Live preview: CMJ 2011 highlights

The TONY Music staff steers you toward the best of the fest.

Shonen Knife

Shonen Knife

CMJ is nothing if not disorienting, but as always, TONY has you covered. Here are ten can't-miss shows spanning the fest's full five-night run.

Fionn Regan
Mercury Lounge
; Tue 18
Fat Baby
; Thu 20
The excellent Irish songman Fionn Regan is quite the shape-shifter: His first album saw him demonstrating his acoustic folk prowess, whereas his sophomore effort was driven by the electric guitar. On his latest, 100 Acres of Sycamore, he weaves together lush arrangements of pianos, cellos and violins. CMJ-goers get two chances to catch Regan this week.—Sophie Harris

Villains + Raspberry Bulbs + Occultation + Skull
Saint Vitus; Tue 18
Yearning for a glimpse of CMJ's dark underbelly? Head to Greenpoint's northern tip for an unrelentingly scuzzed-out bill topped by Villains and Raspberry Bulbs, two local bands that nail the sweet—or should that be sour?—spot at the intersection of black metal and punk.—Hank Shteamer

Zola Jesus
Knitting Factory; Tue 18
Le Poisson Rouge; Wed 19
Strip away the high-art facade from this witchy diva and you're left with an unusually severe soul singer—maybe the closest thing to a new Stevie Nicks you'll find these days. The pint-size performer has garnered a furious buzz leading into this year's fest, so expect to fight the badge-wielding throngs for a chance to sample her new disc, Conatus, in the oh-so-pale flesh.—HS

Wise Blood + North Highlands + Cities Aviv + Real Magic and more
Pianos; Fri 21
Though he's from Memphis—home of goth-crunk deities Three 6 Mafia—Cities Aviv is reminiscent of a different type of rap: The enigmatic former hardcore singer's mixtape Digital Lows recalls the avant-hop of the Definitive Jux label, spliced with the nonembarrassing bits of latter-day underground king Kendrick Lamar. He's on an electro-fueled bill that includes the PBR&B of Wise Blood, the Beirut-meets-Prince stylings of Real Magic and the incongruously sweet folk-pop of North Highlands.—Drew Millard

Kvelertak + Skeletonwitch + Barn Burner + Turbid North + Battle Crosss
Club Europa
; Fri 21
Shrinking-violet indie rock giving you the CMJ blues? Plant yourself front and center at this gig, featuring caustically anthemic Norwegian metal & roll purveyors Kvelertak (the name means "chokehold"), infernal Ohio blackened-thrashers Skeletonwich and righteous Canadian turbo-rockers Barn Burner.—HS

Gang Gang Dance + Zomby + Inc.
Bowery Ballroom; Sat 22
Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance's latest album, saw the former noise crew shape up and sharpen its sound, creating a diverse record that not only managed to jam together disparate sources such as Indian pop and Dirty South, but also makes us scratch our heads and ask why nobody had ever done it before. Their reclusive 4AD labelmate Zomby connected similar sonic dots on his astounding Dedication, playing a musical shape-shifter who sounded like Burial on one track and Lex Luger on the next. His live shows are rare, so don't miss out. Sweetening the deal for tonight's showcase is the sleek L.A. future-soul duo Inc.—DM

Givers + Free Energy + Unknown Mortal Orchestra + Gotye + Vacationer + Bleeding Knees Club
Brooklyn Bowl; Sat 22
This adorable bill could be your key to a Saturday night full of hand claps and simple fun. Unknown Mortal Orchestra makes colorful, '60s-style psychedelic rock with song names like "Ffunny Ffriends" and "How Can You Luv Me?" For a band that exploded through the blogosphere, UMO has been surprisingly camera-shy—we're curious to meet the makers of this spacey music. Next up are Free Energy, creators of hooky, happy anthems that bred one of the most danceable rock records of 2010 (thanks for producing, James Murphy). Here's hoping these Philly bros break out some new jams. In the headlining slot, Louisiana's Givers present their sweet pop with Afrobeat influences and vintage keyboards.—Marley Lynch

Shonen Knife + Cheeseburger + Vockah Redu + Turbo Fruits + Idiot Glee + Jacuzzi Boys and more
Public Assembly; Sat 22
This absurdly stacked, two-room bill is like a festival within a festival! We'll start by checking out TONY fave Idiot Glee—a.k.a. Kentucky songster James Friley, a boy with a voice that could make angels weep. Next up, Nashville rock & roll trio Turbo Fruits. After that, will it be flamboyant NOLA bounce rapper Vockah Redu or Shonen Knife, the cult Japanese all-gal combo?—SH

The Source Showcase with Kendrick Lamar + Maino + Rich Hil and more
Gramercy Theatre
; Sat 22
Kendrick Lamar's ability to splice spacey Southern California alternative hip-hop such as Del the Funky Homosapien and Souls of Mischief with his own hooky pop sensibilities garnered the attention of Dr. Dre, who recently claimed Lamar was the "new king of the West Coast" before signing him to his Aftermath label. Come see what all the hype's about at venerable mag The Source's CMJ showcase, which also features the aspirational goon rap of Maino and the UGK-indebted gangster affectations of Rich Hil, who hails from the rugged slums of Greenwich, Connecticut, and is the spawn of megafamous fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.—DM

True Till Def with Youth of Today + Trash Talk + Kylesa + Action Bronson + Main Attrakionz + Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire
Santos Party House; Sat 22
Lately, there seems to be a movement to align the immediacy and aggression of punk with the danger and gut-punch aesthetic of hard-core hip-hop. Thus you've got straight-edge heroes Youth of Today and the archnihilists of Trash Talk sharing a CMJ bill with the no-nonsense Queens rap of Action Bronson and the ODB-in--grad-school stylings of Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire. In a way, it's a social experiment. The hypothesis? There will be moshing.—DM