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
10. Tobias Jesso Jr.
What Tobias Jesso Jr. has delivered in his first LP Goon is a record that needs no context, that can exist outside of time and place. Jesso, in short, has crafted a masterpiece, with the only connection of real significance being between him and his audience. While the comparisons to Harry Nilsson and John Lennon hold up over the course of the debut, what may be the most surprising is the range that Jesso shows throughout. Goon isn’t all piano ballads; hell, it isn’t all ballads, period. “Crocodile Tears” is a mid-tempo, psych-tinted strut that finds Jesso boo-hoo-hooing his way into unexpected territory. “Leaving L.A.” is something totally different, lounge-y in its instrumental breaks, allowing Jesso freedom to veer from straight-ahead singer/songwriter territory. Throw in the guitar backbones of “The Wait” and “Tell the Truth,” and Goon contains plenty of variety in both tone and arrangement, carefully placed gaps in the ultimate strengths of the album. — Philip Cosores
The first line of Shamir’s debut album Rachet is a mission statement. “Fantasy meets reality,” he croons against a slick disco beat, hitting the phrase hard in a show-stopping falsetto. It’s that idea of duality that the Las Vegas-based singer teases out across 11 tracks. Strutting through his disco/pop/house hybrid with a ballsy bluster, he sells both grime and glitz with an expert hand and androgynous warble. (Vocal range! This kid has it.) It doesn’t matter that this is his first album, or that he’s still a teenager, when he drops self-aggrandizing lines such as “Just so you know/yes yes—I’m that guy” on dance/rap single “On the Regular” you have no choice but to believe. – Laura Studarus
8. Empress Of
With her origins rooted in the safe-haven of Brooklyn’s Celestial Shore—a group seemingly composed of vestiges of all Your Favorite Indie Pop Bands breaking off and starting something new, yet rarely venturing out fully on their own—Lorely Rodriguez needed her debut full-length to be one of fearless self-discovery—and even more fearless emigration. And although Empress Of’s appropriately titled Me isn’t an unheard-of collection of weirdo-flecked art-R&B, it’s wonderfully self-sufficient, a kind of concept album that could be about a relationship, or a way of life, or a certain place, each possibility run through a cycle of departure, homecoming and maybe even more departure, all the while mannered and mature despite the mess she seems so adept at detailing. Coughing up sex jams inhaled from exhaust fumes and overexertion, Empress Of left her Brooklyn digs behind long ago. And she’s only just getting started. – Dom Sinacola
The debut album from Bridie Monds-Watson, the Irish singer-songwriter who performs and records as SOAK, is as self-possessed and filled with in-jokes and personal signposts as you would expect from someone who wrote most of these songs in her teens (she was all of 18 when Before We Forgot How To Dream was released). As particular as her songs are, they still leave their mark on a listener thanks to her perfectly unaffected voice and just enough abstraction that you can still find connections to your own life. Her charming and emotive live performances—of which she did many in a very busy year—only drew us deeper into her world of wistful ennui and wide-eyed wonder. For more information on SOAK, check out our Best of What’s Next on her from March. – Robert Ham
6. Natalie Prass
It’s hard to not fall for Natalie Prass. With an undeniable charm and an inclination towards storytelling that can soothe the most broken heart, the singer/songwriter’s self-titled album, released this past January via Spacebomb, is a striking, smart showcase of Prass’ talent—so much so that it’s almost hard to believe it’s her debut. From the intimate opening track “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” to “It Is You,” the album’s nostalgic closing track, Natalie Prass is a timeless time machine, taking listeners through a well-rounded, refreshing journey into love and loss. — Brittany Joyce
5. Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear
What sets Madisen Ward’s lyricism apart is its piercing, needlepoint simplicity. On the downtempo midway Skeleton Crew cut “Dead Daffodils,” he sings about a protagonist who “needed a coffin (and) handmade his own.” The junior Ward’s narrative on “Down In Mississippi,” draws listeners in with lines like “Did you feel the heat today? The sores were on my feet today.” And even his more elaborate, lengthier verses are still unfussy, especially the standout line on “Live By the Water,” on which he sings: “Set sail, crack a bell, call it liberty/ Live on the land, and better not forget my sea.” When asked about the influences on his no frills, impactful style, Madisen cites Tom Waits, Nick Drake, and “obviously Bob Dylan,” before adding: “They were real songwriters that went for their own paths, rather than just recreating other sounds.” And now Ward is among them. Check out our Best of What’s Next feature on the duo from June. – Kyle Mullin
