With most indie venues closed due to the pandemic and many record stores altering their business methods, it was a challenging year for music discovery.
Luckily, we live in the internet age, where a glowing album review, trending social media post or intriguing Bandcamp tag can instantly connect fans to their next favorite band. As the music world remained stuck in quarantine limbo, upcoming songwriters had more time than usual to record, hype, network and livestream — and it’s safe to say we all needed the distraction.
To cap off the year’s depressing madness with a glimmer of optimism, we gathered this list of our 20 Most Interesting New Artists of 2020 — from indie-pop to Afrobeat.
Where there are fresh sounds, there’s hope.
The trendy comparison for Anjimile is Sufjan Stevens, another singer-songwriter with a flair for fingerpicking, cinematic arrangements and lyrics that often grapple with the spiritual. But the artist’s radiant debut LP, Giver Taker, is impossible to pigeonhole. Anjimile wrote many of the songs during a pivotal time, while getting sober and fully embracing life as a non-binary trans person. And these colorful tracks reflect that sense of openness, drawing from simple folk structures, art-rock density, African rhythms and classic pop choruses. – Ryan Reed
For people like me who desperately want to return to the ‘90s, Beabadoobee answered our nostalgia prayers. Born Beatrice Laus, the 20-year-old London-bred singer writes saccharine alt-pop/rock that would’ve fit seamlessly on the Can’t Hardly Wait and Buffy The Vampire Slayer soundtracks. Her debut album, Fake It Flowers, will spark memories of drawing hearts in your English notebook, dropping cute notes inside your crush’s locker and burning romantic CD mixes. Don’t let TikTok’s recent music report fool you — rock music will be just fine with Gen Z artists like Beabadoobee sticking around. – Bianca Gracie
Bfb da Packman
Bfb Da Packman was 2020’s most unlikely rap star. Virtually unknown at the year’s start, the Michigan native went viral with the Sada Baby-assisted “Free Joe Exotic” while working his postal route in Texas. The single distilled Packman’s appeal, mixing ribald comedy with self-confidence and self-deprecation. Like his follow-up, “Honey Pack,” and his still underappreciated back catalog, the single confirmed that no topic (like STDs) was too taboo for punchlines, no person (family included) safe from his wit. Packman’s ridiculousness and seeming honesty came as a relief — an injection of sincerity and reality into a genre sometimes lacking on both fronts. Charles Bukowski wasn’t this hilarious or warm when he broke through. Ideally, Packman will eventually make enough money rapping to quit his postal route. – Max Bell
As the pandemic roared from the spring into the summer, a 10-year-old British musician proved there’s still some good left in the world. Nandi Bushell exuberantly covered heavyweight rock songs via YouTube, and her talents were quickly noticed by the artists themselves. First, Tom Morello sent her a guitar. Then Bushell repeatedly battled Dave Grohl behind the kit, earning a victory over the ex-Nirvana member. And in December, she released the playful, home-recorded single “Gods and Unicorns.” By playing with the purest of intent — even at such a young age — Bushell highlighted the unifying power of music. – Daniel Kohn
The song titles are a clue: “fuck you,” “Frankenstein Wannabe” and the melancholy and evocative “cry inside my car.” Frances Forever is the nom de music of Frances Garrett, who serves up clever, twisted but sweetly pointed observations in her stripped-down indie-pop tunes. She moves smoothly from low-key soul on 2018’s “Treehouse” to ethereal art-pop harmonies on 2019’s “Frankenstein Wannabee,” which features an effective spoken-word verse: “My frontal lobe is from some Russian acrobat / My hippocampus is — I can’t remember … But, um, the only part of me that’s from me / Is the part that knows how to write songs.” Indeed. With more than 10 million Spotify streams for her lush, mid-tempo 2020 single “Space Girl,” fans are catching on. She recently signed to Mom + Pop Music, home to Courtney Barnett and Lucius. Expect big things. – Katherine Turman
For too long, reggae has been predominantly a guy’s game. But with her haunting vocals and poignant lyrics, Jamaica native Lila Iké is among a new wave of talented women taking over the island. Rather than following reggae’s rigid blueprint, Iké fuses R&B, soul, jazz and dancehall with her admiration for conscious reggae greats like Garnett Silk and Sizzla. As seen on her 2020 debut EP, The ExPerience, songs like the humble “Where I’m Coming From,” “Solitude” (now an unofficial quarantine anthem) and the groovy “I Spy” highlight an effortless craftsmanship that will soon transcend from Jamaica’s shoreline into the wider pop mainstream. – B.G.
