If our year-end lists of songs and albums were any indication, it was a great year for emerging artists. From the un-fightable, infectious pop of Haim, the ragged garage rock of Mikal Cronin, the punishing punch of a Savages track to Majical Cloudz’s reflective slow-churners, we were in for a treat in 2013 with breakout acts.
Along the way, we made plenty of discoveries in our weekly Best of What’s Next profiles, which are featured first at PASTE.COM. We’ve included our 20 favorite finds and their complete profiles (or reviews in a few cases) below for you to discover yourself. And if you’re taking a peek at this during the work day and just want to see the darn list already, we’ve got you covered—head on over to page 12 in the gallery below.
14. The Underachievers
By Grant Golden
The rap game is in an interesting place right now, a state of flux that comes with the changing of guards. Men like Jay Z, who used to have an undisputed stranglehold on the genre, are losing touch with the people. Sure you can pre-sell a million albums through Samsung, but luxury rap doesn’t always connect with people who don’t have million-dollar works of art hanging above a toilet.
Many fans of hip hop are yearning for something more; they want grit and grime and realism. And an incoming tidal wave of a new generation of thinkers—from Kendrick Lamar to A$AP Rocky—are topping the charts and paving the way for a new mindset.
No one embodies this new age of hip hop more than The Underachievers. Flatbush, Brooklyn-based Issa Gold and AK have been exploring new sonic territory for a little over a year now. But none of this has happened by chance. Their “underachieving” monicker is thick with irony.
The duo is one of the stand-out acts in the Beast Coast movement, a collective of New York-based rappers like Joey BadA$$, Flatbush Zombies and Pro Era that are resonating with younger listeners. The Underachievers dabble in psychedelic territory, weaving through heady beats with cold-calculated precision. Although Issa has only been rapping for two years, the two MCs slide through these dense soundscapes like seasoned veterans.
“We lived a couple of blocks away from each other,” Issa says. “We grew up in the same neighborhoods and met because me and my friend Juice from the [Flatbush] Zombies met these other dudes, smoking pot or whatever, and he was friends with AK.” Issa and Juice had dabbled in psychedelics since their mid teens and the two immediately hit it off with the like-minded AK. “No one in the city was really into psychedelics, and we were talking about them and AK—who was just like some regular hood dude—was like ‘Yo, that shit sounds interesting.’ We were like ‘what, really?!” So you’re probably one of us.”
At that point AK had been rapping for years while Issa admittedly “doesn’t like hip hop much at all.” While many rappers talk about not listening to hip hop much, few openly admit that they know every John Mayer lyric by heart.
“If I could play guitar and sing then I would not be rapping right now; I’d be John Mayer,” Issa claims. “All I had to my ability was the fact that I’ve read a lot a lot of books, so I guess I know words and poetry and shit. That’s why I gravitated to rap.”
“Writing isn’t an art,” he continues. “I can learn it and master it instead of relying on some innate talent of being born to rock the world. I’m just not that guy, I’m a guy that has the word and a message to spread.”
So Issa mastered his art form and laid down the groundwork for what The Underachievers have become.
“I told AK that I’m never ever ever going to release a mixtape unless people beg for it, so that’s what happened,” he says. “I kept putting out material and waiting for people to gravitate towards the music and want to hear the music. My whole philosophy was that artists start rapping and they just drop songs, but it’s so hard to make people listen to it.”
But once their music was out there, people were instantly drawn to it—The Underachievers had given something new to the hip-hop community. Or as they explain it, they’re attempting to tap into a “universal consciousness.” At the very least they’ve caught the attention of the right people, as Flying Lotus loved the band so much that he signed them to his Brainfeeder label.
The duo released a highly touted mixtape Indigoism back in February that beckons listeners to open their third eye and question the realities they’re surrounded by.
“Indigoism comes from innately knowing that we have to unite,” Issa states. “Unfortunately, though, there’s forces working against us, people who don’t want our generation to wake up. They pound all this shit into us, so the job for people like me is just to spark people back up. Not to teach them or lead them, but to reset their brains.”
Now this may all fall into a particular niche of listeners, folks that would already be listening to acts like Flying Lotus and psychedelic-oriented artists. But The Underachievers know this—it’s a part of their plan. Their next EP is almost entirely produced by Lex Luger, the trap-beat megastar who helped propel artists like Wacka Flocka and Wiz Khalifa to hip-hop stardom. That’s why the duo is so keen to work with Luger, his beats are “really bangerish beats” and appeal to a more “urban demographic.”
