One of my role models as a music critic is Mel Kiper Jr. It’s true: I admire an opinionated motor-mouth football scout who never saw a statistic he didn’t love, or a player too obscure to earn a ranking. Strange to say, Kiper doesn’t have much to say about today’s stars—he’s too busy looking for tomorrow’s new talents. And he does it every day of the year.
I guess that’s why I’ve listened to around 5,000 newly-released albums since the start of this decade. It’s why I’m listening again today, and tomorrow, and pretty much every day for the foreseeable future. And it’s why I pay more attention to lesser-known artists than to the lauded megastars of the global entertainment industry. There isn’t much mystery to a radio hit, but I never lose interest in those great artists who rarely show up on the airwaves or corporate-subsidized playlists.
Yet anyone who susses out talent also encounters another kind of prospect. These may not be the best—maybe they will never be the best—but they are intriguing. They play by their own rules, and they grab your attention. A week later, a month later, you’re still mulling over their quirks, their eccentricities, and wondering about their potential for greatness.
With this in mind, I share a list of 40 musicians who intrigue me. Some are world-beating talents who will own a chunk of fame before long, if they haven’t already got it. Others will never hold a gold record in their hand, and only get to watch the Grammy ceremony on TV. But they are all on my radar screen, and ought to be on yours, too.
Joey Alexander moved from Indonesia to New York last year, and quickly stirred up the jazz world with his debut album and prominent bookings. Not bad for an 11-year-old! But Alexander is now 12, and started out 2016 with a profile on 60 Minutes, conducted by Anderson Cooper. Jazz prodigies often flame out, and most of them are over-hyped and underwhelming. But let me make a prediction: before his twentieth birthday, Alexander will have proven himself as a major jazz star.
The New Sound of Cuba
The opening up of Cuba isn’t just a political gambit, but also has the potential to redefine Latin music in the current day. Daymé Arocena, a young singer-songwriter from Havana signed by Universal Music, serves up a haunting, ethereal variation on Cuban music that will confound those who think Caribbean sounds are just for dancing. For a taste of this rising talent, listen to Arocena’s recent album Nueva Era.
Music for Action Entertainment
You may not have heard the name Audiomachine, but I’m sure you’ve heard its music. This LA production house, drawing on the compositions of Paul Dinletir and Kevin Rix, is the hottest provider of tracks for movie trailers and video games. Check out Audiomachine’s work on the latest installment of the Call of Duty game franchise for a introduction to this daring duo’s thrills and chills music. Dinletir and Rix have tapped into the zeitgeist of the present moment and crafted the perfect sound for new millennium action entertainment.
Multimedia Polyphony Wizard
Jacob Collier is the current-day equivalent of one-man-band, but instead of playing on street corners he’s reaching a global audience via YouTube. His remarkable videos, featuring his intricate choral arrangements and instrumental skills, have reached 5 million listeners. No one is doing more interesting pop vocal multitracking work—and he has created these intricate video projects out of his music room at home. Look for Collier’s debut album this summer and his multimedia stage show developed in conjunction with Ben Bloomberg of MIT.
Classical Piano Iconoclast
Lucas Debargue claims he only took piano seriously at age 20 after working for three years in a dead-end supermarket job. But when he showed up at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow last June, by then a poised 24, he shook up the proceedings with his brilliance and unconventional approach. No young musician in the world has me more excited than Lucas Debargue. His first album is coming soon from Sony, but in the meantime check out his online video of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and marvel at his emotional commitment to the music.
African-Influenced British Soul Music
Zimbabwean-born Eska Mtungwazi was raised in South London, where she first caught the attention of fans singing the Police’s “Walking on the Moon” reconfigured into the Shona language and singing style of southern Africa. Her reputation kept rising, but a decade passed before she released her first full-length album ESKA last spring. Other musicians are now hailing her as the finest female vocalist in Britain. It’s only a matter of time before audiences elsewhere start noticing.
New Millennium Singer-Songwriter
Jack Garratt is redefining the role of the singer-songwriter in the new millennium. His music straddles indie and R&B, traditional instruments and laptop-driven sounds, old and new. The Guardian has called his style “the sound of neo-modern, a culmination of many genres which owes little to music before the millennium.” Already recognized as an up-and-coming star in Britain, Garratt is likely to attract a larger global audience with his 2016 debut album Phase.
EDM Meets Country
Not many DJs try to tap into the country music market, but Mike Gazzo claims that his driving ambition is “meshing new genres together.” Gazzo reached out to country star Chase Rice, and together they crafted the 2015 single “Sun Turns Cold,” the perfect anthem for the 21st century cowboy. Gazzo’s own path has taken him from upright bass to laptop visionary, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him return to acoustic sounds. His latest single, just out from Casablanca Records, features Gazzo with fellow DJ Kap Slap on “Rewind.”
