There are currently 19,757 artists with their own dedicated web page on Pitchfork. But in the 25 years since the site first went live in 1996, some of those artists have taken on a special significance to the way this publication considers and consumes music. There are artists whose creative work has proven to be especially influential, expanding genres or creating entirely new ones. There are others whose outsized impact has shaped the music industry and popular culture at large. There are the indie pioneers and those who have regularly been awarded Best New Music, with records that have defined the underground and particular eras of our staff’s lives. There are some artists, of course, who have done all of these things.
To kick off our 25th anniversary retrospective, we’ve collected some of the best writing Pitchfork has published on a set of 200 of the most important artists to the publication’s history. The list is the result of much debate among the staff and select contributors over the last few months, and it includes artists who released all—or at least the bulk of—their defining work within the last 25 years. (So while a band like Pavement is certainly important, since most of their classic records came out before 1996, they are not featured.) At the top of the list, you’ll find “The Icons,” the 50 artists whose influence has changed music forever, in alphabetical order, followed by “The Essentials,” 150 nearly-as-important acts, also listed alphabetically.
Here are the 200 most important artists in Pitchfork’s history:
Ever since her death in 2001, Aaliyah’s name has been shrouded in adulation and mystery, producing an ever-expanding multiverse of Aaliyah variants inspired by the singer’s sophisticated, forward-thinking R&B. Her legacy will only extend further now that Blackground Records has belatedly (and controversially) reintroduced her catalog for the streaming era. As Rawiya Kameir described in a 2019 Sunday Review:
The glossy girl- and boy-band era was at its peak at the turn of the century, and before pop acts would attempt to replace that sheen with cool, calling on “urban” producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes, Aaliyah modeled the perfect balance of pop, R&B, and hip-hop. Months before Britney Spears made headlines for performing with a snake at the MTV VMA awards in 2001, Aaliyah had done it in the video for “We Need a Resolution.” Her personal style, creative direction, and choreography were legendarily inventive. She made comfort look luxe as the original little shirt, big pants girl, and tore through dark-and-mysterious years before Keanu Reeves made leather trench coats trendy (in the early years, her omnipresent sunglasses and then side-swooped hair prompted widespread rumors of a lazy eye). By the time of Aaliyah, she’d reinvented herself yet again, this time brighter and more streamlined.
Animal Collective came along at a time when indie rock had settled into something comfortable, even conservative, and made it wildly strange again by pairing lo-fi techniques and celestial harmonies with a fluidness of approach that pushed at the limits of what a band might be. Founded in the late ’90s, the quartet of Avey Tare (David Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Deakin (Josh Dibb), and Geologist (Brian Weitz) got their start putting out limited-run records credited to their various aliases, turning out twisted campfire songs and wild-eyed psychedelia that seemed to rot from the inside. As their fame grew, their music just got stranger, even as it flirted with the sugar-rush energy and addictiveness of pop. As Mark Richardson wrote in his review of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Pitchfork’s No. 1 album of 2009:
With their constantly evolving sonic identity, in-your-face vocal mannerisms, and open-ended ideas about what their music might “mean,” Animal Collective seem designed to inspire obsessive fans and vociferous detractors in equal measure. Since their inception, the band has wandered the territorial edges of music, scoping out where boundaries had been erected and looking beyond them. They’ve punctuated perfectly likeable indie rock songs with bleating vocalizations. They’ve seeded pretty instrumentals with irritating noise. They’ve juxtaposed West African rhythms and melodies cribbed from British folk. They’ve stayed on a single chord for 10 minutes. But Merriweather Post Pavilion feels like a joyous meeting in a well-earned, middle place—the result of all their explorations pieced together to create something accessible and complete.
As Aphex Twin, Richard D. James sat out roughly half of the last 25 years—a couple of obscure side-project releases and the Analord project comprises all the new material he issued between 2001 and 2014—but he’s still arguably the most important electronic producer to release music during that span. His astonishing gift for melody and kinetic sense of groove and swing keeps his music perennially fresh, whether he’s experimenting on a single synth, directing machines to play instruments, or crafting the warm, funky, and mysterious tracks with which he made his name. As Mark Richardson wrote of James’ comeback Aphex Twin album, Syro, in 2014:
Here is 65 minutes of highly melodic, superbly arranged, precisely mixed, texturally varied electronic music that sounds like it could have come from no other artist. James throughout the ’90s was an influence sponge; part of his genius was how he took ideas and ran them through his highly idiosyncratic filter. The bizarro highlights came when he put his own spin on genres, making jungle weirder, pop more unsettling, and piano music more gorgeous. Syro also absorbs many different sounds, from loping breakbeat to drum’n’bass to techno proper to hints of disco, but in a more subtle way. It has a way of making other genres seem like they exist to serve this particular vision. And it’s a confident album precisely because it’s not self-consciously pushing the envelope. Electronic music with a strong beat not intended for the dancefloor was, if not invented by this guy, certainly perfected by him. So with his first trip back from the wilderness, he’s demonstrating exactly how it’s done.
Arcade Fire are to 2000s indie rock what R.E.M. were to ’80s college rock: a defining niche act that, against all odds, became one of the biggest bands in the world. The vast Montreal group, led by husband-and-wife duo Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, broke out with 2004’s Funeral, a tidal wave of familial grief, millennial hope, and “whoa-oh” vocals; their collectively cathartic live shows, meanwhile, bursted open with guitars and keyboards but also accordions, French horns, glockenspiel, and maybe even the sound of a drumstick hitting the head of a band member wearing a motorcycle helmet. As David Moore wrote in his 2004 review of Funeral:
The pain of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne is not merely metaphorical, nor is it defeatist. They have known real, blinding pain, and they have overcome it in a way that is both tangible and accessible. Their search for salvation in the midst of real chaos is ours; their eventual catharsis is part of our continual enlightenment. Funeral evokes sickness and death, but also understanding and renewal; childlike mystification, but also the impending coldness of maturity. That it’s so easy to embrace this album’s operatic proclamation of love and redemption speaks to the scope of Arcade Fire’s vision.
Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, a native of the working-class Almirante Sur neighborhood of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, was a 22-year-old college student pulling shifts at the local supermarket when his first hit, “Diles,” blew up on SoundCloud in 2016. He soon became one of the most visible and versatile figures in Latin pop, fusing reggaetón, bachata, dembow, trap, alt-rock, and more in giddily shape-shifting fashion. He has also proven to be something of a pop progressive, too, whether pushing against received notions of masculinity in his eye-catching dresses, or speaking out against misogyny, homophobia, and gender violence in his songs, videos, and performances. As Matthew Ismael Ruiz wrote in his review of 2020’s El Último Tour del Mundo:
Bad Bunny toes the line between rap braggadocio and vulnerable everyman with relative ease—even while crooning about alien sex. Standing on top of the world, with access to abundant fame, wealth, and critical success, he appears free of any pressure to conform, even to previous versions of himself. He’s a beacon of light in barrios around the world, an example for kids with secret skirts or Smashing Pumpkins CDs of what being yourself can look and sound like. When he says he does whatever he wants, we believe him. Maybe we can, too.
For years, Beyoncé exceptionally followed the girl-group-leader-to-solo-phenomenon pipeline, flexing her three-octave range on collaborations with established hitmakers, plotting a transition to Hollywood, and generally making inoffensive career choices. But it wasn’t enough. She became more and more restless, eventually dropping her father as her manager, taking the helm of Beyoncé Inc. herself, and surprise-releasing her self-titled visual album in 2013. At the time, it seemed she’d arrived at an apex, more interested in bending the rules of pop than following them by the letter. Instead, it turned out to be just the beginning of her metamorphosis into the 21st century’s most iconic pop star, one who wasn’t afraid to sing about her country’s long-standing inequalities. As Paul A. Thompson wrote about Beyoncé’s instantly legendary 2018 Coachella performance:
Increasingly, Beyoncé has used her art—that is, everything: the albums themselves, but also her videos, her tours, Instagram, and so on—to examine power imbalances and to show how people blanch when those imbalances are brought up to the surface for examination. Think about the “Formation” video, in which a Black child dances in front of a line of cops wearing riot gear, or her Super Bowl halftime show, where she paid homage to the Black Panthers, or her Lemonade longform visual, in which she reimagined images of American wealth and power with Black women at the forefront.
In a way, all of it was a prelude to Saturday’s set, which felt like her most definitive statement yet, the kind of show that requires a deep and widely-known catalog, ideological ambition, and a thorough knowledge of history (musical and otherwise). Beyoncé has a cultural sixth sense for finding the busted seams between regions and eras and styles, and the performance saw her stitching those breaks back together in a way that made them new again.
Björk once described her music as being guided by a “beautiful relationship between complete discipline and complete freedom.” Freedom came naturally to her, having grown up in Iceland under the influence of hippie communes and punk collectives; she expressed discipline in the rigor and vision of her albums. She has united electronic innovation, audio-visual experiments, radical new performance modes, scientific investigation, and naked emotional expression in one dazzling catalog, becoming one of the most uncompromising pop stars of our era in the process. As Jenn Pelly wrote in a retrospective review of Björk’s second album, Post:
Nature was her ultimate teacher. Björk said Iceland itself, not other singers, shaped her voice. It is an extreme landscape of glaciers and volcanoes, of barrenness and eruptions, endless daylight in summer and mostly darkness in winter. Walking 40 minutes to school, a young Björk entertained herself by singing: sneaking down to the moss on the ground to whisper a verse, running up a hill to unleash a chorus loudly against the wind. Björk absorbed the peaks and valleys, light and dark, twists and turns of her reality, arriving nowhere conventional. When she sang in accordance with the moss and the hills, perhaps it was a result of studying Cage in school: music was everywhere.
Instinct became Björk’s personal law, and boundlessness became her key. Maybe it was the punk-surrealist in her, saying doors are only locked if you believe them to be, that what exists inside your mind is already real. “I’m going hunting for mysteries […] I’m going to prove the impossible really exists,” Björk sings on the austere “Cover Me,” each note aglow with a sense of discovery.
In 2006, Justin Vernon spent three months harmonizing with himself in the Wisconsin woods, bending his falsetto over a collection of oddly shaped, impressionistic folk songs. The results—Bon Iver’s 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago—made him an indie star but even more impressively raised the ceiling on what such a thing could entail. As Jayson Greene wrote in 2016:
Vernon started out as the embodiment of Hipster Rustic: beards, flannels, male heartbreak, seclusion. He was unquestionably a folk artist, making music with just his spiraling falsetto and a strummed guitar from the relative comfort of his little record label. He was something we’d seen before, and then he rapidly became something we hadn’t. He started a music festival in his hometown and launched a bespoke streaming service. He became part owner of a boutique hotel. These were CEO moves, creative-director moves, ones out of proportion with the sorts of modest indie careers of yesteryear. Back then, the desired end point of indie crossover success looked something like Built to Spill, or the Flaming Lips—a cozy major-label deal that would give you some extra cash to live on and the freedom to make your records, and then leave you alone. In the ’10s, those limitations disappeared.
On the dancefloor everybody is a star, but Burial makes music for the lonely people hiding in the shadows. William Bevan released two full-length albums as Burial including one stone classic, 2007’s Untrue. But since then he’s chosen to issue 12″s and singles, and his music has remained emotionally stirring. It’s dark and sad and dripping with loss but always contains a glimmer of hope; over time, that glowing core of yearning has grown brighter. As Simon Reynolds wrote around the 10th anniversary of Untrue:
Burial is the one dubstep artist that people who don’t follow dubstep, or even electronic dance music, have latched onto. His albums have been embraced by music fans whose preferred listening might be the Cure (a group whose early and gloomiest music Burial is said to adore) or Radiohead. It makes sense to slot Burial in that pale lineage of “young men [with] the weight on their shoulders,” to quote an Ian Curtis lyric. People respond to Burial’s work in a way that is different to anybody else in dance music—different even from the cult reverence for Aphex Twin. Fans testify in a much more alternative-rock way about how his tunes “saved my life.” The sound of Burial has touched people, opened them up to difficult emotions, hurt them in valuable ways.
D’Angelo’s 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar, set the Virginia singer up as a certified soul star with a rapper’s aesthetic and an old-school sound. But an air of mystique began surrounding him not soon after his follow-up, Voodoo, in 2000. It was the album that made music critics see D’Angelo as a bonafide visionary—with the video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” standing as a visual record of his becoming. But due to the spotlight’s glare, D’Angelo would eventually retreat from the public eye, resurfacing in 2014 with his masterful comeback album, Black Messiah. As Ryan Dombal wrote in 2012:
Voodoo arrived five years behind D’s home-recorded R&B debut, Brown Sugar, and blew through its fair share of release dates before touching down on January 25, 2000. Its arrival came during the twilight of the mega-CD era—six months after Napster’s birth, two years before the iPod—but its four-year gestation occurred during the halcyon ’90s, a time when artists were afforded the chance to tinker for years on end while blazing through bottomless studio budgets. The record topped the Billboard albums chart during its first two weeks out, and looking at 2000’s other #1s—including N’Sync’s record-breaking No Strings Attached, Eminem’s angsty Marshall Mathers LP, and, uh, Limp Bizkit’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water—Voodoo stands tall with October’s Kid A as a paranoid, mysterious, and challenging artistic statement that somehow managed to scale the industry.
It’s impossible to imagine contemporary electronic dance music without Daft Punk. Though the French duo of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo got their start translating subterranean Chicago house for European tastes, they didn’t stay underground for long. Each album following 1997’s Homework presented not just a new twist on their sleek, filter-disco sound but an often bewildering one. Not only did Daft Punk make dance music palatable “for the rock kids,” in James Murphy’s parlance, they helped instill a philosophy of self-reinvention that would resonate with generations of musicians across electronic music, rock, hip-hop, and beyond. In a cover story around the release of 2013’s Random Access Memories, Ryan Dombal wrote:
As true disciples of house music, Daft Punk have never been shy about their influences. From Homework’s “Teachers,” a shout-out track in which they literally list their heroes, to the many samples and interpolations that make up Discovery, they’re often at their best while joyously interacting with the past. And Random Access Memories, which shuttles between celebratory disco, moody funk, expansive psychedelia, new wave pop, G-funk, and even minimalist trap music, has the same sort of eclectic reach that would be found at legendary clubs like New York’s Paradise Garage, where a normal night in the ’80s could include songs by James Brown, the Police, Steve Miller Band, Talking Heads, and Kraftwerk. To Daft Punk, the album is something of a corrective to a style of music that they believe is caught in a computer-addled rut.
“It’s very strange how electronic music formatted itself and forgot that its roots are about freedom and the acceptance of every race, gender, and style of music into this big party,” says Thomas Bangalter. “Instead, it started to become this electronic lifestyle which also involved the glorification of technology.”
When Dan Bejar sings in his nasally buzzing voice he sounds amused and accusatory, pointing out the ridiculous characters that surround him—an apothecary’s daughter, a distro king for the hearing impaired, a visionary prophetess East Van punk—but never sparing himself. The raconteur scuttled around the edges of rock for a half-dozen often-great albums until he stumbled on the perfect sonic background for his musings with 2011’s loungey synth-and-sax masterpiece Kaputt. Since then he’s become an indie-rock elder, rarely missing on record as he ages gracefully. As Amanda Petrusich wrote of 2017’s ken:
It’s hard not to reference the synth-pop and smooth jazz of the ’80s when contextualizing Bejar’s musical aesthetic—he uses saxophones and keyboards to express a particular kind of sleazy, noir-ish longing, a yen for anachronistic romance. The images ken conjures can feel nearly cartoonish: a midnight walk down a foggy street, smoking under the tepid yellow glow of a streetlight, wearing an elegant trench coat with the collar flipped high. Yet for Bejar, songwriting is almost exclusively about evocation. His lyrical work isn’t particularly narrative, nor is it directly engaged with the self; this can feel like a revolutionary choice in our present era, in which even more outré genres tend toward confessionalism, or intimate and specific narrations of loss and alienation. One gets the sense that Bejar finds these sorts of unmediated first-person pronouncements garish, if not corny. He isn’t interested in telling anybody exactly how he’s feeling; ergo, there are no easily discerned thematic arcs. Instead, he builds a strange, anxious atmosphere, writing couplets like, “Asleep in cars, theatre under stars/Shakespeare in the park, you’ve come undone.” All that computes, ultimately, is menace.
DJ Rashad was one of the very first footwork producers to break out beyond the genre’s tightly knit community of largely Black Chicagoans. His 2013 album Double Cup remains the lodestar for the kinetic electronic subgenre’s expressive dimension, balancing the force of rippling drum syncopations and seismic bass with lush samples of melancholy soul. In an obituary following Rashad’s death in 2014, at the age of 34, Miles Raymer wrote:
Throughout the course of his career, Rashad played a transformative role in Chicago dance music. He began it during the rise of ghetto house, an emphatically profane and high-speed offshoot of house that defined Black dance music in Chicago during the ’90s. He followed the form as it evolved into juke, which he stripped down to its radically lean and transcendentally pure essence on early singles like 2004’s “Girl Bust Down.” Later, he guided juke as it further evolved into footwork, where his trademark skittering drums and abstractly fractured melodies came to define the style as a whole.
More than a decade ago, Drake willed himself from being a former Degrassi star with a promising mixtape into “Drake featuring Drake,” the pop-rap kingpin casting a regal finger in the air to determine global trends. As with many artists, his most exciting work came when he was still fighting his way up the ladder, from the opulent introspection of 2011’s Take Care to the cocksure braggadocio of 2015’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape, but this year’s Certified Lover Boy recently had the year’s best-selling week of any album—proof that it’s still the Drake era, and we’re just lurking on his girlfriends’ timeline. As Matthew Strauss wrote in his review of that recent album:
The Certified Lover Boy is selectively honest, occasionally heartless, and set in his ways. He’ll text, “I love you,” and pretend he doesn’t; he’ll ask for a sympathetic ear, but scoff and leave “if you throw another pity party” about your own troubles. He’s Drake—past, present, and future—and Certified Lover Boy, accordingly, is referential and reverential, an 86-minute omnibus of all things Drake. Being everything at once, the Drake of Certified Lover Boy is also indecisive and even fatigued. Drake is still trying to balance fame, intimacy, ambition, and insecurity, and he’s still learning who to trust—it’s always trust with Drake—but there’s a malaise that lingers across the record, as if Drake has lost himself in the Library of Drake, less sure where he’s supposed to devote his attention while an emptiness creeps into his life and lifestyle.
When he was only 16, Earl Sweatshirt put himself (and Odd Future) on the map with a mixtape of technically dazzling Eminem-indebted shock rap—and then his mom packed him off to boarding school in Samoa. By the time he returned, his legend had outgrown him, so he reset expectations with a series of albums that were darker and more abstract, deepening his enigma with each release. As Sheldon Pearce wrote in his review of Earl’s 2019 album Feet of Clay:
As a teenage prodigy, Kgositsile leaned hard on his technical skill. Now an adult, he still cares deeply about craft, but he seems to be thinking differently about delivery and performance. There are moments on Feet of Clay when he seems to be actively subverting ideas of what being good at rapping sounds like… There is a punch-drunk quality to Kgositsile’s verses that occasionally makes them seem like stoned spitballing. They don’t sound half-baked so much as purposefully unfinished, a move even further off the grid for one of our most promising shut-ins.
Even today, Erykah Badu’s chart-topping debut Baduizm sounds timeless: a smoky offering of neo-soul spiked with humor and spirituality that set the stage for an expansive career. The Dallas native has put out four more definitive albums of jazzy R&B infused with mystical salves, political anthems, and a laid-back style, paving the way for countless acts in her wake. As Clover Hope wrote in her retrospective review of Baduizm:
While recording a demo in her hometown of Dallas in 1995, Erykah Badu found love in the simplicity of a rim shot. It’s a fundamental drum technique: the act of striking the metal edge and the head of a snare simultaneously to produce a full, explosive hit. To her, it was also a creative spark. Badu called up producer-songwriter Madukwu Chinwah, asked what “that tick-tock sound” was, and had him compose an entire rim shot-based rhythm for her. They made a song out of it, connecting the kick and the snare with the stimulating sensation of love: Boom. Clack. Boom. Clack. She made all her music this way, letting the groove lead her into streams of consciousness that became worldwide gospel.
Out of those demo sessions came her February 1997 debut, Baduizm, bookended by the original recording of “Rim Shot,” split into an intro and outro. The record went double platinum by summer and that year won the Grammy for Best R&B Album under the banner of a divisive new subgenre, neo-soul. Baduizm was an instant hit of intimate existentialism. It stripped the act of soul-searching down to its philosophical elements, mining abstract concepts like self-love, romantic love, and spirituality. There’s a throughline to albums like Solange’s 2016 opus A Seat at the Table, which similarly harnesses the power of Black music as a salve. They are full of control and surrender at the same time, confident in their search for answers even when there are none.
For 25 years, Fiona Apple has been a husky-voiced, piano-wielding force for artistic freedom and unruly humanity within a mainstream music industry often more tailored to the cookie-cutter and compliant. The classically trained New York native’s fifth album, 2020’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, was her most unbridled-sounding and triumphant work yet, yielding a rare 10.0 rating. As Jenn Pelly wrote in her review:
It happens to most of us at an early age: the realization that life will not follow a straight line on the path towards fulfillment. Instead, life spirals. The game is rigged, power corrupts, and society is, in a word, bullshit. Art can expose the lies. The early music of Fiona Apple was so much about grand betrayals by inadequate men and the patriarchal world. Did it teach you to hate yourself? Did it teach you to bury your pain, to let it calcify, to build a gate around your heart that quiets the reaches of your one and only voice? Fetch the bolt cutters. Fiona Apple’s fifth record is unbound. No music has ever sounded quite like it.
For 15 years, the name Flying Lotus—and that of his influential label, Brainfeeder—has been synonymous with a new and uniquely Californian genre: the Los Angeles beat scene. The producer’s adventurous, aqueous blend of electronic, hip-hop, and jazz is both heady and funky, equally inspired by internet-age synthesis and specific to a physical place. In 2012, Mark Richardson described how FlyLo’s music transcends the earthly realm in his review of Until the Quiet Comes:
Steven Ellison called his breakthrough album as Flying Lotus Los Angeles, and his music still has a strong metaphorical connection to the city. He’s an admirer of producers like Dr. Dre, but Ellison’s vision mixes the pulse of contemporary urban life with an extra dose of sci-fi futurism. He has his ear to the ground in terms of what’s happening now and what’s real, but his mind is fixated on what might happen tomorrow—part Boyz n the Hood, part Blade Runner. And since Ellison’s musical palette always circles back to the Eastern-tinged textures that infiltrated jazz when his great aunt Alice Coltrane was helping set the pace (assorted bells, harp plucks, the pings of steel and knock of wood), his music feels cosmic, bound to L.A. as a geographic idea but not necessarily of this Earth.
Spanning pop, rap, and R&B, Frank Ocean is a rare artist, period: Since his epochal major label debut album, Channel Orange, the subtle singer-songwriter has toyed with expectations, appearing for surprise releases (like 2016’s brilliant Blonde/Endless one-two punch) and then receding into the distance just as quickly. As Doreen St. Félix wrote in our “200 Best Albums of the 2010s” list, which placed Blonde at No. 1:
Frank Ocean is the hinge artist of our time, the true voice of a generation because he takes long silences. With Blonde and its attendant works, his Boys Don’t Cry zine and Endless, he took his time building his staircase to somewhere. Elusive and independent, he weaves from genre to genre, sometimes shifting gears to obliterate category altogether, as he cruises past the conventions the culture still fears to let go. On Blonde, the languid guitar of surf rock coexists with soft doo-wop melodies; Frank the rapper—who is heady and occasionally, knowingly vulgar—coincides with Frank the singer, who is plaintive and longing. Sometimes, he just talks rhythmically, like in “Nights.” “Futura Free,” the triptych anchor of Blonde, moves from midtempo to atmospheric synth to a clanging guitar solo. The impressionistic lyrics mirror the feeling of wanting to disappear, for a spell: “Breathe till I evaporated/My whole body see through.”
The year 2016 crystallized the political disaster right under the surface. People theorized that we needed anthems to get us through the dark night. Big choruses, hooks as wide as highway signs, regular percussion that could gird us from chaos. But our mood was languorous; jingoism was the problem in the first place. We wanted the blurred, the softened, the existential. “Inhale, in hell, there’s heaven,” Ocean sings on “Solo,” capturing the whiplash experience of being young in this country in one line. Blonde is one synonym for American.
There’s an elusive quality many new-school rappers seek to embody that can only be described as vibes. Future might as well own the trademark. Rising up from the iconic Atlanta Dungeon Family crew in the ’00s, Future perfected a distinct staccato flow that quickly spread far and wide. After conquering the mixtape underground, he became a go-to collaborator to the stars; for several years in the mid-’10s, it was rare for big-name pop and rap releases not to boast a Future feature. A messy legal battle with ex-fiancé Ciara and controversies surrounding his womanizing behavior didn’t stop Future’s steady stream of new releases, or his influence from spreading. He’s now the de facto leader of the new vanguard in hip-hop. In 2019, Stephen Kearse wrote about how Future rewrote rap in his image:
This ability to flip single words and sparse phrases into full-fledged vibes kept him in constant demand as a collaborator. For half the decade, he was the premier hook-maker and muse to the stars. Through Future, JAY-Z found the keys. Ace Hood woke up in a new Bugatti. Lil Wayne blissed out to good kush and alcohol. Kanye stacked Maybachs on ’Bachs on ’Bachs. Justin Bieber asked “What’s hatnin’?” as if he’d been born and raised in Fulton County. Ubiquity is the nature of popdom, but it’s telling that so many of these songs (or their many carbon copies) became hits. For much of this decade, Future has been the wind in sails and the current beneath the ships. He has birthed mantras and moments, artists and waves.
To know a great deal about Claire Boucher’s personal life is to wish you spent a lot less time online. But the tabloid stuff and the unfortunate statements obscure the fact that when it comes time to release a Grimes album she has, so far, always delivered. She’s a true original and an auteur in an era when being a skilled imitator with the right collaborators can take you far. Her mind just works differently and her warped brand of experimental pop still sounds like no one else’s. As Anupa Mistry wrote of 2020’s Miss Anthropocene:
In 2011, Grimes was eager to tell an interviewer that she had “been studying pop stars.” Since emerging out of Montreal’s freewheeling music scene 10 years ago as a DIY ingénue, Claire Boucher has become known for her experimental production that often traded discernible lyrics for otherworldly and synthetic vocal textures. The words she sang didn’t figure into what made her music so fascinating—it was how she used her vocals to mimic whalesong or aliensong, a futurist reimagining of the transfixing voices of Enya and Mariah Carey, over irresistible melodies. Yes, Grimes always wanted to be a pop star, but on her own creative terms.
Detroit native James Yancey, aka J Dilla, was the rare musician with a signature so distinctive that his name has become synonymous with an entire subgenre: To call something “Dilla-esque” is to describe a sample-based beat that moves with both an inscrutable gait and uncommon grace. Before he passed in 2006 at age 32, Dilla produced for an array of rappers and singers—A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Janet Jackson, the Roots, Common, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu—though he may be best known for his own album Donuts, originally released the week of his death. In a retrospective review of that record, Nate Patrin wrote:
If the six years since Donuts was released has taught us anything, it’s that a great album can be a sort of open-ended puzzle that can be solved from multiple angles. It’s become James Yancey’s signature production opus, even though the path that led him to it was laid down by a lifetime of collaboration, workshopping, and constant production in the service of other people’s voices. It’s the last work he created in his lifetime and yet it still feels like his music hasn’t run out of time yet, whether that’s down to periodic dives back into his vaults, or via the artists that have picked up inspiration and run with it to new places. It’s a widely praised favorite for so many people, and yet there’s something about Donuts that feels like such an intensely personal statement. Even attempting to engage with it objectively, setting aside the direct experience of the man who made it, doesn’t entirely break through its mystique.
The murders of Tupac and Biggie left a hole in hip-hop that JAY-Z has filled ever since, molding the genre in his image. From his cold-blooded early tales of drug dealing to his glossy anthems of excess to his more recent self-analysis raps, he has amassed one of the deepest catalogs in hip-hop history. At this point, at age 51, his only competition is himself. Reflecting on Jay’s classic album The Blueprint in 2015, Hanif Abdurraqib wrote:
A king without a fully formed crown, the Jay-Z of 2001 was still looking for a mid-career masterpiece to transition him seamlessly from the block to the boardroom. The Blueprint still holds up as the album we needed before we knew we would need it. A love letter to reinvention, an ode to being rebuilt as a newer and stronger machine. In the aftermath of an unimaginable violence, I believed in “Takeover” as more than just a diss track, but also as a meditation on fear and fearlessness. A flag of our own making, stuck in fragile ground. This is not a wholly patriotic statement, rather, what it can feel like to wrestle power back from overwhelming anxiety. Owning your space while you still have it, even if it’s only for three minutes. I find this in hip-hop more than anywhere else, even now. It could be due to the idea that so many rappers are making music to legitimize their lives, or become less feared in a country that has always used its fear of them to justify their death. The Blueprint was a brave and immensely sad album, at a time when both of those things were equally felt, and equally needed.
Joanna Newsom is a singular voice in contemporary music whose lush, sprawling compositions draw upon Baroque epics and folk traditionals. Her meticulously crafted lyrics are as mysterious as they are transportive, and since the release of her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom’s work has only become more deliciously complex and grand. As Laura Snapes wrote in her 2015 review of Divers:
[It is] her most dynamic and exhilarating album. The first half in particular veers between baroque poise, jaunty blues, and rococo beauty, as if searching for answers in disparate places. Landlocked between the dry, acoustic arrangements of “The Things I Say” and “Same Old Man,” the lilting harp and piano of the title track casts her lover as a deep sea diver and measures the distance between them, “how the infinite divides.” The meticulous internal rhymes in the chorus of “Leaving the City” contract against the tug of her harp, a cascade of tiny parts that form a huge, billowing whole, like tiny bones in a vast wingspan. “The longer you live, the higher the rent,” she sings inside the frenzy.
