For our annual Hot List wrap-up, we profile the best, the brightest and the weirdest of right now, including Kanye's favourite new rapper, primo Jamaican ganja, the future of sex, and much more.
by Rod Yates, Jon Dolan, Patrick Doyle, Jonah Weiner, Jonathan Cohen, Christopher R. Weingarten, Alex Morris, David Fear, Logan Hill, Brian Hiatt, Ben Wofford, Evan Shamoon and Neil Strauss.
Gretta Ray is standing outside a classroom at Melbourne's Princes Hill Secondary College, having just sat her VCE exam in Literature. It didn't go as she'd hoped. "It was so bad," she laughs. "We just got these really terrible extracts from the book to write on. But anyway," she sighs, "it's over." Odds are Ray (pictured above) is the only artist in this issue who's having to juggle interviews around her Year 12 commitments, although with only one exam left to sit, that will all soon be a thing of the past. For most teens, their final year of school is challenge enough, but when Ray released her debut EP, Elsewhere, in February, such was the level of interest it had the potential to make things a whole lot more complicated. An executive decision was taken: "My manager and my mum took over all those e-mails and delayed all of our responses until my final exam [was] done," says the 18-year-old. The plan was working until Ray received a call in October asking her to fly to Sydney as she'd won the Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition, beating a field of nearly 2,500 applicants to take the $50,000 first prize for her song "Drive". (Former winners include the Preatures' Isabella Manfredi, Megan Washington and Kimbra.) It was an incredible climax to a year in which she also won Triple J's Unearthed High in August.
Ray's love of music hit early, and by five she'd joined the Young Voices of Melbourne choir, with whom she performed for 12 years. By seven she'd taken up piano and written her first song, and by nine had fallen in love with Taylor Swift and the Dixie Chicks, supplementing the musical diet of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell on which she'd been raised. The songs for Elsewhere were written between the ages of 15 and 16 – which, given her lyrical dexterity and command of storytelling, not to mention the maturity of her folk-inspired pop creations, borders on the staggering. "I like observing human relationships and I do a lot of watching of human nature on the whole," she explains of her lyrical inspiration. Ray will soon be heading off to Nashville to begin work on her debut album, which will see the light of day some time in 2017.
Currently unsigned and without a publishing deal, the record labels have started circling. "It's something we'll look into sooner or later," she says. "I've been focusing on school and my family, and everyone around me has been wanting me to prioritise that instead of making those really big decisions straight away. I want to make those decisions well, they're important." [R.Y.]
"Maybe I should have all my college-loan payments diverted to Sub Pop," says Lvl Up drummer Greg Rutkin. It makes sense that these unassuming indie rockers would record for the same label that released touchstones by Nirvana and Sebadoh. They do Nineties-loving guitar majesty better than anyone, while exuding a spiritual hunger all their own. Lvl Up met in college and roomed together after moving to Brooklyn, and their close friendships come through in their music. The best song on the band's fantastic new album, Return to Love (recently named in the Rolling Stone best albums of 2016 list), is the guitar meltdown "Pain", in which singer-guitarist Mike Caridi deals with the aftermath of violent trauma: "When we play it," he says, "it's like we're working through this thing together." [J.D.]
Rostam Batmanglij spent his twenties building Vampire Weekend from a Columbia University dorm project into one of indie rock's biggest bands. But by 2013, Batmanglij – who wrote, produced and played keyboards for the group – was looking to branch out. "A lot of people get a high from being onstage," he says. "I get it from being in the studio."
Earlier this year, Batmanglij, 32, left the band in favour of a solo career and producing, putting his imaginative art-rock stamp on tracks by Solange and Frank Ocean. "The most exciting songs to me are the unlikely hits," he says, "when you think, 'I love this, but why is it on the radio?' " At his L.A. home studio, Batmanglij pushes acts to find a "deeper space". When Ocean asked him to produce "Ivy", a standout on his Blonde album, Batmanglij stripped it of its previously recorded instruments and laid down a series of Strokes-influenced guitar chords. "I like to create a world where every part matters," he says. Case in point: his new LP with former Walkmen singer Hamilton Leithauser, which draws from doo-wop and Nineties indie rock. Currently, Batmanglij is producing Haim and, perhaps, Vampire Weekend: "I don't want to make any announcements. I want some surprises for 2017." [P.D.]
Some aspiring rappers sling mixtapes; some upload demos to Soundcloud. Lil Yachty – one of hip-hop's most idiosyncratic young stars – took a different, hypercontemporary path to stardom: He vowed to become Instagram-famous.
