The 40 Best New Artists of 2021

Featuring Dry Cleaning, L'Rain, Olivia Rodrigo and more

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The 40 Best New Artists of 2021

2021 was an eventful year, and music returned in a big way. Virtual shows like Paste Studio on the Road existed alongside the return of huge festivals and a never-ending stream of tour announcements, and all of it allowed us to celebrate artists old and new. Paste was honored to support artists such as Dry Cleaning, Geese, Provoker and more as one of the countless voices singing their praises. For us, “new” is a relative term, and whether they released a few singles, a debut or already have a few albums under their belt, what matters is that these artists turned an uncertain year into a breakout, or perhaps the lead-up to one. These are the 40 new artists whom you should check out before the year ends, and maybe find a tune to take into a hopeful 2022 with you.

Listen to Paste’s Best New Artists of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.

Amber Mark

Almost four years after the release of her second EP Conexão, New York-based singer, songwriter and producer Amber Mark announced her debut album, Three Dimensions Deep, out Jan. 28, 2022, via PMR/Interscope. To provide a sample of the forthcoming release, Mark also shared her fourth single from the album, “What It Is,” following “Worth It,” “Competition” and “Foreign Things,” the last of which ranked among Paste’s top tracks of August. Drenched in R&B influence, “What It Is” approaches the genre with a soulfully electronic twist, Mark’s voice reaching soothing highs and suave lows. Despite often singing about her woes, she charmingly wraps her sadness and reflections up in a skillfully tied bow. —Ana Cubas

Arooj Aftab

A Lahore, Pakistan-born graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music now based in Brooklyn, composer, singer and songwriter Arooj Aftab’s latest album Vulture Prince follows her 2018 collection Siren Islands, but is in direct conversation with her 2015 debut, Bird Under Water. Vulture Prince opens with “Baghon Main,” a new reimagining of her debut’s fourth track that replaces the original’s subdued harmonium with bright, beautiful strings, as if assuming a newly accepting outlook on a painful past. This act of looking back on days gone by is central to Vulture Prince, which is dedicated to the memory of Aftab’s younger brother Maher, whom she lost while writing it. Among Aftab’s most compelling explorations of the liminal space between love and loss is “Mohabbat,” which finds her breathing new life into a decades-old example of an ancient poetic form, the ghazal. With Vulture Prince, Aftab not only connects her songwriting to time-honored artistic traditions, but also makes music with the bittersweet beauty to echo through the years in and of itself. —Scott Russell

Bruiser Wolf

Bruiser Wolf has garnered significant buzz as one of the newest signees of Bruiser Brigade Records, a new label founded by Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Wolf’s debut album, Dope Game Stupid, is a whimsical and introspective introduction to the rapper, complete with metaphors that range from genius to outright ridiculous. The album’s title track’s hypnotizing psychedelic loop serves as a funhouse mirror reflection of Wolf’s biting recollections of his illicit activities. His distinct delivery dances between a whisper and a sermon as he raps, “Stupid, when you get indicted by the feds / Those stories get made up like beds / And oh yeah, the game starts where it end / So if you get caught, don’t you talk, like an imaginary friend,” painting vivid portraits of his fascinating life straight out of the beginning stages of a film script. —Jade Gomez

caroline

The London-based eight-piece caroline combine elements of classical minimalism, Appalachian folk and even Midwestern emo into songs that feel both spare and sweeping, managing to mesmerize in spite of their rustic, even spartan simplicity. “Skydiving onto the library roof” was a summer standout, and on their November single “IWR,” Jasper Llewellyn’s gentle nylon-string guitar is the tiny seed from which a towering tree slowly, surely grows, with almost lullaby-like group vocals urging it on: “Somehow / I was right / all along,” caroline insist as the track expands, guitars, bass and percussion all blossoming. Oliver Hamilton and Magdalena McLean’s violins cast the entire song in a bold, new glow, and by its denouement, it’s almost unrecognizable, like waking up in an unfamiliar place, yet feeling no fear. Caroline’s self-titled debut album (Feb. 25, 2022, Rough Trade) is a journey we can’t wait to embark on. —Scott Russell

