Mathangi Arulpragasam, known by her stage name M.I.A., is a true musical force to be reckoned with. Calling her a simple hip-hop artist would be inaccurate. She uses hip-hop as a base to create with many of her other influences, such as Eastern/Asian sounds, reggae, R&B, electronics, and even punk. She refuses to become part of the mainstream wash created by the overpowering music industry and has not only written with integrity, but with ingeniousness. It should also be noted that it wasn’t the industry that brought her to life; it was us. Her listeners and fans gave her the career she needed, and now we are left to reap the rewards from her invigorating music. She will be remembered for bringing in Eastern influences into Western popular music, as she was one of the first to consistently do so. Putting all talk of influence aside, I will say this: her beats are simply on fire. At some point, you can’t simply stop to ponder how much of a trailblazer and forward thinker she was, because when you listen to her music your mind becomes disconnected to reality and infused to the beat. Her music is full of incredible surprises and interesting rhythms while still feeling simple enough to fully understand. Simply put, it’s basic and it’s awesome. What she hides in her music is her references to politics and society that create a whole new lovable dimension. Let it be known that not all music of this nature needs to be about love, sex, money, or fame. M.I.A. gives us true substance and silly dances in her music at the same time. I may never know why on Earth a DJ needs to play “Electric Slide” for a billionth time at a dance party instead of some M.I.A.
I once made the mistake of judging Adele Adkins solely based on her few ultra hit songs and lumped her into the category of uninteresting modern solo singers. This is my repentance. After listing to her albums 21 and 25 all the way through, I was dead wrong about my initial judgement of her. With her spotlight-seeking image and uncontrollable popularity growth, I couldn’t wrap my head around her at first. It took a while to figure out what her music really stood for. As a singer and a songwriter, she can really pull on your heart strings and make you believe what she is saying. Sadly, this is rather unprecedented in solo singers since 2000 (sorry Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Ariana Grande, and the rest of you), so Adele deserves a lot of credit for this. Adele suffers from what I’d like to call the “Queen syndrome”- which means that her most famous songs are actually her worst (aside from Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen’s most popular songs aren’t as good as their less popular ones). “Rolling In the Deep” is not a particularly good song. It has a weird modal and static melody, odd harmony, and an up-tempo beat that doesn’t match what the other elements of the song give out at all. “Hello” and “Someone Like You” aren’t that great, either. The songs that aren’t meant to be hits are the ones where her true musicianship comes out. At her best, Adele can turn a simple background texture into a heartfelt, gorgeous, and meaningful journey through love. Sure, all of her songs are about love, but surely someone has to do it justice these days. Adele’s one main downfall is her lack of creative harmonies. She normally sticks to the same four chords that everyone else uses, and while she uses them better than most, there’s still room for improvement. She has all the time in world for that, because she’s still very young. If she gets more creative with harmonies and subject matter, she could be considered the best solo musician of her generation.
18. The Strokes
As the year 2000 rolled along, the music world was left to ponder where the future of rock n’ roll would lie. Grunge was dead, the great rock musicians of the 1980’s were fading away, and post-punk didn’t seem to have the traction or the growth to continue much longer. Enter a quintet of New York musicians called The Strokes, whose 2001 album Is This It effectively started the commercial breakthrough of indie rock, a sub-genre started by underground and independent musicians in the years before them. 15 years later, this sub-genre has grown into a massive cultivation of intelligent, creative, and fun-loving musicians who still continue the tarnished spirit of rock n’ roll. The Strokes are at the head of it all, writing a conglomerate of well put together pieces featuring fun melodies and neat harmonic progressions along with keeping the traditional rock edge filled with grit and emotion. That being said, The Strokes have now been musically surpassed by a number of bands who were once inspired by them. They have had a good amount of consistency to a certain degree throughout their career, but that consistency is more in their overall emotiveness and less in their musicality. After their incredible first album, there were waves of several quality songs mixed in with a wash of less-inspiring melodic lines and rough background textures. Their recent EP, Future Present Past, though, shows nothing but exciting promise and hope that they can continue their stellar career with more unique music. They have never once let their guard down or completely drop the ball; everything they have written has merit and is worthy of recognition. I believe that they can keep writing music for a very long time and become one of the longest active bands of this generation. For a culture that seems to have an embarrassingly short attention span, going for another 20 years would be an incredible feat. Still, no matter how long The Strokes continue, there will always be those several bands that took what they left and created something more immaculate.
