With streaming and social media creating one of the biggest deluges of new artists in pop history, it's hard to stand out among the crowd. Still, budding musicians across genres are blurring lines, innovating sounds and reconfiguring what it means to break through in the industry. From feminist male punks like SWMRS to modernized retro-soul specialist Giovanni James and undefinable teenage-sister duo Chloe x Halle, here are 10 of the best emerging artists of the year.
A suburban shut-in turns anxiety into garage gold
Will Toledo is garage rock's most promising young songwriter, but for years music was something he did by himself. He started out recording alone, in bedrooms, dorm rooms and – now somewhat famously – the family Subaru, parking after school with his guitar and laptop outside big-box stores around his hometown of Leesburg, Virginia. He wrote couplets about avoiding the sun, about reading the Book of Job empathetically, about watching too much TV. When he settled on the name Car Seat Headrest, it was in tribute to his mobile confessional booth. Since then, the 23-year-old Toledo has had a dozen-odd releases. But 2016 is sure to be his biggest year: On May 20th, having signed to the indie powerhouse label Matador, he released the exhilarating Teens of Denial, his first LP made in a studio with a producer, and one of the year's best rock albums. The anxiously punchy music combines the melodic charge of anthemic Sixties rock (Toledo is a big Beatles fan) with the low-fi grind of Nineties bands like Guided by Voices. "I spend a lot of time analyzing myself," Toledo says. "I'm not in therapy – except I am, constantly, in my own mind, asking why I am the way I am." The result is a potent paradox: swaggering singalongs, made by a deeply anti-social dude.
When we meet, Toledo is driving an old Toyota Sienna minivan through the unglamorous Seattle suburb of Kirkland, where he's lived since college. He's fresh off a national tour, and Europe is next, but tomorrow night he's booked at a local house show, so he's heading into town to practice with his bandmates. "Kirkland is a pretty unhip place," he says – it's best known as the namesake home of Costco's house brand – but it suits him. "I don't like cities," he says. Toledo says he was bored in suburban Virginia, but "rather than flee to a city to find a creative community, I went online and found a community there."
One of Car Seat Headrest's big themes is miscommunication. "It's a recurring fear of mine," Toledo says. "'Are my mental operations normal, and can I communicate in a normal way to people?'" As a little kid, he says, he was "not that talkative, and would just watch TV and daydream, in my own world." On one Teens of Denial track, "Drugs With Friends," he recounts a college-era acid trip gone wrong: "I did half a tab plus some mushrooms, and when the visual part of the trip kicked in, I tried to explain what I was seeing to my friend, but then I thought, 'How can I possibly explain it?' So I decided instead that I just wouldn't talk for six hours, trying not to freak out."
Between Kirkland and Seattle we pick up Ethan Ives, 22, who plays bass and guitar in Toledo's band. Toledo met him while playing at an all-ages show out here a couple of years ago. Ives has braces and wears a T-shirt emblazoned with cover art from the 1993 video game Doom. At a burrito spot near the Car Seat Headrest rehearsal space, in Capitol Hill, we meet drummer Andrew Katz, whom Toledo enlisted on Craigslist. The three have the warm but slightly stilted rapport of workplace buddies, but when they get to their practice space, they're in sync, bashing out a tremendous noise. Toledo stands weirdly still at his mic stand, then starts to sway his hips, eyes closed – lost, happily, in a private moment. His shaky contentment reminds me of something he told me earlier: "I'm one of those people who struggles sometimes because the world isn't custom-designed to my needs – but that's everyone, right?" Jonah Weiner
A chart-topping Danish singer with a radical background
"I knew how to mix a Molotov cocktail before I knew how to mix a Long Island iced tea," says Lukas Forchhammer. The Danish singer-songwriter grew up in Copenhagen's Christiania neighborhood, an autonomous commune founded by anarchist squatters, and routinely battled local police. "We threw rocks at them," he says. "We used nails to make sure that their trucks' tires were punctured. We did all sorts of crazy shit because we were so angry, and there was no place to vent that anger." But instead of forming a leftist punk band, Forchhammer (who found his singing voice in the Copenhagen Boys Choir) ended up pursuing more-soothing soulful sounds. In 2010, he found a new outlet for his frustrations: a band, which he named Lukas Graham. Much of their self-titled debut is an upbeat mix of rock and soul, but the ballad "7 Years," a Number One hit this year, recounts Forchhammer's tough upbringing. "When I go back home, I meet my friends who are still dealing drugs and visit my friends who are in jail," says Forchhammer, who now splits his time between Copenhagen and Los Angeles. "They're all so proud of me." Kory Grow
An indie-pop prodigy takes off
Greta Kline wants to meet at her high school hangout, the local diner where she and friends would loiter for a bit too long after class let out. At Eli's Market on New York's Upper West Side, the macaroni-and-cheese costs so much per pound it may as well be made of gold, and fussy toddlers crumble cookies into the laps of unruffled nannies. "Everyone came here after, like, prom," says Kline, 22, slinking into her seat. She pulls the sleeves of her oversize vintage varsity jacket over her hands and seems to want to hide even in plain sight. "I was really shy as a kid," she says by way of explanation. "I'm still really scared of being seen. I don't like my face on display."