Cheekface

Listening to Cheekface is a little like listening to a friend recite funny tweets to you while your roommate practices post-punk basslines in the other room. That’s not a complaint: This L.A. trio’s songs are sardonic and frequently quite funny, and lead singer Greg Katz, an everydude-voiced lead singer who talks more than he sings, really does have the energy of a guy reading tweets aloud. “Boyfriend with a soul patch / I know, I know, it’s serious,” he half-croons in “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Calabasas.” “I am eating like it’s Thanksgiving, but without the gratitude,” he deadpans in “Emotional Rent Control.” A generation ago, songwriters wrote lyrics that seemed primed for use in AIM away messages; Cheekface’s quips are concise enough to be tweets, with the requisite non-sequiturs and self-deprecating observations. Still, after writing that description, I recoiled in horror: Has my brain really been so warped by social media that lyrics remind me of tweets instead of vice versa? But that’s the kind of existential anxiety Cheekface could probably write a song about. And writing songs about anxiety is what this band does quite well. Their first album was titled Therapy Island and prominently namechecked Zoloft; the record charmed on the strength of a buzzy single called “Dry Heat/Nice Town” that lightly tweaked leftist protest discourse. The follow-up, Emphatically No., is even more anxious, more hooky and somehow more Cheekface. —Zach Schonfeld

Dry Cleaning

British quartet Dry Cleaning extract the profound from the mundane and the meaningful from the nonsensical. On “Viking Hair” from the band’s 2019 EP Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks, frontperson Florence Shaw’s everyday sexual fantasies stood in for the arbitrary guidelines determining acceptable and shameful desires; as she surreally rattled off “traditional fish bar, chicken and ribs, bus pass” and more on “Traditional Fish” from the band’s other 2019 EP, Sweet Princess, she scorned the very idea of commerce. And she did it all in a bone-dry, comical sing-speak set to rollicking, if not straightforward, post-punk courtesy of guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard and drummer Nick Buxton. New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s debut album (and first release for 4AD), is all of that and none of that. Shaw’s semi-accidental revelations about the ridiculousness of being alive when we live in a society are sharper than ever, and her voice newly takes the tone of a psychic waking up from a 70-year nap. Dowse, Maynard and Buxton have massively upped their game, too: The EPs’ post-punk foundation remains, but atop it come stomping glam riffs, dream-pop arpeggios and razor-sharp melodies that loosen Dry Cleaning’s prior tension without entirely taming the mania. —Max Freedman

Dummy

Several of 2021’s most beloved and interesting albums feature a cerebral, textured chaos that sparks a wide range of emotions—including records by Spirit of the Beehive, The Armed and TURNSTILE—and Dummy’s debut Mandatory Enjoyment certainly accomplishes that same feat. Their blend of noise-pop and new age music works on multiple levels, especially because both subgenres thrive on the fascinating intermingling of electronic and organic components. But what’s arguably most satisfying about Dummy is that their thrumming instrumentals evoke crisp lines, while their free-flowing, tangential textures color outside those bounds—their songs always feel like the perfect painting. —Lizzie Manno

Enumclaw

“I’m just not for everybody / It’s hard to accept,” Enumclaw vocalist and guitarist Aramis Johnson sings on “Fast N All,” the first single from the Tacoma, Washington, quartet’s debut release. It’s a fair assessment: One of the first things you notice about Jimbo Demo is Johnson’s voice, nasal and raw, which may turn off listeners who mistake a feature for a bug. That unvarnished authenticity is what Enumclaw are all about, and it only amplifies their honest, emotional songwriting (“I’m not the person that I wanna be,” Johnson insists on “Cinderella”). Instrumentally, the band—which also features Nathan Cornell, Ladaniel Gipson and post-Jimbo Demo addition Eli Edwards, Johnson’s brother—craft a sound that’s equal parts grunge and shoegaze, fusing the former’s casually distorted disaffection with the latter’s dreamy, effects-augmented melodies. There’s nothing more exciting than a band than can bottle lightning while retaining so much room to grow. —Scott Russell

Fake Fruit

Post-punk lovers have a new act to follow in Fake Fruit, a Vancouver-bred, Bay Area-based quartet who made their self-titled debut this year on Rocks In Your Head Records. The band cite Pink Flag-era Wire, Pylon and Mazzy Star as influences, and Fake Fruit bears that synthesis out: You’ll find the first two acts’ versatile, hard-edged, bright- and fast-burning guitar rock (“Old Skin,” “Yolk”), as well as the last one’s engrossing quiet-loud dynamics (“Stroke My Ego”). But that specific stylistic fusion is only a jumping-off point: “Keep You” finds singer and guitarist Hannah D’Amato’s melodic vocals overlaying hypnotic shoegaze guitars (courtesy of Alex Post on lead) and a clattering low end (Martin Miller on bass, Miles MacDiarmid on drums), while album closer “Milkman” finds D’Amato sharing vocal duties over deft guitar harmonics and a motorik backbeat. And an X factor in all this is Fake Fruit’s mordant lyricism: “My dog speaks more than you did tonight,” D’Amato sneers on “Keep You,” a laugh line on an album that shows serious potential. —Scott Russell

