The 10 Best New Solo Artists of 2010

Music Lists
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Yesterday, we looked at our favorite bands of 2010, but it would be unfair not to mention the many great solo artists we discovered this year. These were all part of the recurring Best of What’s Next feature at PasteMagazine.com. We hope you like them as much as we do.

Here are our 10 favorite new solo artists of 2010:

10. Eli “Paperboy” Reed
Hometown: Boston
Album: Come and Get It
For Fans Of: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye 

About 15 seconds into the title track of Eli “Paperboy” Reed’s Capitol Records debut, Come and Get It (out this month)—right when the brass kicks in and he lets out a hair-raising “Whoo!”—it becomes clear that the 26-year-old singer has more soul than he knows what to do with.

Reed passed his high-school days in Boston playing harmonica, guitar and saxophone with his school band and holing up with buddies to listen to records. (Around the same time, he also started wearing his grandfather’s old newsboy cap, which earned him an enduring nickname.) “We didn’t go to class,” Reed remembers. “We just sat in the music room and listened to music and talked about what was good and bad. I’m sure everyone thought we were assholes.”

Nothing changed when he enrolled at the University of Chicago—where running a radio show, playing at a local church and scouring record stores all took priority over classes. “I was sort of always figuring I was going to do something else while I was actively pursuing music,” Reed says. He left after a year.

About five years ago, Reed finally made music his primary focus and formed his current band, The True Loves. His musical and lyrical experiments allowed him to find his unique voice, one that reflects his profound respect for Motown’s greats. It’s classic soul for a new generation; teenagers at his shows have asked what kind of music he plays because they’ve never heard anything like it.—Ani Vrabel

9. Keegan DeWitt
Hometown: Nashville
Album: Nothing Shows EP
For Fans Of: Jason Isbell, Roman Candle, Bon Iver

Keegan DeWitt  studied film in college, but perhaps he should have been an English major. Though he first made his name by composing movie scores, and then as a member of rootsy rock-group Roman Candle, his first two solo albums are rife with literary references and inspiration. His most recent EP, Nothing Shows, released in July, was influenced by the poetry of Philip Larkin and boasts folksy, upbeat tracks with a cinematic edge.

DeWitt hopes to head to Europe again to gather some literary inspiration for his next EP, to be released sometime this winter. “I’ve been digging through all this different stuff and I have to figure out what the next piece is,” he says. “I think it has to start from removing myself and going someplace, again.”—Caroline Klibanoff

8. Ólafur Arnalds
Hometown: Mosfellsbaer, Iceland
Album: Found Songs EP
For Fans Of: Sigur Rós, Múm, Thomas Newman
Photo by Stuart Bailes

In the last few years, Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds suffered two accidents that did horrible things to his body but wonderful things for his music. At age 17, he was rough-housing with some friends when one of them jumped on his head, nearly breaking Arnalds’ spine as he bent under the weight; five years later, before he’d fully recovered, a car accident broke several more bones and injured his neck and shoulders.

Doctors massaged his muscles and cracked his bones, but never could alleviate his pain. Then, by his mother’s orders, the now-23-year-old Arnalds sought out craniosacral therapy, where physicians placed their hands on his body to open up energy stations fueling the spine and skull. He walked into the first session feeling doubtful, but he walked out feeling remarkable. “I cried for the first time in years just because I was so happy, and I was so shocked,” Arnalds told Paste the day after his first session. “It was like some kind of miracle.”

Before, Arnalds had only been able to comfort himself with his music. At age 14 he’d found his earliest inspiration in composer Thomas Newman’s score for The Green Mile. “It was classical but still accessible,” he says. “It was something I could understand even though I didn’t really listen to much classical music.” But his self-created musical therapy would begin later, at age 21, as a music school dropout. Arnalds created an LP and EP, Eulogy for Evolution and Variations of Static, using his sister’s classical theory books, linking up meditations over the death of his uncle and birth of that uncle’s first grandchild.

