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20 of the Most Innovative Musicians Working Today

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20 of the Most Innovative Musicians Working Today

Every development in the world of music is due to the creativity and originality of an artist—or, more often, a handful of artists pushing each other—playing with rhythm, experimenting with instrumentation, blending genres and sounds to create something new. It’s a living process as musicians build upon the creations of their peers, making something their own.

But some musicians push further beyond what’s come before them, and we want to celebrate some of the most innovative artists making music right now. The following 20 artists operate in a variety of genres from pop, rock and jazz to the more avant garde. Each is taking the world of music in a different direction, but they’re doing so boldly, and we’re excited to hear what’s next.

Here are 20 of the most innovative musicians working today:

1. Algiers

On their most recent album, The Underside of Power, Atlanta electro-rockers Algiers (pictured top) blend rock and electronica in the shadows of Nine Inch Nails, condemning government injustice with the precision and fury of Rage Against the Machine. “Political music has always been there,” says bassist Ryan Mahan. Steeped in a distinctive mix of post-punk and gospel, the album attracted a different kind of attention than Algiers’ self-titled debut in 2015, which Mahan attributes in part to context. “People are interpreting this record as something that is more relevant because of the very specific societal circumstances in which it was born. We think of it as a continuation” of the themes on the first album, which address the history of racism and civil rights in America. With The Underside of Power, Algiers not only provide a soundtrack for the revolution, but for the moments in the resistance when it seems too hard to keep going. —Hilary Saunders and Eric R. Danton

2. Suzi Analogue

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Baltimore native Suzi Analogue is a paradox of time, obsessed with the analog formats of the past (her Never Normal record label is known for cassette-only releases) while her music (a blend of electronic beats, neo-soul vocals and a hip-hop vibe) presses far into the future. The acclaimed underground producer/vocalist/fashion designer has lived all over the world, teaching music production to beat makers in the Netherlands and Uganda as a cultural ambassador from the U.S. —Josh Jackson (Photo courtesy of Suzi Analogue)

3. Ariadne

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Named after the mythological granddaughter of Zeus, the duo of Chirstine Papania and Benjamin Forest layer haunting choral vocals over experimental snippets of electronic sounds. Fascinated with ancient spiritual traditions, their latest cassette-only album was inspired by the visions of female Christian mystics Hildegard von Bingen and Teresa of Ávila, along with modern surrealist poetry. Fortunately for those without a cassette player, the music is also available digitally, along with visual accompaniment that matches the trance-like quality of the audio. —Josh Jackson (Photo by Danielle Ezzo)

4. Lea Bertucci

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Lea Bertucci is one of the most exciting artists working in modern composition and sound art. As with a lot of music that falls into those broad categories, much of her work plays with resonance, drones, overtones and dissonance. But what she brings to this world is a depth of feeling and a thoughtfulness that comes through in even her noisiest and most unsettling pieces. She’s just approaching her peak as well—her most recent releases—the 2017 exploration of string instruments All That Is Solid Melts Into Air and the forthcoming Metal Aether—are finely wrought works that evoke alluring and exotic new planets of sound.—Robert Ham

5. Ian Chang

Son Lux Drummer Ian Chang is on the cutting edge of his instrument, blurring the boundaries between electronic music and analog performance. Using Sunhouse’s Sensory Percussion system, Chang can program a huge array of samples into his drum kit and play a veritable symphony of electronic shades and colors based on where and and how hard he’s hitting each drum. Technically speaking, this may be the coolest thing we saw (and heard) in the Paste Studio all year. Watch Chang conduct a digital orchestra of rhythm on “Inhaler.” His EP, Spiritual Leader, came out last September. —Matthew Oshinsky

6. Circuit Des Yeux

Whether Haley Fohr is writing and performing experimental pop under the name Circuit Des Yeux or as her pseudo-country character Jackie Lynn, the art she creates never provides a steady grip or even ground to stand on. Instead, listeners are invited to enjoy every slippery curve and undulation of her expressive melodies and music that feels alive and almost dangerous. Fohr’s latest album Reaching for Indigo is a gorgeous and lucid affair that was inspired by a moment in early 2016 when she had a strange, almost spiritual experience that resulted in her convulsing and vomiting on the floor. That she managed to capture the essence of that night and wring revelations from it marks this LP as a undoubted success. —Robert Ham

7. Elysia Crampton

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Producer Elysia Crampton began her music career remixing under the moniker E+E before releasing her first studio album, American Drift, in 2015 under her own name. Born in California with Bolivian heritage, Crampton incorporates a variety of media, including jarring video clips, samples from various genres of music and captured sounds like rhythmic explosions, and her own experimental electronica. It’s a cacophony both chaotic and beautiful, like the soundtrack for a sweat lodge with a pulsating dance floor. As a trans woman and a Native American with Aymara roots, Crampton offers uncommon perspectives in her inherently political music, a refreshingly natural take on a futuristic sound. —Josh Jackson (Photo by Boychild)