Floatie

Chicago quartet Floatie make brain-wrinkling rock that wouldn’t be possible without their close interconnection. Though Sam Bern, Luc Schutz, Joe Olson and Will Wisniewski only just released their debut album on Exploding in Sound in March, Voyage Out is the product of a creative relationship that dates back nearly a decade, lending the band’s introductory effort a hard-won unity of vision you rarely see on a debut album, with Floatie writing and performing as one. There’s math-rock precision aplenty here—like on the arpeggiated riffage of “In the Night,” the elusive time signatures of “Lookfar,” or the title track’s dueling guitars—but where that kind of calculated instrumentation can sometimes feel sterile and joyless, Floatie’s is rich in emotional texture, specifically a dream-pop softness that provides a critical counterbalance to their meticulous constructions. Lead single “Catch a Good Worm” finds both these elements colliding to sublime effect, with pinpoint shifts between math chug and dreamy sludge as Bern imagines “A pretty worm, alive inside / Another name, another try.” —Scott Russell

Francis of Delirium

Francis of Delirium’s EP Wading consists of three previously released singles and one new track in “I Think I’m Losing.” Taken as a whole, the collection of releases by Vancouver teen Jana Bahrich and Seattle drummer/producer Chris Hewett brings as much heart as it does edge. Bahrich’s range of vocal stylings are on full display, from more mild-mannered indie melodies to half-spoken poetic verses and powerful, emo-infused belts. Paired with grungy, fuzzy guitar, drums and choral harmonies, the duo pack a serious punch. The EP’s new song “I Think I’m Losing” is a stunning, dynamic ballad that pulls all these elements together and finishes Wading with a bang. —Carli Scolforo

Geese

Teenaged Brooklyn rockers Geese grabbed our attention with their stellar first single over the summer and, with the release of their much-anticipated debut album Projector, show zero signs of letting it go. The quintet’s sound fits most comfortably in the post-punk bucket, but placing any one descriptor on it is a mistake—Geese’s raison d’être is stylistic multiplicity, and their songs never occupy a single space for long, shifting fluidly between angular precision and psychedelic sprawl, all while remaining perpetually danceable and energetic. Frontman Cameron Winter’s lyrics inhabit the perspectives of various shadowy characters, spinning tales of anxiety and annihilation that imbue the band’s mercurial instrumentation with a gripping darkness. All told, Projector is an exhilarating first statement from a preternaturally talented band, bottled rock lightning with roots in decades of compelling musical influence. —Scott Russell

Genesis Owusu

Genre classifications can be a helpful shorthand when it comes to understanding and engaging with new music, but nowadays, more and more artists are leaving them entirely in the dust. Just take Ghana-born, Australia-based musician Genesis Owusu, whose thrilling debut record Smiling with No Teeth is consistently difficult to pin down in a way that feels nothing less than vital. The avant-garde, yet undeniably accessible album spans glitchy, Death Grips-esque electro-hip-hop, lush dark-pop and R&B, lusty synth-funk and new-wave rock, with Owusu as the charismatic presence in the eye of the stylistic cyclone. On lead single “Gold Chains” and the album as a whole, Owusu exposes “the flaws of being in a profession where, more and more, you have to be the product, rather than just the provider of the product,” emphasizing the human being under all that gold, whose peace of mind may be the price he pays. —Scott Russell

Gustaf

There’s a distinctive charm to bands like Brooklyn quintet Gustaf, who craft a slickly stylish, fully realized rock sound while flatly rejecting pretension and self-seriousness. Like DEVO or Talking Heads before them, Gustaf deal in clever, irresistibly upbeat art-rock that’s as playful as it is thoughtful, with an LCD Soundsystem-esque dance-punk edge to keep the energy and intrigue up. Tine Hill (bass), Vram Kherlopian (guitar), Melissa Lucciola (drums), Tarra Thiessen (vocals, percussion) and Lydia Gammill (lead vocals) recorded their 2021 debut album Audio Drag for Ego Slobs with Carlos Hernandez (Ava Luna, Sneaks, Mr. Twin Sister) at Brooklyn’s Honey Jar Studio, with co-production from Gammill and Hernandez, and its singles made Gustaf a fixture on Paste’s top track roundups this year. Their potential is plain to hear, particularly in full-length form. —Scott Russell

Hana Vu

Hana Vu is simply bursting with talent at such a young age, having released her stunning debut EP in 2018 at only 17 years old. As many can attest, three years carries a lot of change. For Vu, it meant expanding her vision even further to create Public Storage, her breathtaking debut album. Although it’s easy to box her in with artists such as St. Vincent and Japanese Breakfast (good company to keep!), Vu has moved from her bedroom-pop roots into the crevices of guitar feedback, eerie synths and indie-rock fundamentals for a collection of songs that still capture the wistful teenage days of love and heartache, performance and habit. Public Storage is a fascinating listen, and Vu is perfectly poised to deliver her message. —Jade Gomez