Shyness hasn't kept Kline from becoming one of indie rock's best young songwriters. Offstage, she is an NYU student on hiatus, native Manhattanite and onetime child actor, the daughter of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. (You may remember her warbling Mr. Mister's "Kyrie" in The Squid and the Whale.) Onstage, she is Frankie Cosmos, singer of introspective odes to swelling emotions. At times on Next Thing, her new LP, Kline sounds like the millennial heir to Liz Phair's sardonic bedroom-tape sound. Her songs are tiny koans about growing up brainy, sensitive and introverted in the big city; they take the confusing "what the fuck?" moments of being young and alive and infuse them with lightness, juxtaposing heartbreak with goofy punk riffs, alienation with sunny, fuzzed-out chords.
Everyone asks Kline about her parents and her age (she was only 19 when Frankie Cosmos' 2012 debut, Zentropy, was released to huge critical acclaim). In "Young," a single from last year, Kline addresses these fascinations, singing, "Have you heard I'm so young/And who my parents are?"
"Is it annoying that people ask about my family?" Kline asks. "Yeah, I wish I could forge my own narrative. But I'm also willing to accept that if it allows me to make my music. I mean, I'm close to my parents. They come to all my shows in town."
Kline started playing music at 14, after her aunt gave her an electric guitar. She was drawn to bands including the Moldy Peaches, the Strokes and Jeffrey Lewis, New York acts who forged a distinct, attitude-drenched sound out of relatively simple, straight-ahead riffs and chords. She began releasing a torrent of songs online under the name Ingrid Superstar. When Kline met Aaron Maine, now her boyfriend, they formed a duo called Porches when Kline was still in high school.
Soon, Kline and Maine were performing all over the country as both Porches and Frankie Cosmos (Kline retired the Ingrid Superstar name once she developed a more unique sound). But as Kline began studying at NYU, she found she didn't have time for both bands. "I was playing two shows a night," she says, "and going to school, and traveling in a van all over, and managing all the tours myself."
Once Zentropy took off, Kline decided to take a break from college, though she wants to get back someday. "I want to study education or psychology," she says. "Something that, you know, leads to a job. But for now, I have to follow this while it's an opportunity. And my parents understand. They're artists. My mom started working when she was 16."
Kline still manages her own tours, in addition to writing all the Frankie Cosmos songs and art-directing her music videos. Kline now has a full band behind her: Maine's brother David on bass, Luke Pyenson on drums, Lauren Martin on keyboards. Kline gets frustrated that she doesn't always get credit for bootstrapping the entire Frankie operation herself. "People love to take credit from you when you are a woman," she says. "It was written somewhere that my boyfriend co-wrote my albums. Are you kidding me? [Or] sometimes my parents get the credit for creating me and this music. They're great, but they aren't the ones doing the work."
