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.
Ibeyi and Travis Scott
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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