If you judged the state of contemporary song by YouTube views, you might think that the whole diverse world of music has collapsed into vamp songs built on formula-driven textures and artificially sweetened vocals. But there’s grand music out there for those willing to look beyond the 15 sound-alike songs you hear over and over again on the radio and at the shopping mall.
In fact, I think there’s more creativity at work in the music world today than at any point in history. It’s just harder to find, most of the best stuff is flourishing in nooks and crannies, and marginalized by mass media.
I spend a lot of time seeking out talent that gets lost in the shuffle. Over the last year, I’ve listened to more than a thousand newly-released albums, and I pay particular attention to genres and artists that don’t fall into the fashionable commercial categories. This is time-consuming, but rewarding every time I discover some hidden talent that otherwise would never have come to my attention.
Below are 30 of the most intriguing musicians on the current scene. Their ages range from 17 to 90. They come from more than a dozen countries, and they cover the full spectrum of genres and styles. Only a few are well-known—at least right now. But they each deserve fame, and perhaps a few will find it during the course of 2017. Crossover success is always elusive, but each of these artists will reward your close attention.
United VibrationsAfrofuturist EDM
This exciting multicultural band claims they are messengers from Inner Space who travel the globe “seeking those who are ready to rediscover the Golden Ratio.” To be honest, the liner notes to their new album read like a pamphlet a crazy person might hand you on the street along with an invitation to join the cult. But this band’s music is formula-busting at its best, with elements of EDM, hip-hop, Afrobeat, jazz, and funk simmering together in an intoxicating aural stew.
L.A. SalamiExperimental Singer-Songwriter
The name is strange. But, trust me, the music is even stranger. (By the way, the name is real—our uninhibited singer was born Lookman Adekunle Salami.) Is he a moody folk bard or noisy rocker? Is he inventing a new kind of blues or constructing avant-garde pop tunes? Frankly, he’s doing all of the above, and it’s glorious. Check out Salami’s full-length album, Dancing with Bad Grammar, for a taste of the wild.
The New York jazz scene is hard on newcomers, but especially so to any woman who wants to challenge the male-dominated horn culture. But Melissa Aldana took on all challengers to make her name in Manhattan and even win the coveted Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Her follow-up recordings with her Crash Trio have amply validated the judges’ verdict, and her most recent album, Back Home, was one of the most exciting jazz releases of the last year. If you love rapturous sax music that builds from the tradition of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson, you need to check out this rising star of the genre.
Wayne HancockRetro Country
Somebody tell Wayne Hancock about the internet, smartphones, and driverless cars. He clearly is living in the past, at least judging by his songs. He plays country music as if it were still 1952, Harry Truman is still in the White House, and Trump is just something you call out when playing pinochle with neighbors. But Hancock’s hellacious music sounds like the real deal, even on that new-fangled YouTube thing.
Toronzo CannonChicago Blues
Toronzo Cannon is a bus driver for the Chicago Transit Authority by day. But by night, he is one of the hottest blues performers on the Chicago scene. He can only do out-of-town gigs during his vacation days, so you may need to travel to the Windy City to hear him. But his new record deal with Alligator Records is likely to open up a global audience to this stellar performer.
Noura Mint SeymaliMoorish Griot Funk from Mauritania
Connoisseurs of funk can tell you all about the differences between its different variants—whether from Motown, Mali, or Muscle Shoals. But are you ready for Mauritanian funk? Singer Noura Mint Seymali will make you a believer. This kind of funk doesn’t come from any horns, and certainly not a laptop. Her instrument is the ardin, a traditional Mauritanian harp played by female griots, and her vocal work is filled with microtones and inflections that you haven’t heard on any R&B hit.
Nick EllisStreetscape Narrative Noir
Liverpool has a rich musical tradition, but what’s it done for us lately? Well, the answer is Nick Ellis, a haunting singer-songwriter whose debut full-length album came out a few weeks ago. This music is a world away from Beatlemania, but still captures the gritty honesty we expect from the city whose artists have produced 56 number one hits (the most of any city in the world). Ellis’s record label describes his work as “streetscape narrative-noir blended with a classic British acoustic approach.” Maybe it’s best not to define it, and just listen to it.