With its sighing strings, deliberate piano, electronic reverb and even one heavy metal guitar tirade, both works are mature, modern explorations of life and its unexpected joys, rendering Arnalds increasingly visible (and therefore increasingly confused with folk singer/songwriter Ólöf Arnalds, an entirely different Icelandic artist who happens to be his cousin).

Just as Arnalds sought solace in his compositions, thousands of others have done the same. In 2007 and 2008, he filled up all 1,949 seats in London’s Barbican Hall and toured with fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós. In 2009, he created the soundtrack for Wayne MacGregor’s latest ballet, Dyad 1909. More recently, he recorded and mixed one track per day for a week, then released each one for free. The resulting EP, Found Songs, has been downloaded over 100,000 times, inspiring hundreds of fan-made collages, photographs and videos.

With 2010 on the horizon, Arnalds is anticipating more firsts. His first film soundtrack, a dream project, will commence once shooting starts in Los Angeles next summer. His still-untitled sophomore LP, set for a spring release, marks his first time working with another producer, Barði Jóhannsson. And if all goes well with his craniosacral therapy, thanks to his mother’s recommendation, for the first time in quite some time Arnalds will be able to make his healing music without feeling any pain.—Christina Lee

7. Freddie Gibbs
Hometown: Gary, Ind.
Album: Str8 Killa No Filla
For Fans Of: Tupac Shakur, Outkast, Z-Ro

The state of Indiana has long been thought of as America’s heartland, a place of rolling cornfields, family values and general agreeability. But when you’re driving down the Borman Expressway, a dire stretch of Northwest Indianan highway just outside Chicago, that reputation seems ludicrous. And if the nearby cities—Merrillville, Hammond, Munster—seem bleak, then Gary is oppressively so.

Even in the greater Midwest, where so many local economies have been decimated by the collapse of the manufacturing industry, few towns look as blighted as this one. Twenty-five miles from Chicago, it’s the state’s fifth-largest city (and the birthplace of Michael Jackson), but its buildings are decrepit, its industrial units perpetually downsizing. In 2005, it was said to be the murder capital of the United States. Other cities—New Orleans, Detroit—have since seized that dubious honor, but when 28-year-old Los Angeles rapper Freddie Gibbs returned to his hometown late this July, he noted little progress.

“I can’t say the violence has simmered down,” he says. “A lot of my people are still gettin’ shot.”

Will Scrilla, the local MC that Gibbs holds in highest regard, has been incarcerated for over a decade. Countless other talented locals have let Gary’s ghettos consume them, and Gibbs could’ve easily joined their ranks. Growing up, he pimped women and pushed drugs on 17th avenue. As a burgeoning MC, he felt slighted by the scene in the bigger, more vibrant Chicago, and struggled to get the attention of media outlets in the Windy City. “It was quite difficult for a Gary artist, especially for an independent artist,” he says. Gibbs could have made it easier on himself by emulating socially conscious Chicago rappers like Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco and Rhymefest, but he stuck to what he knew: gangsta rap that depicts black-on-black violence in explicit detail, but yearns to see his people portrayed in a more positive light.

Gibbs landed a deal with Interscope Records in 2006, but life hardly got easier. After working on some songs with top-tier producers like Polow Da Don, the A&R guy responsible for signing him left the label. Gibbs was dropped, and returned to Gary and selling drugs. It wasn’t until September 2009 that he carved out a place for himself on the national scene with his The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik mixtapes. The tapes boasted austere, authoritative rhymes and a scalding nihilism exemplified on brutal cuts like “Murda on My Mind” and “No Regrets.” But sobering tracks like “One Mo’ Time” brim with heart: “I saw my favorite hustler turn into a customer / Killed me like a bullet to the jugular.”

In July, Gibbs released his latest mixtape, Str8 Killa No Filla, via XXLMag.com. On standout track “Rock Bottom,” he and Bun B (who also appears on the bluesy, stripped-down “Oil Money”) grieve over deadbeat fathers who can’t be trusted to “get some bread for rent, lights and cable.” In the first verse, Gibbs raps, “Only thing I got left is a gun on my belt / If I can’t feed myself, how am I gonna feed you?”

