It’s a common misconception that pop music is in some way safe – that it is intrinsically familiar and conventional, and that this is in some way a bad thing. The truth, however, is that there’s a wealth of weird and wonderful sounds out there that sit, however loosely, under the pop umbrella. Given that it’s very name is derived from the inherently vague term “popular music”, pop has long since become an elastic definition, encompassing pretty much anything that could in some way be defined as accessible. But this still falls short of the mark, ignoring the considerable underground that has built up online, based on a myriad of varied experimentations undertaken with established pop sounds. It is a genre with a diverse array of styles under its hat, often dominated in today’s mainstream by rap, R&B and folk-pop, but with a net that in truth casts far far wider, incorporating everything from the ultra-commercialised singles of Ariana Grande to the Roadburn-worthy weirdness of Anna von Hausswolff.

With some publications struggling, Pitchfork being sold and Spotify dominating, many continue to bemoan the supposed “death of independent music”, but there has in truth never been more out there. Whilst we at Astral Noize strive to shine a light on the array of metallic hidden gems amongst the bunch, with many DIY labels flourishing and a ton of blogs struggling to keep up with the overwhelming influx of quality new releases, the pop realm’s contributions to this also should not be understated. Services like Bandcamp, not to mention more affordable recording equipment, have been instrumental in this change, allowing artists big and small to make their work available to a wider audience. As a result, there is as much talent to be found in the hidden corners of the internet as there is at the very top of the charts. This list features both, and aims to shine a light on artists who innovate within pop.

Whilst we’re known for covering noisier forms of music, we believe these artists are all, in truth, far more creative than your average Sabbath worship act or second-wave black metal imitators.

 

FKA Twigs

The genre-bending sounds along with the sophisticated songwriting and production techniques found on FKA Twigs’ 2019 album Magdalene sound like those normally found much further into an artist’s career, not their sophomore release. But FKA Twigs is no “normal” artist. She arrived fully formed, with a distinct identity and sound, back in 2012, with her self-released EP1 (EP2 was released the following September). Her 2014 debut album LP1 featured high up on many end-of-year lists as well as being nominated for a Mercury Prize. Her eclectic sound is hard to pin down, encompassing genres as diverse as ambient, electronic, R&B and hip-hop. Similarly, her powerful voice and intimate delivery is reminiscent of artists as diverse as Kate Bush, Sade and Björk to name but a few. Her sound though is all her own; intelligent, immersive and idiosyncratic, FKA Twigs is pushing the boundaries of what pop music can be. [GP]

 

Billie Eilish

You’d have to live under the proverbial rock to not have heard of Billie Eilish, a whirlwind phenom of incredible talent. At just 17, she released her first full-length album in 2019, the whimsical, wonderful When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, and thereafter quickly became one of the top artists of the year. Her sound, created in conjunction with her brother Finneas O’Connell, is the picture-perfect example of all that is good and right in the world of alternative pop, coloured with whispered vocals, danceable choruses, dark lyrical ideas and downright ballsy abandon. Her big single ‘Bad Guy’ ripped the bottom open in global charts, the video rotating highly, with every other song on the album hitting the same high level. Keep your eyes on the lass – she’s going places. [JM]

 

BLACKPINK

Knowing that BLACKPINK have been market-researched and crafted as a product rather than a band does little to protect against their appeal (as is common for K-pop, there’s the accompanying “reality” show, the nicknames for fans – Blinks – and the fact that the group was assembled by a talent agency). The first K-Pop group to play a UK stadium show outside of London, BLACKPINK’s sound is practically a checklist of components designed for K-pop to crack international markets. Vocals switch between Korean and English, with Japanese versions of some songs also recorded, and the members switch between rapping and singing. The songs are full of hooks and melodies designed to get stuck in your head – ‘DDU-DU DDU-DU’ and ‘BOOMBAYAH’ will do just that. The overall effect is a manic sugar-rush, with the music itself being restless and infectiously energetic, though songs such as ‘Whistle’ demonstrate a more restrained side which is remarkably effective. But even though you know you’re listening to a product that has been crafted to within an inch of its life, it’s hard not to get swept along; there’s a swaggering confidence and sheer life-affirming joy to BLACKPINK that overcomes any arguments. [SW]

 

Anna von Hausswolff

Teaming up with Randall Dunn for 2018’s Dead Magic saw Swedish songstress Anna von Hausswolff create some of her most free-flowing compositions yet, and the result was one of the best records of the year. Utilising the poignancy of the Frederik’s Church pipe organ in Copenhagen, as well as the inconceivably immense potency of her own towering vocals (think Kate Bush dialled up to eleven), the songwriter weaves a vast tapestry of dark gothic pop that doesn’t so much hint at the supernatural as it does resonate with the timbre of some transcendental celestial plane. [GP]

