It’s that time of year — the leaves are almost off the trees, the summer interns have all been sent home flat broke, the summer sublessors are vigorously scrubbing at that weird stain (on the ceiling, of all places), and a horde of unknown bands are heading to New York to be discovered at the CMJ Music Marathon. For the 33rd year running, the iconic music publishing company and magazine will take over 80 New York venues to showcase the best artists you’ve never heard of (and some that you’ve almost definitely heard of). Their showcases have helped launched bands like Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, MGMT, Passion Pit, and (for better or for worse) Mumford & Sons. Here are some of the best little-known tracks you’ll hear at the festival. If historical precedent has taught us anything, soon enough you won't be able to unhear them.
Cultfever’s website is not for the faint of heart. Even hovering your cursor over the video for their new single, “Animals,” puts you at risk of seizure. This is bright, exuberant music that is danceable like the best electro-pop without feeling small or mechanical. “Animals” is complex enough to sound like it was recorded in surround sound, but it never loses the quality that makes it a great pop song: every part feels essential – simple, memorable, and somehow original.
The Swaai Boys, a little known New York band, are primed to break at this year’s festival. They specialize in Hawaiian-inflected music that’s been filtered through Indie’s penchant for retro-production (one of their two EPs is proudly advertised as having been “Remastered in Mono”) and easy-going longing (think hazy, Real Estate guitars). “Poisoned Berries,” the watery closing track from their most recent EP Meet the Mysterious Swaai Boys, features whistling, mournful guitars, a loose bed of light percussion, and lyrics from the perspective of a man who is about to die from the titular berries. The berries are, of course, metaphorical, but the animal noises during the instrumental break are very literal.
Of all the bands at this year’s CMJ, Betty Who is the most likely to become huge in the next year. A former student at Berklee College of music, she’s recently emerged from the Boston music scene as one of the catchiest, smartest pop singers going. Her wide-eyed pop sounds as if it were written to soundtrack her accelerating career. After a viral video blew up her song, “Somebody Loves You,” she signed with RCA. Whether or not you like 80s-inflected joyful pop, it’s hard to deny Betty Who’s mastery of her craft — there isn’t a second wasted on “High Society,” which moves from a driving verse to its epic chorus with incredible efficiency. The closing track on her breakout EP is a pretty wondrous affair, thanks in no small part to her Australian accent. She’s so new to the big leagues that her official page on the RCA Records site is empty. It won’t be for long.
Those fortunate enough to make it to the Bad Suns set at CMJ will glimpse a reasonable approximation of the New York music scene in the early 2000s. Though they hail from Los Angeles, they bear the influence of the angular guitars and dark, glossy production of quintessential New York records like Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights. “Cardiac Arrest” is an absurd song, but it’s also pretty enjoyable. Hopelessly dramatic (“My innards turn, your eyes, they roll / I’ll be there to take the fall”), the song’s slick riffs are best enjoyed if the lyrics go unnoticed.
It’s hard to figure out exactly who Adam Faucett is from his scant web presence, but it’s clear that he comes by his ramble honestly. Born in Benton, Arkansas, he returns much of the weirdness to his version of Americana that the big-hearted genre’s popularity has recently sapped. His songs tend to be sprawling works somewhere between folk, swamp rock, and soul. His interviews are consistently mercurial, and his website is built to emit lightsaber noises whenever you click (Web C3.0). He is the genuine article — an intensely strange, gifted songwriter with a piercing voice. Listen to “Saturday” on his homepage.