the-best-new-emerging-artists-of-2015

The Best New / Emerging Artists of 2015

There was no shortage of new and exciting music in 2015. From the rise of a major new jazz talent challenging boundaries to ever more experimental R&B, this crop of artists gave us a lot of great music this year.

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Algiers

American indie rock has never been known for its political activism, but the typically inward-looking gaze of the genre came across as stale in the volatile environment of 2015. Intentionally or not, Algiers have upended that notion. Their moody, nervy take on post-punk fuses with soul and R&B to create something akin to a gospel choir announcing the apocalypse, with singer Franklin James Fisher’s voice and lyrics acting as an accusatory finger pointing at the bastards that brought us here. It’s a far cry from the days of “post-punk” as a catch-all tag for derivative bands in the early 2000s; Algiers make music with a purpose, not as a fashion style. Their music is an alarm clock, and it’s about damn time we woke up and took notice. — Kevin Korber

 
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Angel-Ho

Cape Town, South Africa artist Angel-Ho labors between two of 2015’s most groundbreaking labels — Rabit’s Halycon Veil, which put out his essential, brutal, and jarring foley grime EP Ascension (mastered by Arca) and NON, a loose collective of international artists lead by Angel-Ho, Nkisi, and Chino Amobi. In his own words, “NON is a collective of African artists and of the diaspora using sound as their medium to articulate the recurring violence on non-white bodies.” That violence is everywhere on these cuts. Angel-Ho and Amobi both drop mixes like narratives; they grate like global conflict, scream and howl like awakening demons, and snarl and thrash like the proper come-uppance of the institutions that stifle us. But there’s great beauty in all this ugly. It follows more of the legacy of Throbbing Gristle’s documentary pan and scan (though less Eurocentric in scope) than the parochialism of a disquieted Dizzee Rascal. It’s not as much about the strength of street knowledge as the chaos of information overload and the way its would-be exploiters create new dangers in that clutter. Breathless in its breadth, Angel-Ho’s music assures us that he’s not done with us, and this is a very frightening and exhilarating concept indeed. — Timothy Gabriele

 
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Banditos

It’s a good thing the Americana music tent is so large, because Nashville-by-way-of-Birmingham’s Banditos officially arrived at the party this year and promptly proceeded to take up a ton of space, both physically (there are six of ’em!) and sonically, as their self-titled debut is a wild mash-up of bar room boogie ‘n’ stomp, R&B, garage, country, soul and psych rock. These guys (and gal) are no genre-hopping dilettantes, however; their musical knowledge runs deep, with rockabilly blowouts like “Still Sober (After All These Beers)” and the jazzy “Long Gone, Anyway” nestled comfortably next to each other on their freewheeling album. Signed to the perfect record label for their musical styles (Bloodshot), Banditos also had the good fortune to make the scene the year No Depression magazine triumphantly returned to print after a seven-year hiatus. Americana music never really goes away, however, and Banditos happily, joyfully, bring it to the party all at once. — Stephen Haag

 
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Courtney Barnett

Australian-born Courtney Barnett made a bit of splash with the 2013 single “Avant Gardener” with its swirling, psychedelic-cum-noise hooks and smart, sharp lyrics that were equal parts laugh and lesson, so when her ode to suburban desperation “Depreston” hit radio earlier this year the most obvious thing for it to do was catch fire listeners. And catch fire it did. Reminiscent of the halcyon days of slackerdom (the 1990s) with Pavement/Breeders-style feels and the kind of observational lyrics that only come around once in a blue Lou Reed, the songs that occupy Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit are perfectly biting, catchy, and loveable. — Jedd Beaudoin

 
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Leon Bridges

Leon Bridges has a honeyed voice that makes everything sound sweet. He’s also good-looking, has nice posture, dresses well, and is immensely charismatic. Bridges has went from washing dishes in Houston to appearing on Saturday Night Live in record time, due in part to his breakout success at South by Southwest. Live, he can mesmerize a crowd though his very presence and on record he can break through the clatter of products out there just by singing. Bridges is that good. He evokes the sound of early ’60s soul yet comes off as something markedly contemporary. Bridges does something different just by doing something traditional, a neat trick that indicates a bright future ahead. — Steve Horowitz

