We love new tech, fancy gadgetry and video games, but right now it feels out of place to speak about consumer electronics as if nothing is happening. We are at war, our homes are getting shelled, and we work fearing for our lives. That’s why it feels even more pertinent than ever to keep talking about all things Ukrainian: what is happening right now and why the we feel like Ukrainian culture deserves not only to be preserved, but also celebrated. Ukraine is not an afterthought of an evil empire, but a independent and proud country with long history of literary heroes and musical geniuses. Some artists have become known all around the world. Some compositions are so iconic, you’d never even think that they came from Ukraine (for example, you surely know Carol of the Bells, a famous Christmas carol written by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914). It’s a country where even the language is made for singing, and today we are remembering some of the biggest and baddest Ukrainian artists out there.
Океан Ельзи (Okean Elzy)
It all starts with Okean Elzy. How can it be otherwise? Formed in 1994 in Lviv, the band has been known for many things, like Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s distinctive voice, romantic lyrics and bombastic melodies. It is probably the most successful band to come out of Ukraine, with more than 7 hit albums.
The members of the band have always been changing, but the ever-present Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is the one who keeps it all going. Politically active musician can often be seen debating the latest laws on TV, and he knows what he’s saying, being the son if a former Minister of Education and Science. He knows Ukrainian, Russian, English and Polish languages. He has a successful solo career, and a couple of awards to his name. He’s not all words, too: when Russia invaded his country, he joined the territorial defence battalion. He made it his goal to make people’s lives better even while the bombs fly, taking part in impromptu concerts in the Kyiv underground.
This band is known to gather huge crowds — there isn’t a stadium in Europe they can’t fill. When discovering the band, we suggest you try such albums as Суперсиметрія, Gloria and Модель. And when it comes to Vakarchuk’s solo works, we suggest the jazzy Вночі and the poppy Брюссель.
Воплі Відоплясова (Vopli Vidopliassova)
Don’t get scared by the name, which even the Ukrainians prefer to shorten to VV. Vopli Vidopliassova is one of the most iconic post-soviet bands there are, going strong since 1986. It’s another band that survives thanks to its legendary founder, Oleh Skrypka, known for his antics, instantly recognisable voice and more than liberal use of the Ukrainian language, as well as his ability to play almost anything, from bayan, guitar, and saxophone to trumpet and keyboards. The band’s genre is hard to pin down: it can be both folky, funky, punky and poppy. They know to to be heavy, too, and tried most of the genres there are.
Their most famous album is probably Музіка, featuring Весна — the most known song from the band. Listen to it here:
And now for something that’s easier to pronounce: Esthetic Education was an English-singing band from Kyiv. Right from the start it was a truly international project, combining the forces of Yuriy Khustochka and Dmytro Shurov of Okean Elzy fame and Louis Franck, a Belgian producer and photograph who was then residing in London. The result: probably the most underrated band in Ukraine, if not the whole of Europe.
Even though the band only has two albums, those two deserve your attention, especially Werewolf. It might not be a behemoth like the first two bands in our list, but we urge you to give them a shot.
Mad Heads XL
We couldn have found someone more well-known or even more influential (Плач Єремії come to mind), but this is not the ultimate list of every single worthy Ukrainian artist, but simply recommendation of someone who spent quite a lot of time looking for great music. And while Mad Heads XL (oftentimes written simply as Mad Heads) aren’t as renowned as many others, they deserve their place on the list for one big reason: they are amazing at bringing classic Ukrainian folk motives to modern audience.
Mad Heads XL are believed to be Ukraine’s first rockabilly and psychobilly band. But mostly they perform ska punk, meaning they love using contrabasses, trombones, tubas and, of course, guitars. They are also masters of humorous lyrics which they first sang in English, and then, finding more success in their own country, in Ukrainian. The leader is the one and only Vadym Kranooky (reads Krasnoh-ohky) whose charisma and linguistic excellence have been driving the band forward since 2003.
I’m not much of a ska enthusiast, but I became addicted to the bands strong melodies based on famous folk songs. Ukraine has a huge library of folk songs, and Mad Heads XL have been transforming old classics into new hits for years now. If you want to hear rocky classics 300 years in the making, don’t miss УкраїнSKA — the third Mad Heads XL album that includes a bunch of folk songs in new renditions. Надія є is also great for those looking for epic Ukrainian ska.
I’m going to sound overly enthusiastic and biased here, but hear me out: 5’nizza is actually one of the most creative and unique musical projects in Europe. Have you heard about them? Probably no. But that has to change.
There are some bands that defy definition. Their genre is such a juxtaposition of music styles that the only way you can describe them is “just listen to it.” That’s 5’nizza. They are weird and unique.
It’s a project by Serhii Babkin, a musician from Kharkiv. He sings mostly (but not exclusively) in Russian, and their debut album Пятница (Pyatnitsa, “Friday” in Russian, the band’s name also means Friday) consists of acoustic songs that combine such genres as reggae, ska, funk, blues, rock and hip hop with very strong lyrics and use of beatboxing and acoustic guitar.
While I immensely respect all of above-mentioned artists, none of them compare to 5’nizza in terms of sheer innovation. They only have 3 albums since 2003, and their debut is considered the best.
