, and a general lack of irony and pretension. It’s a song that wears its influences on its shoulders, but still manages to sound timeless.

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