 
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Bully

Alicia Bognanno is a cool older sister, the person who seems to reveal too much until “too much” seems like an irrelevant way to categorize information, the person through whom you can see and against whom you can test the social and existential crises that were certain to be visited upon you later, who listened to Veruca Salt and L7 and knew Courtney Love was smarter than she was crazy. In fact, she is who made you rethink the concept of craziness, and rethink love and care, too, rethink what you’re allowed to say for yourself and allowed to ask for, who showed you how loud a guitar could really go, and exactly how loud you have to scream to be heard over it. — Michael Opal

 
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Cam

Sam Hunt’s label just re-released the EP he made more before his breakout album, which suggests that in this weird digital space where everyone is impatient and the single reigns — a career can be made on five songs and no physical product. Maybe it’s my poptimist heritage, but I always get more excited about a single than an album and so Cam’s EP was this year’s Hunt. I don’t care about the new full-length, I don’t care that she had a half aborted career as a pop writer before she moved to Nashville, all I care about is that this year. Over streaming, and on YouTube cuts clipped from pressers, morning shows and award shows, I got to hear how she fronted past heartbreak on “My Mistake”, and the best train song since Josh Turner’s break out single, “Long Black Train”. It’s also 80% less cynical than the CMA coronation of Chris Stapleton. — Anthony Easton

 
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Alessia Cara

Alessia Cara’s rise to popularity has been startlingly fast and, considering her faux-outcast pose, paradoxical. “Here”, the song that propelled her to stratospheric heights, is the perfect battlecry for the lonesome. In it, Cara half sings, half speaks, soundtracking a very particular, definite existential crisis taking place at college parties. An antisocial pessimist, as she puts it. 2015 has been more than “Here” for Cara. This year has seen the release of her inaugural, almost obligatory first EP, Four Pink Walls, as well as her debut album, the aptly titled Know-It-All. Somehow, this extraordinarily rapid chain of events brings me back to one of “Here’s” best lines, which is not even a line per se: “I guess now you got the last laugh”, a mysterious, ghost-like voice says in the background, over some pristine beats. And, guess what, she didn’t say it. I guess being the outcast really pays off after all. — Danilo Bortoli

 
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Cave of Swimmers

In the past two years, these two Venezuelan American metal dudes from Miami have released two spellbinding short albums on their own label; each album contains four songs. I’m pretty sure if you add all that shit up you get 666, or at least something close. But lest you go reporting Cave of Swimmers to Cultwatch, note their 2015 single, “The Prince of the Power of the Air”, is actually a prayer for deliverance from said Prince. In fact, it’s the most badass prayer you’ve ever heard, and it seems directed towards God. If you’re playing along with your Metal Bingo card, you should have covered the spaces for indie, Latin, and sort-of-Christian-y by now, but I promise these guys don’t sound like Soulfly. No, this pair delivers a decidedly prog-sludge racket with a subtext of Miami disco. G.E. Perez’s guitar switches effortlessly between pretty ostinatos and diabolical flat-note soliloquies; his singing trembles with operatic menace. Drummer Arturo García enjoys leavening the proceedings with danceable grooves. Case in point: Their instrumental “Reflection”, which closes their must-hear album Reflection, suggests a heavy take on Change’s classic Italo-disco album ender “The End”. In my mind they’re still running. — Josh Langhoff

 
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Steven A Clark

After an album and an EP on Secretly Canadian, Steven A Clark’s sound still felt fairly anonymous until 2015. The release of The Lonely Roller made Steven A Clark a stand out musician this year. The album itself is a triumph, with a sound somewhere between Kelis and Peter Gabriel. The title track cleverly mixed a pulsating four on the floor beat with a tale of a lone wolf in a city eighth bright lights. However, the standouts on the album include “Floral Print”, an amazing song about regret which bests some of Frank Ocean’s best heartbreak material. The other highlight from the album is “Bounty”, which is reminiscent of a late ‘90s hit with influences of blues, indie pop, soul and electronic music. With an album that is more genre-bending than most other alternative R&B albums this year, it’s easy to see why Steven A Clark is one of the prime hopefuls for innovation in R&B. — Devone Jones