The pandemic got John-Robert down, but it didn’t knock out the 20-year-old troubadour (and noted Swedish Fish lover). The Virginia native’s music reflects a world-weary wisdom far beyond his two decades, examining depression and loneliness in stripped-down, lyric-driven tunes. Finding optimism amid the darkness, his songs were a revelation in a year full of revolution. – D.K.
Imagine if your grandfather was one of the most influential musicians ever. Add to that the pressure of your pops being a beloved songwriter. The only way to go is down, right? Don’t tell that to Made Kuti. The Nigerian multi-instrumentalist is continuing to push Afrobeat forward with his layered arrangements and socially conscious voice. He’s also been standing on the frontlines in the SARS protests — even writing a song, “Your Enemy,” railing against the corrupt police force. That quest for justice would make his famous grandfather, Fela, and father, Femi, proud. – D.K.
Morray seemingly scrubbed the internet of music he released before October’s “Quicksand.” Maybe he knew his previous material was unremarkable; maybe it was a savvy rebrand. With that song, which has over 8 million YouTube views, the North Carolina artist has emerged as one of the most polished rapper-singers in recent years. This is soul trap (shout out to Tree) with shades of Rod Wave and Roddy Ricch, but Morray’s voice is more resonant than the former, his songwriting deeper and more polished than the latter. He balances standard trap lyrics with powerful personal revelations and cadences more singular than not. His “Quicksand” follow-up “Switched Up,” approaching 2 million views as of this writing, improves on its predecessor in every way. It’s easy to look at Morray’s rapid ascent with some skepticism — he somehow has almost 600,000 monthly Spotify listeners and landed a Genius performance — but his talent is undeniable. – Max Bell
Elise Okusami, who records under the moniker Oceanator, has the kind of voice that can silence a room. She introduced that powerful instrument on her self-titled 2017 EP, but her profile expanded this year with her debut album, Things I Never Said. Though it was written before the pandemic, the record still takes on an apocalyptic vibe with its gloomy, heavy guitar tracks (“January 21st”). And she expertly contrasts that darkness with effervescent pop songs (“Heartbeat”) — glimmers of optimism cut through, even as she sings about the world crashing down. “If the world fell apart tomorrow / I would find you / I would come for you,” she promises on “I Would Find You.” It’s a comforting reminder to maintain hope during the bleakest times. – Tatiana Tenreyro
In our recent profile, 20-year-old Arlo Parks detailed a reading list that included David Lynch, Vladimir Nabokov and Joan Didion. That breadth of inspiration fits with the scope of her songwriting: The London-based singer isn’t afraid to tackle tough subjects, from mental health struggles to complicated romance. Peers took notice following her run of 2020 singles, and plaudits have rolled in. Bedroom indie-pop has become popular in recent years, but few have taken it to such authentic places. – D.K.
Punk’s not dead — it’s alive and kicking with Pinkshift. Pairing propulsive songwriting with rich-sounding production, the youthful Baltimore quartet call to mind bands like My Chemical Romance, Babes in Toyland and No Doubt. Ashrita Kumar’s vocals shift seamlessly from snotty to smooth, and while “I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist on You” may be cutely titled, it’s musically intense. The band uses contrasts to fine effect, like moving from aggression to a mellow, spacey breakdown on the 90-second “Toro.” Pinkshift’s first-ever tour became a pandemic casualty, and the band have only released five tantalizing songs, but the stage is clearly set for the foursome to level up. – K.T.
Marc Rebillet was gaining popularity before the pandemic prompted quarantines, venue shutdowns and social distancing. But somehow the Dallas native reached new heights behind closed doors and on drive-in stages. Robed and/or shirtless, he continued to livestream the improvisational amalgams of funk, soul, hip-hop and electronica that he complements with hyper-sexual and hilarious lyrics. Whether singing about therapy or yelling while imagining himself as a homicidal and lustful flamingo, he masterfully walked the line between comedy and unadulterated passion. His energy was so intense, many who felt it through the screen showed up to his sold-out drive-in theatre shows. Rebillet also made a number of famous fans, including Ice-T, Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu, who joined Rebillet on stage for one of his shows. No matter where he performed, Rebillet’s music and presence proved cathartic, capturing our collective horniness and desire to unleash so many pent-up emotions while home alone. – Max Bell
Sada Baby might seem an unlikely candidate for TikTok virality. The Detroit rapper often spits wicked, menacing threats at any opposition aiming for him or his pockets. However, if you watch the video for his 2018’s “Bloxk Party,” you’ll see more original and entertaining dances than most social media stars churn out in a year. Perhaps “Whole Lotta Choppas,” his TikTok-assisted hit, was inevitable. It’s partly the quasi-electro beat borrowed from Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is),” but it’s also because Sada sounds like he’s partying while putting out a hit on someone’s head. Sada is one of the most technically gifted rappers working, with a remarkable flair for making grim street rap cross over. – M.B.
