We lost David Bowie and wept. Then Prince passed away and we couldn’t imagine how it could get any worse. And then we said goodbye to Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, John Berry of the Beastie Boys, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, Leon Russell, Vanity, George Michael, and DEAR GOD SOMEONE UNPLUG 2016 BEFORE IT CLAIMS US ALL.
In the midst of so much heartbreak in the music industry, a creative zeitgeist also occurred. Queer singers and songwriters are producing some inspiring new music during this troubling time of political distrust and slanderous—sometimes violent—backlash against LGBTQ Americans.
This “rainbow renaissance” is a beacon of hope for many, perhaps especially young sexual minorities who don’t yet have a sturdy support network. Here are the year’s top 20 queer artists and the brilliant new music they released to excite, titillate, grieve, groove, and awaken.
Highlight: Falling for You
Releasing the single “Falling for You” on August 1st of this year, Lyon Hart has instantly become a songwriter to watch. Vivid harmonies, effortless falsetto, and a spectacularly choreographed video have turned this single into a gay boy’s emotional happy meal.
Highlight: Hang out with You
Most famous for the catchy “she keeps me warm” hook she contributed to Macklemore’s marriage equality anthem “Same Love,” Lambert is a Seattle local and songwriting gem who uses her musical platform for bettering the rights of—and attitudes toward—the world’s queer population. Plus, who doesn’t love a feel-good video about spending the day with a golden retriever?
Highlight: Can’t Fight It
A former American Idol contestant, Owen simultaneously released this debut single and came out to the public on February 12th this year. We’ve been sopping wet ever since. With shades of Miguel, Jussie Smollett, and Betty Who, Owen’s buttery voice is a welcome treat for a sexy evening. (And come on. Those lips. Jesus.)
The punk rock band released their new studio album Shape Shift with Me on September 16th, showcasing the growling guitar-fueled follow-up to their successful Transgender Dysphoria Blues album released in 2014. While Against Me! may be best known for the single “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” they’ve got an upbeat-yet-angsty punk anthem in “333,” the video for which stars lesbian icon Natasha Lyonne.
Years and Years
Years and Years exploded last year with the quirky video “Desire” featuring Tove Lo, and is riding the comet tail of success with their new single “Meteorite,” featured on the “Bridget Jones’s Baby” soundtrack. Olly Alexander’s sequined backless ice dancing costume is the perfect gift for the sugarplum fairy in your life.
Highlight: The Big Big Beat
While Banks is infamous for petty Twitter battles and publicized altercations in which she shouts the slur “faggot” on several occasions, she is inarguably a rap prodigy. Think the bisexual female version of Kanye West with a little less ego and a lot more rage. Many former fans now refuse to support her music after her unapologetic use of homophobic language, and this has certainly affected Banks’ career. But she continues to remain in the conversation long after releasing her most popular hit “212” in 2012.
This year, the YouTube sensation and former Disney star released a deeply personal hour-long video album, Straight Outta Oz. The storybook project includes similar melancholy, grit, soulful vocals, and artistic cinematography found in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but with more whimsy (featured in the Drag Race star-studded video “Expensive”) and a distinct milieu commonly shared among young gay men (as shown in the heartbreaking track “Over the Rainbow.”) The album boasts partnerships with Bob the Drag Queen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jordin Sparks, The Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, Amber Riley of Glee, and more queer-beloved icons. An incredible dancer, a breathtaking singer, and a skilled actor, Hall is literally one of the most talented men alive.
Highlight: A Woman’s Face: Sonnet 20
Wainwright developed the brilliant conceptual album Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, released April 22nd of this year. A veritable triumph for his long career of musical genius and his resonant laser beam voice, the album includes diverse sung versions of The Bard’s sonnets, punctuated by spoken word tracks from actors like Carrie Fisher and William Shatner reading other sonnets aloud. Wainwright’s track featuring Florence Welch (“When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes: Sonnet 29”) is inspiringly light and beautifully composed, while “A Woman’s Face” remains Wainwright’s clear standout for the album.
Highlight: High School Never Ends
Blanco has performed with a variety of pronouns throughout their career, but Blanco’s music is consistently incredible. Their self-titled album Mykki brings us the filthy deep beat track “The Plug Won’t,” while “Loner,” featuring Jean Deaux, gives equal parts catchy swag and a poignant critique on isolation despite millions of social media followers and fans. But most epic of all is the track “High School Never Ends,” rendered by a graphically violent and hauntingly beautiful video depicting the love between a trans woman of color and a neo-nazi skinhead, opening with a German translation of a famous Shakespearean line from Romeo and Juliet. Perfectly timed for 2016’s divided America and the raging battle between marginalized peoples and the white supremacists who would hold us down.
