A little more than two weeks remain in 2016, and today we commence our review of the year in music, beginning with our Favorite Hidden Gems of 2016 – Part I. This list focuses on artists who recently started out or are still waiting for their big moment. Some of the artists we considered experienced significant and, in some cases, massive breakthroughs – like Julia Jacklin, Seratones, Soviet Soviet, and Pinegrove, who were an actual Hidden Gem. We considered hundreds of artists and bands, and we ended up choosing 30. Here are the first fifteen.
A Festival, A Parade (England)
A Festival, A Parade impressed us with their most recent track, “If Dogs Could Talk”, which was released a few months ago. As we continued to explore their other songs, we are becoming even more excited for their future. Their sound is difficult to pigeon-hole, as they are truly crafting music that is all their own. Sure there are elements of ’90s-era math rock – and you can even hear some of their influences wrapped up in their music (like The National). Regardless of who influenced them, we are impressed and we love their witty songwriting as well. Keep an eye on this band from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, as they have what it takes to break out from the similar sounds we hear in today’s indie-rock landscape. ~~ Wendy
Aaron Lee Tasjan (USA)
One of the best, under-the-radar musicians on the scene today is Aaron Lee Tasjan. Earlier this year, Tasjan released his second solo album, Silver Tears, which was released on New West Records. The strength of the record laid in Tasjan’s witty songwriting, which ranged from dreamy, vivid imagery to wry and biting lyrics. Case in point the following:
“It’s a hard life, so people get ready / They’ll give you loose gravel and call it rock steady.”
Pair these lyrics that we all can related to with catchy hooks, and you have one heck of a good album by an artist who deserves everyone’s attention. ~~ Zac
Acapulco Lips (USA)
Seattle is a storied breeding ground for fierce indie music, but it’s not the place you think of when it comes to surf music. Rising stars Acapulco Lips might just change that. Their brand of indie rock packs a wallop of a punch because it’s just so damn fresh. It’s an unexpected blend of ‘60s girl-group vocals with the unbridled energy of psychedelic punk.
Imagine if The Ronettes and 13th Floor Elevators formed a band – that’s the level of creative genius at play here. There are jangly hooks aplenty and powerhouse vocals from frontwoman Maria-Elena Juarez. “Awkward Waltz” showcases her vocals (and groovy bass work) and gives listeners a taste of what else is on their self-titled debut LP. It may seem contradictory to say a band can sound dirty and fresh at the same time, but trust us: the grittiness of their sound will quench your thirst for powerful indie rock. ~~ Hollie
Ali Beletic (USA)
Ali Beletic is an artist who plays by her own rules. Forget elaborate studios and succumbing to the forces of the industry, Beletic – to use an old cliché – marches to the beat of her own drum. She is essentially a modern-day version of James Dean or a younger Patti Smith, and her debut, Legends of These Lands Left To Live, personified her “rebellious nature”.
Brimming with edgy and moody indie and garage rock, the record was raw, gritty, and at times visceral. It represented Beletic’s life-changing journey from the concrete jungle of New York City to the quiet, hard life of the Sonoran Desert. But the album was more than just a personal diary. It also was one that challenged our conception of the relationship between the natural and material worlds. Legends, as such, introduced us to one of the biggest surprises of the year and to a singer-songwriter to watch for years to come. But unlike Dean, Beletic isn’t a rebel without a cause. Quite the opposite, she is one that influence a whole new generation of rebellious singer-songwriters. ~~ Ben
Amy Klein (USA)
Amy Klein has quite a resume, from work with Titus Andronicus to attending Harvard to founding the feminist activist organization Permanent Wave. Her first solo record, Fire, came out this year, and it was a standout. The album channels some old school rock and roll and flows with the energy of the ’60s and ’70s when the genre was at its peak.