Mélanie De BiasioThe Billie Holiday of Belgian Ambient Music
When I encounter the term “ambient music” I almost treat it as a warning label—an indicator of low-key blandness built on mundane murmurings and tepid tinklings. But every once in a while, an artist comes along who shows that ambient music can still convey intense emotions and psychological depths. Mélanie De Biasio is that kind of musician, and her new album Blackened Cities is likely to shake up those who think ambient sounds ought to stay in the background.
Young MagicBrooklyn Dream Pop Influenced by Indonesian Music
I still don’t understand why Indonesian music has never had the global crossover appeal of, say, reggae or salsa or K-pop. When pianist Joey Alexander recently enjoyed a modest success with his jazz release My Favorite Things, he became the first Indonesian artist in history to appear on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. Go figure! Yet anyone who has listened to gamelan, dangdut, or other Indonesian subgenres knows how powerful this music can be. Perhaps Young Magic will change matters. They are a Brooklyn band but they have infused Indonesian sounds into their persuasive dream pop. Their new album Still Life is border-crossing at its finest.
Amper MusicSoundtrack Music Composed by Artificial Intelligence
Why hire a soundtrack composer when you can get robots to do it instead? That’s the premise behind Amper Music, a startup that makes customized compositions using artificial intelligence. The prototype algorithm originated on a huge Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, but now calculations take place in the cloud, and customers access a new song in just a few seconds via their web browser. They simply just need to provide a brief verbal description, and instantly get their own soundtrack music without having to worry about copyrights and licensing. Listeners in a blind test can’t tell the difference between the machine-made song and a real human composition.
The Lazy LiesSpanish Melodic Pop
If you have a hankering for melodic pop-rock infused with hints of bubble gum music and that old Monkees tunefulness, you absolutely must hear this Barcelona band. The hooks are strong, the beat won’t be denied, and the band has a kind of rhythmic cohesiveness I rarely hear in current-day commercial music. If I could find The Lazy Lies on a jukebox, I’d be putting in dropping in coins all night long.
Chuck BerryRock ‘n’ Roll
You may think that Chuck Berry, age 90, is ancient history, but he wants to prove you wrong. Last October this founding father of rock ‘n’ roll announced that he will be releasing his first new album in almost 40 years. “I’ve worked on this record for a long time,” he explained. “Now I can hang up my shoes.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Berry soon has another gold album to hang next to them.
Kafka’s IbikiJapanese Experimental Trio
Tokyo-based instrumental trio Kafka’s Ibiki blends elements of minimalism, drone rock, and postmodern jazz in long hypnotic performances that take on a kind of ritualistic quality. The music is unplanned and spontaneous. “There’s no set list,” remarks drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto. The songs just sort of happen. But the musicians’ almost telepathic sense of communal improvisation creates a powerful holistic effect. Japanese indie music is almost invisible to listeners elsewhere, but this band ought to be on the radar screens of those seeking exciting new sounds.
Lucienne Renaudin VaryGenre-Crossing Trumpeter
The last time a teen trumpeter got signed by a major label to launch a dual classical and jazz career, his name was Wynton Marsalis. That turned out pretty well, no? Warner hopes to capture some of the same magic with its recent signing of 17-year-old trumpeter Lucienne Renaudin Vary. She will release her debut album in the fall, and it will feature both classical works and a tribute to jazz icon Chet Baker. Jean-Philippe Rolland of Warner Classics boasts, “She is a complete artist: the new voice of the trumpet.”
The Nordic Fiddlers BlocThe New Thing in Folk Fiddling
The great age of fiddling dance bands may have ended around the time of the last Ice Age, but this band makes me long for the glaciers. The premise is pretty simple: mix three fiddlers from Norway, Sweden, and the Shetland Islands in one super band. Ah, but listen and admire. String quartets and big band horn sections could learn a few things about how to blend their sounds from these fine fellows. Don’t wait for the next Ice Age—check them out now!
