Music

The Best New Musical Artists of 2019

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

The best new musical artists of 2019 are all pushing boundaries as popular music becomes less genre focused. New artists are forging new identities, rather than occupying the convenient marketing categories of the past.

100 gecs

That 100 gecs hit top Billboard positions says something profound about our collective mental health. What that is, you can decide for yourself. 100 gecs has but two members. Dylan Brady, with his mad production skills, claims creds in some of today's freshest hip-hop-hyper-pop—Injury Reserve, Charli XCX, et al. Meanwhile Laura Les is cheeky and a total charmer.

The gecs' only album, 1000 gecs (ten times the band's own gec), oscillates between titillating and really aggravating. My first listen gecced me wondering, "Am I being played?" Well, the answer is yes, but also no. 1000 gecs is a black comedy, filled with incessant silliness, the totality of which is deadly serious.

The mighty gec may trigger a similar reaction as do, say, Death Grips or Ween—stuff that seems lawless but is indeed governed by a certain chaos. 100 gecs make you reach for your points of reference, found here in "trashy" popular music, meme logic, designer drugs, and, of course, gecs. It's one of those things you just gotta hear.

I want to leave you with this contemplation, from the chorus of "stupid horse": "Stupid horse, I just fell out of the Porsche / Lost the money in my bank account, oh no [4x] / Pick it up! / Wooo!" - A Noah Harrison

Black Midi

London's Black Midi are one of a few groups doing something interesting in today's anemic rock scene. They ooze a spastic kind of cool, bypassing more modern sounds in favor of '80s and '90s noise, math, post-punk and post-hardcore. You've got some Slint, This Heat, Pere Ubu, Foetus, Drives Like Jehu, the Dismemberment Plan, def Don Cab—still following? It doesn't matter. The point is, they know their stuff, and they know how to use it. They're certified music nerds. Honestly, the urge to compare Black Midi to such disparate acts speaks to the originality with which they synthesize the past.

Georgie Greep's vocals, snotty and affected, often serve a purpose more percussive than melodic. "bmbmbm", near-Dadaist sound poetry over a staggering clockwork beat, becomes a meditation on the human voice. It's quite funny. Though hard to say whether any of this is tongue in cheek—you get the feeling these blokes take themselves right seriously. With good reason, I should add. Black Midi came seemingly out of nowhere, signing their debut to Rough Trade and rapidly building a fanbase of fellow music nerds. See if you can catch them on this circuit—they're a sight to behold live. - A Noah Harrison

Dry Cleaning

South London quartet Dry Cleaning delivered earlier this year an impressive set of sleek and minimalist post-punk tracks on their debut EP, Sweet Princess. An unmistakably British dry sense of humor pervades the lyrics of lead vocalist Florence Shaw, who muses about the popularity of Meghan Markle and recites YouTube comments that range from the mundane to the sentimental in a captivating deadpan tone. Their second EP, Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, released in October, is moodier and more melodic but no less sharp. Dry Cleaning have proven to be a force to be reckoned with in the post-punk revival scene that has been brewing in the UK for the past two years. - Linnete Manrique

E-Sagilla

Boundaries in electronic music are meant to be fluid, allowing for endless experimentation with well-known, established recipes and novel ideas. E-Saggila is a proponent of this approach, having produced through the years a series of excellent works in Old Orders of Beauty, Lux Campaign and most recently My World, My Way. Yet, what is stunning is the transformation of E-Saggila through the years, with the producer's scope fiercely widening. The early days saw E-Saggila bounce between the areas of ambient electronic, techno with some extra flourishes tilting the style towards noise and even drone. But today, E-Saggila molds these elements into a solid form, creating a devastating sound that is vastly superior to the sum of its parts. Everything that gives hope about modern electronic music and forward-thinking art, in general, is presented in My World, My Way, a work that is devastating and melodic, hard-hitting, but also soothing. - Spyros Stasis

Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish had the kind of year where it's hard to believe, by the end of it, that she's a 'new' artist at all. And yes, she has been releasing music since at least 2016, but her first album and most of her impact to date has been this year. If anything, she's having a quintessential 'best new artist' year. There's the string of hits, the successful album, the festival dates, the adulation both of kids and their elders, even the post-album single reflecting on the emptiness of it all, the quite good "Everything I Wanted".