In 2015, Kamasi Washington broke through with his three-hour-long debut album, appropriately titled The Epic, and was immediately dubbed jazz’s latest savior. But the saxophonist and bandleader hardly came out of nowhere: Raised in Inglewood, California, he spent more than a decade making his name in and around Los Angeles, playing with the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Lauryn Hill, and Chaka Khan, as well as with a tight crew of local jazz aces. With The Epic, alongside his essential contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s game-changing To Pimp a Butterfly, Washington ushered in a style that combined elements of fusion, funk, and spiritual jazz, that was rooted in the past but not bound to it. As Jeff Weiss wrote in a 2017 interview piece:
If you asked random strangers in this Culver City café to look around the room and select the man who’s repeatedly been called “the future of jazz,” Kamasi Washington would be the No. 1 draft choice. He looks like Sun Ra reborn as a lineman: hulking but gentle, capable of thunderous cosmic wrath and meditative calm. His massive frame is swaddled in a long black tunic, medallions dangle from his neck, and a kaleidoscopic wooden skullcap protects a thick shrub of hair.
The Inglewood native speaks softly and carries a big stick. This isn’t figurative observation, but literal fact. His regular voice is as serene as his tenor sax is a roaring cataract. Washington also rarely leaves the block without an ornate wooden shark cane. It matches perfectly with the array of spiked panther rings on his right hand—one of which accidentally stabs me as we exchange greetings. Whether you prefer calling it a presence or an aura, there’s something about Washington that suggests this isn’t his first cycle in samsāra. In concert, his saxophone peals rumble out of an extra-sensory, multi-dimensional vale. Legendary jazz fusion bassist Stanley Clarke called him the heir to the astral master, Pharaoh Sanders. His music is a healing psychedelic balm in a time of bleary chaos.
Kanye West’s best work beautifully merges all the hybrid, contradictory ideas inside his mind. At his worst, his extra-musical antics and contemptible behavior (running for President, hugging Trump at the White House, calling slavery a “choice”, feuding with any number of celebrities and corporations) have overshadowed his artistry. Over two decades, he’s rebuilt his image again and again, with albums that present some version of soul Kanye, scream-rock Kanye, gospel Kanye, auteur Kanye. As an artist, a producer on some of the greatest rap releases of the past two decades, and a cultural figure, West has leaned into his singular perfectionism while at the same time continually getting in his own way. And for better or worse, it’s hard to look away. As Ryan Dombal wrote in a 2010 review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy:
To be clear, Kanye West is not Michael Jackson. As he told MTV last month, “I do have a goal in this lifetime to be the greatest artist of all time, [but] that’s very difficult being that I can’t dance or sing.” He ended the thought with a laugh, but you get the impression he’s not kidding. Unlike Michael, he’s not interested in scrubbing away bits of himself—his blackness, his candidness—to appease the masses. And while Jackson’s own twisted fantasies of paranoia and betrayal eventually consumed him whole, West is still aware of his illusions, though that mindfulness becomes increasingly unmoored with each newspaper-splashing controversy. The balance is tenuous, but right now it’s working to his advantage. On Twisted Fantasy, Kanye is crazy enough to truly believe he’s the greatest out there. And, about a decade into his career, the hardworking perfectionist has gained the talent on the mic and in the control room to make a startlingly strong case for just that.
The Knife always laced their electro-pop with agitprop and performance art, spurning awards shows and often appearing masked in photos and onstage. This subversive streak was evident on the Swedish sibling duo’s swan song, 2013’s double-album Shaking the Habitual, which raged against the status quo in epic compositions that drew from industrial and avant-garde music. And it manifested even more clearly on lead singer Karin Dreijer’s second solo album under their Fever Ray alias, 2017’s Plunge, with its universal mantra: “This country makes it hard to fuck!” As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in a review of Shaking the Habitual:
Olof and Karin Dreijer have gone to great lengths to come off like they are something other than human. On stage, they were silhouettes glowing behind a translucent screen. They gave interviews and accepted awards in disguise—moving through a terrifying cycle of bird masks, Dystopian Blue Man Group masks, primate-inspired face paint, and of course who could forget the infamous melting flesh mask? And on the steely, electro-nightmare Silent Shout—their first great record—they found new ways to viscerally integrate these ideas into their sound, warping and pitch-shifting vocals until they grew androgynous and post-human. Somewhere in the past seven years, the Knife reached that Lynchian status where everything they do is their own, adjectivally specific kind of creepy.
Instigating the riot grrrl movement with the paradigm-shifting Bikini Kill in the early 1990s, Kathleen Hanna helped claw out room for feminist and queer counterculture. With later projects, like multimedia trio Le Tigre and her solo project-turned-band the Julie Ruin, she continued her mission of making culture a more defiantly feminist space. When Bikini Kill reunited, first in 2017 and again in 2019, the feminist punk icons returned to a world they’d helped create. Reviewing a reissue of the the band’s 1998 compilation The Singles, Jenn Pelly wrote:
Bikini Kill thought that if all girls started bands, the world would actually change. They were right: When girls make work to narrate their lives, they embolden each other and demand to be heard; they begin to infiltrate and subvert every crevice of existence; they no longer keep the truth of female experience trapped like secrets inside of their bodies and minds. The world is progressing with the unleashing of those truths. The Singles remains one of our most potent catalysts for that revolution. ‘I want to scream because I am just as much of a human being as any man but I don’t always get treated like one,’ read an early Bikini Kill zine. ‘I want to scream because no matter how much I scream, no one will listen.’ The world is listening now.
Rap is always in search of the next greatest MC after the last great one, and from the beginning of his career, Kendrick Lamar immediately occupied the role. Since dropping his 2011 debut Section.80, the Compton rapper has straddled two disparate parts of the rap universe: the traditional neighborhood-groomed lyricists and the new-era misfits. This split personality has allowed him to be as experimental as he wants to be while acting as a bridge between two worlds and taking the genre to newer heights, like becoming the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize. As Tom Breihan wrote in 2011:
Kendrick Lamar is a weird kid, and rap music could always use more weird kids. The 24-year-old is a Compton native with a budding and mysterious Dr. Dre connection, but there’s little-to-no link to his hometown’s gangsta-funk legacy in his music. Instead, Lamar is very much a product of the late blog-rap era—an introverted loner type who’s willing to talk tough but is more interested in taking a Mag-Lite to his own personal failings and what he sees as the flaws of his generation. His rap style is fluid and melodic but approachable, and his frantic tumble of syllables evokes the feeling when you’re high enough that your thoughts arrive fast and interrupt each other. If one of the Bone Thugs guys had a dorky, overly sincere younger cousin who was really into Afrobeat and Terrence Malick movies, it’d be Kendrick.
Lana Del Rey broke through with 2011’s “Video Games,” a timeless portrait of doomed love and feminine ennui—and met an avalanche of criticism from an indie-rock scene still negotiating its relationship to pop music, femininity, and authenticity. As the artist born Elizabeth Grant evolved from moody torch singer into ambitious, idiosyncratic songwriter, her alter ego—beautiful, conflicted, eternally problematic—has remained one of the most fascinating, frustratingly dense, and elusive personas in popular music. As Jenn Pelly wrote in her review of 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!:
Lana is one of our most complicated stars, a constantly unresolvable puzzle—someone who once called her own work “more of a psychological music endeavor” than pop. But on Norman Fucking Rockwell! that ground-swelling complexity coheres to reveal an indisputable fact: She is the next best American songwriter, period. Trading much of her hardboiled trap-pop and trip-hop malaise for baroque piano ballads and dazzling folk—equal parts Brill Building precision, windswept Laurel Canyon, and 2019 parlances—Lana has begun a dynamic second act in profundity. “I really do believe that words are one of the last forms of magic,” Lana once said, and she exalts each syllable more than ever here. Where her elegant wordplay once made her the Patron Saint of Internet Feelings, she now sounds like a millennial troubadour—singing tales of beloved bartenders and broken men, of fast cars and all of the senses, of freedom and transformation and the wreckage of being alive. The stakes have never been higher.
“Losing My Edge,” the 2002 debut single from James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem, might almost be called a novelty single were it not such a trenchant piece of music criticism in and of itself. But by the time the group performed its triumphant farewell show nine years later, it had become one of the defining bands of the 21st century. Since reforming in 2016, they have confirmed their bona fides as keepers of the indie-rock flame, continuing to expand their catalog of wryly relatable songs about aging, disappointment, and fidelity to the thing you love. In 2017, Ryan Dombal wrote of the band’s comeback album, American Dream:
As an ace student of the game—“LCD is a band about a band writing music about writing music,” he once quipped—James Murphy knew that he couldn’t just reunite for a lucrative victory lap, playing his most popular songs on Spotify to the genre-agnostic, dance-friendly demographic he helped cultivate throughout the 2000s. It would ruin the legacy and go against everything LCD stood for: integrity, respect, a sly but genuine love of just how much music can shape a human being’s identity. So even though a new album was always planned since the band officially reformed 20 months ago, the intervening hit-filled gigs could feel odd. Yes, they sounded great, and all the members looked excited to be playing together again, but the context was tweaked. LCD Soundsystem were no longer on the cusp of a cultish zeitgeist. Murphy still sang “This could be the last time” during “All My Friends,” though the line’s tang of finality was dulled.
For his part, Murphy recently promised to never make a show of LCD’s retirement ever again. But as much as the band’s fourth album, American Dream, marks a rebirth, it’s also obsessed with endings: of friendships, of love, of heroes, of a certain type of geeky fandom, of the American dream itself. These are big, serious topics for a project that essentially started as a goof, but it’s the direction Murphy has taken since Sound of Silver’s “Someone Great” combined his affection for bubbling synths with a poignancy about the fleeting nature of life. Now, as a 47-year-old father of a young child, Murphy is using his long-running affection for bygone post-punk and art-rock sounds to carry on traditions; the album includes pointed references to Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, Suicide’s Alan Vega, and David Bowie, all of whom passed in the years since LCD’s last record. Whereas Murphy once took on all of these influences lightly and cleverly, they feel heavier across much of American Dream’s 82 minutes, with the lingering responsibilities of a disappearing history becoming more apparent.
During the back half of the 2000s, Lil Wayne proved his claim of being the “best rapper alive” on what seemed like a daily basis. He sprinted ahead of a music industry still struggling to transition to streaming by dropping a spate of mixtapes, each one more virtuosic than the last; guest verses for everyone from OutKast to Enrique Iglesias; and chart-chomping singles. This age of abundance cleared a path for other hip-hop eccentrics, including Tyler, the Creator and Young Thug. Wayne’s untouchable era culminated in 2008’s Tha Carter III, of which Ryan Dombal wrote:
Instead of hiding his bootleg-bred quirks in anticipation of the big-budget spotlight, he distills the myriad metaphors, convulsing flows, and vein-splitting emotions found on his recent mixtapes into a commercially gratifying package that’s as weird as it wants to be. As the major music industry continued to wheeze and splinter, Lil Wayne’s spitball marketing plan for Tha Carter III was an unprecedented masterstroke. Over the past couple of years, he’s given away more worthwhile free music online than most artists of his stature ever release officially. Using the mixtape market as a free-for-all training ground, Wayne expanded his persona, voice, and talent while presumptively killing off thousands of wannabe MCs hoping to charge five bucks for some garbage CD-R. For that alone, he deserves thanks. Wayne set the definition for a Web 2.0 MC—his output pours through computer speakers at broadband speeds.
The rapper born Daniel Dumile debuted as Zev Love X with the early-’90s group K.M.D. before quitting music when his brother and musical partner, DJ Subroc, was killed in a car accident. Dumile’s alter-ego, the Metal Face Villain, began rapping later that decade: a voluble escapist whose counterintuitive wit, comic-book mythos, lurid gags, and stoner digressions mapped out universes of the absurd with Tolkienesque delight. As Matthew Ismael Ruiz wrote in an obituary of “the ultimate rapper’s rapper”:
The masked MC known as MF DOOM was defined by his mystique. Born Daniel Dumile in London but raised in New York, the enigmatic rapper and producer had one of the greatest comeback stories in hip-hop, reinventing himself with a new persona after label woes and personal tragedy drove him out of music. That persona, modeled after the Marvel comics villain Dr. Doom and obscured by a menacing metal face mask, allowed him to remain one step removed from the music industry, the press, and even his fans, to the point that when the world first learned last week that he had passed away, he had already been dead for months. Infamous for allegedly sending “Doomposters” in his signature mask to appear on his behalf at clubs and concerts, he retained a somewhat adversarial relationship with the people who consumed (and loved) his music, unwilling to lift the veil on one of underground hip-hop’s most beloved creators.
By the time she exploded into the mainstream’s consciousness wearing a trash bag in the “The Rain” video in 1997, Missy Elliott had already made her mark behind the scenes as a songwriter and producer, most notably on Aaliyah’s One in a Million alongside Timbaland. What followed was a game-changing string of singles, albums, and videos that cemented Missy’s status as one of the most brilliant minds in hip-hop history. As Rawiya Kameir put it in 2019:
In an era characterized by celebrity worship on one side and celebrity “canceling” on the other, Missy’s persona only amplifies her work, which is expansive, challenging, and inordinately fun. In 1997, as hip-hop was becoming a billion-dollar industry staked on authenticity, Missy exploded the concept of character. Growing up in Virginia, removed from the centers of rap and pop, gave her the freedom to do what made sense to her. She regularly juxtaposed the naturalism in her lyrics with the fantastical brick-by-brick world-building of her videos, which articulated mad-cap, space- and anime-inspired visions of not only the future, but of alternate dimensions. She often did the same within her songs, eschewing dense wordplay in favor of booming soundscapes that, for example, grounded a droning synth with the warm sound of a tabla.
For Nicki Minaj to abolish expectations for women in rap, she had to create space where there was none. By genre-hopping, using a range of vocal inflections and personas, and simply rapping circles around anyone who dared share a track with her, she shuttled from the mixtape scene to Lil Wayne’s Young Money crew to the Billboard charts, making a statistical run unlike any other rapper before her, as the first woman with 100 entries on the Hot 100. The burn is that her accomplishments—including her first No. 1 hit as a lead artist (“Trollz,” a collaboration with an alleged abuser, 6ix9ine)—have run concurrent with controversy. Currently, she and her husband, Kenneth Petty, are facing a harassment lawsuit brought by a woman who Petty was convicted of sexually assaulting in the mid-’90s. Both the case and Minaj’s reign of terror around it have have sullied what could have been a blueprint for future female rappers. As Briana Younger wrote in 2018:
To reign over the charts, the critics, and the streets, a hip-hop star with pop ambitions must be everything to everyone while holding on tight to their identity. This balancing act is especially unforgiving for women, and Nicki Minaj has contended with these double standards and sky-high expectations for over a decade. Her biggest chart successes have come with songs like 2014’s bawdy “Anaconda,” and the effervescent “Super Bass” from her 2010 debut, but there are still incessant calls for some combination of the take-no-prisoners snarl of her breakout verse on “Monster” and serious art made up of reflection and maturity. But with Queen, Nicki jettisons all the industry madness, drowns out the noise, and creates rap the way she believes it should sound.
Throughout their 15-year recording career, Andre 3000 and Big Boi simply never dwelled in the present. Their music had no fixed boundaries but a distinct Atlanta style and drawl; their albums were abstract splashes that resist definition. It’s no small feat that they consistently sounded like they were dialed into contemporary rap while at the same time phoning in from the future. A decade and a half after their last album, the rest of the world is still catching up. As kris ex wrote in a 2018 Sunday Review of Stankonia:
Identity and location—and defining and observing the two on their own terms—have always been key with OutKast. All of their albums began with a disembodied intro track as a prelude, followed by a State of the OutKast declaration that proved that, as André would famously go on to say at the 1995 Source Awards, “the South got something to say.” Tellingly, André confessed, “I gots a lot of shit up on my mind,” on “Myintrotoletuknow” from their 1994 debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Their voices spat out harsh rhymes and stretched out melodic moments, but they also spoke about things widely and deeply, respecting and commenting on everything going on in hip-hop, largely by ignoring everything going on in hip-hop. Their sonic brashness and directness had Public Enemy’s Chuck D in its DNA, their fashion had antecedents in the Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five meeting Afrika Bambaataa’s Soulsonic Force, the subversive whimsy of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were their forebears, giving the group a musical intensity and breadth incomparable to any other major hip-hop act before or since. Those are weighty statements, but OutKast was OutKast—singular, inimitable, and unpredictable.
Since originating in Oxfordshire, England, more than 35 years ago, Radiohead have garnered a well-deserved reputation as a rock band that prophesies the doom-laden potential of modern technology with sad and startling accuracy. They are restless innovators, never satisfied with a single sound, always stretching out the possibilities of what a rock band can do. In a 20th anniversary essay about their most universally acclaimed album, 1997’s OK Computer, Marc Hogan wrote:
With OK Computer, Radiohead made their grand artistic statement and savvily got it to sell—all while pointing out the absurdities of the system they were skillfully manipulating. This tactic was particularly resonant at a time when the vocabulary of rock still dominated music media, with the innovations of electronic music lurking just left of center, and the era’s “alternative” culture giving way to unabashed pop. It was a moment unlike any other, when making a record that at once epitomized and subverted the rock-album ideal would lead to it being crowned the best album ever.
Before “release the album” became a tired internet cry, Rihanna was doing precisely that, dropping records like hotcakes almost every year. They were all stacked with singles—often to a tee, forsaking clear conceptual voice for chart placement. Then came 2016’s ANTI, her most refined and ambitious work to date, the record that most embodies the Bad Gal ideology. As Jayson Greene wrote in a 2017 piece about her influence as a vocalist:
When people write about Rihanna’s singing, they often use words like “flat” or “thin” or “limitations”—something that suggests her voice is the secret defect hiding in her otherwise-brilliant plumage, the limp disguised by the swagger. She “doesn’t have the range,” as the deathless meme had it. It is indisputably the aspect of her art that gets the least critical attention. And yet listen to radio, when Rihanna isn’t on it—which, granted, isn’t too often—and you will hear molecules of her vocal style swarming around everywhere. Even-toned, husky but nasal, tinged with island breezes but essentially free of regional markers—that describes a whole lot of pop songs now, by a whole lot of people. My ears perked up most recently at the beginning of Lorde’s “Green Light”: Between the the lightly taunting way Lorde clips the word “bite” and the growling dip to “I hear sounds in my mind,” Rihanna’s ambient influence creeps in, like blunt smoke curling under a closed door.
In the mid ’90s, a teenaged Robyn Carlsson tried singing R&B-inflected dance pop for a global audience. But the Swede’s failure to make it as a Britney-level pop star, despite Max Martin’s help, is our gain: Since the mid 2000s, when Robyn reinvented herself as an electro-pop maverick, she has become a much more interesting and unpredictable figure. And as songs like “Dancing on My Own” and “Missing U” demonstrate, she has embraced her originality while also delivering some of the most tear-jerkingly emotional songwriting in all of pop. As Stacey Anderson wrote of Robyn’s 2018 album Honey:
Throughout her career, Robyn has thrived by rejecting the pop music machine. Her genius was too great and too peculiar for the frothy Max Martin ditties of her youth, despite her early success with them. She had the prescience around the turn of the century to reject a deal with Jive Records, embrace her edgier club influences, and start her own imprint. (Jive’s rebound signee, Britney Spears, was never afforded the same route.) Robyn’s rebellion has made her pop’s avatar of exceptionalism: Her path whispers that we can be extraordinary, too, after rejecting the strictures that keep us docile. She cuts a powerful, needed figure in pop music, reasserting the autonomy of women in a genre that labors to keep them disposable.
Born from the riot grrrl scene in Olympia, Washington, Sleater-Kinney had an original seven-album run that redefined what punk success might look like: a bigger, more classic rock-indebted sound, but just as fiercely independent and politically minded. When S-K ended their nearly decade-long hiatus in the mid-2010s, they returned to an indie rock landscape made somewhat in their image, and for a time picked right back up where they left off. As Jenn Pelly wrote in her review of the 2014 box set Start Together:
From 1994 to 2006, Sleater-Kinney seemed to have it all. The trio of Carrie Brownstein, singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, and (from ’96 on) drummer Janet Weiss created and then fervently revised one of the most distinctive sounds in rock: The friction of their overlapping voices—Brownstein’s monotone speak-sing anchoring Tucker’s wild vibrato—had an ecstatic, unusual beauty. The expressive longing of Tucker’s alone was a gift, like Kathleen Hanna’s hardcore holler aspiring to the quasi-operatics of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. Tucker is perhaps the first punk singer to attempt such a thing while worshipping the enormity of, say, Aretha Franklin, channeling lessons from the Queen of Soul into her own singing, holding onto moments for dear life and then projecting them to the heavens, becoming Queen of Rock.
Solange Knowles made the boldest, most historically sweeping, and curative artistic statement of her career at 30, after years of cultivating her experimental R&B. Her third album, 2016’s A Seat the Table, did the work of bridging generations of trauma through music; in a new era of political and social upheaval, it promoted active healing. Since then, Solange’s work has continued to explore the meaning of home and lineage in increasingly avant-garde ways. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote in her review of A Seat at the Table:
The album is a document of the struggle of a Black woman, and Black women, in 2016, as Solange confronts painful indignities and situates them historically. Many of these songs draw from current reactions to the seemingly unending killing of Black women and men at the hands of the police, but the scope of the record as a whole is much larger than that, with Civil Rights hymnals encompassing centuries of horror Black Americans have been subject to, including that inflicted on Knowles’ own ancestors. But even when Solange offers her narrative in first-person and incorporates her family’s past through interludes with her mother Tina and father Mathew, she does so with such artistic and emotional openness that this album feels like nothing but a salve.
In the mid 2010s, within the span of a few singles, SOPHIE effectively rewired pop music’s synapses. The Scottish producer’s radically experimental club pop gradually infiltrated the front lines of the mainstream: Vince Staples, Charli XCX, Madonna—even McDonald’s commercials. Yet SOPHIE’s influence was not strictly musical. As one of pop culture’s most visible trans artists, SOPHIE’s almost utopian belief in futurism was intimately connected to philosophical questions about selfhood and being in the world. Following SOPHIE’s death earlier this year at age 34, Philip Sherburne wrote:
From the very beginning, SOPHIE came bearing something radical and new: a sound that had not been heard before, and a vision that peered up out of the present moment, periscope-like, in search of the unknown. SOPHIE knew that the future is fragile: It’s not just that so many Tomorrowland fantasies turn to kitsch but that the very idea of musical futurism, once so central to pop and the avant-garde alike, has become a relic. Culture’s ability to see past the horizon has become increasingly eclipsed by its addiction to the past. But this artist was not afflicted with that myopia. Across a string of singles, a handful of collaborations, and one staggering album, the music of the Scottish-born producer combined pop instincts, uncompromisingly experimental musical ideas, formidable programming chops, and a self-presentation that was at once mischievous and movingly guileless. The result was a body of work that was essentially hopeful, like a roadmap to a better world in which to be vulnerable was, ironically, synonymous with becoming indestructible.
The Strokes’ origins in turn-of-the-millennium Manhattan, as documented in Lizzy Goodman’s NYC-rock tome Meet Me in the Bathroom, were impossibly fashionable. With six intermittently stellar albums, the band has long outlasted those early associations, but their 2001 debut Is This It retains a privileged place in their catalog. Two decades removed from the hype, it still stuns. As Kashana Cauley wrote in a piece on Is This It’s fifteenth anniversary:
Sometime [during fall 2010] I heard the Strokes’ “Soma” in a coffee shop for the first time in years and felt straight-up destroyed by how amazing it sounded. Though 2001, when Is This It came out (15 years ago this weekend), was an odd moment for a rock band to drop a minimalist album into a sea of rap-rock and nu-metal, 2010 felt like an equally bizarre year to listen to the Strokes. Most of the rock left was indie rock that had gone gentle, and R&B or rap ruled most of the cars that drove Manhattan streets. “Empire State of Mind” played everywhere, but it made NYC sound like a deceptively easy place to achieve whatever you wanted and was therefore, from my perspective, unlistenable. Is This It told more accurate stories from an uglier New York where the cops weren’t bright and people were disappointing and it was fair for everyone to wonder what the whole point of everything was, over music that sounded like a tightly regulated punch to the face.
In 2003, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens self-produced an album-length ode to his native state of Michigan, murmuring short stories over eccentric folk-pop that sounded at once ramshackle and baroque. Since then, he has become a mainstay in the indie landscape and beyond by both refining and subverting his signature sound and his golden voice. Whether he’s offering Auto-Tune experiments, symphonic homages to highways or planets, decontextualized dance music, barely-there folk elegies, or Oscar-nominated queer torch songs, it’s all part of the ineffable world of Sufjan Stevens. As Ryan Dombal wrote in a 2015 interview feature:
Hanging from scaffolding on an in-progress luxury condo near Sufjan Stevens’ office studio in Brooklyn, a huge sign promises to “preserve the history but change the meaning.” The phrase is a euphemism for gentrification at its highest levels—an advertisement meant to appeal to the delirious grandeur of those willing and able to spend $5 million on an apartment. But in a different context, those same words can take on an odd profundity. When I relay the sign’s message to Stevens, he lets out a little laugh. “That could be the title of my autobiography,” he says.
For the last 15 years, Stevens has mixed his own life history with fantastical images and stories of the ages—from the Bible, from Greek mythology, from American fables—inventing a new sort of 21st-century folklore along the way. But while this creative strategy has led to him being regarded as one of the finest songwriters on the planet, it’s also taken a personal toll. “My imagination can be a problem,” he says. “I’m prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often it’s not fair to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest. But it’s all an attempt to extract meaning, and ultimately that’s what I’m in pursuit of, like: What’s the significance of these experiences?
Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala debuted with Innerspeaker in 2010, a time of fierce competition in the world of psychedelic indie rock. He was small-time next to fellow travelers MGMT and Animal Collective, but within a few years he would have no peers as he transformed into one of the great record makers of the era. The astonishing and increasingly pristine production found on Lonerism, Currents, and The Slow Rush naturally brought pop superstars into his orbit, and he’s collaborated with people like Lady Gaga and Travis Scott. But his own music is resolutely personal, the sound of one dude alone in the studio trying to get everything just right. As Jillian Mapes wrote in her review of The Slow Rush:
For Kevin Parker, perfectionism is a lonely thing. The fastidious Tame Impala mastermind often copes with his self-isolation and doubt through stonerisms, highly portable mantras like “let it happen” and “yes I’m changing” and “gotta be above it” (said three times fast to ward off bad vibes). Their inverse is the negativity Parker’s trying to keep at bay in his head: “But you’ll make the same old mistakes.” It is easy to get lost in all the layers of groovy, time-traveling technicolor surround sound, particularly because Parker isn’t really trying to be clever or literary, but the internal tug of war within the Australian musician’s lyrics—between trying to better yourself and stay present, or succumbing to your own worst thoughts—is part of what keeps fans faithfully returning to Tame’s three albums, perhaps subconsciously. The repetition of phrases pairs well with the dubby, trance-like aspects of the music. Think of it as psychedelia for people with meditation apps and vape pens: Instead of opening your mind, you’re just trying to silence it.
As she charted an unprecedented path from teenage country prodigy to global pop sensation, Taylor Swift wrote her own narrative of self-possession. From the earnest romance and heartbreak of her early albums to the spirited pop songs of Red and 1989 through her dramatic heel turn on Reputation and prolific recent collaborations with Aaron Dessner, her work is singularly perceptive while remaining keenly attuned to musical and cultural shifts—especially her own. In 2019, Brad Nelson described how Red evolved Swift’s sound to meet the highest aspirations of her songwriting in a retrospective review:
Swift was trying to push her music outside of its traditional boundaries, to stray into the interzone between pop and country. Pop was just beginning to mingle its DNA with EDM; dubstep, a once varied and relatively new branch of dance music, had been reduced to the stomach-flip of the drop just as its popularity in America crested. Producers Max Martin and Shellback were aware of these shifts in pop’s geography; they incorporated many of them into Femme Fatale, the Britney Spears album from the previous year. One of the other Swift/Martin/Shellback collaborations on Red, “I Knew You Were Trouble,” starts as a pop-rock song but its edges mimic the queasy wobble of dubstep. Synths scream behind Swift’s voice like mechanical saws. It was as if she had finally found a musical backdrop sharp as her lyrics—the lakes and backroads of Tennessee and Georgia disappear, replaced with formations of jagged crystal, a perfect environment for a song about falling in love with someone you know will hurt you and leave you feeling empty as a canyon.
Tyler, the Creator is rap’s eclectic oddball, an internet kid whose artistry only gets better—and warmer—with time. The rapper who sprang forth as Odd Future’s hyperactive frontman in 2011 has a reputation for being avant-garde in his unpredictability while sticking firmly to the art of lyricism. His DJ Drama-assisted recent album Call Me If You Get Lost plays like a misty-eyed callback to the mixtape era. As Scott Plagenhoef wrote in a 2011 review of Goblin:
To his core fans, Tyler is accessible and approachable, and not just on record. He’s online constantly, forging a unique bond with his listeners, and is probably right now shouting down this and other Goblin reviews. He comes across as an everyday kid. He lives with his grandmother. He likes porn; he hates collard greens. This relatability and strong audience/artist bond, and the diaristic nature of his rhymes, make him as much emo as hip-hop. In short, he’s made this record for alienated kids like himself. If you don’t already like his music, you probably won’t like Goblin. And that’s apparently the way he wants it.
Initially, Vampire Weekend’s posh presentation was predictably divisive—it was almost as if they wanted their potential audience to arrive with a healthy amount of skepticism, so that when they became fans their bond would be even deeper. Across four beautifully crafted and thematically complex records, Ezra Koenig and company went from a jittery indie band obsessed with Afropop to festival headliners with no serious dip in quality. As Nitsuh Abebe wrote in his review the group’s 2008 debut:
While Vampire Weekend have certainly benefited from our new music world of internet buzz, plenty of people have found reasons to hate the band from the first note, many of them having to do with their prep aesthetic and Ivy League educations—Oxford shirts, boat shoes, Columbia University. But it just so happens that we’re in a moment where such things matter to people: As interest grows in clean-cut, clever indie-pop, plenty of folks would like to hear things get dirtier, riskier, less collegiate—and in a lot of corners of the indie landscape, they thankfully are. But Vampire Weekend have a knack for grabbing those haters and winning them over. Bring any baggage you want to this record, and it still returns nothing but warm, airy, low-gimmick pop, peppy, clever, and yes, unpretentious—four guys who listened to some Afropop records, picked up a few nice ideas, and then set about making one of the most refreshing and replayable indie records in recent years.
