Bon Iver, Frank Ocean and … Shania Twain? Here are the most influential artists in music today

To mark Bon Iver’s reissue of his super-influential debut, Guardian music writers make the case for the musicians they think have had the biggest sway on music right now

● Paloma Faith, Wolf Alice, Slipknot and more pick their own biggest influence

Bon Iver

In 2006, Justin Vernon headed to a remote Wisconsin cabin – presumably in a flannel shirt – and recorded his album For Emma, Forever Ago. With an anniversary edition out now and Vernon installed in an eight-night London concert residency, it is an apt time to take stock of its influence: a beautiful album that has become the benchmark for rootsy millennial heartache.

Some of its influence is obvious: Skinny Love, covered by Birdy then countless contestants on X Factor and American Idol; the subsequent creative partnership between Vernon and Kanye West. But more broadly, the rural disconnection of its creation bestowed the album with a mythic authenticity: along with craft beer, full beards and Field Notes notebooks, it became a fetish object for the hopelessly interconnected urbanite, showing a world where emotional turmoil was wound into the land itself. However unwittingly, For Emma became the ur-text for the artists you find on Spotify playlists called things like Boho + Chil and License to Chill: soulful white blokes such as James Vincent McMorrow, Ben Howard, Lord Huron and Kaleo.

He continues to resonate – memesmiths joked “listens to Bon Iver once” after Justin Timberlake announced his Man of the Woods album, even though Vernon has since switched up his aesthetic from the wooden cabin to the biomorphic pod of his newer electronic work. For Emma might feel for ever ago to Vernon, but it still remains in the cultural here and now. BB-T

Click here to watch Skinny Love by Bon Iver.

Shania Twain

You can assess influence by listening to beats in clubs, or bands in bars, but that is vanity, really. The true extent of influence is not in how a particular sound touches the outer margins of music, acclaimed by the congnoscenti, but in how deep it penetrates the most popular music. That is why the Beatles are the most influential group ever, and why Shania Twain is a colossally important figure in modern music.

Country music purists bemoan the current state of the genre, which they lament for having little to do with Hank Williams. But the stuff that sells copies and fills stadiums – even if doesn’t sound much like Shania, one of those artists who has crossed over to first-name status – owes her a colossal debt. Today’s biggest country star Luke Bryan may not even write about the same things as her, yet Shania opened the door for country to be genetically spliced with whatever else was popular.

In company with her then husband, producer and songwriting partner Robert John “Mutt” Lange – who had helped AC/DC and Def Leppard to international superstardom – Shania decountrified country on the albums Come on Over and Up!, putting out different versions for different markets. She wanted her music bought not just by country fans, but also pop fans. And you hear those lessons not just in bro country, but in Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and in the biggest pop star of the modern age, Taylor Swift. Shania Twain may not be the power she once was, but she is still everywhere. That’s influence. MH

Click here to watch Shania’s Man I Feel Like a Woman.

Frank Ocean

It is a sign of the scale of Frank Ocean’s influence that even former rockabilly revivalist Jack Peñate has ripped him off, when he recently announced his return with a mysterious, 19-minute-long mix and arthouse footage of him toiling away in a garage. It was a retelling of Ocean’s Endless, a video project and amuse bouche prior to the release of Blonde. For a generation of artists, that album’s melodic scope and complexity declared that music was no longer in a nostalgia loop.

Since he emerged in 2011, Ocean’s experimental and psychedelic take on R&B, jazz, soul and rap has paved the way for the likes of Khalid, Kevin Abstract, Berhana, Daniel Caesar, Bryson Tiller, Childish Gambino, Hare Squead, SZA, Noname and Jamila Woods. But it has always been reductive to suggest that he exists within these genres. His influence on indie musicians – most recently Rex Orange County, Jamie Isaacs or, well, Jack Peñate – has been huge. You get the feeling that for Generation Z, he has become more of an artistic deity than Alex Turner will ever be.

