30. Ingrid Michaelson
Authentic simplicity always beats contrived complexity, especially when everything feels relatable. Michaelson is one of the most honest and relatable musicians you may ever hear. She sounds as if she wants to sing right to each and every one of her listeners individually. Her songs consist of very safe and recognizable settings with piano, acoustic guitar and occasional ukulele. Sounding safe can sometimes doom musicians because they fail to express their true emotion, to which the listeners feel empty and therefore lose their intrigue (I’m looking at you, Ed Sheeran). Michaelson, though, pairs safeness with friendliness and pureness that together make a simple sound of truth. We may not be aware of it while listening to music, but we’re always after some of truth in what we hear, and Michaelson gives to us as plain as day. Her delightful sound always has intrigue to it; even if it’s a run-of-the-mill chord progression, the melody and lyrics are too gorgeous to ignore. Her straightforwardness, which is different than safeness, is a bit of a downfall for her, because a lot of music thrives on any little things that are kept hidden at first from the listener, which can allow for beauty to overflow when actually discovered. Michaelson doesn’t keep anything hidden, but handing the beauty do us is much better than not having it at all. I don’t expect her new album that comes out soon to be more of same; I think she has some more tricks of her sleeve, which is all part of being a quality musician in the world today.
29. Foster the People
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Foster the People, it’s to never underestimate a group of musicians that you’ve only heard one song from. Everyone has heard their breakthrough hit, “Pumped Up Kicks”, which is a respectable song and deserves its popularity. It has a nice unassertive beat and wonderful use of vocals among other timbres. However, that song is only the tip of the iceberg for this group. Mark Foster, the band’s founder and frontman, is incredibly talented with one of the most wonderful ears in his field for melody. The way the band rose to popularity through one song is rather misleading, because in most cases that one song is a great representation for their entire sound and it never gets topped. Well, unbeknownst to many, Foster the People have indeed topped their most recognizable song both in musical quality and style. Their high-pitched singing and heavy reliance on piano can sound a little too formulaic at times, but then again it makes them easy to recognize which can help grow the fan base. What they show on the surface is a dainty electro-pop/indie pop trio without much substance that got lucky writing one good song, but in reality they are melodic masterminds with more home runs than strikeouts who can lead you on an amazingly fun journey. I believe they’ve only just begun to discover their true potential.
28. Titus Andronicus
There have been some modern bands that have crept up on me to give me a good surprise. This band, Titus Andronicus, came at me like a flying projectile from the sky and exploded right before my eyes with sheer awesomeness and magnitude. That description is also fitting to describe who they are as a group. Skip all of the objectifying genre labels of neo-punk, new age punk, art punk, etc. These guys are simply punk as it is intended be. They are the long-awaited heir to the throne of punk rock that was built by The Clash and occupied by the likes of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Buzzcocks. A post-punk movement in the late 1990’s gave a bit of revival to the genre, but it has now been reincarnated by Titus Andronicus, a freedom-loving group from New Jersey that doesn’t care what you think. Their ratio of musicality to popularity is one of the worst I’ve ever come across, which is why you probably haven’t heard of them. But if you’re looking for a modern take on punk rock, look no further than these guys. Their best quality is the amazing balance of power and great melody. When going for all power, like many heavy metal/screamo musicians strive to do, you can lose a major part of the musical elements that provide richness and depth to your music. On the other hand, the nature of great melodies is one that doesn’t often exude a feeling of power (think of 1980’s-1990’s pop or 1750’s-1780’s string quartets). Titus Andronicus does both, from their songs meant to stir the American nation to their five-act rock opera that deals with suffering from manic depression. Somehow, each song of theirs finds that unique balance, eliminating any unwanted wavering in their overall quality. They’re loud, but they sure have something important to share.
27. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
This wonderful folk band is is not just a big group of musicians, but storytellers. Indeed, with ten current members they are quite a large group, which only works if everyone buys into a single image and works to combine all individual talents. In that regard, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is as good as it gets. Frontman Alex Ebert has one of the most interesting minds in all of music, not only as a musician but as a thinker and dreamer. It is very fascinating how so many people are sold on his direction, which allows the band to be a product of many incredible kernels of musical ideas. This results in a seemingly never-ending stream of quality music that can be enjoyed by anyone. You have most likely heard their song “Home”, which has an enticing melody put together with the adored whistling timbre that is growing in popularity. As neat as that is, it is just one seed of one tree in an entire forest of this band’s music. They seem to be the type of band today that has quite a few recognizable songs, but no one knows its them. As humble and out of the limelight as they may be, their masterful minds for catchy and unique tunes should demand our attention.
26. Michelle Branch
I don’t want to hear from anyone that Michelle Branch is too simple, too shallow, or too popularly catered to be considered one of the best musicians of the past 15 years. If you think that’s the case, I highly doubt you’ve taken the time to listen to her. Due to the timing of her career and her overall image, it is easy to lump her together with the many other female singer/songwriters of the early 2000’s that either became sellouts, flame-outs, or just plain sappy. None of that is the case with Branch. Truth be told, she created some of the most memorable and powerful melodies of her time. There’s no denying that, in the experience-driven way she wrote her music, she is best enjoyed by pre-teens/teenagers. There is a negative side to that, since her amount of dedicated listeners can never really grow over time. However, it is also true that nursery rhymes are best enjoyed by children, indie folk is best enjoyed by young adults, and cool jazz is best enjoyed by those around 40-50 years of age. A musician’s target audience should not determine their quality; it is rather how they use the elements of music in order to create a piece of worth. Michelle’s glory days are certainly behind her – The Spirit Room was never topped – but she wrote some incredibly worthy material that gives off a bittersweet air of young love and tenderheartedness. On top of all that, she was also a pretty hard rocker. She wrote a simple melody then just gave it her all without much attention to detail. While detail has become rather essential for quality music today, Branch was a true exception who struck gold with just a few swings.