Home Is Where

Palm Coast quartet Home Is Where make an indelible first impression with I Became Birds, a debut release that blurs the bounds of not only the album form, but also of emo as a genre: Its six tracks and 20-ish minutes are packed with surprising, gratifying moments that incorporate both hard rock and Americana, from the harmonica bridge on “Long Distance Conjoined Twins” to the delightful refrain of “I wanna pet every puppy I see” giving way to crashing screamo on “Sewn Together from the Membrane of the Great Sea Cucumber.” The record’s peak is its de facto title track, “Assisted Harakiri,” on which vocalist Brandon MacDonald’s explosively passionate delivery imbues both simple suburban imagery and deep internal struggles with the same emotional potency: “Moths confuse / porch lights for the moon / Over and over / Oh, the treachery / of anatomy.” Poetic and powerful in equal measure, I Became Birds punches far beyond its weight, placing Home Is Where at the forefront of the Sunshine State’s suddenly buzzing emo scene. —Scott Russell

Indigo De Souza

Asheville, North Carolina’s Indigo De Souza cleared the sophomore slump by leaps and bounds on Any Shape You Take, the follow-up to her 2018 self-released debut, I Love My Mom, and her first LP for Saddle Creek. Any Shape You Take, a fitting title for the multitudes that De Souza and her new songs contain, is about the difficulties and joys of pushing through the growing pains of change: “I’ll be here to love you / No matter what shape you might take,” De Souza sings on “Way Out,” an all-encompassing declaration of unconditional love. De Souza and her co-producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Waxahatchee), who recorded Any Shape You Take at Sylvan Esso’s Chapel Hill studio, couch the album’s confessionals in vivid, dynamic sonic rollercoaster rides, from the vocoderized synth-pop of opener “17” and the palm-muted harmonics on “Darker Than Death” to the peaks and valleys of “Late Night Crawlers” and the explosive emotions of the closing cut, “Kill Me.” De Souza’s singular voice is the invaluable core running through it all: She can do pure pop on “Die/Cry,” get downright operatic on “Bad Dream” and slip into an effortless falsetto on “Pretty Pictures,” taking any shape she likes. —Scott Russell

kezia

Since Megan Thee Stallion didn’t release an album this summer, I nominate kezia as 2021’s Hot Girl Summer representative. The 21-year-old Tanzanian-American musician’s debut EP claire is a skillful love letter to early-’00s R&B and indie rock alike. Kezia frequently flips the switch, alternating between their sultry croon and magnetic raps over minimalist guitar-studded beats and punchy 808s. Claire is a powerful reclamation of sexuality, Black womanhood and love in a compact, effective package. —Jade Gomez

Le Ren

The debut album from Montreal singer/songwriter Le Ren (Lauren Spear), Leftovers is more of a feast for folk music enthusiasts. The LP features singles “Dyan” (a Paste Best New Songs pick in August), “I Already Love You” and “May Hard Times Pass us By,” as well as collaborations with Kori Miyanishi, Cedric Noel, Saltwater Hank (Jeremy Pahl), Eliza Niemi, Kaïa Kater, Aaron Goldstein, Buck Meek (Big Thief) and Tenci (Jess Showman). There’s a tender precision to Spear’s songs, which are deeply felt, yet carefully crafted, a balancing act many songwriters never quite crack. The aforementioned “Dyan” is a moving tribute to Spear’s mother, while the lush, string-adorned “I Already Love You” was written with Spear’s own potential child in mind. Just as that love echoes through generations, Le Ren’s music is part of a lineage that transcends time, carrying the folk mantle forward into a new era. —Scott Russell

L’Rain

The words in Taja Cheek’s songs often matter less than how she says them. On Fatigue, the Brooklyn experimentalist’s wondrous second album as L’Rain, much of her lyricism borders on inaudible, but her soulful quiver, warbly arrangements, and constant sense of free-fall and expansion illuminate her unceasing emotional flux. When the lyrics are occasionally discernible, the fluid, yet familiar shape of her abstract introspections becomes clearer, like steam rapidly condensing into ice. It’s the sound of someone drifting through their thoughts and feelings, helpless to how their words change as they pour out into the real world. It’s a breathtaking, immersive, often mournful exploration of the fundamentally transformative, ever-changing nature of feeling. —Max Freedman

