This is the sixth year that Paste has named The 20 Best Bands of the Year, and looking back at previous lists, it’s interesting to see how those acts have entered into our daily lives and remained there.
We expect the same from this year, that for the next decade we’ll be talking about the likes of Leon Bridges, Natalie Prass and more. And unless you’re a music geek of the highest order, we’re also confident that you’ll find some others on this list that you didn’t know. There’s nothing like stumbling across a new group of musicians or solo artists and realizing you’re hearing something special. That’s what these 20 acts did for us in 2015, and we hope that’s what they’ll do for you.
20. Anderson Paak
First, Anderson .Paak was the most featured vocalist on Dr. Dre’s Grammy nominated Compton (six songs). Next, he put out the NxWorries EP on Stones Throw Records with producer Knxwledge. Now he’s released the first two singles off his highly anticipated January sophomore album, Malibu, one produced by 9th Wonder and the other featuring Schoolboy Q. Paak is doing everything in his power to claim the hardest working man in hip-hop title, but explains to us in our Best of What’s Next column that he’s just capitalizing on a period of deep musical inspiration: “I think you just gotta strike when the iron is hot…..There’s a season for everything and I just wanna work right now while I can and while I’m inspired.” Be on the lookout on Jan. 15, when one of hip-hop’s brightest young vocalists and multi-instrumentalists drops the album that’ll push him to the top of the game. – Adrian Spinelli
19. Kamasi Washington
With apologies to Titus Andronicus, Kamasi Washington made the best triple album of 2015, a three-hour jazz fantasia full of skronky jazz solos, pounding funk grooves, disembodied choirs, skronky sax solos, roller-rink organ interludes, pillowy string arrangements that suggest a strong undertow tugging these compositions ineluctably forward, and an unruly rhythm section that fights that pull by deconstructing turntable breakbeats into time-stopping exhultations. Washington’s orchestra is an amoeba that absorbs every style and tradition and seemingly every musician in Southern California; it sounds like all of Los Angeles singing and playing together at once, a powerful idea at a time when displays of African American community are popularly dismissed as riots or worse. How could such an act of extreme jazz maximalism be called anything other than The Epic? — Stephen M. Deusner
18. Girl Band
Plenty of bands have pillaged the U.K. post-punk scene to varying levels of success, yet this young four piece from Dublin trumps them all. Their secret is that they didn’t bother to waste any time trying to ape the sound of their influences (The Pop Group, The Birthday Party). Instead, they grabbed the constituent parts—guitars strung with razor wire, a vocalist venting his spleen with as much unhinged energy as his skinny body can muster—and constructed a new beast of a noise with it. Nothing comes as expected when you listen to their debut full-length Holding Hands With Jamie for the first time. Nor should you want it to. Let it surprise you, let it inspire you, and let it give your eardrums a well-deserved workout. – Robert Ham
17. Kacy Hill
Kacy Hill belongs to another generation. Or—let me clarify: Kacy Hill is only 21, and yet her work ethic is that of a Baby Boomer, of an age-range of folks who save ketchup packets from Burger Kings because waste is unacceptable. Decidedly not in harmony with this generation of Millennials, a group of people raised on the notion that dreams are only a strong dose of self-esteem away and that privilege is a right, she sings like someone shouldering the weight of long-gone lives she’s never lived.
Which is why it’s ironic that she fled her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 18—one would think that there, in the HQ of retirees and those finally allowing themselves some rest after a lifetime of hard work, she might find her old soul manifest. Yet, relocating to LA, she instead found herself modeling for American Apparel, then found herself matriculated into Kanye West’s hyper-conceptual Yeezus touring show, followed by finding herself signed to GOOD Music, with her debut EP, Bloo out this year.
