Top Of The Year: Okayplayer's Top 16 Artists To Watch For 2016!
Knxlwedge, sharing some wisdom for the new year.
2016 came in like a lion--okay, a lion with one wounded paw--and is now proceeding to rampage drunkenly through January. With an absurd presidential race underway and tensions at an all-time high both home and abroad, it feels like an anything-could-happen type of year. Every new day it feels as though the world is falling apart in ways inevitable and unexpected, and at the same time it feels as though people are speaking their minds and expressing their truest selves in an unprecedented moment of change. As wiser people than us have noted, weird times have often made for great art, so add this to the mix of confusion, frustration and expression that's attended the new year so far: a whole swarm of could-be-life-changing musical releases, amassing just over the horizon.
If 2015 was a year of big statements, a return to revolution and a renewed commitment to art's power to change the world, then the class of 2016 feels like it might be a more individualistic bunch, representing a multiplicity of ways to speak your clout, claim your own space and combat fuckery in your own secret language. You could call 2016's new musical shots counter-microagressions. The artists on this list have gotten our attention with cameos and quiet releases, early-warning signs of greatness that have us watching their Soundcloud pages and e-mail lists eagerly, whether they are trusted musical friends (Knxwledge, Anna Wise) about to make their solo step or completely, utterly brand new new-comers (Kelsey Lu, Abra, Kadjha Bonet and more).
The 2016 watch list is too diverse, too innovative, too fierce to box into a "sound of 2016," just yet. But then again there are common strains—soulful, dissonant, restless—that unite them all. With these artists acting as beacons and trailblazers, we predict 2016 may be the year that everybody forges their own path. But then again, it's only January and if there's one solid prediction that can be made about this end-of-an-era year...?
Anything can happen.
Read on for 16 disruptors talents that are ringing in the future sound of everywhere...
You wouldn’t expect a label featuring the likes of Father, KeithCharlesSpacebar, and Slug Christ to produce one of the more exciting r&b/pop acts in recent memory. But that is just what the ragtag DIY Atlanta collective Awful Records have done with the "Darkwave Duchess," also know as, ABRA.
In 2015, the Atlanta based singer-songwriter made her presence felt with her debut EP BLQ VELVET and then followed it up with her well-received full-length effort ROSE, a few months later. ABRA crafts her own beats as a producer, using her signature lo-fi, glam-pop sound, or as she puts it, “I’m Phil Collins with 808s.” ABRA’s name easily fits into the mix with the ever-increasing list of promising new vocalists out there, and being one of the few r&b acts in a crew of nearly 20 rappers, ABRA has plenty of experience standing out in a crowded field.
With standout tracks like “Roses XOXO”; “Atoms” and “Sick Girl,” it’s not hard to see why 2016 is looking to be a big year for her. ABRA will be headlining her first-ever European tour next month, so expect even more momentum and new music to soon follow. Get a sample of ABRA's brand of lo-fi deliciousness in "Fruit," below. - Shamz
2. Kelsey Lu
Rarely have we been blown away by a new artists' debut as we were by the song and video of "Morning After Coffee" by classically trained cellist Kelsey Lu. From the first note of her piercing vocal underscored by plucked strings, the song immediately pulls you into a sonic space that is simultaneously intimate and urgent. This singular psycho-acoustic feat that is comparable to almost nobody in the current pop landscape, save some of OKP favorites like Tanya Auclair or Moses Sumney, and you would at least be in the right microverse. And that's only the first few seconds of a song that hypnotizes with it's bluesy mantra of "Fire from down looooow." The video is equally arresting (watch below) eschewing the usual music video tropes for a more timeless feeling, a photographic meditation that takes us straight from a dark orchestra pit into the bosom of nature. The camera moves slowly and hypnotically, lingering on Lu's face and figure; the visual's mesemerising quality helped considerably by the fact that the New York City via North Carolina artist is possessed of a distinctive beauty equal to her music.
