Precocious, LA-based singer-songwriter Gracie Abrams came to the fore in 2020 with the shimmering, delicate heartbreak of her debut EP, Minor. It’s a cathartic slice of teen angst that demonstrated a keen ear for melody, a wellspring of steely self-reliance and a finely tuned wisdom beyond her years. “Friend” is a brittle, scraggly, and lo-fi ballad of gorgeous lyricism, whilst “21” is speckled with synthpop stardust. Each of the seven cuts on ‘Minor’ radiates an unfettered, direct intimacy as if the listener is rifling through her diary entries. — Michael Sumsion
A certain artist and soap-maker tweeted about Ascendant Vierge’s extremely busy “Influencer” video, a warehouse rave curated for the era of Twitch and Instagram. It’s all excess, from the lead singer Mathilde Fernandez’s quirky opera to the acid-trip face filters. It matches the rest of their music, which incorporates that soaring voice with towering trance synths and galloping drum and bass. The juxtaposition between the angelic vocals and devilish beats is akin to something 100gecs or PC music might put together, but more in concept than feeling.
Ascendant Vierge, meaning “Ascendant Virgen”, is like dance music fused with symphonic metal a la Nightwish – picture a more humorous version of Nero. Fernandez describes herself as a “concerned” artist who not so much denounces society’s failings as put them on display for people to gawk and worry over. While with “Influencer” it takes a playful tone, a song like “Jamais Raison” shakes you to your core. You never quite know what you’re getting with Ascendant Vierge, and they, too, seem to construct their music with the goal of seeing just how much they can get away with. — Mick Jacobs
Montreal-based, Zambia-born rapper Backxwash made history when her album God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It won the 2020 Polaris Music Prize, beating out such stacked competition as Lido Pimienta, US Girls, and Jessie Reyez. After all, a raw, lo-fi horrorcore album normally wouldn’t have much of a chance compared to music that’s easier to take in, but Backxwash’s empowering, brutally intense depiction of her struggle as a transgender woman, coupled with a very strong heavy metal and post-rock influence, is just as thrilling as it is unique.
Sadly, the numerous uncleared samples (Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, mainly) forced her to issue the album only as a name-your-price download on Bandcamp, but that wound up lending the album even more mystique as anyone curious to hear it had to make more of an effort than merely pulling it up on Spotify. Those who did seek it out discovered a powerful new voice in Canadian music who pulled off a stunning first act. Thousands now wait with bated breath to hear what she pulls off next. — Adrien Begrand
This year, LA-based Scandinavian producer and DJ Bella Boo consolidated the promise of her debut long-form platter, Once Upon a Passion, with a slew of on-point remixes collected on the titular single. She also issued the dreamy and pensive “Stars”, which was accompanied by a serene video featuring choreographer and dancer Lisa Janbell flexing in her studio. Her ethereal brand of electronica resides at the intersection between melancholy and mischief, silvery deep house thump and moody, ambient reverie. “Stars” offers a pure salve for the wound of this year’s uncertainty and turmoil, whilst “Hotel Europa” is dancefloor gold on a jazz-fuelled tip. — Michael Sumsion
Miles Shannon was barely out of his teens when he scored an early career break, playing piano on his childhood friend Earl Sweatshirt’s 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. Five years later, Shannon has reappeared under the name Cassowary, with a self-titled debut album that manages to link the past, present, and possible future of soul with a strong dose of jazz.
Cassowary brings that jazz-based inspiration to life with “114°”, a moody three-part instrumental that opens, closes, and serves as a midpoint for the album. Along the way, Cassowary creates a sound that touches on 1970s soul while maintaining a contemporary edge. While Cassowary doesn’t exactly qualify as a hip-hop album, “Cyclical”, a collaboration with rapper Tyler Cole that features a surprise video game music ending, fits perfectly within the context of the album.
Cassowary brings an appealing indie-rock production vibe to the album. As sophisticated as the music may be, in Cassowary’s able hands, it never comes across as overly polished or pristine. The atmospheric ballad, “Starlight”, which manages to feel simultaneously electronic and organic, best demonstrates the garagey yet ethereal feel of the entire album.
With his debut album, Cassowary has a number of possible music paths for the future. It will be fascinating to follow him on the journey. — Rich Wilhelm
The American-born British singer Celeste (Celeste Epiphany Waite) has achieved notable attention for both her rich and soulful voice and unique fashion sense. In December 2019 she won the BBC Music Award for Introducing Artist of the Year and the British Phonographic Industry Rising Star Award. In 2020, she’s been celebrated by everyone from Vogue and GQ to Forbes and the Sunday Times for her style and charisma. She also earned her first number one record (in England) for her contribution to the charity single, Times Like These.