 

Kate Bush

The work of Kate Bush walks a tightrope between pop and something infinitely stranger; the ability to transgress traditional pop sensibilities and norms, and delve into darker territories. The eerie vocals and gothic romance of ‘Wuthering Heights’, her debut and introduction into the industry, placed itself in the midst of a pop landscape that had absolutely nothing to compare it to – which is perhaps why the singer and songwriter had to beseech her label to release it as her opening introduction. This notion of gothic performativity and the ultimate desire to disturb and shock made its way into mainstream pop, and shifted the musical landscape of that time into something more interesting, inspiring artists from Prince to Florence and the Machine. Kate Bush retains a sense of mystique; she’s fond of masquerade and costumes, and conjures up incredibly smart and creative pieces of myth, magic and murder, that only she could have authored. [PM]

 

Iglooghost

With a style known as wonky, Iglooghost’s strain of beat-heavy electronic music prefers off-kilter rhythms that struggle to find their footing. It’s a style befitting an artist who plays by his own rules, and clearly enjoys letting his imagination run wild as he creates. Last year, he simultaneously released two EPs that explore a fictional realm accessible only through his own garden. Vocals were suitably performed in a made-up language, and they were joined by jagged synths, throbbing drum machines and an understated sense of scope aided by orchestral undertones. These elements coalesce to form a meticulously-crafted style that’s oddly fun, but not without a slightly unsettling atmosphere. [GP]

 

Julia Jacklin

One of the world’s most talented songwriters, Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jackson released Crushing in 2019 to widespread critical acclaim, and it’s not hard to see why it received such adoration. Not only is the music a tender blend of grunge-soaked indie pop and ghostly americana, but the lyrics showcase an intense degree of self-discovery, with Jackson mining past experiences with life and love for all their worth. She often turns these musings into infectious couplets, somehow turning the complexities of life that we all struggle to articulate into memorable soundbites that will swirl around inside your head long after the album’s conclusion. There’s an understated sense of scope here too – as these tracks simmer, Jackson’s stripped-back approach often soon reveals something far grander. [GP]

 

Carly Rae Jepsen

Carly Rae Jepsen’s music is all about big emotions; the thrill of new love, physical joys and the stomach-churning anxiety of not knowing if your crush likes you or not. Sure, ‘Call Me Maybe’ was a mega hit of sweet, summer pop; but it’s only a small part of Carly Rae Jepsen’s discography. Second album Emotion was a slow-burn hit, full of smart ‘80s pop and subtle lines that say a lot (“Late night watching television / But how’d we get in this position?” is a prime example). Latest album Dedicated is a more mature, mid-tempo affair, but still packs some of the same rush and nostalgia-inspired lines that will have you feeling like a dumb teenager again, tripping over your own tongue as you try to tell someone how you really feel. And somewhere along the line, Jepsen ended up as a queer icon, and – in a very metal move – one of her fans gave her a sword[SW]

 

Depeche Mode

Perhaps the single biggest “non-metal” influence on our world, it may not be immediately obvious just how much the synth pop melodrama of Depeche Mode has impacted heavy music. However, just a cursory scratch of the surface will reveal frothing plaudits from the seemingly disparate likes of Rammstien, Deftones, Converge, Fear Factory and others, all of which cite the band’s dark (and oft times deeply personal) lyrical themes and pulsating atmospherics as an early inspiration. 1990 masterwork Violator, with its goth-tinged peculiarity and globe conquering mega-hits (most notably ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’), struck a particular chord with such industrial legends as Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, and although Depeche Mode seem rather ambivalent to their significance to both the metallic underground and rock mainstream, cover versions from tech-death wizards The Faceless, prog-maestros Between The Buried And Me and melodic death veterans In Flames point to an enduring legacy of influence. [TB]

 

Björk

Before Björk, there was Kate Bush. Probably the first global female star that basically did whatever the fuck she wanted throughout a big part of her career. That’s an accomplishment in itself, regardless of gender or even genre. But Björk has done a lot more than just singing. In the 21st Century, she became a true multidisciplinary artist. She has worked with the most divergent selection of artists, has influenced (and been influenced by) extreme music from different parts of the globe and never compromised on anything. Björk is the ultimate example of how pop music can be both a gateway and an excuse to push the boundaries of excess, in a positive way. No genre can achieve catharsis so easily and with that advantage, the audience is more easily enticed to go along for the ride throughout wildly different takes on music. This is an art Björk dominates like no other artist on this planet. It’s thanks to her that a new generation of pop artists have been able to put the emphasis on empowerment rather than on commercial viability. [MPH]

