There was a really exciting and palpable tension that yanked and prodded music culture starkly in several directions throughout 2013. Last year, in my top albums post, I discussed the waning salience of genre and referenced Nitsuh Abebe’s theory that “map-making” was left by the wayside in favor of tangential listening habits. In short, the music I engage with had entered a vortex.
Not this year. The legend in the corner of that map re-emerged as some of our most prominent genre- and era-defining artists (The Flaming Lips, David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Mazzy Star, Boards of Canada, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, My Bloody Valentine) released new material that ranged from vanilla to transcendent. So as I was listening and filtering through new artists this year, I constantly had these seminal touchstones in the back of my head as supportive scaffolding to see how new sounds either expounded upon, orbited, or jilted respective genres. These are my favorite new/under-the-radar artists of the year that did any of those three things. Let’s get down to business, nerds.
10. Mutual Benefit
With his comforting warble, cascading string arrangements, and field recordings, Jordan Lee made one of the best folk-leaning releases of the year as Mutual Benefit. A self described itinerant, Lee recorded the bulk of this release while he was crashing in his buddies’ spare room in St Louis after moving away from Boston. I often think that comparing bands to Bon Iver can be lazy, but I really hear a lot of the potential on Mutual Benefit’s Love’s Crushing Diamond that I remember being excited about when I first heard For Emma, Forever Ago.
Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi, a/k/a Cuushe, is a savvy collagist who knows how to make textures boil under the surface of each track on her album Butterfly Case. It is easy to call what Cuushe does “dream pop,” because it is hard to precisely qualify all the different sounds and influences that sweep in and out of her pensive, stately tracks. Perhaps the best way I can describe Cuushe’s sound is the role she played in my listening habits: anytime I experienced a lull and needed to fill an indefinite amount of space with a mollifying sound, Cuushe was in my headphones.
What a name! Not going to be able to tell your mom about this band, but that doesn’t much concern Perfect Pussy, the aggressively thrashy punk outfit from Syracuse. The band was originally formed on a lark to make a song for a John Cusack movie after one of the actors called frontwoman Meredith Graves and asked her to pen a song. When the chemistry among all the members clicked they decided to compile the below EP, full of ear-razing, catchy punk jams.
7. The GTW
James King has become something of an underground fixture in Chicago this year as he switched roles deftly between contributing to R&B supergroup JODY and riding solo as an inimitably inventive producer/remixer. The most indicative thing about The GTW’s musical malleability — imagine anything from his Nigerian roots to ’90s top 40 R&B — are his SoundCloud genre tags. “So So Def Bass”, “Post Tribal,” and “Future Bounce” are among my favorite and the most telling, because aside from the Jermaine Dupri reference, I had no idea what these descriptions were supposed to indicate before I listened. The GTW both shirks a distinguishable sound and has an identifiable intrigue in this way. He continues to make me curious.
Giraffage’s spectrum spans from sentimental, sun-washed remixes on one pole and extends to boisterously wide-eyed, sample-based synth jams that even awkward bar-mitzvah-going middle-schoolers could figure out how to bop to. I would know, because that is about as rhythmically inclined as I am (I peaked early). The homie behind the moniker, Charlie Yin, is based in San Francisco, and I think in many ways represents his city’s entire mien almost a little too perfectly with his music: It is up for any kind of night in an exceptionally hospitable way. Whether you want to stay in to chill as hard as you possibly can or shake your limbs on a dance floor and twist your face like an emoji, Giraffage’s discography is a universally applicable companion.
Wet won me over the second I heard “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl,” a spacious, plaintive-but-confident storm of a track. This Brooklyn-based indie trio were the darlings of CMJ this fall after their impeccably produced, 13-minute EP of bright pop wooed swaths of concert-goers and blog-dwellers (cough). There is something about their shimmering instrumentation, slow-build approach, and Kelly Zutrau’s beguiling voice that really reminds me of The Cranberries, which makes me especially happy.
Not to brag, but I totally knew SZA was going to have a breakout year from the second I heard her in February. Having gone from a modest bedroom artist, constructing inventive R&B in her parents’ house in New Jersey, SZA concluded the year by singing to TDE (Kendrick Lamar’s label) as the first female artist on the imprint. Check out both of her dreamy EPs, and get psyched for a huge 2014 from her. @SZA, Let me know if you ever got that fan letter I sent you!! I made a Drake joke! I promise I am not creepy. <3 Matt
Admittedly, inc., comprised of L.A.-based brothers Daniel and Andrew Aged, has been around for a bit, slowly trickling out new tracks, but 2013 was such a year of positive fruition for the duo that I felt compelled to include them on this list. Their debut album, no world, dropped in February and drew comparisons to Prince with its lush, but groovy instrumentation and sexy, understated vocals. The theme of nebulous locations and headspaces transcending geography is the most striking concept about no world. From the album artwork, which features the brothers under a generic, cloudy sky, to the videos, which showcase nondescript locations, to the name of first single, “the place,” there is a sense of emotional environments eclipsing physical ones. My favorite thing that anyone said to me about inc. this year was, “I wonder if it was weird to record such bonetastic jams with a sibling.” Lol.
The tension between Kelela Mizanekristos’s silvery voice and her aggressive, even obtrusive, production elements was one of the most exciting sounds I heard all year. On her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, an all-star cast of producers achieved an atmosphere that feels like you walked into the basement of a factory where ROBOTS ARE BUILDING OTHER ROBOTS. The term “future pop” has been floating around the music crit world for the last few years in reference to bands like AlunaGeorge and Purity Ring as an aesthetic description for this gratingly synthesized sound with soothing vocals to cut the edge. I think Kelela is easily on the fore of this subgenre, as she expertly delivers surprising sonic challenges and resolutions in each of her tracks. I am curious if an artist like Kelela will ever be considered pop without any qualifying prefix.
Chance The Rapper is an artist with immense deference toward his artistic influences, predecessors, and peers. Off the top of my head I can think of several lyrical and stylistic hat-tips that peppered his album: Vic Mensa, Chief Keef, Fat Trel, Childish Gambino, Kanye, J Dilla, Common, Chicago Footwork, and Chicago Juke. And no doubt there are way more of which I was not a good enough listener to catch. Chance’s greatest asset aside from his impressive flow and charming squawk is his historical grammar and how he is able to filter his sound through all the influences that have meant the most to him. When you listen to Acid Rap, you get the feeling that Chance is, above all else, unfathomably grateful.