Celeste intended to tour this year before the recent pandemic changed her plans. Her eponymous first album is scheduled for 2021, but Americans were given a taste of her talent as she recorded three songs on the soundtrack to the movie The Trial of the Chicago 7. “Hear My Voice” was submitted for an Academy Award as Best Original Song and has received lots of airplay on FM radio. Many in the music business expect Celeste to become a major international star. — Steve Horowitz
Joshua Chuquimia Crampton
Clearly, it runs in the family. Elysia Crampton is already responsible for one of the last decade’s most beguiling bodies of electronic music, and now here’s her brother and collaborator with some of the most interesting guitar instrumentals since Bill Orcutt first tested the tension of his four strings. The Heart’s Wash and the forthcoming 4 aren’t the first music the erstwhile comic-book illustrator and martial artist has released, but retiring his previous J Dende name has clearly led to the kind of spiritual rebirth Joshua Chuquimia Crampton seems to be trying to inspire through his very music.
Crampton considers his work as part of the classical tradition, though his notation is unconventional and his compositional rules exist largely to be broken. What’s more apparently obvious is a connection to heavy metal, which like Crampton’s billowing and volcanic music has a way of making the listener feel centered. Certainly, this is not ambient music. If Crampton’s music offers any lessons in the year of computer-generated chillout mixes, it’s that “music for meditation and prayer,” as he calls his work, need not lull us into a stupor. At its best, it puts a fire in our veins. — Daniel Bromfield
File Londoner Beatrice Dillon under “capable of anything”. Her wonderful debut Workaround from this year suggests the Y2K clicks-and-cuts music of SND and Jan Jelinek splintered into a thousand vibrating molecules. But she’s also played folk music, classical music, and improvised noise. Like fellow PAN alumnus Yves Tumor, Dillon’s mere existence is a reason for excitement, and even if she has no plans to “settle” on a style, it’s hard to imagine her putting out anything boring or compromised.
It’s hard to predict what an artist so restless has in store, but her strengths are apparent. She’s fond of odd dogmatic decisions, like pitching Workaround at 150 BPM and eschewing reverb entirely (which, in the era of bedroom pop and bad singers, is like running a marathon naked). She’s a skilled collaborator, and her co-conspirators on Workaround clearly weren’t chosen based on bankability but chemistry, which she can find as easily with fellow British bass prankster Untold as with a Senegalese griot. Best of all, she works counterintuitively. Anyone can make a good clicks-and-cuts album with the right presets, but rather than evoking the coldness of the Y2K era, Workaround is alive with joy. — Daniel Bromfield
British musician Lucy Gooch purveys a reverb-happy sonic rapture which melds the somnolent drift of ambient electronica with the structure of choral composition and the porous intimacy of leftfield, abstract pop a la Grouper and Julianna Barwick. Her Rushing EP promises airy surface thrills but delivers boundless pleasure and apparitional enigmas by diving into liturgical slipstreams. Her pretty, angelic, and rejuvenating music conveys both alienation and togetherness with an effortless and meditative calm. This is gossamer synth-hauntology which soars and headlocks the listener into dopamine floods whilst nourishing your senses like a warm, inviting bath. — Michael Sumsion
This past fall, S.G. Goodman released a cover of the labor anthem, “Which Side Are You On?” to promote a voter-registration festival of the same name. Throughout the song’s two minutes, Goodman’s acapella performance recalls the urgency of Florence Reed’s original. In the fall of 2020, the question took on another meaning — which side of history are you on?