This year forced the world to look in the mirror and face all the historic wrongdoings we’ve tried to mask. Marginalized communities — especially Black people — have been struck by poverty, racism, classism and overall contempt. In the early stages of quarantine, the millennial and Gen Z generations united to protest inequality worldwide. And SAULT, an anonymous British music collective, encapsulated said mission. Fusing R&B, funk, rap, house and spoken word, SAULT created a love letter to the Black community with back-to-back album releases. Their third album, Untitled (Black Is), arrived on Juneteenth in the midst of the month’s reckoning, and Untitled (Rise) doubled down on its call to action. As society tries to be the thief of joy, SAULT gives us the soundtrack to rebel. – B.G.
Among other things, we remember Y2K for boy band takeovers, the digitization of R&B’s sound, the nu-metal rise and the increasing existential dread brought from capitalism. Throw all that in a blender and it’ll spit out Rina Sawayama. The Japanese-British singer drew minor buzz with her 2017 EP, Rina, but she further flourished on her debut LP, which puts a sinister, futuristic spin on early ‘00s nostalgia. SAWAYAMA highlights the singer’s strengths: creating social commentary about pop culture under the guise of shimmering beats. From exposing American consumerism (“XS”) to shutting down Asian stereotypes (“STFU!”) to tributing the queer community (“Chosen Family”), Sawayama proves that pop can tackle important messages. – B.G.
Skullcrusher arrived at the perfect time: With her indie-folk daydreams, L.A.’s Helen Ballentine came off like a quarantine expert. The four songs on her self-titled debut EP flow through poetic thoughts about love and longing — she sounds at home in isolation. Ballentine paints nostalgic, vivid scenes: “On the night that we met / I looked cool rolling cigarettes,” she sings on the 56-second ballad “Two Weeks in December,” giving us a window into her thoughts. “You were fooled by my jokes / I was too; I didn’t know you.” It’s a small window, leaving us to wonder about the rest of the picture — about who she is, how she really feels. Skullcrusher’s serene serenades make us want to unlock those mysteries. – Danielle Chelosky
It was a strange year, no doubt. But it was also a Strange year: Bartees dominated the 2020 list circuit with his genre-demolishing debut, Live Forever. In the spirit of Odelay-era Beck, the record feels sonically limitless — take a song like “Boomer,” which, as he recently told SPIN, “starts off like Da Baby, and it ends in, like, a George Strait breakdown.” These unorthodox fusions seem hilariously showoff-y on paper. But he makes them feel part of a seamless sound world. Trap beats, emo riffs, folk crooning: They’re not strange bedfellows — they’re Strange bedfellows. Big difference. – R.R.
The catharsis in every Tomberlin song is well-earned. On her quiet 2018 breakout, At Weddings, Sarah Beth Tomberlin created quiet, hypnotic melodrama by drawing on her well-documented life path: Over threadbare indie-folk arrangements, she sings of a search for identity — often about rising above her strict Baptist upbringing. The songwriter enriched her catalog — and landed some famous collaborators — with the 2020 Projections EP: Indie-rocker Alex G produced the five-track set, and Busy Philipps co-directed a video for the gently fingerpicked centerpiece “Hours.” Her career is still embryonic, but her vision couldn’t be clearer. – R.R.
Wolfgang Van Halen
Bearing the weight of a pedigree makes it difficult to create your own future. But a month after losing his iconic father, Wolfgang Van Halen released his first solo song, the bittersweet rocker “Distance,” which soared up the charts and flaunted his musical chops. Long the target of cranky old classic rock fans, the former Van Halen bassist proved he can carry on his family legacy while expanding beyond his hard rock past. – D.K.