Deradoorian to Gwenno

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Deradoorian

Granted, Angel Deradoorian has been on the scene for a number of years at the time of this writing. A current member of Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks and contributor to recent albums by the likes of Flying Lotus, Charlie XCX, Matmos and the Roots, she was a major player in Bitte Orca, the magnum opus of Dirty Projectors released back in 2009, and her debut EP came out that same year. It would be six long years from the release of her EP until the world finally got the chance to hear her first proper solo full-length, but, cliché as it sounds, the wait was well worth it. The Expanding Flower Planet is a mesmerizing neo-psychedelic art-pop journey, and no 2015 year-end list is complete without it. The album was entirely written by Deradoorian, who estimated that she played upwards of 90% of it herself, so the chances of her repeating her success are favorable to say the least. She is the real deal. — Alan Ranta

 
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C Duncan

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist C Duncan dropped his stunning debut Architect earlier this year to overwhelming critical acclaim, even landing a Mercury Music Prize nomination in the interim. The son of two classical musicians and a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland for music composition, the 26-year-old Glaswegian creates the type of delicate, pastoral dream pop, intimate electronic-tinged folk and luxurious choral harmonies normally attributed to an entire stage full of musicians. Knowing that the 12 songs on his intricately crafted debut are the product of one man toiling away for a year in his bedroom seems remarkable enough, but Architect is the type of debut that displays more compositional maturity than found on the majority of artists’s entire catalogues. An accomplished painter whose works have been shown throughout Scotland and can be seen gracing all of his EP and album covers, Duncan’s immense talent seemingly knows no limitations. If there was any justice still lingering out there in the music industry, his debut would have won that coveted prize, but the immense publicity surrounding his nomination is a career triumph all to its own. — Ryan Lathan

 
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Fetty Wap

If the rise of Fetty Wap in 2015 doesn’t make you feel even a little bit joyful, then I fear you’ve been a replicant all along. Here’s an artist from Paterson, New Jersey — the hometown of precisely zero pop stars — who lost his left eye to congenital glaucoma, and has a catch phrase that’s the same as Austin Powers’. And his now-ubiquitous “trap&B” sound — thin synths and drum machines fluttering underneath his confident, warbling croon — is as uncompromising as his backstory. When the obligatory major label debut dropped in September, it was refreshingly bereft of famous guests. Fetty Wap doesn’t bother with a rambling intro about the pitfalls of newfound fame. It just starts with his signature hit “Trap Queen”, followed by 19 songs created in its image. By not wasting his time insisting that he’s still keeping it real, Fetty Wap is doing just that. Yeeeaaaah baby, indeed. — Joe Sweeney

 
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Floating Points

Sam Shepherd had already gained his PhD in neuroscience when Floating Points started generating buzz. Looks like he wanted to tap at neurons in a different fashion this time around. Certainly Elaeina is some delicious food for the brain and ears. It’s a record that’s damn near impossible to label. Are there strands of straight up dance music? Well of course, but DNA samples of chamber, jazz, ambient, and anything else Shepherd wanted to poke at end up on Elaeina in a dizzying, yet cohesive fashion. Surely with his studies on the human mind, Shepherd knows that Elaeina will start a budding addiction. Surely this is only the first proper taste from something captivating. What else will evolve? — Nathan Stevens

 
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Jake Xerxes Fussell

The word “new” seems out of place set next to the name Jake Xerxes Fussell, since he specializes so much in old music. A student of Southern blues and country music seemingly from birth, this year Fussell used his debut, self-titled album to bring arcane songs of this ilk into the light, through his compelling singing and guitar playing. On the album, released early in the year on the label Paradise of Bachelors, Fussell and producing collaborator William Tyler set these would-be dusty gems in an airy room under a flattering skylight. The resulting album is a vital set of music that contains history in its bones yet feels absolutely of the moment. That’s largely a testament to the care and understanding approach Fussell takes to old Southern music, but also to the sheer talent he displays in his performance. — Dave Heaton

 
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Sam Gelliatry

Having released two extremely high-quality Soundcloud trap projects in 2015, Short Stories EP and Ideas, along with a number of equally impressive singles, producer Sam Gellaitry has found himself on the radar of numerous tastemakers and critics. While he can make a name for himself continually putting out forward-thinking beats on Soundcloud, the deciding factor for most producers is how they can make the leap to producing for others. For anybody who’s heard a Gellaitry beat, it’s assumed they’ve dreamed of their favorite rapper tackling one of his releases. Hopefully 2016 is the year we find out what that sounds like. — Brian Duricy