Jack and Meg White exploded forth from the Detroit garage scene in the early aughts in a blaze of gimmickry—they only wore red, white, and black; they didn’t have a bass player; they were ex-spouses pretending to be brother and sister; they hated modern recording technology, etc. But 10 years after the White Stripes’ decade-long reign at the vanguard of alt-rock, their legacy is not in the trimmings but in the music itself. Right now, inevitably, somewhere in the world, “Seven Nation Army” is soundtracking a sporting event. As Dan Kilian and Ryan Schreiber wrote in a review of 2001’s White Blood Cells:
There’s always someone new rock’n’roller coming along, taking that heavily rooted sound—the music of the Gods—and making the old beast sing anew. It’s Christ and Prometheus, eternally dying and rising again. Jack and Meg White summon the Holy Spirit and channel it through 16 perfectly concise songs of longing, with dirty, distorted electric guitar cranked to maximum amplification, crashing, bruised drums, and little else. They don’t innovate rock; they embody it. And whatever past form of the genre White Blood Cells invokes has been given a makeover and set loose to strut back alleys in its new clothes. Red and white clothes.
For a few years around the turn of the century, Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco got to experience the rush of being a critically praised and increasingly popular rock band on the cutting edge. Ever since, they’ve achieved something that’s arguably even more important: dignified longevity. Year in and year out the stolid Midwesterners do the work, showing us that pomp and flash and shiny new things all have their place, but it’s survival that matters most of all. As Stephen M. Deusner wrote in a retrospective review of 1999’s Summerteeth:
The late ’90s saw a widespread mutiny in the alt-country scene, as several mainstay acts dropped the twang to explore new sounds and styles, but no band went quite as far as Wilco did to shed their association with that movement. On Summerteeth, they embraced the Beach Boys, the Zombies, the Kinks, and Van Dyke Parks. Not just those sounds, but those ideas: They experimented in multiple studios, building the songs up with timpani and chimes, the ersatz strings of Jay Bennett’s Mellotron, the bleeps of ancient keyboards, even some back-masked vocals. It was another in a series of impressive transformations.
On Summerteeth Jeff Tweedy and Wilco sound jumpier and nervier than they’d ever sounded before, as though they’ve been struck by lightning. There’s a sense of buoyancy and joy in the music, a sense of renewed mission in their engagement with a new set of references—none of which has dimmed in the ensuing two decades.
Keep reading for 150 more artists who helped shape the last 25 years of music:
These days, 50 Cent is better known as a social media agitator than a chart-topper, but every villain has an origin story. In the mid-aughts, the rapper infamously shook up hip-hop, re-aligning the mainstream’s focus from crossover collaborations to gangsta fare—while still making literal candy-coated rap. That he rose so quickly from mixtape kingpin to pop antagonizer wasn’t surprising. As David Drake wrote in 2016:
After the 2000 shooting that nearly ended his life, 50 Cent’s burgeoning career was deemed DOA. But hip-hop doesn’t much like certainties—it’s a genre bound by the narrative of the underdog. And though he arrived in mainstream America like a sure thing, cosigned by hip-hop’s biggest names and bankrolled by its most notorious label, it was his outsider status on the mixtapes 50 Cent Is the Future, God’s Plan, and No Mercy, No Fear that positioned him as the genre’s next superstar.
With their omnivorous taste, zeitgeist-capturing lyrics, and arena ambition, the 1975 quickly became one of the 21st century’s most talked-about rock bands. As they bounce from genre to genre—their intentionally overwhelming releases filled with pop anthems, thrashy singalongs, and ambient interludes—their music is equally confrontational and crowd-pleasing. In addition to their own releases, the group’s in-house label Dirty Hit has become home to a diverse range of up-and-comers, establishing the 1975 not just as trend-setters but mentors for the next generation of pop iconoclasts. As Ryan Dombal wrote in a review of 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships:
The 1975 dare to be too much. Led by frontman and lyricist Matty Healy, the quartet has made its name on an unruly brand of abundance throughout this decade: musically, referentially, emotionally, all of it. Did Healy pop pills, lick coke, and twirl a revolver before holding up a convenience store and getting shot in the torso—but ending up totally fine!—in the video for early hit “Robbers”? He did. Did they lavish the title I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it upon their second album because it was the only thing grandiloquent enough to match the record’s fizzy mix of sunblast synths, plastic guitars, and millennial neuroses? Of course. And did they preface their new LP, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, with a 24-page manifesto that includes manic scribbles (“THIS IDEA HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE”), a picture of Healy petting a dog whilst on the toilet, and a technophobic survey of our contemporary clusterfuck of an existence that concludes: “THE LEFT AND RIGHT GROW MORE APART BUT YOU CAN JUST CLICK ‘ADD TO CART”’ Yes, yes, and more yes. To infinity.
By the end of the aughts, New York rap was in a lull, having surrendered much of its luster and swagger to Southern MCs. Then came the A$AP Mob era. The crew’s frontman, A$AP Rocky, made the city worthy of a stylish crown again, reshaping the NYC rap scene in his gregariously flossy image. As Jeff Weiss put it in 2011:
Since the emergence of Dipset and G-Unit in the first half of the last decade, NYC rap aspirants have largely fallen into four categories: ringtone wunderkinds (“This Is Why I’m Hot”, “Chicken Noodle Soup”), technically skilled personality voids (Papoose, Saigon), artful traditionalists (Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Ka), and Maino.
By contrast, Rocky was telegenic and chanting swag. His lead singles poured syrup-slow Houston ride music atop the malt liquor melodies of Harlem’s Max B. What Rocky lacked in lyricism, he made up for in narcotic charisma. Seeking street-cred, Drake announced plans to take Rocky on tour. Seeking swag-cred, Lloyd Banks and Jim Jones hopped on tracks with him. Hype metastasizes fastest in New York, and it’s easy to conflate the need for a standard bearer with the desire for a savior. Rocky was the chosen one.
Air’s 1998 album Moon Safari so perfectly captured the sound of its era—head-nodding trip-hop, swooning easy listening, and hypnotic techno pop swirled into highly original space-age love songs—that they were associated with it forevermore. But they never made the same album twice and they could be surprisingly adventurous—their Virgin Suicides soundtrack and the Nigel Godrich-assisted Talkie Walkie are recognized classics, but the deeply weird 10000 Hz Legend sounds better than you remember. As Philip Sherburne wrote of the band’s 2016 best-of collection, Twentyears:
For many years, Air’s clever hybrid of downbeat electronic, 1960s pop, and Gallic kitsch served as a gateway to undiscovered worlds of cool. They brought their cachet to artists long out of fashion: the leather-voiced Serge Gainsbourg, the antic electronic experimenters Perrey and Kingsley, the easy-listening maestro Burt Bacharach, the mellifluous synth wizard Tomita. They spun effortless good taste into a form as frothy, weightless, and melt-on-your-tongue easy to consume as meringue.
However, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel are more than just hip foreign exchange students who lived with you in high school and left behind a bunch of really cool CD-Rs. Over the course of their two-decade career, the French duo expanded their dandelion-tuft pop sound across nine albums—among them groundbreaking film scores, Italian spoken-word collaborations, and a vinyl-only soundtrack to a museum exhibition. They’re not afraid to experiment.
Amy Winehouse appeared like an apparition in 2003, sounding nothing like her contemporary soul peers but rather a callback to the scratchy-voiced legends of bygone eras destined to haunt us from beyond. Real-life trauma bled into her songwriting, often so brutally honest it hurt. It was this painful level of transparency that spawned a new era of marketable retro-soul acts both before and after her death in 2011. As Jess Harvell explained in 2011:
That’s what makes Winehouse’s loss so acute from a musical standpoint, and it’s what the legions of trend-grabbers and American Idol hopefuls essaying her songs never quite get. She could do a straight, tearful ballad like “Love Is a Losing Game,” something you could imagine any number of singers adequately covering. But in Winehouse’s best songs, there’s always something odd, pained, and ineluctably personal in lyric and voice alike. Record execs will likely be grateful that Winehouse’s brief success opened up a lucrative market for “real” music. Listeners can lament the fact that we lost someone who understood that “realness” is a sham without the candor and distinctiveness to back up the chops.
On a series of increasingly ambitious albums released across the 2010s, Angel Olsen honed a deeply intimate songwriting style while nonetheless declining to offer “too much self” to her listeners. That balance of closeness and distance, and her inimitable singing voice, helped her to resurrect the grandeur of 20th century American pop and country, as she refracted the sounds of greats like Elvis, Hank Williams, and Emmylou Harris through ever more idiosyncratic lenses. As Laura Snapes wrote in her review of 2019’s All Mirrors:
Each of her artistic developments has been heralded as some sort of permanent shift in her work or her commercial aspirations: Now she’s an indie star. Now she wants to be a pop star. Oh, she’s collaborating with Mark Ronson? She must really want to be a pop star. But the wild range of All Mirrors and Olsen’s vocal performance fly in the face of the idea that identity and artistry are fixed, and consequently turn over how much we can ever know each other, and ourselves. She finds nuance and enduring pleasure in her game of faces.
Born of the mid-’90s downtown New York avant-garde, ANOHNI and her chamber-pop ensemble, the Johnsons, bridged the gap between the art world and indie music while subverting the status quo of both. Collaborating with Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke for her electro-pop opus HOPELESSNESS in 2016, she created protest songs about the climate crisis, drone warfare, and the disease of capitalism, amplifying her uncompromising voice. In a review of that album, Jenn Pelly wrote:
HOPELESSNESS is a record where the American dream is a hallucination, where we are all called out. It is the sonic equivalent of a burning Shepard Fairey painting and all its embers. Poignant political realities have always grounded ANOHNI’s work, but now they are at the forefront, articulated with an incisiveness that stares you in the eye. The album places her alongside radical pop provocateurs like M.I.A., artists who propose difficult questions that mainstream America does not want to ask because it would not know what to do with the answers. But she insists that we raise our stakes. ‘A lot of the music scene is just a wanking, self-congratulatory boys club,’ she said in 2012. ‘It’s just so fucking boring and not useful. It’s such a waste of our time… another reflection of how astray we are as a civilization.’ HOPELESSNESS disrupts that.
In the same way that research into dark matter keeps reshaping our understanding of the universe, Alejandra Ghersi’s music as Arca upended fundamental assumptions about the nature of electronic music. In 2012, when she released the EP Stretch 1, she seemed to defy all the rules of the club; her elastic beats moved and shifted shapes with a logic all their own. But Arca’s interests weren’t merely formal. Across the course of releases like 2014’s Xen, 2017’s Arca, and 2020’s KiCk i—and collaborations with Björk, Rosalía, and SOPHIE—her breathtaking experimentation was intimately bound up in questions of identity and transnsness, inquiries as philosophical as they were musical. As Emilie Friedlander wrote in a retrospective review of Arca’s 2013 mixtape &&&&&:
When &&&&& dropped out of the blue, it felt like we’d finally arrived in the future. The 25-minute mixtape sounded like a celebration of speed, of the infinity of musical information that the internet puts at our fingertips, of the wild emotional contrasts of a night spent staring down the barrel of one’s feed. Though the Venezuelan producer’s source materials (grime, trap, glitch, dub) derived largely from club culture, &&&&& seemed to take a mischievous pleasure in disrupting the metric grid that dance music was built on. Even the image that accompanied it—a bird-like creature with distended legs and translucent skin, courtesy of artist Jesse Kanda—seemed to suggest the birth of something new, quivering inside an amniotic sack of digital slime.
In truth, &&&&& was probably less the dawn of a novel genre of electronic music than the crystallization of a perspectival shift that had already been in the works for some time—and not just in the foggy rooms of GHE20G0TH1K, the joyfully irreverent LGBTQ and POC-focused dance party where Arca interned as a college student at NYU, though it probably started there. Where the cool kids of the late ’00s had met the rising tide of technology with a retreat to the obsolete sounds and formats of the past (think: the vinyl collector culture driving the global techno scene, the cassette tape fetish of the chillwave generation), a new generation of producers and DJs at the turn of the ’10s—armed with CDJs and sample packs and vape pens—seemed to see a new revolutionary potential.
In 2005, Arctic Monkeys burst out of what seemed like nowhere—actually Sheffield, England, and a then-emergent Myspace—with a clutch of catchy, vernacular garage-rock songs about debaucherous nights out. With their surprising shift into brawny riffs and sultry grooves on 2013’s AM, they wound up playing arenas around America, then launched themselves into even stranger destinations. As Jazz Monroe wrote in a review of 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino:
Alex Turner wrote Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album in Los Angeles on an upright piano in his spare room. As it took shape, he christened his makeshift studio the Lunar Surface, after the theory that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo moon landing on a soundstage. When Turner assembled his bandmates, they were alarmed to find he’d applied this concept literally: Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a song suite documenting a futuristic moon colony and the exodus that spawned it, told by an assortment of unreliable narrators who can sometimes barely string a sentence together. After 2013’s wildly successful AM, Turner is now writing lyrics in an entirely new idiom, swapping witty sleaze for absurdist suave.
Against the odds, the resulting LP finds the former street poet at his most visionary: material only he could write, performed with a charm and bravado that only he could pull off. He veers from croons to falsetto, splicing together hyperrealist satire, sham biography, and interstellar escapism. Glints of social commentary yield to the whims of his narrators—forgetful, distractible oddballs and drunk egomaniacs who have no right to be so captivating.
By the spring of 2017, it was clear that Ariana Grande had the range. The Nickelodeon actress turned pop diva had three chart-topping albums, collaborations with superstars like Nicki Minaj, a Broadway credit, and a delicious scandal. But after a period of horrific tragedy, Grande retreated and reset, eventually emerging with music that pushed her artistry further as it asserted a magical trifecta of hope, joy, and a powerhouse voice. Meaghan Garvey captured Grande’s moment of transformation in 2018:
Making something joyful out of tragedy is no easy feat, but Ariana Grande has done it before. After a homemade bomb killed 22 people during the Manchester stop of her Dangerous Woman tour last year, the singer organized a massive benefit concert for the victims in less than two weeks. Grande closed out her set that night with a cover of “Over the Rainbow”; by the end, she was crying, along with most of the audience. Almost a year later, a rainbow prism softly illuminates her face in the artwork for “No Tears Left to Cry,” her first single since the attack.
You might expect “No Tears” to be some kind of somber ballad, and that’s how it begins. But then, as Grande sings, “Ain’t got no tears left to cry/So I’m pickin’ it up, pickin’ it up,” the percussion shuffles into a UK garage-inspired beat, another little nod to Manchester. Suddenly, we’re right in Grande’s sweet spot: soaring diva house. It’s a natural step in the direction the more upbeat moments of her catalog have been heading, from the climactic EDM balladry of 2014’s “One Last Time” to 2016’s “Be Alright,” which saw Grande dipping her toes into slick, Disclosure-style two-step. But on “No Tears,” she takes it all the way there and the results are superb, evoking turn-of-the-millennium, vocal-led garage buoyed by the kind of gospel delivery that Grande pulls off better than any of her pop peers. It’s striking in its optimism: the soundtrack for the exact moment you decide to keep going.
The Avalanches’ sample-drunk 2000 debut Since I Left You was so brilliant it sustained interest in the Australian DJs for 16 long years, until the release of follow-up Wildflower. We stayed in love with that first record because nothing else could take its place—plenty of party-starting records came along, but none had the Avalanches’ sense of innocence and wonder. And when they returned again last year with We Will Always Love You, that quality was still intact. As Mark Richardson wrote in his review of Wildflower:
To listen to the Avalanches is to wrestle with time. The sample-rich music makes you think about where its pieces come from, what those fragments meant to you then, and what they mean to you embedded into the group’s finished songs. There’s nostalgia and loss ingrained in every bar, and you can sense the erratic movement of past, present, and future from the first listen. When Since I Left You arrived in 2000 it seemed less like the arrival of a new kind of pop than a bittersweet farewell to a decade that was coming to a close. The album mixed the technique and spirit of the Dust Brothers and transported it from the urban street to an open field far somewhere far from civilization, some place where everyone is dressed colorfully and they’re either on MDMA or they remember their days taking it fondly.
When Beach House issued their self-titled debut in 2006, the Baltimore duo was resurrecting a hazy sound that we hadn’t heard in a while—’80s and ’90s bands like Mazzy Star, Slowdive, and Galaxie 500 were early touchpoints. Across a remarkable run of records in the years since, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally became the standard-bearers of the sound and vibe, the go-to reference for anyone making languorous and impressionistic music for dreaming. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in her review of the 2012 album Bloom:
Two people from Baltimore started by making incense-smelling, curtains-drawn bedroom pop. Now, eight years later, they make luminous, sky-sized songs that conjure some alternate universe where Cocteau Twins have headlined every stadium on Atlantis. “Bloom” is also what these 10 songs do, each one starting with the sizzle of a lit fuse and at some fine moment exploding like a firework in slow motion. The word captures the music’s slow sonority: the round, gleaming edges of Alex Scally’s arpeggios and how, in Victoria Legrand’s unhurried mouth, all words seem to have a few extra vowels.
What began as the school project of a long-bedridden music obsessive grew into a charming cult phenomenon of the early internet, as word of this Scottish band’s two DIY miracles from 1996, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, spread across messageboards. In the 21st century, with newly tight live performances to go with glammed-up albums like Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, Belle and Sebastian reemerged to lead the burgeoning worldwide indie-pop congregation. As Elizabeth Nelson wrote in a review of the 2020 album What to Look for in Summer:
It’s been 24 years since Belle and Sebastian emerged from the Glasgow underground, clutching a surfeit of near-perfect songs. Their classic first two LPs established frontman and principal songwriter Stuart Murdoch as a generational talent, a writer who intuitively wedded the forensic character studies of Joni Mitchell to the chamber music of early John Cale, lending a Dylan-esque sophistication to the Sarah Records bands that were his sonic progenitors. Ever since then, they’ve endured personnel changes, sonic reinventions and on occasion, hurt feelings beyond repair. And yet they endure, having lasted a decade-and-a-half longer than the Beatles, Velvets, or Smiths.
Formed in Bellingham, Washington, in 1997, Ben Gibbard’s band Death Cab for Cutie emerged from the ashes of the region’s grunge scene to embody a new model of indie rock, in which emo’s self-expression met the kinds of ambition—whether in terms of audience, concepts, or sheer sonics—that had long been anathema in the underground. Death Cab’s 2003 album Transatlanticism notched a new high-water mark for indie-rock striving; the same year, Gibbard’s group the Postal Service, a collaboration with producer Jimmy Tamborello, also featuring singer Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, pioneered a fusion of emo and electro-pop that would go on to be just as influential in the following decades. As Ian Cohen wrote in a retrospective review of Death Cab’s 2003 album Transatlanticism:
The term “transatlanticism” was coined by Ben Gibbard to define the incomprehensible emotional gap between two lovers separated by comprehensible distances—the continental United States, an entire ocean, or, most likely, just a couple floors in your freshman dorm. In the 10 years since Death Cab for Cutie released their finest record, the title has taken on an unintended resonance in regards to their career. Before this album were three modestly performed and admirably successful LPs released on Seattle indie label Barsuk; after, three exquisite-sounding and wildly successful LPs released on New York City major label… Atlantic. Death Cab’s aesthetic hadn’t really changed all that much, and yet how do you span the distance between the uber-#feelings video for “A Movie Script Ending” and Grammy nominations, platinum sales (when they meant something), huge festival slots, and Zooey Deschanel? Look, it’s nigh impossible to extricate Death Cab’s ascendance from The O.C., so how’s this: From the moment the skyrocket guitars go off in “The New Year,” Death Cab are taking a leap of faith like Seth Cohen up on that kissing booth, risking embarrassment to tell as many people as possible that they may be dorks, but they’re not going to be anyone’s secret anymore.
The seeds of Big Thief were planted in 2012, when two recent New York transplants, Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek, met by chance and began playing as a folk duo. When bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia joined, the group expanded the dimensions of its sound exponentially without losing its essential intimacy. With every one of the four albums they have released across the last five years—not counting solo records and side projects—Big Thief have pushed further, establishing themselves as one of the most emotionally captivating bands in contemporary indie rock. As Jayson Greene wrote in his 2019 profile of the group:
Lenker’s songs are remarkably open and private at the same time—her voice is recorded with extraordinary clarity and intimacy, so that the songs sometimes seem to be blooming out of her rib cage. And yet their meanings are stubbornly opaque, the way a page from a stranger’s journal might be. On “Contact,” she tells a woman named Jodi that she is “both dreamer and dream” and sings, “I want to drink your milk.” The intimacy is unmistakable, but the context remains defiantly unclear.
I ask her why she feels compelled to name the souls who occupy her songs. “Sometimes I’m saying real people’s names because there’s no better word for them,” she says. “Or maybe Jodi is a part of me. I really get quite tired of ‘I’ and ‘you’ in songs.” Here, she breaks into a fake, plaintive singing voice, mocking the world’s singer-songwriters and their tremulous self-absorption: “I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I feel this, and I feel thaaat*…” Lenker has a profound desire to duck out of the center of her own song’s narrative, she admits, and the names give some distance. She likens the people who populate her songs to guardian angels she can conjure at will.*
Twenty-four years ago, on the album Red Apple Falls, Bill Callahan fantasized about wanting nothing more than to be of use—like a candle, a horseshoe, a corkscrew. The sturdy work found on the 11 albums he’s released since—five as Smog, the rest under his own name—fulfill that wish. His songs, delivered with simple arrangements in his ever-deepening baritone, are useful above all else, showing us new ways to look at the world and maybe even new ways to understand ourselves. As Jayson Greene wrote in his review of the 2019 album Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest:
Happiness is a difficult emotion to plumb for wisdom—we tend to reserve intensity of observation for the feelings we are trying desperately to get rid of, hoping that if we study them hard enough we might never have them again. Happiness? Well, happiness we just try to enjoy, praying we don’t fuck it up. And yet Callahan seems unafraid of fucking up his contentment by thinking too hard about it. Somehow, Callahan with a mile-wide grin on his face has as much to say about the universe as the grave, stoic guy he used to be. His career—from his early lo-fi instrumental experiments as Smog, to his slow evolution into the singer-songwriter he is today—is too rich and storied for easy superlatives, but Shepherd feels like his most something album ever—his warmest, his most generous, possibly his most profound. It is a high note, fond and deep and sustained.
Billie Eilish went viral at 13 with her SoundCloud ballad “Ocean Eyes” and then quickly became one of the world’s biggest and most distinctive pop stars—known for her baggy streetwear and bright, multi-colored hair, as well as haunted-house songs inspired by Wizards of Waverly Place or ones that sampled The Office. Eilish has since altered her sound and look and will inevitably go through multiple reinventions, but the pop landscape will continue to follow her. As Stacey Anderson wrote in a 2019 review of Eilish’s debut album:
Billie Eilish is still waiting for her teeth to straighten out. This fact trumpets the arrival of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?: For its intro, the 17-year-old removes her much-loathed transparent braces in a series of lightly gross, ASMR-worthy slurps, and proclaims, “I have taken out my Invisalign and this is the album.” She then dissolves into heaving cackles, the kind that alienates any onlookers too prissy to partake. There are several more oddball moments like this—absent-minded humming to a track, giggling asides—that remind us she’s still a precocious, creative teen girl on this rocket, and all her gothic proclivities don’t cancel out how much she’s enjoying the ride.
Boards of Canada make music out of dreams. The sun-bleached rural psychedelia of Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin is both influential and singular: many artists in their wake have incorporated fuzzed-out drones, crackly breakbeats, and warbly guitars, but none quite capture their uncanny magic. As Simon Reynolds wrote on the 20th anniversary of the duo’s essential 1998 album Music Has the Right to Children:
The record’s overall sound design broke with the clean, clear, clinical aura of the era. Instead, Boards of Canada used a mixture of analog and digital techniques to give their music a wavering, mottled quality redolent of formats like film, vinyl, and magnetic tape that are susceptible to decay and distortion with the passage of time. Listening to tracks like “Wildlife Analysis” or “The Color of the Fire” you can’t help but think of yellowing photographs in the family album, blotchy and washed-out Super-8 films, or the drop-out addled sound of favorite cassettes left too long on the car dashboard. In interviews around the album, the brothers talked of applying “a process of corruption” to their melodies, the vocals they sampled, and pretty much every texture in their music.
Osaka, Japan’s Boredoms tore apart rock music and rebuilt it from the ground up. Their supremely bent new version had the heaviest guitars, the wildest tape splices, and screams that could be joyous or terrifying; above all, Boredoms rock had drums, drums, drums, most often played by the mighty Yoshimi P-We. Bandleader Yamantaka Eye’s obsession with percussion led him away from record-making and toward participatory happenings, including the massive Boadrum concerts staged in 2007 and 2008. Boredoms have been mostly silent for years now, but listen closely and the echo is still there. As Mark Richardson wrote in a review of their 2009 album Super Roots 10:
In 1999, they were riding a wave of creativity the likes of which most bands can only dream about. In the year prior they’d released both Super Roots 7, which on better days sounds like the final word on the visceral power of rock’n’roll repetition, and Super Ae, on which they revealed themselves as masters of playful trance-inducing psychedelia with spiritual underpinnings. And they were about to put out Vision Creation Newsun, boasting a gentler but no less immediate vision that seemed to suggest that the musical possibilities in the decade to follow would be endless. All of this came after 10 previous years of painful noise, bad punk, hilarious song titles, pointless screams, and occasionally unmatched rock power. You couldn’t pin this band down.
With the Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard broke out as an electrifying songwriter and frontperson, setting a new standard for what rock music could be in the new millennium. In 2019, Howard’s solo debut Jaime—named for her late sister—delivered a warm mix of roots-rock, R&B, and soul that stared down a tumultuous political era with determination and empathy. As Jill Mapes wrote in a profile around that record:
Brittany Howard thought about calling the album Black Björk. What the two composers share, besides their big-scale visions and hurricane voices, is a deep desire for their rightful due. After the Alabama Shakes’ second album, Sound & Color, captured a far more ambitious, almost-Afrofuturistic side of Howard’s songwriting compared to their debut, she got used to people wrongly assuming that Blake Mills, the band’s co-producer, must have written the songs. “Now I have to be adamant about what I did,” she says. “So I’ll just say that I’m very excited, as a woman in 2019, to have produced this record.”
The album’s most affecting moments occur when Howard reconciles the hate she sees in the world with her own commitment to hope. Written in response to Prince’s death, Trump’s election, and “the whole fucking world seeming depressed,” “13th Century Metal” feels like the spiritual centerpiece of Jaime*—an intergalactic journey of a jam session. Howard speaks sermon-like affirmations with steadfast wisdom, an almost enthusiastic fury, and yeah, a little* all we need is love. “I am a master student and my spirit…” she hollers, pausing dramatically before declaring, “will never be stomped out!”
Between Broadcast’s debut in 1996 and cofounder Trish Keenan’s death in 2011, the UK group steadily developed their own sound world, cobbling bits and pieces from ’60s easy-listening pop, early electronic music, and avant-garde film soundtracks into recordings that felt like spectral emanations from another world. As Jess Harvell wrote in the days after Keenan’s passing:
In the mid ’90s, Broadcast were tagged as a clever genre-mixing, record-collecting retro act in an era not short on clever genre-mixing, record-collecting retro acts. But there was something deeper and odder going on in their music. Though Trish Keenan’s singing was always clear and lovely, in many ways pure indie pop, the band was neither cuddly nor sleek. And they had little to do with the retail-friendly post-Portishead brigade or the soporific surface-level “cool” of any lounge-pop revivalists. If anything they were far closer to Warp labelmates Boards of Canada, another group using wobbly, sometimes even grimy electronics to evoke the unreality of the everyday, the loveliness of supposedly artificial sound, the supernatural qualities of circuit-based music. Broadcast were tapping into older, more obscure, and often darker strains of American, European, but mostly British music: The psychedelic side of early synth music, the eeriness of old electronic TV and film soundtracks, the spooky suburban fairy tale vibe conjured by certain twee and industrial bands. True, there was plenty of Stereolab-ish kraut-pulse and ’90s beat culture and even sunny Bacharach-isms in their musical DNA, but Broadcast were never so easily reducible to one trend or another.
Formed around the core duo of Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, Broken Social Scene stood at the epicenter of Toronto’s thriving indie rock scene throughout the 2000s. The thrillingly grandiose ensemble includes members of other outfits like Feist, Metric, and Stars, but they’ve always achieved a special alchemy when together as a collective. As Ryan Schreiber wrote in a 2003 review of their breakout album You Forgot It in People:
I’ve been listening to this disc for months on repeat—sometimes just this disc for days—but it wasn’t until I began doing research for this review that it began to make sense how a band like this could materialize from out of nowhere with such a powerful and affecting album. I knew from the liners that the group has 10 members (15 if you include guests); what I didn’t know was that all of them have been wandering from band to band within the wildly experimental Toronto music scene for years, or that they all came together from groups like Stars, Do Make Say Think, Treble Charger, A Silver Mt. Zion, and Mascott with the unified goal of making, of all things, pop music. One of its members told a Toronto weekly that “we’d already made our art-house albums… the whole ideology of trying to write an actual four-minute pop song was completely new to so many of us.” Who could have imagined it would come so easily? You Forgot It in People explodes with song after song of endlessly replayable, perfect pop.
Burna Boy was born Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the grandson of a one-time manager of Fela Kuti, and he carries the mantle of that icon of African music. Burna dubs his own style “Afro-fusion”: a mixture of sounds from the continent along with global strains of hip-hop, EDM, and pop. In an era where correcting historical injustice feels more urgent than ever, Burna Boy’s all-encompassing, pan-Africanist style is helping to rectify deep-seated imbalances of power and representation. Reviewing his 2020 album Twice as Tall, Mankaprr Conteh wrote:
As a child, Damini Ebunoluwa Ogulu was fascinated by superhero comics. He wanted to be his own superhero, so he named himself Burna Boy, a moniker that has followed him into a career as one of the defining musical acts of today’s African diaspora. After his fourth studio album, African Giant, permeated the summer from Abuja to Brooklyn, and he sold out London’s Wembley Arena, Burna returns with Twice as Tall, a more resonant origin story that explains his ascent. In an accompanying motion comic, the Yoruba deity Orunmila chooses Burna to embody his “secret flame.” With it, Burna is challenged to restore the gods’ faith in humanity. He meets these Black gods again, in 2020, his mission completed through his resounding success. “You make music passionately, like you are waging a war,” one tells him, proudly.
