2011 was nothing if not stormy. From Cairo to Moscow to the Embarcadero, revolutionary protests, fueled by a common species of populist rage, rattled the social fabrics in place. The sources of discontent still loom large: our tattered economy has made little recovery and Europe may be on a precipice. Meanwhile, as we in the Bay well know, the tech sector continues to explode – a source of both inspiration and overwhelm.

Looking at the year’s music, though, you wouldn’t sense this social tumult. On the whole, indie music tended to constrain its scope to the ultra-personal (Bon Iver’s self-titled, Zola Jesus’ Conatus), its hue the retro (Lana Del Rey’s mid-century persona, the utter prog-ness of Justice’s Audio, Video, Disco), its vibe the chill (Washed Out, Toro Y Moi and the other constituents of the so-titled wave).

Rather than mobilize the feelings of fear, anger, and being generally fed up that carved the year’s political landscape, artists and listeners seemed to retreat into music’s lulling, comforting, even medicinal qualities. Such output was a source of much-needed pleasure and respite, but was not the stuff of greatness.

In the spirit of utterly subjective (but hopefully useful) year-end lists, here is my selection of bands that broke from the conservative indie slump this past year, and in so doing made lasting impact. Whether by commitment to sonic experimentation, stylistic boldness, social engagement, or uncompromised, unique artistic visions, these 5 artists proved themselves as the ones to keep an eye on, for the near and distant future.

The Avant-Garde: Battles

This year’s Treasure Island Music Festival was full of great moments – the audience’s cathartic explosion of enthusiasm during Cut Copy’s “Light’s and Music,” for one, Battles’ entire set, for another. The memory of Cut Copy has paled somewhat over the past few months; Battles’ performance, on the other hand, remains crisply immediate.

The laconic, sweat-drenched trio launched sounds that landed nowhere close to anybody else’s. Operating with the gut-punching intensity and technical showmanship of a metal band and composing with a Gershwin-like pension for meandering, jazzy complexity, Battles’ singular implementation of “math rock” offers intellectual heft as well as visceral impact.

In stark contrast to the silken, neon-glowing synth that is currently in style, Gloss Drop‘s tracks marry industrial, razor sharp textures to whimsical, fluttering guitar and keyboard work. The result does not describe reality as we know it, so much as suggest the contours of a future that is unrecognizable and excitingly new.

The Progressive: tUnE-YarDs

tUnE-YarDs’ W H O K I L L sounds distinctly street-level – not in the gangster sense, but somewhere nearby. “I’m a victim, yeah!”, the Oakland-based, East Coast ex-pat shouts with an enigmatic sense of resolve, even triumph, on the phenomenal “Bizness.”

The victimizer here is unclear, as most of Garbus’ lyrics ultimately are. However, a call to observe, report, and engage with social matters rather than turn on, tune in and drop out comes through her spectacular voice loud and clear. “My country tis of thee/ sweet land of liberty/ how come I cannot see my future within your arms?” the album begins. It’s the question at the heart of the #Occupy movements. No other musician uttered it so frankly or formulated it so well – not to mention with such style.

The breadth of sounds on W H O K I L L – rock, funk, jazz, afrobeat, what sounds like an innovative form of yodeling – is dizzying, their fusion stunning. This is a band with an aesthetic evolving at warp speed, and with a firm social stake. It’s not exactly protest music, but it may be the most progressive thing the indie community has got.

The Risk-Taker: M83

As with most industries, in hard economic times musicians and record labels tend to become more risk-averse – probably one reason among many why the past few years have seen artists circling established niches and proven styles rather than venturing new, potentially jarring or commercially unviable material.

M83 was in a particularly good position, this year, to ride this conservative tide. With his masterful, John Hughes-inspired 2008 opus, Saturdays=Youth, dreamy frontman Anthony Gonzales produced by far the most convincing argument for 80s fetishism of the last few years. With the nostalgia market now booming as it is, a simple rehashing would have certainly sold out shows.

Bless him, Gonzales did the exact opposite, going no holds barred for the rock ‘n roll paragon of commercial risk and artistic folly: the double album.