Kline may come off as timid in person, but she grows tall onstage. She throws her whole body into strumming her guitar, and allows her vulnerability to become a strength – she sings about romantic confusion, urban malaise and maintaining a sense of optimism, with the forcefulness of someone who knows exactly what she wants to say. "All the stuff I feel in normal social situations is lifted onstage," she says. "I try to take into account that I'm being watched as much as I'm being heard. So when I play, I'm open to having an out-of-body experience." Rachel Syme
Futurist soul from a former magician and dancer
"I like casting spells," James says. "Nina Simone, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, Prince – people who are really powerful, they cast spells." On his debut EP, Whutcha Want, the Harlem singer-songwriter lives up to that bravado with a futuristic blend of gutbucket soul and modern groove, recalling Elvis as much as Frank Ocean. James grew up in Albany, New York, the son of a prostitute. He learned to DJ by age 10, and by 17 he'd moved to New York City, where he started a performance group, the Harlem James Gang, that mixed singing, dancing and magic. The crew's gigs included private shows for Madonna. But James eventually turned his focus to recording. "I like to meld the past with the future," he says. "I'm trying to take moments that were classic and good for the human soul and let you know we're alive." Joe Levy
An L.A. soul-rap visionary who wowed Dr. Dre
A little more than a decade ago, Anderson Paak was a high school kid in Ventura, California, playing drums in his Baptist church and setting chopped-up samples to homemade beats. A demo tape sparked deal meetings, and his dreams seemed to be taking solid form. "I thought I was going to be Kanye," he says. "The producer that can rap too."
But what came next was a nightmare. His mom – a South Korean-born woman who'd been in the produce business – and his stepdad were sent to prison for tax-related issues during his senior year. Paak stopped making music and started bagging groceries. "Just working and trying to get some stability," he says.
By the time he was 21, Paak was back in the studio with a new perspective. "I started making these weird little songs," he says. "I wanted it to be anything but hip-hop." He was listening to Radiohead and "finding all these different alternative types of music and punk-rock stuff. I didn't want to go back to making music like other people."
He didn't – but he took a while to find his voice. Paak played drums on the L.A. session scene, trimmed weed on a Santa Barbara pot farm, had a one-month marriage (annulled), a second marriage that has lasted (his baby boy is now five) and released two albums of atmospheric funk under the name Breezy Lovejoy. About four years ago, he decided it was time to focus and went into hibernation, studying the work of Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, David Bowie and the Beatles. When he re-emerged in 2014, he'd crafted the first Anderson Paak album, the hedonistic Venice.
Paak caught the attention of Dr. Dre, who tapped him for six cuts on Compton – including "Animals," a confrontational track about police brutality and the most politically pointed song Dre has made since "Fuck tha Police." Paak's work on Compton helped him recruit top-shelf producers, who brought classic West Coast hip-hop sounds to the dreamy R&B he'd worked on for his breakthrough LP, Malibu. "The visionary in the vintage Chevy," he calls himself in "The Waters." "I bring you greetings from the first church of Boom Baptists."
Paak, now 30, signed to Dre's label Aftermath after Malibu's release. He's already planning his next move. "This will be the first project where I have a fucking budget," he says. "So this is going to be exciting times." J.L.
How a famous dad and Miley shaped a great punk band
SWMRS co-leader Cole Becker is hanging from the ceiling. The California punk rockers are charging through bracing, hook-y songs off their debut, Drive North, at a New York show. They even return to the stage after their allotted set time and keep rocking unplugged. Though just hitting their twenties, SWMRS have been playing clubs like this for years; they formed in elementary school and had assistance from their drummer Joey Armstrong's father – Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. "When we were 13 to 14, he was telling us to text every time we wrote a song," says singer-guitarist Max Becker.
Despite attaining early credibility, SWMRS (who released two albums in their teens as Emily's Army) found the scene too bro-ish ("Aggressive dudes crowd-surfing on 14-year-old girls," says Cole). One song on Drive North was inspired by millennial feminist icon Tavi Gevinson, while "Miley" unironically celebrates the pop star, who they admire for her work with homeless LGBTQ teens. "I think they have the potential to be ginormous," says Zac Carper, of fellow Cali punks FIDLAR, who produced Drive North. "They just do whatever the fuck they want, and I want to see more of that in bands." Brittany Spanos
An EDM whiz finds the "human element"
Electronic music has been good to Harley Streten, a.k.a. Flume. His blend of stuttering beats, trance-y synth swoops and woozy ambient effects has scored him Top 20 hits in his native Australia and featured spots at Coachella and Lollapalooza. But as the 24-year-old approached his second album, Skin, he wanted more. "A lot of electronic music out there feels cold," he says. "I want to incorporate a human element."
