The 20 Best New Bands of 2015

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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

9. Shamir

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

4. Hinds

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

3. Palehound

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

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