This is Goodman’s real power: she’s able to pay homage to the past while simultaneously infusing it with contemporary urgency. It’s a balancing act that she accomplishes several times over on her debut album, Old Time Feeling. Goodman juxtaposes the traditional imagery of roots and country music, alluding to coal miners’ daughters and escaping the city lights, along with the bleaker realities of the rural south, like corporate farming, racist demagoguery, and “gas station delicacies.” There’s no doubt that Goodman would’ve made more waves if her debut had been released in a more typical year. The good news is that she’s just getting started. — Kevin Kearney
China-born and Berlin-based DJ Rui Ho has been steadily releasing shorter sets of tracks for the last several years. This year’s Lov3 & L1ght, though, marks her full-length debut, a marvel of sugar-sweet electropop assembled with impeccable production. Clean, sparkling club beats frame her futuristically processed voice, the electronics so bright and energetic that they feel transcendent, post-human in the most blissful way. Rui Ho’s aesthetic seems largely to shy away from grit and grime, even in her most heartbroken moments. Instead, her music soars at top speed around the immaculate spheres of sound, affect, and pure light that she builds with such finesse. Rui Ho’s most recent work sees her coming into her own as an artist more than ever, stepping into a spotlight of her own making. Here’s hoping that she continues to make and take the space she deserves in years to come, whatever sonic forms that takes. — Adriane Pontecorvo
While the Marcus King Band has been around for a few years kicking butt as a Southern rock act with a strong blues vibe, the guitarist went solo this year. His Dan Auerbach produced debut, El Dorado, showcased King’s ability to put his stamp on a variety of styles and revealed he didn’t need to burn down the house instrumentally to get attention. The South Carolina native has an expressive voice and the ability to perform personal material rooted in other traditions, especially gospel. He sings with a raw ache that makes him sound as if he’s coarsely whispering the words as an older, experienced man of the world, even on tracks with titles like “Young Man’s Dream”. And on songs like “Wildflowers & Wine” and “Beautiful Stranger”, King shows he does not need to play loudly to be heard. The intensity of his delivery never falters, and his guitar picking remains impeccably fluid. — Steve Horowitz
Isabella Lovestory is an undeniable presence from the moment she enters a song, room, your dreams, etc. The clack of high-heeled shoes, a trick used by great pop songs, propels the young vocalist’s extremely bratty “Kitten Heel.” Strutting around in her noisy shoes, Lovestory keeps the focus drawn squarely on her, by whatever means possible. She’s got a knack for knowing what sounds work, ending the word “tatuaje” with a slight exhale on “Golosa” or rhyming “Beachy” with “bitch y.”
She’s also quite straightforward; “Intro” from her Mariposa EP, actually gives you a taste of what you’re in for, hinting at the project’s pounding beats and bratitude to follow. The playful way she adopts a Castilian accent on “Me dices ‘grathias'” only adds to her bratty persona. Though the wildcard of Mariposa, “Whiskey & Coca Cola” depicts an earnest, R&B balladeer who’s as entrancing as the stylish dominatrix. These personas, when placed over reggaeton beat, spring to life fueled by their unwavering confidence in their brash behavior. — Mick Jacobs
With this year’s international debut We Are, four-piece Lucidvox is poised to make it far beyond their original Moscow DIY scene. A hard-edged, all-woman group that plays their own instruments and already has a strong local fan following, Lucidvox draws on groups like the Pixies and Sonic Youth as well as hints of Russian folk and choral traditions. All are audible in their psychedelic creations, which blend haunting harmonies, cutting grooves, and raw power. This is a quartet on the rise, youthful brashness and technical prowess in perfect balance. We Are is a particularly powerful start to their global career, and it seems likely that there is much more in store from a group that already has this much fire. Lucidvox is hypnotic, more likely to draw you in than fight you off, though only time will tell which route they take next. It’s clear the group is capable of anything, and that can only be good for their growing audience. — Adriane Pontecorvo
“All you ever wanted / Was to look good in denim,” something anyone who’s worn that fabric can attest to. At least six people, the members of Manchester band Mealtime, felt it appropriate to be the chorus of a song, sung by two members no less. That’s the fun in Mealtime’s antics, put on display in the synth-heavy alt-rock of their Aperitif EP released early in 2020. Bits of Metric, CSS, and Muna peer through on its tracks, which whir and drone as the dual lead singers weave in and out of the fray. All the elements of these songs coalesce together in just the right ways, like a piano piercing through the synths in the second verse of “Excess” or the ridiculously catchy spelling lesson on “S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” The singers likewise pair together swimmingly, their harmonies a huge draw on the finale of “Sublime” or “Rain Like This”, the latter also an excellent class in metaphors. There are all sorts of sounds to sort through on this lively EP, and all of them a pleasure to experience. — Mick Jacobs