 
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Girl Band

In a year when the old notion of what constituted indie rock more than 20 years ago is all but a faint memory, with so many contemporary bands mustering about as much energy as Bruce Hornsby and the Association, along come Girl Band, a Dublin foursome who blew the roof off the genre with the roaring, visceral Holding Hands With Jamie. The early buzz on Girl Band was how they were so intense in a live setting, and although that side of their sound is indeed palpable on this debut album, the most remarkable aspect is the music’s discipline. Krautrock is as important an influence as noise rock, and the two sides create an incredible dynamic, and therein lies this band’s genius. It’s all about tension and release through taut Can/Neu! beats and cathartic blasts of distortion and feedback. Not since Savages have we heard a new indie rock band harness this kind of intensity with such supreme skill, which is reassurance that indie rock isn’t dead yet. — Adrien Begrand

 
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Girlpool

Girlpool’s minimalism seems destined (or designed) to be covered by moody classmates at a talent show, but it’s not amateurish; Before the World Was Big is highly-calibrated music for emotionally underserved teenagers. This ten-string, one-chord-per-track duo is whip-smart, able to articulate the emotional and experiential realities of young adulthood with intricately developed harmonic and structural good sense. When asked, Girlpool claim to be “SIXTY-FIVE AND BALDING”, though the record puts them in the late teens, meaning that when we compare them to their elders, I remember a line from Henry James: “There was nothing that at a given moment you could say an intelligent child didn’t know.” Youth is a perspective too often thought of in retrospect, something we’re supposed to grow out of. Girlpool makes a strong (I’d say definitive) case that youth brings its own aesthetic rewards. — Michael Opal

 
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Grounders

Coming out of a Toronto music scene that has never been more populated, vital, and diverse, Grounders still manage to stand out in 2015. The band began some years ago with an impromptu basement jam session with improvised instruments, after which the line-up of Andrew Davis, Daniel Busheikin, Evan Lewis, and Michael Searle solidified naturally over time. Their very first record, the Wreck of a Smile EP, came out in 2013, but with the gap between that effort and this year’s self-titled debut album, Grounders served as an introduction for many, and a reintroduction for those already familiar. Every song on Grounders successfully attempts something different than the one before it, from bubbling krautrock to grey sky indie slow-dance to ‘70s shag carpet blues rock riffs. — Ian King

 
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Gwenno

Ten years ago Gwenno Saunders was cheerily singing “Pull Shapes” and “Dirty Mind” with indie pop darlings the Pipettes. Today she’s a rising Welsh auteur who has put together one of the most original, creative albums of the year. A concept album inspired by Owain Owain’s science fiction novel of the same name, Y Dydd Olaf combines airy European synthpop with the trance-inducing krautrock of Can and Neu!, making for a wonderfully cosmic, or Kosmische rather, experience that extracts great beauty out of gentle, minimalist arrangements. For those who don’t understand Welsh, Saunders’ singing sounds even more otherworldly, only adding to the record’s mystical quality. So clever is her work that it’s easy to understand why it’s warranted to call her the best Welsh musical export since Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. — Adrien Begrand

Ibeyi and Travis Scott

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Ibeyi

Twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz make music that blends hip-hop rhythms, Yoruba mythology, personal narrative, keyboard chords, and lovely harmonized vocals in a style that feels at once natural, as though they’ve been doing this since birth, and astonishing. Ibeyi’s songs cover ground ranging from love stories to folk tales and eulogies for their sister and father, the conguero Anga Díaz who played with Buena Vista Social Club. The sisters’ individual talents fuse seamlessly: Lisa Kaindé writes and sings melody while playing keyboard, and Naomi experiments with percussive instruments including the Peruvian cajón, the Yoruba batá drum, synthesized drum loops, and her own hands and limbs. Like the best duos and like many twins, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi share a common language but accent its sounds in distinctive ways. — Annie Galvin

 
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Tobias Jesso Jr.