But while the duo is capable of flexing their urban cred, they’ve also got remixes from Local Natives and beats from Lapalux, Flying Lotus and Teebs sitting on the backburner. They’re proving themselves masters of timing, sitting on collaborations until the anticipation has peaked. Brainfeeder wanted to release an album “now” Issa says, but the group politely declined. “We’re really focusing one step at a time, I didn’t wanna drop it yet. I wanted an EP, “ Issa says.
It all harkens back to their original mantra: they wait until people want the music. In a time where rappers tend to wear themselves out with countless mixtapes and come up short on full lengths, The Underachievers deviate from the norm. While others are running their name into the ground, Issa and AK are lying in wait and making sure they’re achieving all they can.
13. Speedy Ortiz
By Dan Weiss
“There’s just a lot of overall Gwen Stefanization,” says Speedy Ortiz guitar dynamo Matt Robidoux of why the Massachusetts-Manhattan cross-section four piece prefers to do interviews as a group, which is happening this very instant inside the band’s tour van that’s currently bulky with vinyl they raided from their label’s warehouse. From this media man’s perspective, the uneven attention is somewhat understandable considering frontwoman Sadie Dupuis’ lyrics, which neatly gel into candy-covered sound bites: “I got too many boyfriends to see you tonight,” “Why’d you pick a virgin over me?” “I’m getting my dick sucked on the regular.” That’s just the hot-button sexual stuff, but elsewhere Dupuis’ noteworthy ability to curl her voice around a line like “Laugh out of habit at the lump schematics” as a repeated chorus would stand out in any alt-rock year.
But having gone on later that night to see Robidoux perform such stunts as diving off a cinderblock on the ground-level “stage” at Philadelphia’s Golden Tea House, I can admit he’s right: this is a band with a capital B, a clatter of guitars and drums and the paranoia of releasing an uncharacteristically straight ballad called “No Below” that these reluctant rockers are somewhat afraid everyone is going to glom onto. They’d prefer winning people’s attention with that “boyfriends” song, their first single, titled “Taylor Swift” just because.
The first full-length Speedy Ortiz album, Major Arcana, was released to big plaudits this year, including a Pitchfork Best New Music designation, among lots of talk that they’re going to bring back such ‘90s major arcana as Pavement and Matador-era Liz Phair. Dupuis bristles at the comparisons between her voice and Phair’s, though after that Philly show she worries that she came off negatively toward Phair and insists she loves her anyway, all the way to 2003’s slick and under-appreciated Rock Me.
But they definitely don’t want to be seen as a woman-with-backup—a problem that’s led to Hayley Williams sporting “Paramore Es Una Banda” t-shirts—or a ‘90s nostalgia act. Pressed to reveal an influence that doesn’t bug them, someone eventually mumbles something about Black Sabbath.
“There’s so many amazing bands now that have members of both genders, it seems like it’s becoming less of a media selling point that there are women in bands,” says Dupuis, with some bittersweet confusion. “But at the same time, there are more women playing in bands.”
With that acknowledgment comes a more limited scope of comparable musicians—when I mention early That Dog to Dupuis, with Petra Haden’s screeching violin, she made a face. Not a fan.
“The reason why [the ‘90s comparisons] bothered me is because it seemed like it would be fashionable to be nostalgic about it,” drummer Mike Falcone says.
“We don’t have discussions like that, ever,” bassist Darl Ferm says.
It’s the age-old indie-rock tug-of-war, over whether deliberation is better or worse for a band, if it kills the natural skill or thinks out more intricate compositions. Their basement-rock recording approach to tunes that trickily shift meter and time signature, with all sorts of muddy fretwork, doesn’t sound like anything else—in the last 20 years anyway.
Nineties or not, it’s bands like Polvo and Helium who’ve covered this territory before, building messiness onto careful constructions. If Dupuis’ voice gets compared to Phair’s, I hope it’s just for the odd chords they both navigate vocally with such precision and ease.
But it’s not the ‘90s that make people want to hold up Speedy Ortiz as hope to go “back” to something, it’s their biting wit and specificity in a soupy indie-rock climate and oversharing pop landscape. The dark humor of a line like “why’d you pick a virgin over me” led me to believe that Dupuis was writing from the innocence of her younger past (which she admits to, though it was unplanned), and personally evoked when Brittany Murphy’s character in that ‘90s Rosetta Stone Clueless suddenly realizes she’s the protégé of someone less experienced, when she blurts out to Alicia Silverstone that she’s a “virgin who can’t drive.” A supporting character suddenly realizing she’s the protagonist after all. It would fit right in with the shy-combative relationships in Speedy Ortiz songs.
“Now I want to change my whole explanation,” Dupuis says.