So much of our opinion about a musical act is formed the first few seconds we hear the vocals. It’s usually the most unique instrument in the band, and hearing a great one makes an immediate impression.
A truly unique voice can help break a band, and we’ve heard some exceptional new voices this year. Here, we celebrate our favorite vocalists to hit the scene this year.
Al Spx is the stage name of the Canadian singer/songwriter behind the band Cold Specks. She closed a recent performance at New York’s Bowery Ballroom with an a cappella rendition of “Old Stepstone.” The hymnal tune turns the Bowery into a cathedral. She belts out the lyrics while maintaining restraint. She steps away from the microphone for the last few bars, and her voice still rings throughout the Bowery, washing over the crowd as it stands silent, captivated. It took her nearly nine years to get from her bedroom closet where she wrote her first song and onto the stage where she belongs, but her goals now are simple. “I want to duet with Tom Waits,” she says. “That’s all.”—Sarah A. McCarty
If you don’t know anything about Nick Waterhouse, you might be inclined to double-check the release date on his album, Time’s All Gone. Everything about it—from Waterhouse’s 1950s rhythm and blues-inspired howl to his sharp suit and Buddy Holly specs on the cover—brings to mind a bygone era. In front of female back-up singers and lively horn arrangements, Waterhouse positively wails his way through the record, yelping out lyrics in a way few others do these days. Fans of early Ray Charles, listen up.—Bonnie Stiernberg
It’s rare that a new band boasts two singers with unique and talented voices, but Iceland’s Nanna Bryndís and Ragner Þórhallsson trade lead vocal duties on songs like “Little Talks,” “Dirty Paws” and “Mountain Sound.” A pair of voices fronting instruments like melodica, glockenspiel, accordion and horns just works for Of Monsters and Men. “We’re just kind of inspired by the whole weirdness of everything,” says þórhallsson.
The 31-year-old rapper might not be as discovered as some of his younger, radio-embracing peers. But Danny Brown has something better going for him than that, starting with a time-tested voice. It’s unlike anything in mainstream hip hop—a sort of high-pitched squawk capable of channeling hilarious cracks and intimidating commands all within a few lines, a sound now forever married to Brown’s effortless rhymes. It comes from years and years of simply being a fan of all music and studying how it’s done: “I was just listening cause I didn’t really understand how to make a song,” he says. “I had to listen to songs to understand 16 bars and hooks. And my hooks sucked at first.”—Tyler Kane
Lightning Love’s driving choruses and sugary-sweet hooks that are all tied together by Leah Diehl’s distinctive voice, which (her words, not mine) “sounds like a four-year-old.” “I was surprised that it was kind of pretty,” Leah reflects on first hearing her voice in the band. “I never really sang. It was a pleasant surprise to hear that it was nice sounding.”—Tyler Kane
Ty Taylor knows how to work a crowd, twirling mic stands and spinning across the stage with sweaty, rock ’n’ roll intensity one moment before dialing it back for a soulful ballad the next. But the showmanship wouldn’t work if the charismatic frontman of Vintage Trouble didn’t have the pipes to back it. “For us a successful show is when people have cried and laughed and sweated and rubbed up against each other,” he says, “It’s about the people. When the people are happy, then we’re happy.”—Bonnie Stiernberg
Like the slow-build of his crossover hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Gotye broke out earlier this year with a powerful, unique voice and an expected soulfulness. While often compared to Peter Gabriel and Sting, Gotye’s voice is immediately recognizable, thanks to that earworm, will live on to be more than just something that we used to hear.—Shaina Pearlman
Wesley Schultz of the Lumineers has a trusting voice—just deep enough to be comforting, without being over the top and has enough bluegrass to sound folk without being hillbilly. He has a unique authenticity to his voice that make his songs about love and pain believable. Schultz is just hoping to keep making “music that makes you smile, cry and stomp your foot simultaneously.”—Alexandra Fletcher
He may have been named the BBC’s Sound of 2012, but Kiwanuka’s voice, warm and weathered but never overly rough, leads to associations with artists of previous generations, the soul of the ’60s and ’70s—Otis Redding, Van Morrison. “Soul music is just so linked to genuine human expression and emotion that if you get it right, people can relate to it,” he says.—Lindsey Eanet
When 23-year-old Brittany Howard, the frontwoman of The Alabama Shakes sings “You got to hold on,” she extends the “hold” across two full bars as if her sweaty palms were slowly sliding down a last-chance rope. It’s not just that her voice is huge; it’s that she can move you even when she’s whispering. The Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood says, “Sure, she can sing, on pitch even—something Janis Joplin, whose voice she most closely resembles, didn’t always do—but there is something extra special going on here.” Hood agrees. “Aretha could sing too, but so could hundreds of other gifted singers of her time, yet for some reason there was something extra special to her gift. It’s still early to casually throw around those kinds of comparisons here, yet there is definitely something extra special about Brittany’s gifts. She can connect with people in any size room; it’s her strength combined with her vulnerability perhaps.”—Geoffrey Himes
This post is sponsored by The Voice on NBC. Begins Tonight 8/7c.