 

Sophie

One artist taking advantage of the doors opened by the likes of Björk is meta-producer Sophie, whose debut album (2018’s Oil in Every Pearl’s Un-Insides) is a mixture of harsh IDM-like bangers and almost cringely naive lollypop-poptimism. Both seamlessly combine in what is more a statement than an album, but above all a new highlight in electronic pop production. Her music gets the masses dancing, but at the same time it almost unknowingly drags them into a maelstrom of noises clashing with out-of-control synths. Just like Björk, this is catharsis through excess. [MPH]

 

Starbenders 

This writer came across Starbenders when Sumerian Records uploaded a video for the American group’s most recent single ‘London’. The name alone drew a click, and that was more than enough to get the replay button beaten within an inch of its life. Though the group don’t do anything majorly outlandish, it’s the execution that sets Starbenders apart from other bands of a similar ilk. That said, the band aren’t afraid to layer up the guitars, not dissimilar to some corners of dream-pop, without becoming too overbearing or “look how long my reverb tails are”. ‘Blood’ is a fine example of this layering tactic. The aforementioned ‘London’ features punchy, crisp production, catchy hooks and stellar performances all round. It’s incredibly hard to fault, and making such a solid pop-orientated rock track is far harder than people would think. Starbenders are quickly becoming masters of the craft. [SE]

 

Christine And The Queens

Only two albums into her career, Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier – the French singer-songwriter, producer and dancer better known as Christine And The Queens – has garnered a well-earned reputation as one of the most distinctive and creative forces in modern pop. Her debut album reached great heights, bolstered in the UK by an eye-catching performance of the single ‘Tilted’ on Later With Jools Holland, showcasing her unique and intimate style. Self-produced, idiosyncratic and addictive, the album paved the way for 2018’s superb Chris which confidently built on the promise of her debut. Full of sensuality, crisp beats, subtle hooks and more than a nod to 1980s high production values, Chris is even better than its predecessor. Having spoken openly about her sexuality (Letisser describes herself pansexual) and gender (she identifies as genderqueer) Letissier has also become a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights and, through her music, brought a much needed alternative voice to the oversaturated heteronormative world of modern pop. On the strength of the two albums she has released so far, one can foresee a long and interesting career ahead. [AP]

 

Of Monsters And Men

Several years ago you couldn’t move without hearing this Icelandic ensemble’s breakout hit ‘Little Talks’, a track which took 30 weeks to reach the top 40 in the charts, breaking the record for the longest climb to that position. It remains the band’s most commercially successful track, a gigantic hit with an almost ruthlessly amiable warmth. It propelled the band to a level they likely never expected to reach, but their delightful folk-ridden indie pop was simply so easy to love that perhaps such stardom was always inevitable. 2011’s My Head Is An Animal did remarkably well and deservedly so, elegantly walking the line between whimsical and poignant, and follow-up albums have sought to build on that impressive basis. 2015’s Beneath The Skin remained woodsy and folksy in its imagery, but with an ambitious weight that elevated the tracks to something more extravagant. These were no longer tracks to be sung around a campfire, but belted to huge festival crowds. The five-piece released their third album, Fever Dream, earlier this year, and whilst the hype has somewhat depreciated over time, the quality of the music has not, its tracks brimming with life and wilfully embracing the saccharine without so much as a hint of shame. [GP]

 

Florence And The Machine

Florence Welch and her baroque pop crew have been around since 2007, utilising every dramatic and soulful tactic in their arsenal to wash over their audience with abundant emotion. Their debut album Lungs (released in 2009) flew up the charts and cemented their place in the hearts of those looking for something different to the mainstream, and each successive release has been just as incredible, if not more (their 2018 album, High As Hope, was top drawer). Flo has amazing vocal chops that flow from an intimate whisper to an intense, moving howl, and her onstage presence has to be seen to be believed. [JM]

 

