Much of the best music to come from Los Angeles in 2008 was about obscuring, misdirecting and pressing forward in the dark. The five standout acts (and one bonus selection) below nod to local traditions -- punk ballistics, free jazz, feral psych and heat-wave hip-hop -- but are more interested in breaking them down and rebuilding them in difficult new ways. Expect to hear more from these groundbreaking Southern California artists in 2009.
If your band writes songs under two minutes long, employs a stockroom worth of noisemaking gadgets and enjoys the tasty vegan snacks of Crops and Rawbers, you probably had a good 2008. The Mae Shi, Meho Plaza, Abe Vigoda and Health each had fizzy and spastically rad albums this year (Health had two!), but No Age did it best by leaving many of those tropes behind.
On "Nouns," it finally synthesized the strafing-run hard-core workouts and ponderous ambient loops of its many singles into a coherent and improbably catchy whole, making fans such as Pete Wentz and the New Yorker. The "Smell scene" is always whatever a given year's crop of kids makes of it. This year it was the dead center of forward-thinking rock.
After J. Dilla's death, hip-hop has been searching for a new producer of fractured fairy tales in which beats are less about nodding your head than about lying flat on your bed with a fine herbal supplement. The 25-year-old Northridge producer Steven Ellison, who records as Flying Lotus, seems poised to grab that brass gravity bong. His "L.A." EP series tested the waters of a mangled sort of hip-hop and avant-garde jazz in which samples are exactly that: tiny pieces of a stream-of-consciousness narrative that yield a thousand little instant pleasures. His LP "Los Angeles" blew it out into a Technicolor whole that's as sensually revelatory, mind-melting and physically exhausting as a lost weekend in Amsterdam.
Everything about this new trio could have emerged from Central Casting. The Strokes' drummer, Fabrizio Moretti, presumably bored with dating movie stars and curating his drainpipe jean collection, helms a side project steeped in au courant Latin haze with two super-sexy cohorts, including a woman named Binki. Then they just had to go and name it after the Echo Park bar that's the beating heart of Hipsteristan. Good thing that its self-titled debut is as unpretentious, sweet-tempered and hook-generous as the band name implies.
Darker My Love Crystal Antlers
Psychedelia never goes out of style in L.A., but in most years it tends toward Laurel Canyon throwbacks in which boyfriends and girlfriends don headbands and paisley and sing about feeding deer in their backyards. This year, two bands reclaimed the mantle in service of something far more dangerous. The Dangerbird quintet Darker My Love woke up one morning and decided to become awesome, and its aptly titled second album, "2," splits the difference between a Sabbath stomp and shoe-gazey simmer.
Likewise, Crystal Antlers picked a great time to figure out that what the MC5 really needed was monster-movie keyboards and a few more distortion pedals.
The Game whipped up a decent single this year and the Knux led the Starter-jacketed hipster-hop pack, but this Carson-based MC looks like the big hope for L.A. hip-hop in the years to come. He's about the only local rapper who can get Dr. Dre on the phone anymore, and on his criminally slept-on single "Grow Up," he puts the hood on the couch and diagnoses everything wrong with rap culture with brutally true jabs like "Still cruisin' Crenshaw at 36 / Your wife at home, you're wastin' gas," and "Go out to eat it's your treat, then at the last minute / say you forgot got it, you never had it."
The available cuts from his mix-tape "The Confessional" and out-someday album (wink, nudge, Interscope) "The Reformation" are rooted in Dre's deep-end synth squiggles, but the morally articulate and lyrically urgent vision is all Lamont's.