From the “When life gives you lemons” department… Los Angeles-area bassist moves back to Vancouver to deal with a messy breakup, finds out his mom has cancer, learns piano at 27 and uses the setbacks as fuel for some sadsack ’70s singer/songwriter piano pop tunes (think Randy Newman, Carole King), connects with Girls’ bassist JR White and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, both of whom co-produce some of the songs that would wind up on Jesso’s debut, Goon — including one track, “How Could You Babe”, that Adele (!) tweets about, which exposure gets him a gig on Jimmy Fallon’s show before said album is even released. It’s been a busy stretch for Jesso, whose earnest, unadorned brand of heart-on-sleeve pop reminds listeners that a good old-fashioned breakup record still has a place in these irony-heavy times. The only question is, Now that things are looking up for him, what will he write about for the follow-up record? — Stephen Haag

 
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Lady Lamb

Aly Spaltro, AKA Lady Lamb and formerly Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, first burst into indie attention with her 2013 album Ripely Pine, and more particularly the emotional cannonball of the single “Bird Balloons”. Six minutes long, the song features her classically poetic lyrics as well as a survey of the various genres she works in: upbeat indie pop, gentle guitar ballads, and ball-busting rock. Spaltro began writing music while working at a video rental store in her hometown of Brunswick, Maine. After closing the store, Spaltro would stay there all night, tracking guitar, banjo, bass, and vocal lines all by herself. With this year’s terminally underrated After, she worked with a full band and studio musicians, leading to surprising moments like the bombastic horns at the end of “Violet Clementine” or the orchestral sweep on album-closer “Atlas”. While only 25, she writes, performs, and arranges like a seasoned professional. Her lyrics ponder the infinite in the mundane, grappling as easily with issues of life and death as with the issue of checking a phone for the time while ignoring the watch on your wrist. This mundanity lets her songs sound surprising and familiar at the same time. Or as she puts it on “Milk Duds”: “I am an old song that you once knew / you can’t remember me for the life of you.” — Logan Austin

 
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Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

It only took a matter of a few good months for a mother and son performing duo from the Kansas City coffeehouse scene to jump headfirst into recognition from the big leagues. I’d like to think that a big part of what had led them to appearances on Letterman and Holland is that they’re much more than just another twee development from the realm of parent-child collaboration headlines. Madisen and his “Mama Bear” Ruth capture folk music in inexplicably raw form like its rarely taken in its current age. The Wards are effective storytellers, each an essential part of the others’ equation, that take pride in their craft. There is an unarticulated cohesiveness between mother and son which emanates throughout the large breadth of their work thus far. Whether it’s in the call to forgo judgment in the jangly “Silent Movies” or pondering the meaning of life itself in “Modern Day Mystery”, they capture the purity and edge of traditional folk music for the modern audience. — Jonathan Frahm

 
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Ought

Montreal’s Ought live at Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn was one of the best shows I’ve seen in ages. The first, obvious reason was the charisma of Tim Darcy, the band’s front man. Delivering his songs, Darcy’s eyes would go slack, voice into the side of his mouth, as he sang in a range of characters. Some of them showed up to the revolution. The others were there to mock it. I had been hooked from their first full-length record, More Than Any Other Day, and this latest batch, Sun Coming Down, showed they were only maturing. He knew how to paint a picture; how to land his strange hooks like sucker punches. Beyond Darcy, I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a more no-glory band live. Even at the peak of their jams, their sound was so well controlled that I felt transported to an older world of punk rock. Before things got so damn loud. If such a world ever existed? Either way, if Ought’s turned-on, poetic punk represents the future of the genre, count me in. — Ryan Dieringer

 
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Petite Noir

Don’t call it a fad. “Noirwave” is here to stay. Yannick Ilunga, AKA Petite Noir, has been molding his own genre and sense of style for a few years, but 2015 was the break through. After an excellent EP, Ilunga’s debut album felt like a fully formed statement. Mixing ’80s keyboards, rolling percussion, and Ilunga’s stunning vocal work, the murky and entrancing world of Noirwave felt like something new. It draw equal comparisons to TV on the Radio as it did Duran Duran. But, at the same time, this was all Ilunga, crafting an eccentric sound that was as weird as it was catchy. — Nathan Stevens

 
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Natalie Prass

January is not a kind month for artists to release their art. With Christmas leftovers still dwindling in the fridge and New Year’s champagne bottles piled up in the recycle bin, it’s hard to find hype in the post-holiday wasteland. Those obstacles were hardly hindrances for the honey-voiced Natalie Prass, who dropped her self-titled debut on 27 January to highly deserved acclaim. Prass’ musical knowledge is encyclopedic; she culls from classic rock, soul, blues, and vintage pop in her own work, without ever coming across as giving any of them short service. The sassy piano bounce on “Bird of Prey” and the sultry strut of “Your Fool” bring to mind old-school tropes without feeling overly beholden to them. In cases like those and many more on Natalie Prass, she pulls off a delicate tightrope act: borrowing from the classics while in the process forging something classic in its own right. How she manages to have one foot in the past, the other in the present, and all the while look like she’s standing in one place is anyone’s mystery, but as Natalie Prass evinces, it’s a blast to watch (and hear) her do it. — Brice Ezell