Massive Attack

Now in the fourth decade of their career, Massive Attack, alongside Portishead and Tricky, pioneered the Bristol trip-hop scene of the early nineties, have released five full-length studio albums and are renowned for the stark aesthetics and socio-political messages of their live shows. Their most critically acclaimed and highest-selling album, 1998’s Mezzanine, took a departure from the dub influence of their earlier works, Blue Lines and Protection, and transformed Massive Attack into one of the world’s most intriguing electronica acts. A showpiece of dark, ethereal and oneiric compositions that are predominantly calm but with judicious bursts of energy (‘Inertia Creeps’), Mezzanine is a strangely comforting and utterly essential album. The duo of Robert De Naja (3D, and probably graffiti-artist Banksy) and Grant Marshall (Daddy G), as well as a wealth of guest vocalists, continue to create electronic music that intoxicates and fascinates, and communicate environmentalist, anti-war and anti-capitalist messages. [JH]

 

Kai Whiston

The average metalhead’s general concept of anything with “beats” is that it’ll be simplistic and lacking in any discernible creativity, made simply for drug-induced clubbers to enjoy on a Saturday night. A few minutes of Kai Whiston should broaden their horizons. The young UK artist pioneers a contorted take on electronic music that favours a more surreal approach full of sharp bass, eerie distortion and eccentric sampling. His latest release defies even his own established blueprints, however, creating the conceptually rich No World As Good As Mine with a whole new sonic palette. The album feels organic thanks to live instrumentation, and some have noted similarities with noise rock in its most abrasive textures, whilst the electronic beats prove consistently infectious but are seldom played straight. [GP]

 

Sleep Token

Metal fans often seem to skirt around some heavier bands’ inherent pop sensibilities, as if even mentioning the word would instantly tarnish any scene cred they’d strived to attain, but when it comes to enigmatic outfit Sleep Token, the pop strands simply cannot be ignored. The band’s sound takes from several different styles, from tech-metal and post-rock to pop and trap, all held together by masked vocalist Vessel’s poignant, Bon Iver-esque croons. The band claim to worship Sleep, though they don’t mean the band or the state we all enter each night, rather an ancient deity with the same name – but unique gimmicks aside, the band craft truly beguiling music. Were it not for the heavier moments, Sleep Token would most likely be mentioned in the same breath as some of modern pop’s edgier artists. [GP]

 

Aurora

The work of Aurora can be simultaneously otherworldly in its quiet devastation yet defiant in its approach. Dealing with everything from outdated gender roles to climate change, the Norwegian singer has invented her own kind of pop. In 2015, she added her airy vocals to the John Lewis advert, and since then has released two not-so-typical pop albums. Her music wraps itself in a kind of menacing ambience yet ethereal intimacy, with her penchant for intense dark lyricism and haunting instrumentals – ‘Churchyard’, for example, which holds the integrity and all the gothic, empowering rage of a doom metal piece. Combining the galloping dance-pop of more chart-friendly offerings and graceful, soaring vocals that share a likeness with Enya, Aurora engulfs her listeners into a fantastical world of her own making. [PM]

 

Bonniesongs

We at Astral Noize have spent a lot of time talking at length about artists who experiment with noise to make impossibly heavy new forms of metal, but what about those who funnel their sonic eccentricities into the relaxing side of music? Sydney-based songwriter Bonniesongs is a master of this, weaving vast soundscapes that are often spearheaded by her own elegant vocals. Her dreamy music can loosely be described as art-folk, but touches on progressive pop, indie rock and more whilst telling vivid tales of everything from treehouses and flying to video games and ice cream. [GP]

 

Chvrches

Hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, synth-pop trio Chvrches burst onto the music scene in 2013 with their incredibly self-assured debut The Bones Of What You Believe. Mixing irresistible, thoughtful hooks with poignant lyrics and melancholic synth melodies reminiscent of those that Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure) perfected so effortlessly in the 1980s, Chvrches also have, in singer-songwriter Lauren Mayberry, one of the most formidable and outspoken frontwomen in pop. A proud and vocal feminist, Mayberry has consistently criticised the music industry and media for its ongoing objectification of women, and is a vocal supporter for the rights of sexual assault victims. With three equally superb albums under their belt, Chvrches are producing some of the finest pop music available at the moment and in Mayberry have a songwriter we can all aspire to, regardless of genre. [AP]

 

St. Vincent

St. Vincent (or Annie to her mum and dad) is a prolific musician and producer, starting her career in the wonderful Polyphonic Spree and finally immersing the world in her solo career which has caused a stir in both the commercial and alternative arenas. She rocks with the best of them, but also adds in enough tangible material to draw in the art crowd, with flamboyant onstage garb and distinct lyrical matter, and albums like Marry Me and her 2014 self-titled record engage the listener like no other. She also released a collaborative album called Love This Giant with David Byrne of Talking Heads fame in 2012, which was as jubilant and engaging as one could imagine, and a testament to the inherent talents of both artists. [JM]

