As a teenager, discovering music is the best feeling in the world. I think most people transition through their influences the same way I did – first your parents, then your friends, then yourself. Graduating to that last step can be a challenge, but knowing the right sources opens doors to incredible musical possibilities you may never have considered.
With Spotify algorithms and radio services like Pandora, finding music is quicker than ever. Once you select or listen to something you like, recent technology can link you to ten artists you could potentially enjoy. There’s more to it than circling the same genres and music scenes though – the best method, as scary as it sounds, is to jump into something you’d never expect, immersing your tastes in the farthest reaches of musical depths and broadening your horizons in the process.
To illustrate this enjoyment, let’s look through some of the first bands and artists that began my self-discovery journey through the new music of the last few years. Most of these bands predicted popular trends soon to emerge, but a few had the creativity to be in a league of their own. However, the meaningful takeaway here has nothing to do with popularity or greatness, but their significance to me, which lasts beyond their initial fads to be something far more memorable.
Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment
Starting with the most popular group of this bunch, you might recognize the name Chance the Rapper more than the name Donnie Trumpet. But back in the high school band, the lesser-known jazz groups were all the rage. Bands like Snarky Puppy, Lettuce, and Thundercat began infusing their jazzy funk sounds with hip-hop right as the genres were intersecting in popularity – jazz-fusion made jazz more accessible, while hip-hop infused with R&B and pop to become the dominant popular genre of the 2010s.
Chance the Rapper built on the success of breakout hit “Sunday Candy” before his blow-up with Coloring Book (2016). But plenty of other greats were also featured on the single Donnie Trumpet album Surf – Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, and Busta Rhymes all appear on the record, as well as Chicago locals Noname, Saba, and BJ the Chicago Kid, all great rappers that I would soon discover further. The large group never creates a choppy feel to the record, but instead, it has a collaborative feel like a stellar jazz album.
East India Youth
A Mercury Prize nomination is more than just an awards recognition; albums that receive this acknowledgment represent the music than defines the United Kingdom and everything it means to British. As a non-Brit, the Prize does not have much significance to me, but it speaks to a universal sense of identity throughout each changing year. East India Youth represents a shifting aspect from guitar-based music to electronic music, a now-widespread idea that entered music history under immense scrutiny.
The first East India Youth album, in all its understated sound-collage art-pop glory, shows both the rejection of acoustic instruments and the fascination of electronic music that defines modern music. We still resist the push of electronic-based music despite its versatility and widespread appeal – thousands of artists, both underground and popular, utilize extensive keyboards and programs to make incredible music. As a child of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, it took years to overcome this boundary, but dipping your toe in even a bit can be life-changing for those who see the traditional restrictions that limit the progress of music.
To find music that speaks to you personally, it helps to start with artists who make very distinctive music. When someone captures a unique, indescribable voice as that of Norway’s Jenny Hval, that music is typically labeled “avant-garde.” With highly experimental music that encompasses art-pop, ambient, and synth-pop, Hval’s five solo albums and numerous other projects are some of the freshest and most enrapturing records of the past decade.
The album Apocalypse, Girl took its initial hold on me in 2015, and since then, her following two albums on Sacred Bones Records seized my attention more than most other avant-garde music of the 2010s. Taking a wide range of unusual sources of inspiration, traditional genres like jazz and soundtrack music add to her intense, in-your-face delivery for mind-altering results. Not only is her unique music blossoming with each release, but her concerts are exceptional as well, as she never takes a performance approach other than her singular voice.
Swedish musicians get plenty of attention in the electro-pop music world, judging by the successes of Tove Lo, Avicii, producers Max Martin and Shellback, and many more. However, Danish popstars frequently miss the mark of the mainstream. That is okay with me, as MØ’s short career has yielded some of the catchiest singles of the decade – her 2016 track "Final Song" has an infectious driving beat and her signature vocals, as does her dynamic debut album No Mythologies to Follow.
This Danish singer/songwriter’s main claim to fame in the U.S. is two Major Lazer song features, but her solo singles and albums are criminally underrated. Her albums performed very well in Denmark, fitting perfectly alongside like-minded left-field electro-pop artists like Grimes. Her indie status will assuredly shift into full-on recognition one day, but until then, MØ is the familiar unknown that has stayed in my back pocket for over five years now.
Canadian post-punk band Ought is the epitome of rock coolness. They find the perfect balance between the DIY-punk method and the modernity of dance-rock bands, similar to how The Strokes, Interpol, and Franz Ferdinand helped revive the approach in the 2000s. But while those bands could never regenerate the magic of their inspired first records, Ought seems to only get better with each new album and repeated listen.
Ought represents the pinnacle of their style; they are willing to pay homage to the forerunners that inspired them while experimenting with a classic-sounding formula. Their first two albums, released on the Canadian indie label Constellation Records, will forever remain their singular foray into uniqueness, as they honed their Television-esque art-pop and Talking Heads weirdness in relative obscurity. By joining Merge Records, they became more widely known, but they have yet to stop vying for the popularization of their signature brand of indie-rock music.
The same year that East India Youth’s previously mentioned debut album received a Mercury Prize nomination, Young Father’s debut DEAD won. Before hearing Young Fathers, I assumed rap music had lived through its time, long past the days of Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim only to be upheld by the likes of Lil Wayne. DEAD was the turning point for me, proving that hip-hop had plenty to offer to music history, fusing genres left and right while capturing a distinctive voice all their own.
This debut, while still under-recognized, is one of the most inventive rap albums of the decade. The raw production sounds fresh even after six years, the flow eludes complacent listening, and the lyrics cut to the bone. The Scottish trio’s following two albums are equally as compelling, and they opened me up to the music of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and the other modern rap greats – in other words, I couldn’t be more grateful.
Check out these artists, and search for yourself through new music you never thought you could love.