At the very least, it now feels like Billie Eilish will be prominent for quite some time. There have been essays written on any number of elements of her sound and writing style. Her brother Finneas has so far proven very adept at programming sympathetic backings for her distinct, often whispery register. And the kids do largely get that "I wanna end me" in "Bury a Friend" is not suicidal ideation, at least not the way concerned parents are thinking. Even if she does nothing more than keep making the kind of sad bangers and sarcastic jams she's known for, there's a rawness to her grappling with the world and her mental health that will likely keep the kids (and plenty of adults) coming back for more. - Ian Mathers

Ekiti Sound

Producer Ekiti Sound – a moniker used by Leke Awayinka, also known as ChiF – deeply understands the musical landscape of his native Nigeria, as evidenced by the way he pieces it together on this year's debut album Abeg No Vex. With a visionary mix of vintage samples and ultra-modern beats, he presents folk, electronic dance music, hip-hop, and social commentary alike in a multidimensional portrait of present-day Lagos (and its cultural flows with London) with energy to spare.

As an artist, Ekiti Sound is the complete package. The sonic portrait he paints of his Nigeria is brilliant and thorough, and his technical skills, as evidenced by Abeg No Vex, are considerable. He makes moves both smooth and quick, sometimes flowing from track to track and sometimes taking sharp turns. There is purpose in every step, though, and taken as a whole, Ekiti Sound's first work shows who he is – a vibrant Nigerian artist with an unstoppably creative mind. - Adriane Pontecorvo

Flo Milli

Flo Milli is a star, and it "ain't up for debate". Though she only recently became a bigger name, Flo Tamia Carter has possessed all the right tools for a few years now. The "debate" line comes from "White Girl Mia", a brash, at times shocking display of attitude and musical aptitude. The track arrived in early 2018 at an ideal time, just before spring, but it took a year for Flo Milli to enter the greater consciousness.

While Tik Tok remains a mostly unknown territory for me, I love its ability to ignite, or in some cases, reignite a song's popularity. "Beef Flomix" manages a bit of both, reviving an old Ethereal/Playboi Carti song while launching Flo Milli to viral fame. But unlike "Old Town Road", which succeeds largely off of novelty, "Beef Flomix" made rounds because it's a truly stellar sound. The production's syncopated clangs perfectly suit the rise and fall of her flow, which displays mockery and rhythmic mastery all at once. Its success brought attention back to early triumphs such as "Not Friendly" while paving the way for new songs, which for now just includes piano-punctuated "In the Party". Whether you examine the present or past material, either point to a bright and deliciously bratty future. - Mick Jacobs

Glass Beach

Glass Beach needs fans! Not because they're greedy but because they have way too much fun for themselves alone. The LA foursome's hour-long debut goes down like a tall, tart, ice-cold lemonade in the summer heat. The heart-melting charm lies in their earnest emotion, willingness to jam out, rain or shine. Unabashedly twee, it's so obvious they really, truly care. Theirs is a new sincerity, so refreshing in our post-ironic world. From their self-titled track "glass beach": "I stopped taking calls for the first time, then I cut off my phone line / And took the Highway One for nowhere south / When Yuki said I should just call up family / And tell them how I felt."

If their energy is the heart, the brain is their super-creative composition—an overpowering nostalgia that comes from their heavy use of signifiers. Glass Beach channels '60s pop, '70s prog rock, '80s synthpop, '90s indie, '00s emo and somehow jazz. Madness. They've got the trippiness of Tame Impala, the flamboyance of Fall Out Boy, the moodiness of Modern Baseball, the ego de/elevation of Everything Everything.

