In 2016, we covered over 50 festivals across the world, taking us everywhere from Indio, California, to Reykjavik, Iceland. During that time, we saw major reunions (LCD Soundsystem, Guns N’ Roses), the biggest artists and bands (Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead), and some unbelievable tributes to those that have fallen (Prince, David Bowie).
While the spectacles are traditionally reserved for the headliners, who are seasoned to dazzle casual onlookers and die-hard fans alike for 90-plus minutes, another great joy of the festival experience is discovering lesser known musicians. You know, those oft-thankless performances that keep the opening gates warm in the wee hours of the day.
Considering festivals tap into rising talent each year, it’s very likely one of those unlucky performers will one day be a future headliner. With that in mind, we decided to look back on 2016 and pick out a few festival acts worth following in the months ahead. Not all of them are rookies, per se, but most are still chewing on their salad days at festivals.
And pretty soon they’ll be eating from a big bowl.
On a map of pop music, you’ll find London producer SOPHIE somewhere between ‘80s dance pop and k-pop. Seemingly powered by a hyper-speed helium balloon, SOPHIE makes refined, sugary R&B electronica that whizzes through a synthetic blend of bubblegum pop. Songs like “Lemonade” and “Hard” are doused with the right amount of hypnotizing synth juju, which mezmerizes the listeners into drinking the PC Music clan’s Kool-Aid. From Australia’s Laneway Festival to California’s Coachella Festival, Spain’s Primavera Sound to Japan’s Fuji Rock, SOPHIE traipsed around the world spreading his talents far and wide. If solo dance floor domination wasn’t enough, his work with Madonna, QT, and Charli XCX should do the trick. Judging by his successful year, SOPHIE’s accelerated pop concentrate won’t be fizzling out anytime soon. –Lior Phillips
Hyper-literate, methodically soulful art rap — minus the ego. With a buzz that has finally reached its peak, rising star and 2017 Grammy nominee Anderson .Paak (Brandon Paak Anderson) occupies the space between Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, lifting genre-bending sounds to a height built off the strength of a talented voice and a knack for memorable R&B grooves. While .Paak seems like an overnight success, he’s been meshing ‘70s soul with ‘60s funk, hip-hop, and electronica for over a decade. After a coveted six-track feature credit on Dr. Dre’s comeback album, Compton, he staged a takeover with his critically acclaimed release, Malibu, an extraordinary television debut on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and a slew of showstopping performances at this year’s biggest festivals around the world — delivering a total of 104 shows in 10 months. Whether it was his early afternoon Roskilde Festival slot or his remarkable main stage performance at Flow Festival in Helsinki, Andy brings a raucous crowd ready to indulge in his every groove. Yeah, this Oxnard-raised singer-producer’s string of luck is only beginning. –Lior Phillips
After a whirlwind year that saw Wolf Alice release their debut studio album, My Love Is Cool, the CoSigned quartet earned a Grammy nomination (Best Rock Performance for “Moaning Lisa Smile”). The London rockers didn’t take home the award, but were in damn good company alongside Foo Fighters, Alabama Shakes, and Florence and the Machine. On Wolf Alice’s LP, the band members’ eclectic tastes shine through, defying easy categorization. The sounds run the gamut from shimmering pop anthems (“Bros”) to grungy tracks (“Giant Peach”). This eclectic style translates into dynamic live performances led by charismatic vocalist Ellie Rowsell. Wolf Alice pride themselves on “energetic, and quite heavy” renditions of their hits, so the festival circuit – including a rollicking Coachella set – was a natural fit for moshing to their chugging riffs and crashing drums. “If everything sounds exactly like the record, immaculate and perfect,” Rowsell said in our interview with the singer, “it loses a certain charm.” –Killian Young
“Gallant” can mean courtly, spirited, magnificent, or amorous. It’s the perfect adjective to describe the CoSigned R&B crooner (full name: Christopher Gallant), whose career has taken some unexpected turns on his path to critical acclaim. He delivered a soaring cover of Foo Fighters’ “Learn To Fly”, and Sufjan Stevens tapped him as an opener last year on his Carrie & Lowell tour. And after Prince’s untimely passing, the two former tour mates reunited for a jaw-dropping, unforgettable “Purple Rain” tribute, part of the best damn set of the whole weekend at Coachella. With powerhouse vocals and his debut album, Ology, under his belt, Gallant thrived in the festival setting. At Austin City Limits, he earned Best R&B Artist accolades for his thrilling set – also one of the best of the weekend – backed by a robust live band. With bigger stages to conquer in his future, Gallant is certainly pulling his “Weight in Gold”. –Killian Young