Twice as Tall is Burna’s battle cry. Compared to some of his previous work, it can feel heavy under the weight of Burna’s personal reflection and Pan-African crusade. His newly moody Afro-fusion amplifies his passion. Twice as Tall could’ve aimed to crystalize Burna’s position as a global Afropop star with easier, feel-good hits. Instead, he turns starkly inward, assuring himself of his power, and outward, reminding the world of its failures and its potential. It is a load worth carrying.
During the commercial rap surge of the late ’90s, Cam’ron emerged as the de facto ambassador of Harlem rap, bringing as much pomp to his rhymes as technical skill. The Dipset leader’s uniquely choppy flow is easily mockable and yet unimpeachable. As Tom Breihan broke it down in 2005:
His bored, arrogant voice rolls syllables around until he’s hit just about every possible permutation, transforming hard consonants into thrown rocks and idly toying with drug metaphors like they’re Rubik’s Cubes. In Cam’s world, he’s the king of Harlem, moving kilos, dispatching foes, and throwing around money with Machiavellian cool. Cam has the warped eloquence of an MF DOOM even when he’s bragging about violence (“Observe, cock, and spray/ We hit you from a block away/ Drinking saki on a Suzuk/ We on Osaka Bay”) or conspicuous consumption (“So I parked in the towaway zone, chrome/ I don’t care; that car a throwaway, homes”).
Ever since she burst onto the scene with “Bodak Yellow” in 2017, Cardi B has been unstoppable. No matter the platform—social media, television, or pop music—the Bronx star has dominated the cultural conversation with her distinctive voice, wit, and unfiltered candor. As Sheldon Pearce wrote of Cardi’s debut album Invasion of Privacy in 2018:
Cardi is a great talker, but her voice itself is its own instrument. It wraps around each word; her accent and inflections forge each syllable into a snap, making every utterance feel novel. She wields her voice like a weapon, and she can make even the mundane seem glamorous with a particularly choice phrasing. This specific economy of language is the core of her appeal, and every verse is imbued with its impact. Some punchlines are laugh-out-loud funny, others are immensely clever. A few are both.
In the early years of the 21st century, Ontario native Dan Snaith released a pair of intricately pieced-together IDM albums as Manitoba before adopting the name Caribou and flooding his music with psychedelic textures and luminous vocal melodies. Since then, he has flirted with more stripped-down styles of dance music (particularly under his Daphni alias) and explored both maximalism and minimalism, never veering too far away from his guiding pop instincts. Jamieson Cox wrote of his 2014 album Our Love:
Dan Snaith spent the first decade of his career attacking a wide range of genres with the intensity of an autodidact and the cerebral coolness of an academic. Back when he was still recording as Manitoba without fear of legal challenges from disgruntled punk veterans, he disassembled the IDM of the late ’90s and early ’00s before moving on to kaleidoscopic, colorful psychedelia. From there, it was on to chugging krautrock and rich, melancholy ’60s pop and the sounds of deep house and contemporary club music. Despite hopping from style to style, his music is always marked by an essential playfulness and engrossing curiosity.
A former Canadian Idol runner-up, Carly Rae Jepsen topped the charts in 2012 with the featherlight pop of “Call Me Maybe,” from her sophomore album, Kiss. Working alongside indie producers like Blood Orange and Rostam, she then expertly pivoted to an entire album of ’80s-inspired electro-pop yearning, E•MO•TION. She’s nurtured a cult following that has only grown since. As Anna Gaca wrote in her review of 2019’s Dedicated:
Carly Rae Jepsen ties up bright, ribbony pop songs with the magnetism of a person who’s a little too modest to be a pop star. She goes for the big feelings, and as a result, inspires near-rapturous devotion. Jepsen’s most ardent fans feel called to defend her, to arm her with a sword, to catalyze the moment that will reveal her magic beyond doubt. With 2015’s E•MO•TION, they nearly had it. Dedicated, Jepsen’s fourth full-length album, returns to her signature combination of self-aware innocence and mature restraint. She’s doing what she does best, calibrating lovesick or lovelorn synthpop that’s neither too hot nor too cold.
When fronting Chairlift, Caroline Polachek used her crystalline voice in service of smart and infectious electro-pop, but her range became more apparent when she went solo. Under the name CEP, she created an album of beguiling ambient pieces, and in 2019 she partnered with Danny Harle of PC Music for an album of future-facing pop with a neo-classical tinge. She’s a musically omnivorous shapeshifter who thrives in porous borders—the space between indie and mainstream, or where soundscapes bleed into song. As Katherine St. Asaph wrote in a review of 2019’s Pang:
Sometimes Pang sounds so sweeping it’s almost symphonic; the first few notes of “The Gate” almost sound like a synthetic orchestra tuning up. It’s a PR cliché to tout artists’ “classical training,” which can mean anything from actual classical training to a semester of voice lessons in college, but in her work, you genuinely can hear it. She’s mentioned writing melodies as wordless stretches of singing—she calls it “applesaucing.” For most of the decade, she’s taken classical voice lessons, specifically in baroque singing. This comes out not just in the soaring, near-operatic vocalizations throughout Pang, but in the crisp way she attacks words and syllables, the controlled vocal leaps, and precise staccato.
Chan Marshall got her start in the mid ’90s making stripped-down folk rock infused with the blues. But over the years she has strayed from that analog naturalism into more fantastic, more unexpected worlds—collaborations with Memphis soul musicians and French house producer Philippe Zdar; soundtracks for Karl Lagerfeld and covers of James Brown and Liza Minelli—dreamily arrayed around her smoky husk of a voice. In her 2012 profile “All This Light,” Amanda Petrusich wrote:
It feels corny and reductive to declare Chan Marshall “of another era,” yet my understanding of how she believes songs work—that they are channeled into existence by a handful of conduits, but in fact they belong to everyone, like a mountain or a river or an old forest—makes her seem innately better suited to a place like Nashville circa 1952, or maybe the Mississippi Delta in 1927, when almost all art was considered public domain, verses floated gently, and creativity was about interpretation rather than invention. On 1998’s Moon Pix, notice the way she sings a tiny bit of “Amazing Grace” in the middle of “Metal Heart,” or the nicked/decelerated/reversed “Paul Revere” sample that opens “American Flag.” She is not interested in ownership, not in the broadest sense.
There’s also her voice, which is effortless in a way that recalls a period before aggressively mustered melisma, when people sang because it felt good and necessary, like a long stretch. It’s conventionally pretty—honeyed and subtly textured—and so instinctive it makes me feel actual envy, like I will never do anything with as much intrinsic ease as Chan Marshall exhibits when she sings. That’s how she’s able to take a track as proverbial as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which opens 2000’s The Covers Record, and turn it into something unrecognizable; she eschews the song’s chorus (that dumb, galloping declaration: the ur-chorus), purposefully forgoing the obvious for the odd. Or is it obvious, not singing the chorus of a song like that? It’s hard to know what Marshall’s move is, when nothing feels like a move at all.
Chance the Rapper turned a high school suspension into an independent empire. He never signed a deal but surpassed the fame and accolades of most of his major-label peers, becoming someone notable enough to be (regrettably) praised by Trump. And he did it all off the power of the mixtape, bringing lighthearted energy to 10 Day, Acid Rap, and even the star-studded Coloring Book. As Sheldon Pearce wrote in 2016:
Chance hasn’t revolutionized the mixtape, but he’s stumped heavily for the format, including seeking to legitimize it with Grammys. His commitment is endearing, reiterating that music is a labor of love and not a tool of commerce, and Coloring Book is his grandest gesture. “Am I the only n—a still care about mixtapes?” he asked rhetorically (“Mixtape”). Alongside Wayne and Young Thug, he made a case for the transformative power of the medium, making his songs for free and also for freedom.
Since she started posting songs on Myspace in 2008, Charli XCX has turned into both a pop star and a true pop connoisseur, always ahead of the curve instead of chasing trends. Her most fascinating work has been as a willfully irreverent solo artist, from the moody synth-pop of True Romance to hyper-catchy PC Music collaborations on Pop 2 to lockdown-era intimacy on how i’m feeling now. On Pop 2’s stunning finale “Track 10,” she’s a melancholy cyborg spreading the gospel of hyperpop, as if she’s receiving alien transmissions from the future. In a 2019 cover story profile set in a spa, Bobby Finger wrote:
Sitting cross-legged at a table in the spa’s Korean cafe, Charli reveals a part of herself that complicates her reputation as an enigmatic pop star whose life consists of only two things: partying and making music about partying. “I’m really a workaholic,” she tells me. “To a level that’s not cool.” She appears genuinely troubled by her compulsion towards the many jobs that comprise her career in the music industry—singer, songwriter, performer, producer, video director—and says that she has thought of joining a 12-step program like Workaholics Anonymous to help manage it.
That steadfast commitment to being a font of exuberant pop joyrides is as much a product of her own talent as it is a paradoxical act of self-care. When she’s working, she says, her mind isn’t spiraling. The sheer act of releasing and performing music prevents her from worrying about whether or not she’s doing it right. And by constantly moving ahead for nearly a decade, Charli has fine-tuned her sensibilities and settled into what has become an instantly recognizable sound: a sentient circuit board’s interpretation of dance-pop.
In early 2012, Chief Keef was pumping out violent, rugged, emotionally complex music while on house arrest in his grandmother’s Chicago home. Within months he would take drill music from a local movement to a nationwide phenomenon, helping to birth the most important rap subgenre of the decade. By the end of 2012 he had released a major label album, Finally Rich, though he would soon go back underground and take his sound to unexpected—and decidedly strange—new places. As David Drake wrote in his 2014 review of Keef’s Back From the Dead 2 mixtape:
Listening now to Finally Rich, Chief Keef’s capstone 2012 release and only album with Interscope, it’s striking how easily the hits seemed to come to the then-17-year-old star. Even its unheralded album tracks hit a sweet spot of purposeful insouciance that promised a career in the spotlight. With songs selected and sequenced largely by producer Young Chop, Finally Rich is a creative success (if only a modest commercial one) because it sells Chief Keef as a hitmaker. In the pre-internet industry, perhaps that’s just what he would be. But today his interests lie elsewhere, and his path since has been a defiant refutation of any direction but his own.
Around 2010, Héloïse Letissier invented her alter ego, Christine, “as a survival technique,” as she told Pitchfork a few years ago. Finding herself at a rough place in her life, she had abandoned Paris for London, where she fell in with a group of drag queens who taught her to reinvent herself. Her 2014 debut album, the spare, electro-pop Chaleur Humaine (later reissued in English as Christine and the Queens), was the fruit of that transformation, and in 2018, she followed it up with Chris, a hot-blooded pop-funk record about yet another alter ego. Throughout her transformations, her work has maintained an unflinching focus on themes of identity, vulnerability, strength, and desire. In 2015, Laura Snapes wrote of Letissier’s debut:
Christine and the Queens is a beautiful, important negotiation of liminal states at a time when the media is quick to bandy about the term “post-gender,” as if the hard work is done. Her music is bold and fully formed, but Letissier unpeels the façade of outer confidence to shine a light on the way that queer identity requires constant negotiation, to deal with the world’s often unforgiving gaze and the one that can come from within—on “Safe and Holy,” she admits that her own eyes “mock and judge” her. It’s empowering, bold, and vulnerable, and made for dancing. Chaleur Humaine translates as “human warmth,” and the album makes good on that intimacy. You get the sense of Letissier guarding her own precious, burgeoning fire, and inviting listeners to share in its glow.
In the early 2010s, New Jersey producer Michael Volpe’s woozy, warped beats helped define cloud rap—a seemingly niche combination of pillowy textures and hard-hitting drums that became an enduring influence on producers and artists in the underground and mainstream alike. Perhaps no song exemplifies the sound better than Lil B’s “I’m God,” with a Clams Casino beat that mangled an Imogen Heap sample almost beyond recognition. Though much of Volpe’s exemplary work was on mixtapes or EPs rather than official albums, his legacy lives on in emo-rap and beyond. As Nadine Smith wrote in a review of 2020’s Instrumental Relics:
“Cloud rap” has been so absorbed into hip-hop’s identity that it’s hard to remember when it was subversive and new. The title of the latest installment in Clams Casino’s long-running beat-tape series implies that the tracks have been scavenged and preserved, like fading artifacts of a forgotten epoch. Michael Volpe wasn’t the only producer weaving ambient textures into trap beats at the start of the last decade—an era where experimental artists like Shlohmo and Evian Christ collaborated with the likes of Kanye and Drake—but few artists were linked as closely with the subgenre.
Clams’ influence on hip-hop has remained at the elemental level; his work with rappers like Lil B, A$AP Rocky, and Soulja Boy truly shifted the sonic window. Without Clams, it’s hard to imagine Yung Lean or Drain Gang, and rap’s ongoing infatuations with the alternative rock spectrum might not be so passionate either. He was out there sampling Thursday in 2011, and now he works alongside a new generation who would probably not be making music without his influence: Lil Peep, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Ghostemane, and Nedarb, who credits “I’m God” as the beat that made him want to start producing.
As he evolved from Omaha, Nebraska’s teenage emo wunderkind into one of America’s most respected songwriters, gracefully fulfilling the “New Dylan” role that early critics placed on him, Conor Oberst remained in constant motion. From his early lo-fi masterpieces under the moniker Bright Eyes to the folk-leaning solo work he’s released under his own name, his long career has set a benchmark for how to evolve while maintaining your integrity as an indie artist in the 21st century. As Ian Cohen wrote in a review of a reissue of 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors:
So is Fevers and Mirrors the best Bright Eyes record? Some days I think it is, but the important thing is that Oberst gives you options, and just about everything he’s done since—even the hamfisted political punk of Desaparecidos and the misguided democracy of the Mystic Valley Band—is at the very least an attempt not to repeat himself. He’s become oddly undervalued even if I doubt whether he has another masterpiece in him. Depending on my mood, I prefer the monomaniacal scale of Lifted or the electro-goth narcosis of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and I get what others see in I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, a record I find to be highly overrated on account of its playing by someone else’s rules for once—it was there where Oberst really attempted to be the “next Dylan” or “next Gram Parsons” rather than the only Conor Oberst. Which is exactly what we got on Fevers and Mirrors, a record steeped in roots, yet wholly of the moment, intelligent but prone to indefensible emotion, a very personal work made amongst talented friends. Most people discover Fevers and Mirrors at a time when they’re being bombarded with the canon, and the recognition of something that feels utterly yours instead of received wisdom created a true cult of admirers and imitations who had the same white-light experience as myself: When I first heard Fevers and Mirrors, it sounded exactly like the kind of music I’d want to make. Thankfully, Bright Eyes did it, so I didn’t have to.
With Britpop shapeshifters Blur, “virtual” hip-hop group Gorillaz, and on his own—not to mention a host of other projects, such as the Good, the Bad, & the Queen, DRC Music, and Africa Express—Damon Albarn has amassed a 30-year discography like few others. It’s a wonder that the same lead singer behind Blur’s art-rock pinnacle, 1999’s 13, was soon afterward brushing shoulders with Del the Funky Homosapien (on 2001’s Gorillaz) and De La Soul (among many others, on 2005’s Demon Days)—and continuing to break new ground. Once associated with his arch examinations of Britishness, in recent decades Albarn has ardently championed sounds and artists from elsewhere around the world, from China to Kinshasa. In a 2012 review of the comprehensive Blur 21 box set, Lindsay Zoladz wrote:
Choose Damon. Choose Graham. Choose Damien Hirst’s cheekily agit-pop country house or Sophie Muller’s teen-spirit-stinking squat. Go pop, then spend a decade slowly deflating; study the songbook so you can tear it up with precision. Choose irony, choose sincerity. Choose your own worst NME: a Gallagher, any Gallagher, or maybe just yourself (“Do you feel like a chain store? Practically floored?”). Choose fame, or flee from it fast as you can in a milkman’s suit. Choose Ray Davies, choose Stephen Malkmus; choose la-la-la or wooo-hoo. (And before you answer this next one know that the Queen is watching.) Choose Britain. Choose America.
Or, you know, don’t choose. Blur have been a band for 21 years, and their story is long enough to speak a bunch of contradictions. That’s what happens to bands that house four egos and a pair of dueling geniuses. They rarely move in straight lines. One example of many: In 1994, Damon Albarn wrote a snide little number about the cultural allure of the West (sneeringly: “La-la-la-la-la/He’d like to live in Magic America/With all the magic people”). Three years on, he was a bit more forgiving (one more time, with earnestness: “Look inside America/She’s all right/She’s all right”). It’s not despite but because of these pivots and complexities that it feels appropriate to call Blur a defining band of the past two decades.
Detroit’s most outlandish and excitable MC has always been brimming with talent, but it took the rest of the industry a few years to catch up. Wielding one of the rap game’s most distinctive voices, Brown matches Eminem’s penchant for shock and taboo with an infectious personality, all while redefining what a street rapper looks like and pushing the art form forward. As Jayson Greene wrote in a review of 2019’s uknowhatimsayin¿:
Danny Brown’s breakout album came the year he turned 30. Now that he’s closing in on 40, he doesn’t seem to be settling into an elder-statesman role; judging by his new album uknowhatimsayin¿, he hasn’t settled at all. “Never look back, I will never change up,” he chants repeatedly on the first song—a vow to never let a groove become a rut, to stay the same without repeating yourself. It’s a lonely sort of promise, but it’s one that he’s kept: He remains as defiantly hard to situate now in the rap landscape today as he was in 2011.
Back then, he was ostentatiously weird, a gap-toothed Detroit rapper with a hyena voice who forever altered the smell and taste of Cool Ranch Doritos, a weirdo fashion plate back when something as mild as skinny jeans could cost you a label deal. Now that he looks like an original X-Man to SoundCloud rap’s New Mutants, he’s still an outlier: His devotion to punchlines and similes makes him sound almost rigid in the melted, borderless landscape of current rap. But this is the joy and pain of being a three-dimensional human in your records, over and over again; if you do it correctly, you’ll never quite fit in anywhere, ever.
Like a brown bird nesting in a Texaco sign, David Berman had a point of view. Two years on, it’s still hard to come to grips with the fact that he’s no longer with us. If you connected with his loose and shaggy music in Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, his startling and often hilarious lyrics taught you the joy of noticing things and that sadness can be transformed into something beautiful. As Mark Richardson wrote following Berman’s passing:
He had a gift for writing that, ironically, and in a very Berman-esque way, is hard to talk about. His use of language is so specific, it’s hard to find some of your own to describe it in a way that doesn’t diminish what you’re trying to convey. “The meaning of the world lies outside the world” is how he put a related idea, in another context, in his song “People.” But the way I’m describing it now makes it sound like something heady and tangled and complicated. It was the opposite. Berman had a knack for representing what was right in front of you in a way that made you see it as if for the first time.
Like other black metal bands, San Francisco’s Deafheaven attempt to channel soul-scouring catharsis in great, surging waves of sound; unlike most of their peers, they fuse the genre’s blast beats, guitar solos, and larynx-shredding vocals with the unabashedly atmospheric sounds of shoegaze and post-rock. As Jayson Greene wrote in his review of 2015’s New Bermuda:
Nothing about the band Deafheaven makes literal sense, starting with their place in the world. They are a black metal-ish band, but black metal fans either hate them or engage in constant, spirited discussions about why they don’t. Their breakout, 2013’s Sunbather, took basic notions about black metal and shoegaze from their first album, Roads to Judah, and airlifted them into a rarefied emotional realm where track lengths dissolved into the whole along with straightforward interpretations: George Clarke’s lyrics compressed earthbound experiences—depression, material envy, struggles for purpose—into wild, leaping abstractions about love, oceans of light, tears. This was music that yearned palpably to leap across distances, closing gaps like a firing synapse.
New Bermuda, if anything, is more overwhelming than Sunbather. The roiling peaks of that album are the resting temperature of this one. They have shaped a suite of songs into one pliable and massive 47-minute arc that is as easy to separate into distinct quadrants as the stream from a fire hydrant. Clarke still screams euphoniously, leaning into long vowel sounds and open tones so that phrases like “on the smokey tin it melts again and again” function as color more than as thought. (You could never discern the words without the aid of a lyric sheet, anyway.)
Hailing from Sacramento, the provocative experimental trio of MC Ride, Zach Hill, and Andy Morin made waves with their 2011 mixtape Exmilitary, which fused intense noise and Hill’s startling drumwork with Ride’s urgent screams. Over the next decade, the group released albums at a remarkable clip, provoking both intrigue and confusion. As Zoe Camp wrote in a review of 2016’s Bottomless Pit:
The experimental band Negativland introduced the concept of “culture jamming” to the world in 1984, defining it as “an awareness of how the media environment we occupy affects and directs our inner life” … [Death Grips’] Zach Hill, Andy Morin, and Stefan Burnett (otherwise known as MC Ride) are easily the most talented, impactful culture jammers of the streaming age: a distinction primarily owed to just how seriously the California trio take those ideas. Never mind the Trojan Horse they pulled on Epic, the deep web album leaks, the no-shows—the real subversion’s in Death Grips’ music, which continues to draw huge audiences (see: the massive crowd who filled the Gobi tent for their headlining Coachella set) and unsurprisingly, co-signs from fellow pranksters like Tyler, the Creator and Eric André. It’s no surprise that the loudest contingency of their fanbase resides on an infamous image-board; Death Grips speak directly to the dark worldview that accompanies years wasted lurking online, getting high off digital schadenfreude. (Been there.)
Deerhunter has a lot going for them musically—classically dark 4AD atmosphere, streaks of psychedelia, Bradford Cox’s narcoleptic sigh—but the band’s greatest accomplishment has been articulating a blown-out state of mind: beaten down and haunted by memory but with an eye for beauty and a kernel of hope. They make music about the desire to be alone but present it with such brilliant catharsis that you can’t help but want to hear it in a loud room surrounded by strangers. As Marc Hogan wrote in his review of 2010’s Halcyon Digest:
Deerhunter unveiled their new album by asking fans to print out a vintage DIY-style poster, photocopy it, and tape it up all over town. In the last couple of weeks, band members have participated in all-night online chats with some of their most devoted fans. We’ll never be able to parse every lyric or tease out every technical intricacy—though somebody will probably try—but that is what Halcyon Digest is all about: nostalgia not for an era, not for antiquated technology, but for a feeling of excitement, of connection, of that dumb obsession that makes life worth living no matter how horrible it gets. And then sharing that feeling with somebody else who’ll start the cycle all over again.
Devonté Hynes’ elegant pop-R&B nods to the ’80s and ’90s, with springing beats and wistful melodies that made him a go-to producer for pop stars and Oscar-nominated filmmakers alike. As Blood Orange, Hynes curates a wide net of guest stars—from Debbie Harry to Diddy—to add detail to deeply felt, collage-like albums that blend politics and Hynes’ nostalgia into one. As Jason King wrote as part of an interview story in 2016:
As a producer and songwriter, Hynes draws on an astonishingly rich archive made up of wildly diverse and sometimes forgotten sounds and styles of the past; it’s all in service of a contemporary, chilled-out, ethereal, fusion pop that we might call The Dev Hynes Sound. Along the way, his eccentric musical and visual choices have made him a unique emblem of destabilized, fluid expressions of gender, sexuality, and race. He’s an exquisite tastemaker who has somehow managed to find a way to feel free enough to pursue the volcanic, hyper-associative ideas in his head and his heart, no matter the personal cost or industry implications.
In the early ‘00s, when Thomas Wesley Pentz first began making mash-ups and mixes and throwing his Philadelphia-based Hollertronix parties with Low Budget, hip club kids looked to him as a surveyor of the global beat music underground. Diplo earned his cred via early collaborations with M.I.A. and Santigold, and his championing of the Brazilian baile funk scene, but he soon became the man to capitalize on anything mainstream American dance music didn’t have a stronghold on. Successes with his group Major Lazer, as well as Jack Ü, his duo with Skrillex, helped Diplo land writing credits with Beyonce and Bieber, ultimately turning him into a Vegas residency/bottle-service club/EDM bubble celeb. Allegations of misconduct may yet eclipse his legacy, but Diplo’s adventurous ear helped define the wide-open sound of club music in the digital age. As Nate Patrin wrote in a review of Major Lazer’s 2013 album Free the Universe:
For the longest time, Diplo’s role as a producer has been steeped in importing, curating, and reconfiguring global dance sounds from favelas to shantytowns to the projects. That approach has been depicted as everything from transcendent, no-borders futurism to an exploitative colonialist ripoff, but most of his fans seem most interested in how much a given track bumps. The critical narrative shifted from Diplo as hipster scavenger to Diplo as arena-ready body-mover on the basis of a pop breakthrough that came through Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor.” In its original context, it was the centerpiece of an album cross-examined for appropriating dancehall culture and West Indian identity for a dayglo cartoon caricature. Then Beyoncé got a hold of it for “Run the World (Girls).”
Dizzee Rascal’s debut album, released when he was only 18, put the world on notice that the future of rap ran through East London. A decade later, his contemporaries like Skepta and successors like Stormzy firmly established grime as a commercial force. Meanwhile, Dizzee has continued an evolution that’s all his own. As Scott Plagenhoef wrote in a review of 2003’s Boy In Da Corner:
With UK garage seemingly left in tatters, Rascal and pirate radio cohorts crawled into the wreckage, reconstructing its grimiest bits and blending them with RZA’s paranoid minor chords, some off-kilter electro-glitch, the low-rent nihilism of Cash Money and No Limit, and the ghosts of ragga-jungle. Sparse and ugly, Rascal’s record is an icy orchestra of scavenger sounds, owing as much to video games and ringtones as it does to anything more overtly musical. The despairing beats make the lyrical push and pull that much more severe: When Dizzee is venomous, they sharpen his bite; when he gamely searches for the light at the end of the tunnel, admits his failures, laments his unraveling psyche, and battles with depression, they seem like obstacles.
DJ Koze is dance music’s court jester. He long ago mastered the form and structure of the dancefloor banger and now he just wants to play. He’s never lost his ear for groove but with each new project he folds in something unexpected, adding guests—indie-folk crooners, aging rappers—and odd samples in search of sonic bliss. Cerebral concerns always have their place in the techno scene Koze emerged from, but his joyous music is all heart. As Mark Richardson wrote in his review of 2018’s Knock Knock:
Far away from mundane reality lies the music of DJ Koze. The German producer builds a fantasy world where aesthetic beauty soaked in memory can hold life at bay for an hour or two at a time. Given his dreamy predilections, his music never strives for relevance and it doesn’t care about the shifting fashion of the moment. He’s only competing with himself. Across a handful of albums, not to mention many dozens of remixes and a few full-length DJ mixes, he combines the crunchy propulsion of French touch, the liquid warmth of ’70s soul, the precise structure of Kompakt-style minimal techno, the head-nodding funk of boom-bap, and the nameless desire of dream pop. The thread through it all is a very specific emotional state: Sifting through his library of samples and pieces of original music, he finds the moments that express wistful longing, burrows into them, and then blows it all up to color-saturated widescreen.
The practice of creating something new by blending two records together has been around since at least the ’70s. But DJ Shadow—Bay Area selector, producer, and label head Josh Davis—gave the art of DJing a major push with his 1996 album Endtroducing…, a heady masterclass of turntablism and sampledelia. Though American, Shadow was one of the most visible figures affiliated with the U.K.’s Mo Wax label, a key instigator of ’90s trip-hop, while his own Quannum Projects label would become a crucial platform for West Coast underground rap. Prefacing a 2020 interview with Shadow, Mark Richardson wrote:
To be a successful DJ you have to know where to look and how to listen. Since he first broke through, we’ve seen many images of DJ Shadow prowling shops for records. He’s become an authority on vinyl culture, and in films like 2001’s Scratch, the artist born Josh Davis talks about searching for lost sounds and rescuing them from oblivion. A forthcoming mini-doc, DJ Shadow: Lost and Found, fills out the picture since, showing how he transformed that record-digger impulse into a long and varied career. While these documents show what it means to spend your life scouring bins for bits of sonic gold, they can’t convey the art of listening, how Davis hears magic in a piece of music that others might have missed.
A late bloomer with a checkered past, DMX saw his star power completely consume the rap universe in 1998 when he dropped a career’s worth of hits with his first two albums. Though his fall was as dramatic as his rapid rise, the legacy that endures is one of a sinner seeking salvation, the embodiment of hip-hop’s spirit of success in spite of the struggle. He was the toughest guy in the room who also cried when he talked to God, a street rapper whose struggles were tattooed across his chest. As Clover Hope wrote in 2021:
DMX’s salvation was inevitably tied to hip-hop’s. It’s no coincidence that, because of his gritty vulnerability on records and in his performances, he contributed to the explosion of rap into the mainstream in the late ’90s. During an era when the genre was defined by endless yachts and flashy clothes, he offered brave, hardened, and angry songs that more gravely reflected the tragedies under which the culture was born, not where it had arrived. His frenetic energy was nothing without his spirituality, though it was also a reflection of his lifelong addictions. After a show on the pioneering Hard Knock Life arena tour in 1999, he questioned his good fortune: As producer Irv Gotti once recalled in an interview, X broke down backstage after performing and screamed, “Why, why God, why me? I ain’t supposed to be shit.”
Afro-futurism was always a core tenet of Detroit techno, but no artist integrated it into their work more thoroughly—or thrillingly—than Drexciya. Long anonymous, the Underground Resistance-affiliated duo of Gerald Donald and the late James Stinson, who died in 2002, imagined an elaborate backstory for their music: Pregnant enslaved women who perished at sea during the Middle Passage gave birth underwater to an amphibious species—the Drexiycans—who made it their mission to eradicate white supremacy. Between 1992 and 2002, the duo’s music more than lived up to the mystery, rewiring techno’s possibilities with every arpeggiated sawtooth wave. As Philip Sherburne wrote in 2015:
The subversive power of Drexciya’s invented world was underscored by the fact that during their run, the group granted no interviews and kept its members’ identities a closely guarded secret. The Drexciyan mythology spoke for itself; it was all you needed to know, and, fitting its subject, it contained rage and sadness and fierce intelligence and blinding wit. Theirs was a different kind of protest music: By imagining an alternate outcome to past atrocities, they made the future their battleground.