Magdalena Bay

Synth-pop duo Magdalena Bay, aka Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, have fully embraced the secret blessing of the pandemic. Following the unfortunately timed release of their 2020 EP A Little Rhythm and a Wicked Feeling at the cusp of lockdown, the ensuing isolation gave time for the EP to resonate with fans, leading to a growing support system that crystallized into the hype for their debut album Mercurial World. The duo fully embrace the changing tides of pop music via their take on bubblegum and electro-pop with the vulnerability of Gwen Stefani and the infectious hooks of Grimes, two influences the group regularly circle back to. Mercurial World finally offers the space for the two to sink their teeth into the ideas touched upon in their previous projects, with a newfound vigor that only a global crisis could incite. —Jade Gomez

Mandy, Indiana

In the climactic moments of “Bottle Episode”—the opening track on Manchester, U.K. group Mandy, Indiana’s debut ... EP—dancing and death collide. Over a deep house beat and industrial screech from producer/guitarist Scott Fair, and “Black Skinhead”-esque floor toms from touring percussionist Liam Stewart, vocalist/lyricist Valentine Caulfield sings in French about soldiers charging into battle: “And as the bullets hit them / The men dance almost / The men dance, the men dance, the men dance as they fall.” That image’s blend of beauty and horror, serenity and intensity, is key to the EP as a whole, which places “Bottle Episode” alongside previous singles “Nike of Samothrace” and “Alien 3,” and remixes of those singles by Club Eat and Daniel Avery, respectively. Mandy, Indiana combine industrial dance and noise-rock elements to darkly compelling effect throughout, with a cinematic sense of narrative: On “Nike of Samothrace,” Caulfield sings as a woman walking home alone at night when she’s accosted by a man whose advances become threats; in “Alien 3,” she evokes an abusive relationship and references the titular film, singing, “I won’t live on my knees anymore.” It’s early days yet, but Mandy, Indiana are standing up tall. —Scott Russell

McKinley Dixon

“All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist,” Kurt Vonnegut once wrote. “It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” Richmond, Virginia’s McKinley Dixon, too, rejects that illusion on his breakout third album (and Spacebomb debut) For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her, using jazzy, avant-garde art-rap as a means of processing his past and creating a better future. Emerging from the devastation of his best friend’s tragic death in 2018, Dixon examines Black struggles and the societal factors that exacerbate them, fending off self-doubt, regret and trauma as he fights to find catharsis For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her. The result is a powerful, personal act of “musical time travel” that aims to ease the pain it catalogs by breaking down barriers of understanding, tracing a nonlinear path for others to follow. —Scott Russell

Militarie Gun

Militarie Gun is the new project by Ian Shelton of Regional Justice Center. Both exist within the realm of hardcore, but take on vastly different influences, with the former being heavily influenced by the abrasion of ’80s and ’90s hardcore bands, and the latter taking pages from grunge and alternative rock of the same eras (plus a sprinkle of Fugazi). On their All Roads Lead To The Gun EPs, Militarie Gun expand upon their reinvention of the expectations of hardcore to create something euphoric and brilliantly innovative. Threads of simple, melancholic guitar riffs unravel into a gorgeous blend of bass plucks and Shelton’s vocals that ooze of desperation and anger. Militarie Gun relish the uncomfortable in a time that makes it difficult to ignore, zeroing in on the strangeness of human nature with their truthful, refreshing aggression. —Jade Gomez

Moontype

Friendship, water and glass have a lot in common. For starters, they’re essential for modern life, and they can be beautiful, life-affirming and often long-lasting. Similarly, they’re all powerful and capable of wreaking havoc. But most interestingly, we can see our reflection in each of them, whether it’s a storefront, a pond or even a friendship. These three things also inform Bodies of Water, the impressive debut album from Chicago trio Moontype. The record is full of references to water in various states of matter, cherished quality time and glass as a symbol of perspective—all devices to highlight the tender, wholesome moments that keep us going. It’s a sweet, intimate record, bolstered by the love each band member has for each other. Soaking up their album really is a healing experience given its universal search for love, understanding and identity. Whether songwriter, lead vocalist and bassist Margaret McCarthy is pining for a friend she hasn’t seen in a while, feeling disconnected from someone who’s near, or trying to cope with being alone, Bodies of Water cherishes the special moments when connection comes easy, and we truly feel seen by ourselves and others. —Lizzie Manno

Olivia Rodrigo

2021 was the year of Olivia Rodrigo, full stop. The 18-year-old pop sensation made a multi-platinum entrance with “drivers license,” proved she was no fluke on “deja vu,” and put her range on display with “good 4 u.” Still, the lingering question in the lead-up to her debut album SOUR was, “Is Rodrigo for real, or just a flash in the pan?” From the record’s opening moments, it was clear we had our answer: “brutal” begins with a mock orchestral intro before uncorking a left hook in the same pop-punk revival vein as “good 4 u,” with Rodrigo confessing over chugging guitars, “I feel like no one wants me / And I hate the way I’m perceived.” From that song’s supremely relatable teenage angst (“jealousy, jealousy” is another standout of that stripe) and heartfelt ballads like “enough for you” and closer “hope ur ok,” to the hits that made this album an event, SOUR cemented Rodrigo as an artist deserving of the year’s most meteoric rise. —Scott Russell