 
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Rae Sremmurd

These two Tupelo brothers have sewn up the catchphrase game like a pair of pants that cost eight somethin’. That’s not to say they can’t flow; after all, Slim Jimmy destroys his verse on “Up Like Trump”. It’s just that, if you have the good sense to write a song comparing yourself to Donald Trump, in which you reveal that your chain swings like nunchucks and you idolize Billy Ray Cyrus, destructive flow becomes secondary. Throughout their exuberant debut album SremmLife, the brothers trade off verses and play up the contrasting sounds of their voices. (Swae Lee is the clean-voiced Sremm, while Jimmy is extreme.) They also rap about lots of different topics, including cups, ice, chinchillas, and unlocking the swag. But it’s not all parties and fun for these rappers. They also have a touching love song in “This Could Be Us”, although the mood changes when they start chanting, “Money make the world go ‘round/ Money make your girl go down.” Likewise, “No Flex Zone” starts with a Very Special anti-hater message, but it also talks about the importance of expensive watches. In a lot of ways, Rae Sremmurd have made it OK to really go deep into watches and not be embarrassed about it. — Josh Langhoff

 
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Raury

Proving once again that unbridled talent, youthful confidence and focused determination should never be underestimated, 19 year-old Georgia native Raury exploded on the scene earlier this year with his audacious Indigo Child EP and his recent debut album All We Need. The widely anticipated LP seemed unfocused on occasion in its desire to straddle and conquer a variety of disparate genres, yet while it wasn’t the cohesive introductory statement some might have hoped for, this impassioned collection of songs bristles with immense promise. All is immediately forgiven as soon as the highlights arrive. Tracks like the scorching, environmentally conscious “Revolution” and the dark, electro-licked “Devil’s Whisper”, or the breathtaking Auto-tuned ballad “CPU” and the sunlit, alt-pop anthem “Friends”, are all welcome reminders that his adventurous EP was anything but a fluke. Equally adept at churning out socially conscious rhymes as he does fusing R&B textures with walls of gospel sound and crunching guitars, this ripening wunderkind is still honing his craft and exploring his sound. With the critically-lauded Crystal Express Tour underway and an empowering arsenal of chart-worthy singles at his disposal, expect to continue hearing exceptional things from this gifted young wildcard. — Ryan Lathan

 
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Travis Scott

As Kanye West’s protégé, the credibility red carpet was graciously rolled out for Travis Scott to saunter down, when he appeared from almost out of nowhere earlier this year. After working together on vocal and production duties for the hip-hop compilation Cruel Summer, Yeezus was quick to sign up the millennial newbie to his own record label, GOOD Music. Then, a few months ago, came Travis Scott’s highly-anticipated debut album Rodeo, featuring the likes of Justin Bieber, the Weeknd, 2 Chainz, Juicy J and Mr. West himself — some considerably heavy musical artillery for a 23-year-old having his first major crack at the big time. The Houston native echoed his collaborative recordings by working with a plethora of different producers, including Pharrell Williams and T.I., which resulted in Rodeo being more like his creative vision of a rapper-royalty mixtape, than a fully cohesive album exposing a clear concept. This strong strategic direction was rewarded by fans, who crowned the record bronze, at number #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Travis Scott’s intelligent rhymes, original melodies, genre-defying instrumentation, innovative production and substance over style ethic, commands unanimous respect; he is the expressionist artist for a new generation of rap and a very cool breath of fresh air. — Chelsea Smile

Shamir to Wolf Alice

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Shamir

The cultural spaces occupied by rap, indie, R&B, and electronic music have been converging for years, but still somehow, when an artist pulls off a singular union between the four like Shamir’s wide-eyed and inventive 2015 album Ratchet, it sounds almost alien. There are plenty of precedents for Shamir’s sound tracing back to Drake, Azealia Banks — even Donna Summer and Grace Jones — but Ratchet is its own beast, characterized by wholly distinct funk melodies, sashaying beats, and ditzy vocals. Shamir’s approach is a mix of Internet Age genre-mixing and conventional pop spectacle, but the product of this postmodern convergence is the most timeless, universal thing of all: a record that’s all about dancing and feeling good about yourself. By any metric, Ratchet is a remarkably well designed album; as a debut record, it’s almost absurdly well put together, signifying what will hopefully be a long, productive, and innovative career for Shamir. — Colin Fitzgerald