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There are a few things that distinguish the album. First, the lyrics. They really are impossible to translate due to peculiar ways of Babkin’s delivery, as well multiple post-Soviet cultural references. But overall the tone is melancholic, resembling partly mad ramblings of a drunkard. Babkin and Andrii Zaporozhets — the only other member of the band — sing about war, soldiering (the song Солдат (Soldier) has became a cult hit among Ukrainian and Russian draftees, which sounds sadly ironic now, when the countries which culturally share so much are so divided), and cynical way of living. Most citizens of Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Belarus and other ruins of the USSR have a certain suicidal fatality to their thinking, and Babkin’s sad reggae hits close to home.
I am a soldier, a premature child of war,
I am a soldier, Mother heal my wounds.
I am a soldier, a soldier of a God-forsaken country,
I’m a hero, tell me of what novel.
5’nizza debuted with a very restrained and minimalistic album with almost no instruments safe for a guitar. Beatboxing, very trendy back in the day, serves as percussion. The certain “cheapness” might be explained by a fact that most of the songs had been written even before the debut, for Unplugged, the unofficial CD that had been recorded in 2002 for only $30, without overdubs. Partly it’s the fact that the latter albums have a more studio quality to it that has made the debut so beloved. While the artists themselves might think of that style as tired, for the fans it’s what defines 5’nizza in the end.
Бумбокс is a Ukrainian funk, hip-hop and rock band. It was formed in 2004 in Kyiv by Andrey Khlyvnyuk and Andrey Samoilo. The band’s songs are performed in Ukrainian, but there are also Russian- and English-language tracks.
What makes them stand out? Well, they are as funk as humanly possible, and then some. For a few years, Бумбокс have been the biggest hit-makers in Ukraine. Their style can be described as a mixture of funk, pop, rock, reggae, and rap. Their lyrics are their another strong suit, which is common for many Ukrainian artists, who use the famously sleek language as a powerful weapon.
We suggest you try Family Бізнес and and III — those are quite popular albums.
Один в каное (Odyn v kanoe)
Now to something chiller. If you like indie folk with beautiful melodies you will surely fall in love with Один в каное — one of the best folk bands in Ukraine. The creation of Irina Shvaydak (vocals), Ustim Pokhmursky (guitar) and Igor Dzikovsky (drums), the band took the country by storm with only one album (until the long-awaited second self-titled record was released in 2021).
Один в каное dates back to 2010 in Lviv, when the creator of the band gathered 7-8 hitherto unfamiliar people for joint rehearsals (none of whom was a professional musician). The band played diverse music and consisted of three vocalists. The composition of the group has changed several times during the year, and finally Irina Shvaydak and guitarist Ustim Pokhmursky decided to secede. Subsequently, Elena Davydenko (drums and percussion) joined them, after which the new team was finally formed.
The band has only two albums, and we suggest you listen to them both.
What do you think about the cardiowave genre? What, you haven’t heard of it? Well, that’s because Flëur was the first band to ever record cardiowave music, and to this day their sounds remains unique.
Flëur consisted of two main elements — Olga Pulatova and Elena Voynarovskaya. Together they created a band that played music that can be described as a mix of etherial, darkwave, neoclassical, dream pop, and baroque pop genres. Their music is ephemeral, light and dreamy. It’s a truly unique project both for Ukraine and Europe. By the way, all albums retain an alternation of songs written and performed by Pulatova and Voinarovskaya, and each album includes an even number of songs – equally from each performer.
Unlike most of the artists in our list, Flëur perform strictly in Russian, which is widely used in their home city of Odesa.
Let’s talk about something fresher. While this list has a lot of legendary artists, not all of them are popular among the youth — or international audience. Go_a is the latest musical sensation to come from Ukraine, being selected for Eurovision 2021 where they placed fifth in the final. Even though they didn’t win, their song Shum became an international hit, and back home people went absolutely crazy for it.
The band was founded by Taras Shevchenko. Since its inception, the composition of the group has changed 14 times. Go_A musicians come from different parts of Ukraine: Katerina Pavlenko is from Nizhyn, Taras Shevchenko is from Kyiv, Igor Didenchuk is from Lutsk, and Ivan Grigoryak is from Bukovina.
Everyone except Didenchuk used to play hard rock. Katerina Pavlenko also works as the head of the veterans’ choir, and Shevchenko was in a rap group, while Didenchuk plays more than 30 musical instruments. The band combines Ukrainian authentic vocals, modern dance beats, African drums and guitar drive.
Being a part of the “folktronica” craze that has swept Ukraine’s music scene in the recent years, Go_a is probably the most distinctive artist in the genre. For them it’s important to both feel Ukrainian and stay modern, combining classical elements and trendy techno sound. ONUKA is another such project that deserves attention.
The track Shum itself is based on a traditional vesnianka — a traditional spring dance song. In early June 2021, the song was among the hundred most popular songs in the United States and reached number 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This was the first time in the history of Ukraine that a Ukrainian-language song reached world popularity and entered this chart.
Another young band with trendy folktronic sound, KAZKA are not just popular — they are insanely popular both in Ukraine and many other counties. They were the first Ukrainian-language band to enter the SHAZAM world chart and are still a record holder among Ukrainian artists on YouTube.
The success of the group was brought by the song Plakala, which broke several records among songs in the CIS. KAZKA became the first group in the CIS to take eighth place in all categories and third place in the “pop” category in the world in one of the most prestigious world charts TOP 10 Global Shazam. KAZKA became the absolute record holder among Ukrainian artists in terms of the number of views and entered the TOP 100 best clips on YouTube. The video for the song was the first Ukrainian-language video to attract more than 400 million views on YouTube.
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