Parannoul

You may or may not have read some of the buzz around an enigmatic emo-shoegaze artist from Seoul who records under the name Parannoul. He released a tape earlier this year called To See the Next Part of the Dream via Michigan-based label Longinus Recordings, which sold out with impressive speed and also garnered critical acclaim. The record’s starry-eyed, densely packed soundscapes immediately struck a chord—songs bursting with that much rawness and life don’t come around too often. —Lizzie Manno

Pardoner

The past few years have been full of reasons to fall apart, and Bay Area rockers Pardoner very nearly went that way. Max Freeland (vocals, guitar), Trey Flanigan (vocals, guitar) and River van den Berghe (drums) bonded over Yo La Tengo and Polvo in the San Francisco State University dorms, formed Pardoner, and released a pair of warm and fuzzy guitar-rock records. But when Freeland relocated to Vancouver, it appeared the band was also on its way out. Fortunately for us, Pardoner wobbled, but didn’t fall, adding an old friend in Colin Burris (bass), and reuniting in San Francisco to record Came Down Different, their breakout third album and Bar/None Records debut, in a two-day spree with veteran hardcore producer Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Jeff Rosenstock). Opener “Donna Said” melds rock of the noise and jangle varieties while documenting the draining demands of the music-industry rat race (“When you got feelings and guitar / You wanna trade it for cash”), while “Spike” moves a mile a minute to reflect its anti-exploitative sentiments (“Step up on some grapes / They want wine / They want twice the results / In half of the time”). These are songs about being cash-strapped, anonymous and squeezed dry by society, but somehow having the last laugh all the same. “I’ve been destroyed by life / and I feel fucking good,” Freeland sings on “Broadway,” and you believe him on both counts. Throughout Came Down Different, Pardoner deliver barbed guitar rock that’s apocalyptic, yet nonchalant, like lighting a joint with a burning world. —Scott Russell

Paris Texas

Los Angeles art-rap duo Paris Texas haven’t been on radar long, but they’ve already made it plain they’re not interesting in moving predictably. Case in point: their October EP Red Hand Akimbo, which they only just hinted at this week of its release. The five-track record features their September single “girls like drugs,” and follows their debut project BOY ANONYMOUS, which dropped in May. Paris Texas—that is, Louie Pastel and Felix—wrote, performed and produced Red Hand Akimbo, with additional production from Dave Cerminara on de facto title track “RHM,” and co-production from the sought-after Kenny Beats on “BULLSEYE.” The duo’s shapeshifting combination of hip-hop and rock (“N***as can’t tell if it’s rock, can’t tell if it’s rap, I walk in between”) is in full swing on its four proper songs, while their tongue-in-cheek world-building shines throughout, particularly on a spoken-word, Cardi B-referencing “Epilogue.” As we concluded in our review of BOY ANONYMOUS, “Paris Texas season is just beginning.” —Scott Russell

Pom Pom Squad

Mia Berrin of Pom Pom Squad has long been an avid explorer of pop culture, though as a person of color and a queer woman, neither facets of her identity have historically been given much attention in media. She dealt with this lack of representation resourcefully, finding snippets that resonated with her. She explains in a press release, “I absorbed everything I could and tried to make a collage that could incorporate every piece of me.” Now, with bandmates Shelby Keller (drums), Mari Alé Figeman (bass) and Alex Mercuri (guitar), Berrin is ensuring that present and future generations won’t have to live on meager scraps. Death of a Cheerleader synthesizes Berrin’s various influences—aesthetic, musical, cinematic—but ends up as a creature entirely its own, telling Berrin’s story in a way that’s sure to hit home with many who struggle to see themselves in whitewashed Hollywood releases. The album is well-realized conceptually and brilliantly, viscerally executed. —Clare Martin

Provoker

The act of leaving one’s self behind to inhabit a fictional character is key to Body Jumper, Bay Area four-piece (and Paste’s July Best of What’s Next pick) Provoker’s debut album. Lyricist and vocalist Christian Petty told Paste he finds “songwriting so much easier” when he can seek emotional truths through the eyes of fictional characters—he estimates he does so on about half of Body Jumper’s 13 tracks—but as founder Jonathon Lopez points out, “with any kind of writing, a portion of the person writing it comes out anyway, little parts. So in a way it is relevant to what’s happening within our lives.” That frequently manifests as what percussionist Kristian Moreno calls “a common emotion in goth music [...] ethereal love mourn,” with Provoker’s characters animated by powerful feelings for another, but dreading the dangling axe of rejection—Petty’s smoky R&B vocals, set to the band’s doomy, yet propulsive instrumentals—menacing and danceable, part post-punk, part R&B and part synth-pop—perfectly reflect this in-between state of impossible passion and inevitable pain. —Scott Russell

