These are the innovators shaping the future of music— Pitchfork (@pitchfork) October 11, 2021
We can’t wait to see what they do next https://t.co/nFqy5duQM1
This D.C. transplant is crashing indie rock’s party with a big voice and an even bigger vision of what guitar music can encompass.
[Spoiler (click to open)]As a kid, Bartees Cox Jr. could be found performing opera in churches across Oklahoma with his mother and siblings. Thanks to AOL Instant Messenger and his friends’ car stereos, by his teens he was gobbling up everything from MF Doom to midwestern emo to TV on the Radio. After performing in other people’s bands for years and working as a press secretary in the Obama Administration, Cox finally released his own music as Bartees Strange in 2020. Well, kind of: The songs on his first EP, Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy, were eclectic reinterpretations of songs by the National, inspired by a concert experience where Bartees was dismayed to find that he was one of the few Black people in the room. With his proper debut, 2020’s Live Forever, he defiantly claimed space in the still-quite-white world of indie rock.
Boasting cartwheeling guitar hooks that are catnip to anyone who gets their kicks in a mosh pit, the album blows right through emo, pop-punk, and post-punk as primary influences by also featuring Auto-Tuned R&B-trap, a chilled techno vibe, and a delicate Bon Iver moment. As a vocalist, Bartees is a powerhouse who handles every sonic curveball with ease, a hardcore screamer with a gospel soul, and on songs like “Boomer,” a quick-spitting rapper running through his inner monologue. While these songs recount the many ways Bartees has been grounded—as a musician, as a lover, as a Black man—Live Forever soars in every single way. “Genres keep us in our boxes,” he growls on the glitched-out “Mossblerd.” “They tried to kill my spirit.” Clearly, they failed.
Emerging from the swamps of the Florida Panhandle, Ethel Cain could be our Southern Gothic Lana Del Rey if she plays her cards right.
[Spoiler (click to open)]Decked out in cutoffs, sunglasses, and a fringed leather jacket, she furiously headbangs inside a church, one combat boot perched on a pew: Thus was our introduction earlier this year to Ethel Cain, aka 23-year-old Hayden Anhedönia, in the visualizer for her breakthrough single “Michelle Pfeiffer.” Anhedönia had been quietly releasing a steady stream of dreamy, lo-fi music over the course of the past few years, but this spring, she went widescreen with the release of the Inbred EP. A collection of stunning goth-pop hymns from the dark side, it arrived accompanied by a fully formed universe of gritty, sexy, often uncomfortably funny videos and social media dispatches. (“i watched my god fuck your god to death,” reads one recent tweet.)
Anhedönia, who is a transgender woman, has said her laser focus on acheiving superstardom began in her early teen years, as a way to cope with the oppressive Southern Baptist small town where she was raised. Her use of Christian iconography in profoundly profane contexts is an act of reclamation, she says. Anhedönia has described the Ethel Cain persona as a “cult leader.” With her pop hooks and her visceral world-building, it’s not hard to imagine Cain’s real-world musical cult only getting bigger and more ambitious.
Indigo De Souza
With her wildly expressive vocals and punchy guitar hooks, this North Carolina artist is at the forefront of indie rock’s candid vanguard.
[Spoiler (click to open)]To be or not to be? Indigo De Souza knows her answer. “I wanna be!” she proclaims on her stunning recent album, Any Shape You Take, each word punctuated with its own staccato snare hit and fuzzed-out guitar chord. It’s an elemental moment on a record overflowing with them. And it gets to the bleeding heart of De Souza’s art: She takes the biggest emotions we’ve got—joy, grief, sorrow—and places them at the very center of her plainspoken songs. Her unflinching music follows suit, with traces of Nirvana’s grungy wallop, Prince’s minimalist funk, and Death Cab for Cutie’s melancholy tunefulness. On “Real Pain,” a dirgy hook gives way to a hellish maelstrom of real-life fan screams that is suddenly interrupted by a tart power-pop denouement; in less than five minutes, she sums up the deepest hurt humans can withstand as well as the cathartic aftermath.
De Souza is signed to Saddle Creek, which seems cosmically right. The label originally rose to prominence around the turn of the century with bands like Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley, who traded indie rock’s signature inscrutability for a sometimes-uncomfortable emotional directness. De Souza is both continuing and updating that tradition, alongside other young singer-songwriters who are unafraid to expose their traumas and desires, including Lomelda, Snail Mail, and IAN SWEET. For De Souza, there’s no point in skirting around the feelings that make us who we are when you can just tackle them head-on. When you can just be.
This British-Japanese pop insurgent makes maximal tracks for a party of one or 100,000.
[Spoiler (click to open)]The empathy in Rina Sawayama’s music comes with a razor-sharp edge. Informed by internet culture, couture, and Y2K nostalgia, her work, she says, is “kinda like drag,” and its scrim of high drama allows her to explore how ideas of self and identity are being mediated by technology and society. “What if it all went away, today?/Then what’s left inside?” she asked on “Ordinary Superstar,” a sugary pop anthem from her 2017 EP Rina, hinting at the conditional nature of contemporary online celebrity. And while it’s fair to call Sawayama a pop singer, her 2020 debut SAWAYAMA presented a heady mix of turn-of-the-millennium Top 40, golden-age R&B, and nu-metal that felt remarkably unforced. Inside that tough, gaudy exterior was a touching album about Sawayama’s family history, including the pain of her parents’ divorce and the complicated ways that genetics and experience shape us.
Sawayama’s ongoing pop project also involves inclusion and advocacy. Just a few years into her career, she’s effected lasting change by successfully petitioning the Brit Awards to recognize the contributions of UK artists born abroad. And her holistic vision for queer artistry goes beyond a single love song or photoshoot to encompass theatrical costumes and makeup, futuristic art direction and video treatments, and the shared community celebration of a song like “Chosen Family.” With her arresting aesthetic and clarity of intention, Sawayama’s work feels like a harbinger for a hyperconnected pop future where no influence is off the table.
Lindsey Jordan’s vision for the future of indie rock is still brutally honest and guitar-driven, but newly invigorated by pop experimentation.
[Spoiler (click to open)]Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan emerged in 2017 as something of a Most Likely To Succeed from her indie rock class: a guitar student of Helium’s Mary Timony who’d been playing since she was 5 years old, the Maryland teenager signed to Matador Records around the time she graduated high school. Her debut LP, 2018’s Lush, sounded wiser and more wistful than her age, with its crushing hooks, classic ’90s references, blunt emotional clarity, and distinct guitar tone; at the same time, her casually vulnerable sensibility and goofy online demeanor felt distinctly of her generation. In a genre built on canon reverence and personal introspection, the word “prodigy” was tossed around a lot.
Snail Mail’s forthcoming follow-up, Valentine, seems to set the pace for what “going pop” in indie rock means today. Now 22, Jordan sounds more confident and nuanced in her vocals as she moves through the newfound eclecticism of her musical world and the crushing depths of her own longing. The rock songs are gnarlier and angrier, with some striving to the arena-ready heights of Celebrity Skin-era Hole, while the pop songs hint at yacht rock, trip-hop, chillwave, and more. The whole thing is bold and a little sexy without really trying, in part because Jordan throws herself into love just as easily as she cuts people off. “You and I, that ship has sailed,” she croons carefree on the highlight “Forever (Sailing).” As usual, Snail Mail’s moving on to better things at a startling clip.
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