But why? To quote the About section of the band's Facebook: "[G]lass [B]each embraces the trend towards genrelessness caused by the democratization of music brought about by the internet and enjoy playing with musical boundaries even to the point of absurdity." No need to get heady, though. Listening to Glass Beach is like chilling with a bunch of dudes, just bangin' on shit and generally havin' a good time. And above all, a real time. - A Noah Harrison

Idle Hands

Born from the ashes of speed metal band Spellcaster, Portland's Idle Hands decided to head in a completely different direction, and all that did was yield Mana, one of the most exciting debut albums of 2019. While it is certainly not new to see metal bands dabble in gothic rock sounds, Idle Hands display uncanny expertise when it comes to the vintage goth sounds of the 1980s. Channeling the Cure, Sisters of Mercy, and Fields of the Nephilim and imbuing that mood with muscular metal riffs, it's a strikingly original sound, one that attracts headbangers who are ready to mosh, but in the end wind up dancing in a gloomy reverie. - Adrien Begrand

Jade Bird

The charismatic English singer-songwriter Jade Bird found her inspirations in the classic acoustic country rock music of the past (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen). She transformed the style to the present through her youth (she's only 21) and creativity. She's also following in their footsteps by touring heavily and connecting with audiences through live performances. The ever-smiling artist conveys intelligence and heart. Sometimes that grin is a hidden sneer. In some songs, romance is just a knife.

Bird also puts the rock back in roots rock. She has a voice that sounds young and innocent, with an unsteady bottom that suggests experience and pain. Songs such as "Uh Huh" and "Love Has All Been Done Before" reveal her strength while others like "17" show the power in exposing one's vulnerability as a singer. Jade Bird's voice may be her greatest asset. However, this is not all she's got. Bird also writes literate and dramatic material and plays her guitar and piano with energy and bravado. These elements combine to make her an outstanding new talent. - Steve Horowitz

Jayda G

Vancouver-born Jayda Guy is a globe-trotting DJ and a marine biologist obsessed by the conservation of Canada's killer whales. She finds no dissonance between these two disciplines and, in fact, considers it her duty to your booty to combine the two. This year's Significant Changes, coming after a long run of singles and collaborations, incorporates whale songs and frantic entreaties from her fellow biologists. But it's not a grim polemic but a thoughtful, benevolent album that—whether it's to save the world or just to get off Instagram and get to shaking your ass—has faith in us. - Daniel Bromfield

Lil Nas X

Last year was a herculean year for country-rap artist Lil Nas X. Following the 19-week run as the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, "Old Town Road" was a musical force. With his social media savviness and deft awareness of popular culture, Lil Nas X followed-up with "Old Town Road (The Remix)" featuring the ever-so-appealing opportunist Billy Ray Cyrus. Signing onto Columbia Records, then releasing the 7 EP in June, Lil Nas X has maintained his virial-inducing appeal.

In the follow-up "Panini", Lil Nas X paints an image of a corporate hellscape, a deft critique of the overlap between capitalism and art. Lil Nas X is cavalierly self-aware as he uses himself as the name brand barked by the corporate entities trying to seem woke. Exposing the presence of society's ills is a role the musician knows well. After coming out and receiving a mostly positive response, Lil Nas X did face vitriol from a small but vocal contingent. In doing so. Lil Nas X shined a light on the systematic homophobia in the music industry and supporting fanbases. Indeed, Lil Nas X represents an exciting shift in popular culture. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

Lucki

Imagine Chief Keef raised on the same diet of austere European architecture Kanye explored to make Yeezus and you have Lucki, one of Chicago's coolest and most interesting young rappers. A self-described "alternative trap" artist with one foot in the bohemian Chance the Rapper school and another in Keef's world of monotone, post-traumatic music, Lucki's been quietly building one of the strongest bodies of work of any rapper in that city's fertile 2010s. This year's Freewave 3 and Days B4 III comprise one of the year's most impressive twofers—and his "debut album" is still on the way. - Daniel Bromfield

Megan Thee Stallion

The rise of Cardi B was tied to a song, but the rise of Megan Thee Stallion was a next-level cultural phenomenon. Summer 2019, forever known as Hot Girl Summer, was, in essence, the summer of Meg. It was the music, of course. The renewed pervasiveness of older hits like "Big Ole Freak" and "Freak Nasty" mingled with her newer batch, most notably "Cash Shit" and "Realer", on which Megan goes harder than any of her prior material. But it was also about Megan's star power, and her unique ability to foster a climate of female rap that had never been seen under the reign of Nicki Minaj or the school of male-cosigned rapstresses that came before her.

