It’s that time to take a look at one of my favorite lists we do every year, the best new artists of the year. It’s really just like looking at children: young and full of so much potential, before they flame out, drop out of college, and live in their parent’s basement. But for now we can just enjoy the wonderful potential of these new artists.
One adjustment to this year’s list: we decided to go with the title of best breakout artists instead of new artists. In the past, we have stuck to only letting people on if they were releasing their debut, but we thought it was better to include all that really broke onto the scene, even if they had released an album before. So on with the show.
10. Ex Hex
Female power trio Ex Hex is led by the seasoned Mary Timony, and their debut Rips is punchy punk rock songs that absolutely soar. No song has any excess fat on it, distilled down to its purest pop form.
9. Lydia Loveless
Another young Midwestern songwriter, Lydia Loveless releases alt-country as brilliant and seasoned as someone twice her age. While this may be her third album, I do feel like this is the year she finally broke out to a wider audience on the strength of her songwriting on Somewhere Else.
8. Strand of Oaks
Timothy Showalter aka Strand of Oaks quietly released one of the best rock records of the year in HEAL, one that channels Springsteen, Neil Young, and Magnolia Electric Co in thrilling new ways. I wrote about how his song “JM” really makes the perfect tribute song.
7. FKA Twigs
With the help of producer experimental producer Arca, Tahliah Debrett Barnett aka FKA Twigs has helped reimagine R&B music starting with her debut LP1. Her hypnotic, distorted take on R&B is sure to shake up the genre going forward.
6. Perfect Pussy
Perfect Pussy (named for the animal not anatomy) really experiment with punk music in new and exciting ways, and also thrash as quickly and hard as anyone these days live, as we witnessed at Pitchfork this year.
5. The Orwells
Elmhurst, IL’s own the Orwells are by far the youngest on this list, as they just graduated high school and catapulted to stardom with the most memorable live TV performance all year (see below). They known for their wild stage antics and who-cares attitude, well-tread territory in rock music for certain, but it’s still thrilling after all these years.
4. Benjamin Booker
Benjamin Booker combines blues and punk into a potent, raw mix. The 25-year-old New Orleans rocker got a huge spotlight this year opening up or Jack White, and his self-titled debut showed he was worthy of such a stage.
3. Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson’s sophomore breakout, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was Simpson’s coming out party as a new breed of country singer: the postmodern country outlaw. Simpson wields an old school country sound with a 21st century rock ‘n’ roll mindset, a refreshing new voice.
2. Sylvan Esso
No debut album was as instantly lovable as Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut. It’s like musical Pop Rocks – it’s sweet and full of crackling surprises. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are both from other indie projects previously (Mountain Man and Megafaun respectively), but I have the feeling they will stick together after having struck gold with their debut.
1. Courtney Barnett
No young songwriter is as promising as Aussie Courtney Barnett, who released The Double EP: Sea of Split Peas, a re-release of her two EPs from last year as an LP. Barnett has wit, heart, and personality in spades, and at just age 26, we can’t wait to see what she does next.
Austin – Sam Smith
Brit soul singer Sam Smith sprung up last year on Disclosure’s dance hit “Latch”, but really exploded this year with his debut, In the Lonely Hour. Austin just can’t get enough of that sweet, soulful voice.
Todd – Arca
The FKA Twigs producer Arca, Alejandro Ghersi’s moniker, released an album of his own in Xen, which pushes the electronic genre along with scratchy, spooky electronic music.
Wes – Protomartyr
Detroit post-punk band Protomartyr put out one of my favorite rock albums of the year, Under Color of Official Right, highlighted by the raw vocal performance of everyman Joe Casey.