What’s the deal with labels? It seems like people can’t enjoy a piece of music until they’ve micro-analyzed and compartmentalized it. This makes it all the more satisfying when an artist comes along and completely defies all conventional genres. These artist blend genres so fluidly that they create something definitively their own. And no, it’s not yours for the labeling.
Bryan — Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, “Piñata” album
Who would have pegged gangsta rap and smooth jazz as perfect bedmates? Unexpected though it may be, Madlib’s earthy, mellow production serves as the perfect counterpart to Gibbs’ gruff voice and streetwise lyrics. Gibbs can spit bars to rival any top-tier rapper — just check out “Shitsville” for proof — but he avoids excessive showboating in favor of a smooth, rhythmic delivery throughout. Madlib is given equal billing here, and for good reason: his haunting loops and melodies are just as vital as Gibbs’ raps, and they ground the autobiographical album in reality. It might not make sense on paper, but as Gibbs says himself in “Thuggin’”: “It feels so good, and it feels so right.”
Jenna - twenty-one pilots
Self-proclaimed “schizoid pop” duo twenty-one pilots are rocking the worlds of Fall Out Boy and Paramore fans. They signed to Fueled By Ramen in 2012 and have been introducing new sounds to the alternative world with their debut album, “Vessel.” There’s a little bit of something for everyone – from pop to rap to electronic and back again. And that’s just one song. They don’t fit any particular genre, and no band has come close to touching what they have. Despite being a duo, their music successfully translates to the stage, as Tyler Joseph’s piano and vocals and Josh Dun’s drumming take the energy and antics to the next level, making for a one-of-a-kind performance.
Paul - SZA
As a side effect of humanity’s obsession with labels, any remotely R&B-tinged indie music automatically earns the pseudo-edgy title “PBR&B” — a term that has risen to prominence in the last half-decade and means about as much as the infinitely vague “alternative” tag. Like Frank Ocean, the Weeknd and How to Dress Well, SZA fits these standards as an independent R&B musician with a penchant for genre hopping, though coincidentally all of her music on SoundCloud is labeled as “alternative.” Whether that association was chosen or given, SZA defies contemporary R&B standards by employing elements of psych-pop, soul and even witch house in her arrangements. She often surrounds herself with other pioneering artists, evidenced by her third EP “Z” which featured collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Toro y Moi and XXYYXX, among others. Even slight departures from her signature sound, like the jazzy, Marvin Gaye-sampling “Sweet November” blend seamlessly with her ethereal musical landscapes. Her smooth voice ties the whole package together, always delivering in both energy and emotion. Artists as appealing as SZA offer a glimpse at a future without such stringent expectations on R&B — or any genre, for that matter.
Britny - Taylor Swift
My girl T-Swift may be a bona fide pop star now, but when she got her start back in 2006, she was a country singer. Throughout her journey from twangy teen to pop diva, she’s been mashing up genres left and right, with pop hooks sprinkled in her country songs as far back as “Picture to Burn.” Slowly, she started to shift genres, making albums where both pop songs (the Hannah Montana-esque “The Story of Us,” the inescapable “We Are Never Getting Back Together”) and country songs (“Mean,” which is the aural equivalent of a barbed-wire picket fence) could find a home, side-by-side. These days, she’s shed her country roots entirely, but it was the unabashed genre mixing that got her where she is now.
Tess - Girl Talk
When I was 15, there were two things I definitely didn’t know anything about: classic rock and any type of hip-hop. I went on a road trip with my brother and we listened to Girl Talk’s album “All Day,” and everything changed. Girl Talk, notoriously described as a “mash up” musician, successfully blends sounds across both genres and decades. His transitions from classic rock to ‘90s hip-hop to modern pop are effortless, creating a cohesive sound that funnels the music world in its entirety into just one song.