For the majority of people, music is something they are passionate about, but new music discovery is a very passive and responsive activity. I think many people still think of radio stations and music tv networks as the place where you become introduced to new music. That is not a criticism, so much as an observation perhaps on why they feel there is "no good music," since those outlets are less focused on breaking new artists. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are someone who more actively spends time scouring music blogs and review sites, or streaming services, it can all be too much most days.
It is easier than ever for new bands to make music and have it published somewhere. Getting it heard on the other hand, might be harder than ever. I used to take the approach of throwing the net really wide every year in hopes of finding interesting new music. Each year now however, I find myself using much more focus and even skipping over new stuff that doesn't grab me right away (to a fault sometimes). I also find my taste narrowing more than ever, where I am not even bothering with a lot of sub-genre stuff I used to like rap or metal etc anymore (again perhaps to a fault). Resultantly, as I go through the exercise of considering bands that I would consider my top 20 right now, I have never been more certain of my music taste.
In high school, as an aspiring music nerd, you want everyone to think you "listen to everything" and have very eclectic taste. It is endearingly forced and posed, like most things in high school. Now in my early 40s, I know what I like, I know it will continue to evolve, and mostly I know that music should always be forward looking. New artists will continue to make interesting music, regardless of how many people get to hear it. The internet has levelled the playing field among music nerds. Those of us who used to feel like we knew more about music than everyone in our little circles, now realize there is always someone out there who knows more. None of that ultimately matters of course, so long as you are enjoying music for your own genuine reasons.
Many people say most of the bands I listen to are pretty obscure. I have no real issues with highly popular "mainstream" music, other than I find the trend is a real lack of sincerity in the writing and craft right now. Most of the music I love these days, as evidenced by these 20 bands, is not obscure at all, but maybe is not splashed everywhere either. The hardcore indie music types would probably describe this list as safe and say my tastes as in fact "popular," something that would have annoyed me when I was younger. These days I make these lists for myself and for all the people who don't have the time or interest to go looking for new stuff (and ask me to).
The idea of "active bands" or "right now" came from thinking about bands I love like Radiohead, who still make new music, but without any level of regularity to their output. The bands I have chosen have made at least two albums or more, have released something new within the last couple years, and generally speaking put out something new every 1-2 years. Like with all my lists, they tend to be occasionally strange and rooted in traditional alternative rock, but always listenable, and yes...predominantly UK based. I attempted to put them in a ranking order, but at game time decided to go the random list route. Taste is subjective, and music lists are aplenty around the internet. It just so happens this list, is 100% accurate ;)
Easily my favourite band making music right now. You don't hear people say art rock as often these days, but the Beasts follow classic art rock inspiration a la Roxy Music and Bowie. Gorgeous and eclectic music that does not fit nicely on formatted playlists anywhere, but they also never place experimentation ahead of the core strength of the song.
Best album: Present Tense
I have heard this band (and a few others) described as math-pop. What I think it means, is there resides a complexity of time signatures not common to traditional 3-4 minute pop music, while never turning into full blow prog rock. One of the current wave of top tier Manchester bands, these guys write upbeat songs with lots of fun moving parts. Perhaps that is where the math comes in.
Best album: Out Of Touch, In The Wild
Another arty bunch from Manchester, leaning heavily on multi-part vocals and a really fascinating mix of cross genre influences. They seem to be getting reasonable attention in the UK, but still feel under that radar at large in North America. They also seem tired of hearing that their songs are too complex. Their songs are mostly just spectacular.
Best album: Man Alive
If this list was made just a few years earlier, Clinic would have made the cut, but in 2015 Suuns are likely the closest and next best thing. Montrealers who also very much bear the art rock tag proudly. They mix synth sounds wonderfully with airy guitars and random bits of controlled franticness.
Best Album: Images du Futur
On some days I would be happy to boldly call Local Natives the best band in the US, but two albums feels a bit light for that kind of hyperbole. Nonetheless, this is a special band with a talent for writing simple yet poignant songs that show their range from quirky to atmospheric and dreamy.
Best Album: Hummingbird
Bear In Heaven
I often see Bear In Heaven described as dark synth, which is not a stretch, but is not completely fair either. The Krautrock influence is evident, and there is an atmospheric theme through most of their material, but the songs clock in mostly under five minutes and hold their corners really well.