17. Cage the Elephant
Cage the Elephant is one of the most versatile rock bands in existence today. This type of variety within a rock setting hasn’t been seen since the greats who were part of the transition from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, and rather unprecedented for such a short career. Not only do they combine their many influences of blues, punk, grunge, and strict rock n’ roll into their music, but they’ve done it in a very savvy way that is both unique and accessible. Cage the Elephant can certainly remind you of the great classic rock bands, but they’ve also adapted to the times and shown an awareness for modern audiences by experimenting with different vocal and guitar timbres. By doing so, they have created a true identity while writing an array of excellent music. Being open to timbral experimentation is essential for every musician today, so what they’ve done in that regard is not means for celebration. Where they really solidify themselves as one of the best is in their harmonic creativity. Their appreciation for a wide variety of music certainly helps create more complex harmonic structures, but they go further than that and allow those structures to serve the other musical elements in the best way possible in order to have a captivating and easily understood piece. They have never really exploited the energy that they could in their music, which is their one wrong turn in continuing on the path of rock n’ roll greatness. What they lack in overall energy they make up for in wonderful harmonic and melodic intuition. Their technical abilities have always been present, but throughout their many styles they have matured greatly over time. I wouldn’t call it a drastic transformation, but their music has gradually become more refined and interesting as they write more material. Ten years ago, they were a successful rugged, in-your-face indie rock band. They have since grown into a multi-talented and fearless group that relies on genuine musicality rather than power. The result is a satisfying sound to listeners of all backgrounds and no end in sight.
16. Avril Lavigne
Forget about calling her the Pop Punk Princess; Avril Lavigne is the Pop Punk Queen. She is not only far and away the best pop punk musician of her generation, but she is also one of the most talented singer-songwriters of all time. Musical purists and intellectuals are too easily turned away from her due to her image and seemingly tacky sound meant for an uneducated audience. To speak plainly, that’s just completely stupid. It’s explainable for some modern musicians that possibly deserve better, but it makes absolutely no sense to belittle Lavigne’s music like that. The way she crafts her melodies to give them wonderful shape and incredible intrigue is unlike any of her contemporaries or precedents. Her sound is powerful yet simple and beautiful yet fun. It may seem that, due to the simplistic nature of the music, many others were able to do what she did. Sure, others were able to exude power with a unique and popular flair that Lavigne also could. None of them, though, did it with the same melodic brilliance or genuineness time and time again. Love and relationships are certainly the majority of her lyric material, which is far from revolutionary. However, when someone writes melodies as well as this, subject matter doesn’t bother me at all. She could write a song about something as mundane as a pumpkin and make it sound more interesting and awesome than what many pop musicians could ever do in their life. Over the course of her long career, she has almost constantly found amazing musical ideas for every little three minute song. If it wasn’t for her wretched Hello Kitty phase, she would definitely be considered a top 10 musician since 2000. She was the incredible new voice that shook the music world with her early hits, and she has continued to find brilliance over time while impressively growing her audience. She defined childhoods in the early 2000’s, and just when we think she’s old news, watch out for another groundbreaking tune that can define another childhood.