Though at this point in her career, her lyrics and sonic palette aren't earthshattering, that isn't really the point. What Megan represents is a new dawn for the prospects of female rappers in a musical economy where rap is by far the most lucrative, both in literal and cultural currency. Megan's ability to occupy her own lane is a signal of the potential for her career, as well as the careers of the women around her.

At the American Music Awards, Megan predicted a Hot Girl Year - her freewheeling mentality rolling through the school semester, into the spring, and right back to where the phenomenon started. If Hot Girl Summer is anything like Groundhog Day - where it just keeps rolling so long as Megan sees her shadow - we should count ourselves lucky that Megan is Thee Stallion - she casts a very tall one. - Nick Malone

Sequoyah Murray

Sequoyah Murray, clearly a student of the entire world of music, has emerged as one of the most intriguing new artists of 2019. Comparisons to late composer musician/composer Arthur Russell are inevitable and invited, as Murray is a devoted fan of Russell's work. But Murray's influences are wide-ranging, from the rap and jazz scenes of his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to early '80s technopop, as embodied by artists as varied as Prince and Depeche Mode.

Murray originally released a four-song EP, Penalties of Love, in May. The title track is a good introduction to Murray since it spotlights his unusual voice, which has been described as a three-octave baritone. Murray sings surrounded by a warm musical bed of keyboards and a bottle flute, all played by Murray, and drums/percussion played by his father, Kenito Murray. Murray's mom joins him on backing vocals. "Penalties of Love" is a beguiling introduction to Murray, who was 21 when the EP was released.

Murray's full-length debut, Before You Begin, fulfills the promise of the EP, and then some. "Penalties of Love" is the only holdout from the EP, but Before You Begin is a stunner from beginning to end, featuring songs as playful as "Sublime" and the title track; and as mystical as "Blue Jays", which matches burbling electronics with a viola in a beautifully startling way.

It is tempting to say that it'll be intriguing to see where Sequoyah Murray goes with this seemingly boundless creativity. But it's probably more appropriate to listen intently to the 11 songs Murray has released in 2019 and contemplate on where the man is right now. - Rich Wilhelm

Ossia

Bristol has nurtured an exquisite underground scene, ranging from punk rock and post-punk to reggae and trip-hop. The ethos of the scene was always defined by the willingness of its members to experiment, a process that led to the big explosion of trip-hop in the '90s. Based in Bristol, Ossia shares the same experimental attitude towards electronic music, but his excavations have unearthed a darker, subliminal element rather the dreamy essence of the previous decade.

Following a series of singles and EPs, Ossia unleashed Devil's Dance, an absolute magnum opus of experimental electronic music through abstract concepts, hard hitting techno influences and dub atmospherics. The work is a rare gem, capable of accommodating the spirit of an entire scene, while at the same time Ossia makes a distinct pivot towards an unexplored dimension. The music of Ossia is a descent to a hellish dancefloor, an area dark and obscure where electronic music gets contorted around its main themes to produce a gloriously distorted mirror image. - Spyros Stasis

Bree Runway

The voice, the verve, the vision – Bree Runway boasts all in abundance. A UK vocalist with a distinct rhythmic delivery, Runway falls into many genres considered hotbeds for new musical talent. Her latest EP, Be Runway, fluctuates between underground club sounds and avant-garde pop. At times she embodies Sega Bodega or Brooke Candy as on the jittery "X2C", while you detect hints of Metropolis/Archandroid era Janelle Monae on "All Night".