Remi Wolf

Remi Wolf is one of pop’s most exciting acts in recent memory. Following a series of EPs beginning with 2019’s You’re a Dog!, Wolf has since gone on to collaborate with everyone from Beck to Nile Rodgers, thanks to her joyfully eclectic brand of soul and funk. Her debut album Juno was preceded by a hefty amount of singles, which utilize the same palette in an ever-changing kaleidoscope’s worth of ways. Whether singing about ordering Chuck E. Cheese on Postmates or calling herself a “thrift store baddie” on “Liquor Store,” Wolf’s brand of humor is just as tapped into current culture as someone like Lil Nas X’s, if not a little more crude and surreal. Wolf has most of the pieces in place to become the next big thing, and Juno is the final one. —Jade Gomez

Skirts

Released ove the summer on Double Double Whammy (Frankie Cosmos, Hovvdy), Great Big Wild Oak is the full-length debut of Dallas, Texas, singer/songwriter Alex Montenegro, aka Skirts. Montenegro recorded her debut with her live band-members and friends Vincent Bui and Joshua Luttrull, working in various home studios around Dallas to piece together what she calls a “Frankenstein album” in its press materials, part revenant demos and part negative space from which fresher songs were cut. You’d never know it from Great Big Wild Oak itself, a rustic, intimate 10-song set that encompasses electric bedroom rock (“Always”), baroque Americana (pedal steel, horns and strings all rub elbows on “Easy”) and intimate folk (the sweetly fingerpicked “Sapling”). Montenegro evokes her Lone Star home with the gently dueling banjo and electric guitar of “Remember,” the sunset sky of pedal steel on “Swim,” the saloon-appropriate piano on “True” and tranquil interlude “Oak.” Her music has that warmth you can only ever find at home. —Scott Russell

Spirits Having Fun

Spirits Having Fun make spindly, unpredictable music that dwells in the gray area between post-punk, jazz and math rock. With members based in both Chicago and New York City, distance-born collaboration shapes the band’s work. However, where some artists might view thousands of miles of separation as a creative challenge, Spirits Having Fun embrace it, and they thrive. Distinct elements of both Midwest indie and Northeastern experimentation seep through on the band’s sophomore album, Two. You can hear echoes of Windy City acts like Moontype and Floatie in its spindly intricacy, but it simultaneously brings to mind the freewheeling, swirling work of Big Apple stalwarts like Standing On The Corner and Onyx Collective. Jumbling a myriad of styles and feels throughout the record’s 42-minute runtime, Two can be a hectic affair, like watching sped-up footage of a major thoroughfare during rush hour. However, it’s this penchant for heady intensity that keeps the album gripping and singular. —Ted Davis

Squid

Toward the end of Squid’s debut album Bright Green Field comes a brief moment of liberation. “Well, I’ve always been told what to do,” the narrator of “Peel St.” mumbles, “but now, I’m free / There’s no warden following me.” Whether the prison from which this character has been released is literal or one of the mind is left for the listener to decide, and most of the details underpinning Bright Green Field’s paranoid, dystopian universe are similarly vague. More immediately apparent is Squid’s utter disregard for rock convention—where drummer-vocalist Ollie Judge’s words leave gaps in his Orwellian brutalism, his chainsaw of a shout-speak and his band’s squawking guitars fill in the blanks. Though Bright Green Field is easily Squid’s most musically varied and ambitious work yet, the British quintet—whose contemporaries include black midi and Black Country, New Road—remains thematically tethered to the pervasive anxiety and fear that have defined them from their 2019 breakout single “Houseplants” through last year’s Sludge / Broadcaster 10”, their debut for storied electronic and experimental label Warp. If anything, Bright Green Field—co-written by the entire group and produced by Speedy Wunderground mastermind Dan Carey—raises the band’s longtime stakes. Where “The Cleaner,” the highlight from 2019’s Town Centre EP, hinted at simultaneously more abrasive and hooky grooves to come, Bright Green Field delivers on that promise without diminishing Squid’s madness. —Max Freedman