15. Portugal. the Man
The past 15 years have seen a flood of musicians who have come in and changed rock music from a straight-forward confronting power statement to a fusion of confrontation, simple pop and electronic reliance in order to be considered “progressive”. This is the branch of today’s rock music that dropped the grittiness from the past and continued without adding any real complexity to their new sound. Many don’t get off their feet, but many have also followed this unique path and have found a niche in the world. Bands today that are loosely in this category include Tokyo Police Club, Foster the People, Bon Iver, and Tame Impala. At the top of this specialized sect of rock today stands Portugal. the Man. This type of music, although far from traditional rock n’ roll, deserves its own merit. Stripping away both complexity and edge to focus on creating music for the moment results in a rather accessible and immature sound. I do not use the word “immature” as a wholly negative adjective here; it is simply the best way to describe their lack of intricacy. Is having a lack of intricacy a problem in music? To a certain degree, yes. It takes away the opportunity of always being able to find new aspects in one’s music or to be happily overwhelmed by the rush that hits you when listening to it. That may be where Portugal. the Man can improve, but they are at the absolute best anyone can be without doing so. They have a consistent relaxing yet compelling aura surrounding all of their music due to their incredible attention to timbral combinations and soaring melodies. No one has yet to write such successful melodies in this unique setting. Portugal. the Man also has great attention to the successful making of an album by their distinct flows in energy from one song to the next. They are not a band to have just one song of theirs listened to in a setting. This can have its downfalls in today’s one-song-fits-all culture, but their true affect can only come out when given a larger amount of time. This allows for their music, and their unique choruses especially, to carry greater weight and ultimately become more enjoyed. When you next have time to kill in a relaxed atmosphere, put a Portugal. the Man album on.
14. Kendrick Lamar
Behold, the greatest thing to happen to hip-hop in the last 15 years. Kendrick Lamar is without a doubt one of the most influential and inspiring people alive today, but that alone does not make him a great musician. Our culture today has a problem with equating power to value. An artist doesn’t become an artist to gain power; they become an artist because they have something to say that cannot be adequately represented in everyday life. On top of that, working in the art of music requires a great deal of feeling, intelligence, skill, and listening. Lamar has not only captivated an entire culture, but he has mastered the art of music. Because of this, he is extremely worthy of all the recognition of gets. As listeners, we seem to unconsciously crave some sort of truth within the music we listen to. It could be something that we learn about the world, about ourselves, or about the deeper secrets of life. No one speaks the truth in their music these days better than Kendrick Lamar. It comes in different layers; he will explain to your face what his feelings are about his world, he will inadvertently make you think about your own place in the world, and after that he will make you wonder how he roped you in so well with his music. Since his career began, he has been dispelling the negative stereotypes that some people hold to hip-hop. His themes are always meaningful, he doesn’t consider a bass line with a minor melodic pattern to be enough, he gives listeners a variety of different moods, and most of his sounds are acoustic. His massive hits before 2015 gave us everything we could think of, from incredible energy to thoughtful poetry to wonderfully balanced background textures. Then, in 2015, he took everything to an entirely new level and blew open many doors in the music world with his renowned album To Pimp A Butterfly. As much as we can say what we want from music, this album proves that we never really know what we want before we hear something. No one looked at Lamar’s music prior to 2015 and said “you know what I’d love from him next? A meditative jazz-rap opera demonstrating the effects of institutionalized racism filled with hidden motives and an interview with a dead man”. That’s what we got, and it was nothing short of a musical revolution. Lamar was a solid hip-hop musician before it and became a historic figure after it. I don’t know how to quantify perfection, but Lamar took a leap that hasn’t landed on anything we’ve ever tried to measure. Even his most recent work untitled unmastered. shows how talented and unique he is. While bloated and power-obsessive figures such as Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj try so hard without the right skills to create something pure and awesome, Lamar literally tries to be the quietest he can be and still produces total magic. We haven’t seen anything like him before. With his career’s trajectory, one more album from him and he could be considered the greatest rapper of all time, let alone a top 5 musician of his generation. While many mainstream genres are utterly failing, we might witness the greatest era in hip-hop/rap history over the next decade thanks to Lamar’s brilliance.