Between the release of his 1994 debut album, Roman Candle, and his death nine years later, Elliott Smith became one of the most beloved figures in indie rock. At the same time, the pervasive sadness of his music, his struggles with addiction, and even the awkwardness of his brush with the mainstream all contributed to his portrait as a fundamentally tragic figure, soft-spoken but star-crossed. Seemingly not quite made for this world, Smith nevertheless made a lasting impression upon it. In a retrospective review of Smith’s self-titled second album, Sam Sodomsky wrote:
Smith’s vulnerable songwriting—tied with the dark path his own life would go down, through addiction and hospitalizations and suicide attempts—can lead fans to look for clues in his songs, as if he laid them out like a cry for help. But he described his music more like dreaming: less in the interpretive, Freudian sense than the mysterious way you wake up feeling fragile and uneasy and inexplicably pissed at someone you haven’t spoken to in years. And for all of the addiction talk in the lyrics, Smith explained to journalists that it simply felt like a potent metaphor, a conduit toward bigger questions: Why do we turn self-destructive? How does it affect the people who love us? Where does it lead?
This insistence on not being taken literally is why Smith dismissed the idea of being a folk singer, someone who showed up on stage with a story to tell and a moral at the end. As soon as he was given the budget, he turned his records into expensive, symphonic opuses that seemed hell-bent on erasing the image of a quiet kid in his friend’s basement with an old acoustic guitar and tape recorder.
When Josh Tillman left Fleet Foxes and started writing postmodern folk songs under the name Father John Misty, the gravity of his music shifted. Or maybe it left altogether. That’s the curious and most lovable part about listening to his albums: trying to figure out where this overthinking, sterling-voiced man is coming from. His music is sometimes portentous, sometimes doofy with love, and sometimes a total lark. He has taken up the mantle of Randy Newman as our most earnest ironist, someone trying to capture the insane pace and curdled feel of the century, always at a slight remove. As Jeremy D. Larson wrote in 2018:
The magnificent ego of Father John Misty makes his music seem really important. The music is not really that important, of course, but when you hear that smooth and gentle soft-rock with his olden croon centered so perfectly on every pitch, it seems like it is, in the way that narcissists or the canon of classic rock seem important. This outsized persona bursting forth from singer-songwriter Josh Tillman is full of self-mythology descended straight from Bob Dylan, dripping with a painted-on significance: His greatest passion is his thoughts. The autofiction of his songwriting imparts its own patina of truth, something that seems unassailable if you subscribe to the man, the voice, the facial hair. He strolls through his own songs like a melancholy king finding every opportunity to catch his reflection.
Christian Fennesz uses complex and sophisticated digital processing to make of-the-moment sounds, but the appeal of his music is rooted in the oldest ideas: He knows melody, he understands the power of the chord change, and he wants to take the listener on an emotional journey. In 2001, the twinkly ode to musical memory Endless Summer put him on the radar for an audience that didn’t necessarily follow experimental electronic music, and he’s released a raft of great records since, collaborating with fellow travelers (Jim O’Rourke, Sparklehorse) and legends from a earlier generation (Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian) while continuing to explore the spiritual implications of sonic texture. As Mark Richardson wrote in his review of 2019’s Agora:
Even in the exploratory world of electronic music, Fennesz was different. If Autechre’s music could be traced to the metallic thwack of early American electro, Aphex Twin to the machine-heart pulse techno proper, Tim Hecker to shoegaze and the high art world, Fennesz’s strongest aesthetic antecedent was the new romantic ’80s pop that followed in the wake of Roxy Music. This music flourished in an era in which productions were heavy with reverb and effects, where you weren’t sure when the synths ended and the guitars began. Fennesz’s link to the sound of this period was further affirmed by work he did with David Sylvian, the former frontman of the ’80s band Japan, and through his version of A-Ha’s “Hunting High and Low,” which showed how the lush twang of his processed guitar fits perfectly into a new wave context, its naked emotionalism worlds away from what first comes to mind when thinking of “computer music.”
London multi-hyphenate FKA twigs came up as a dancer in music videos before striding confidently into the foreground as singer, producer, art director, and choreographer. Throughout her discography thus far, she’s spiked her experimental fusions of electronic music and R&B with a dazzling display of world-building. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote of twigs’ 2019 album MAGDALENE:
From her first video, the singular focus of her vision was apparent, a holistic project that rendered FKA twigs’ operatic approach to club beats inextricable from her astounding art direction. In the years since, she has made her art into a kind of theatrical multimedia experience, crafting elaborate shows and videos that intertwine and smudge the lines of classicism and the avant-garde. She is astonishing, ambitious, and seemingly good at everything, singing over her own ticker-tape beats, self-directing wildly conceptual videos, and ravenously hoovering up dance disciplines (apparently up to and including Chinese sword fighting) until she masters them.
Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips survived the alt-rock boom and bust by constantly evolving. Strange and funny psychedelic rock songs about existential questions are always in the mix, but Wayne Coyne and company never stop finding new ways to get their message across. Overwhelming concert spectacles, day-long songs, homemade sci-fi films, albums with four discs to be played simultaneously, edible packaging—the Flaming Lips had a way of turning their dreams into reality. As Stuart Berman wrote in his recent review of The Soft Bulletin Companion, which collects outtakes from their beloved 1999 album:
Over the Flaming Lips’ four-decade career, there was no more crucial turning point than the period spanning 1996 to 1999, when the Oklahoma group narrowly escaped their imminent fate as alt-rock has-beens and transformed themselves into the megaphone-wielding pied pipers of the 21st-century festival circuit. After their underperforming 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic failed to yield another “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the Lips liberated themselves from the pressures of writing hits—and the creative limitations of being a guitar-rock band—by conducting various synchronized-tape experiments with fleets of car stereos and battalions of boomboxes. Released in 1997, Zaireeka was the play-at-home version of those site-specific events, presenting eight unwieldy songs spread over four CDs that were designed to be played simultaneously on four different players. Then, just two years later, they distilled all that free-ranging exploration into the pristine orchestral rock of The Soft Bulletin, a universally praised classic.
When Fleet Foxes began layering their woodsy harmonies in the mid-’00s, they ended up kickstarting a transatlantic folk revival. Frontman Robin Pecknold’s move from Seattle to New York helped the band outlast the banjo-and-suspenders boom, leading to successive albums that were more adventurous, confrontational, and graceful. In a 2017 profile around the album Crack-Up, Amanda Petrusich wrote:
Pecknold is gentle and intelligent, a hungry listener; talking with him, you get the sense that an antenna is always up and open, collecting new and better information about the world. Spend any time with Pecknold’s work, and it’s impossible not to hear a person carefully reasoning-through the total lunacy of being alive. Narratively, Crack-Up recounts some sort of loss; its source feels alternately romantic, political, creative, and spiritual. Pecknold sings, mournfully, of an uncertain future—until, on the record’s back half, he seems to reconcile everything. “The record is about me going from being a solitary person, to reentering the band, reentering old relationships,” he says.
He admits that uncertainty and contradiction have been on his mind these past few years—all the ways in which two seemingly incompatible ideas can come to coexist. Wanting to be alone but needing others; feeling flummoxed by all the big existential questions, yet still wanting to live a full and generous life.
Kieran Hebden got his start in the post-rock trio Fridge in the mid ’90s, then began crafting finely detailed, brightly colored IDM as Four Tet. Albums like 2003’s Rounds cemented the UK producer as one of electronic music’s central figures, and over the succeeding decades, he has only become more versatile, opening up his music to incorporate techno, ambient, post-dubstep, and Indian film music along with collaborations with Burial, Thom Yorke, and even Skrillex. Mark Richardson wrote of Four Tet’s 2010 album There Is Love in You:
Kieran Hebden’s career can be seen as the idea of post-rock done right. His appetite for music, on the evidence presented in his albums, singles, DJ sets, and collaborations, is voracious. But Hebden has a way of transforming and integrating influences rather than channeling them. So if his loose improvised collaborations with drummer Steve Reid captured something of the spirit of the classic late-’60s free jazz records on Impulse!, they also managed to carve out a unique and identifiable aesthetic that sounds very much like today. When working with others, like the wooly free-folk unit Sunburned Hand of the Man or the dubstep producer Burial, Hebden knows when to lead and when to get out of the way. But all the while, whatever the context, he’s absorbing. And when it comes to his own records as Four Tet, he has a knack for combining sounds from all over and making them his own.
Freddie Gibbs first made his name as a wildly talented rapper’s rapper from Gary, Indiana, who told street tales about hard times and perseverance with wit and dexterity. He turned out to be the rare artist whose music just keeps getting better. Gibbs also embraces collaboration with ease—he always sounds like himself, but as records with veteran producers Alchemist and Madlib have shown, he can adapt his style to fit the context presented to him. As Stephen Kearse wrote in a review of Gibbs’ 2019 collaborative album with Madlib, Bandana:
The through line is Black freedom. Across the record Gibbs mentions various Black figures and tragedies, from the transatlantic slave trade to Baltimore drug kingpin Melvin Williams to basketball star Allen Iverson to the death by police bombing of mass shooter Micah Johnson to Tupac’s assault on the Hughes Brothers, weaving a grand, ambiguous tapestry. Gibbs has been talking Black power in various forms since his early mixtapes, but here he’s less certain about what it looks like, who embodies it, how to secure it. As he takes a fuller view of his life and the fates of his idols, he grows more cautious. “I can’t move the same/I gotta readjust how I maneuver,” he insists on “Gat Damn.”
Overcoming the constraints on Black freedom was always the underlying mission of Madlib’s beloved jazz and soul artists, as well as Gibbs’ prized black rebels. For Bandana, the pair taps into that heritage and allow themselves to be shaped by its highs and lows, its heroes and villains. Finding themselves within that slipstream of Black thought and life, they plot their course on their terms. Bandana is tradition and transgression: one rapper, one producer, no limitations.
There will never be another Ghostface—though many have tried to recreate his high-pitched pleas and cinematic street narratives. Remember when Action Bronson was first making noise, and Ghost recorded himself on a dated camera talking shit over Teddy Pendergrass’ “Be For Real”? That graceful, ruthless, and hilarious diss was one of many reasons why Ghost has proven himself to be the Wu-Tang Clan’s most thrilling member over the last 25 years. As Jeff Weiss wrote in a retrospective of Ghost’s classic 2000 solo album, Supreme Clientele:
To understand Supreme Clientele is to be humbled by epistemological limitations. You can see, feel, and taste it, but it can only be decrypted to a point. It’s a psychedelic record moored in reality. Following a string of disappointing Wu albums, Ghostface swaggered into the void, inhaling breakbeats of hell, hitting mics like Ted Koppel, cham-punching Mase, and slapping crooked reverends so hard condoms, dice, and dope fell out of their pockets; sticking up rappers for their chains on New Year’s Eve in Cali and divulging no names; sprinkling snow inside the Optimo and sipping Rémy Martin on diamonds. Supreme Clientele is Ironman. It’s invulnerable and silvery, the stream-of-consciousness hexes from a general who survived hell. A shade short of 30, Ghostface had been shot three times, survived multiple stints on Rikers Island, a debilitating battle with diabetes, and mourned the loss of two brothers with muscular dystrophy to become chromatic myth. He’d made religious pilgrimages to the motherland, slept on mud floors and hospital gurneys, prison cots, and silk sheets in $1,000-a-night hotel rooms. Now he was being tasked to save the Wu-Tang Clan.
Once software and CPU speeds progressed to a certain point, mashups became inevitable, and Gregg Gillis’ Girl Talk project took the idea to an entirely new level. Instead of one-off mixes, he made entire albums built from samples combined in ingenious ways and then he became a huge touring draw, playing those tracks back from his trusty laptop and causing fields full of thrashing fans to go crazy. Gillis was so successful, in fact, that he all but killed the mashup as a festival-ready commercial enterprise—it could only be done once at this scale, and he did it. As Sean Fennessey wrote of 2006’s Night Ripper:
The element of surprise is gone from the mashup. The idea that two blender-ized songs can recombine to create something wholly new is thrilling in theory, but the execution is usually sloppy or samey, either simply aligning two similar beat structures or pairing up two completely disparate tracks for the slapstick novelty of a jokey title.
Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis absolutely detonates the notions of mashup on his third album as Girl Talk, the violently joyous Night Ripper. Rather than squeeze two songs that sorta make sense together into a small box, Gillis crams six or eight or 14 or 20 songs into frenetic rows, slicing fragments off ’80s pop, Dirty South rap, booty bass, and grunge, among countless other genres. Then he pieces together the voracious music fan’s dream: a hulking hyper-mix designed to make you dance, wear out predictable ideas, and defy hopeless record-reviewing.
San Francisco’s Girls always kept it simple, borrowing riffs, melodies, and song titles from the past and arranging them into something that sounded disarmingly intimate. During their brief run, the band was haunted by sadness, both from the past (frontman Christopher Owens had a troubled childhood in a Christian cult) and the present (he struggled with drug addiction). But the worst was to come: They broke up for good in 2012, and then founding member Chet “JR” White died in 2020. For all the trauma and bad vibes they lived through, the essential sweetness and empathy of their music remains. As Tom Breihan wrote in his review of 2009’s Album:
There’s a pillowy quality to many of the sounds on Album, but this isn’t lo-fi or glo-fi or whatever. Rather, every little production flourish is so much a part of the whole that you don’t notice it until the 10th or 15th listen: the melodica that bubbles up on the second half of “Lust for Life.” The beautifully discordant guitar solo in “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker.” “Hellhole Ratrace” builds to an epic guitar whoosh halfway through its seven minutes, but the beat’s hammer never quite falls; the drums stay just slightly off. All this stuff functions like the sleigh bells on Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run”: subtle little intuitive details that add to the devastating whole.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor basically invented orchestral post-rock in the ’90s, and when they returned to record in 2012 after an extended hiatus they were still the masters of the form. The band emerged from Montreal’s scruffy punk rock scene and never lost their leftist politics or DIY ethic. Their sound—chiming guitars, swooning strings, quiet openings and crushingly loud climaxes—didn’t so much evolve as ripen, maintaining its essential quality while growing richer with each passing year. As Mark Richardson wrote of 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!:
It’s tempting to look at this album through the lens of politics, especially since Godspeed themselves have so often encouraged this viewpoint. When we last heard from them on record, it was a year after 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan was well underway, and the war in Iraq was just around the corner. We were settling into a decade that was, from an American perspective, defined by two wars started by an increasingly unpopular president and an inflating economic bubble that would pop just as he was leaving office. Their music and presentation drew some of its energy from this anxiety. So listening to new music from Godspeed now—during an election season, when the wars and the aftermath of that economy are still being argued every day by two presidential candidates grappling with the legacy of the early 2000s—you can’t help but allow the political moment to shape how it’s heard.
But the focus on the band’s politics obscures something important: Godspeed You! Black Emperor are making art, not writing editorials. And the fact that they are making art gives them leeway to do things that wouldn’t work in the context of pure rhetoric. It allows them to find magnificence in destruction and build an aesthetic out of decay and loss. So for all their political slogans, pointed titles, and references to global doom, engagement with Godspeed’s music can feel exceedingly personal.
You could accuse Grizzly Bear of trying too hard, and maybe even be right, but all of the obvious labor that goes into the quartet’s fussily composed, meticulously arranged, and exactingly performed kitchen-sink prog-folk tends to pay off. (As a bonus, they can actually play the stuff live.) As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in a review of the band’s 2012 album Shields:
“This is a foreground.” That was the last lyric left hovering in the mist of Grizzly Bear’s breakout 2009 album, Veckatimest, and it’s a pretty good image to describe what it’s like to listen to one of their records. The key word there is ‘a,’ signifying one of many. Whether it’s the ethereal, friendly-ghost vibes of Yellow House or Veckatimest’s pristine chamber pop, Grizzly Bear create music in deep focus; what’s going on in the margins of their songs is just as important and expressive as the center. Taking cues from artists like Talk Talk and Van Dyke Parks, the Brooklyn four-piece make pop music with an ear for the ambient, asking us to notice the importance in detail, the beauty of texture, and the foregrounds that exist all across our spectrum of perception.
The music Liz Harris makes as Grouper is desolation rendered as sound—she lives on the edge of the continent, staring into the abyss. The most accessible end of her work, such as 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, is easy to love without knowing anything about ambient music or dream pop. But she’s never seemed interested in changing her approach to court a bigger audience. Her music finds the troubled souls who need it. As Ben Ratliff wrote in a 2018 profile:
Harris’ work is oceanic and of limited means. It involves acoustic or electric guitar, or, more recently, piano; her voice, thick with reverb or multi-tracked into choral harmonies, once roaming and now precise; and that’s it, other than environmental or field recordings, like the whoosh of a coal train panning from left to right that closes her newest album, Grid of Points, after the last chord of the song “Breathing.” (The train isn’t a passing sound effect, but essentially the song’s second movement.) She likes to use what she calls “a small set of variables” and create a puzzle with them, working with only a loose idea of what it might become; this is because she finds that limitations open up more room in which she may place herself.
The Grouper project generally takes the form of songs, but it is also a mood, and maybe even a collective mood in a metaphorical room: a contemplative and cathartic space involving simple technology and difficult emotional processing.
Without Gucci Mane, trap music as we know it would not exist. For 20 years and counting, Gucci has been an Atlanta rap lodestar, coming through with a relentless number of mixtapes—he currently sits at No. 4, tied with David Bowie, on the list of most reviewed artists in Pitchfork’s history. He’s had plenty of run-ins with the law, too, like when he was arrested for shoving a woman out of a moving Hummer, or for killing rapper Pookie Loc (Gucci claimed he shot Pookie in self-defense, and the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence). For the past five years, though, he’s managed to stay out of jail while embracing his status as Southern rap royalty. As Sheldon Pearce wrote in a 2017 story about Gucci’s long, strange trip:
Gucci Mane has been at the center of underground street rap for nearly a decade, and he is among the most important artists in contemporary music. He has had one of the most prolific, influential, and unorthodox runs in modern rap, a saga replete with violence, arrests, beefs, tirades, and tons of music. He coached up Waka Flocka Flame, Young Thug, Migos, and Rich Homie Quan. He was an early investor in Future. He was an early Nicki Minaj supporter, long before her Cash Money deal. He introduced super-producers Mike WiLL Made-It and Metro Boomin, and he provided platforms for countless other producers including Lex Luger and 808 Mafia. Despite his minimal chart presence, Gucci can be felt across mainstream rap today, in its eccentricities and thumping 808s. But Gucci wasn’t always hailed for his contributions, and it took a tumultuous journey for him to get his due.
The Haim sisters were making music together for years before the release of their debut EP Forever in 2012, but it was patience that led them to write multiple song-of-the-summer contenders, collaborate with Paul Thomas Anderson on a series of music videos, and become the latest in the lineage of SoCal rock bands to find massive success on the international festival circuit. As Katherine St. Asaph wrote of 2013’s Days Are Gone:
You can pretty reliably guess someone’s generation by which artist Haim reminds them of. Fleetwood Mac? Wilson Phillips? Paula Cole? That’s what happens when you study decades of AAA radio like it’s the sacred canon, then recapitulate it all in one album. Days Are Gone excels in this soft-rock mode: It’s full of singalong commitment phobia, gently lit love affairs, and heartbreak that’s well-behaved but still moving. Crucially, there’s also levity—like “My Song 5,” which draws its power from muffled rage and the default title of a GarageBand demo. The lyrics are to-the-point and the arrangements are given a nostalgic haze, both of which highlight the Haim sisters’ unshowy chops. They’d soon also moonlight extensively as session musicians for artists like Vampire Weekend, remaking a large swath of the decade’s rock in their image.
When the Hold Steady emerged from the early-aughts Brooklyn indie scene, Craig Finn’s sharp, colloquial delivery set his band apart from the deluge of New York rock groups. But by their third album, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America, they had blown past their garage band contemporaries with a sound that evoked a contemporary Bruce Springsteen. “He’s the poet laureate for the U.S.’s have-nots,” Scott Plagenhoef wrote of Finn in his review of Boys and Girls in America. Plagenhoef added:
For all of Finn’s holding his lyrics at arm’s length here, he remains one of the best writers in rock, demonstrating grit and spunk and wit and intelligence in each track. Unlike many of those who’ve translated big, arena-ready guitars into arena-sized audiences, Finn doesn’t resort to confidently sung platitudes like “It’s a beautiful day!,” “Look at the stars/ See how they shine for you,” or “I’m not OK.” He not only has a commanding, rousing voice but he also says something worth hearing, displaying gifts for both scope and depth that are all too rare in contemporary rock—indie or mainstream.
Interpol emerged from the early-2000s New York City indie scene with dapper dourness and sneaky hooks that turned them into leading lights of that era’s post-punk revival. Their full-length debut, Turn On the Bright Lights, was Pitchfork’s No. 1 album of 2002, and they continued to flash moments of moody brilliance ever since. In his 2012 oral history of Turn on the Bright Lights, Ian Cohen wrote:
In the 10 years since its release, Interpol’s debut LP has been certified gold, topped numerous year-end critics’ lists (including our own), inspired countless imitators, and probably soundtracked more than a few makeout sessions amongst well-groomed and sullen indie rock fans. But it never fails to remind you of whence it came. Suffused with faded glory, existential longing, and an irrepressible belief in itself, Bright Lights simply was how most people inside and outside the five boroughs visualized New York City in 2002: living with the heavy burdens of 9/11’s fallout but still intoxicated with the possibilities the city and the future had to offer. In fact, the album is so inseparable from time and place that it often threatens to be viewed as public domain, siphoned from the ether of downtown Manhattan, rather than having been meticulously crafted from untold hours of rehearsals.
UK songwriter and producer Jai Paul immediately surpassed most of his MP3 blog-era peers with his first proper single, 2011’s “BTSTU,” which was soon sampled by Drake and Beyoncé. But Paul himself remained elusive, rarely releasing new music. In 2019, six years after a batch of unreleased demos was stolen and posted online, he finally, officially put those tracks out, and they still sounded like nothing else. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in a 2013 essay:
The first time I heard Jai Paul, I thought my speakers were broken. My friend had just sent me a YouTube link to the British singer’s single “BTSTU”—about which this friend had been talking breathlessly, ecstatically, and seemingly hyperbolically—and I was ready to be knocked out by obvious brilliance. What I heard instead was… disorienting. Undulating waves of distortion and digital interference, and buried somewhere beneath it all a distant, oddly confrontational falsetto (“don’t fuck with me, don’t fuck with me…”) that seemed like it was coming out of only one channel. I jiggled the input cable. I unplugged and replugged my speakers. I started the song over. Nothing had changed. “Is it supposed to sound like this?” I typed into my Gchat box, but hesitated before hitting send. (On the internet, even your hesitation is visible: “Lindsay has entered text…”) I let it sink in for a minute; the first time you hear something that is good in a new, unfamiliar way, it takes time for the particles to rearrange into some sort of discernible grammar. By the time the second chorus hit, I had deleted the question. Yes, it was supposed to sound like that.
James Blake extracts big feelings from small places. Early on, when he was making his name as an unusually talented producer amid the UK’s post-dubstep scene, that meant burrowing deep into samples and quivering basslines to uncover how a chopped syllable could stir something in a listener. Shortly after came the start of his solo career as we know it—the fluttery croon of Blake’s voice became the focal point, but he still compels you to listen for those tiny inflections, where a subtle but surprising turn leads you somewhere unexpected and devastating. As Eric Harvey wrote in a review of 2013’s Overgrown:
Suddenly you’re hit, in other words, but you don’t yet know if that feeling is joy, anxiety, frustration, or terror—you’re only aware that something’s there, and you try to freeze it, to examine it more closely, instead of simply slotting it in a category and moving on. This is exactly what Blake does so well: locating these sensations, and conversing about them. On “I Am Sold”, he even manages to explain the process, by mulling a single phrase over and over, tweaking it, and approaching it from different directions: “speculate what we feel.” Instead of worrying about where he fits in a broader musical landscape, or whether he’s a “star” or not, this is Blake’s comfort zone. Whether he’s making bass-heavy bangers, quiet meditations, or increasingly of late, something in-between, Blake is a modern master of emotional speculation.
For a decade and a half, Janelle Monáe has been building her own universe, starting out in the Outkast-adjacent fringes of Atlanta’s underground, and going on to conquer Hollywood and the fashion world. From her signature early black-and-white outfits to her science fiction-themed visuals, Monáe has always created loud statements and moments (remember the vagina pants in the video for “Pynk”?) Her audacity has only blossomed with time. As Rahawa Haile wrote in a review of Monáe’s 2018 album Dirty Computer:
As a queer, dark-skinned Black woman in an industry historically inclined to value her opposite, Monáe knows that the narrative behind the content matters just as much as the content itself, despite its exceptional quality. Which is perhaps why, from a distance, her career looks like an exercise in freedom by accretion, something amassed over time. Nearly 10 years have passed between Monáe first asking us if we’re “bold enough to reach for love” on Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and the bisexual lighting, tongue clicks, and aching sexuality of Dirty Computer’s “Make Me Feel.” “For the culture, I kamikaze” she proclaims on “Django Jane,” a rap song full of trap hi-hats that dunks on the patriarchy and her haters. Monáe understands how much she’s risking even today by being out…The relief of Dirty Computer is palpable, the culmination of years of silence and deflection in order to one day be free.
The Memphis garage-punk born James Lindsey had amassed a sprawling discography across several bands before breaking through to a wider audience with his two sweet-and-sour solo albums, 2006’s Blood Visions and 2009’s Watch Me Fall. His tragic death in 2010 left a hole in the larger scene, but his legacy continues to be felt. As Evan Minsker wrote in his 2016 review of Blood Visions:
Jay Reatard’s reputation was to smash disco balls and get in on-stage fights—the kind of guy who tried to make people laugh by shooting bottle rockets out his ass. As wild and ridiculous as he was, he took his music seriously. He moved away from home when he was 16 and dropped out of high school, meaning most of his considerable free time was spent writing and recording music. He always had several bands going at once; he figured that if he played with each of his bands at least once a month, he’d make enough to get by. He was an excellent guitarist who got really good at recording; his collective discography was massive. It was his living, so the endless touring, huge pile of records, and even the provocations and live show destruction could be seen as business savvy. He played fast, he played loud, and in the early days of YouTube, his every move was documented. There were prolific punks before him, but Jay standardized the practice of putting out tons of music under several names in the internet age. He never seemed to oversaturate the market, either, since his audience kept coming back for more.
Thirteen years after her debut single “Need U Bad,” Jazmine Sullivan dropped her definitive work: 2021’s Heaux Tales, a concept album that perfectly encapsulates her rare brand of R&B. Sitting comfortably between the margins of modern soul, Sullivan consistently puts out work that involves viewing women as the sole auteurs—and often the vixens—of their life narratives. As Mankaprr Conteh wrote in 2021:
After six years between projects, Sullivan joins the ranks of today’s R&B and R&B-adjacent stars like Summer Walker and SZA, who have updated the genre with music that complicates desire with messy reality. Old archetypes like The Gold Digger and new ones like The Instagram Baddie begin to crumble away, leaving fuller women in their wake.
Today’s Atlanta-based trap rappers have Jeezy to thank for setting the foundation for rhymes that find countless ways to describe the color white. His music contains swagger and adlibs in excess, as well as the sort of inspiration that can only come from someone who isn’t merely spinning tall tales. Two weeks after Jeezy released his proper debut, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, he said, “I ain’t a rapper; I’m a motivational speaker. I don’t do shows; I do seminars. I really talk to people.” As Tom Breihan wrote in a review of 2006’s The Inspiration:
Jeezy pushes that Tony Robbins thing hard. His first album was called Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101; this new one is called The Inspiration. And I’m not entirely certain how to explain this, but when I hear a multitracked mob of Jeezys screaming “now I command you n***** to get money” over producer Shawty Redd’s monolithic haunted-house organs on album opener “Hypnotize,” I want to go ask my boss for a raise. Jeezy’s self-actualization rhetoric might be blunt and artless and questionable—especially since half the time he’s talking about self-actualization through sales of addictive substances—but it’s also remarkably effective.
In the early 2000s, Los Angeles’ Rilo Kiley became known for making relatable indie rock that was both emo and twee, scrappy and polished, thanks in large part to lead vocalist and songwriter Jenny Lewis. She became the patron saint of sad, self-aware millennial heroines and eventually channeled her troubadour ways into a solo career of gorgeously sung, keenly detailed folk-rock, as bright as Hollywood and as blunt as someone you might know in real life. As Jenn Pelly wrote in a 2019 profile:
From the driver’s seat, behind her oversized shades, Jenny Lewis mentions the Bob Marley blacklight poster that once hung in her Van Nuys bedroom, and I imagine the scores of teenage bedroom walls that have made space for her own iconic image through the years. Lewis’ catalog of cleverly morbid, storytelling songs with Rilo Kiley and the Watson Twins ushered a generation of young listeners through suburban ennui and personal becoming—like a wise older sister we could visit on our iPods, offering an example of how to do something smart and cool with your sadness and your solitude.
In the mid-2000s, Lewis was like an indie rock Joni Mitchell for the soul-bearing LiveJournal era, or an emo Dylan, the poet laureate of AIM away messages. Words—some cryptic, some elegant, some brutally, achingly direct—burst from the edges of her diaristic songs, with a dash of Didion-esque deadpan for good measure. Lewis was the first feminine voice I ever encountered leading a band outside the mainstream, with a sound that initially befuddled my ears because it was, in that overwhelmingly male indie era, so rare: a woman’s plainspoken voice.
There’s a distinct and effortless swagger to Jeremih’s music. In contrast to rappers who often gratuitously added crooning to their repertoire, Jeremih carved sharp hip-hop edges into his melodies and produced some of the most vocally textured R&B this side of the millennium. As Jordan Sargent wrote about Late Nights (The Album) on Pitchfork’s list of the 200 Best Albums of the 2010s:
While a dominant musical theme of the 2010s was the seamless fusion of rap and R&B, as employed by artists like Drake and Post Malone, Jeremih got to the same place from the other side; his R&B flows and flexes like rap music, but with a distinct melodic bounce that could only come from a singer. The music on Late Nights rates as some of the finest R&B of the decade, even if that genre tag fits loosely: Highlights “Pass Dat” and “Drank” are experimental celebrations of substances that travel along pathways carved by Lil Wayne and Young Thug, and ballads like “Actin’ Up” and “Remember Me” have a stoned spaciness that recalls the decade’s best hip-hop.