Even the biggest stars have not gone untouched by Ocean’s influence. His uncompromising attitude – not submitting his music to the Grammys, releasing his music without the support of a major label – has readjusted the minds of Drake and Kanye, who have followed suit, while Rihanna’s fuzzy soul jam James Joint could have been lifted from Channel Orange. Meanwhile, Beyoncé, for whom Ocean wrote I Miss You in 2012, has fully embraced his off-kilter melancholy mood. Rather than intimidating listeners, he has forced everyone to catch up with him. HG

Click here to hear Lens by Frank Ocean.

Nils Frahm

If we learned anything from last year’s disputed story about Spotify filling their playlists with tracks by “fake” artists – musicians and producers allegedly paid a flat fee by the streaming service to make music to order – it was that umpteen people around the world listen to music that sounds not unlike that made by Nils Frahm. His distinctive combination of non-rock piano instrumentals and ambient electronics is to the 21st-century equivalent of chill-out music what Massive Attack were to the 90s variety: an overwhelming influence, endlessly imitated with varying degrees of ingenuity. Some of the artists who have appeared in his wake have latched on to the arty, esoteric side of what Frahm does – British duo Dead Light deal in treated pianos and icy atmospherics – but most don’t, offering a reductive take on Frahm’s sound that diminishes it to something pleasant but anonymous; or, as the Spotify playlist title puts it, Piano in the Background. Millions and millions of people have played the tracks on such lists. Regardless of whether they have heard of Frahm or not, music inspired by him forms part of the soundtrack to their lives, albeit as unobtrusively as possible. AP

Click here to watch Says by Nils Frahm.

Teedra Moses

New Orleans-born R&B sage Teedra Moses released her debut album, Complex Simplicity, in 2004 to a mild commercial reception – and then took 11 years to follow it up, having mostly opted out of the music industry to raise her sons. This didn’t stop Moses from becoming a revered cult figure, the kind whose audiences a decade on still breathe every ad lib of her songs, which hit a rare midpoint between evocative poetry and no-chaser real talk, delivered with startling clarity over arrangements that draw on frosty modernity as much as warm throwback soul. Her influence was felt as far away as the UK funky scene of the late 00s; bootlegged Moses remixes were staples of DJ sets and the biggest star to emerge from it, Katy B, has taken every chance to laud Moses. These days, from Kehlani to SZA, Moses’s thoughtful singer-songwriterly R&B is in vogue; the carefully casual way younger, newer artists dissect human interaction was forged by her. AM

Click here to watch Be Your Girl by Teedra Moses.

The xx

What is most remarkable about the xx’s sonic legacy – the capacious production, the breathy, wounded vocals and snappy beats that occupy a liminal zone between electronica, indie and R&B – is the sheer scope of their influence. Initially, the London band’s impact was easily traceable, either via sampling (Rihanna nicked Intro’s throbbing synths for Drunk on Love, while Jamie xx and Gil-Scott Heron’s I’ll Take Care of U formed the basis of Drake’s 2011 mega-hit Take Care) or in the output of their immediate peers – the trio’s skin-crawlingly intimate vocals and brooding minimalism set the tone for the next generation of avant-garde UK pop, from FKA twigs and James Blake to Jessie Ware and London Grammar.

Yet the past decade has seen the xx’s influence reverberate, increasingly loudly, in a less predictable sphere: that of corporate, hugely lucrative, pop. Massive acts such as the Chainsmokers, Selena Gomez and Shawn Mendes are the most obviously indebted, but it is also true that every sparsely furnished, hauntingly atmospheric hit that blurs the boundaries between pop, rock and R&B (which, in 2017, felt like pretty much all of them) owes a significant amount to the xx’s genre-bending melancholia. RA

Click here to watch Islands by the xx.