Gibbs reps his birthplace hard these days, but he also acknowledges that Gary, despite its rich history and haunting architectural beauty, has become a strange, miserable place. “There’s nothin’ for us,” he says of the town, and yet it has informed so much of the artist he’s become. What makes Gibbs special, other than his wizened delivery and writerly eye for detail, is his embodiment of so many contradictions: He’s alternately confident and unnerved, angry but all the more resolute because of it. He spent much of his youth being shortchanged, ignored, relegated to the shadows in a city—and a world—where race and class mean everything. He managed to escape the streets of Gary, but in recent months, the city has swollen with pride over its native son—the one who got away.

“By all accounts, Gibbs is on the way to something big,” wrote his hometown newspaper, the Gary Post-Tribune, in January. “... This time, he’s made his own break.”—M.T. Richards

6. Dominique Young Unique
Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
Album: Domination
For Fans Of: Santigold, Rusko, Yo! Majesty

“Oh my God! This is actually pretty!” Dominique Clark, who raps under the moniker Dominique Young Unique, is at Westfield Citrus Park mall in Tampa, Fla., browsing for clothes and chatting on her cellphone. She grew up in town, and much of her work is a response to the music she heard here as a kid. “In Tampa [hip-hop], everybody talk about guns and fightin’,” she says. “So I had to kill that.”

The 19-year-old was raised in one of Tampa’s many housing projects, some of which are engaged in intense, bloody feuds. “I fought a lot [growing up],” she says. “But I ain’t never shoot at nobody or was shootin’. I fought, like, fist-fight.” She started rapping at age 11, and at 15 she met Shunda K, then a member of Tampa rap duo Yo! Majesty, who introduced Clark to her current label and producer. Despite the “I ain’t talkin’ bout no guns,” line in her 2009 single “Music Time,” her lyrics trade on the violence she witnessed earlier in life; on “War Talk,” her high-pitched voice yelps: “War talk! War talk! War talk! War talk! / All you motherfuckers just take a walk, walk / Get up on my block and you’ll feel this Glock!”

But there’s no way the singles that make up her June-released Domination mixtape could be construed as gangsta rap. Instead of trap-rap’s steadily pounding 808 drum machines, Clark’s beats are frantic, skittering from handclaps to tinny club pulses to dubsteppy wobble. Usually, the percussion and wall-of-sound synths give way to completely new rhythms several times throughout each track. Likewise, her influences are as diverse as Trina, Cyndi Lauper and fellow up-and-comer Nicki Minaj. “I just want to do it, like, fun and catchy,” Clark says. “Like people can dance to it, but they also understand where I’m coming from.”—Rachel Dovey

5. Ty Segall
Hometown: San Francisco
Album: Melted
For Fans Of: The Troggs, Black Lips, T. Rex

Ty Segall is frequently described as a “wunderkind,” and while the soon-to-be 23-year-old may be getting a bit old for the title, it’s still basically apt. His musical output since 2008 is simply astounding: a stack of 7” records, a couple cassettes, a collaboration LP with Mikal Cronin of The Moonhearts, and four full-length albums including this spring’s Melted (and that’s to say nothing of all the other bands he’s played with, including Thee Oh Sees and Sic Alps).

Segall’s 2009 album Lemons came out on Goner Records and was a lo-fi garage affair full of the scuzzy rock ‘n’ roll that’s come to be expected from the label. He draws a clear influence from the psychedelic weirdos of years past (marked by his cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Dropout Boogie”) but Melted clears out some of that fuzz. “I definitely think it’s a little cleaner,” Segall says of the new record. “I was trying to shoot for something a little different than Lemons, and I didn’t know what that was or what we were going for until it was done.”