Best Album: I Love You, It's Cool
Four albums in now, Foals continue to evolve their sound. The production is tighter and the songs feel bigger than when they started, but the post-punk and new wave influences are still there, and the musicianship continues to be a focal point.
Best Album: Total Life Forever
Dum Dum Girls
These records have either been largely solo projects for Dee Dee, or made with other bandmates. Either way what is consistent is how she draws on 60s wall of sound influences while pulling in warm listenable reverb and as of late, a nice Bunnymen-esque aesthetic.
Best Album: Too True
A Vancouver band who have somewhat quietly become one of the best young bands in Canada. High quality guitar based indie pop, which recently has pulled in more synth and glam elements. The albums are warm and familiar without ever feeling too over thought.
Best Record: On Blonde
Dreamy and occasionally detached musically, with gorgeous emotionally engaged vocals. This Baltimore band centers around Jana Hunter, and the songs just keep getting stronger with each release.
Best Album: Escape From Evil
I was initially a passing fan of Tame Impala, unfairly relegating them to derivative psych band status. Chief songwriter, Kevin Parker, is actually a master of melody and is proving adept at using the studio in really fascinating ways. All four albums are completely different, and although it feels familiar, there is no one really quite doing what Tame Impala does right now. The hype is legit.
Best Album: Currents
Easily the most consistent band right now. They have never released an album that wasn't pure quality. Balancing the use of electronics and organic instrumentation, Hot Chip are the quintessential synth pop band of the last 10 years. They make fun and elegant music, seamlessly.
Best Album: Made In The Dark
No one makes jingle jangle guitar pop to get rich. They do it because they love how it sounds, and because it's virtually impossible to get it absolutely right. Army Navy write unabashed Brit Invasion influenced pop songs, that don't apologize for sounding familiar, and yet manage to sound completely fresh and now.
Best Album: The Last Place
If you go to the start, The Horrors catalogue would make them seem completely manic and unfocused. The debut is largely a garage record, and gradually the band has tightened up and leaned far more on bits of post-punk, psych, and even goth. Lots of Simple Minds and Bunnymen haunts on these songs, all done with masterful tightness and precision at this point. This is a band in a zone.
Best Album: Skying
Spoon have now been a band for 20 years, and they still continue to make interesting music that rivals any of the indie pop from the last 5-10 years. They tinker and layer brilliantly in the studio, without ever losing the handle on pop song structure. Every time you think Spoon might be slipping, they release another album full of signature songs that still manage to take them in yet another slightly different direction than the last.
Best Album: Kill The Moonlight
Most days I listen to all the Crocodiles albums and have a hard time thinking of them as anything other than a Jesus & Mary Chain cover band, which is of course not fair. The influence is obvious and I don't believe it is intended to even be a secret. The songs have become more accessible over the years, and there are not many bands currently making fuzzed out sugar sweet noise pop quite this well.
Best Album: Endless Flowers
They have made two great albums, and it still feels like Warpaint have infinite potential. They borrow bits of shoegaze and sneak in elements of funk, while being largely rooted in dreamy post-punk fundamentals. These songs swoon and sound of a band well capable beyond their years.
Best Album: Warpaint
It feels like the indie music landscape is cluttered right now with a hundred bands all trying to sound like Beach House, yet none of them actually sound like Beach House. All five of their albums carry an overarching sound of beautiful dreariness. Their songs swirl and float, but never end up on tangents. The compositions are lush, but not over produced or bogged down in unnecessary details.
Best Album: Teen Dream
Another studio solo type project that transformed into more of a full band. Telekinesis is on some level, text book Merge Records pop music. Hooks and melodies up front. The new album takes a slight detour in the synth pop direction, but with no less impact than previous records.
Best Album: 12 Desperate Straight Lines
An electronic band from Glasgow, who have quietly released five albums now since 2008. Because they are on Mogwai's label, they sometimes get lumped in with the post-rock acts, but there is a bit more going on here in my opinion. They began pulling in cool synth and beat elements a few years back, but the songs still mostly come in over 6 minutes and continue to sprawl and roll with undeniable nods to prog and jazz.
Best Album: Have Some Faith in Magic