Guinean singer and percussionist Falle Nioke teamed up with UK-based producer Ghost Culture for his debut this year, the all-too-short Youkounkoun. Only four tracks long, the EP nonetheless stands out as being one of the year’s most intriguing and exciting pieces of folktronica, and Falle Nioke’s lithe, soothing voice and understated charisma are key to that – as are his and Ghost Culture’s rhythm lines. Now based in the UK himself, Nioke has spent time in the recent past before that singing and drumming across West Africa, an experience he brings in co-creating the driving beats found on Youkounkoun. With both down-to-earth soul and burning spirit present in his voice in equal measure, Falle Nioke is not only talented but charismatic, qualities that bode well for him moving forward into the near future, when we’ll hopefully hear much more from him. — Adriane Pontecorvo
Based in Toronto, Somali-Canadian producer Muxubo Mohamed, who palindromically calls herself OBUXUM, turned a lot of heads in 2020 thanks to her full-length debut Re-Birth, a tense, 21-minute foray into dark, tense interpretations of house, techno, and hip-hop that, coupled with an outspoken message of empowerment as a young black woman, serves as her own mission statement. The record might be brief, but it packs an undeniable wallop, be it the stunning opener “Ayeeyo’s Intro / Can you feel my rage?” or the sumptuous R&B of “Don’t Blame Them”. Musically, the time-honored juxtaposition of light and shade is pulled off brilliantly, the murky tones always offset by a sense of hope, whether coming through the samples and lyrics, or through her production itself. Re-Birth marks the arrival of a major talent, and we cannot wait to hear where Mohamed takes us next. — Adrien Begrand
Brighton foursome Porridge Radio aren’t exactly a “new” artist, but thanks to the revelatory second album Every Bad, the band has become easily one of the brightest young on the indie rock landscape right now. Veering back and forth between introspection, playfulness, and explosive catharsis, the music threatens to fly off the rails at any moment. However, the songwriting smarts of Dana Margolin keeps everything reined in, her confessional lyrics adding gravitas, and her rich, PJ Harvey-style voice bringing a goth-inspired, straight-faced intensity to the proceedings.
The album is laced with so much wit and dark humor, as on “Sweet”, whose tale of Margolin’s mother gifting her daughter a light-up pen to help combat her depression spirals into a wicked satire of parenting so dripping in sarcasm that it rivals anything Gen-X mopes attempted in the early ’90s. The brashness of Every Bad owes its attitude to Porridge Radio’s innocence and arrogance, and here’s hoping Margolin and her mates retain that audacity the more polished they become. The possibilities for this band seem limitless. — Adrien Begrand
Ambient music need not be made by people anymore. Do you need to know who’s making your lo-fi beats? Does it even need to be a person? Ana Roxanne presents a counter-tradition to the robotization of ambient by putting herself into every molecule of her music. This was true on last year’s whispered-about ~~~ EP, and it’s true of her Kranky debut Because of a Flower. You can hear her fingers on an instrument at every moment, and she sings almost constantly, sometimes in distant phrases, sometimes in breathy angelic harmonies.
And her songs tell her story. Because of a Flower is full of spoken interludes about unity, acceptance, and fluidity that sound like the stuff of daffy new-age fantasies until you realize she’s talking about being intersex. And a French-language interaction, in which a stern adult castigates a child for a “madness” that’s left unclear, stings even if you don’t know the language. Maternal consternation isn’t the kind of emotion you usually come to ambient for, but Roxanne isn’t afraid to kill the vibe to make a point—a much more admirable quality than letting things be. — Daniel Bromfield
Sault are not exactly the newest band on this list, but they certainly continue to feel new. In the two years we’ve been seeing this name, they’ve released four albums. Releasing music at a clip like that makes it hard for a listener to catch up and feel familiar, as the group keeps leveling up. This is all without even mentioning that we still don’t really know much about the band. We know that London producer Inflo is heavily involved, and we know that Cleo Sol and Kid Sister are often in the mix as well, but that’s about it.
The first song I ever heard by Sault was 2019’s “Why Why Why Why Why.” I initially thought of Donna Summer and feel-good R & B. It’s a good song, but Sault is bigger than that and, really, anything in particular. Since then Sault has released Untitled (Black is) and Untitled (Rise), both albums that absolutely blew open the doors of the band’s capabilities taking them from R & B informed pop to space-age-psychedelic to heavy funk to post-punk and back to R&B informed pop, often foregrounded on this racist history we live in and through. More Sault please. — Christopher Laird
Rina Sawayama’s music builds an electropop dream world. Her debut album Sawayama is a freewheeling escape from the tumults affecting both the individual and society. She relies on frenetic dance energy interlaced with sweeping rhythms and piercing vocals. She even takes a detour into nu-metal to fully demonstrate her creative power. Coupled together, Sawayama engenders undeniable hypnosis. Much as dreams contain spatial and temporal multitudes, Sawayama adds deeply personal lyrics to the already engrossing music. The Japanese-British singer-songwriter aims her lens at her upbringing. She addresses generational trauma and forgiveness, especially when recalling her parents’ misdeeds.
