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CMJ: The Best From the Class of 2015

Those most likely to inspire clothing removal, start a teenage cult, O.D. on twee, and other superlatives

As it has every October for the past 35 years, the CMJ Music Marathon descended upon New York City in a flurry of bands, bands, bands (and, of course, artists, DJs, singer-songwriters, performance artists, and musicians who eschew those designations). They leaned against white vans outside of Brooklyn venues, toted guitar cases and snare drums on the subway, and spilled out into the streets along with idle passersby, music enthusiasts and journalists, and anyone else swept up in week-long music festival and conference. Since there’s no way even a small army of people could see every new band worth paying attention to, SPIN has rounded up a high school yearbook’s worth of artists most likely to do a whole host of things, including starting a cult of teenagers, win a poetry slam, and talk you down from a ledge — but most importantly, succeed.

Drummer Most Likely to Make You Remove Your Clothes: Shigeto (Ghostly International, Cameo Gallery)
At some point during jazz-trained Michigan local Shigeto’s fog-saturated headlining set at Cameo Gallery, a man in the audience took his shirt off. Though perhaps more appropriate behavior for more main-stage electronic music, he wasn’t the only one so inspired. The Ghostly International producer and multi-instrumentalist’s continually thumping burble of synthesizer solos and free-range live drumming got nearly everyone bobbing and weaving to his irregular time signatures. Just as they’d settled into one clickety-clacking groove (not unlike labelmate Gold Panda’s bejewelled beats), Shigeto would switch things up — settling behind his kit rather than his laptop — and the sea of foot-shuffling and head-nodding would re-calibrate accordingly. His dynamic one-man band more than made up for Brooklyn duo Beacon, who were forced to cancel their live set that evening due to illness. — HARLEY BROWN

Best Utility Players: Eskimeaux/Told Slant/Florist (Double Double Whammy, Silent Barn)
“Some of our faces might look familiar,” singing drummer Felix Walworth joked halfway through Told Slant’s set at Friday’s Double Double Whammy showcase. The meaning of the deadpan bit was already apparent to those who’d caught the previous act, Florist (whose songwriter Emily Sprague plays in Told Slant), and to those familiar with the following band, Eskimeaux, whose lineup features Walworth, songwriter Gabby Smith, and multi-instrumentalist Oliver Kalb, each of whom also took the stage with Walworth’s project.

It all gets kinda confusing, but as Walworth went on to explain, they’re all members of a Brooklyn art collective called the Epoch and between these three projects (as well as a handful of other affiliates including Kalb’s Bellows, Sharpless, Small Wonder, and Yours Are the Only Ears) they’ve been responsible for some of the heartwarmingly tempestuous indie rock coming out of Brooklyn over the past several years. The sight of Walworth playing three sets and each of the friends contributing to each others projects is a familiar one to locals. But it’s an endurance test that’s especially impressive during a packed festival week, and one that highlighted the subtle shades of difference between each of their project’s meekly centered and self-assured songwriting — a few hours of calm in the midst of an always stormy week. — COLIN JOYCE

Most Likely to Unintentionally Start a Cult of 17-Year-Old Boys: Panda Bear (Bowery Ballroom)
Thankfully, the 14- to 17-year-old Animal Collective obsessives were just as present at Panda Bear’s CMJ show as they were on AnCo’s Merriweather Post Pavilion tour almost seven years ago; two kids even showed their support with plush panda bear winter hats. Early crowdgoers might have seen Avey Tare cheerfully walking around before Deakin’s DJ set — of noise, techno, and hip-hop, colored with some psychedelic visual projections — refreshingly suggesting that they’re all still good friends, despite the interminable wait for the group’s next album. Panda Bear maintained ebullience even at lazy, ambient speeds by clutching his pop influences close while exploring his avant-garde instincts. Despite mostly playing tracks off of his most recent album, this year’s excellent Panda Bear Meet the Grim Reaper, he plaited in cuts from his previous albums, which sound as forward-thinking in 2015 as they did in 2007. — OLIVER KINKEL

