It’s not always easy keeping up with new music (just look at Paste’s email inbox if you need proof), but every so often, if you spend enough time digging through the sheer number of new acts out there, you’ll stumble across a real gem. This year, we fell hard for a number of upstarts (which we regularly catalog in Best of What’s Next), and then some, like the Jenny Lewis-led Nice as Fuck, country newcomer Yola Carter, Richmond upstart Lucy Dacus and Montclair hometown heroes Pinegrove, among many others. Read up on all of them and more in Paste’s picks for the 20 Best New Bands of 2016.
Anderson .Paak is well-loved, and with good reason: His music—for all of its romantic drama and subtextual tales of a suffering artist—is some of the most metaphysically smooth music you will ever hear in your life. Malibu presents a man whose life seems almost totally removed from all pain and strife: Not because he’s never experienced pain or strife, but because he knows those are no longer barriers between his livelihood and him making the music he wants when he wants. Malibu also needed an editor.
Enter a like-minded, existentially laid-back project manager able to cradle .Paak’s less-than-tasteful lyrics within cloud-luxurious arrangements, but also give the singer all the room and rhythm he needs when he’s locked into an especially salient groove. That compatriot is consummate beatmaker Knxledge, who serves his cohort all of the practically tactile goodness .Paak needs to hone his baser tendencies and come out with a debut duo record representing the best of both of their stoned worlds.
Together, they’re NxWorries, fitting snugly within the Stones Throw camp, and with their debut tape, Yes Lawd!, they come incessantly correct. Look only to “Lyk Dis,” which doesn’t sample a specific song so much as a whole decade, plugging into the late ’90s with the same half-lidded gusto Erykah Badu was perfecting back in the day; then, in “Another Time” you can sense the telepathic understanding these guys share. For “Scared Money,” Knxledge simply introduces a lost ’80s sitcom theme over which .Paak is let loose to do what he pleases, the producer nodding from the wings. Like any great editor, Knxledge understands the ebb and flow of the talent at his fingertips, bolstering his partner’s strongest instincts while setting him free to wander down whatever smoke-filled digression suits his fancy. —Dom Sinacola
19. Yola Carter
Like Margo Price and Courtney Marie Andrews, Yola Carter is a new artist, but she’s not new at her art. She’s been working hard on her craft for a decade—she’s toured with Massive Attack and Bugz in the Attic and fronted a rock band called Phantom Limb. Today, she’s emerged as a distinct and confident solo act with an incisive songwriting style and a singing voice that blends country and gospel, rock and soul, the Staples and Dolly Parton.
After touring the summer, she made her Stateside debut at the Americana Music Festival in September and released her first release under her own name, a mini-album called Orphan Offering. That she does not look the part of the country ingénue—Carter is black, British and 33 years old, about a decade older than many in her position—is almost beside the point. It’s her sharp melding of American traditions that makes her such a welcome presence in the country scene. Already Carter has a full-length written and is ready to record, with another one in her head. This was a busy year for her, but 2017 promises to be even bigger. —Stephen Deusner
With the release of her debut album, All My Demons Greeting Me As a Friend, AURORA has established herself as a swoon-pop queen. Harbinger of singer-songwriter quirk no more, the Norwegian artist’s starry-eyed songs will instantly appeal to those with a predisposition for wonder, while never failing to celebrate the margins of society—runaways, outcasts and mercy killers among them. But filtered through AURORA’s fanciful childlike gaze, their stories are suffused with both meaning and beauty. It’s no wonder that both Sondre Lerche and Katy Perry are fans. —Laura Studarus