On Melted, he messes with a number of styles and sounds (grunge, garage, psych and pop), but tempers his frenzy on lead single “Caesar,” which finds him playing an acoustic guitar and slowing down the tempo a bit. “It started out as a punk song,” he said. “I had the idea of slowing it down to half speed. It has this T. Rex kind of vibe.” It begins as an acoustic slow jam, and then—sure enough—turns into a Marc Bolan boogie that gets Segall singing in a cool, controlled falsetto.

Segall doesn’t mind being tagged as a “garage” act, but he prefers the more straightforward label of “rock ‘n’ roll.” For all the Troggs, Beefhearts, Zappas and Bolans in his listening rotation, there are some some more traditional rock touchstones, too. “I’m way into Kiss,” he admits. “Way into Kiss. I saw them the day before Thanksgiving with my mom and my sister. It ruled. They had explosions and blood and fire and lasers—it was so cool.”—Evan Minsker

4. Nathaniel Rateliff
Hometown: Denver, Colo.
Album: In Memory of Loss
For Fans Of: Josh Ritter, Smog, Ray LaMontagne 
Photos by Todd Roeth

Nathaniel Rateliff’s newest LP In Memory of Loss rings with the ease, tenderness and lightness of heart that often mark a new romance. And rightly so: Much of the album was written to woo a woman. Ambling guitar riffs and light touches of piano sound like aimless strolls through town; Rateliff’s rich voice and his bandmates’ textured harmonies sound like long and comfortable conversations, and the songwriter’s occasional raw vocal rattle sounds like those sweet moments of when new lovers are bold to share hard truths—family secrets, old friends, regrets—and ask big questions. This year, he toured with Delta Spirit and The Low Anthem, among others.

And trying to woo that woman—how did that go? “Well, I married her,” Rateliff says. “I still try to woo her. I think that’s your job as a lover and a partner is to continue in that same sort of feeling that you had when you first met. Not that that’s always possible because it’s a little too dreamy for it to stay exactly the way it is when you first meet somebody.”—Catherine Prewitt

3. Sarah Jaffe
Hometown: Denton, Texas
Album: Suburban Nature
For Fans Of: Rachael Yamagata, Sam Phillips, Katie Herzig
Photo by Melanie Gomez

“I love Texas,” says Sarah Jaffe, “but it’s pretty ‘it what it is.’” The 23-year-old singer/songwriter (whose last name rhymes with “taffy”) is at a mall in her hometown, on break from touring and killing time before she catches a movie. “I grew up in a place that was pretty much boring. It was brown and flat, but I think that humbleness is very attractive.”

Jaffe is a lot like her home state: Wide-open, humble and matter-of-fact, she crafts beautiful, raw songs that “are what they are” in the very best way. Playing like wise, witty diary entries marked with teardrops, growing pains and effusive honesty, her debut album Suburban Nature (out now) ebbs and flows on a sea of candid relationship narratives. “Love is interesting, because when two people come together that way, it can be really hostile and beautiful at the same time,” she says of the inspiration for the album’s 13 songs, some of which were written before Jaffe graduated from high school.

The key to avoiding anxiety over performing such personal songs is confidence, a trait Jaffe easily exudes in conversation but that melts into a bewitching vulnerability in her music. “I’ve never written to impress, I’ve always written out of honesty,” she says. “I hope people will appreciate that honesty and relate it to themselves if they can.”

Jaffe is planning on touring for a year supporting Suburban Nature, but loves coming home to her family in Denton, who she calls her “centrifugal point.” “For as long as I can remember this is the one thing I’ve always wanted to do and I feel at home with,” she says over the hustle and bustle of the shopping mall. “It fills me. It makes me very very happy to write and to play and to travel. I can’t really see myself doing anything else and I don’t want to be doing anything else.”—Lindsey Lee

2. Anaïs Mitchell
Hometown: Montpelier, Vt.
Album: Hadestown
For Fans Of: Bon Iver, Ani DiFranco, The Decemberists 
Illustration by Zela Lobb