Afro-swing, afro bashment, afro-hop, afro-trap: whatever you call it, Timbo started it. In UK rap and grime, genres previously dominated by Caribbean influence, he introduced the sweet fusion of Afrobeats, bashment and British grit that artists such as Kojo Funds and J Hus are now well known for. His distinct sound on STP’s 2013 Mixtape 2 helped launch the genre, while songs such as Ringtone, Ladie and Living Life (featuring Stormzy) from the same year were well ahead of their time. Even Naira Marley ft Max Twigz’s Marry Juana, sometimes credited as the catalyst of the hybrid sound, uses a beat that Timbo had rap-sung more than a year before on Happy Times. On Twitter, his display name is currently #WhereIsTimbo. The answer is simple: all over UK rap. YA

Click here to listen to Listen Life by Timbo ft Stormzy.

Nitzer Ebb

Nitzer Ebb emerged from suburban Essex in the early 80s clad in white shorts, stern haircuts and armed with libidinous, awkwardly English songs about the human body and sex. Once overlooked, recent years have seen dancefloors from Hull to Berlin’s Berghain shake to Join in the Chant and Murderous as the likes of Helena Hauff, Objekt, Perc and Optimo’s JD Twitch have used the brutal functionality of the Essex group’s pop to juddering effect. Nitzer Ebb ascribed to the essentialist musical theory that all you need for a great song is a killer bassline, a sniff of melody and some ribald lyrics about shagging; this minimalist approach is what has left them so suited for dropping in amid some 140bpm techno. It is interesting, too, that many of the producers who have championed them over the years, such as Karl O’Connor AKA Regis, are those who eschew the dry facelessness of much electronic music in favour of injecting a theatrical whiff of greasepaint and drama. LT

Click here to watch Murderous by Nitzer Ebb.

Bikini Kill

Kathleen Hanna’s Olympia, Washington feminist punk band crashed into the British music press in the early 90s, declaring, “Revolution Girl Style Now!” They railed against the rock scene as a male construct, confronted sexism and urged women in music to force change and revolution. Back then, they were adored or vilified, even physically assaulted. Fast-forward to today and what were underground manifestos have triggered a wave of empowerment, firing up generations of female musicians. Echoes of Bikini Kill’s ideology can be found in such international and musically diverse acts as Beyoncé, the Gossip, South Korean punks the Twistettes and British sensations Wolf Alice (notably their abrasively furious Yuk Foo). Bikini Kill’s influence is perhaps most pronounced in Moscow-based feminist art collective Pussy Riot, who – because of the Russian political climate and way band members have been imprisoned for protesting – Hanna acknowledges as “way more dangerous”. DS

Click here to watch a trailer for The Punk Singer about Kathleen Hana of Bikini Kill.


When it comes to the current grab-bag of electronic, pop and hip-hop greasing mainstream music, much of it glints with Diplo’s Midas touch. He has been savvily curating underground sounds since 2003, whether nudging the likes of Brazilian baile funk, Baltimore club and New Orleans bounce overground via his Mad Decent label, or showcasing his cherry-picking production on MIA’s 2007 catherine wheel of genres, Kala. His magpie eye has come to define the intersection of pop and dance ever since. He helped popularise US EDM and its sledgehammer-subtle pairing of giddy drop and juddering bass; he borrowed reggaeton’s dembow beat and a wonky flute sample to spearhead the latest chart craze dubbed “tropical house”, with his Jack Ü collaborator Skrillex; and with Major Lazer he has turned it all into a stadium-filling performance, laying the groundwork for enormo pop-dance acts such as the Chainsmokers. He may get called out for his liberal pilfering of Caribbean stylings, but without Diplo, chart music would be a lot less adventurous. As he recently told the New Yorker: “Culture is meant to be fused. That’s how culture moves.” KH

Click here to listen to Get it Right by Diplo ft Mø.


Yomi Adegoke, Rachel Aroesti, Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Harriet Gibsone, Michael Hann, Kate Hutchinson, Alex Macpherson, Alexis Petridis, Dave Simpson, Luke Turner

The GuardianTramp

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