The only other tidbit Lu—a past collaborator with Blood Orange, Nappy Roots and Chairlift, among others—has shared on her Sounclound ("The Bend") is a wordless collage of tape noise and prepared piano. Those lucky enough to catch her recent live performance at a Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn got a preview of her forthcoming EP, which was recorded there with a select audience of onlookers. Although there's no release date yet, we're told more information about a possible label signing will accompany it when it drops. And that's all we can tell you for now! Except that Lu is slated to open for Wet on their upcoming live dates, so get thee to a church or another live venue in your town and keep your eye on Kelsey. This is the dictionary definition of one to watch. - Eddie STATS
3. Kadhja Bonet
Last year, Kadhja Bonet championed cinematic soul like few before her. If you listen close, you can still hear "Honeycomb" oozing out of OKP HQ into the five boroughs. This year, however, Bonet plans to follow-up her effortlessly exceptional debut EP with another stellar outing. And while we can't say too much at the moment, we can assure you that the younger Ms. Bonet is more than ready to dominate the music world with a particularly potent blend of classic and contemporary r&b, expertly crafted by a classically trained musician with a knack for luscious strings and sweet, syrupy grooves. See her track, "Miss You," as a case in point below to get a feel for what Kadhja is cooking up. - Zo
Canadian duo Tennyson have been populating their corner of the web with soulful, surprising electronic melodies for a few years now (see "With You"). But with recent tracks like "Slipperz" (listen below) they have reached a new level of quirky perfection and stutter-y virtuosity that bridges the beat scene with the warmth of soul-jazz and the glitchy textures of '90s electronica like Microstoria and Mouse On Mars. It didn't hurt their hipster cred that the track was debuted on Beats 1 by young Jaden Smith and you can pretty much guarantee that we'll be seeing big things from the duo—and bigger names beating a path to the front door of their Soundcloud for fresh rhythms and melodies. - Eddie STATS
With a song that finds itself in constant rotation on Soundcloud playlists, SPZRKT has become the unofficial face of a growing r&b movement. The Georgia-bred, Chicago-residing act might not be a household name to those who swear they’re audiophiles, but you will be made a believer. Last year alone, SPZRKT (pronounced Spazzy Rocket) turned heads with his pairing alongside Sango for their Hours Spent Loving You tape.
Buoying his burgeoning reputation with songs with Soulection’s Esta (“Can’t Wait”) and producer Sam Baker (“Honest”), this velvety-smooth singer-songwriter aims his next entry of his audio-biography at us in beautiful, surround-sound. 2016 looks to be an exhilarating experience for the STRT_TRBL (pronounced Straight Terrible) signee, as he recently dropped two honest and mature tracks with the Second City’s own Noname Gypsy (“All I Need"--listen below) and his partner-in-song, Sango (Mais Mais Mais).
This new age cupid, slinging arrows of vulnerability and effortless black cool, is certainly one to keep an eye on. SPZRKT, who will also be one of our First Look Friday interviewees, has more than enough chutzpah to change the game in a manner of moments. While we’re waiting on word of new releases, OKP-ers who are familiar with the talented twentysomething should know that that goodness can drop unexpectedly at any time. - Kevito
6. Kali Uchis
With both her solo jams and her cameos alongside the likes of Tyler, The Creator (see "Yellow"), Colombia-via-VA chanteuse Kali Uchis has established herself as a reliable purveyor of a certain style of melancholy pop—little girl vocals and low-rider friendly Motown melodies; doo-wop filtered through the textures of reggaeton, trap 'n b and even jazz torch songs of the Brainfeeder/Odd Future vein. She's also the auteur of a distinctive candy-colored worldview, a girlpower parallel to Tyler's cartoonishly twisted pop art (see "Ridin' Around" below). With all that buzz, attention from the fashion world (she is currently fronting a campaign for shoe designer Sophia Webster and being shot by toney fashion photog Nick Knight) and a network of potential collaborators that includes Tyler, Pharrell, Tory Lanez, DJ Dahi, Kaytranada and BADBADNOTGOOD, her debut LP, which should arrive in 2016, is easily one of the most-anticipated debuts on the watchlist for serious music heads. - Eddie STATS
7. Anna Wise
By now, Anna Wise has absolutely nothing to prove. In 2015, she was an integral component to the To Pimp a Butterfly equation, moaning and melting in the wings of "These Walls," but the new year is poised to resolve on an entirely different note for the incomparable vocalist. Prior to that, she’d been a queen in experimental pop with the duo Sonnymoon. This spring, however she'll release her very first solo EP, backed by a gamut of post-Dilla-styled frequency freakers, marking the first page in a new chapter, proclaiming once and for all that she was made for this game. And as someone that's had the pleasure of hearing it thoroughly, I warn you to brace yourself and take heed. Witness Anna Wise doing her thing on an early solo outing "I'll Always Be In Your Heart," below and watch this space for news on the EP. - Zo
8. Eryn Allen Kane
How can one describe the impressive year that Eryn Allen Kane had? Simply put, it was transformative. The Detroit-bred, Chicago-based siren lit up our radar heavy when she was anointed by the Purple One, Prince, to perform with him on “Baltimore,” his scathing indictment of the murder of Freddie Gray. She followed that up with filming a quiet, low-key role in Spike Lee’s seering motion picture, Chi-Raq. Her rich voice, eager to be freed, belted out alongside growing stars Chance The Rapper and Donnie Trumpet on the album, Surf.