 
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Soak

“C’mon, c’mon, be just like me / be a nobody,” Soak (Bridie Monds-Watson) winsomely sings on her debut album Before We Forgot How to Dream. The Londonderry musician announces her ordinariness as a way of declaring her self-importance and solidarity with her audience. We are all the same, literally. Her music uplifts by reaching down to us. Soak’s voice continually threatens to break as if she’s not a singer, but Soak repeatedly shows that she and her songs’ personas are not that delicate. They possess a resilient strength. Soak also knows her way around a catchy pop hook. Her songs bubble with a youthful effervescence. She’s not afraid of being afraid or failing. She just wants to be heard, like you (and me). Her debut disc suggests her talents will not be lost in the crowd. — Steve Horowitz

 
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Skylar Spence

The “RIYL” sticker practically writes itself: “It’s the sound of Ben Folds singing over Daft Punk beats, all produced by the Avalanches!” It’s a catchy, kitschy way to describe Skylar Spence’s sound, but, in a rare turn of events, that’s also exactly what he sounds like. Having previously recorded beautiful vaporwave disco beats under the pseudonym Saint Pepsi, a cease-and-desist letter forced the young Ryan DeRobertis to change monikers and up the ante on his sound, realizing that all that media attention meant there were a lot of people wondering what he was going to do next, and boy did he deliver. Prom King isn’t just the best pop album to come out this year, but it’s one of the year’s best albums period, DeRobertis’ infectious love of all things pop music dripping from every note. With a deft mixture of both samples and a lot of live instrumentation, DeRobertis has created a sound all his own: immediate and catchy but also thoughtful and long-lasting, his quietly self-deprecating lyrics grounding what is otherwise the absolute party of the year, resulting in an album that is a beacon of light in a world of Top 40 artificiality. Sure, he remixes things in his spare time (hey there Carly Rae Jepsen), but after releasing what many are now calling an instant classic of a full-length, one only looks forward to see how this lover of all things pop music will shape it in the years to come. — Evan Sawdey

 
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Chris Stapleton

It’s taken Chris Stapleton all of 15 years to become the seemingly indomitable force in country music that he’s become literally overnight following his stellar performance and subsequent reaping of major awards at 2015’s Country Music Awards. Prior to the release of debut solo album Traveller and recent fame, Stapleton acted as lead singer of a bluegrass band (the SteelDrivers) and Southern rock band (the Jompson Brothers), as well as the silent voice behind country hits like Tim McGraw’s “Whiskey and You” and Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn”. Having conquered the mainstream media circuit with his greatest weapons being soul and authenticity is a feat unto itself, although Stapleton’s new music still has yet to break fully onto the radio waves. It can be said that the world finally taking notice of a man whose music speaks for itself in terms of his verifiability as a singer, songwriter, and a storyteller is one strong argument for further success. 2016 is Stapleton’s oyster. — Jonathan Frahm

 
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Vince Staples

Vince Staples did the equivalent of pointing to the stands before taking a swing with his debut album by making an audacious double album. Yes, he could have easily condensed the album to a single disc, but that would have robbed Summertime ’06 of its thematic narrative. It’s an album designed to be split into its parts. The deceptively sunny title Summertime ’06 is a perfect reflection of Vince Staples’ vision. At a glance and a casual listen, it sounds like a typical soundtrack to a school break, complete with top-down cruising and alcohol-fueled ragers. But summertime can mean something else entirely. To others, it means an oppressively hot and humid environment that verges on unlivable. It also means an inevitable spike in the murder rates in cities. Staples drags the listener into the later environment with no-bullshit clear-eyed precision. — Sean McCarthy

