40. The Naked and Famous
With an unmistakable sound that gives off a carefree and joyful spirit, The Naked and Famous have risen to a level far beyond most every pop group you’d regularly hear today. They have plenty of songs with the same monotonous harmonies and melodies that others do, but their unique timbre based on neat synthesizers and confronting vocals give them a better edge. It results in a very bright sound, almost too bright at times, but their identity in this genre is important. When they are able to combine their cool timbre with a truly inspiring melody, whoa nelly – that’s some great music that rivals today’s best electronic-leaning musicians in the business. They seem to be finding that combination more often as their career progresses, so they’re a group to really pay attention to.
39. The Head and the Heart
Here’s another one of those down-to-earth bands that go for a more natural and friendly sound. This group fought hard through the music world to get publicity, and their long journey has now paid off. The best part about it? They never changed their style to conform to anyone. They believed in this sound, and eventually got others to believe in it. Before they were on anyone’s radar, Kaylyn Messer of the Seattle Scenester said in 2010 that their “music carries an air of change during a time when youth is traded for obligations and the struggle between passion and priorities ensue. They sing of home and family, emotional growth and the moments of epiphany vital for change.” They are mostly popular within the college crowds, but should soon expand to other listeners if given that chance. What they lack in a true recognizable hit song (perhaps aside from “Rivers and Roads”), they gain in consistency across the board with heartfelt lyrics and a comfortable timeless sound. They are one of the forefronts in bringing good acoustic music to every home.
38. Of Monsters and Men
I originally felt unsure about this group due to the gross overplaying of their song “Little Talks” that got annoying rather quickly. However, once I got to know them better I discovered that their sound was truly worthwhile. Their short career has already reaped many awards. They are certainly the most recognizable name in music to come from Iceland since Bjork. Along with “Little Talks”, they have quite a good number of major hits that are filled with intriguing moments and fun moods. I’m a little worried that a group with this many single hits in such a short time will be capitalized on by those with the power to control their music. Let’s hope that they can stay grounded and continue to write from the heart.
37. St. Vincent
Perhaps one of the most successful guitarists of of 2000’s so far, among other things, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) has a wonderful musical mind that never ceases creativity. Her music can be described as a complex puzzle with many different pieces finding their way to create a work of art. She is both an artist and an intellectual. The result can seem confusing at times, but it is always something different that many can find beauty in if they give it a chance. There’s usually a theme of darkness or melancholy in her music, which gives the beauty of the music a touch of the bittersweet. Her voice has a spectacular haunting touch to it, and it’s best put to use by her signature melismas set to unraveling melodies. The counterpoint she consistently uses above the rock background is quite amusing and intriguing. Jonah Weiner of The Rolling Stone had this to say about her musical development: “she has gone from a prodigiously talented, occasionally over-precious genre-juggler to an assured pop visionary – establishing herself along the way as a bona fide guitar god capable of wringing both virtuoso jazz phrasings and bracingly atonal disturbances from her instrument.” She is very talented in many aspects of music, and if she can keep using more surprising timbres along with her simplistic vocal lines, she will have a great audience.
36. J. Cole
J. Cole is one of the true kings of hip-hop today. Hip-hop had a goldmine of talent when the millennium began, but since then the genre has lost much of its venom to young musicians that prioritize material things, such as money and fame, over their music. Today, J. Cole is almost singlehandedly running the talent-less out of business and reviving the genre while paving the way for others to follow his lead. Thanks to him, hip-hop has regained its meaning again and can move into a new and improved era. His music has a very inclusive feel to it and can be enjoyed by anyone at anytime, assuming they aren’t offended by harsh language or brutal reality checks. His determination and vision as a musician has led him to becoming so well respected that he seems to have a Midas touch now: everything he writes is gold. He doesn’t have a huge repertoire yet, but he continues to take major leaps forward with each new major work. His upside is crazy high; he just needs to add to his young legacy and write more material. Aside from one other compelling hip-hop artist today, J. Cole goes basically unrivaled in his field.