The turning point, however, was witnessing her live performance at this year’s New Alternative Music Festival. On what was a totally stacked lineup, she and her band played one of the most energetic and engaging sets of the entire festival despite the early time slot. Not only is Klein is creative and imaginative artist, she is also one incredible performer. Either way, she will leave a lasting imprint in your mind. ~~ Rich
Ashley Shadow (Canada)
If we were to list the best debut albums of the year, Ashley Shadow‘s self-titled record would undoubtedly be among them. Like Joni Mitchell in her youth, Ashley Webber – the woman behind the project – shared an LP that was incredibly beautiful to hear with its lo-fi, alt-folk approach. And akin to the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter, each of her nine songs was intimate but filled with a quiet urgency and catharsis, as her were endearing, real, and complicated. They were reflections of the lives of ordinary people and the struggles they encountered. They were stories about you, me, and everyone else.
While the LP was critically acclaimed and had us reveling in its beauty, Webber’s name continues to linger in the shadows. It is not too late for people to discover this hidden gem of an artist, who truly could be Canada’s next iconic singer-songwriter. Her debut album is available everywhere, including streaming for on Spotify and SoundCloud. ~~ Ben
Auna Sims (USA)
Auna Sims has captured our hearts with her heartwarming testimony of perseverance and positive attitude. With her unique and memorable vocals, her meaningful lyrics inspire listener and optimism, and her songs “Right Place” and “Dance The Extra Mile” embody this spirit.
Sims is a native of Atlanta, and while growing up in a musical family she made music her life. She was even slated to audition to be the head of the Atlanta Symphony until an idiopathic hand and arm injury made playing piano impossible for her. Her therapy was continuing to write music and learn to just play piano one handed. She has, as such, inspired us in more ways than just her beautiful music. ~~ Wendy
BLAJK started releasing singles in 2015 with the stellar “French Class” and “Lost”, but this year they proved they are here for the long haul. This year, they released their first proper EP, Limited, which saw them incorporate cinematic and R&B textures into their unique, brooding indie-rock style. The Toronto-based band are creating music unlike anyone else in Canada or even the rest of the world. Could 2017 be the year they truly break out and be recognized alongside the likes of The National and Grizzly Bear? We’re betting on it. ~~ Wendy
Cuesta Loeb (USA)
So many young artists dream about being the next Taylor Swift or Beyoncé. Cuesta Loeb, however, aspires to front a new version of The Smashing Pumpkins or be the next Fiona Apple. She does not merely wish to entertain, but she wants to physically and emotionally crush our listeners with her poignant songwriting and dark, edgy folk- and blues-rock sound.
She first enthralled us with her gritty but dreamy second single “Dive”, which was like hearing Fiona Apple being supported by the Cocteau Twins. Her next single, “Charlotte Hill”, revealed not merely a songwriter but a storyteller and social advocate. The song was gripping drama and a powerful message about abuse and violence. This track didn’t just pulverize our souls. It also made us fully realize Loeb’s brilliance and her potential to be among the new Laurel Canyon group of singer-songwriters. ~~ Ben
Four-piece Leicester band Dayflower have been crafting their honeyed-blend of lo-fi shoegaze since 2013, but they hit the airwaves hard in 2016. Though still relatively unknown, they received a big boost with a shout out by Fat Cat Records and BBC. And rightfully so! Dayflower gives you silky smooth vocals that flow over like water over well worn river rocks. Combine that with superbly fuzzed out synth, jangly guitar, and really interesting percussion and textured effects, and you’ve got some amazing music.
Their single, “Neverfriend”, was the first to catch people’s attention, but in no way are Dayflower a one-hit wonder. They recently released an EP titled Ascent containing some of their older, previously unreleased material, which proves just as good. They’ve certainly earned their spot playing alongside other shoegaze greats like pinkshinyultrablast. Dayflower are currently working on new music now, and we’ve prepared a “do not disturb” sign until its release. ~~ Jeanette
Few Bits (Belgium)
Belgian singerer Karolien Van Ransbeeck – aka Few Bits – has one of those voices that stops you dead in your tracks. Combine her ethereal vocals with the atmospheric dream pop on her Big Sparks album, and you have one of our top discoveries for 2016. We were simply blown away by the haunting quality of her “Big Sparks” single.