 

Issues

Though many like to pretend that pop and metal could never go hand-in-hand, it’s an unavoidable fact that a lot of contemporary metalcore owes as much to pop as it does the subgenre’s heavier origins. Within this trend, there is probably no band more overt about their love of more “mainstream” music then metalcore-meets-R&B ensemble Issues, whose tracks often drift from Justin Bieber-esque croons and nu-metal rapping to hardcore beatdowns. Their very existence is likely an affront to many, and we can’t exactly blame you if you wanted to stop reading as soon as you saw the term “nu metal”, but if you grew up in the ’90s, there’s a nostalgic kick to this style, and yet the band do more than enough to put their own fresh spin on it. If you’re open to it, this band can be a lot of fun. [GP]

 

Ionna Gika

Emerging earlier this year with her first solo album, Thalassa, Greek-American musician Ionna Gika crafted a debut album that is vast, captivating and powerful, placing her own vocal performance front and centre throughout. Presented stark, her voice has a natural elegance that resonates through the album, shining down from some celestial plane; a beam of light soaring over the dense and often menacing music that lies beneath. The album is so vast that it’s easy to find yourself lost within its supernatural charm, but with an album inspired in part by familial loss and romantic setbacks as well as the forced change they bring, Thalassa’s humanity is also prominent. [GP]

 

Lorde 

It’s a common misconception that commercial pop doesn’t allow for much intelligence, but New Zealand artist Lorde brings to light the ways in which hugely successful mainstream pop isn’t just about the glitterati, but can be clever, complex and down to earth. The work of Lorde holds enough pop sensibilities to place herself within the pop landscape and yet just enough eccentricity to fascinate, as it carefully walks a tightrope between art pop and the mainstream. Lorde’s 2013 breakout hit ‘Royals’ smiled contemptuously at the deluxe fixation of musical royalty, and became arguably one of the most defiant and self-aware writings in pop. Lorde isn’t interested in allowing her work to wear its intelligence lightly, as she cleverly interweaves mainstream pop effervescence with smart lyrics and raw, affecting vocals. [PM]

 

Bent Knee

Some bands conform to genre restrictions, some gently tug at the boundaries, some do their best to ignore them, and then there’s a small minority seeking them out just so they can tear them to shreds. Boston’s Bent Knee are a revelation in the scene, mostly because they don’t actually belong to any particular scene. The band are entirely their own in every sense, with a style that jumps from art pop and industrial rock to prog and avant-garde. The result is nothing short of thrilling – there’s a fresh new turn at every opportunity, and the band are always seeking out the next corner, each track striding forward with grace but also urgency. The band released You Know What They Mean in 2019, and it immediately identifies itself as their boldest effort yet. Ten years and five albums in, Bent Knee remain ahead of the curve, and whilst the band are unlikely to ever pivot in search of stardom, if there is any justice left in the world, they’ll soon be huge. [GP]

 

Cigarettes After Sex

The word “pop” often conjures images of fast paces and upbeat rhythms, but El Paso group Cigarettes After Sex prefer melody and serenity to anything suitable for a party in their own distinct strain of dream pop. Their latest album, Cry, sounds much like their self-titled debut, with hushed vocals, leisurely paces and lush spidery guitar lines that combine to build an immensely soothing and pleasurable listening experience. The music appears sweet and sentimental, but the lyrics to each track combine to tell a loose narrative of sexual encounters and misadventures. Band founder Greg Gonzalez’s somewhat juvenile and unnuanced approach to such material somewhat lets the side down, which is a shame, as there’s a universe out there where this kind of atmospherically rich material is a revelation amongst the humdrum of lifeless indie rock. [GP]

 

Lady Gaga

Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is a legend in modern music, her dance-infused electro-pop charting worldwide across her five albums. Her progress from disco to EDM to crooner and finally, with 2016’s extremely personal and beautiful Joanne, to modern superstar has been a wonder to watch, with ‘Bowie/Madonna-esque chameleon changes. Her voice is energetic, uplifting, melancholy, and pitch-perfect joy, with music to match. Her role in the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born was also heartbreaking and meticulously portrayed, and she won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for her moving single, ‘Shallow’. And besides being a killer artist, she has been showered with numerous other awards, is heavily involved with a number of charities, and is a downright champ. [JM]

 

Words: George Parr [GP], Adam Pegg [AP], Paige Mathis [PM], Marc Puyol-Hennin [MPH], Sean Elias [SE], Tony Bliss [TB], Stuart Wain [SW], John Morrow [JM], John Higham [JH]

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