I’ve heard so many trumpeters that sound pretty much the same—giving listeners a little bit of Miles, a dose of Dizzy, a nod to Wynton, and other familiar ingredients. And then Arve Henriksen comes along, who makes his horn sound like an ethereal Japanese shakuhachi flute. His trumpet tone is distinctive and entrancing, and something you must hear to believe. His singing, in the soprano range, is almost as surprising. Henrisken recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the release of his next album, a live recording of music featuring his trumpet and electronics sound manipulation.
Bluegrass Opry Music
Few recordings from last year were stranger than the Hillbenders reworking of the rock opera Tommy into a “bluegrass opry.” High Notes magazine called it “the most surprising album of the year in the roots music world.” “Six months ago, few had heard of The Hillbenders,” recently marveled roots music critic Donald Teplyske. “Today, they are garnering more press for their new release than most bluegrass bands attract in a decade.”
Brazilian Dance Music
This 11-member band from Belo Horizonte doesn’t yet have much name recognition outside of Brazil, but this is one of the hottest ensembles you will find on the planet. The group’s recent Piacó album mixes rock, Afrobeat, and samba sounds into an irresistible dance groove. Some smart promoter needs to bring Iconili on a world tour, and secure global distribution for their recordings.
What can be more annoying than a jazz musician who writes criticism better than the music critics. Can’t we get the union to stop him? If this catches on, professional scribes will need to get real jobs. Fortunately for Iverson, he has other skills to fall back on. While safely seated on the piano bench, he turns pretty much everything into jazz, whether grunge rock tunes or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. For a sampling, hear him on his recent album with his main band, The Bad Plus, on The Bad Plus Joshua Redman.
Artificial Intelligence Composing System
Kulitta is the artificial intelligence system developed by Donya Quick, a composer and computer science lecturer at Yale. In a blind test, listeners are usually unable to distinguish Kulitta’s music from the work of a human composer, and even experts have been fooled into thinking that the AI-created phrases were written by Bach. Quick has plans to create software-driven mix-ups of different styles, classical and jazz or Metallica meets Mozart.
Lake Street Dive
Lake Street Dive’s street performance of “I Want You Back” could hardly have been more low-key. Just four musicians on a quiet residential street blending voices on an old Jackson 5 song. But the video racked up 3.5 million YouTube views and helped launch this impressive retro-pop combo. Their catchy melodies and appealing funk stylings are ready for prime time. I have a hunch that Lake Street Dive’s 2016 album on Nonesuch, Side Pony, could take them to the next level.
Who is the greatest harmonica player in the world? Until recently, Toots Thielemans reigned as the most in-demand performer on the chromatic harp, but he announced his retirement in 2014. Let me introduce you to the new new champ: Grégoire Maret, son of a Harlem-born African-American mother and a Swiss jazz musician, and a genre-crossing harmonica hotshot. He has shared the stage with everyone from Sting to Herbie Hancock, but is increasingly finding a following for his own work as a bandleader. Be on the lookout for his Wanted album coming in April.
Afrofuturist Street Music
The video for Mbongwana Star’s breakout single “Malukayi” features a man in a spacesuit wandering through Kinshasa, accompanied by percussion, electronic sounds, and a lulling rap. Forget about the old stereotypes of African music, this hot Central African band captures the cutting edge sound of the rising Afrofuturist movement. I highly recommend the band’s debut 2015 album From Kinshasa.
James Vincent McMorrow
Irish Falsetto Soul Music
I love the voice of this Irish falsetto soul singer. His vocal range is stunning, and even when he reaches up into the stratosphere, his phrases never lose their emotional weight. Then again, almost everything about this artist breaks the mold—he journeyed to a pecan farm near El Paso, Texas to record his most recent album, the highly-recommended Post Tropical. Forget your jigs and reels. This is Irish music like you’ve never heard it before.
The Hologram Pop Star
Miku, a 16-year-old girl with distinctive turquoise hair, is one of the biggest pop stars in Japan today … but she’s also a hologram. Her name translates as “the first sound from the future,” and she has lived up to the grand pronouncement, delivering big profits to her bosses at Crypton Future Media in Sapporo, Japan. Miku first broke into the business as an open-source voice synthesizer software program, but made the leap to videos and games, and finally live appearances. She may not be the first pop star to come out of an animation screen (anyone remember The Archies?), but with all her brand extensions and upgrades, she makes all the rest seem like flat cartoon characters.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has been busy playing Alexander Hamilton, as part of his award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton. But this rapper has always had politics in his blood—one of his earliest music gigs was writing jingles for an Eliot Spitzer campaign. Is there another hip-hopper with such a broad base of musical experiences, ranging from collaborations with Stephen Sondheim (to translate West Side Story lyrics into Spanish) to contributions to the soundtrack to Star Wars: The Force Awakens? The force is definitely with this visionary artist who is redefining multiple music genres, even while pursuing a full-time acting career.
