By Jim Farber
Every genre produced promising debuts in 2016. From the vintage country of Margo Price to the innovative hip-hop of Kaytranada, a wealth of new artists shook our assumptions about what modern music should sound like. These 10 artists made the year’s best first impression.
10. Hamish Anderson
There’s pain and beauty in the guitar work of Hamish Anderson. Though born in Melbourne, Australia, Anderson has the American blues-rock sound down. He took as his main inspirations the three Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie). Fulfilling a dream, he landed the opening slot on what turned out to be B.B.’s final tour. Unlike some guitar-centric performers, however, Anderson can also write a great tune and sing with feeling. After releasing two EPs, he elaborated his sound on his full-length debut, Trouble. On it, gorgeous tunes and tight guitar lines surround a voice of husky distinction.
9. Public Memory
If you want it darker, Leonard Cohen wasn’t the only one who can satisfy your need. Robert Toher’s new project, Public Memory, creepy-crawls through a sonic miasma, creating electro art-music made for Radiohead fans who prize that band at their most spooky and abstract. In the past, Toher led the post-rock act Apse and ERAAS, both of which presage the hypnotic slog of his latest project. For Public Memory, he did them one better, creating a sound as layered as baklava. It’s rich with druggy percussion, horror keyboards, and atmospheric sounds that could make Massive Attack sound like a bubble-gum band.
Like it loud? Lolo belts big-time when she sings, an approach well-suited to lyrics meant to exorcise rage. The title of her debut telegraphs the tone — In Loving Memory of When I Gave a S—. Clearly, this 28-year-old comes from the Alanis Morissette school of romance. That’s proven by a cut like “Heard It From a Friend,” an R&B-tinged invective that builds to the pithy query “When you gonna tell me that you f—ed me over?” Born Lauren Pritchard in Jackson, Tenn., the singer moved to L.A. to forge her career at age 16. She got her break playing a teen runaway in the Broadway smash Spring Awakening and only changed her name to Lolo in 2013. At that point, she focused on setting her voice and lyrics on stun.
7. Jack Garratt
On his striking debut, Jack Garratt marries the singer-songwriter tradition to the synthetic soundscapes of modern EMD. His melodies borrow from troubadours as well as from R&B balladeers, but his beats have the skittish invention of the dance world. One minute you flail to the music, the next you ruminate. In either mode, Garratt’s high-flying voice entrances. The English-born artist concocted his records on his own, beginning with a series of inventive singles in 2014. This year, Garratt’s full debut, Phase, bagged him the Critics’ Choice BRIT Award, while also plopping him at the top of the BBC Sound of 2016 poll. Though the lone wolf creation of the songs suggests self-absorption, they open wide enough to embrace gospel, hip-hop, folk, and trip-hop. Together, that makes for music rife with invention and reach.
6. The Record Company
OK, so their name bites. But the Record Company makes up for that with their lean take on soul-inflected, blues-rock. The L.A.-based trio comprise singer/guitarist Chris Vos, bassist Alex Stiff, and drummer Marc Cazorla. To shake up the usual power-trio mold, the RC don’t let the guitar hog all of the spotlight. In “On the Move,” it’s all about harmonica, bass, and drums. Other cuts give special space to the rhythm section. The bassline offers an R&B hook in “Rita Mae Young” and the drums power through a Bo Diddley beat in “Feels So Good.” Those who pine for early Fleetwood Mac, in the Peter Green era, will swoon for this.
5. Matthew Logan Vasquez
You can’t call Vasquez a newcomer, given his previous life as frontman for the formidable Americana band the Delta Spirit, as well as his role as one-third of the alterna-rock supergroup Middle Brother. (Middle Brother also includes the main songwriters from Dawes and Deer Tick). Anyone who knows of Vasquez’s talent, however, would always welcome more from him. After putting out a solo EP last fall, he issued his full debut, Solicitor Returns, in February. Like Vasquez’s earlier work, it has a lot of Neil Young in it, with fat-bottomed beats and dense guitars. Vocally, he can channel John Lennon, as in the Beatlesque “New York” or the electro-laden “Bound to Her.” While Vasquez has no plans to leave his other bands behind, clearly his talent can’t be contained by them.
The Haitian-born, Montreal-based hip-hop star named DJ Kaytranada takes a holistic approach to music on his glowing debut, 99.9%. It presents a freewheeling trip through electronica, soul, house, funk, jazz, and avant-hip-hop. Along the way, the 24-year-old roped in some big-name stars to participate, including singers Craig David and AlunaGeorge and rapper Vic Mensa. Though 99.9% rates as an official debut, the artist who was born Louis Celestin has put out scores of remix projects in the past. He even recorded projects under the clairvoyant name Kaytradamus. The new music made enough of an impression to catch the attention of Madonna, who hired Kaytranada to open some dates on her Rebel Heart tour before his debut even appeared. The new disc weaves its spell seamlessly, blurring the tracks without a break, to create an audio dream.
3. The Frightnrs
No debut album came freighted with a sadder backstory than the Frightnrs’ Nothing More to Say. Soon after this New York-based, rock-steady group began recording their first album for the historically minded Dap-Tone Records, the band’s singer Dan Klein received a diagnosis of a fatal disease: ALS. Less than two months before the album’s release in September, Klein died. However awful his fate, the 32-year-old left a notable legacy with the Frightnrs’ first fully realized release. (Earlier, the Queens, New York-based band had issued a promising EP on Diplo’s Mad Decent label). The music on Nothing More to Say updates rock-steady, a key Jamaican style of the mid-‘60s, wedged between ska and reggae. The melodies on the album have an R&B warmth, while the beats mine a sensual groove. Still, Klein’s vocals prove most distinct, marked by a keening wail. His fate has added to the story, giving the lyrics double meanings. While they originally meant to address a lost love, now they speak for a vanished life.
2. Margo Price
“Let’s go back,” Margo Price sings at the start of her achingly beautiful debut. The past she whisks us to melds the feisty, ‘60s hits of Loretta Lynn with the yearning, mid-‘70s recordings of Emmylou Harris. Price’s debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, brims with neotraditionalist story songs, painting her as an artistic cousin to current country stars like Sturgill Simpson and Jamey Johnson. The Illinois-born singer tried to break into Music Row for years before finally finding a sympathetic ear in Jack White, who inked her to his Third Man label. The fact that White had produced a comeback album for Loretta Lynn likely didn’t dampen his ardor. While Price may recall country queens of yore, her lyrics and melodies have a current vitality. They run from the hard-luck story “Hands of Time” to the stone-drunk ballad “Since You Put Me Down” to the spunk of “About to Find Out.” Price delivers each with a sincerity that can move listeners in any era.
1. Muddy Magnolias
Worlds collide in the bracing music of Muddy Magnolias. The duo’s sound bridges city and country, blues and soul. Small wonder the two singers who comprise the group hail from wildly different places. Jessy Wilson, who earlier wailed behind John Legend, spent years in Brooklyn before moving to Nashville, where she met the Texas-reared Kallie North. Both women sing lead, but their individual power never cancels the other out. In Wilson’s timbre you can hear some of the young Aretha (no lie!), while North’s vocals can recall the deepest belts of Bonnie Raitt. In “Broken People,” the title track off their roiling debut album, the pair channel the funky beats and low-down vocals of the Staples Singers. The duo’s lyrics can have a political dimension. The first cut on the album opens with the chorus “Tell me what happened to this world?/We just don’t know anymore.” No song speaks to the current state of the union with greater urgency.