Jessie Ware has a knack for amplifying a given song’s emotional center through her impeccable voice and phrasing. But the Londoner’s defining attribute might be her exquisite taste. Ware pulls from a range of styles and eras—glassy ’80s R&B, classic disco, lush trip-hop—and incorporates these sounds into songs of yearning and heartbreak that balance expressivity with restraint. She borrows from the coolest sounds of music’s past and makes them her own. As Ryan Dombal wrote in a review of her 2012 debut album, Devotion:
Talking about her childhood aspirations earlier this year, Ware told me, “It’s so unattainable to be a singer. I’d watch ‘Top of the Pops’ and think I could never do that. And I didn’t look like a pop star compared to the people I used to watch on MTV like J.Lo or Destiny’s Child.” As a middle-class Jewish girl from South London who’s closer to 30 than 20, she’s still nothing close to a cookie-cutter R&B breakout. Her success thus far—and its likely continuation thanks to Devotion—is a testament to both her talent and budding songwriting skills, as well as the wide-open field that is modern R&B, where a sensitive soul like Frank Ocean can make a star-in-a-box like Chris Brown look about as relevant as a dial-up modem. “I’m just having fun and trying to pretend I’m a pop star,” said Ware, talking about her high-style videos. And while embellishment and theatricality is still a coveted and worthwhile pursuit within the pop realm, the beautiful thing is that, in 2012, Jessie Ware doesn’t need to pretend more than anyone else.
Few artists in any realm have an aesthetic as consistent and clearly defined as Johnny Jewel, the mastermind behind Chromatics, the Italians Do It Better label, and quite a few other shadowy projects. He’s a pastiche artist in the best possible way, channeling his love of music that evokes very specific times and places—seedy nightclubs in the early ’80s, the front seat of a car on an all-night drive—in a way that feels deeply personal. As Ian Cohen wrote in a 2015 profile:
Over the past 12 years as a songwriter, businessman, and producer, Johnny Jewel has been a successful and massively influential trendsetter who’s dictated the slinky, synth-laden sound, style, and financial structure of independent music while remaining a paragon of effortless cool. Describing his life philosophy, Jewel once told me, “I just prefer to make my little castle in the gutter.” And besides being pithy, the mission statement is backed up by a resolute rejection of typical music-biz ladder climbing: Though Chromatics have been asked to play Coachella, they turned it down because the festival insisted on streaming the performance; music industry titan Jimmy Iovine once called Jewel to discuss a buyout of the Italians catalog, but the negotiation turned out to be a non-starter.
In spite of this fierce independence, in reality, his “little castle in the gutter” is more like a big house on the hill—I seriously doubt any actual indie rock musician in Los Angeles has a nicer place than Jewel’s. As with so many things in his life, he has it both ways.
Texas-born singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 major label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, introduced a country artist with sharp tunes, sly lyrics, and a refreshingly mellow perspective. Those qualities haven’t changed, but it was even more impressive when Musgraves stretched out on 2018’s Golden Hour, incorporating splashy disco and ramshackle folk for the rare Grammy Album of the Year winner that also very nearly topped Pitchfork’s year-end list. As Laura Snapes wrote in her review of Golden Hour:
Kacey Musgraves’ inviting outlook is wrought through the record: softly strummed acoustic guitars that blur into sepia haze; boundless pedal steel as conduit for eternity, communing so effortlessly with touches of space-age funk that you wonder why nobody ever did it before. The latter provides one of Golden Hour’s most touching moments: On “Oh, What a World,” a robotic voice marvels at its surroundings and worries about how little time it has left—immortal, unfeeling machinery having a Pinocchio moment. Golden Hour is filled with these awed revelations, undercut with enough anxiety—and, more than once, snappy in-the-pocket disco—to keep Musgraves from floating off into a fever dream. Her wit isn’t diminished, but she’s less interested in scathing portraits or barbed payoffs than she once was. “And I think we’ve seen enough, seen enough/To know that you ain’t ever gonna come down,” she muses on the dancefloor burner “High Horse.” As ever, Musgraves sings about drinking, smoking, and acid, but her most prized high on this gorgeous album is rising above it all to see life in a different light.
King Krule’s Archy Marshall makes music that flourishes in the cracks between genres—post-punk, indie rock, and hip-hop are all in there somewhere—and his sound can never be scrubbed clean. The Londoner’s grimy, tattered productions suggest brokenness, and his spit-misted bellow reminds us that sometimes, in darker moments, anger and disgust are all that keep you going. As Jazz Monroe wrote in a 2017 profile:
The plan had been for Marshall and I to chat for an hour and a half, but by the time he’s finished—swerving into discourses on David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Maoism, and broad swathes of postwar European history—it’s near closing time, and the pub terrace has emptied. Maybe it’s the booze, or the lack of lingering ears, but Marshall lets his intelligence reveal itself as night descends. When I ask if he has genuine concerns about upwardly mobile London, he rattles off some communist theory without skipping a beat—“London throughout history was the place of how to control the proletariat”—but finally shrugs, perhaps wary of seeming self-righteous. “Globalization’s about,” he concludes. “I can’t say that I believe in anything now.”
Marshall tends to think locally, both in his politics and his insular music, but he’s an unconvincing nihilist. A lifelong resident of south-east London, he’s seen waves of renewal transform his local stomping grounds, particularly in his dad’s neighborhood of Peckham. After sneering at the gentrifiers who swagger down local backstreets, though, he checks himself, finding a sense of empathy. “When you see that dude claiming all of the stuff you grew up in, that pain is huge,” he says, “but that same motherfucker in the stupid getup might be the most real dude.” For all his passion, Marshall can’t help seeing nefarious motives on both sides. “Where do you draw the line? Is it when they benefit you, now that all these hipsters are employing us to play? Well, what a fucking hypocrite you are.”
Chart-topping dance-club diva. Warholian pop-art star. Avant-grotesque performance artist. Oscar-nominated actress (and Oscar-winning balladeer). Protest singer. Old-school standards crooner. Metallica frontwoman: Few artists in history have reinvented themselves as many times as Lady Gaga, and fewer still have done it as successfully. The world is a weirder, more boundary-free place with her in it. As Amanda Petrusich wrote in her review of 2016’s Joanne:
At the start of the decade, Lady Gaga worked hard to reposition pop as a high art or vice-versa—both absorbing and extending a lineage that included oddball visionaries like Andy Warhol, Klaus Nomi, Prince, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Elton John, Madonna, and Missy Elliott. Most of her avant-garde gestures were extra-musical, a string of cheeky, absurdist visions realized entirely outside of the studio and only tangentially in conversation with her bloodless dance jams (Gaga herself has referred to that early work as “soulless electronic pop”). It’s not hard, now, to recall these stunts from memory: She was sewn into a dress fashioned from slabs of flank steak for the VMAs. She hatched herself from a semi-translucent egg at the Grammys. She hired a self-described “vomit artist” to puke a steady stream of syrupy green liquid onto her bosom during a SXSW performance. Her repeated and earnest disavowal of anything remotely normative was (and remains) plainly empowering for anyone sitting at home alone in her room, feeling like a true weirdo. The idea was always to fracture and reestablish a hierarchy. Only Gaga could turn “monster” into a term of endearment.
Lauryn Hill is one of the most idolized rappers of all time and an incredibly magnetizing singer who conveys resilience and heartache with every word. On her 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she found her truest, most sacred self and honored that person with everything she had: She celebrated the birth of her child, freed herself from exploitative relationships, and grappled with how her celebrity status impacted her art. Miseducation went on to win five Grammys, sold over 10 million copies, and made Hill the first female rapper to earn a diamond record. She famously never released a proper follow-up, but whenever she shows up on a new song or onstage, it’s still an event. As Carvell Wallace wrote in a retrospective review of Hill’s only album:
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a declaration of independence. It is a break-up letter to the bullshit routine of dealing with men who can’t stop hurting the women who love them. And it is a love letter to the liberated self, the maternal self and to God. It is an album of junctures: Between adolescence and adulthood, between Lauryn as one third of the Fugees and Lauryn as a woman on her own, between being a child and being a parent. (She conceived of the album at 22, single and pregnant with her firstborn.) At her best Lauryn Hill flirts with legitimate prophet status, digging to her deepest to harness the power greater than herself; a power we all need to survive and overcome. She offers it to us. I’m out here, she seems to say; you can be out here, too.
Startlingly prolific mixtape innovator. Originator of the Based freestyle. Leader of his own cult. Nemesis of NBA greats Kevin Durant and James Harden. Early Black Lives Matter supporter. College lecturer. Emoji tycoon. Cat lover. Troll. Cook. God. Lil B is all of these things, a singular star who in many ways set the blueprint for today’s anything-goes world of rap. As Meaghan Garvey wrote in her review of 2017’s Black Ken:
Lil B’s free-verse mindspray has nudged rappers away from more structured lyricism, and his tear-soaked Imogen Heap-core beats have spawned micro-genres of their own, but a purely stylistic reading of Lil B feels insufficient. His benevolent cult-leader persona—a Zenned-out internet addict in tiny pants with a direct line to the wise and mysterious Based God—has certainly laid the groundwork for a generation of social media myth-builders. But an oversimplified focus on B as ‘historical online figure,’ emphasizing his impact in terms of sheer virality, paints him foremost as a digital marketing mastermind—accurate, maybe, but a bit outside the point.
From her beginnings as a Biggie protege and member of Junior M.A.F.I.A., up through her years as a chart-topping superstar, Lil’ Kim has always laid herself bare, both lyrically and visually. At the height of her career, Kim courted controversy with her sexually explicit, take-no-prisoners rhymes. Only in recent years, as women in rap ushered in a renaissance, has the music world more accurately attributed Kim as a primary source. As Clover Hope wrote in a 2021 excerpt from her book The Motherlode:
Kim, at some point, decided to own that persona, becoming a dream girl men envisioned, rap’s ultimate sex symbol, praised for both her skills and her salesmanship of fucking. Before Kim, the top-selling women rappers—Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa—had been all about challenging sexism in hip-hop. Kim brought a raw sexual energy to the genre and became the model for a generation of female rappers caught in a battle between owning their sexuality and exploiting it. She made the new concept of a female rapper—with a sexy visual to go with their music—not a choice but a necessity.
Lil Peep’s star shone brightly but briefly. The rapper and singer born Gustav Elijah Åhr was 19 when he shared “Star Shopping,” the first song to show how movingly he blended rock, emo, rap, and pop to form a new emo-rap sound that would explode in popularity. He released a pair of iconic mixtapes, Crybaby and Hellboy, in 2016, before dropping his debut album Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1 in 2017. Three months after the album’s release, Lil Peep died at the age of 21. As Matthew Strauss wrote in 2018:
It was difficult to know Lil Peep. You could say he was sad or depressed. He had a lot of tattoos. He sang and rapped about drugs. He died tragically young.
People knew Gustav Åhr, though. “He gets paid to be sad,” Peep’s older brother Oskar told People on November 17, 2017, hardly more than a day after Peep died. “It’s what he made his name on. It’s what his image was in a sense.” That image made you think you knew Lil Peep as someone who willingly revealed his pain and struggles in his music. How could the kid who sang, “I used to wanna kill myself/Came up, still wanna kill myself,” be anything but deeply inconsolable? But Oskar also added, “He was not as sad as people think he was. It’s frustrating as someone who remembers a happy brother.”
Pretty much every Lil Uzi Vert show presents the opportunity to hear an enormous crowd of bodies screaming the words “all my friends are dead.” An apostle of Paramore whose fashion choices have made him a caricature of excess (shout out to the forehead diamond), Uzi quickly became the biggest star in a generation of young rappers making bangers with emo lyrics. As Alphonse Pierre wrote in a 2020 list of Uzi’s best songs:
Lil Uzi Vert has quickly become one of the most important rappers of the last decade, not just a product of a transitional moment in hip-hop but a defining star of it. In 2015, the then-20-year-old North Philadelphia rapper signed with Generation Now, the label owned by the legendary mixtape hosts Don Cannon and DJ Drama and partnered with Atlantic Records. The following year, he broke out with his debut tape for them, Luv Is Rage. Uzi’s tracks alternated between heartfelt love songs and stadium-ready anthems, mixing the blunt lyricism of Chicago drill, the hypnotic street melodies of Atlanta, and the high-energy freestyle spirit of his hometown. The tape became one of the first landmarks for a diverse, exciting rap scene that was emerging on SoundCloud.
Before Lorde was a free-spirited pop star strutting along the beach—taking cheeky ass pics, tossing her “cellular device” in the water—she was a shattered partygoer, a young woman tiding over heartbreak with another lime-slicked drink. But even before that, she was an ennui-filled 17-year-old who emerged onto the pop scene sneering at aristocratic orders—it’s in the moniker—preferring to make her own fun in unglamorous places, listening to Broken Social Scene. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in a review of 2013’s Pure Heroine:
In a moment when too many new artists seem afraid to offend or go off script, Lorde is an exciting contradiction: an aspiring pop star who’s had a major-label development deal since age 12 (she was discovered at a local talent show) but has retained a seemingly genuine iconoclastic streak. The other day she spoke too truthfully in an interview and accidentally insulted Taylor Swift; Katy Perry asked her to tour with her and—politely but firmly—she said no. With the global smash “Royals” (the first song in 17 years by a female solo artist to top Billboard’s alternative chart) she made her name by sneering at everything else on the radio. The message is clear: Lorde has introduced herself to the world as someone who gives very few fucks. Twenty seconds into her debut album, Pure Heroine, she’s already announced that she’s bored. Twice.
A cult indie rock band should form in some out-of-the way place and seem like a secret club that would want you as a member. They should have a cute name and use punctuation in funny ways and they should sing and shout their songs in a way that demands you sing and shout along. They’re both funny and honest. You know they’ll never make it big, but you’re just as sure that they’ll never suck—or at least that they would split up long before that would happen. They’re your band, and you don’t mind if other people don’t quite get them. All hail Los Campesinos!, the 21st century’s most endearing cult band. As Ryan Dombal wrote in a review of 2017’s Sick Scenes:
Gareth Campesinos! is our bard of throwing up. For a decade, nearly every word that has come out of the Los Campesinos! singer’s mouth has presented itself with rash inelegance, candidness, and the need to be ejected from his body this very second. But sometimes, as anyone who’s stared down the depths of a toilet bowl knows, vomit is just vomit. Like that time he sang of an awkward hookup that was blown when a girl upchucked all over his rented tuxedo; or when he recounted that early heartbreak when he got wasted, ate too many potato chips, and then deposited the greasy snack right back onto a soccer field. For Gareth, such trials are the punchline to humanity’s cruel joke. They are essential experiences, embarrassments that turn into collective elation once they hit open air. Because, for all its indecency, throwing up makes us feel better.
Low emerged in 1994 with a sound so unusual that it inspired its own subgenre: slowcore. But while many lesser acts sprung from such minimalist origins have ended up repeating themselves, Low have remained dynamic, resilient, and surprising, as evidenced by their breathtakingly experimental 2018 album Double Negative. Rich Juzwiak wrote of the record:
Double Negative would knock listeners on their asses coming from any band at any time, but it is extraordinary that Low is doing such challenging, relevant work 25 years into their career. Long gone are the days when the group could dumbfound with just a handful of sounds: the splat of a snare; guitar, and bass that sounded suspended in codeine; Alan Sparhawk’s perma-mourn; the heavenly Mimi Parker on halo. The prevailing slowcore sound of their first half-dozen albums cast Low’s musical identity in metal, to borrow an image from 2001’s landmark Things We Lost in the Fire, so much so that one could have easily overlooked the slow expansion of their sound over the last decade and a half.
The work on Double Negative, while often sounding completely radical in its own right, isn’t uncharacteristic, per se. It taps into the band’s wanderlust, its generous melodic sensibility, its considerable aptitude in creating atmosphere, not just in the abstract but in the realm of drone. The album is like a discovery of a new mutation of still-recognizable DNA. This new strain of sound isn’t just bold for Low; it’s just plain bold.
The London-born child of Sri Lankan refugees, M.I.A. was the sticky-fingered polyglot we needed but didn’t deserve in the early to mid-2000s—from the War on Terror and her gate-crashing debut, Arular, through the financial crisis and her era-defining masterpiece Kala, whose “Paper Planes” reflected culture’s aimless materialism in the form of an unlikely hit. Always contradictory, often inflammatory, M.I.A. didn’t stop her chaotic-good cyber salvos just because subprime securities collapsed: For 2013’s Matangi, she turned social media surveillance into a transcendent friendship ode and protested Saudi Arabia’s woman-driver ban with the thrilling video for “Bad Girls.” As Alex Frank wrote in a profile around the release of 2016’s AIM:
There’s something of that original M.I.A. spark on this album, the spark that made us all fall in love with a self-taught DIY artist who hustled her way through fashion college after living in a London council flat. She was the very first hipster pop star for a generation that has now created a space for many of them, from Robyn to Grimes to FKA twigs. She incorporated sounds from all over the world in a way that epitomized the internet’s turn-of-the-century promise. She wore neon ’80s hand-me-downs and bright British fashion when everyone else was still trying to look like the Strokes. She talked about immigration and social issues before “woke” was even a glimmer in the eyes of most musicians. Simply: For all her zigging and zagging, M.I.A. has been a massively consequential artist, and mostly we are better for it.
Between 2005 and 2011, M83 issued three increasingly ambitious and successful electro-pop classics that used big synths to make big music about big feelings. Band mastermind Anthony Gonzalez’s work is about as subtle as John Bender’s fist-pump at the end of The Breakfast Club and, if you can surrender to its earnest emotionalism, it’s just as indelible. As Devon Maloney wrote in a 2013 profile:
Gonzalez has spent years capturing his own nostalgia on record, trying to make it breathe and soar and thrill. After building a following across five studio albums, his own exuberant dreaminess struck a chord with the culture at large, producing a platinum single in “Midnight City.” Its accompanying 2011 double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, made an artistic case for longform ambition in an era of bite-sized consumption. All of his wistful fantasies came to life.
In 2012, a Canadian punk who used to go by the name Makeout Videotape crashed indie rock and made his mark as both a grinning prankster and a melancholy janglelord. As Mac DeMarco’s audience grew, he found new depth and subtlety—relatively speaking—on 2014’s Salad Days and 2017’s This Old Dog. As Mark Richardson wrote in his review of This Old Dog:
The thing people love about Mac DeMarco is also the thing people hate about Mac DeMarco. To fans, he’s a decidedly unpretentious singer-songwriter with a wacky sense of humor. His extracurricular gross-out antics—getting naked in videos, sticking a drumstick up his ass onstage—are evidence that he doesn’t take himself or the world too seriously, and is someone who rightly thinks rock music has room for the fun and silly. To his detractors, these stunts are at the very least an annoying mark of an archetype—the lazy, mugging, unshaven, drifting-through-life slob à la Bill Murray in Stripes—that has worn out its welcome in the 2010s. DeMarco’s actual music is chill, loping, slightly goofy, slightly druggy, and sometimes seemingly half-asleep, which is to say, it has such a clear relationship to his persona that it amplifies the reaction to his persona. You have to take the whole thing—the guy who shows up in videos and onstage, and the person singing these songs—together.
Mac Miller accomplished a great deal in his short time on Earth, but he was always in the process of becoming. Artistically, he never stayed in one place for long, and his life and work were filled with paradoxes—he rapped about the ache of loneliness while building a loving community, and he could make an infectious banger out of his struggle with substance abuse and depression. Each record dug a little deeper and brought a new sense of possibility, which made his 2018 death at age 26 that much more tragic. As Alphonse Pierre wrote in a personal essay following Miller’s passing:
Another damn white rapper. Did we not learn our lesson from Asher Roth? I refused to click on the HotNewHipHop link when I came across Mac Miller’s K.I.D.S mixtape in 2010. Eventually, the murmurs of a Wiz Khalifa co-sign gave me the motivation I needed to go on my cruddy family desktop and download the tape to my iPod classic. And shit. All of a sudden, I couldn’t stop running it back. I came across some of his music videos, and this clean shaven, brightly smiling kid only three or four years older than me was really spitting. Soon enough, I watched Mac change, navigate life, and fight to not lose himself, all while feeling those same feelings myself.
In the past 25 years, Madlib has risen to eminence as the underground rap polymath of a generation. Raised in Oxnard, California, the producer and multi-instrumentalist spent the ’90s studying jazz, hazy soul, half-melted R&B, and the genre-muddling beats of his eventual collaborator J Dilla. Both shared a magpie eye for vintage sounds, but Madlib showed little interest in translating his jaundiced vision into pop, instead coveting the attic-y and moth-bitten. His resulting body of work—released via a toy box of alter-egos like Yesterdays New Quintet and the helium-voiced rapper Quasimoto—is a sprawling, singular genre unto itself. As Andy Cush wrote in a review of 2021’s Sound Ancestors:
Listening to music can be a way of making it. Few artists understand this better than Madlib. Across dozens of releases and nearly as many alter egos, the West Coast hip-hop producer, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, and de facto archivist born Otis Jackson Jr. has worked chiefly by flipping cherished records from his collection, inviting audiences to hear what he hears: the unique emotional texture of this particular vocal line, a saxophone solo distilled to its most elegant single bar. Madlib places these moments at the center of our attention, stuttering and alive, their significance impossible to ignore for those of us who might miss it otherwise. Cue up one of his beats side-by-side with its source material and you may be surprised at the similarity. But such an attempt at demystification would miss the point of his music. Some producers specialize in manipulating their samples until they are unrecognizable; for Madlib, the hearing itself—the noticing—is as important as whatever happens after that.
The Magnetic Fields redefined, if not single-handedly invented, dead-pan indie pop. Perhaps best known for their 1999 triptych 69 Love Songs, their prolific catalog spans 30 years, each work instantly identifiable by leader Stephin Merritt’s biting wit and hang-dog baritone. As Sam Sodomsky wrote of their 2017 LP 50 Song Memoir:
If there’s one thing Merritt has learned over his three decades as a songwriter—besides how to seamlessly insert limericks into songs—it’s how to pace himself on record, keeping his quasi-showtunes from becoming cloying, his jokier ones from turning precious, and his ballads from sounding melodramatic.
“I guess there’d be other fish in the sea/But I don’t want fishes and you don’t want me,” he sings in the exquisite “’05 Never Again.” It’s the exact kind of song that would turn to putty in the hands of a lesser writer, but Merritt knows how to wring it for emotional resonance. In fact, its place near the end of the album almost signals—more than the impact of the breakup—his growing mastery as a songwriter. It suggests that our deepest wisdom can be located in our most personal thoughts. “I wish I had something better to do,” he sings, “But even my own clothes remind me of you.”
At a time when R&B singers were adept at being freaky, Maxwell attuned his frequency to a sound more intimate, under a new subgenre called neo-soul. From 1996’s Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite on, the enigmatic crooner has been a master at using instrumental jams as backdrops for sensuous riffs on love and matrimony. His music builds a sensuous world around the endless, perhaps fruitless, pursuit of monogamy, even when the idea of a 10-minute groove was (and still is) quaint and foreign. As Jason King wrote in a 2018 Sunday Review of Urban Hang Suite:
The long-stroke idealization of sex as intimate connection ran counter to romance-challenged, freaky-sex tunes storming the charts around the same time, like R. Kelly’s 1995 “You Remind Me of Something” and Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me.” While far too many hip-hop and R&B artists were busy relegating women to the status of video honeys, Maxwell promoted his debut album praising the opposite sex and, according to at least one journalist, telling interviewers he believed God was a woman. What’s more, Maxwell’s cosmological orientation was squarely rooted in R&B, not in hip-hop, which distinguished him from more ruffneck peers like D’Angelo, Ginuwine, and Mark Morrison. Maxwell was selling a bohemian throwback version of gentleman soul at a moment marked by intense commercial pressure for black male R&B artists to keep it real and pledge allegiance to the street.
From the onset of her career in the late ’10s, Megan Thee Stallion invited legions of women to experience the joy of letting loose. Amid a slew of mixtapes and EPs, she’s released just one studio album (2020’s Good News), yet grown into a feminist icon whose main concern is her own satisfaction and pleasure. She’s spread that philosophy via television appearances, social media, and, above all, her music (most notably, on one hell of a slippery collaboration.) As Rawiya Kameir wrote in 2019:
Her music is both lustful and menacing, presenting a world in which women’s pleasure and ambition are paramount and inextricable, where men can either get with the program or “hit that door, here go ahead and leave,” as she raps on her new single “Sex Talk.” But, as she said in a recent radio interview, “It’s not just about being sexy, it’s about being confident and me being confident in my sexuality.” One of the show’s hosts, maybe a little condescendingly, suggests this answer might be the result of media training. And while Megan’s emphasis on confidence could sound embarrassingly cliché coming from someone else, there’s something especially appealing about her brand of feminism, which takes misandry to its logical conclusion: the utter irrelevance of men outside the bedroom. “Men are objects to me,” she continued. “[Men’s] opinions, it’s not even the icing, it’s the sprinkle on the cake.” Listening to her rap feels a little like that old self-help practice: figure out what you want and then perform the action that will lead to that outcome.
Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff must have realized early on in life that repetition is the mother of all learning. Their earliest commercial singles, “Hannah Montana” and “Versace,” bear an irresistible droning rhyme scheme that plays like the catchiest subliminal messaging. Thanks to massive hits like “Bad and Boujee” and “MotorSport,” the trio’s rap technique very quickly became an influential part of the rap lexicon, copied many times over. As Jonah Bromwich wrote of “Bad and Boujee” in Pitchfork’s 200 Best Songs of the 2010s:
The runaway success of “Bad and Boujee” created its own pop culture ecosystem. The Migos became mainstream stars. “Rain drops, drop tops” became a catchphrase. Takeoff’s absence from the track became a memeable conspiracy theory. The song itself is a perfect distillation of everything that makes the Migos irresistible: a Gucci Mane-derived gift for quotables, a sizzling Metro Boomin beat, ad-libs for days, and an ear for perfectly placed guest stars—in this case, a before-he-was-huge Lil Uzi Vert, rapping about falling asleep in a jacuzzi. Soon enough, the Migos were matching chart feats once set by the Beatles, cementing their status as generational titans.
As hip-hop became the dominant force in popular culture—and Atlanta, the dominant force in hip-hop—trap-inspired production suffused the mainstream. Among the sound’s biggest proponents: Mike WiLL Made-It, aka Michael Len Williams II, a Georgia native who got his start making records for Gucci Mane while still in high school. Mike WiLL went on to produce many of the most popular songs of the 2010s, as he adapted his immersive, detailed instrumentals and thundering beats across hip-hop and pop. As Sheldon Pearce wrote in 2017, Mike WiLL made so many hits, even he can’t seem to keep track:
Mike WiLL Made-It, so named by Gucci Mane in the thick of his prolific mixtape run, has expanded his repertoire with radical pivots—zany psychedelic trips and chic pop promenades. Since announcing himself on Meek Mill’s chest-beating fame-measurer “Tupac Back,” he has produced everything from spacey trap ballads (Future’s “Turn On the Lights”), to strip club anthems (“Bandz a Make Her Dance”), sensual R&B massagers (Ciara’s “Body Party”), pop bangers (Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”), diva tributes (Beyoncé’s “Formation”), and even ad fodder, on his way to becoming one of rap’s most versatile soundmen. When WiLL shared instrumentals from his 2016 discography, it was a dizzying flex, a colorful mosaic of pop-trap stems that omitted key moments by mistake. There are so many jams he forgets some.
Few contemporary songwriters are better chroniclers of loneliness and infatuation than Mitski, the Japanese-American indie rock artist who’s made a decade’s worth of gutting, sad songs about violent loves, racial alienation, and depression. Over time, her sound has gotten clearer and shinier, but it’s no less wrenching. As Quinn Moreland wrote in a review of 2018’s Be the Cowboy:
The album delves into that harrowing moment in the vanity mirror when you realize what others see does not match your reflection. How can they think you are so big when you are actually so small? The solitude inside “Nobody” feels so comically inescapable that it is almost worth celebrating; she rolls the word around in her mouth, relishing the universe of possibilities within its emptiness. On the jangly and vaguely country “Lonesome Love,” Mitski slyly delivers the record’s heaviest hitting line: “Cause nobody butters me up like you, and nobody fucks me like me.” Even if Mitski channels an exaggerated aspect of herself or is performing a character—in interviews she has described a woman whose icy exterior hides the vast cosmos of her internal passions—she commits herself to capture the truth of each role.
Active since the early ’90s, Detroit’s Moodymann, aka Kenny Dixon Jr., is a singular figure in electronic music. His funk- and soul-sampling productions are as deep as house music gets, by turns playful, sensual, and militant. In a 2018 piece highlighting some of Moodymann’s best tracks, Philip Sherburne wrote:
Where electronic music’s dominant narrative has always put its chips on futurism, Dixon is a dyed-in-the-wool classicist. His sample-heavy productions have drawn on artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Chic, not to mention gospel music, and his beats have always remained rooted in disco’s bump and swirl. Rather than positing a break from the past, he explicitly positions himself within established traditions—soul music, roller disco, the black church.
Dixon was once known for his righteous fury: A note in his 1997 debut album Silentintroduction read, “To all you white suburban kids, sampling black music all the time, try some rock’n’roll for a change, you’re making black music sound silly, weak, and tired.” But in recent years, it’s his audacity and his wit that have come to the fore. In a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in 2010, he confessed to having made a track on the demo equipment at Guitar Center once, when he was young and broke. That admission turned into the setup for a soliloquy—“It ain’t what you got; it’s what you do with what you have, you understand? And it ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it”—that has, ironically enough, become sample fodder in its own right. The site WhoSampled notes nine tracks that allegedly incorporate elements of Dixon’s speech, and there are almost certainly more out there. That Dixon spent the entire lecture having his afro combed out only contributed to his mystique: part trickster, part philosopher, and all keeper of the flame.
Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney broke through in the mid-2010s with a quavering, powerful voice and shapeshifting music that draws on folk and avant-garde pop. In 2017, the Los Angeles-based artist released his debut, Aromanticism, a stirring take on intimacy that defined his equally lonesome and sensuous sound. As Rawiya Kameir wrote of Sumney’s expansive follow-up græ as part of her cover story profile:
Moses Sumney’s introspection is on full display on græ, an album whose title acts as a one-word summary. His interpretation of greyness is not just the kind of cloudiness that sometimes marks his temperament, but the kind that rejects binaries, that asserts that life is not lived in blacks or whites but in the gloriously complex in-betweens. The album is sprawling and yet tight, dense but accessible, an elevated version of the things that have become his signatures in recent years: artful lyricism, conceptual depth, playful vocals and melodies, unexpected sweeps of soundscape. Throughout græ, Moses depicts a world where intimacy offers both sustenance and suffering.
The album comes at an important time for Moses, an unusual artist who occupies spaces that shouldn’t overlap. Though he is reticent to acknowledge it, græ has the potential to make him a star, or to cement his position as an indie fave. He, it seems, wants neither, and both.
One of indie rock’s hardest working bands, the National evolved with the same patience and unexpected payoff as their stately, slow-building anthems. Fronted by vocalist Matt Berninger, whose baritone mumble often accompanies the kind of unromantic adult anxieties rarely found in rock music, the Cincinnati transplants outlasted many of their peers in the Brooklyn art community of the 2000s. They now serve as the heart of a wide-ranging network of projects and collaborations that has included festivals, an artist-friendly streaming platform, and production work for one of the world’s biggest pop stars. As Jayson Greene wrote in a review of 2017’s Sleep Well Beast:
Like R.E.M., whose ongoing existence became its own kind of raison d’être as they aged, the National offer testimony to something we don’t often celebrate: Enduring is a superpower of its own. The fact that no one can talk about the National without invoking their dependability might feel a bit unfair to them, or at least a bit tired. And yet, there’s a reason it remains such a dominating lens through which to examine them. Consistency is not boring. Consistency is a miracle, a small act of defiance against entropy. Berninger has compared the band to a marriage, as all band members do, but their music feels particularly devoted to the quotidian nature of lifelong unions, the way that your success is measured in time, how each year together turns your commitment into its own kind of monument. There’s a reason anniversary cards say things like “All these years later, I still love you.” It’s because the miracle isn’t in the “love,” it’s in the “still.”
A former drummer and vocalist for a couple of scrappy Canadian bands (Cub, Maow), Neko Case reigned over alt-country in the early 2000s and indie rock well into the 2010s, both as a solo artist and as a member of the supergroups New Pornographers and case/lang/veirs. Renowned for her indomitable singing, she has always demonstrated an equally commanding voice as a songwriter, spelunking further and further into the human condition. As Sam Sodomosky wrote in his 2018 review of Hell-On:
For all of Neko Case’s masterfully delivered tales of killer animals and sentient weather patterns, her decades of work have revealed an increasingly human worldview where mercy is shown only to those who deserve it. She sings of bloodshed and mystery and revenge, but in her albums there are also pleas for basic compassion that are intimate and deeply felt. “I’m a man,” she sang in a definitive lyric from her strikingly personal album from 2013, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight. “It’s what kind of animal I am.” As the scenery shifts on Hell-On, Case spends these songs siphoning wisdom from horror and searching for connection amid human cruelty and chaos. “Be careful of the natural world,” she cautions in the opening title track. You’d be wise to take her advice.
It’s almost hard to believe that Jeff Mangum’s Neutral Milk Hotel has been silent on record for over 20 years. The band’s tiny oeuvre, steeped in folk and dusty junk-shop Americana, and highlighted by 1998’s beloved In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, moves along a comet-like orbit, vanishing into deep space for long periods of time and then roaring back to Earth on the strength of some precipitating event, such as a live reunion or a reissue. Each time it happens, Mangum’s darkly surreal songs find a new generation of listeners who need what only this music can deliver. As Sasha Geffen wrote in their retrospective review of 1996’s On Avery Island:
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s thematic ambitions can make it feel bigger than any one person: It’s an album about death and loss and evil, and about how human beings keep searching for the good in ourselves despite our long history of being awful to each other. On Avery Island’s scope is narrower. Mangum sings about himself and the people he knows. Instead of mountaintops and oceans, he sets his songs in bedrooms and public parks. His characters smoke cigarettes and hate themselves for being horny. They break up and hook up and yearn for each other like teenagers. They fall asleep on other people’s floors, listening to the rain hit the streets outside. Mangum swirls mundane imagery into surrealist fantasy, sprinkling bizarre references to angels and halos throughout, as if contemplating an aunt’s ceramic cherubim while on an acid trip.
Hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, the New Pornographers barrelled onto the scene at the turn of the century with the type of ecstatic power-pop anthems that other indie rock bands were often too self-conscious or belligerently difficult to offer up. Featuring then-rising indie stars Carl Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar of Destroyer, the band boasted an especially deep bench of talent, a fact that Matt LeMay broke down in his review of their second album, 2003’s Electric Version:
Generally speaking, “supergroup” isn’t a word that gets thrown around a lot. The term is usually reserved for one-off vanity projects by famous people with too much time on their hands. And besides, the results of the supergroup collaboration are almost invariably doomed to be regarded as secondary and inconsequential. It seems odd, then, that a pack of talented but largely overlooked Canadians (and one up-and-coming, Canadian-by-way-of-Virginia alt-country singer) would come to be spoken of as if they were indie rock’s answer to the Traveling Wilburys. But listening to the New Pornographers’ stunning debut, Mass Romantic, the term “supergroup” seems surprisingly fitting, if not in the traditional sense of the word. Certainly, Mass Romantic was as far from an insubstantial vanity project as one can imagine—but, just as certainly, it doesn’t sound like the product of just some average, run-of-the-mill “group.”
Nick Cave’s music draws on life at its most elemental. You listen to his Old Testament-style narratives and hear love, murder, anguish, and lust, featuring people who are gripped by anguish and angry at God. And then once in a while he’ll take a detour and throw in a catchy rocker with a character complaining about not getting laid. Whether he’s working solo or with the Bad Seeds, or making film scores or wilding out with Grinderman, Cave has created his own shadowy universe. You have to search long and hard to find a punk rocker who has aged so gracefully. As Stuart Berman wrote in a review of 2016’s Skeleton Tree:
People die in Nick Cave songs. They get wiped out in floods, zapped in electric chairs, and mowed down en masse in saloon shoot-outs. For Cave, death serves as both a dramatic and rhetorical device—it’s great theater, but it’s also swift justice for those who have done wrong, be it in the eyes of a lover or the Lord. As I once heard him quip in concert: “This next one’s a morality tale… they’re all morality tales, really. It’s what I do.”
Nicolás Jaar made a name for himself when he was still a college student crafting bewitchingly slow minimal-techno tracks made for loft parties that stretched well into the night. But in the years since his celebrated debut, Space Is Only Noise, he has pushed himself far beyond those origins, turning his hand to experimental soundtrack projects, heady psychedelic rock, and more. As Megan Buerger wrote of Jaar’s 2020 album Cenizas:
Over time, Nicolás Jaar’s music has become increasingly confrontational and politically charged. 2011’s Space Is Only Noise introduced listeners to his disruptive spirit and global tastes. Sirens, his ambient-leaning follow-up, conceived partly in reaction to the rise of Donald Trump, illuminated the cyclical nature of power and the illusion of democracy. Jaar now runs a handful of musical operations—the excellent techno-club alias Against All Logic, the Dave Harrington team-up Darkside, and his own label, Other People—all of which delight in dissonance and rage against cliché. Outside of his solo projects, he’s worked with FKA twigs on her 2019 album MAGDALENE, crafted pipe organ compositions for a cathedral in the Netherlands, collaborated with sound artists in the West Bank, and performed through speakers buried in the Arabian desert for an installation about land rights and climate change. Jaar is determined, he’s often repeated, to explore electronica as a form of protest: “Can electronic music talk about the world around us? Can we get out of this abstract bubble? How can we resist?”
Noname isn’t just an incisive, self-reflective rapper who’s made two stellar, deeply personal albums. She’s also an activist and public intellectual who’s teaching and learning leftist politics alongside her fans in real time. She tweets about ways to organize, runs a book club, and releases music that dreams of revolution. As Rawiya Kameir wrote in a 2020 essay that touched on how artists are grappling with issues of social justice today:
The rapper Noname, a deft storyteller whose career began alongside Chance the Rapper in Chicago’s youth poetry scene, had begun publicly documenting her ideological evolution in early 2019; when she tweeted a defense of Black capitalism last year, she was flooded with criticism by socialist-minded fans. But instead of becoming defensive and issuing a Notes-app apology, she engaged with the ideas she was challenged with, did her own research, and publicly admitted she was wrong—much like she did when she discovered her original stage name included an offensive slur. In that twin vulnerability and accountability, I see a model for what it might look like for artists and the general public to engage with one another in a meaningful way. “It’s important for folks to see me do this,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “To see me learning, but to see me struggling and not being afraid to continue.”
Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never project could only have emerged in a time of media saturation and information overload, but he made life inside the barrage into something beautiful. It’s not that his electronic music sounds “internet-y,” necessarily—he’s fascinated by film scores and vintage synths dating back decades—but more how it’s so densely referential and invites endless exploration, with each sonic gesture leading down a new wormhole. In a 2013 profile, Mike Powell wrote:
Though all of Lopatin’s albums as Oneohtrix Point Never could be classified as spacey electronic music, his style has evolved at a near-constant rate. His early recordings are dim, insular pieces of music characterized by handmade cassette loops, percolating keyboard arpeggios played on an old Roland Juno-60 he inherited from his dad, and washes of ambience that sound like third-hand field recordings of weather on other planets.
Returnal, released in 2010, had a bigger, cleaner, and more conventionally epic sound. In retrospect, Lopatin knows that album attracted a larger audience to his music but he also feels like it didn’t really represent who he wanted to be as a musician: It was too serious, too emotionally one-note—too obvious. The foggy, loop-based follow-up Replica sounded like a deliberate reaction: Toy-like and repetitive instead of open-ended, made over the course of a few feverish days using micro-samples from old commercials, an album conceived of almost as a game instead of some oceanic chunk of personal expression. “Musty” is the word he uses for it, and he means it as a compliment.
During the late ’00s, Paramore stood out in a crowded field for emo-tinged pop-punk largely due to leader Hayley Williams’ cathartic, expressive wailing. The band eventually dipped into new wave and then synth-pop with 2013’s Paramore and 2017’s After Laughter, and in recent years a new generation of forthright fans has followed in her original footsteps. As Quinn Moreland wrote in a recent piece on Paramore’s influence:
Since breaking through with 2007’s Riot!, Paramore has consistently used a combination of emotional honesty, optimism, and spiky guitar hooks to both mirror and smash through the walled-off world of teen angst. A few years ago, the band’s sound and spirit encouraged indie rockers like Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy to pick up guitars, and rapper Lil Uzi Vert once referred to Hayley Williams as “the best… of my generation.” Now, Paramore’s influence is being felt by a new group of artists navigating the turbulence of youth, when every heartbreak and setback can feel apocalyptic. The band’s sound and snarl can be heard in the gleeful middle finger that is Olivia Rodrigo’s No. 1 hit “good 4 u,” the Hot Topic thrash of Willow Smith’s “Transparent Soul,” the diaristic bliss of girl in red’s “Serotonin,” and Billie Eilish’s caustic eye-rolls. That these artists were an average of 5-and-a-half years old when Riot! was released only underscores Paramore’s staying power—and Williams’ role as a sage pop-punk den mother.
Mike Hadreas began Perfume Genius in the shadows, with two albums of delicate piano melodies, vocals buried beneath clouds of feedback, and heart-rending honesty about the hardships of living and loving as a queer person. As he’s gone on to incorporate elements of glam rock, baroque pop, and country, Hadreas’ music as Perfume Genius has been cast in even sharper, searing relief. As Jenn Pelly wrote of the song “Queen” for our “50 Songs That Define the Last 50 Years of LGBTQ+ Pride” list:
Mike Hadreas had already emerged as a powerful queer voice in music by the time of 2014’s Too Bright—not least for his tearful 2010 ballad “Mr. Peterson,” in which told the devastating tale of a troubled teacher who “let me smoke weed in his truck if I could convince him I loved him enough.” On “Queen,” Hadreas channeled a lifetime of cold stares from strangers and draped them in sheets of glitter. In seven words, within a slowly-churning glam-pop daydream, he wrote a generation-defining anthem and sang it resiliently: “No family is safe/When I sashay.”
This refrain cleverly, thrillingly skewered the very notions of gay panic and “family values,” making “Queen” a classic upon arrival. It is the sound of defiantly being femme in public, and it immediately topped the pantheon of Hadreas’ best songs. “I sometimes see faces of blank fear when I walk by,” Hadreas has said of the song. “If these fucking people want to give me some power—if they see me as some sea witch with penis tentacles that are always prodding and poking and seeking to convert the muggles—well, here she comes.”
To say Pharrell is partly responsible for the most popular, culture-shifting sounds ever to be emitted in music isn’t hyperbole. While as an artist, his catalog is a grab bag, his production work both solo and with partner Chad Hugo as the Neptunes has spanned generations, from the era of N.E.R.D, Noreaga, and Clipse to his recent work with acts like Migos, Solange, and Ariana Grande. Just listen to this supercut of songs that feature his signature four-count intro to be reminded of his decades-long consistency. As Carrie Battan wrote in 2014:
Pharrell Williams occupies the sideline of culture so compellingly that it often becomes its own unique stage. Since his 40th birthday last year—more than a decade removed from his heyday with Neptunes partner Chad Hugo—he’s effectively pushed the most ubiquitous pockets of popular music toward a groove-fueled, nearly-adult-contemporary space. And though his evolving personal tastes have caused seismic changes to what we hear on the radio every day, he’s maintained an uncanny ease through the years (along with a science-stumping agelessness).
With his hushed voice and his faith that every fleeting thought and passing emotion might reveal a deeper truth, Phil Elverum of the Microphones and Mount Eerie brought new intimacy to indie rock. In the early days, circa 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2, that meant meditations on natural forces and the mundane aspects of consciousness. Years later, after he lost his wife, Geneviève Castrée, to cancer, Elverum grappled with an overwhelming nightmare of loss and confusion. But his essential approach has been remarkably consistent and speaks to the power of simplicity—if you look deeply enough and say something true, a quiet melody and basic chord progression is all you need to get it across. As Jayson Greene wrote of A Crow Looked at Me, which was recorded in the wake of Castrée’s death, as part of a 2017 profile:
The album sounds like an Elverum work. The music is low and murmuring. His voice is hushed and conversational. The theme of impermanence can still be felt. But the difference between this A Crow Looked at Me and everything else he’s done is the difference between charting a voyage around the Earth and undertaking it. It is a profoundly detailed dispatch from grief’s rawest place—the moments still inside the blast radius, when your ears are ringing and you feel the shock of mortification slowly spreading to new corners of your existence every day.
Unlike many works about grief, though, there is no glance towards redemptive larger meaning, which makes it all the more bracing. “Her absence is a scream saying nothing,” Elverum sings on a song called “Emptiness Pt. 2,” drawing the word “scream” out until it is more like an ambient hum, the buzz of a newly barren existence. Listening to it is like pressing your hand against ice and leaving it there.
On her debut album, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers distinguished her pensive folk-rock with an unusually expressive voice and an uncommon eye for captivating details. But with the devastating catharsis, wry jokes, and low-key psychedelia of 2020’s Punisher, she arrived at greatness. In his review of that album, Sam Sodomsky wrote:
Phoebe Bridgers is a master of collapse. The 25-year-old California native writes songs for those moments when things fall apart, when language fails, when you long for so much distance that you need a spaceship to reach it. While Punisher is only her second full-length collection as a solo artist, Bridgers has already established a distinct worldview. Her songs can be autobiographical—2017’s “Motion Sickness” bluntly described an emotionally abusive relationship with a since-spurned, one-time mentor—but her writing is too self-aware and wide-ranging to feel confessional. It can be sad, but she is also the first to call bullshit on letting one emotion consume her.
Across the 2000s, Phoenix honed their sophisticated take on arena rock music enough to actually start headlining arenas around the world. Led by singer Thomas Mars’ yearning pleas and a bounty of pinpoint guitar hooks, the French band more than filled a hole left by the waning Strokes with 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That and especially 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. In his review of that breakthrough album, Ryan Dombal wrote:
The issue of thematic directness is especially important to Phoenix—this is an established indie band writing songs about love that are armed with hooks primed for a mainstream embrace. Just listen to the invincible crescendo of “Countdown”—especially that little Coldplay-esque piano twinkle about three and a half minutes in—and realize that these guys are a few Chris Martin-isms away from staggering ubiquity. They’re a bona fide “should be bigger” band.
Flaunting a devil-may-care style marked by squeaking ad-libs and a delivery that made it sound like he was rapping while chewing gum, Playboi Carti helped lay a foundation for a community of rappers on SoundCloud in the 2010s. He also pissed off a lot of hip-hop fans who were taught to respect traditional lyricism above all else. Like a nihilistic ’70s punk, he gleefully destroyed the typical rules of rap, making up his own along the way. As Evan Rytlewski wrote in his review of Carti’s second album, Die Lit:
Being a great rapper has never been a prerequisite for making great rap music, but few rappers have ever tested that premise quite as aggressively as Playboi Carti. On his self-titled 2017 debut, the twitchy Atlanta rapper compensated for his shortcomings as a lyricist with vision and spirit, bouncing his sticky ad-libs off of gloopy, gummy beats that played out with the insane logic of a Double Dare obstacle course. ‘Damn, my shit so radical,’ Carti bragged, and it truly was. Yet, amazingly, that project sounds almost conservative compared to Die Lit, a 57-minute sugar high that’s even wilder, more disorienting, and more perversely infectious than its predecessor.
Die Lit is all cream filling, no Oreo. It’s letting a 4-year-old pour his own salad dressing then watching as he absolutely floods his plate with Hidden Valley Ranch. It’s those levels of Mario where the pipes and clouds spew so many coins and one-ups at you that you wonder why you spent all those other levels collecting them one by one. This is music that fundamentally recalibrates the brain’s reward centers.
In November 2018, before he even had any music out, Pop Smoke appeared on the YouTube channel of New York street rap interviewer Melz TV with the confidence of a comic book villain promising he would soon take over Brooklyn. The only problem: He wasn’t aiming high enough. Soon, his roaring voice could be heard on every block in New York City, from the row houses of Canarsie to apartment complexes up in the Bronx, and well beyond. Just as he was gearing up to explode into pop culture’s stratosphere, he was shot and killed as part of a botched robbery in February 2020. His baritone hooks still boom through his hometown, and his hit “Dior” turned into a protest anthem in the city last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the knee of the police. As Alphonse Pierre wrote of that moment:
In New York, a Black teenager’s relationship with the NYPD is tense. Have you ever had an NYPD officer throw you against the wall and aggressively pat you down in search of drugs you never had? Have you ever felt the chill run down your spine when you’re driving through the city and you see that cop car pull a U-turn to follow you? Have you ever made that eye contact with an officer where you can just tell they think nothing of you? Every Black kid in New York has—and Pop Smoke had, too.
It feels fitting that Pop Smoke is even now acting as the voice of New York’s often unheard Black kids. The kids who wish that they, too, could just buy luxury things and make sure their Amiri jeans don’t slip off while Woo Walking at the function, all without a lingering fear in the back of their minds. “Dior” is cathartic in all that it encapsulates, a song that holds many feelings at once: the frustration of seeing a friend jailed, the fun of flirting and acquiring the latest designer clothes (so you can flirt some more), the sobering reality of knowing that it all could end with a snap. It openly unifies and helps define our current rebellion.
Few melodies before or after Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II” have been so instantly menacing, distinguishable, and poetic all at once. Those same qualities also defined the music of Prodigy and Havoc, a duo who helped form the vocabulary and bedrock of New York rap in the 1990s. Prodigy in particular stood firm in this authenticity throughout his solo career, until his death in 2017. As Jayson Greene wrote in 2014:
The Infamous marked the moment that the language in gangsta rap shifted from corner scrambles and specific vendettas to all-out war, endless and impersonal. “Every angle of the car was smoked out and tinted/So we couldn’t tell if the enemy was in it,” Prodigy raps on “Trife Life.” He’s not targeting anyone in particular—just “the enemy.” This was the logical conclusion to the lyrical (and literal) arms race in mid-’90s gangsta rap; Mobb Deep got all the way to the end first, and said everything best. The album’s most famous and oft-quoted lyrics remain “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from,’ from “Survival of the Fittest,” but Havoc’s “Q.U.–Hectic” line “Real like an innocent child that turned killer” tells it just as well: From here on out, this would the only kind of reality Havoc and P would explore, or acknowledge.
The partnership between brothers Pusha-T and Malice first ignited with Clipse’s 2002 breakout “Grindin’,” a Neptunes-produced single that had every rap fan banging on anything that resembled wood. During their astonishing 2000s run, Clipse released several classic albums and mixtapes, perfecting a coke rap aesthetic that was thoroughly catchy and hardcore. After the pair went their separate ways in the early ‘10s, Pusha-T’s star rose, fueled by various controversies (most notably a feud with Drake) and a string of increasingly great solo albums. As Sean Fennessy wrote in his review of Clipse’s album Hell Hath No Fury in 2006:
With the long-delayed, viciously imagined Hell Hath No Fury, Clipse—hip-hop’s meanest, smartest duo—have done what a gathering collection of internet seekers, record-store goers, and street corner mixtape shoppers hoped they might: release a classic. With musical partners the Neptunes, Clipse have crafted 12 unrelenting tales of desperation and distribution, glamour and gloating. Lyrically, the album is spare and incisive—wordplay abounds but the punches are quick and devastating—and musically, Malice and Pusha-T have arguably snatched the best dozen Neptunes tracks in years. Together, the quartet has crafted an album that’s sonically deep, dark, and one of 2006’s finest.
As a co-founder and rhythmic core of the Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson shaped a new, soulful generation of independent hip-hop. As the Roots were navigating new commercial success at the turn of the millennium, Quest was already looking for ways to be more than just a drummer. The groove-minded percussionist further expanded his influence over the 2000s as a producer, contributing to heavy-hitter records by D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Common. With his authority well established, Quest became Jimmy Fallon’s bandleader before parlaying his vault of music-history appreciation into directing this year’s award-winning documentary Summer of Soul. In a retrospective review of the Roots’ 1999 classic Things Fall Apart, Marcus J. Moore wrote:
Before the sessions for Things Fall Apart began, drummer and bandleader ?uestlove was exploring new opportunities beyond the Roots. He was more concerned with recording D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate than he was with his own group. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave the Roots, but still, his outside projects created resentment among band members who questioned his focus. “In my head at that time, the notion of a Roots album was a distant third,” ?uest wrote in his 2013 memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues. He was spending time with Voodoo engineer Russell Elevado, learning new ways to manipulate sound to give his own music a more granular, less studied feel. He wanted to be a heralded producer like DJ Premier and J Dilla, but his band’s work felt remarkably clean—even sterile—in comparison. The best rap of that era had to feel at least a little gritty: Though the Notorious B.I.G. was signed to Bad Boy, his 1997 album Life After Death had plenty of dark, violent narratives. The Wu’s massive double album, Wu-Tang Forever, was full of woozy street bangers, courtesy of the group’s production team, with the RZA at the helm. Realizing he needed to improve as a producer, ?uest learned how to play drums “dirty,” taking Dilla’s lead and dragging his percussion just a bit to make the beat seem off-kilter.
“I hope there is a long future for us and we can build something new,” the Rapture’s Luke Jenner said in 2019, ahead of a brief run of reunion shows. We still hope that’s true. Over the course of three albums before breaking up in 2014, the New York dance-punk band matured into beatific and magisterial art-rockers. But their 2003 debut LP Echoes, which became Pitchfork’s No. 1 album of the year and captured the zeitgeist of an entire era of indie rock, has always been their defining moment. As Ryan Schreiber wrote when naming Echoes the number one album of 2003:
Of the hundreds of dance-punk albums to flood the underground, none even began to approach this album’s crystalline vision. Treble-charged guitars attacked like guard dogs and back alley killers, lunging out with knives drawn and stabbing furiously. Keyboards reflected dirty neon like rainy streets and the Hudson River’s toxic glow. Live drums locked with pre-programmed electronic ones in sweaty, hedonistic neo-disco trances that instantly filled floors like Paradise Garage in its prime—although unlike so many of Larry Levan’s Stephanie Mills and Crown Heights Affair cuts, movement wasn’t imperative; this record was as devastating in the club as in your cubicle.
In retrospect, there’s no question now that this sound was the gold standard most aspired to by young bands this year, and for a number of very good reasons: It was the most innovative, it was the most inspiring, and with the evening news stuck on an infinite loop of war casualties, economic misery, pedophilia, and corporate downsizing, it was the most fun. When this era enjoys its renaissance in 15 years, we will remember this album: Nothing says 2003 more.
Catalan singer Rosalía Vila Tobella’s debut album, 2017’s Los Ángeles, was an unusual proposition, filtering her intimate understanding of the flamenco canon through an aesthetic closer to minimalist indie rock. The following year, her breakout LP, El Mal Querer, was nothing short of a revelation. Incorporating a startling mixture of trap, R&B, and reggaetón along with her trademark palmas and melismas, here was the arrival of a singer with a peerless voice and the artistic vision to match. But Rosalía’s rise has not been without controversy, particularly around her coronation as a figurehead of so-called “Latin” music, despite her lack of roots in Latin America. As the mainstream American music industry opens its arms more widely to Spanish-language music, more work remains to be done. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote of El Mal Querer in 2018:
As the internet homogenizes individual music cultures into a big, studio-quantized mish-mash, how do musicians retain the singularity of the hyper-local, often dissipating histories of their cultures? One approach—a very successful one—lies in El Mal Querer, the relentlessly gorgeous album from Rosalía, a 25-year-old Spanish singer with one foot steeped in her Catalan history *and the other hypebae-sneakered foot sidling into the future. Rooted in flamenco—the Arabic-influenced Andalusian music which she has studied since a young age—*El Mal Querer is a dramatic, romantic document that seamlessly links that tradition’s characteristic melodrama to the heart-wrenching storytelling of modern, woman-flexing R&B. Flamenco music carries the sound of Spanish history within it—you can practically hear the migration patterns—and Rosalía uses it to tell the story of a doomed relationship across 11 songs. It is one of the most exciting and passionately composed albums to appear not only in the global bass tradition but in the pop and experimental spheres this year.
Hip-hop’s favorite odd couple has an auspicious origin story—a television executive with an ear for talent connects an NYC underground veteran with an OutKast protégé, one song turns into an album, one album turns into a group. But this supergroup is more than the sum of its parts: It’s where El-P and Killer Mike have made some of the rawest, most irreverent, and uninhibited music of their respective careers. And they just might be the only group that can pull off pointed political statements and then remix them using nothing but noises made by cats. As Nate Patrin wrote in 2013:
Even for those of us who go all the way back to “8 Steps to Perfection” and “The Whole World,” it’s starting to feel like El-P and Killer Mike have always been talked about in the same breath. The connection makes a kind of retroactive sense going back to their early 2000s solo debuts, Fantastic Damage and Monster. Both albums seethed with the anxious funk of retrofuture 808s-and-synths production that rattled trunks and cages with unrestrained intensity. And both portrayed the artists as out-of-control forces trying their damnedest to stay true to friends, family, and hip-hop while confronting disenfranchisement, abuse, and cynicism. That their creators would gravitate towards collaboration makes even more sense now than it does with hindsight in mind, as the 1-2 hooks to the head of Cancer for Cure and R.A.P. Music shared not just a producer and a timeframe, but the kind of catharsis-fueled defiance that career no-sellout vets live and breathe.
Thankfully, El-P and Killer Mike made a point to keep working together, and by all accounts their two-MCs/one-producer teamup Run the Jewels was meant to be some kind of “cool-down” record—just something they could brainstorm up and record as a sort of fun, no-stress victory lap in celebration of a triumphant 2012. But if that kind of session reads as a low-stakes slack-off, especially in the form of a free 33-minute download, keep in mind just what constitutes “fun” for these guys. At the top of the list, it’s the process—workshopping ideas, putting things together, delivering them with conviction, and bringing it out to a rampant fanbase prone to drawing irreverent fan-art and ordering special-edition herb grinders. No excuse to relax here.
By 1997, Sean “Puffy” Combs had conquered rap with his Bad Boy Records stable centered around the Notorious B.I.G., and he was diversifying into R&B with signings such as 112 and Total—plus working with Mary J. Blige, Usher, and TLC. After Biggie was killed in March 1997, Combs stepped in as the dauntless MC for New York pop-rap’s extravagant pre-millennium boom years on gaudy survivors’ party albums like 1997’s No Way Out and 1999’s Forever. His ventures since have stretched from acting to founding a TV network, and he led an unforgettable get-out-the-vote campaign ahead of the 2004 presidential election, but with his cult Dawn Richard collaboration under the name Diddy – Dirty Money, 2010’s Last Train to Paris, he established that he hadn’t lost his gift for prophesying the future of hip-hop. As Clover Hope wrote in a recent retrospective review of that album:
Though he’d rapped about his personal life before, Combs positioned Last Train to Paris as more than an album: It was an all-new sound, energy, and vibration through which he could revolutionize pop. He’d been a fan of acts like the British dance trio Loose Ends (featuring two men, one woman) and figured he needed a woman’s perspective to actualize his vision, so he commissioned Dawn Richard from his successful girl group Danity Kane and fellow singer-songwriter Kalenna Harper to join him under the name Diddy-Dirty Money. The resulting album took three years to complete, and when it landed, it wasn’t as clairvoyant as Combs initially planned. By then, David Guetta-fronted Eurodance was crashing parties and spilling over Solo cups, and hip-hop was changing. So Far Gone and 808s & Heartbreaks had both arrived well before Paris, flipping the tone of mainstream rap from tough to emo. What Combs did was more intentional: He took these intersecting trends and packaged them into a savvy collaborative effort. With Paris, he made a convenient, prophetic statement, embracing his love scars just as a new generation of rappers began pouring their resentments about relationships onto songs.