35. Reverend and the Makers
This is one of those bands that you can’t get out of your head but you’re not sure why. They have a very distinctive sound, but it borders along the lines of plain. I’m drawn to them not necessarily because of any one aspect or musical element that they do well, but instead because they do everything slightly better than average which creates a level-headed sound with nice grooves. They don’t have one over-the-top awesome song or even one great technique to point to, but their overall evenness with a touch of fun in it equals consistently cool and even danceable music. Due to the way most musicians progress now, timbre means more today than ever. If they were to experiment a bit more with new sounds to raise the level of drama in their music, they could be a real powerhouse.
34. Los Campesinos!
Los Campesinos! should be ignored no longer. Their extremely fun, youthful and animated sound is not something to turn your back on. From their early days as cute pop rockers to their serious evolution as societal realists, they have cultivated the true emotions and experiences of the young generation in their music. Almost more than anyone, they are what embody the culture of millennials, or at least what the culture could be. Despite what their hardcore fans might say, I actually found a lot of substance and quality in their first album, Hold On Now, Youngster, even if it was drastically different than what they ended up being. Not to say that their other works are a step back, because throughout their development they still held on to their essence of light, energetic melodies, even if they weren’t as cheerful. The way they toy with their melodic rhythms to make them fluctuate and unexpected while still in tempo is quite creative. If you feel as though today’s generation lacks their own voice in modern music, I suggest to start with giving this band a try.
33. St. Lucia
Here’s a rare modern pop musician whose quick rise to fame was actually due to his innovative and creative sound, as opposed to a former position in pop culture or any sort of physical appeal. Jean-Philip Grobler, who goes by his stage name St. Lucia, has an intuitive ear for harmony and timbre that can leave you dancing for hours. Even those who don’t like to dance can appreciate his positivity and energy that come through crystal clear. His music is an example of how to get the most out of electronic sounds in a pop setting. There’s no over-the-top synthesizing, no basic loops, and no annoying bass line. Nothing sounds forced; every sound that is heard is meant to be there. The amazing thing is that he’s only been active for four years with just two albums out. He’s not an incredibly recognizable name yet but is getting more and more important gigs that should only lead to better recognition. If he keeps trusting his ear and stays a leader instead of a follower, we’ll have many more great songs from St. Lucia in the future.
32. Fitz and the Tantrums
No guitars? No problem. This soul-influenced pop group follows the beat of their own drum (literally) and has molded a creative sound that more and more people are just finding. They have been unique and interesting right off the bat. They have a way with finding an old sound with new techniques that should appeal to more than just summer festival junkies. Fitz and the Tantrums are another refreshing example of sticking to your guns and trusting that your intuitive sound works. It does, and their uniquely bright timbres have the ability to not only bring out happiness, but thoughtfulness and deeper feelings from time to time. What they don’t have yet is any incredible enchanting songs that stick out on their own as being one of the greats of their generation. Their incredible consistency of interesting neo soul/pop sounds is what makes them a successful band. While we’re waiting for their stars to align into an irresistible song, we have a wonderful amount of intriguing music from them to keep us jamming in the meantime.
31. Lady Gaga
The pop genre has been monopolizing the music industry for about 10 years, and Lady Gaga is without a doubt the face of the movement. Basing solely on influence, she would be in the top five among musicians of the last 20 years, if not number one. Musically, though, she has surprisingly been surpassed by a number of her contemporaries. Her career started off picture perfect, with several mega hits that turned into huge fame, recognition, and role model status. As overplayed as she was, I have to admit that she wrote some incredibly quality pop songs that were full of flare and exhilaration, which justified her rise to power. Again, I am speaking from a strictly musical standpoint, but after her initial success there were many waves of regression. Her catchy melodies, alluring timbres and strong messages from The Fame and The Fame Monster didn’t carry over with any consistency to Born This Way. The monster of fame must have truly gotten to her, and her music was suddenly more bland and conforming (with a few exceptions), which went completely against her persona. Then, when her music did become much more unique and flavorful in Artpop, it lacked any sense of solid melody or inspiring timbres, leaving the listener uncomfortable at best. An outstanding pop song here and there was what she became, but even with her lack of consistency she still deserves credit for her incredible musicianship. While mainstream pop has declined immensely in quality, Lady Gaga stands as a testament for what was once great. Her handful of songs that got an entire generation off their feet and smiling will forever be remembered.