"I wasn't really focused on music," the Atlanta native, 19, says. "I was more into fashion on the Internet."
A little more than a year ago, Yachty (real name Miles Parks McCollum) struck upon his nautical nickname and a signature look consisting heavily of vintage maritime apparel, sourced from "eBay, Etsy, thrift stores, consignment shops," he says. Next, he spent a summer in New York, crashing with a buddy and systematically ingratiating himself with some of his online street-fashion heroes, like Luka Sabbat, who has racked up 272,000 Instagram followers. "They're the cool kids all the kids listen to," Yachty says. "It was strategic. They helped my name build." Before long, Yachty had an online following of his own. He began to parlay it into a music career, self-releasing catchy, intentionally dinky-sounding tunes packed with off-colour boasts delivered in a proudly amateurish singsong. Capitol Records signed him; Kanye invited him to collaborate in the studio (and asked him to model for his Yeezy clothing line); Chance the Rapper gave him a feature spot on Coloring Book; and Drake put one of Yachty's best and weirdest songs, "Minnesota", on his Ovo Sound Beats1 show.
Despite the big-name accolades, Yachty doesn't take himself seriously. He calls his style "bubblegum trap". "I've got songs that sample Mario Bros., Charlie Brown, the Rugrats theme, the music that plays when you turn on a Gamecube," he says. For all his strategic thinking, he characterises his artistic approach as un-premeditated; he recorded his breakthrough single, an anti-commitment ode called "1 Night", "in my friend's garage". On "Minnesota", he riffs about his flip phone, New Balance sneakers and his lawyer. Inspired by ingenious weirdos like Lil B and Soulja Boy, Yachty's bars bob on and off the beat like dinghies. "I just flow," he says. "My only verse I remember really working on was ‘Mixtape' " – a Chance the Rapper song – "and I took 45 minutes on that because I wanted it to be tight."
Growing up, Yachty says, he always had flair. "I wore colourful clothes, had colourful hair. My older brother was gangbanging, selling drugs, and I think he was kind of embarrassed of me." Yachty was arrested, pre-fame, for credit-card scamming, but he says those charges have been expunged. Now, he says he's focused on positivity: His next album won't include the cartoonish threats of violence he made on early releases: "That was talkety-talk. I'm not influencing the youth in no bad way. I'm doing can drives at my shows. I'm promoting boating!" He chuckles. "I'm 100 per cent sunshine." [J.W.]
Lydia Loveless grew up in a New Wave band with her siblings and father. But her own goals were a little different: "I always daydreamed of being in an awesome band that looked really sweaty and punk-rock onstage," she says. On this year's breakthrough, Real, the 26-year-old singer-guitarist often sounds like Loretta Lynn fronting the Replacements. Loveless, who started writing as a teenager, used to be too shy to play live. Now, she has the guts to turn down major-label offers: "This Maroon 5 manager or something rolled in and asked, 'Would you be willing to do what it takes?' And I was like, 'Probably not for you.'"
If you remember Bruce Hornsby only for his 1986 adult-contemporary hit "The Way It Is", you would have been surprised by the scene at Wisconsin's Eaux Claires festival in June. Backstage, several indie rockers treated Hornsby like royalty. Onstage, he sat in with Bon Iver and members of the National. Those are just some acts reclaiming Hornsby lately, finding inspiration in both his pop balladry and his more freewheeling later work: jazz, bluegrass and serving as the Dead's touring pianist. "He gathers from the Grateful Dead, Keith Jarrett and Sam Cooke – he has it all," says Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. Ryan Adams drew on Hornsby's bright Eighties folk sound for his new LP: "Without him, I wouldn't have decided I can be myself without throwing so much against the wall." Says Hornsby, 61, "I'm a lifelong student. They're channelling a certain aesthetic and expressing themselves within it. I'll take it!" [J.C.]