Mix all of that energy with the unveiling of her Aviary, Act I effort and you have the makings of a new, fierce songstress for the airwaves. Ms. Kane wrapped up her 2015 by being featured as our First Look Friday interviewee, yet she’s continuing to impact us in the here-and-now as 2016 finds her dropping a new project. An emotive, timely new single (“How Many Times”--listen below) finds Eryn pulling on heartstrings again and fuels the hype behind her next effort, Aviary, Act II, which is slated for release on Friday, February 19. - Kevito
With a debut video so good ("Bad Blood"--watch below) that it made our Year's Best round up, Nao's still somewhat mysterious persona has only heightened interest in an expected full-length coming this year. While the song's arresting visuals may have made her a budding name in the game, it's the song itself—sounding like nothing so much as a classic Prince raunch-out, as recorded by, say, AlunaGeorge—is what gives us hope.
A dive into Nao's still young catalogue confirms that the fragile voice and momentous soundscapes are just the settings for song-jewels with both real melodic and lyrical depth (see "It's You") and reassuringly timeless funk chops (see "Golden" and "Zillionaire.") It's no wonder the Hackney-based diva's name is popping up on UK radio charts like BBC's "Hot for 2016" playlist. Today, London. Tomorrow, the world. - Eddie STATS
As far as modern-day producers are concerned, Knxwledge may be one of the most prolific and, frankly, brilliant dude’s on the scene. Here’s a man 70 tapes deep in resume work and also happens to be at the helm of not one, but two of the handful of non-To Pimp a Butterfly albums to define a year in music. With those in the bag, a promised full-length NxWorries LP with fellow musical misfit Anderson .Paak in 2016 and a superpowered collaboration record—just put an ear to that smokey Ghostface Killah and Omarion joint (listen below!) that hit last week—and not only is Knxw one to keep on your radar, he’s practically begging you to dive kneedeep into his archive of super-swung sonic suites. And trust us, if you decide to go down that rabbit hole...you may never want to come out. - Zo
2015 was an exceptionally good year to Chicago’s own Saba, as he jumped, both literally and figuratively, into America’s consciousness alongside Chance The Rapper. Together, the duo treated late night television audiences to the joyously raucous collaborative single, “Angels,” which even came with host Stephen Colbert dawning a heavenly halo. Fans of his ComfortZone tape will be proud to learn that 2016 will be coming out party of sorts for Saba Pivot.