Wisest Beyond Her Years: Kaya Stewart (Neon Gold, Webster Hall)
The daughter of Eurthymics founder Dave Stewart, Kaya’s a 15-year-old electro-pop pixie with a gritty rasp years ahead of where it should be at such a young age. Ripping through a short set of her own singles (this summer’s “In Love With a Boy” was a notable, impassioned standout), Stewart also threw in a cover of Blondie’s “Call Me,” which was originally recorded 20 years before her birth, a song that nevertheless gained new, sprightly legs when the singer puffed it through with airy, lilting harmonies and a worn-down chorus. Expect big things. — BRENNAN CARLEY

Most Likely to Slam You in Poetry: Mal Devisa (Portals + Stadiums & Shrines, Our Wicked Lady)
Looping gorgeous multi-tracked harmonies over deep, heavy bass guitar lines, Mal Devisa’s simplistic song structure complements her unforgivingly raw lyricism. Graced with an incredible range, the singer-songwriter born Deja Carr — both a part of and apart from the fertile Northampton, Massachusetts music scene that also birthed Speedy Ortiz and Potty Mouth — performed on a raised altar in a church on Friday night, preaching seemingly omniscient lessons of love and independence. Unafraid to push the boundaries of aural expression, she broke into a spitfire delivery of a poem that outlined the shamefulness of female body standards and explained the hardships of being a young touring artist. With such a daunting delivery of accessible emotions and experiences, Mal Devisa is just as likely warm her audience’s collective soul as she is to instill a chill of solitude within. — MEILYN HUQ

Best Belgian Band Selling Out European Stadiums: Oscar & the Wolf (Neon Gold, Webster Hall)
One glance at lead singer Max Colombie’s Instagram shows scenes of the glitzy dream-pop band selling out massive venues overseas, which is why seeing Oscar & the Wolf in Webster Hall’s tiny Marlin Room felt electric with the possibility that, when they’ve graduated to similarly-sized U.S. venues, this would be an intimate show to remember during the fledgling stages of their career. Though their songs only flirted with the cusp of actual drops, the chilly tension Colombie’s voice achieved kept the entire affair shrouded in the ramped-up tension of an endless build. With a shimmering cape draped loosely around his shoulders, Colombie barely made eye contact throughout the band’s set but still managed to grip a roomful of rapt attendees. — B.C.

Mostly Likely to Take You to Prom: Good Morning (Aussie BBQ, The Delancey)
With a hesitant tenderness, Australian indie-pop duo Good Morning gives off an earnestness befitting two young romantics (in song, at least; if not necessarily in practice). On a tiny stage in the packed lounge of the Delancey at CMJ’s highly anticipated, always musically and gastronomically delicious Aussie BBQ, Stefan Blair and Liam Parsons slung effortlessly pitch-bent, sun-dazed guitar tones. While pairing such Captured Tracks-appropriate sounds with bass lines reminiscent of Brazil’s delightfully bossa nova-breezy Little Joy, the band — joined by their live touring members — added to the light mood with joke-y banter between sets. Offering an enamored candor through the intimacy of their soft murmurs, Good Morning is sure to provide the sweetest date night. — M.H.

Most Likely to Destroy an Entire Audience’s Eardrums: Kirin J Callinan (Terrible Records x CYMBAL, Cameo Gallery) 
Australian native Kirin J Callinan precisely tiptoes along the line of maximum distortion output. With his banshee-like guitar screams and his onstage trio’s amplification, it didn’t seem (at least temporarily) outside the possibility that one’s eardrums might suddenly collapse. “Patience is a virtue,” Callinan intoned before insisting on playing his new single “The Teacher” — off of the forthcoming follow-up to 2013’s Embracism — from his phone into the mic. Aside from his monstrous warped vocals and intense shredding, Callinan’s charismatic performance mesmerized; especially his solo encore a cappella after the band exited the stage. “Use your imagination. Open your mind,” commanded Callinan as he pranced around the stage, shirt and pants off, pulling at his tighty-whiteys. — MARGARET FARRELL