New Music Champion
When you think of the great symphony orchestras, do you focus on New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London? Think again! In recent years, I’ve found the Seattle Symphony, under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, surpassing these better-known competitors in launching exciting new music. They not only commissioned John Luther Adam’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean, one of the most breathtaking new works of the decade, but also impressed Taylor Swift so much with this piece that she donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony. Morlot and the orchestra recently launched their own record label, Seattle Symphony Media, and are dazzling the cognoscenti with a series of albums featuring the music of Henri Dutilleux.
James Murphy has a plan to make the New York subway sing. He wants each stop on the line to have its own distinctive tones, generating a random performance when travelers use the turnstiles. He sees a budgeted 2019 upgrade as the time for implementation. So far the Metropolitan Transit Authority has been unimpressed, but Murphy has found high-powered allies and corporate sponsors who hope get the green light for his Subway Symphony.
Rising Soul Star
The fertile British soul music scene is more than just Adele and Sam Smith. The rising star that has most impressed me is Laura Mvula. Child of a Jamaican father and St. Kitts mother, Mvula studied composition at Birmingham Conservatory, and her training shows up in her beautifully crafted songs. But the real treat is her voice, one of the best among the younger generation of vocalists. Be on the lookout for her 2016 album The Dreaming Room.
Qasim Naqvi first came to my attention as drummer for Dawn of Midi, that mind-blowing acoustic trio that somehow managed to sound like a potpourri of software effects gone wild. The next time I heard his music he was composing a long, elaborate choral composition. Then came chamber music for “Slightly Out of Tune Guitars, Vinyl Record Static and Grand Piano.” In other settings, he is writing film music or developing a new “graphic language” for notating music. If you want to expect the unexpected, keep tabs on this mercurial up-and-coming artist.
Fabiano do Nascimento
The Next Great Brazilian Guitarist
So many great guitarists have come out of Brazil—including Baden Powell, João Gilberto, Egberto Gismonti—to shake up the global music scene. The new rising star of the six strings is Fabiano do Nascimento. I’ve been listening to his album Dança dos Tempos ever since it came out last year. If you haven’t heard it yet, put it on your playlist immediately.
Rock Repertory Big Band Music
Is there even such a thing as a rock repertory big band? Well, not until Ed Palermo came along and invented the concept. He first made his mark in the music world with elaborate big band arrangements of Frank Zappa compositions—by now his group has 300 Zappa pieces in its repertoire! But Palermo has gone on to show that Paul Butterfield and Todd Rundgren songs are also suitable for hot horn hoedowns. His latest album is One Child Left Behind.
Galician Bagpipe Music
You probably don’t think much about the bagpipes, and when you do, you picture some dour Scottish Highlander in a plaid skirt. But Cristina Pato will challenge everything you thought you knew about this instrument. She plays the Galician gaita, the bagpipe of the Iberian world whose origins date back more than a thousand years. Pato is taking this tradition into the 21st century with her vibrant, fun music, and no plaid skirt required. Check out her Rústica and Latina albums and her performance in the new film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble.
Max Richter consulted with neuroscientist David Eagles before composing his 8-hour piece Sleep, which he describes as “my personal lullaby for a frenetic world.” But rarely has a lullaby been so controversial—with critics debating the validity of music for a snoozing audience. This year will see Sleep go on road in a shorter nap-sized version, and get transformed in a series of remixes.
Ludovic Navarre, a French DJ who records under the name St. Germain, sold a million copies of his 1995 album Boulevard. But St. Germain disappeared from the scene, even as the EDM sound he influenced took off. After 15 years without an album, St Germain came back last October with a visionary dance project mixing mesmerizing computer-generated sounds with traditional African instruments and samples of old school blues. U.S. audiences will get a chance to hear this bold music first hand when St. Germain launches a 12-city North American tour this spring.
Drum Improviser & Composer
You heard Mexico City native Antonio Sanchez (and even saw him briefly) in the Oscar-winning film Birdman. His drum score was unconventional and riveting, one of the most daring ingredients in film that took chances on every front. But now you need to hear Sanchez’s jazz work. In the last few months he has released two outstanding albums, The Meridian Suite and Three by Three. He has also taken the Birdman music on the road, but it changes every time he performs it. He soon will start work on a new drum-oriented solo album.