Fast forward to the here-and-now, and the Second City’s champion, Saba, has placed his Food & Liquor-inspired visuals into the past. Instead, the stud performer and acrobatic lyricist has given us “GPS” (listen below) which was produced by Cam O’bi and features a hook that won’t be easy to shake from one’s brain anytime soon. Don’t wait before it is too late to get familiar with Saba, as his forthcoming solo debut is already booked for sometime this year. - Kevito
12. Benny Cassette
In 2015 producer-singer Benny Cassette made his name with a few interesting leaks that shared these qualities: 1) lazy, catchy melodies, 2) inspired collaborations, and 3) ambitious but unexpected concepts and videos. Whether it was remaking OutKast's frenetic "Bombs Over Baghdad" into a slow, mournful dirge with the assistance of (OKP First Looker) Pell or taking his busking chops to the streets of the Windy City alongside BJ The Chicago Kid for "Bridges Over Babylon" (watch below) Benny has developed a cultish following by translating his already-renowned live shows into these online happenings. Backed by melodies that manage to be both engagingly lo-fi and insanely catchy in a Ryan Leslie-type of way, the G.O.O.D. Music producer has us eagerly checking for his forthcoming effort, Broken Hearts & Dollar Signs. - Eddie STATS
13. Anderson .Paak
Simply put, here's another act that should need no intro to those who were paying attention. Anderson .Paak has arguably had one of the best years for a young artist in recent memory. Call it the product of work ethic or divine inspiration, but this slick-talking crooner has been damn near everywhere--musically, geographically, what have you00throughout 2015. Never mind his selection as the Compton co-captain alongside Dr. Dre, or that his NxWorries project with Knxwledge (more on that in just a bit) has proven to be narcotic-strong with just two true songs out in the world. Now, with his sophomore solo record Malibu getting the burn it deserves and scoring Drake-like conversion rates, .Paak has positioned himself to be the shockingly sturdy pillar on soul and r&b’s new front (see "Come Down," below)...and it’s hard to recall anyone, on any tier in the game, making it look this fun. - Zo
Tiffany Gouché photographed by Shayan Asgharnia for Okayplayer.
14. Tiffany Gouché
Inglewood, California’s own Tiffany Gouché is an anomaly within the music industry. Hailing from a family of musicians, Young Gouché has killed it in any way, shape or form, which has impressed the hell out of our selective lot of music snobs. 2015 introduced us to her brand of Pillow Talk, as the cut “Red Rum Melody” made sensual love to our earbuds. Not only shaped by slow jams, Tiffany is armed with classic vocal intonation and stellar songwriting meant to melt the hearts of audiophiles.
A proud queer woman, Tiffany Gouché has proven to be a commanding and powerful new voice, whom we spotlight this year for our First Look Friday series. 2016 promises more live appearances from the West Coast wünderkind, in addition to--hopefully--a new, full-length project, which exemplifies her strength, creativity and skills. You can witness her impact before anyone else, below, by checking out her “Red Rum Melody” track. - Kevito
15. Brandee Younger
For serious record collectors, the idea that a new artist could approach the artistic heights of the über-collectible "AfroHarpist" Dorothy Ashby is not so much blasphemy as it is just an absurd pipe dream. However, with her "Dorothy Jeanne" tribute (listen below) on Blue Note's recent Supreme Sonacy compilation, Brandee Younger proved that she can not only capably carry Ashby's torch in the rarefied world of jazz harp, but that she is a fearless innovator to match the jazz legend's spirit as well.
With once-in-a-generation virtuosity and an anything-goes approach to sound and soul that recalls Robert Glasper, Younger's debut LP Wax & Wane (out Feb. 19th, representing Revive's first independent release!) is easily the year's most anticipated drop from a new jazz artist and has positioned her 2016 as to what Kamasi Washington was for 2015. Take note! And if you're in New York, celebrate the release on Feb. 17th with Younger's concert at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola featuring flutist Anne Drummond, tenor saxophonist Chelsea Baratz, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Dana Hawkins. - Eddie STATS
16. Nick Hakim
Back in 2014, New York City transplant, Nick Hakim delivered one the year's most heart-crushing efforts in the visceral, reverb-slathered Where Do We Go LP. And while he's remained eerily silent in the year since, we're happy to announce that the soft-toned crooner will deliver his sophomore outing, promising a more energetic and dynamic record than any of us could have hoped. Over the years, Hakim has sharpened his chops as one of the most sought after performers in the Brooklyn borough. But 2016, barring no setbacks, may just be the year your boy becomes a household name. Don't take our word on it. Press play on Where Will We Go, Pt. 1 and get an idea of what's to come. - Zo