Best Use of Strings at an Emo Show: Lizard Kisses (Topshelf, Shea Stadium)
Boston-born record label Topshelf stuffed their CMJ party with the sort of bleary-eyed, ruddy-cheeked indie rock that they’ve built their modest name off of since 2006, but the funereal crawl of Brooklyn folkies Lizard Kisses was asynchronously tapped to kick off the proceedings. As their set unfolded, it became clear that what the occasional Mutual Benefit collaborators lacked in buzzy guitars and adenoidal vocalizations, they made up for in upping the ante of their heart-sleeved emoting. That meant that every creeping slowcore structure and crooned romanticism was met with lopsidedly swelling strings and unearthly guitarwork. It’s all off-balance and understated, characteristics that the sorts of melodramatic bands who usually bring string sections to basement shows could stand to adopt. — C.J.

Best R. Kelly/Miguel Cover: Phoebe Ryan (Neon Gold, Webster Hall)
Having worked with SPIN faves the Knocks before, Ryan’s already got a pretty firm grasp on what makes for a show-stopping number, a reality she demonstrated with a floor-to-ceiling singalong of her 2015 take on a mashup between R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” and Miguel’s “Do You…” Something so obvious just shouldn’t work so well, but Ryan’s aerated, candy-shelled singing brought out an unironically slick sweetness from the mix. — B.C.

Sexiest Performer When Drenched in Sweat: Le1f (Terrible Records x CYMBALS, Cameo Gallery)
New York City-based rapper Le1f refused to stay still during his set. Constantly swaying, gliding, and prancing on Cameo Gallery’s stage, the artist born Khalif Diouf’s dance vernacular ranges from elegant vogueing to gross contortion. Showing off new tracks from his anticipated debut studio album Riot Boi, which is out November 13, Le1f had the crowd wrapped around his finger and drunkenly rioting over trap beats, exploiting that last shot everyone took at the bar. — M.F.

Most Likely to O.D. on Twee: Beverly (Kanine/Doc Martens, Pianos)
Brooklyn Renaissance woman Frankie Rose might not be lending her talents to fuzz-pop act Beverly right now, but her absence hasn’t prevented erstwhile partner and vocalist/guitarist Drew Citron and bassist Scott Rosenthal from bringing their bright yet heavily distorted melodies to CMJ. Judging from their (many) sets, the duo relished in spreading the twee gospel to their congregants with a full-bodied batch of cuts from 2014’s Careers (“Madora,” “Honey Do,” “You Can’t Get It Right”) that managed to be teeth-achingly sweet and loud enough to send attendees home with eardrums still ringing. — RACHEL BRODSKY

Best Inadvertent Chiaroscuro: Protomartyr (AdHoc Car Wash, Williamsburg Hand Wash and Detail Center)
Brooklyn supporters of the underground AdHoc were emphatic that their show at a local car wash — of all places — was “not a CMJ show,” but it was on Saturday and all of the bands on the stacked bill (which also included Destruction Unit, Perfect Pussy, Porches. and more) were playing elsewhere at the fest, so we’ll let Protomartyr’s (No. 6 on SPIN’s list of the 50 Best Rock Bands Right Now) early afternoon set count for our purposes. The Detroit-based quartet’s color-drained take on post-punk tends to grapple with life’s more troubling questions, the sorts you mull over in the middle of the night. But their 1:45 p.m. start time led to their stage setup being swallowed by the sun pouring in through the garage door behind them — still, this seemed to work to their favor. As frontman Joe Casey stumbled through existential musing clad in sunglasses, it led a (both literal and metaphorical) lightness to the proceedings, a reminder that even the seemingly bleak implications nihilism can be sorta comforting if you look at them the right way. — C.J.