17. Margo Price
Jack White’s dog whistle must be “Fist City,” first collaborating with Loretta Lynn and then siring this obvious successor who half-Xeroxed it for her own debut’s rollicking keynote “About to Find Out.” Easy as it would be for a rock yeoman to scour Nashville for a credible honky tonk woman to fill out his label roster, White stumbled upon Price instead, a name you’ll know beyond this year because the songs on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter match its unflashy analog sonics. That includes “Four Years of Chances,” which is funkier than anything on The Weeknd’s Daft Punk album, the jailhouse rock of “Weekender” and the whiskeyed-down “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle),” all sung with clarion force and girlish strength. —Dan Weiss
16. Jay Som
After she drunkenly released her first album, Untitled, through Bandcamp on Thanksgiving last year, Melita Duterte’s project Jay Som saw instant success—so much so that it overflowed straight into 2016. She rereleased Untitled as Turn Into via Polyvinyl—an album on which she plays every instrument—and toured with Japanese Breakfast and Mitski. But it’s her 7-inch on Fat Possum and its hazy breakthrough track “I Think You’re Alright” that showcases the brilliant lo-fi fuzziness that makes Jay Som so memorable. Her releases this year have shown a combination of fear and uncertainty that developed in her late teens (when Untitled was originally released), but tracks like “I Think You’re Alright” reveal her early-20s maturity and showcase a foggy style that recalls classic and contemporary greats like My Bloody Valentine or Real Estate. —Ross Bonaime
15. Maggie Rogers
“A banjo player from the Eastern shore of Maryland” is how Maggie Rogers described herself prior to finding her way as a folk-dance hybrid artist, taking the internet by storm with just one arresting track. The 22-year-old began her ascent in an NYU masterclass, where she brought Pharrell Williams to tears with her stunning breakthrough single, “Alaska.” Since then, Rogers has released a second ethereal track, once again built from a natural sample bank, featuring bird trills and chirps.
The exceptionally talented musician has yet to announce an EP or album, but with 2017 tour dates and a February Fallon performance lined up, one can only hope that a studio project chock-full of more down-to-earth electro-pop triumphs is on the way. —Kristy Guilbault
14. Maria Usbeck
Ultimately residing in Brooklyn, Maria Usbeck recorded pieces of her solo debut Amparo in Ecuador (where she grew up), Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina. Also Florida. Upon returning to New York, she sought the production prowess of Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, converting all of her on-the-run electronic arrangements, captured in Buenos Aires and Easter Island and wherever else you can imagine, to acoustic studio recordings. Though it rarely ventures into unexpected directions, the album retains a sense of wonder and worship over every sound Usbeck encounters throughout. In “Isla Magica,” she steps cautiously between marimba and xylophone and, building confidence, into “Moai Y Yo,” where her chorus begins to resemble an anthem. The album continues like this, “Llamame” learning how to loosen up before “Camino Desolado” loses it, or “Uno De Tus Ojos” mounting the tension that “Ciudad Desnuda” turns to molehills. Pieces she picks up in one track follow her onto the next, and by the end of Amparo, Usbeck sounds as if on only her first she’s sifted through a lifetime of good ideas to come out with the most worldly. —Dom Sinacola
13. Day Wave
From the band’s conception to an EP on Grand Jury to Mark Hoppus (?!!?) starring in their music video for “Stuck” to signing with Harvest Records, it’s been a helluva year for Jackson Phillips’ Day Wave. Merging vibey guitar tracks for the post-angst crowd, Phillips and his Oakland-based band’s star has been steadily rising.
