There’s a lot of music out there and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. That’s where we come in. From Nashville to Portland to Sweden — we found the bands and artists you need to hear before they get big.
It seems clear that Diane Birch has spent a lot of time listening to Fleetwood Mac, but it’s actually Prince to whom she owes her biggest debt of gratitude. The Purple One himself heard Birch playing piano at a Los Angeles hotel and invited her back to his house to jam. It kickstarted a career that has seen Birch’s sound evolve from a warm-hearted ‘70’s rocker to that of a soulful torch singer with a rebel’s heart. The 30-year-old Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter just released her sophomore album, Speak a Little Louder, which shows off Birch’s beautiful voice, which, whether by nature or nurture, sounds a bit like Stevie Nicks.
Listen: “All the Love You Got”
Solange Knowles (who now goes by her first name — and, yes, she’s Beyoncé’s sister) has started up an indie music label. The first album from Saint Records is the 12-track compilation Saint Heron which features a slowburning, sex-fueled jam called “Up All Night,” by Los Angeles singer Kelela. The track was briefly teased on Kelela’s Cut 4 Me mixtape, where it stood out even among the other forward-thinking dance tracks. Kelela has a sound that is heavily influenced by ‘90s-era R&B. “I would like to do Brandy but weirder,” she told FACT, and she pulls it off beautifully on her perfectly produced songs.
Listen: “Go All Night”
While Drowners may be Brooklyn-based, they are unabashedly Brit-pop in flavor, even taking their name from a Suede song. (They’re not all Yanks though, as lead singer Matt Hitt is a native of South Wales.) While the band is a recent signee to the Frenchkiss label — and have yet to release a full-length album — their singles reflect a playful, poppy garage-rock sensibility with a retro vibe and summery feel — think: Arctic Monkeys or The Strokes. While their debut LP drops January 28th, the tracks are sure to be in heavy rotation with the return of warm weather.
Listen: “Luv Me Hold Me Down”
Caitlin Rose has a voice that recalls some of the country greats who no longer need last names, women like Loretta and Patsy and Lucinda. Her songs have a modern woman’s bent filled with unsentimental and complicated emotions. It’s a skill she undoubtedly honed with help from her mother, Liz Rose, who has helped pen more than a dozen songs for Taylor Swift, including the Grammy-nominated “You Belong With Me.” But Caitlin Rose is making a name for herself with an effortlessly precise voice, an indie-rocker’s ease and a country-singer’s way with words. Her song “Waitin’,” off of her sophomore album, The Stand-In, was recently featured on ABC’s hit drama Nashville.
Chance the Rapper
On his latest release, Dedication 5, Lil Wayne was shown up by a Chicago teenager known as Chance the Rapper. That probably came as no surprise to anyone who heard his debut mixtape, Acid Rap, which is available as a free download. The mixtape shows a prodigious emcee with a real talent for pairing eloquent rhymes with psychedelic, jazzy tunes — a skill that’s earned him some big-name fans who sent the up-and-comer out on tours with Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. This may have been a big year for Chance (born Chancellor Bennett) — but 2014 is shaping up to be even bigger.
Portland, Oregon’s Wild Ones know how to craft an album. Their debut LP, Keep It Safe, released last July, is filled with impeccable arrangements and a mature pop sensibility that hits you from the first note. The songs are anchored by Danielle Sullivan’s distinct voice, which brings to mind both The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan and Harriet Wheeler from The Sundays. Her mesmerizing vocal melodies work well with the inventive synthesizer compositions of Thomas Himes — fused with supple guitar and bass work you get a grandiose and melancholy pop sound that is both novel and retro, innovative and comfortable.
Listen: “Golden Twin”
Minneapolis rapper/singer Lizzo’s just-released debut album, LIZZOBANGERS, is packed with impossible rhymes and serious hooks — all played out in a 40-minute frenzy. The inventive, quirky rapper — who has a slew of guest appearances under her belt — learned her chops in church and with the Twin Cities hip-hop collective The Chalice. The album features beats crafted by Doomtree Collective’s Lazerbeak — all under the watchful eye of Ryan Olson, who has worked with indie outfits like Gayngs and Poliça. An inventive and outside-the-box emcee, Lizzo is signed, fittingly, to Totally Gross National Product, a label whose roster is curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.
Listen: “Batches and Cookies”
This Australian-born, New York-based pop singer released her upbeat debut EP, The Movement, last April. Since then, the 22-year-old — born Jessica Newham — has worked tirelessly to get her catchy melodies stuck in everyone’s heads. It was only after her improbably peppy song “Somebody Loves You” was featured in a proposal video that went viral (over 10 million views and counting!) that record labels came calling. Who will soon join a roster of RCA artists that includes heavyweights like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson. Her second EP is due out in early 2014.
Listen: “Somebody Loves You”
Over the years, Incan Abraham, a fixture of LA’s indie scene, have released a steady stream of confident psychedelic-pop EPs. They are now preparing to release their first full-length album on LA’s White Iris Records. In previous works, the band managed to infuse their psychedelic synth pop with a global beat, crafting grooves that swing between Laurel Canyon and Animal Collective, with a stopover in the Sahara to hang with Tinariwen. A full album can only make the trip longer.
Over the past several years. this singer-songwriter has been making memorable music that’s hasn’t made waves outside his hometown of Minneapolis — but that’s all about to change. With four albums already under his belt, Messersmith has signed to Glassnote Records, home to such artists as Mumford & Sons, Phoenix, and Childish Gambino. If any label knows how to get an ambient-folk-singer–turned–power-pop-crooner on the radio, it’s them. His new album isn’t due until early 2014, but if the first track, “Tourniquet,” is any indication, it will be filled with smart songs that show off Messersmith’s incredible voice.
La La Brooks
While currently operating under the radar, Ms. Brooks is no newcomer. As a member of The Crystals, the Phil Spector-produced Sixties girl group, Brooks has had a long and storied career. Now, fifty years after “Da Doo Ron Ron,” became a smash hit, Brooks is stepping back into the spotlight with her debut solo album, All or Nothing, released last month on Norton Records. The album features 14 resplendent tracks — originals and covers — with enough of a hard=rocking edge to show that Brooks can still sing with the best of them.
Listen: “What’s Mine is Yours”
Electronic producer Mike Silver, who performs as CFCF, makes contemporary electronic music that is steeped in an ‘80s rock sensibility. Think Peter Gabriel meets latter-day Brian Eno. It’s a sound that has developed slowly from CFCF’s debut album Continent, which came out in 2009, and through a series of consistently solid EPs, the best of which is the beat-heavy Exercises. His latest release, the full-length Outside, features tracks that vacillate between ambient soundscapes, trance-like contemplative numbers and raucous rockers set to an unexpected marimba beat.
Listen: “Beyond Light”
Willis Earl Beal
Willis Earl Beal recorded his debut album, last year’s Acousmatic Sorcery, on a karaoke machine, creating songs that were heartbreaking, beautiful and extremely lo-fi. The sound worked well with his story: A Chicago-born vet who found himself on the streets of New Mexico, desperate, lonely and occasionally homeless, leaving demo CDs in public places. Hot on the heels of the release of his second full-length album, Nobody Knows, which came out Sept. 10, he has already released two new songs.
Listen: “Too Dry To Cry”
Scandinavia has been top of the pop game for a long time now and NONONO is no exception. The Swedish threesome of lead singer Stina Wappling, and production duo Astma & Rocwel released their debut US EP in September and based on the omnipresence of their anthemic single “Pumpin Blood,” we’ll all be welcoming our new pop overlords by the time their full album comes out in early 2014.
Listen: “Pumpin Blood”