Which might all seem too easy were Bloo anything but handed to her. Her influences running the gamut from Florence + the Machine to Jamie Woon to James Blake to Sade, the EP sounds like the stuff of a complete identity, fully formed from birth, confident and, though she has no reason to, devoted to proving that nothing that was seemingly given to her was anything she didn’t earn. Her lyrics may delve into typical topics—ending relationships and unrequited love, say—but they breathe workmanlike resolution: Love, like building an impeccable pop song, is injurious, back-breaking labor. And the same effort she expects from those who claim to love her. Audience included. – Dom Sinacola
Shreveport, Louisiana four-piece the Seratones has been performing together since early 2014, but since they signed to Mississippi-based Fat Possum Records earlier this year, they’ve been making waves well beyond their hometown thanks to the howling grit of frontwoman AJ Haynes. After a series of standout performances that included several raved-about sets at this year’s South by Southwest and CMJ, the band released “Necromancer,” a fitting first taste of the powerful vocals and ripping instrumentals that have made this band one to watch. Check out their groovy recent set at the Paste Studio in Manhattan. – Paste Staff
It didn’t take a department store advert to tell us what we already know—Aurora is something special. The 19-year-old Norwegian singer’s twisted electro pop confections are equal parts playful and mercurial, reaching for the otherworldly, even though their central players are often the marginalized members of society: runaways, outcasts, and murderers included. Sure, there might be something a bit otherworldly about her starry-eyed songs, but rest assured, all the emotions are coming from a very real place before being filtered through her fanciful, child-like gaze. Watch the intimate, haunting video we recorded with her during CMJ 2014 below. – Laura Studarus
14. The Districts
With A Flourish And A Spoil, Lititz, Pennsylvania’s The Districts have officially “arrived.” Pulling in punk influences and reverby vocals reminiscent of The Strokes, the young band’s sophomore album on Fat Possum Records was produced by John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse) and hit on all levels. From the many movements on the nine-minute “Young Blood” to one of the best songs of the year in “4th & Roebling,” the band feeds on the force of frontman Rob Grote and is nothing short of a treat live. Check out their performance at Paste’s Aloft Hotels series below. – Adrian Spinelli
With only two songs released so far—“Tough Towns” and, just last week, “Mr. Mistake”—the partnership of Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio), Mike Patton (Faith No More) and Doseone (Subtle, 13+God and so much assorted hybrid-hip-hop bliss) is proving that three seemingly disparate talents need not cater to each other’s niches to make something great together—they only have to trust their more cosmic instincts and assemble to build up one another’s strengths. Although “Tough Towns” rattles and rises like a lost Sufjan joint from his stranger days, it most resembles Doseone’s 2002 album with Boom Bip, the monumental Circle, touched with a shade of his collaboration with the Notwist. Though Dose may be the group’s most veteran member as far as partnerships are concerned, “Mr. Mistake” takes on poppier pastures, plying the pristine production Adebimpe knows too well with TV on the Radio, soft edges carved into sharp weapons by Mike Patton’s inimitable voice. So far, it seems as if their debut record in January will be one where each artist is given his space and his due, but if these two songs are any indication, the whole won’t be greater than the sum of its parts—which is exactly what we should hope for. – Dom Sinacola
12. Wolf Alice
Wolf Alice’s debut full-length is the rare work of a new band already aware that they can’t be all things to all people—but smart enough to not settle into a single identity just yet. (Youthful indecisiveness never sounded so sweet.) Theirs is a world is filled with extremes, a place where tender ballad “Lisbon” escalates to smashing windows, smothering rage at being unable to transcend your roots is repurposed as squealing garage rock on “Giant Peach,” and the kind of friendship you’d die for is celebrated on the sweetly Cranberries-reminiscent pop single “Bros” There’s no single concept or defining feature, save for guitars. Lots and lots of guitars. Check out our Best of What’s Next piece on Wolf Alice from June. – Laura Studarus
11. Vince Staples
Vince Staples’ major label debut, Summertime ’06 acts as an all-consuming testament to a talent far beyond its years. Not to sell his Stolen Youth mixtape short, but Miller’s loosely saccharine production fit a Staples who’s cooled quite a bit since then. Today the rapper is all ice-cold edge, inside and out: refined, honed, sharp enough to cut subcutaneously. And so, on Summertime ’06, an older, wiser Staples digs in with Clams Casino, No I.D. and DJ Dahi, producers who represent the best of most generations of hip-hop, to help him carve out a sonic space better fit for his aging worldview. In turn, the album is more than an ambitious kind of coming-of-age chronicle, it’s a blithely sad thing, one in which institutional racism (“Lift Me Up”), addiction (“Jump Off the Roof”), and even loneliness (“Summertime”) feel impossible to overcome. Staples hasn’t gotten harder, just smarter—and his producers, balancing industrial clank with cloudy dope-scapes, have allowed him a sturdy vulnerability off which he can bounce his feelings. Though Staples hails from Long Beach—sharing a year of assured hip-hop releases with Boogie, another brilliant rapper from the area who’s finally getting his due—his tracks rarely feel exclusive. He’s ready to mine deeper bedrock. And rarely has the sound of an artist scraping bottom been this assured. — Dom Sinacola