Productions like “Gone” and “Hard To Read” from the Hard To Read EP were absolutely stellar in both festival and club live settings this year. Furthermore, Phillips’ prowess in pop production, without resorting to some of the cheesy antics common of bands on a similar trajectory are refreshing. And although Day Wave looks destined for more alternative/pop-rock radio play, I’m totally down with music that sounds this good touching the mainstream. —Adrian Spinelli
Leave it to Grimes to have a BFF that doubles as the best musician you haven’t heard yet. Like her partner-in-crime, HANA oversees every aspect of her sprawling electro compositions. The subject is touchy (a former emotionally abusive relationship) but the touch is light, as HANA employs handclaps, drum machines and synths a-plenty, plus her own lithe soprano in the name of reinvention. The former folkie turned all-caps pop singer doesn’t pull any lyrical punches (“Never not the nice one / Mustn’t be a bitch, hun”), but hers is an atmosphere of healing as she explores the nature of love, hurt and moving on. Look forward to a full-length some time in 2017. —Laura Studarus
11. Diet Cig
New Paltz’s Diet Cig are full of surprises. On their debut EP, 2015’s Over Easy, lead singer Alex Luciano casually admits “I’m sick of hearing about your band… I just wanna dance!” over a spare guitar-drum arrangement. All of the duo’s pop-punk material is hopelessly hooky, irreverently charming and just plain fun, but Diet Cig’s jubilance increases twofold onstage, with percussionist Noah Bowman stripping off his shirt and Luciano bouncing up and down like a two-year-old on cookies. They’ve been coy about when we can expect to hear an LP, but we do know they’re working on it. If it’s anything like their earlier work, we’re confident it’ll also top a few year-end lists. —Rachel Brodsky
10. LVL UP
When you’ve got three songwriters in your band, you run the risk of sounding piecemeal or lacking cohesion, but somehow New York quartet LVL UP have managed to avoid that; their album Return to Love features everything from high-octane power-pop to meandering epics like the excellent seven-minute “Naked in the River With the Creator,” yet it all manages to sound like it belongs together—it all sounds like LVL UP. “We’ve just honed in our sound,” guitarist Mike Caridi told us back in October when we declared them to be the Best of What’s Next. “It’s a collaborative effort in terms of choosing what songs are going to make it on because we all write a lot, but each songwriter has free reign over the content of the songs. We’ll bring a song forward and adjust some things, and that’s why things sound so cohesive. But a lot of the songs are so different because we don’t have any constraints over what each of us are writing about or how we’re writing.” —Bonnie Stiernberg
9. Car Seat Headrest
Will Toledo is hardly a “new” artist; his 2016 breakthrough, Teens of Denial is his 13th album. You Want It Darker was Leonard Cohen’s 14th. But it’s unquestionably the big one. Like the Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee, Denial bisects Toledo’s career where the lo-fi dry runs end and the world of producers, backing musicians and tragically uncleared Cars samples begin. It’s nice to see Toledo’s ambitions pour themselves into multi-part songs that sometimes go for 11 minutes because the kid just doesn’t want to stop. His boyish, bedroom-rock-hero schtick won big this year because it crossed over with old-school indie heads, classic rockers and emo revivalists alike. Maybe even Cars fans. —Dan Weiss
If your stage name stands for “Does Real Ass Music,” you better really do real ass music. Luckily for Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, he does. The man always has a huge smile on his face and his music puts you in a good mood even if you’ve had a terrible day. His debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M, was released in October and is a cheerful departure in the tepid climate we live in today. His album cover is a simple photo of him and his ridiculously cute dog Idnit, for crying out loud. The 28-year-old rapper recently performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon with Chance the Rapper, showing that not only can he rap and write killer tracks, but he also has some serious singing chops. If you’re nominated for Grammy for a song (“Broccoli”) on your debut album, you’re doing something right. —Annie Black
7. Big Thief
With Big Thief, Saddle Creek Records added another breakthrough act to its roster, following Hop Along’s well-deserved success on the label last year. The Brooklyn-based project is the vehicle for singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting, and Masterpiece is one of 2016’s strongest debut records.