Streten started making tracks at 13, using software that came on a disc in a cereal box. His first album, released in 2012, had offbeat rhythmic and melodic touches. For Skin, he wrote "actual songs," he says. "Really heavy festival moments, really beautiful songs with vocals and also some ambient stuff."
Tracks with Vince Staples and Raekwon "re-create the energy of EDM but with a hip-hop feel," and his collaborations with Tove Lo and Kai are stuffed with earworm hooks, the result of writing sessions that saw him boiling down multiple songs into one. "I like pop music," he says. "And I like really weird, strange stuff. It just didn't feel like there was anyone doing both." J.L.
Synth-poppers turn quiet angst into an excellent album
Brooklyn has become a top exporter of great synth-pop bands in recent years. But Wet have set themselves apart with music that combines the elegant ache of Nineties R&B with the raw honesty of indie pop. "I feel like that's a very pure thing," singer Kelly Zutrau says. "When you can get as close as possible to a pure emotional intensity – that's when people hear something real in it." The songs on Wet's debut LP, Don't You, wring drama out of lyrics that often suggest snippets of actual relationship dialogue. Onstage, Zutrau delivers her confessional lyrics with an eyes-closed forcefulness that can be captivating and a little uncomfortable. The 28-year-old grew up a fan of Cat Power and TLC, dropping out of high school in Massachusetts to pursue art and music in New York, where she met multi-instrumentalists Joe Valle and Marty Sulkow. Wet released an EP in 2013 and pulled down opening gigs for Chvrches and Tobias Jesso Jr. For Don't You, the bandmates retreated to a house in western Massachusetts, where they wrote in a meditative isolation that comes through in their songs. Lately, Zutrau has been living in L.A. and writing with Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend."[Don't You] is about relationships," she says. "About managing ideas that are hard to deal with. It helped me process them." Hilary Hughes
Beyoncé's favorite YouTube stars break out on their own
Sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey are only 17 and 16, respectively, but they have Michelle Obama as a fan, and they appeared on the video album for Beyoncé's Lemonade. "Magic was in the air in New Orleans," says Halle of their work in the clip for "Freedom." "We were saying, 'What a time to be alive.'" The sisters' music is just as impressive as their endorsers. Their EP Sugar Symphony – self-produced in their L.A. home – is an accomplished mix of R&B, jazz and alt-pop. "Our dad taught us to do everything on our own," Chloe says. "This industry is so dominated by men and older people," adds Halle. "You have to look into yourself and say, 'I can have wonderful ideas.'" B.S.
An acid-loving hip-hop crew takes on the dark side of reality
"Sometimes I like to take a trip real deep into my mind," says Meechy Darko of Brooklyn hip-hop trio Flatbush Zombies. "I travel back into my consciousness and face my demons." So far, that's worked out well for Flatbush Zombies, probably the first hip-hoppers to sell blotter paper alongside T-shirts at their concerts.
This year, their darkly psychedelic debut, 3001: A Laced Odyssey, hit Number One on Billboard's Independent Albums chart. "I wanted people to be like, 'Damn, this is like a movie trailer,'" says producer Erick "Arc" Elliott. "I wanted [the album] to take a journey that transcends into the darkness and gets happy again." The Zombies have been buddies since grade school, and all live in the same apartment complex. Elliott took up production years ago so he could entertain his mother after she lost her vision, and part of what makes 3001 stand out is the realism woven into its trippiness ("Fly Away" addresses a friend's suicide). "There's no downfall [in most rap songs]," says Meechy. "No one's getting anyone pregnant. Nobody's going broke. No two sides." It doesn't seem they'll be running short on inspiration. Says Meechy, "They say, 'Don't look into a mirror when you trip on acid.' That's my favorite thing to do." Jason Newman