The synth crew Survive have been playing fog-soaked shows around Austin for nearly a decade, releasing their music on limited cassette runs. That all changed this past summer with the release of Netflix's Stranger Things, which featured a menacingly throbbing score written by Survive's Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. "The day it went out, I went camping – I got back and text messages just rolled out like ticker tape," says Dixon. The success of the show has put a spotlight on Austin's thriving synth scene, which includes metal-tinged darkwave (Troller, Boan) and cosmic krautrock (Curved Light, Dallas Acid). Austin has long been a guitar-dominated roots-rock city, but lately it has become the place to breathe new life into dusty Eighties analog keyboard gear. It helps that the city is home to Switched On, a popular mom-and-pop synth shop ("Thom Yorke was here 20 minutes ago," says co-owner Chad Allen), and the Alamo Drafthouse, an indie-movie franchise that hosts weekly screenings highlighting Seventies and Eighties horror films with dystopian synth soundtracks. "No matter how many years continue to march on, something about that era stays in sync," says Tim League, CEO of the Alamo. "The Eighties are so singularly defined and so weird, there's something quite magical about it." [C.R.W.]
One week, 25-year-old British actor Joe Alwyn was running scenes with his classmates at London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. The next, he found himself packing for rigorous military training after landing the lead as a returning Iraq War hero in Ang Lee's new film, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. It's his first role, but he's already being compared to a young Leonardo DiCaprio. "I am in every scene," he says, somewhat sheepishly. "There's no escaping me!"
The son of a documentarian and a psychotherapist, Alwyn admits that being "thrown into the deep end" helped him get into the mind-set of a young soldier returning from war only to find himself appearing with Destiny's Child during an NFL halftime show. "It's surreal," Alwyn says. "I went from being a student to having these huge cameras a few feet away from my face." [D.F.]
Haley Bennett is on fire. Or, rather, her apartment is. "Shall we have a fire?" she asks when I arrive at her Tribeca loft on one of the first cool afternoons of autumn. Soon we're ensconced on a sofa while Bennett, 28, talks about her youth, which included a tomboy childhood riding horses and flipping ATVs in Ohio while being a "social outcast" at school. At 18, and with only a few high school plays under her belt, Bennett persuaded her mum to take her to L.A. What followed was a decade of (mostly) steady work on (mostly) unsatisfying projects: "For a long time, I was like, ‘Maybe I shouldn't have done this.' "
Ten years in, Bennett is having the breakout moment she wasn't sure would ever come. We're about to launch into a discussion of the fact that she's starring in a hefty slate of films – The Magnificent Seven, The Girl on the Train, Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply and Terrence Malick's Weightless – when smoke starts billowing out of the fireplace. The smoke detector goes nuts, along with Bennett's "menagerie" of three cats and two dogs. She throws open doors and windows, laughing that if she had to call the fire department, they'd think she was Jennifer Lawrence, whom she still gets mistaken for all the time. "I'm in complete denial," she says of the fact that those days are numbered. [A.M.]
Ask most folks what the most iconic thing about Los Angeles is, and they'll tell you it's the hollywood sign. Not Damien Chazelle. "It's freeway gridlock," replies the writer-director. "I liked the idea that if you were writing a love letter to L.A., you'd take the single most annoying thing about it and prove that even that can be the site for a musical number."
Chazelle's new film, La La Land, kicks off with a five-minute song-and-dance that involved shutting down a ramp to the 101 freeway for two days while hundreds of people sang and danced on car roofs. It's a fitting start to the most ambitious film to come out of Hollywood in ages – a full-on musical that puts a new spin on old-school MGM-style showstoppers. Chazelle persuaded stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone to take singing lessons and learn soft-shoe routines. "He seemed about 16 years old," Stone says of meeting the director. "It takes passion, vision and focus for a movie like this to come together, and that's all him."
Chazelle, 31, had toyed with the idea of a song-and-dance throwback since college; after his drumming drama, Whiplash, made him an Oscar nominee, it was time. "I had a bit of capital," he says. "And then I maxed it all out with La La Land." [D.F.]
Hollywood, having recast Spider-Man with a third Peter Parker and shrunk down to minuscule heroes like Ant-Man, is running out of comic books to adapt – and studios are betting that the next big thing is video games. Some of the largest titles are being turned into movies, from Minecraft to Asteroids. "There's a formidable fan base," says Justin Kurzel, director of Assassin's Creed, which opens next month with a reported $130 million budget, "and the concepts of some of these games are really cinematic." [L.H.]
Cheo Hodari Coker had an ambitious goal as showrunner of the Netflix series Luke Cage: the "Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel universe". "I wanted to use hip-hop in ways you'd never seen before in a TV show, but I've also been reading comics for 25 years," says Coker, 45, who was a music journalist before transitioning to TV (and the last person to interview the Notorious B.I.G. before his death in 1997). "My pitch was Belly meets City of God as written by the staff of The Wire." So far, it's worked. Method Man has made a cameo, and episodes feature nods to Biggie and blaxploitation. With Luke Cage, he's given us a superhero for the Black Lives Matter era. "You have a black man in a hoodie with bullets bouncing off him," Coker says. "You see a superhero – but you also see a bulletproof Trayvon Martin. It's a fun-ass show, but it makes a statement." [D.F.]