8. FKA Twigs

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FKA Twigs embodies a post-genre sensibility: the performer born Tahliah Barnett is a singer, songwriter, dancer, producer and video director whose music encompasses airy pop, R&B, electronica and dance music without sounding beholden to any of them. Her songs can range from spare minimalism—“Hours” on 2014’s LP1 consists mostly of breathy vocals and stuttering beats—to the ornate, carefully sculpted soundscapes on FKA Twigs’ 2015 EP M3LL155X, which features a 16-minute video she directed that segues from nightmarish to a subversive take on desire to (relatively) straightforward dance sequences. Best of all, Barnett’s willingness to push herself in multiple directions means you never quite know what’s coming next. —Eric R. Danton (Photo by Dominic Sheldon)

9. Flying Lotus

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The building blocks for Flying Lotus’s work are, for the most, hip-hop’s deep history and vaunted legacy. What he creates from that raw material, though, is something else entirely. His recorded output and visual art are worthy of head-nodding and hip-swinging, but are suffused with the kind of psychedelic energy and spirit of a particularly great DMT experience or achieving the final stage of enlightenment. His music explodes with color and calm, pushing his chosen field of electronic production into uncharted territory. Hopefully a new school of producers and artists will follow him on this journey. —Robert Ham

10. Japanese Breakfast

Michelle Zauner’s second album as Japanese Breakfast, the transformative Soft Sounds From Another Planet, found the indie-pop visionary expanding her sonic palette to a dizzying degree, moving from the poignant dreaminess of her acclaimed debut Psychopomp into the stars above and beyond. Where on Psychopomp Zauner dealt directly with her mother’s death, Soft Sounds looked down on her grief from space, offering a more “objective view of what mourning was like” while casting off all ties to convention. From the emphatic saxophone outro on lead single “Machinist,” to the digital drone of “Planetary Ambiance” (“I wanted it to sound like two satellites talking,” Zauner told NPR), to the lap steel solo on the title track, to the gleaming keys on “The Body Is a Blade,” to the titular tubular bells of its closing moments, Soft Sounds and its many adventurous flourishes are the work of an unmoored creative force, an artist rising and in flux, not content to operate within the boundaries of expectation. —Scott Russell (Photo courtesy of Japanese Breakfast)

11. King Krule

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Archy Ivan Marshall is a mastermind. The young performer known as King Krule is part rapper, singer, producer and instrumentalist, and he has been writing and releasing music since he was a teenager in South London. His 2017 release, The Ooz employs street-smart rhymes in a fiendish croon, while the music warbles a bit like a melted vinyl record with the needle gliding across the valleyed grooves. Allusions to lovesick lows and drug-haze highs dominate the musical panorama and give glimpses into the somewhat reclusive Marshall’s last four years beneath the moon. Partly due to Marshall’s incredibly low register, his songs take on frightful undertones, as howls and shrieks are riddled atop meditative musical ambience, like a Lynchian fever dream. There is something unsettling around every corner. It’s not music to absorb in desperate moments, but rather an artfully brooding, grime-y thing that stands as a terribly unique and nightmarish account of what it might sound like to spiral out of control. —Hillary Saunders and Ryan J. Prado (Photo by Adrian Spinelli for Paste)

12. LIGHTS

The Canadian pop star Lights, nee Valerie Paxleitner, has been telling stories in song since 2008, mixing electronic and acoustic elements to find a balanced musical identity. For her sixth album, 2017’s Skin & Earth, she decided song wasn’t quite enough and created an entire comic-book series to accompany the music she was writing. A longtime fan of comics and graphic novels, Lights painstakingly illustrated a six-volume series, issuing each new chapter with a corresponding song from the album. The story revolves around Enaia Jin, a lonely heroine who wanders a post-apocalyptic future trying to separate the twisted fantasy world she sees from her own true nature. With her normally brunette hair dyed bright red to match Enaia’s, Lights stepped squarely into the evolving meta narrative of persona, where creator and creation are one and the same and identity is as fungible as a line on the page. —Matthew Oshinsky

13. Nico Muhly

Few composers move between the classical and pop worlds with the ease and elegance of Nico Muhly. He’s a natural collaborator whose work with acts including Björk, Grizzly Bear, the National and Antony & the Johnsons has enriched their music with orchestrations that push songs in subtly daring ways. Muhly’s own work is even more distinctive. His numerous classical compositions include choral works, film scores and three operas, and he draws on unusual sources: Much of his 2008 release, Mothertongue, featured bits of sonic collage, including samples of a Farfisa organ, knives scraping against each other and Icelandic wind. —Eric R. Danton