Most Likely to Improve Upon a Goo Goo Dolls Song: S (Hardly Art/Sub Pop, Knitting Factory)
Seattle cult figure Jenn Ghetto, who once played in plaintive-pop collective Carissa’s Wierd, opens her heart to the point of cardiac arrest in bedroom-pop project S. But despite journal-scrawled lyrics like “fake laughs, voicemail / new friends, vampires / I am lonely,” she knows how to keep things a little more effervescent onstage with spontaneous covers of Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want” and the occasional jig. And speaking of recreations, Ghetto — whether or not she intends this — arranges her words around what sounds like the achiest melodies of ’90s acoustic pop. “Brunch,” from last year’s Cool Choices, introduces itself with a remarkably similar guitar jangle to Goo Goo Dolls’ 1998 waterworks anthem “Iris.” Fortunately, Ghetto’s own vocals are more Juliana Hatfield than Johnny Rzeznik. — R.B.

Most Likely To Succeed Beach House: Foxes in Fiction
Every band at CMJ can never get too much credit for enduring the stress-crazed whirlwind of setting up, soundchecking, performing, and breaking down in severe time and condition constraints. Dream-gaze duo Foxes in Fiction, a.k.a. Brooklyn-via-Toronto singer-songwriter Warren Hildebrand, managed to transcend all of that. He and Emily Reo — who handles with extreme care synth duties onstage (a role Owen Pallett also fills, along with playing strings on Foxes’s 2014 album Ontario Gothic) — calmed the crowd steadily filling in with waves of ambient, mellifluous noise, weaving their own looped voices amidst the gentle textures of guitar tones and gorgeous wind chimes. — H.B.

Most Likely to Bring Back DKNY: Bruce Smear
Bruce Smear is the electronic alter-ego of Beach Fossils’ Tommy Davidson, which you wouldn’t know if you looked at the Brooklyn band’s press photo juxtaposed with Smear’s: He’s clad in the ubiquitous indie-male-musician uniform of skinny jeans and high-tops in the former and in a puffy DKNY jacket in the latter. When watching Smear perform, it’s hard to tell which of his identities is his alter ego and which is his true persona, but last Tuesday, “Smear’s Here” was less of a song title and more of a fact. His syncopated, glaring synths tripped over themselves and were politely interrupted by samples of Kirsty Hawkshaw’s trance jam “It’s Going to Be a Fine Night Tonight” that on paper sound goofy, but in context they worked wonderfully. Physically, he created his element by enlisting a fog machine, and a professional dance routine from three pom-pom-equipped background dancers dressed in all-white. — O.K.

Most Polite at Telling Crowd Members to Stop Using Their Phones: Empress Of (Terrible Records x CYMBALS, Cameo Gallery)
Following her stellar full-length debut Me, Lorely Rodriguez sensually danced, lost in her own melodies, for every second of her hour-long set. Her vocals rebounded off practically steaming walls and sea-like lights strobed throughout the dark, crowded room in which Dev Hynes could be seen moving and grooving on the side. Entranced by the Honduran-American’s performance, an eager fan recorded her set on his iPhone; Rodriguez slyly went for a fake-out close-up before gently pushing the fan’s camera away from his face. Though she didn’t get a rise out of her videographer (who proceeded, later, with the filming), Empress Of elicited a stomping reaction from the crowd with the ominous bend and snap of experimental jazz-inflected album cut “How Do You Do It.” — M.F.

Most Likely to Talk You Down From a Ledge: Kero Kero Bonito (Palisades)
Palisades is definitely the hottest venue in New York; not in the in-vogue sense of the word, but literally sweltering. Nevertheless, the liberal arts students fore-fronting the bubblegum bass movement funneled into the glorified black box theater for Kero Kero Bonito’s remarkable New York debut. Backed by producers Gus Lobban (PC Music’s Kane West) and Jamie Bulled, it’s testament to frontwoman Sarah Midori Perry’s magnetism that even her irritable stage presence nonetheless had the crowd enduring the heat to push closer and closer. It wasn’t as much that everyone wanted to be her friend, but actually wanted to be her, at least for the duration of their set. They played most of their self-titled mixtape, and encored with their standout single “Picture This” — worth the sweat. — O.K.