Twenty-nine-year-old singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell lives in a little house in western Vermont where she tends her fire, writes songs and occasionally gets a wild hair to do something like, say, mastermind a full-on stage musical, set in a post-apocalyptic company town, that re-imagines the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

That’s what she did in 2005, at least, with the help of a few old friends, local musician/composer Michael Chorney and director Ben T. Matchstick. The show was called Hadestown—named after the Greek god of the underworld, from whom the poet Orpheus must rescue his young bride Eurydice—and it premiered in late 2006 with a hometown cast working on just two weeks of rehearsal. After a few years of obsessive revisions, in 2009 Mitchell assembled a cast of new friends—including Ani DiFranco, Midwestern folkster Greg Brown, Ben Knox Miller from The Low Anthem and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon—to record a full-on album version of her “folk opera,” which will finally see light outside of Vermont in March.

Mitchell hopped around the country to record each art- ist’s individual vocal tracks, once doing a whirlwind 24-hours in Wisconsin with Vernon, driving 10 hours to record Brown in Iowa City, then shuttling to Minneapolis and flying back to her producer Todd Sickafoose’s studio in Brooklyn. She was too grateful for their contributions to really mind the travel, she says, though she admits “it’s kind of like a crazy wet dream to imagine all those singers in the same studio, kind of like ‘We are the World.’”

If everyone’s schedules agree, Mitchell says she’d “love nothing more” than to perform the album onstage with the full cast this spring. In the meantime, she’s working on her fourth proper solo album, which she expects will have a less direct narrative than Hadestown, but could play on some of the same ancient tensions and archetypes. “You don’t have to make something out of nothing,” she says. “There are echos of things, and they’re echoing and echoing back as long as we can remember.”—Rachael Maddux

1. Lissie
Hometown: Rock Island, Ill.
Album: Catching a Tiger
For Fans Of: Emmylou Harris, Neko Case, Band of Horses 
photo by Ewen Spencer

Lissie Maurus, the singer/songwriter who performs under her first name, owes much of her recent notoriety to her live covers of songs like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness, which are as notable for their unexpectedly sublime execution as they are for being so removed from the folky milieu she seems to inhabit. She could easily get pegged as the big-voiced-white-girl-with-a-guitar-who-does-ironic-covers, but the songs are rendered with such obvious, kitsch-less affection that they complicate the whole idea of her.

Two years ago, Lissie moved from Rock Island, Ill., to Los Angeles, then escaped L.A. for nearby Ojai. She lives there with her Lhasa Apso, Byron, in a little bungalow where she writes songs and plays house. “I’ve been being super domestic and making pies and cooking a ton,” says the cornsilk-haired 27-year-old, who performs under her first name. When she saw signs for a recent chili cook-off in town, she thought, “You know, I might as well enter that,” and then spent weeks rigorously testing her recipe. “I would take chili to the grocery store and have the guys at the butcher shop taste it and tell me what was missing,” she says. “Like, ‘It needs more garlic. It needs more spice.’”

That’s pretty much how Lissie approaches music, too—headlong and with a little help from her friends. She started playing in Rock Island coffeehouses as a teenager and later gave college a try, but writing songs had her snared. Then, through an ex-boyfriend, she met Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds. At home in Ojai, in London with Ed Harcourt and with some of Reynolds’ bandmates in Asheville, N.C., the pair recorded her first EP, Why You Runnin’, released in November. The five tracks revel in pure, countrified sorrow, with Lissie’s glorious voice steeped in whiskey and reverb on raucous lead single “Little Lovin’” and plaintive hometown ballad “Oh Mississippi”—a haunting glimpse at what’s in store for her full-length debut, coming in 2010.

Her maiden chili-cook-off attempt fared less well (she didn’t even place, and suspects local nepotism) though she stuck with a tried-and-true formula. “You start with something kind of basic that’s an expression of yourself,” she says. “And it’s the little, tiny accents that make it really good.”—Rachael Maddux

Recently in Music