13. Arctic Monkeys
When describing music, power is not necessarily a quantifiable thing; it’s much more of a feeling that each listener experiences differently. Across the board, though, it’s safe to say that Arctic Monkeys exude more power today through their music than most every other musician. They don’t begin to eclipse the power of the heavy metal or dubstep musicians, but unlike those, Arctic Monkeys don’t sacrifice their entire musical language for their sound. In fact, along with their constant power, they also create some of the most invigorating musical structures and, at times, superb melodies. They always have at least one musical aspect working near-flawlessly in their songs, which gives everyone a reason to listen to them. The few times when all of their musical elements line up exactly and become like clockwork, such as in their most well-known song “Do I Wanna Know?”, they have written some of the best music of the last 15 years. Much to the delight of music lovers, they have superbly progressed through their career since their groundbreaking first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, even though it seemed unlikely that they could ever match it. Over the course of their five albums, they kept their core feelings and expressions to the point while adding more experimentation, genre mixing, and riskier elements that have paid off extremely well. Even with their massive global popularity, their music has always remained untouched by the influence of corporate greed. They’re always fresh, always invigorating, and at times the best rock music writers of this generation. It’s too bad that they seem to be walking off into the sunset now, but with a stellar career full of amazing musical material, we should trust them and allow them to do as they please.
They are fun, they are unique, and they sure know what they are doing. MGMT has worked to master the new elements of timbre available in this age to create some of the most uplifting and stylish music ever heard. Their music contains intriguing complexity through controllable boundaries that keeps it from losing any interest, and adds simplistic melodic figures to further the involvement of the listener. Many know MGMT from their hit song “Kids” and a handful of others that gave them recognition. I would be remiss to say that those few songs are not their best ones; those several works have perhaps the best timbral and melodic combinations of the 21st century so far. It is also noticeable that they are inconsistent in finding this combination, since many of their songs are based solely on the setting that the timbre creates which sometimes loses its steam. However, comparatively speaking, all of their material is incredibly worthy and impressive in today’s pop rock world. They are not slaves to the industry; they are real musicians with true artistry. Their album Congratulations proves that they are not after the next great dance tune that will last for a mere season. Sure, they may have stumbled upon that occasionally in their writing, but they are really about heightening the human experience as a whole, which is one of the great qualities of art. If you give MGMT the right amount of attention, meaning not just what their mega hits allot for, you will find that they use their unique musicianship to not only lift your spirits, but to make you think about your surroundings and about yourself. Their many diverse influences, from Lady Gaga to Brian Eno, come together in order to make a distinctive musical statement about modern culture. While their best contribution to the music world has been their couple of songs that rose to a new level of pop and rock greatness, they should also be remembered as authentic musicians who gave new priorities to a tattered society that value the popular over the beautiful.
11. The Killers
Initially, The Killers were never a group I thought I could appreciate. From what I knew about them before I seriously gave them a listen, they seemed to have one contrived sound that might have produced one or two quality songs with the rest being easily discard-able, and their identity was simply a lighter and milder version of The Strokes. I undoubtedly had my reservations about them when I went to listen to Hot Fuss, their first album. It started off with two surprisingly wonderful and creative songs, “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” and “Mr. Brightside”. A regression after that was to be expected, but it never happened. It was quality song after quality song without any glaring blemishes for the remainder of the album. I couldn’t believe it. I then listened to one of their later albums, Day & Age, in order to confirm. Magnificence, through and through. It was clear that they had surpassed nearly every musician in the indie rock genre, including The Strokes, in their complete ingenuity with musical elements and ability to maintain creativity and quality in every aspect. Their beautiful and soaring melodic lines always match perfectly with their underlying textures, and their ingenious use of rhythm in their melody and harmony pull everything together into one incredible sonic package. These four guys have not only found consistent musical success over their career, but they have also completely surpassed the music industry’s hidden quota of how many songs can break into the mainstream culture by a single rock band. The industry needs room for its giants that feed them, so normally a band like The Killers will get two or three advertised hits if successful. The Killers fail to play the rules, however, and so do their fans. Their consistent bombardment of incredible material could not be stopped, and they currently have around 10 recognizable songs that can be labeled by the average music listener today (which is a substantial amount), with around 20 more that also deserve that same level. Along with their beautiful sound and captivating melodies, their themes range from everyday experiences to age-old questions about our existence. They are true thinkers who can make you feel a multitude of emotions with every song. No matter who you are, where you are or what you are doing, The Killers have music that can always be appreciated.