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a grandiose, sweeping tour of Gonzales’ monumentally emotive imagination, packed with stargazing verses and explosive choruses. In putting it together, Gonzales clearly proceeded with as little concern for cool as he had for prudence; “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire,” one of the best songs on the album, centers on children telling a story about a frog.

The album is chock-full of questionable choices, which makes it much harder to extol than the more neatly packaged Saturdays=Youth. Its merit in that regard feels almost beside the point, though. In a year of stifling overcaution, Gonzales proved to be one of few artists with real guts.

The Future-Pop: Purity Ring
(NSFW)

From Girl Talk’s mashups to the collage-rock of The Books, the latter half of the aughts saw an intriguing aesthetic of fragmentation in the indie music scene. And no wonder – we live in an age when “multitasking” is not so much doing your makeup with a pot of coffee on, as pivoting between three windows and fifteen tabs, each a portal to more information than prior humans could have hoped to gather in the course of a day.

Purity Ring, the latest and greatest purveyors of this boldly postmodern style, certainly used the Internet to their advantage this year. The Canadian duo (as we now know them to be) maintained a mystique of anonymity for longer than most denizens of the web thought possible, all the while leaking track after mesmerizing track of chopped-to-bits “future pop.”

Their music lands somewhere between demonic incantation and pop that has been taken apart and put back together funny, singer Megan James’ vocals prancing above lurching percussion and distorted grunts. The result is both tribal and relentlessly contemporary; chilling, yet compellingly danceable. With their debut full-length album still yet to come, this is the young band to watch out for.

The Essential: Panda Bear

In a year where some pretty awful stuff managed to make waves (Kreayshawn, Lana Del Rey), Panda Bear’s gorgeous Tomboy somehow only produced ripples. An Olympic diver comes to mind. With Tomboy, Noah Lennox did not venture from his comfort zone – this is true. Rather, the Animal Collective member simply developed the style he has been honing for 13 years to the best it has ever been.

With this installment of hymnal, out-at-sea experimental pop, Lennox conveys the essential moods of life – devotion, mourning, jubilance, despair – with a scope, beauty and poignancy unmatched by any other artist this year. Just as transporting on the first listen as the nth, this is music of the highest grade.

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  • Karthik Rajan for Mayor

    respect, but coming on REAL STRONG LYRICALLY in the latter half of the year and going global to Asia now, with the Indian pop scene being warm to Heems,

    and a group that includes a Bay Area man in Vazquez – Kool AD!

    I must suggest you give das racist a listen (again, and again, and again)

    dasracist.net
    and heems’ awesome blog
    http://nehrujackets.tumblr.com/

    and following @heems as he goes back to India, here at the end of the year is pretty radical. Reminds me, honestly, MOST, of the Pennebaker Dylan ’65. That’s what Twitter, which I have dissed all year, is awesome for – radical archiving. Cultural interexchange of culture on a global level that has explosive potential for communicating ideas.

    all right, I’m done, but basically

    DAS RACIST
    first two records are FREE on the net, still – check out
    “Nutmeg” from the “Shut Up, Dude”
    oh, and Heems is dropping rad tracks on Soundcloud
    get “Womyn.mp3”

    so good.

    Karthik

  • Karthik Rajan for Mayor

    respect, but coming on REAL STRONG LYRICALLY in the latter half of the year and going global to Asia now, with the Indian pop scene being warm to Heems,

    and a group that includes a Bay Area man in Vazquez – Kool AD!

    I must suggest you give das racist a listen (again, and again, and again)

    dasracist.net
    and heems’ awesome blog
    http://nehrujackets.tumblr.com/

    and following @heems as he goes back to India, here at the end of the year is pretty radical. Reminds me, honestly, MOST, of the Pennebaker Dylan ’65. That’s what Twitter, which I have dissed all year, is awesome for – radical archiving. Cultural interexchange of culture on a global level that has explosive potential for communicating ideas.

    all right, I’m done, but basically

    DAS RACIST
    first two records are FREE on the net, still – check out
    “Nutmeg” from the “Shut Up, Dude”
    oh, and Heems is dropping rad tracks on Soundcloud
    get “Womyn.mp3”

    so good.

    Karthik