Despite toxicity’s legacy, Sawayama consistently returns to reconciliation as foundational to healing. For Sawayama, this is a clear marker of her standpoint, but her claim is also capable of spanning outward. “Fuck This World” addresses climate change while “STFU” dismantles the fetishization of Asian women. Elsewhere, Sawayama deconstructs cultural assimilation, traditional gender norms, and capitalism to endow her brand of dance-pop with a defined critical consciousness. Unequivocally, Sawayama’s musical approach is brazen while her cultural voice is indispensable. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
After a handful of EP’s and acclaim in their native UK, Sea Girls released their debut album Open Up Your Head in 2020. It’s a record that shows the quartet’s skillful blending of anthemic rock, pop hooks, and emotionally relatable lyrics. Lead singer Henry Camamile is a dynamic vocalist, with range and power that matches the band’s big, bold sound. Sea Girls aren’t breaking new ground with their catchy pop-rock, but they’re doing it better than most of their contemporaries. They vary instrumentation, tempo, and style enough to make each song distinct.
Lyrically, Open Up Your Head loosely traces the dissolution of a relationship, opening with the breakup, going through denial, self-flagellation, newly dating, infatuation, and finishing in the unsettled place of being in a new relationship but still constantly thinking about the old one. This is excellent material, and if Sea Girls can keep this up into a second album and beyond, they could have a long career ahead of them. — Chris Conaton
Bartees Strange’s debut album, Live Forever, doesn’t choose a style, but it’s stuffed full of style. The opening track, “Jealousy” sounds like an early Weeknd song being played in a fashionably smokey room. You might think it’s setting up a vibe for the album, but nope. What really sets you up Live Forever is the juxtaposition of “Jealousy” with the absolutely unexpected 00’s emo banger, “Mustang.” The singer yells, “Is anybody really up for this one if I don’t hold nothing back?” It’s an easy answer: yes.
Bartees Strange is the musical moniker for Bartees Cox Jr, who has noted his desire to someday be a producer, with one of his heroes being the world-conquering production work of the National’s Aaron Dressner. If Live Forever is any indication, he has an ear for it. Whether behind the boards producing someone else’s work or behind a keyboard writing his own tunes, Bartees Strange is poised to be around for a long minute. — Christopher Laird
Orion Sun’s chilled-out, intimate R&B was the perfect, soothing accompaniment for a year in which most people’s lives were hit with uncertainty and long stretches spent at home. This isn’t to say that Orion Sun’s music is without conflict. Her debut album Hold Space for Me opens with “Lightning”, an autobiographical account of her family losing their house and being stuck on the streets. The album also finds her reflecting on the death of a friend (“Grim Reaper”) and dealing with domestic squabbles (“Sailing”), but it’s all set to sparse, easygoing beats and melodies that put the focus on Orion Sun’s voice. It’s not all gloomy lyrics, either. The low-key hip-hop of “El Camino” fantasizes about a Puerto Rican vacation, while the cathartic “Coffee for Dinner” is about a new relationship with very specific lyrics about finding comfort in the cold winter. Orion Sun successfully covers a lot of emotional ground over the course of Hold Space for Me, and it will be fascinating to see where she goes from here. — Chris Conaton
Kelsey Waldon hails from the rural Western Kentucky town of Monkey’s Eyebrow where her family roots as farmers date back over ten generations. Waldon writes, sings, and plays guitar in the classic country tradition that evokes comparisons to artists such as Loretta Lynn. Her songs can be deeply personal and universally resonant as topics such as family life and the obstacles to making a living on the land are timeless. Most recently she put out an EP of protest songs, They’ll Never Keep Us Down on Oh Boy records. (She was the first person John Prine signed to his Oh Boy record label in 15 years.) Waldon put her personal stamp on material as diverse as the High Priestess of Soul’s Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and bluegrass’ Hazel Dickens’ “They’ll Never Keep Us Down” that show the radical links between these feminist activists. Like them, Waldon uses music as a way of changing the world by reaching people’s hearts and minds through song. — Steve Horowitz