Kadhja BonetExperimental Soul Music
The Visitor, Kadhja Bonet’s debut album released in October, is that greatest of rarities: an experimental soul album. Again and again, the familiar recipes of the genre are disrupted with the appearance of a cappella interludes, elements of soundtrack music, hints of psychedelia, retro orchestral interludes, and surprising shifts in instrumental textures. But Bonet’s sweet vocals, almost flutelike in their purity, draw in listeners so deeply that many might not even notice the iconoclasm of her music. This is an artist with something fresh to say, and with the potential to shake up the idiom.
Ah, perhaps you’ve heard of Stockhausen, that gnarly experimental composer who pushed the boundaries in electronic and classical music. Well this isn’t that Stockhausen (first name Karlheinz), but his son Markus, who is heavy in his own right. His music crosses almost as many boundaries as his father’s, but the trumpeter is probably best known for his jazz work. Yet his sensitivity to sound colors and textures puts him in a league of his own. Stockhausen’s latest album, Alba, with pianist Florian Weber, might even remind you more of deep house or meditation music than anything you might hear in a jazz club. From now on, when someone mentions the great Stockhausen, you need to respond, “Which one?”
Hannah EppersonExperimental Pop/Chamber Music Fusion
Don’t think of Hannah Epperson as a violinist. Instead consider her a pop musician who defies the expectations of pop music. The ingredients are simple enough: loops, icy vocals with a Nordic flavor, stark string sounds, electronica. But the end product is unique, haunting, addictive. Her latest album Upsweep was one of my favorite recordings of 2016. Be on the lookout for her follow-up project Slowdown, coming out later this year.
Chris PotterJazz Saxophony
Chris Potter isn’t a household name… unless you live in a household of saxophone players. In that case, you probably hear his name and music all the time. In my conversations with college-age horn players, Potter is referenced repeatedly as a role model and influence. Students of the sax transcribe and study his solos as if they were holy writ. Potter has reached his largest audiences by playing in the bands of bigger stars (Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock), but the time is ripe for him to achieve crossover success for his own inimitable artistry.
Yes, it’s been four years since “Royals.” In the interim Lorde hasn’t exactly disappeared—she did a video to encourage voter turnout in New Zealand, introduced a line of makeup, and contributed to a film soundtrack. But pop stardom requires much more, and that may arrive in 2017 with the artist’s long-awaited second album. Few expect her to match the success of Pure Heroine. The album died at some point during those four years, at least according to the music press, and in the warp-speed world of pop many may think that Lorde is yesterday’s news. But recall that she was only 16 when “Royals” was released, and just think how much artists evolve during their late teens and early twenties. I have high hopes and think this artist’s comeback just might be the pop music story of 2017.
Gaspar NaliOne Man Band from Malawi
Take the concept of the one-man-band and mix in traditional instruments and you get the formula for Gasper Nali’s music. But that description hardly does justice to the uplifting spirit that infuses the work of this charismatic musician from Malawi. He is already an internet sensation—and even been dubbed by some as the next “Gangnam Style” breakout star—but this year Nali goes on the road to recreate his exuberant outdoors music in concert halls and on festival stages. If this music doesn’t cheer you up, nothing will.
Kristoffer LoMaster of the Big Horn
Kristoffer Lo had a life-changing moment as a child when he saw a performance by 76 tuba players on Norwegian television. Since then he has made it his mission to make big horns cool again. Give him a chance and he will show you how the tuba can fill up the low register in metal and noise bands, or introduce you to the concept of multi-tuba microtonal chamber jazz. But my favorite project of his is The Black Meat, which finds Lo playing drones with a tuba and flugabone in a remote lighthouse during a storm. The effect is eerie and unforgettable. How does he top that? Lo is now talking about bringing his horns to a mausoleum for a recording. He may not raise the dead, but I suspect he will raise his profile on the music scene in the very near future.