14. Angélica Negrón

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Creating lo-fi compositions using everything from electronic toys (including a Strawberry Shortcake music box) to accordion to more traditional orchestral arrangements, Angélica Negrón marches to her own strangely timed beat. After studying piano, violin and composition in her native Puerto Rico, the Brooklyn based multi-instrumentalist got her masters at New York University and is currently working on a PhD at CUNY. Her music ranges from the electro-pop of her Puerto Rican underground band Balún to avant garde compositions for film and symphonic performance. Her recent song cycle El Colapso combines traditional Andean instruments with sounds captured from kitchen utensils. —Josh Jackson (Photo by Quique Cabanillas)

15. Shigeto

Zach Saginaw makes music as Shigeto, a jazz-inspired electronic project forged on live drumming and spatial sound effects that pay homage to both the Japanese ancestry on his mother’s side and influential artists on the the avant-garde Ghostly International label that signed him in 2010. Like the Ghostly label, the Saginaws are originally from the college town of Ann Arbor, about 40 miles west. In 2000, Zach went to the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York to study drum performance, but left after a year and a half, saying it felt like it was a “jazz academia prison.” Feeling lost, he moved to Europe for four years before settling in New York and beginning to enact some of the musical concepts that have made him one of today’s foremost jazz fusionists. “I wanted to do something current musically, but that was also changing, and history is still being written in electronic music in so many ways,” he says. “Guess I got what I wanted.” —Adrian Spinelli (Photo: Adrian Spinelli for Paste)

16. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith left her home on Orcas Island to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, then shuttered her folk band after discovering and becoming enamored with the Buchla 100, an early synthesizer developed by electronic music pioneer Don Buchla. Experimenting with the instrument’s array of beats, tones and effects, she found her way to a unique sound she has inhabited ever since. Smith is one of a small number of prominent musicians who use a Buchla creation as her primary instrument. Her recent album, The Kid, is like being dropped into the middle of a bizarrely beautiful sound-world and enveloped by the warmth and wonder of one woman’s relationship with a machine named Buchla. “An Intention” pairs her lush robot harmonies with a bed of music that seems to rise and fall like it’s wheezing. And “A Kid” collapses into a pit of knocks and sproings before ascending into Smith’s liveliest vocal performance to date. —Ben Salmon (Photo by Tim Saccenti)

17. St. Vincent

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Annie Clark  has spent more than a decade subtly shifting shape on five solo LPs as St. Vincent plus a collaboration with another innovator, David Byrne. Clark has marked her steady progression from the indie darling behind 2007’s Marry Me to the mainstream star who made last year’s complex yet accessible MASSEDUCTION with bold touches, pushing against genre boundaries with a mix of jaw-dropping guitar chops, clanging electronics and what feels from the outside like an unwavering artistic vision that includes upending expectations in an effort to challenge her listeners, and more important, herself. —Eric R. Danton (Photo by Nedda Afsari)

18. Tank and the Bangas

Since they released their debut album in 2013, Tank and the Bangas have been gathering steam one mesmerizing tour stop at at time, gradually becoming one of the most buzzed-about bands in America. Coming from a poetry background that she cultivated in the Big Easy, frontwoman Tarriona Ball, aka Tank, has a magnetic stage presence, mastering the rapid-fire half-talking, half-rapping, always-on-the-verge-of-singing vocal style that might conjure Chance the Rapper. Though Tank and the Bangas hail from New Orleans, their hodgepodge of sounds—derived in large part by the group’s drummer and musical director, Joshua Johnson—has more in common with the personality of the city than the styles associated with it. Mostly steeped in soul and jazz, the group also draws on influences from around the globe, which makes sense given the members’ eclectic origins and backgrounds. But the music has an authentic, almost improvised sound, which is a credit to their organic songwriting process. —Claire Greising

19. t-U-n-E-y-A-r-D-s

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Merill Garbus has come a long way in four albums, from the super-looped Afro-funk of 2009’s Bird Brains to the more polished production of 2014’s Nikki Nack. Her brand new release with constant collaborator Nate Brenner, I can feel you creep into my private life, keeps the programmed beats and playful multipart harmonies firmly intact. The record’s first single, “Look at Your Hands,” may have a distinctly ’80s feel, but I can feel you creep marks new experimentation for the band. Garbus sampled her vocals for the first time with an MPC in order to achieve a glitchy, robotic sound, placing her squarely in the avant garde of artists fusing digital and analog sounds. —Loren DiBlasi

20. Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington gained notoriety for his collaborations with Kendrick Lamar on the rapper’s acclaimed To Pimp a Butterly LP, but the accomplished saxophonist and composer hasn’t stopped there. Washington’s sounds are endlessly eclectic and experimental, whether he’s working solo or with members of his collective, the West Coast Get Down (he’s even performed at the Whitney Biennial). On his most recent EP, Harmony of Difference, Washington combined music and visual art with an elaborate story told across the length of five sweeping tracks. His complex arrangements and compositions are connected through his uniquely spiritual approach to the artistic process. —Loren DiBlasi

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