Lenker and company imbue that emo-tinged Saddle Creek sound throughout Masterpiece, from Lenker’s shining voice on the album’s title track to the melancholy “Paul” (which sounds reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s finest work), to the positively Saddle Creek-sounding “Humans” to the wailing guitar climax of “Real Love,” Big Thief is truly one of 2016’s can’t-miss indie-rock acts. —Adrien Spinelli
6. Nice as Fuck
After a strong circuit supporting 2014’s The Voyager and Rabbit Fur Coat’s ten-year anniversary, Jenny Lewis funneled her ever-growing momentum into the surprise debut (at a Bernie Sanders benefit, of course) of supergroup Nice As Fuck with Erika Forster (Au Revoir Simone) and Tennessee Thomas (The Like). This year’s spontaneous, self-titled LP dropped amid rising turmoil and gave us solace in simplicity. NAF is political without being overt, channelling the tactics of classic protest songs—straightforward, chant-worthy lyrics (“I don’t wanna be afraid / Put your guns away,” “What you’re gonna do / When he comes looking for you?” ) that are dead-on without being specific and model fodder for being screamed over and over. —Sarra Sedghi
5. PWR BTTM
Even though this glam-rock duo released its debut album Ugly Cherries last year, 2016 seemed the be the year PWR BTTM truly strutted out into the music world. Adorning themselves in glitter, bright colored fashion, and flawless lipstick, Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins are as boldly queer in their aesthetics as in their lyrics. The two alternate lead vocals throughout the record, singing about wanting, “a boy who thinks its sexy when my lipstick bleeds” and “who can go all night without stopping,” but “knows exactly what he needs” in songs like “I Wanna Boi.” After releasing two additional singles this year, the sad ballad “New Hampshire” and the harder rocking “Projection” (which made it to No. 30 in our Best Songs of 2016 list), PWR BTTM signed to Polyvinyl in September and announced a follow up to Ugly Cherries due out next year. As extremist U.S. policies and political attitudes proliferate into the new year, bands like PWR BTTM that fight discrimination through smashing drums, squealing guitars, and sincere portrayals of marginalized communities will be even more necessary. —Hilary Saunders
It’s a tricky thing, putting Whitney in this category—like Schrodinger’s new artist, they are and they aren’t. After all, drummer and lead vocalist Julian Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek, both former members of Chicago indie outfit Smith Westerns, have a history. Soon after that band dissolved in 2014, the two reunited and started writing together. Influenced by Levon Helm and Allen Toussaint, their irresistible strain of soft-spun, bright-eyed indie folk, enlivened by elements of Chicago soul, is a dazzling phoenix rising from the ashes of Smith Westerns, and already flying high.
“When we were writing for Whitney, we were doing what we wanted to do,” Ehrlich has said. “The music was really freeing.” Freeing, indeed; music that sounds unstuck in time is a special thing, not to mention Whitney’s specialty. Central duo Kakacek and Ehrlich are reinforced by fellow onetime Smith Westerner Ziyad Asrar on rhythm guitar, plus keyboardist Malcolm Brown, bassist Josiah Marshall, horn player Will Miller and trusty soundman Charles Glanders. The self-described “country soul” septet’s debut album, Light Upon the Lake, is gorgeous and organic, thick with gentle guitar riffs that wrap and reach like vines of ivy, and tender melodies that soothe and stir at once. Kakacek’s bright guitar playing complements Ehrlich’s delicate falsetto wonderfully, while Miller’s horns add a raucous, almost celebratory element. The record, stunningly accessible for its deceptive degree of depth, feels less like a first attempt and more like a lustrous pearl, plucked at last from the oyster in which, unseen, it found its form.