While it starts with a moodier tone, the whispery vocals soon usher in a brighter chorus that evokes a “sunlight breaking through clouds” euphoric rush. The bold layers of shimmering guitars and bass echo the hazy vibe of The War on Drugs, a group Few Bits has toured with recently. Big Sparks isn’t her debut album, but it was our introduction to a talent who is sure to be a global superstar very soon. Give this song a listen and we think you’ll agree. ~~ Hollie
Future Elevators (USA)
Ask a music fan to name the hot spots for American indie music, and you’ll probably hear New York City, Seattle, or Chicago. Ask an ardent music fan, and they’ll likely mention Birmingham, Alabama. The state is already known for producing Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, and St. Paul & The Broken Bones. But there’s an emerging group from Magic City soon to join those household names: Future Elevators. Their self-titled debut release from February has been on constant rotation since their indie psych/pop-perfection lead single, “Modern World”, was released.
The light bounce of the intro followed by the buoyant bass line and warm vocals enrapture the listener. This, however, was just the tip of the iceberg. Each song revealed a different sound, all meticulously crafted and electrifying – both on the album and performed live. It’s one thing for a band to emulate their influences. Plenty of bands do that. Future Elevators puts their own inventive spin on indie pop, delivering a product that will make your head spin in wonder and delight. If you’re a fan of The Beatles, Radiohead, and Tame Impala, then give Future Elevators your full attention. Your ears will love you for it. ~~ Hollie
Genders’ 2016 release, Phone Home, is dreamy, laid-back, and immersive. It is an EP that was filled with memorable moments, such as “Never Belonged to You”, which we described as “a heart attack waiting to happen”. Frontwoman Maggie Morris’ vocal performances are phenomenal, leaving one in a state of permanent hypnosis. It’s also stunning how the band can shift from the dreamy quality of Maggie’s voice into some ripping leads between lines, particularly during Stephen Leisy on lead vocals.
Genders’ Phone Home is a great record that leaves you wanting more (at five songs, it certainly left us craving seconds). The Portland-based band is on the verge of something truly great. As such, when they release their next record, they will more than likely no longer qualify as Hidden Gems. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to stay hidden releasing great stuff like this. ~~ Rich
Ghost Wave (New Zealand)
How could a band that is signed to legendary label Flying Nun Records be considered a hidden gem? The answer is pretty simple – when the world outside of New Zealand has yet to embrace them like they have with Lorde and Flight of the Conchords, they remain a Kiwi secret. Such is the case with Auckand-based duo Ghost Wave, who are even still relative unknowns in their home country.
Granted, their neo-psychedelic approach is unique. It’s not the raucous version of Thee Oh Sees or King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard nor akin to the disco-infused, dance-ball spontaneity of Tame Impala. Instead, their electronic-infused approach is more beachy and laid-back in its foundations yet equally as dizzying and trippy. Their new album, Radio Norfolk, exemplifies their unique take of the genre. In listening to its eight songs, the experience is simultaneously a trip into the past and a look into the crystal ball to see music’s future. Think the Beach Boys playing with analog synths and digital effects yet under the influence of George Harrison. That is essentially Ghost Wave – mad scientists yet brilliant innovators. ~~ Ben
Jack Grelle (USA)
Country music is undergoing a renaissance with the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price leading the way, bringing the genre back to the days when the music was down-to-earth and personal. Another artist to keep an eye on is Jack Grelle, who raised eyebrows this year with his new album, Got Dressed Up to be Let Down. The record is deeply rooted as a traditional country record but with diverse, thought-provoking and witty lyrics. This is the type of country music that gets you up dancing while still providing a lyrical base that could start up a conversation. The St. Louis-based musician in many respects could be considered a country troubadour, but whatever you wish to call him he’s a true hidden gem awaiting to be discovered by the masses. ~~ Zac
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