They Hate Change

Tampa Bay duo They Hate Change joined Jagjaguwar’s roster in August, unleashing one of the month’s best songs to celebrate their signing. In November, Andre and Vonne came back with another new track, “1000 Horses,” their last drop of the year—their Jagjaguwar debut is coming in 2022. The self-proclaimed “bedroom rap all-stars” come out swinging on “1000 Horses,” with Vonne unloading lines like “Take it personal when I say fuck y’all, I really mean it / The ball is in our court, it ain’t no sense in playin’ defense” before handing the mic off to Andre and fellow Tampanian emcee SARGE. They Hate Change’s production, known to filter footwork, jungle and other electronic styles through Tampa Jook music, shines on “1000 Horses,” particularly during SARGE’s verse, and when the duo let the beat ride off into the sunset, bass thumping and synths squelching. —Scott Russell

Wednesday

Famed novelist and poet Richard Brautigan was best known for his blurry, fragmented writing style. The scenes he describes are ephemeral—almost painfully so—but they’re so specific and meaningful that they resonate long after your eyes leave the page. Karly Hartzman, vocalist and lyricist of Asheville five-piece Wednesday, writes in a similar manner. Like Brautigan, she captures the pain and surreal nature of reality, and she writes with a rapidly shifting focus and no sense of chronology, imprinting a sense of longing on their songs. Unsurprisingly, Hartzman cites Brautigan as an influence on the band’s breakout album, Twin Plagues. Brautigan’s work predates shoegaze, but Wednesday’s distorted, wailing guitars pair perfectly with this style of writing, which is just as blustery and powerful as their triple guitar barrage. Wednesday aren’t a straightforward shoegaze band by any means—they also fold in elements of slacker rock and country—but they harness a considerable amount of force from their rugged guitar roars and quiet-loud dynamic. Simply put, Twin Plagues is one of the best and most consistent records you’ll hear this year. It’s a stunning body of work for many reasons—the way it grapples with trauma, the way it captures suburban melancholia, the way each hook somehow sounds better than the next, the way they manage to spark something inside the listener with such specific lyrics—but more broadly, it’s because every song feels like a cathartic explosion. —Lizzie Manno

Wet Leg

The debut single from U.K. rock duo Wet Leg was a doozy, immediately affirming what Domino Records saw in their new signees. Hailing from England’s Isle of Wight, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers decided to start Wet Leg while at the top of a Ferris wheel—an origin story that actually vastly undersold a thrill ride like “Chaise Longue.” The band’s tongue-in-cheek humor is one thing (“Is your mother worried? / Would you like us to assign someone to worry your mother?” is one of several chuckle-worthy lyrics), but their propulsive, danceable indie rock is entirely another, with guitar riffs as sticky as (if not more so than) their mock-bourgeois insistence on whiling away the hours “on the chaise longue / on the chaise longue / on the chaise longue / all day long / on the chaise longue.” Produced by Jon McMullen and mixed by Alan Moulder (Arctic Monkeys, Beach House, Foals), the ear-grabbing track was an undeniable introduction to Wet Leg, single-handedly cementing their self-titled debut album, coming April 8, 2022, as one of the new year’s buzziest releases. —Scott Russell

Yard Act

After building substantial buzz via their 2021 standout debut EP Dark Days, Leeds, U.K. quartet Yard Act announced their full-length debut The Overload, coming Jan. 7, 2022, via Island Records and the band’s own Zen F.C. imprint. Standing shoulder to shoulder with such esteemed peers as Dry Cleaning, TV Priest, Sinead O’Brien and Courting, Yard Act—James Smith (vocals), Ryan Needham (bass), Sam Shjipstone (guitar) and Jay Russell (drums)—make throwback post-punk that’s spiked with a distinctly modern, dark sense of humor and verbose, frequently Sprechesang vocals. Their recent single “The Overload” finds the band ping-ponging between accessibility and idiosyncrasy: Over a frenetic, danceable groove and twitchy guitars, Smith deadpans non-sequiturs like “Kids these days, they think they’ve been outnumbered / but they’ve never even looked at an iron lung like I did once,” later posing as a Yard Act adviser to recommend “kicking that dickhead singer you got in out the band.” But the singer ditches his speak-singing approach on the track’s choruses, lamenting “the overload of discontent” on Yard Act’s biggest hook to date. —Scott Russell

Yasmin Williams

Urban Driftwood is the second album from Virginia-based guitarist and composer Yasmin Williams, and its opening track “Sunshowers” is an arresting work of instrumental folk, reliant entirely upon Williams’ six-string mastery for its rustic, entrancing allure. Her fingerstyle acoustic guitar-playing makes one of popular music’s most familiar instruments sound new, capturing the luminous, evanescent beauty of the song’s namesake via bright harmonics, overlapping cascades of fingerpicked notes and intermittent lap-tapped percussion. “Sunshowers” shines bright, introducing a collection of stunning and inventive songs that feel particularly heaven-sent in this era of being stuck indoors, scared of civilization and disconnected from the natural world. —Scott Russell


Listen to Paste’s Best New Artists of 2021 playlist on Spotify here.