Matching Runway's unique musicality is an equally unusual yet cultivated aesthetic, which lends itself to captivating, thought-provoking imagery. Bree Runway's album artwork unsettles the eye like a Goosebumps book cover with its exaggerated features, whereas videos for "Big Racks" and "All Night" showcase her avant-garde, killer fashion sense. As long as her team maintains the same level of focus as Bree's, expect to see her career take off in 2020. - Mick Jacobs

Sampa the Great

Poet, rapper, and singer Sampa Tembo – better known as Sampa the Great – was born in Zambia, raised in Botswana, spent time studying in the United States, and now lives in Australia, where she began her professional music career with features, a mixtape, and some standalone singles starting in 2015. This year saw her full-length debut, The Return, and on it, she shows every color she has with aplomb – and each one is bright. With a tendency toward socially and politically conscious lyrics and the phenomenal flow it takes to execute them, Sampa has the exceptional talent and natural charisma she needs to keep rising. Her emergence this year is doubtless only the start. - Adriane Pontecorvo

Skinny Pelembe

After a number of well-received singles and EP releases in both 2017 and 2018, Skinny Pelembe released Dreaming Is Dead Now this year on Brownswood – an album that, in spite of its dreary title, is a blissful listen, ethereal and full of fascinating lines and loops. Both as producer and singer, Pelembe makes lo-fi sounds with powerful echoes, deriving as much energy from shadows as from sunshine. He moves between smoky dreamscapes and punchy, stripped-down funk with an eclectic touch, at times delving into concrete social critique or playing with choral sounds, elements that work equally well with his distinct, endlessly expanding style. - Adriane Pontecorvo

Slowthai

On his debut full-length Nothing Great About Britain, the Northampton rapper slowthai refuses to remain listlessly disillusioned and rather abrasively takes on his nation's dominant institutions and ideologies. Aligning himself with artists such as Idles and JPEGMAFIA, slowthai joins the emerging collective of explosively angry but still precise musicians. That is, he aims to antagonize but for a thoughtful purpose. With such a blunt album title, slowthai planned to release NGAB during Britain's departure from the European Union. While postponements stymied such plans, his intent still rang true throughout 2019 as songs like the "Nothing Great About Britain" and "Inglorious feat. Skepta" not only take on Brexit but also violent nationalism, growing wage disparities, and a history of colonialism.

It is a necessary evolution of the UK punk ethos and sound, as heard on the defining genre-bending cut "Doorman", produced by Mura Masa. On it, slowthai demands, "Doorman, let me in the door / Spent all my money, you ain't gettin' no more wages". And, it is with such call to arms that slowthai hopes to transform the youths' festering disillusionment into passionate action. - Hans Kim

Strange Breed

If there's any justice in this world, Strange Breed would be the next big thing in rock music. Comprised of four talented musicians from Vancouver, British Columbia, this all-female, all-queer band channel Veruca Salt, Hole, and Sleater-Kinney on their excellent debut album Permanence. They are confrontational, political, and raucous, but also capable of a wicked hook, as anthem-in-the-making "Closer" suggests. Led by the powerful voice of Nicolle Dupas, Strange Breed bring a refreshing sense of inclusivity and positivity to the overt – and tiresome – heteronormativity of modern rock music. Dear mainstream rock radio: less Theory of a Dead Man, and more Strange Breed. Please. - Adrien Begrand

Yola

The 35-year-old English singer-songwriter Yola may sound very American on her Dan Auerbach produced debut full-length album, but her voice has a distinctive drawl. It's not the American South one hears, but a British accent (think the Kinks' "Muswell Hillbillies" or Dusty Springfield in Memphis recordings). That somehow gives her vocals an authenticity because she sings without imported affectation. Yola has a winning stage presence and can move an audience equally with lyrics about a quiet Sunday drive or a sultry, loving all-night experience. Her country influences may be clear, but her London via Bristol connections also come through. That may be one reason she covers Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" in concert. Yola may have been looking for Oz. She seems to have discovered her heart, brains, and courage as her original material proclaims she has found them by looking inside and being true to herself. Auerbach may be a musical wiz, but it's Yola herself that is the center of her story. - Steve Horowitz



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