Highlight: What Makes a Man
Starring in George Takei’s acclaimed musical “Allegiance” about a Japanese American family imprisoned in an internment camp during WWII, Leung shines as a multitalented performer who uses his platform for meaningful social commentary. The Broadway soundtrack, released January 29th of this year, includes Leung’s dramatic and gripping renditions of original music for the stage. If his gorgeous face wasn’t enough to make you swoon, his incredible back-row voice will finish the job.
Cakes Da Killa
Highlight: New Phone (Who Dis)
Literally every single track on Cakes’ new album Hedonism is fantastic, with notable standouts including “Up out My Face” and “New Phone.” Channeling Rye Rye’s coy rap eccentricity and the deep pocket groove of Ludacris with Twista’s crazy-fast articulation, Cakes is the queer hip hop legend we’ve been waiting for.
Highlight: Pink + White
Ocean’s Blonde is arguably one of the best records of 2016. Period. It pairs best with introspection, a steady pot vape, and chill company. While the lyrics of the track “Good Guy” reinforce his love affairs with men, the R&B musical standout is “Pink + White” featuring a secret backup vocal from Beyoncé.
The queer lead singer of Neon Trees has set out on a solo career this year with his first album Excommunication, so named after his forced expulsion from the Mormon Church for being gay. The emotional powerhouse “Midnight” provides a dual glimpse of a relationship torn asunder and an existential crisis of faith, featuring a vocal performance reminiscent of Freddie Mercury’s powerful musical phrasing met with a smoky contemporary tone.
Highlight: High Enough
Lowell’s new EP album Part 1: Paris YK is raw, dark, and evocative. An openly bisexual Canadian and creative force who has collaborated with Icona Pop and Grandtheft, she’s everything you want to be. Her song “High Enough” energetically rides a refreshing wave of goth-esque electro pop.
Highlight: The Love Within
Including this feel-good tune, Bloc Party’s album Hymns offers elevating, upbeat tracks that will surely be remixed in queer dance clubs everywhere. The band’s lead singer Kele Okereke has released incredible collections of solo work in past years, breaking off from the band’s peppy rock beats and experimenting with a darker shade of electro. Timeless talent.
Highlight: Look Away
Pairing up with Eli Lieb, Grand recorded the gay answer to Christina Aguilera’s duet with A Great Big World, “Say Something.” The gay country/pop crossover has stolen the hearts of white gay men and their mothers across America, and while his brand may border on vanilla (when he’s not modeling swimwear), Grand is a truly powerful singer and magnetic performer. More! More!
With media attention focused on the eclipse that is Nicki Minaj, female rappers have an uphill climb in the industry to get their albums sold and their concerts attended, but Angel Haze’s deft delivery, thought-provoking lyrics, and smooth singing voice laud her as an incredible talent to watch. This new single of hers is a veritable grenade.
Highlight: Bad 4 Us
The vlog partnership between best friends Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi has led to the duo’s breakaway debut from their hugely successful acapella group Pentatonix. With a cute pop hit like “Bad 4 Us,” these insanely gifted vocalists and YouTube megastars are destined for a blossoming musical career as Superfruit.
Bright Light Bright Light
Highlight: Symmetry of Two Hearts
Welsh musician Bright Light Bright Light (Rod Thomas) released the album Choreography on July 15th this year, which featured vocal contributions from Elton John, Mykal Kilgore, Alan Cumming, and Scissor Sisters alumni Jake Shears and Ana Matronic. (BUT IS IT GAY ENOUGH!?) Then, because he must be a masochist for the recording studio, he released a follow-up EP cover album called Cinematography—a compilation of famous movie soundtrack songs—on November 25th. Bright Light Bright Light is a striking poet with a quiet charisma. His matured lyrics are given the spotlight with his pure voice and simple stylings, whether it’s on peppy songs like “Symmetry of Two Hearts” or his tear-inducing rendition of “Wicked Little Town” from the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Highlight: The Greatest
This Is Acting marks Sia’s 7th complete studio album, including this heart-wrenching tribute video to the victims of the Pulse massacre that occurred this past June. With additional empowering songs like “Alive” and “Cheap Thrills,” Sia continues to soar as an essential, cherished songwriter of our time.
And there you have it, 20 of the year’s most prolific queer music artists. Support LGBTQ talent by checking out these musicians’ YouTube pages, streaming them on Spotify, purchasing their songs, and/or hitting up their next concert in your area!
Interested in the queer Seattle music scene specifically? Check out Sam Chapman’s video featuring the best LGBTQ music by local artists in 2016.
Who’s your favorite queer musician of the year? Let us know in the comments or on social media!