In the past eight months, since the first shows Hinds played as a foursome in their hometown of Madrid, Spain, these girls have rapidly skyrocketed themselves into “band to watch” territory. In April, they posted their first two demos as a full group on Bandcamp. A few months later, they were opening for The Libertines in Paris and Brussels. A timeline of their fast formation—from two girls posting acoustic covers on YouTube to four girls performing very not-acoustic, sold-out stadium shows—is organized neatly on their Facebook timeline, and each announcement features an increasing number of !!!!!!!!!’s. Listening to Hinds, meanwhile, is like waking up and being told you’re about to live the most fun day of your life. A set of charmed, garage pop melodies dreamed up in the hot pink bedroom of a group of best friends, their songs offer a never-ending smile. – Alexa Carrasco
Twenty-one-year-old Ellen Kempner’s guitar prowess is Palehound’s staff of light, a six-stringed burning ember that guides you through her fractured song structures and doleful take on coming-of-age, the basis of Dry Food, an eight-song exploration of Kempner’s mental inner space during the period of 2013 and ‘14. Complex dynamics keep the album’s tracks from blending together into a giant collage, like the colorful travel magazine cutouts that create the cover art. The only constants are Kempner’s guitar and whispering vocals, which draw you into her dark world on tracks like “Molly,” where her counter-melody guitar riff gets attacked by fuzzed-out power chords. Kempner’s soft vocals puncture the heart with earnestness on tracks like “Dry Food” and create distance with the reverb-soaked “Cinnamon,” where her voice interweaves masterfully with gently strummed guitar chords. Dry Food bleeds with emotional truth through a thorny lineage to Kurt Cobain-esque dissociation and mental anguish—which is why it was written in isolation, with Kempner playing all the parts except for drums. There are painful reminders all over this record of what it feels like to be tortured, lonely, abused and directionless—which can be exhausting through eight sugar-free songs. Most of Kempner’s lyrics aren’t easy to decipher, either, but combined with nuanced minor key changes, and juxtaposed with her childlike falsetto, they remind you of the dark-twinkle in the eyes of Sylvia Plath, where nothing is as it seems—like daydreaming over magazine cutouts of paradise, beyond reach. Check out our Palehound Best of What’s Next from October. — Art Tavana
2. Car Seat Headrest
Car Seat Headrest’s Matador debut, Teens of Style, is remarkable in its ability to both sound fresh and youthful, tinged with the emotional rawness of someone barely in his 20s, and like a well-oiled machine, put together by someone who definitely can’t be just 22. Will Toledo’s got the songwriting chops of someone far beyond his years, and while his music may call to mind bands like Animal Collective or Guided By Voices, there’s a purer pop sensibility that sneaks in on tracks like “The Drum” and reveals that Toledo knows how to pen his share of catchy hooks. His lyrics sound like a scratchy stream of consciousness, perfect for that “not a kid anymore, not quite an adult” time in your life, and yet they—along with all of Teens of Style—reveal a great talent, one we can’t wait to follow into adulthood. Check out our Best of What’s Next on Car Seat Headrest for more of their story. — Bonnie Stiernberg
1. Leon Bridges
Fort Worth, Texas’ Leon Bridges has brought us back to an era of soul that few have been able to revive with such style and grace. Bridges evokes shades of the great Sam Cooke at just about every turn on Coming Home and the result is simply beautiful music. The album was co-written by Bridges and a team highlighted by Austin Jenkins and Josh Block of psych-rock band White Denim, who’ve captured a classic, lo-fi feel with production from Niles City Sound. From the dashing romanticism of the title track to the gospel of the magnificent “River” closing out the album, Bridges re-introduces us to American soul music forged alongside the essence of rock ‘n roll. And even decades after this special music peaked, Coming Home still manages to be a sign of the times. — Adrian Spinelli