A couple of years back, stand-up comic Brandon Wardell laid down two markers for success: befriending Drake and hooking up with Ariana Grande. Neither has come to pass, but Wardell, 24, who grew up as an itinerant Air Force brat, is feeling OK about being an "alt-famous" voice of a generation. On Twitter this year, he spawned a crazily popular absurdist meme, "Dicks Out for Harambe" – which random bros still shout at him. He stars in a Snapchat show for Comedy Central, gets paid for half-assed DJ sets, peppers his stand-up with hip-hop references, and consults for corporations as a millennial whisperer. But his relationship to his generation is complex: "I'm hyperinvolved in the culture but also hate everything about it," says Wardell, who takes aim at peers' performative social awareness by declaring himself "the creator of feminism" and designating "tru gd mf respecting women hours" on Twitter. He takes those corporate gigs seriously, though. "I'll troll," he says, "until it fucks my money up." [B.H.]
In conversation, English writer-actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge comes across as a gentle literary type. But her hilarious Amazon series, Fleabag, one of the year's big cult hits, has established the 31-year-old as a new spokeswoman for anti-social small-screen behaviour and sublime anal-sex jokes. The show follows an awkward single woman dealing with a personal tragedy via filthy humour and fourth-wall-shattering asides. Waller-Bridge, who played a barrister on the BBC mystery Broadchurch, says she mined "a lifetime of humiliation" to create Flea. Now, she's being stopped on the street by female superfans: "It usually ends with both of us yelling, ‘Raaaa!' like lady Vikings." [D.F.]
Born and raised in Jamaica, Balram "Bali" Vaswani remembers the golden age of native ganja, famous for the Lamb's Bread beloved by Bob Marley. "That's really when Jamaica was kicking," Vaswani says. "We had great strains in the Seventies." Since then, Jamaican weed has fallen into decline: diluted by outside product and victimised by the War on Drugs (read: burned by U.S. agents). But in an effort to boost its flagging economy, the Jamaican government decriminalised weed last year, allowing two universities to cultivate pot for medicinal use.
One of the schools teamed up with Vaswani's company, Ganja Labs, to produce the first legal harvest of unadulterated Jamaican weed. Vaswani, 40, is no ordinary stoner merchant; he's worked in banking, managed Jamaica's pioneering TV network Reggae Entertainment and established the Marley estate's coffee brand in the U.S. Now, inside a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse, he's growing eight-foot-tall trees with the help of organic soil and all-day lighting. This past summer, Vaswani shared some of his first crop of medical-grade with longtime friend Rohan Marley, one of Bob's sons. "It was just beautiful," says Marley. "You can taste the soil, the pineapple and the sweetness. Bali brought the standard way up."
Vaswani isn't allowed to export yet, but he already senses the demand. "The German ambassador came to me last week and said, ‘Can we start a conversation?' " he says. "It's going to take time, but in Jamaica, we always like to have the best." [D.B.]
"You don't hear about it anymore," John Lennon said in 1980, lamenting how psilocybin mushrooms went underground. "But people are still visiting the cosmos." Psilocybin earned its stigma in the Sixties, but science is slowly discovering new benefits that hint at the potential for an age of legal mushrooms. Since 2004, a dozen clinical trials have demonstrated profound improvements in spiritual wellness, addiction, OCD and depression. "It really looks like this stuff works," says Mark Kleiman, a drug-policy scholar at NYU.
Support for legalising magic mushrooms is low, but the groundswell is real. "I'm passionate about psychedelics as medicine for people with depression," says Brian Normand, founder of Psymposia, a campaign to undo the taboo around psychedelics, who took up the issue after he lost his mother to suicide. A marijuana-style referendum is unlikely anytime soon – an Oregon group is mulling an initiative for 2020 – but that's the playbook. "A health-based, compassionate approach is what's going to lead the way," says Normand. "That's how it changes: very slowly." [B.W.]
Somewhere down South, nestled on five acres, is a white colonial with 10 bedrooms, a pool, an exercise room and a dozen women performing live peep shows for remote customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At CamSoda's "cam house", nearly every room of the rented mansion, including the showers, is equipped with cameras. The location is secret and monitored by on-site security, but just about everything else that happens inside – oil wrestling, orgies, deep-throat contests – can be viewed online. The art of camming is largely to tease and flirt via video stream to earn "tips". But here, a new frontier in sex tech, known as teledildonics, is taking the action to the next level.