In April 2010, Sharon Van Etten’s hymn “Love More” was covered in concert by Bon Iver; a decade later, it was covered by Fiona Apple, for a 10th-anniversary reissue of the Tennessee-via-Brooklyn singer-songwriter’s monumental sophomore album, Epic. From the gate, Van Etten’s folk-flecked indie rock was a potent mix of craft and catharsis, and she has only gotten better, right up through her recent duet with Angel Olsen on the post-pandemic anthem “Like I Used To.” As Laura Snapes wrote in a review of 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow:
This is the peak of Van Etten’s songwriting, her most atmospheric and emotionally piercing album to date. Often when it concerns love, it’s about how tentative it feels. “I don’t know how it ends,” Van Etten sings dreamily on “Stay,” a reverie of rippling piano and bass that addresses the need for reciprocal support and independence between a mother and her child. It sounds like a resolution, or at least her making peace with how to develop trust when everything can slip away so easily, but the arrangement is still anesthetized, unresolved. Having more to live for, hence more to lose, is rarely soothing. But it’s worth the mess.
Like other post-rock bands from the late ’90s, Iceland’s Sigur Rós prioritized stately atmosphere; what set them apart was their bowed guitar playing, their “Hopelandic” nonsense language, and singer Jónsi’s eerie falsetto. The sublime beauty of their best albums, like 1999’s Ágætis byrjun and 2005’s Takk…, vaulted them into the big time of Tom Cruise movie soundtracks, Simpsons cameos, and arena gigs. It also changed the fate of post-rock at large. As Jayson Greene wrote in a retrospective review of Ágætis byrjun:
With their second album, Sigur Rós knew only that they wanted to make things bigger. Their first, 1997’s Von, was dark and, by the standards of what they became famous for, positively screechy: Back then, they were inspired by the hurtling propulsion of Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine, bands that generated soothing textures from cacophony. Von sold 300 copies in Iceland. But the dismal showing left no seeming dent on young Jónsi Birgisson’s confidence. The singer posted a salvo on the band’s website prior to Agaetis’ release: “We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music.”
It’s alarming to consider, from the vantage of 2019, the degree to which he seems to have accomplished his mission. If we now live in a world of small, soft drones, a pruned garden of “Lush Lofi” and “Ambient Chill” and “Ethereal Vibes” Spotify playlists, we can blame this condition, at least in part, on the impact of Ágætis byrjun. It is an album that has terraformed our landscape—so much of our lives now sounds like it, from Nissan commercials to Planet Earth documentaries to the long trail of ads that could not procure Sigur Rós’ approval and went about constructing benign replicas of Sigur Rós songs instead.
In the early 2010s, the once-concrete lines between indie and mainstream pop were blurring. One of the main characters to emerge from this shift was Sky Ferreira, who resisted major-label pressures and used her own modeling money to craft her uncompromising 2013 debut. Night Time, My Time’s blend of ’80s electro-pop and ’90s grunge went on to influence a new generation of pop disruptors. Jayson Greene recounted Ferreira’s rise in 2019:
Sky Ferreira endured the kind of torturous entry into the music industry common to teen-pop casualties; signed to Capitol Records at age 15, she glossily posed through a few singles that didn’t chart, and her album was promptly shelved. In any other era, she would probably have been consigned to oblivion. Instead, she released an EP with a single called “Everything Is Embarrassing” that felt like it bottled all the possibilities inherent in the unlikely moment. It was a fizzy dance-pop song that felt too personal and diffident to be a “real” dance-pop hit—the lyrics were overwhelmed by anxiety, and the chorus hinged on a confession: “Maybe if you tried, then I would not bother.” “Everything Is Embarrassing” was so good it suggested that many more songs like it were possible, and it helped write the blueprint for a decade of downbeat, emotionally complex pop.
With a name from a Can song and an early sound reminiscent of Wire, Austin’s Spoon were prime candidates for an ill-fated major label relationship in the late ’90s. They rebounded in the 2000s as one of the most consistent indie rock bands of their generation by widening their musical scope considerably. Whether it’s sultry funk-rock (2005’s Gimme Fiction), strummy bar-closers (2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga), or dreamy minimalism (2010’s Transference), frontman Britt Daniel perfectly walks the line between playing it cool and baring his soul. As Ryan Dombal wrote in a review of 2014’s They Want My Soul:
This band is about capturing the unknown—those finer feelings, as Daniel once put it—and simply letting it float. Many of their songs are meticulously crafted, but they also breathe and break with crackling spontaneity. Theirs is an in-between soul happily seeking limbo as its own destination. It’s manly in an old-fashioned way, but still scuffed-up and vulnerable. It’s allergic to empty sentiment. It’s smart but not eggheaded, tough but not dumb. It’s Costello, Lennon, Can, and the Cure. It’s all-knowing and hopelessly fallible, mysterious with a purpose. It’s going to be crushed by life and love, and it’s going to endure.
St. Vincent is one of our last great rock stars: frustratingly unknowable and creatively amorphous, conceptual but cheeky, almost un-human-like in her exacting ways and technical abilities. She’s been working on a larger scale since 2017’s Masseduction, her “pop” album, but her beloved first four albums are what established her as an art-rocking guitar hero of the highest caliber. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in a review of St. Vincent’s self-titled 2014 LP:
There’s an under-appreciated playfulness about Clark’s work. I can’t think of much contemporary guitar-based music that has this much fun with texture—the rubbery whiplash percussion on “Prince Johnny,” the stretched-taffy vocals on “Bring Me Your Loves,” the gleefully synthetic-on-purpose sheen of “Digital Witness.” At best, St. Vincent’s music has a mischievous curiosity that feels almost childlike. Recently my 8-year-old cousin asked me, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, if I’d ever microwaved a banana. I’m terrified to try, but I’m sure whatever happens—splattering, abrupt, radioactive—sounds exactly like an Annie Clark guitar solo.
Stereolab recorded an enormous amount of material from 1991 to 2008, during which they transformed from a noisy drone-rock band into purveyors of sleek, sophisticated, and impeccably assembled pop. Their music, steeped in record culture, was built on the idea of collapsing boundaries between genres, scenes, styles, and eras. In their hands, a 20-year-old analog synth could sound like the future, and a dreamy chanson slotted beautifully next to digitally mangled post-rock. As Nitsuh Abebe wrote in his review of the 2006 compilation Serene Velocity:
The beauty of this band, through the ’90s, was the way that their “experiments” were always experiments in pop: Even when their obscure influences now seem fairly common, and even when their stylistic oddities have been copped by enough other acts to make them seem standard, the songs themselves still come off fine-tuned and lovely, passionate and convincing, each one individual. The liner notes here are right to point to Stereolab’s fixation on retro-futurism—the way “futuristic” visions from the ’50s and ’60s now seem so quaint and idyllic, like the past and the future at the same time—and to hope that Stereolab’s sound will age just as well. Gone is the feeling of importance and progress that used to attach to this act. But give it a decade or two, and that’ll leave their records feeling exactly like the dreamy period oddities they themselves admired.
When SZA broke through in 2017, her music was instantly as intimate and truthful as that of R&B predecessors—but it was also something regenerative. In presenting herself as a screw-up who was unafraid to acknowledge her complacency in relationships when things fell apart, SZA became an ambassador for a feelings-on-the-floor generation. As Claire Lobenfeld wrote in her review of 2017’s Ctrl:
SZA deals outside of the confines of her genres, a distinction that is all but meaningless in the polygluttonous context of 2017. Her forebears are more Keyshia Cole and Mary J. Blige, who have hurt and have been fearless enough to sing about that hurt. People will go to extremes to absolve themselves of judgment, whether it’s for liking something as benign as The Bachelor or by mining the depths of psychology to determine that breaking someone’s heart was somehow just an act of radical self-care. SZA has the grit to say that it doesn’t just feel shitty, it is shitty.
Like fellow Detroiter Moodymann, whose KDJ label released one of his first EPs, Theo Parrish makes tracks that are deeply rooted in the history of Black American music and the realities of the Black American present. One of the best DJs alive, he spins sets of mind-bending scope; as a producer, he makes music of soul-baring depth. Piotr Orlov wrote of Parrish’s 2020 album Wuddaji:
If one of the throughlines of Theo’s career has been in setting the record straight—often christened deep-house royalty, he is likely to disregard the epithet as one more example of music-business glad-handing—the other has been to remain true to the spirit of dance music’s origins, even as he steers down rivers of his own choosing. Yet as much as Wuddaji’s dominant aesthetic of Rhodes piano, synths, and percussion may sound familiar, the results plunge into a whole new tributary of club rhythm.
If Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat, had only been a great bassist his career would still be notable, given his crucial contributions to albums by Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Mac Miller, and so many more. But he’s also an exceptional singer, songwriter, and arranger with a string of delightfully cosmic records that spring up at the intersection of jazz and R&B. As Marcus J. Moore wrote in his review of 2017’s Drunk:
Thundercat’s music takes on many forms all at once: ’70s funk, R&B, punk with tinges of fusion. His art is undeniably Black, yet the structures are loose enough to pull in all sorts of listeners. It speaks to those who love soul and ska equally, those who spazz just the same when George Duke or Bad Brains flash across the iPod. He is equal parts Nintendo generation, ’60s flower child, and hardcore skater bro. His live show is punk as hell; serene studio tracks are given loud, frenetic makeovers. On top of all that rests his smooth falsetto, a transcendent voice that can usher you into some sort of demise, sing lovingly to his pet cat, or make drugs seem perfectly fine.
Timbaland is a proven hitmaker able to traverse all worlds, be it rap, R&B, pop, or some imaginative fusion. The Virginia producer has laid entire soundscapes for artists from Aaliyah to Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake. Amid the pandemic, he repositioned himself as a tastemaker, too, turning his and Swizz Beatz’s live-streamed battle series VERZUZ into a phenomenon. It wasn’t just an entertaining diversion—it was a necessary historical reclamation, an appreciation of Black music legacy given new-world context. Timbaland, who has shifted the sound of rap and pop several times over, was a natural catalyst for an event that brings deserving artists and catalogs to their rightful places within the canon. As kris ex wrote in a review of the 2015 mixtape King Stays King:
In the latter part of the ’90s, Timbaland’s full-length contributions for Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, and Ginuwine redirected R&B from its increasing reliance on relaxed grooves and hip-hop drums to slick, broken, hi-hat happy rhythms that were playful, sophisticated, and not-infrequently referred to as “futuristic.” His work in R&B established him as a visionary, and the echoes of his sound are all over today’s musical landscape—from Noah “40” Shebib’s atmospheric moodiness to the worldwide underground of Soulection’s beat scene. Timbaland took many cues from UK electronic soul styles, but he also gave them back: It’s impossible to listen to dubstep without hearing Ginuwine’s “Pony” in its DNA; it’s hard to imagine the UK grime scene without Missy’s Da Real World. Timbaland may not have invented any of these styles but he seemed to predict and inspire them all.
Of all the artists dragged under the silly “chillwave” umbrella at the end of the ’00s, none has proved as versatile as Chaz Bear, main brain behind Toro y Moi. The Bay Area-via-South Carolina musician’s early bedroom synth-pop fit comfortably within that laptop-oriented microgenre, but he had already moved on to warm and funky organic instrumentation by the time of his second album. He didn’t stop there. Over the years, it’s been fun and rewarding watching Bear [formerly known as Chaz Bundnick] collaborate with rappers, pursue his house music side project, and even gently poke fun at himself on Toro y Moi’s most recent album, 2019’s strong Outer Peace. As Larry Fitzmaurice wrote in a 2019 piece on chillwave:
Most fascinatingly, throughout the ’10s Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick veered the furthest away from the chillwave of his presumptive contemporaries, dipping his toes in a variety of sonic styles ranging from kaleidoscopic drone-pop and straightforward house music to introspective pop-punk and moody, downcast electronic obfuscation. Despite his pivot away from chillwave, Bundick’s influence persisted in surprising ways. One of Toro y Moi’s most vocal fans, Tyler, the Creator, imbued his harshest early material with glowy synths that were as indebted to Bundick’s work as they were to the Neptunes’ jazz-fusion forays. And on his artistic breakthrough, 2017’s Flower Boy, Tyler went full-chillwave on the wistful “November,” waxing on memories with lyrics that would not have sounded out-of-place on an early Toro y Moi album: “Hawaiian shirts in the winter/Cold water, cold water.”
In the ’90s, Chicago’s Tortoise so radically moved between the boundaries of existing genres that music critics had no choice but to search for a new genre name to describe them. They weren’t the first band to be called “post-rock” but they embodied the classification better than just about any other group. Any band in this century that mixes rock, jazz, and electronic music in an instrumental context is in their debt. As Mark Richardson wrote in a retrospective review of 1998’s TNT:
Imagine a graphic showing all the bands the five members of Tortoise were in before they came together and then all the bands they went on to play with after. At the top of the funnel you have groups ranging from dreamy psych-rock to earthy post-punk crunch; on the “post-Tortoise” end are groups focusing on electro-jazz and twangy instrumental rock. In this graphic, Tortoise is the choke point, the one project that has elements of all these sounds but is never defined by nor committed to any of them. Instead, Tortoise floats free, a planchette moving over a Ouija board guided by 10 sets of fingers, where everyone watches the arrow float in one direction but no one is quite sure how it gets there or who is doing the pushing.
With Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor expanded the sonic possibilities and emotional range of rock. He understood how forceful guitars could be if you thought of them as electronic devices first, and he knew his words could reach into darker places if delivered with a visceral scream. But the key to Reznor’s longevity is his willingness to experiment. He’s a connected industry guy who thinks like a cult artist—he’ll make weird instrumental music aimed at his most devoted fans one moment and then his next project will be a soundtrack to a Hollywood blockbuster. As the cross-platform projects pile up and the sheer scale of his body of work comes into focus, the fact that he’s released his share of so-so records now seems like part of the process. As Sam Sodomsky wrote in his review of Nine Inch Nails’ 2018 EP Bad Witch:
No matter the constant, accusatory use of second-person throughout his songbook, Reznor has always been the primary target of his own antagonism. At its most beautiful and most violent, his music suggests a desire for forgiveness blocked out by crushing static of his own design. “Can this world really be as sad as it seems,” he asked in a Charles Manson-echoing early lyric. That adjective choice—not frightening or cruel, but sad—seems crucial to his outlook. In the sprawling and genuinely unsettling instrumental track “I’m Not From This World,” it’s hard to say whether the title conveys a feeling of escape or total alienation. If the catharsis of NIN albums once came from exorcising all your demons in a row, this music suspends you in discomfort.
Three years ago, TV on the Radio revisited their third album, 2008’s Dear Science, during a one-night-only performance, live in New York. The Brooklyn band, who by then had lost longtime bassist Gerard Smith to cancer, could manage to sound like the future of indie rock even when they were looking back on their own past. As Geoff Nelson wrote in 2018:
By the end of this week, Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio will have turned to the crowd at the Knockdown Center, in a post-industrial section of Queens, New York, and he will have sung, “I’m no madman/But that’s insanity.” By this point in the evening, the Brooklyn band will have played the first two songs from their essential 2008 record, Dear Science, the album they will perform that evening in its entirety for its 10th anniversary. It’s this lyric in the first verse of the third track, “Dancing Choose,” about being sane in an insane world, that will have shaped the evening.
This future perfect tense—what will have happened—is a bit unwieldy, but it’s one way to consider how TV on the Radio captured the beauty and terror of American life in that album. A decade later, some of the band’s criticisms of American politics and life remain true in ways that make Dear Science seem like a cruel predictor of our current times. In other ways, since the 2016 election, the political engagement Dear Science asked of its listeners has reemerged in fresh and energizing fashion, drawing frightening parallels while also suggesting a more positive future is possible.
Pimp C and Bun B are responsible for some of the most enduring rap music to come out of Houston, Texas, but the duo known as the Underground Kingz was doomed to struggle even through their success: An instantly regrettable record deal with Jive and a prolonged stint in prison for Pimp C, and his untimely death in 2007, cut short the celebration of their comeback LP. But their influence on hip-hop in Houston—and the South in general—cannot be overstated. Their smooth and soulful style slowed down tempos, turned up the bass, and helped write a template for Southern hip-hop that would endure for decades. As Tom Breihan wrote in a review of 2007’s Underground Kingz:
Even when they were scrappy newcomers from a town no one in rap cared about, UGK’s Bun B and Pimp C sounded like wizened old veterans. Pimp’s beats were slow, organic country-funk instrumentals; they could’ve passed for Stax backing tracks if they didn’t have so much bass. Bun’s matter-of-fact, virtuoso, baritone flow exuded weariness and authority. Fifteen years later, the Texas duo sound like eternal, immovable features on rap’s landscape, and their style has hardened into a blueprint; an album like T.I.’s Trap Muzik, say, would’ve been near-unthinkable without UGK’s precedent.
Usher’s 2021 Las Vegas residency is the ultimate culmination of his decades-long commitment to showmanship. As the men of mainstream R&B turned more selfish and less chivalrous, Usher adhered to the genre’s traditional template while finding new ways to reinvent himself. He’s a multi-threat performer with genuine stage flair who understands the power of packaging, a philosophy best reflected on his fourth album, 2004’s Confessions. As Clover Hope wrote in a retrospective review of that album:
Usher thrived between two very different eras of pop—the contemporary R&B rush of 2001 and the hybrid R&B of the 2010s, when Drake unleashed his inner lothario and assumed his role as the charts’ new lover boy. Confessions dropped just three months after Rolling Stone crowned former *NSYNC frontman Justin Timberlake their New King of Pop for siphoning Black music into his solo debut. Though millennial pop had turned swiftly toward boy bands and Britney Spears, one of the top five highest-selling albums of the 2000s is Confessions, a record that sits alongside Boyz II Men and TLC as the only R&B albums to be certified diamond for selling 10 million units. Usher’s coming-of-age story gave R&B the sort of widespread appreciation the genre struggled to recreate in the decades that followed. “So many people are interested in R&B,” he said in 2004, after selling platinum in a week. “I feel like it is the base of everything. I want to make it more prominent.”
Vince Staples is so good at the promotional parts of being a rap star that it can overshadow the things he’s even better at. Namely, he can bend seemingly any beat—from the cowbell clatter of 2015’s Summertime ’06 to the glitched-out EDM of 2017’s Big Fish Theory—to suit his deadpan flow, and pack a novel’s worth of story and atmosphere into a few tight bars. As Jayson Greene wrote in his review of Summertime ’06:
Staples expresses complex ideas in plain, hard sentences, ones that can be handed to you like a pamphlet. His rapping is conversational, but these are the conversations you have when all optimism has been burned away… He is a devotee of realism, in its simplest definition. Keeping it real, for him, means clearly documenting everything he sees, removed from the clouds of hope or pain or pity.
In 2008, Brooklyn indie band Vivian Girls released their self-titled album, a set of hazy and hook-filled songs that blew up on mp3 blogs and in their local DIY venues alike. Three more albums followed, plus a melange of side projects, a breakup in 2014, and a euphoric reunion five years later, proving the trio’s enduring legacy. As Arielle Gordon wrote in a review of 2019’s Memory:
Even after their demise, it was hard not to hear Vivian Girls everywhere. Their spirit existed, in their absence, in the school-choir harmonies of Girlpool and Ovlov, the electric fuzz that burns after a Deli Girls track or a Priests riff, the hesitant confidence of Frankie Cosmos’ lyrics. That’s not to suggest the band only touched the lives of female and nonbinary musicians—look no further than Wavves, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, or the entire Orchid Tapes catalog for their stoned ennui. But perhaps these groups could thrive, both critically and in the harsh spotlight of the internet, because Vivian Girls forged a brave new world of punk rock that wasn’t afraid of a beautiful vocal harmony, one that could exist in between the uncompromising politics of riot grrrl and the soft hues of twee-pop.
The Walkmen released several stellar albums before they declared an indefinite hiatus in 2014, and they’ve continued to do solid-to-great solo work since (particularly frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s 2016 collaborative album with former Vampire Weekend songwriter/producer Rostam). If they seem comfortable with aging, perhaps it’s because—having formed from the ashes of the cult-favorite garage rock band Jonathan Fire*Eater—they’ve been confronting the idea of growing old and washed since they were still in their early 20s, most powerfully on 2004’s Bows and Arrows. As Jayson Greene wrote in 2010:
When lead singer Hamilton Leithauser first enters the stage on Bows and Arrows, he is being thrown out of a bar. “You don’t have to say it again, cuz I heard you the first time,” he mutters petulantly—except he croons the line, letting his shit-eating grin seep into the sound until it turns into a sweet nothing. That’s quite a trick, and of all the bratty New York rock bands that broke through in the early ’00s, no one walked this razor-thin line separating sensitivity and callowness quite as deftly as the Walkmen. Leithauser, his warm rasp making him come across like a more emotionally unstable young Rod Stewart, lurches from messy confrontations to moments of disarming empathy, and on “The Rat,” he lays himself completely bare, pleading for recognition with an abandon that is still startling, as his normally bleary-eyed bar-rock band explodes into catharsis all around him.
The War on Drugs started with Adam Granduciel making loose and unkempt folk-rock with a Dylanesque twang. And as the project has become more popular it’s also become more original. Granduciel is obsessed with big rock gestures delivered with a high-gloss studio sheen, but his music never comes across as just a genre exercise. The War on Drugs use the pristine sonics of ’80s Springsteen or Dire Straits to convey a raw pain that’s Granduciel’s alone. As Mark Richardson wrote in his review of 2017’s A Deeper Understanding:
The album’s first single was the 11-minute travelogue “Thinking of a Place,” with a glowing synth swell and a patient tempo that suggests a slow walk through the woods in the dark, the kind where you keep your hands out in front of you, feeling for branches. It turned out to be an appropriate introduction to this record because “thinking of a place”—somewhere where you can lose yourself, get out of your own head, somewhere else—is what the whole thing is ultimately about. A different songwriter—someone like Neil Young, say—might sketch out what this place looks like, tell us about who we might find there. But Granduciel can’t, or doesn’t want to. And that lack of articulation, that inability to identify the source of pain and the path to redemption, becomes another of the record’s themes. But all that happens beneath the surface, almost subliminally; it’s the impossible sweep and grandeur of the music that tells the real story, of how a rush of sound can take us somewhere we can’t explain.
The mark of a genius songwriter is that they make songs about their own lives seem like songs about yours. Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee has been on her own journey since the project’s 2012 debut American Weekend—her most recent record, the rootsy 2020 masterpiece Saint Cloud, was inspired by newfound sobriety—but she rendered each new development with such empathy and clarity you couldn’t help but hear your own story in her words. As Jeremy D. Larson wrote in his review of 2020’s Saint Cloud:
This album’s transformative effect was absent on Crutchfield’s previous solo work—but don’t take that as a knock on her intimate 2012 debut American Weekend or 2013’s remarkable follow-up Cerulean Salt, whose songs of love and harm still land like a hundred little knicks to the flesh. Even as Crutchfield revved up the sound and the stakes on 2017’s searing Out in the Storm, finding darkness deep within her psyche, her songwriting remained bound up in grungy distortion, spare arrangements, and blocky rhythms. Three chords and the truth was always her credo, but Crutchfield needed more room for that credo to thrive.
And so she decided to build songs that she could stroll right into. Twirl, even. She resides inside a world that drapes over her like the sky-blue dress she wears on the album’s cover. If that sleeved dress and the old pickup truck didn’t clue you in, Saint Cloud is a record in the thrall of Americana and the country music of her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. Every note rings and chimes: a light organ here, the slight twang of a Telecaster there, gently plucked leads on an acoustic back there, all perfectly appointed for Crutchfield’s songwriting. It feels like you’re in possession of a family heirloom.
To understand the Weeknd’s trajectory, you have to go back to the dark reaches of the early 2010s, before he even had a face. In the era of House of Balloons and Thursday, Abel Tesfaye was best known as the unseen enigma with the high-pitched voice making mood music about addiction. Even as he’s transformed into a halftime show headliner, the pop world is still trapped in his matrix. As Mehan Jayasuriya wrote in a 2016 review of Starboy:
Who is the Weeknd? That’s the question a lot of us asked when the act first materialized, fully-formed, with 2011’s House of Balloons. Thanks to the group’s savvy anti-publicity campaign, the question had a literal bent: Who are the people who made these songs? Fast-forward five years and there’s little mystery remaining when it comes to the provenance of the Weeknd’s music—like so many modern pop songs, his are now designed in consultation with a committee of experts. And yet, even as we watch Abel Tesfaye walk the red carpet in the light of day, the question remains: Who is the Weeknd? Is he a drugged-out lothario? A beloved pop star? A nihilist foil to Drake? The second coming of Michael Jackson? The runaway success of last year’s Beauty Behind the Madness—two No. 1 singles and over two million units sold in the U.S.—seemed like it might finally force an answer to this question. And yet, Starboy only further muddies the waters.
The cross-pollination between indie rock and R&B is one of the more interesting stories in music in the last 15 years, and the xx were on it early. The hushed vocals and gently undulating rhythms found on the London group’s 2009 debut brought to mind both Young Marble Giants and Aaliyah, and they have developed their sound across two more albums while inspiring a raft of lesser imitators. As Laura Snapes wrote in a 2016 profile:
When they first emerged, the xx’s appeal came from music that sounded as if it were directed towards an audience of one, from somewhere beneath rumpled bedclothes. The intimacy reflected their shared bond. They grew up together: Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim played in the same sandpit as toddlers. Jamie Smith joined their gang at 11, when they started at the Elliott School in Putney, South London. After several years of making music individually in secret, they formed the xx in their final year. The band looked perpetually shell shocked when they broke out as 20-year-olds. They won the Mercury Prize for their first album, which has sold nearly 1.7 million copies worldwide. Journalists mocked them for looking like “suburban goths.” They did, but it was less style choice than a reflection of their profound social anxiety.
Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) has been a reluctant but reliable ombudsman of rap his entire career, restlessly critical of his profession as well as the media circus around it. He’s made music that could double as a syllabus for Black America and done it while flying deftly outside of the radar. Bey has defied industry expectations at every turn; most recently, his latest album was available to be heard only as part of a museum exhibition. As Nate Patrin observed in a 2009 review:
People looking for offhanded symbolism can feel free to try tracking Mos Def’s career trajectory as an MC through his album covers. Iconic solo debut Black on Both Sides: a stark, immediately-striking photo portrait that renders the attribution of his name unnecessary. Aggro experimental follow-up The New Danger: that same face now obscured by a stick-up man’s mask, his bright red, bloody-looking index fingertip pointing to his own head on some Taxi Driver shit. Contractual obligation mishap True Magic: no actual album art whatsoever, with a blank-looking Mos staring into space off the surface of the disc itself. And now The Ecstatic, which depicts not Mos Def himself but a red-tinted shot from Charles Burnett’s classic 1977 film Killer of Sheep. You might go so far as to say this indicates that the best way for Mos Def to reassert what he really means as an artist would be to take his as-seen-in-Hollywood face out of the equation entirely, replacing it with a shot from an entirely different strain of independent, neorealist cinema that more clearly gets at what he represents as a lyricist. Maybe it’s a stretch, but what the hell.
Over the past two decades, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have gone from beer-spewing New York City garage-rock upstarts to revered elder statespeople. Fever to Tell, the band’s buzzed about 2003 debut, had a spark that may be impossible to recapture. But over the three albums that followed, the band demonstrated staying power—along with thoughtfulness and understatement that weren’t always so obvious in their fashionable early days. As Carrie Battan wrote in 2013:
In 2000, Yeah Yeah Yeahs formed in New York City and their searing early material helped get the new millennium off to a clamorous start—but those panicked yelps and tinny blues/punk riffs didn’t exactly scream longevity. Over the next decade, they slowly expanded their sound—incorporating electro, folk, and pop—while largely maintaining the excitement that got everyone interested in the first place. And after their last studio album, 2009’s polished It’s Blitz!, they rolled past their 10th birthday as veterans in a career field that’s not exactly filled with them. So: then what? … The new album, Mosquito, which is out April 16, is their most lighthearted work yet. Largely produced once again by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and Nick Launay, it features a track helmed by James Murphy and featuring outré-rap originator Kool Keith. It’s also a return to the band’s raw sonic roots, recorded at a low-budget studio in downtown Manhattan. Maybe it takes 10 years for old sounds to feel fresh again.
Active since 1984, Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo—drummer Georgia Hubley, guitarist Ira Kaplan, and bassist James McNew—are not just elder statesmen of American indie rock. Over the years, they have developed a sound that is both versatile and inimitable, as well as being far more expansive than the trio format usually permits, combining garage rock’s directness with the billowing suggestion of post-rock and even ambient. In a retrospective review, Marc Hogan wrote of their 1997 masterpiece I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One:
By the time I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One came out, Yo La Tengo had solidified themselves as one of the best bands in a competitive indie rock landscape. But this was their first true masterpiece. More than a dozen years into get-in-the-van touring life, here was a band not only expanding the boundaries of American garage rock, but exploding them. But for all its stylistic eclecticism, the record also sensitively traces the outlines of intimacy, both musical and romantic, hinting at a new way to imagine a life in music, one that still resonates 20 years on.
Young Thug is often singled out as a progenitor of mumble rap, this generation’s most divisive sound. But in his sometimes illegible musings, he’s doing something Jackson Pollock-like, creating art from abstract splotches you may have to squint to decipher. Visually, too, Thug helped rap turn a corner, with his influential and unapologetic embrace of androgynous fashion. As Sheldon Pearce wrote in his review of 2016’s JEFFERY:
As an artist, Young Thug thrives in between spaces. His chic, fresh-off-the-runway looks flirt with androgyny. Entire sequences of his raps unspool as nonsequiturs, forcing listeners to extract meaning from bars of source code. Even the assorted ad-libs in his songs maximize the slightest pocket of air, exploding and retracting back through crevices in his unpredictable flows. He is constantly balancing opposing forces: masculine and feminine, light and dark, playful and humorless, pirouetting on a razor’s edge at all times. Modeling alongside Frank Ocean for Calvin Klein in July, he was as plainspoken about fluidity as he’s ever been. “In my world, of course, it don’t matter: You could be a gangster with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants,” he said in his campaign video. “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.” It’s this freedom, this refusal to define or label himself, and this progressive spirit that makes everything he does so daring and so mystifying. When he says or does something, he’s usually daring you to figure out why.