Hubcap Blues Guitar
Now in his mid-70s, Seasick Steve is just entering the prime years for a blues musician. His 2015 album Sonic Soul Surfer was a big hit, but most of its sales came in Europe, where Steve has a large following. But this Oakland-born musician is immersed in the vernacular musical tradition of American blues. His arsenal of instruments includes hubcap guitar, diddley bow, and what he calls a “Mississippi drum machine”—basically a box to stomp on. If you want to return to the roots in 2016, this artist is where you ought to start.
Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize in music when she was still a student (in the Ph.D. program at Princeton). The decision to give such a young composer the most coveted honor in American music was unprecedented, yet richly deserved. Shaw’s compositions integrate a range of diverse elements—including medieval-ish drones, gospel sounds, loops and spoken word elements—into seamless musical masterpieces. But she can also work with Kanye West, or perform as a singer or violinist. Shaw is still in the early stages of a career that promises to shake up the classical music establishment.
Drum-Oriented Chamber Music
This New York quartet is redefining percussion music in the modern day. Group members Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Eric Cha-Beach first met while studying at Yale. But where did they learn to make music with an amplified cactus or a bucket of water? You might hear them performing John Cage and Steve Reich, or just clanging on a mug filled with spare change. Be on the lookout for their new recording of Drumkit Quartets by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.
Electronic Film Music
Electronic composition, once a radical fringe movement, is now the mainstream in commercial music. But a handful of iconoclastic composers remind us of this music’s bold, experimental past. Ryuichi Sakamoto tops my list of electronica composers, and his 2015 release Perpetual, made with Illuha / Taylor Deupree, was one of my favorites for the year. Look for him to broaden his audience in 2016 with his contributions to the score for The Revenant.
Syrian Wedding Music
It’s hard to break into the global music business under the best of circumstances, but even harder when your specialty is Syrian wedding music. Omar Souleyman defied the odds, and has found an enthusiastic audience for his impassioned performances of dabke folk material enlivened with electronica. His recent Bahdeni Nami release is one of the best recent dance albums I’ve heard.
Rising Blues Star
The future of the blues may look like Quinn Sullivan. He will turn 17 this year, but he’s already a seasoned pro—he made his first TV appearance at age 6 on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and started playing with blues legend Buddy Guy in 2007. At a time when commercial music is borrowing less and less from the blues, Sullivan might be just the candidate to bring this genre back into the mainstream.
Native American Hip-Hop
“All that crazy stuff that happens in the ghetto is similar to the reservation life,” explains Crow Nation hip-hopper Supaman. He’s been rapping for more than a decade, but the mainstream music world is just starting to take notice. His riveting “Prayer Loop Song” video—performed in full tribal dress to the accompaniment of traditional drumming—caught the attention of MTV last year, and got him the nod as “Artist of the Week.” But Supaman’s focus is as much on community outreach as crossover success. “It’s OK to embrace other cultures,” he asserts, “so long as you don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”
Crossover Inuit Throat Singing
Few people even know about throat singing—a seldom-heard vocal technique that allows a single person to produce more than one pitch at a time. But even fewer believe that throat singing has potential for crossover success in the commercial music world. But Tanya Tagaq shocked the skeptics when her album Animism won the coveted Polaris Music Prize. No one is doing more provocative vocal music in the current day than Tagaq. Look for a new album from her in the Fall of 2016.
Improvising Artificial Intelligence
Thomas has covered all the bases as a saxophonist, playing with ensembles as diverse as the Houston Symphony, the PRISM Quartet, and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. As a sideline, he has worked with Bryan Carter in creating a virtual reality equivalent of ’20s Harlem nightlife. But Thomas’s most intriguing project is his effort to develop an artificial intelligence system that can improvise music and interact with flesh-and-blood musicians. He’s even received funds from the Department of Defense (!) to make it happen.
The New Sound of West Coast Jazz
The LA jazz scene hasn’t been in such a state of creative ferment in a half-century, and although many artists are contributing to the West Coast renaissance, the biggest and baddest of them all is saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose work with Kendrick Lamar and ambitious album The Epic topped many critic’s best-of-year lists in 2015. Washington could emerge as the pathbreaker who brings about a revitalized partnership between jazz and contemporary R&B in the current day.
Cross-Cultural Composition and Clarinet Music
Evan Ziporyn is a clarinetist, composer and faculty director of MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology, an organization that takes an expansive view of musical culture in the 21st century. Ziporyn exemplifies that bridge-building in his own projects, which break down the divide between West and East, classical and vernacular, academic and grassroots. Yo-Yo Ma recently debuted Ziporyn’s piece “Tom and Huck” for cello and tabla.