Here's how it works: Pearls ($US149), or digitally connected dildos, are synced through an app to an Onyx sleeve ($US249) that, like a vagina, constricts and contracts around a penis. When a woman at the cam house strokes the Pearl – or puts it inside her – the interior of the sleeve mirrors her movements. On the other end, touch sensors in the sleeve deliver haptic feedback to the performer's Pearl, which customers can also make vibrate – by tipping.
"Guys ask all the time for dates," says Charley Hart, a CamSoda model. "This is a great way for me to say, ‘No, but there's this option. You can not only experience my blow job, but have sex with me, too. Virtually.'"
At first, it may seem sci-fi-in-a-bad-way to fuck through the Internet, a first step toward a Matrix of pleasure-pads that threaten to make the human touch obsolete. But teledildonics promises new tools for long-distance relationships and sexual experimentation, and removes the threat of STDs, violence and other risks IRL sex workers face. Victoria Ryan, another model with CamSoda, says teledildonics means "we can give these guys pleasure and still not have to leave the safety of our home".
Ten women at the house now have Pearls, which when combined with virtual reality make for a fully immersive experience. "With VR goggles, you're bringing yourself into her space," says CamSoda president Daron Lundeen, who also has plans for a suite of downloadable blow jobs. "It's hard to imagine something that is so dramatically going to change the way we interact." Of course, teledildonics is a two-way street; it only works if customers adopt the technology. "People are going to have to warm up to it," Ryan admits. "But I have no doubt that they'll go crazy for it." [J.W.]
In 2012, when Svante Myrick became both the youngest and first black mayor of Ithaca, New York, politicians, reporters and others among the city's 30,000 residents took one look at the precocious 24-year-old with a funny-sounding name and had to ask: Do you see yourself in Barack Obama?
"I'm more Joe Biden," says Myrick, recalling his blue-collar upbringing. He was raised by a single mother in Earlville, New York, a town with one stoplight, about as many African-Americans – "My house was the black neighbourhood" – and not many more Democrats. "My first political act was to steal all the Bob Dole signs in Earlville," he says.
After his sophomore year at Cornell University, he turned down a job in Obama's Senate office to run for Ithaca's city council. "I asked myself, ‘What would Obama do?' " Myrick says. "He went for it himself, and I said, ‘I'm gonna try to do it myself too.'"
Now in his second term as mayor, Myrick has instituted a living wage for city employees and pushed for more affordable housing (he spent the first months of his life in and out of homeless shelters). Ithaca now has the state's fastest job growth and was named its healthiest city. To promote urban space, Myrick gave up his car and turned the mayor's parking spot into a mini-park.
In 2014, after three fatal heroin overdoses struck Ithaca in two weeks, he moved to create America's first supervised heroin-injection center. The idea stalled after a furor erupted, with one state legislator calling it "asinine". But drug-policy experts see supervised injection as a promising tool, one that has decreased overdoses in parts of Vancouver by 35 per cent. "I wanted something radical," Myrick says. "A whole new approach."
The budding politician admits Obama has raised the career possibilities for someone like him – "If a guy with that name and those ears can do it, then a guy with this name and these ears can do it" – but he is hesitant to discuss his future: "Do people who open a small business immediately get asked, ‘So, do you want to be Bill Gates?' " Municipal life is demanding enough, judging by the stream of constituent text messages that appear on the LCD screen Myrick installed in his office. "My favourite was ‘The second-floor bathroom in City Hall is out of toilet paper'," Myrick says. "That one I could solve immediately." [R.W.]
Turn off your mind, relax, float downstream – but be sure to put on your VR goggles and headphones first. The newest pathway to a psychedelic epiphany is the overwhelming, and sometimes moving, combo of virtual reality and pounding electronic music. October's launch of PlayStation VR marks the debut of the two most impressive examples to date: Rez Infinite and Thumper. Playing the blissed-out Rez in VR feels like going back into the womb, if said womb happened to be hosting an MDMA-soaked club night in Tokyo. The menacing Thumper – co-created by a Rock Band mastermind and a member of noise band Lightning Bolt – is the bad-trip flip side, brutalising you with grotesque sensory overload: Its creators call it a "rhythm violence" game, but it feels more like digital ayahuasca. [E.S.]