“It just happened very organically,” the duo said of writing their record. “And we were smiling the whole time, even though some of the songs are pretty sad.” Sure enough, underneath all of Light Upon the Lake’s warmth lurk the spectres of loneliness and loss, and lording over it all is a mystery man: Whitney himself, a troubled and isolated character whom Kakacek and Ehrlich created, and who guided their every songwriting step. He has yet to steer them wrong. —Scott Russell
3. Japanese Breakfast
Psychopomp is the perfect moniker for this devastatingly dreamy noise-pop album from Japanese Breakfast, the first solo project from Michelle Zauner (of Philly punk fame). Named for the deities whose responsibility it is to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife, Psychopomp was created as a cathartic personal exploration after Zauner watched her mother suffer through illness before passing away. The artist doesn’t waste any time asking listeners a question she was surely struggling with herself while writing and recording. “Do you believe in heaven?” she sings on the opening track, setting the tone for a catchy, yet complex body of work that explores lo-fi loss, loneliness and love. Like denial turns into grief, lighter crystalline melodies early on eventually give way to a heavier experimental rock sound. The title track is a short, swirly instrumental piece. Ending on the motherly words, “It’s okay sweetheart. Don’t cry,” “Psychopomp” leads into the darkest, most dynamic song on the album. Stylish production makes it easy to overlook Zauner’s incredible range, that is until she confronts you with the assailing vocal performance on “Jane Cum.” Definitely makes a believer out of me. —Emily Ray
2. Lucy Dacus
The mystified plight of post-adolescence is a time-honored muse for many artists. For Lucy Dacus, the minutiae of her confessional songwriting is culled from acute observation and sleek homage to this universal truth, and oft-times brilliantly so on her debut LP, No Burden. That sentiment is proven right out of the gate with the album’s first single, “I Don’t Want To Be Funny Anymore,” a biting dismissal of social hierarchy that finds Dacus singing lines like “I’ve got a too-short skirt, maybe I can be the cute one/Is there room in the band? I don’t need to be the frontman/If not, then I’ll be the biggest fan.” It’s here that Dacus confidently asserts her square peg into the round hole of cliques, facades and the allure of titles and tropes in a strange world lived largely on the Internet. That No Burden came about thanks to a college recording project by a friend of Dacus’s, and the fact that she’d never played with a band at all makes the power of potent tunes like “Troublemaker, Doppelganger” all the more bewitching. Dacus possesses an enchanting voice that falls somewhere in the realm of Sharon Van Etten, but with a swagger and sureness all her own. That certitude of brashness takes otherwise textbook journal-plucked confessional type songs and places them in a much more powerful place. Motivation to evolve, to shift and to shed old skin ought not to be relegated to the woe-is-me realms of youthful idealism. With No Burden, Lucy Dacus challenges the little boxes everyone seems forced into at one time or another, exposing them for the weak material they’re built from. In the process, she’s created a debut record with an abundance of heart that should speak to anyone with a pulse of their own.—Ryan J. Prado
Longtime followers of Montclair, New Jersey’s Pinegrove might not point to the quartet as being that “new”—lead singer-songwriter Evan Stephens Hall has been performing with drummer childhood friend Zack Levine since 2010 when they would book local gigs at Montclair’s Serendipity Cafe. It wasn’t long before Pinegrove gained a steady cult following, which has only in the last year or so skyrocketed thanks to the overwhelming success of their 2016 sophomore LP, Cardinal, which topped a number of year-end lists, including Paste’s.
It’s easy to understand why: Hall’s arrangements are both classic and experimental, layering an unexpected genre combination of roots rock/Americana and punk, while his plaintive, cracking vocals recalls Clinton-era emo. The punchy “Then Again” opens with a one-note chord structure but displays hidden complexities in Hall’s winding, blossoming guitar solos. His lyricism, meanwhile, keeps close to home, with a number of the tracks on Cardinal written being inspired by Hall’s nightly walks around Montclair’s Brookdale Park. Twanging album opener “Old Friends” captures Hall’s ruminations on an acquaintance’s death and making enough time for those he loves. Its spiritual companion, “New Friends,” meanwhile, takes a cheerier albeit no less sardonic approach: “So I resolve to make new friends / Someone tell me to quit my head,” Hall resolves.
It’s Pinegrove’s earnestness and unique delivery—both in instrumentation and word choice (Hall manages to fit both “solipsism” and “labyrinthian” in one song)—that make them a true standout this year. And given Hall’s clear ability to expand his pet project while still keeping home in his heart, Pinegrove is bound to make even more “new friends” in the months and years to come. —Rachel Brodsky