In the world of eccentric but relatable songwriting, Nashville native Torres (Mackenzie Scott) powers through religion, gender, and existential doom to create sonic narratives as idyllic as they are sinister. Her latest album, Sprinter (produced by PJ Harvey producer Rob Ellis and Portishead’s Adrian Utley), finds Scott shredding with the best of them, running through slow-burning songs about heartache, desire, and getting older. She kicked off the year at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in January, Consequence of Sound and Red Bull Sound Select brought her to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall in April for an unforgettable 2016 space odyssey, June found her conquering Governors Ball, and the rest of the year North America and Canada got to sift through their feelings using Torres’ sound as their enabler. Who knew a singer-songwriter could speak our hearts’ whispers through chest-thumping live performances that freely blend soft rock and electronic attacks. While much of her music unveils the truth behind not fitting in, her kinetic emotional delivery never fails to reel us in. –Lior Phillips
BJ the Chicago Kid
BJ the Chicago Kid isn’t a rookie in the truest sense of the word; the R&B singer’s been around his hometown music scene for over a decade, and his debut studio album, Pineapple Now-Laters, dropped in 2012. Before following up with his sophomore effort (2016’s In My Mind), the Windy City crooner performed as a prolific featured artist, lending his velvety vocals to many notable rappers, including Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, ScHoolboy Q, and Dr. Dre. For the South Side native whose parents were choir directors, music served as an influential part of his upbringing — and the push and pull between soul and more traditional R&B is apparent with his style. His most recent LP shows BJ coming into his own as a lead artist, commanding everything from sexy romps (“Turnin’ Me Up”, “Church”) to more introspective tracks (“Woman’s World”). With an all-star résumé, the crooner finally proved himself worthy of the spotlight – led by his swoon-worthy Pitchfork set. –Killian Young
Mark our words: The 2017 festival season will be the summer of Mick Jenkins — 2016 was just a warm-up. One of the bright, rising stars to emerge from Chicago’s diverse hip-hop scene, the emcee finally dropped his debut studio album, The Healing Component, this past September. Prior to that, the Windy City emcee jetted to success with his acclaimed EP Wave[s] and his The Water[s] mixtape. The common thread among his projects is how the rapper takes a conceptual look at H2O. It’s not the most typical content for hip-hop music, and Jenkins delves into water by comparing it to a range of things: a literal form of sustenance, a cleansing agent, a metaphor for knowledge (and more). This alone made Jenkins a unique voice at festivals this past season, from Rhymesayers’ hip-hop paradise Soundset to his hometown Pitchfork to the massive Reading & Leeds. With a whole album now under his belt, the emcee is expected to quench the thirst of hip-hop heads with even bigger sets in the coming year. –Killian Young
In his post-Smith Westerns career, guitarist Max Kakacek joined forces with ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich to form Whitney. The spacey Chicago pop outfit made a big impression on the festival circuit with their debut record, Light Upon the Lake, one of our top albums of 2016. Pairing moody lyrics with gently meandering acoustic guitars and triumphant horns, Whitney’s sound provided perfect anthems for bobbing along on warm, sunny afternoons. There were some bumps along the way, like adapting their cozy style in a bigger festival setting like Pitchfork, but the indie group made a strong impression with their sweltering Bonnaroo debut (one of our favorites of the entire weekend), as well as with their pitch-perfect cover of the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad” at Roskilde Festival. With an ethereal, nostalgic sound, Whitney are primed to be a timeless summer staple for years to come. –Killian Young
A self-assured voice at the intersection of synthpop and avant-garde electronica, Tennessee-born composer and performance artist Holly Herndon explores digital technology in the most humanly way possible. Herndon constructs collages from mind-melting synth patches – some drawn from samples of her unique voice rendered to whispers or highly charged shrieks. For her third full-length, Herndon signed to 4AD, home of indie royals like The National and Bon Iver, though she remains focused on uncompromising, dense experimentation. Improvisation is everywhere with Herndon, who reshapes samples and layers the results. One of her most intimate performances of the year was at MCA Prime Time in February, a series curated and inspired by Chicago’s eclectic mix of live music, film screenings and performance art. Seeing Herndon command a museum crowd as if a piece of ever-evolving art, uncovering how hyper-emotional a laptop can truly be, tackling contemporary concerns like Internet culture anxiety, and carving a new spot in electronic music, shows how she’s only just loading up. –Lior Phillips
La-win, more like it. Ride the wave with LA’s beloved surf rock quartet La Luz who bring passionate grit and ’60s girl-group vocal harmonies to their jams. The usual genre signifiers are all here — Fender guitars, tremolo bars, and cheery riffs — but La Luz’s adrenalized surf rock candy-coated with pop sweetness is much more than the sum of its parts. Their sound further proves how much musicianship and talent is required to build lo-fi simplistic sounds. With production help from garage rock honcho Ty Segall, La Luz sound as if they’re squeezing pain from a sugarcube, killing us softly with their saccharinity. During live shows, Shana Cleveland’s guitars, Marian Li Pino’s drumming, Lena Simon’s bass, and Alice Sandahl’s keys pack a punch — whether these band members are crowdsurfing or not. 2016 saw them complete 40 shows in Spain alone and dozens more in the UK. It’s clear that beyond their musical appeal, they wryly dissect contemporary nostalgia in an understated yet arresting way. –Lior Phillips