 
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Thunderbitch

One of my favorite songs from Alabama Shakes’ 2012 debut Boys and Girls was actually relegated to its bonus disc. “Heavy Chevy” was a an amped-up rockabilly love song that blew through in 94 seconds of pure fun. As the band took headed into the realm of spacious and soulful R&B on this year’s Sound and Color, it seemed like there was no place in its sound for shit-kickin’ rockers like these. Fortunately for fans of Brittany Howard’s hell-raising side, she announced in September that she’d be joining forces with members of Nashville bands Fly Golden Eagle and Clear Plastic masks for a new band, Thunderbitch. The resulting self-titled album just oozes the looseness and hedonistic appeal of rock at its stripped-down best. Everyone plays under a pseudonym (Howard’s of course being Thunderbitch) and songs have titles like “Leather Jacket”, “My Baby Is My Guitar” and “I Just Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll”. This may be a side project, but Thunderbitch plays a loud, fast, infectious kind of rock whose popularity may wax and wane but it never truly goes out of style. — John Tryneski

 
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Valley Hush

If you’ve got an inclination toward synesthesia, Valley Hush is the group to put on. With their experimental pop, they lure you down a rabbit hope of kaleidoscoping aural colors. They’ve released two EPs in less than a year, both rife in melded electronica, R&B, and indie rock. Multi-instrumentalist Alex Kaye creates densely layered tapestries filled with evocative beats and enveloping synths, upon which Lianna Vanicelli lays her seductive vocals. Moody, introspective, coy, playful, yearning, and tender, the group enthralls and leaves you with the right amount of intrigue to have you anticipating their next release. — Cole Waterman

 
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Kamasi Washington

It takes a certain amount of balls to released a three-disc set as your debut album, and then call it — with a profound sense of humility, i’m sure — The Epic. Of course, Kamasi Washington had reason for his confidence. He pulls off a stunner, a modern masterpiece of jazz that is jaw-dropping throughout. The man plays a killer sax, and his band is tight as nails — particularly drummers Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Tony Austin. Thundercat guests on bass, along with Miles Mosely on acoustic bass, Cameron Gravves on piano, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, and Ryan Porter and Igmar Thomas on horns. Providing vocals are Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible. That’s it — that’s everyone who plays on this epic of blistering musicianship and Washington’s trippy vision of what jazz music can be. The Epic is an album that even now, after numerous listens, reveals more moments of awe and disbelief every time through. Even if you’re not a big jazz aficionado, this is one every music fan should have. It’s that good. — Chris Gerard

 
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Ryn Weaver

Ryn Weaver used to be a theater kid, which, if you’ve seen her perform in concert, should come as no surprise. Weaver initially tried to have an acting career after college but gradually started turning her attention towards her music, which, over time, developed into a Ellie Goulding-by-way-of-Stevie Nicks kind of pop that proved to be simultaneously modern and classicist in approach, Weaver’s style clearly influenced by the great divas of yore but is bent in such a way that it appealed to the trends of the now. It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, but The Fool, her superlative debut set, deftly marries her influences with her personality into something new, visceral, and relatable. As great as her output has been already, it’s been her live performances that have won her new fans the world over, as that theatre training has lead to her becoming a powerhouse vocalist on stage, projecting every song with confidence and authority but never once skimming on the intentionality, perhaps no better illustrated than during her Lollapalooza aftershow where she performed “Traveling Song”, her powerful ode to her late grandfather, and got to the acapella portion near the end and began audibly trying to hold back tears as she sang, sharing an intensely personal moment with a room full of strangers and dulling an entire crowd into an attentive silence. The song finished, the audience burst into cheers, and everyone quietly realized that they weren’t simply at a concert, but instead the coming out event for a genuine star. — Evan Sawdey

 
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Wolf Alice

It’s been ages since a guitar group came along that were so damn cool you wish you were in the band. The Horrors maybe? The Libertines? It’s certainly been a while. This year Wolf Alice roared like one of those genuine, one vision, Rock n’ roll gangs. The last gang in town. They rode through 2015 like Seabiscuit tearing up one stage after another, melting faces and stealing hearts. Oh, but the tunes! Their keenly awaited debut LP My Love Is Cool was inspirational and relentless. Just when you thought it’d burn out and whimper off into a slump, it just raged brighter and taller. A ravishing beast born both a ravenous “Wolf” (the AC/DC thunderstruck “Giant Peach”, the feral fangs of “Moaning Lisa Smile”) and a sweet “Alice” (the summery skip of “Freazy” or “Bros”). There’s was a true underdog, well underwolf victory. Rock N’ Roll salutes you Wolf Alice, give ’em hell. — Matt James

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