CMJ 2011 wrap-up

Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus Photograph: Lizz Kuehl

We made it! For five straight days, from last Tuesday through this past Saturday (plus Sunday, if you count the wee hours), TONY's Music staff and a few dedicated recruits fanned out across the city in an attempt to experience the enormousness of CMJ—and more importantly, share it with you, our dear readers, via the magic of Twitter. After the jump, by way of a wrap-up, you'll find each writer's pick for the single best set he or she caught at this year's fest. Take a look at our selections and tell us what we missed! While you're at it, revisit our CMJ guide, featuring NYC's best record shops, highlights from CMJs past and—best of all—TONY's list of the top 25 rock bands in NYC.


Action Bronson
In hip-hop, white rappers tend to be maligned, often on the basis of their skills (or lack thereof)—or even worse, their lack of rap cred. Not Action Bronson. His dopeness transcends race, and he's steeped in New York hip-hop culture in a way that few are. The 315-pound, nasal-voiced Albanian gourmand performed tirelessly over the course of CMJ, appealing to hip-hop's old guard on Friday at XXL's showcase, taking time to cater to the avant-garde on Saturday as he shared a bill with the likes of Trash Talk and Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire at Santos Party House, and later that night, performing at the party of the tastemaking label Fool's Gold. His sets have a sense of joy to them; even when he's rapping about shoving a body in a trunk and dumping it in a lake, he remains good-natured. Affable, even. Perhaps it's his Santa Claus--esque beard that keeps everybody happy. Or it could be his skills. Yeah, let's go with that.—Drew Millard

By my count, my CMJ 2011 consisted of 13 metal sets. Not every one was great, but what impressed me overall was the willingness many of the bands displayed to cut across the genre's constrictive sub-borders. Locals Raspberry Bulbs and Tombs—whom I caught, respectively, at Saint Vitus on Tuesday and on Rock Off's East River--faring Jewel on Saturday—each drew on black metal; but while the former spiked the style with grimy punk, the latter took a more expansive and emotive path. Likewise, Norway's Kvelertak (who also played the Jewel) juxtaposed dire metalcore breakdowns with primitive, almost Queens of the Stone Age--ish rock & roll. Best of all, though, was Hull, a local quintet that toggled gracefully between doom and thrash stylings. On Friday night at Union Pool, the band's riffs, ground out by a trio of heavy-bearded six-stringers, rolled forth from the stage like massive boulders, and its stage presence oozed conviction; these were players who had clearly pored over everything from Sabbath to Mastodon, synthesizing their research into epic treatises on the nature of heavy.—Hank Shteamer

These rambunctious, young Cali garage-rockers got a rather staid-looking Wednesday crowd at Cake Shop to toss beers in the air, pogo and shove each other. No small feat. Almost every song seemed to be about some variation of smoking weed, trying to get laid and being broke—and if you have a soft spot for Harlem or early Black Lips, definitely check Fidlar out when it returns to NYC.—Tim Lowery

Talk Normal
It may have just been a matter of timing, but Talk Normal's pummeling, No Wave--inspired set at Littlefield on Thursday was perfect for pulling me out of my day-three CMJ exhaustion—only to drop me right back in. Like No Age fronted by two Kim Gordons, these gals' relentless riffs and glacial stage presence struck a chord in my heart. A single, ugly dissonant chord played for three minutes straight, but a chord nonetheless.—Jansen Cumbie

Grace Woodroofe
In retrospect, my musical endurance test (a.k.a. CMJ 2011) was dominated by a slew of badass female vocalists. Take neosoul chanteuse Alice Smith, whose gigantic voice was rivaled only by her feisty attitude, then tempered by the smooth jazz and R&B overtones of her sound; or Louisiana quintet Givers' Tiffany Lamson, whose front-and-center performance featured her playful vocals, exuberant percussion and smiling but vicious headbanging (not to mention ukulele and guitar playing); or Brittany Howard of band-you-must-listen-to Alabama Shakes, whose straightforward, smoldering voice literally shook the Bowery Ballroom. Though it was an extremely difficult #CMJdecision, the ultimate lady songbird for me was Grace Woodroofe, whom I caught at the intimate Living Room. The self-taught singer-songwriter, who hails from Australia, has a bluesy voice that can easily run the gamut from soulful croon to full-on howl to heartbroken wail. At one point during her set, she seemed completely lost in her composition: all six feet of black lace swaying woozily, fingers strumming guitar strings with astute rhythm, eyes closed and barely visible through the thick curtain of hair over her face. I looked around and saw that the crowd mirrored her trancelike state—not a trace of CMJ jadedness remained in the room.Marley Lynch

Zola Jesus
Every year, there's an artist (or two) who seems to walk away with CMJ (in '09, it was the xx; check our previous CMJ winners here)—and this year's hottest newcomer has to be Zola Jesus, pictured. Why? Because she puts on a show. The Zola Jesus experience is fully formed and thought out, rather than a bunch of scruffy hopefuls shambling onto the stage. At her Knitting Factory show on Tuesday, the tiny singer wore a white, druidlike robe, while her serious-looking backing band was clad in black. The 22-year-old singer (real name: Nika Roza Danilova) barely spoke to the crowd, making her booming, clear singing voice sound all the more remarkable. And sure, her songs do all sound pretty similar and lyrically she can be a little opaque. But if you're getting goosebumps the whole way through, who cares?—Sophie Harris