A Tribe Called RedNative American Hip-Hop
Of all the neglected cultural traditions in our midst, none is more unfairly marginalized than Native American music. The First Nations were the first American rappers, and you could write a dissertation on the connections between their traditional chants and hip-hop. Or you could listen to A Tribe Called Red and experience it first hand. This band, based in Ottawa, Canada, brings this heritage music up-to-date in the most danceable way. Their latest album is We Are the Halluci Nation.
It wasn’t easy learning bluegrass in the former Soviet Union. Ilya Toshinsky was forced to make picks out of tin cans and plastic rulers, and struggled to find a decent instrument to play. His teacher helped out by traveling to the Lenin Library in Moscow to take photos of banjo tablatures in the archives. But the hard work paid off when Toshinsky rose to prominence as a member of the band Bering Strait, a group which relied on the novelty of young Russians playing country and bluegrass. But Toshinsky’s new solo album, Red Grass, makes clear that this banjoist is no mere imitator but a full-fledged virtuoso of the instrument.
Jennifer HigdonContemporary Classical Music
Jennifer Higdon may have a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy on her shelf, but she still is unknown to most serious music fans and even many music writers. That’s the plight of almost every classical composer under the age of 60 in the current day. But Higdon has a gift for melody and emotional directness that could bring her a large crossover audience. Certainly she deserves it. Her recent opera Cold Mountain earned her two more Grammy nominations, and her orchestral tone poem blue cathedral has now been performed by more than 400 ensembles, achieving a kind of staying power few contemporary works have demonstrated in the new millennium. Even if you think contemporary classical music isn’t for you, give this composer a chance.
Michael KiwanukaThe British Marvin Gaye
The ascendancy of the British soul scene has been one of the most encouraging recent trends in commercial music. I’m reminded of the British Invasion of the ’60s, when U.K. artists took American raw ingredients and turned them into the soundtrack for the next global generation. A few of the British soul artists have achieved superstar status—Adele, Sam Smith, the late Amy Winehouse—but I think this trend is far from over. Who’s next on the superstar list? Maybe Michael Kiwanuka, who evokes the spirit of Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, and other greats of the music’s past, but without sounding like a nostalgia act. His recent album Love and Hate has been a big hit in the U.K., but Kiwanuka is still little known to audiences elsewhere. I expect that to change very soon.
Sociedade RecreativaBrazilian EDM/Folk Fusion
I often look to Brazil for fresh takes on contemporary music. This is just as true in the age of EDM as it was back in the era of samba and bossa nova. This Franco-Brazilian band’s intoxicating music blends electronica with traditional instruments, including accordion, berimbau, and rabeca in an exhilarating hybrid. The band’s latest album on the Jarring Effects label is party music for adventurists with a taste for border-crossing and genre-crossing fusions.
Christopher TignorSoftware Engineer/Violinist
The gap between musical performance and digital recording techniques has grown ever wider—so much so that songs increasingly exist as abstract constructs, cut asunder from the traditions and rituals of human music-making. Christopher Tignor is bridging this chasm in elaborate recordings incorporating software, percussion, and violin and made in real time without overdubs or background tracks. His new album Along a Vanishing Plane, recorded live in a former psychiatric hospital in Hudson, New York, shows how spontaneous musical performance might be reinvented in the digital age.
Sarathy KorwarSufi Electronica
Sarathy Korwar was born in the U.S., but spent much of his childhood in India, where he studied both tabla and the Western drumkit. In his music he merges the old and new, mixing electronic sounds with East African, Sufi, and Indian traditions. His debut album Day to Day is like a religious epiphany married to a danceable beat.
Lewis & Leigh,Transatlantic Folk
Al Lewis hails from Wales and Alva Leigh grew up in Mississippi. But when Alva moved from Nashville to London in 2012, the two began collaborating on cross-cultural folk songs, first as composers and then as performers. The results surprised both by the fluidity with which their transatlantic traditions blended. British Americana might seem like a contradiction, but this talented duo is reminding us that the shared roots of these two musical cultures might be the deepest of them all.