It’s been said many times before that effective timbre is extremely important for new music today due to its recent developments and the listener’s consistently growing urge for new sounds. It is quite possibly the most defining element in a musician’s work today, which is a statement as to how our musical values have grown over many centuries. In present day, a band as excellent as Grouplove can be counted on as always putting forth invigorating timbres, as they have seemed to unlock how to use different combinations of new sounds to their full advantage. If that’s all they did though, I wouldn’t be considering them as better than the vast majority of musicians who write the same style of music. What Grouplove does better than anyone, albeit a select few, is make their music memorable with tantalizing yet simple melodic lines that erupt in feelings of fun and inclusion. Some groups do this really well with a couple of their songs, but Grouplove finds that great line with seemingly all of them. My biggest question to them is if they can keep this up. It is only natural for musicians to run out of their own ideas as time goes by. If that happens, we still get a noteworthy career from a wonderful band. If they do keep up their string of successes for years, we could be looking at a generation-defining group that marks a high point in indie rock.
24. Tame Impala
If I’m still allowed to use the term ‘groovy’ in this day and age, I would call Tame Impala one of the grooviest bands currently in existence. They put nearly all of their musical efforts into their timbre, which we know by now is an extremely essential element. Tame Impala has an incredible talent of manipulating a few simple electronic sounds into an artistic masterpiece with great form and power. Despite what naysayers of the psychedelic genre might say, their music is quite diverse; some of it can make you feeling like you’re floating in mid air, while some give you the energy for your best workout. While no one song or handful of songs stand out as being incredibly remarkable works, their music as a whole is a long journey without any bumps in the road that can be enjoyed for hours on end. Even though it has diminished, psychedelic rock is still very much alive; it has simply adapted with the many new sounds and techniques available to musicians today.
23. Neon Trees
Amidst a vast sea of incompetent and uninspiring mainstream boy bands, we find Neon Trees, an incredible bright spot who are leaps and bounds beyond those associated with them. Their image is one that many other musicians today also strive to possess: a four-piece pop rock group with youthful energy, fun party songs, and physical appeal. At one glance they are a typical modern boy band (aside from their kick-ass female drummer Elaine Bradley). They have their share of recognizable hits and a great teenage following, which is nothing out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary is that they’re actually writing some extremely quality music to go with their image. It’s not enough to bang out four chords, wear makeup and call yourself fun at parties; you have to find unique combinations of good melodic line, memorable rhythm, and interesting sounds. Judging by the many modern pop rock that fail to do this, it’s quite difficult to do. Neon Trees, though, have it all. They have cultivated the highest form of radio-friendly mainstream sound with their great rhythmic and melodic intrigue. Money seems to play a big part in their existence, however, as exemplified by their cover of a song by Justin Bieber, who is perhaps the least talented musician to hit the stage in the last 15 years. To move to the next level as musicians, I feel as though they would have to shed their image completely and get much more creative with their song forms. That may be too risky at their stage now, and we should all be content with who they are. They can still continue on their path of having a mega hit every couple of years and no one would complain.
22. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Although described as an indie rock band, this group derives more from the post-punk movement in the late 1990’s that emphasized catchy tunes and danceable beat over experimental sounds and unique harmonies that others were just beginning to do. The greatest asset that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have is their ability to maintain the catchy and dance-like quality while adding on their own creative twist in harmony and timbre. What we get from them is a culmination of the best qualities of several early 2000’s genres into a single musical output during the late 2000’s and early 2010’s. Yeah Yeah Yeahs give listeners melodies to remember, sounds to energize the mind, and jams to last a long time. I honestly cannot say that I’ve been disappointed by any music they’ve ever written. They have no visible downsides, but their upside has been halted by their hiatus. They had noticeable musical development between their last two albums, but nothing to launch them into immortality. They may be one amazing and unforgettable song away from challenging the very best of the era, but that seems unlikely to happen at this stage of their career. They never really wrote that unforgettable song, but what they do have is tons of incredibly fun and intelligent material that separate them from the rest of today’s rock bands who share similar priorities.
21. LCD Soundsystem
Led by musician James Murphy, here is another wonderful group whose music is almost exclusively timbre-based. Say goodbye to the plain, overused verse-chorus form – LCD Soundsystem creates music in a very fluid way that allows for them to best articulate a certain mood or feeling. Creating a unifying mood must be one of the most important aspects for Murphy, because if the listener is not feeling that certain mood, they won’t be experiencing the music’s full effect and cannot be sold on it. Unlike other more traditional-sounding musicians, all of this rests on how they mold their timbre. Murphy and his clan just so happen to be one of the very best in the business in that regard. There’s only one other band active today that does experimental electronic music better than them. LCD Soundsystem has seemed to reach the summit of what they set out to achieve. Their music is about the best you can get today without having great intriguing melodies or creative harmonies. I’ll even use the term “soundscape” to describe their musical works. It’s fresh, interesting, and sometimes other-worldly. If you want a modern and accessible take on sounds in a very pure form, this group is one of the best you’ll find in present day.