In 2015, Alessia Cara and Shawn Mendes went from social media celebs to traditional stars, Fetty Wap scored three Billboard Top 10 singles and Chris Stapleton had a surprise smash based on one night of TV. Here's the year in moving up.
At the beginning of 2015, Abel Tesfaye — a.k.a. the Weeknd — was a cultish R&B favorite with a twisted vibe. At the end, the Canadian singer was an international superstar. He scored not one but two chart-topping blockbusters (the Michael Jackson-esque "Can't Feel My Face" and the grinding, spooky sex jam "The Hills"), plus another pop hit with "Earned It," his classy ballad for 50 Shades of Grey. Those crossover moments helped him to another remarkable stat when his second major-label LP, Beauty Behind the Madness, became 2015's most-streamed album. If you didn't catch yourself singing along to one of his songs at least once this year, you might want to visit a doctor.
"Trap Queen" didn't just drop out of the clear blue sky, as it might have seemed. It came from Paterson, New Jersey, one of those American cities where unfamous people go on living, hustling, falling in love, struggling and dreaming. This year, Fetty Wap put Paterson on the map with "Trap Queen," his surprisingly sweet tale of pie-slinging romance — then scored two more ultra-catchy Top 10 hits, "679" and "My Way." And that was all before Fetty dropped his self-titled album in September.
On her first full-length LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Australia's Courtney Barnett tossed off one keenly observed lyric after another, from the woman with "hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton" to a kitchen with "those canisters for coffee, tea and flour." The fact that her witty songs also rocked most excellently made Sometimes 2015's most critically acclaimed debut. Clearly, the Recording Academy agreed when they gave her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination.
Teenage singer-songwriter Alessia Cara was pop and R&B's most refreshingly honest new voice in 2015, reaching the Top 10 with "Here," an anthem for all the antisocial pessimists stuck at parties they hate. She's gotten co-signs from the likes of Lorde and Drake, and released a solid debut album, Know-It-All. Next up, the former YouTuber, who broke out when major-label execs saw her home-recorded pop covers, is gearing up for her own headlining tour.
Ashley Frangipane, known to the world as Halsey, was a pop hurricane this year, coming out of seemingly nowhere with a dystopian concept album, Badlands, and suddenly selling out Madison Square Garden for a show happening next August. Halsey has been working toward stardom for a while, though, steadily building a fanbase through her Tumblr account and writing songs about Harry Styles and Taylor Swift that she would record for her YouTube channel. This year, she fully emerged as pop's new cool girl, singing songs about the "New Americana" for all the kids "high on legal marijuana, raised on Biggie and Nirvana."
A sensitive young gentleman with a Drake-like sing-rap style, this former college quarterback's success in 2015 suggested that the era of tailgating and bikini-ogling bro-country may be drawing to a close. There are songs about parties and women on Hunt's debut full-length, Montevallo (released in late 2014), but the "House Party" he throws is more closely observed than any Florida Georgia Line bash, and when approaches a woman in a bar on "Take Your Time" he's got a lot more to talk about that the fact that she turns him on. Like most of today's country stars, Hunt grew up with hip-hop, which not only influences his approach to rhythm but shaped his career trajectory — before he was signed, Hunt promoted himself by circulating a free mixtape online.
Adele didn't just shatter sales records this year: She was so powerful that a single tweet from her account could launch another artist's career. That was what happened when she touted Tobias Jesso Jr., the Canadian singer-songwriter behind Goon, an album of emotionally arresting ballads that evoked great singer-songwriters of the Seventies like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. Jesso accompanied himself on piano masterfully, despite having just learned the instrument (he was a bassist through his mid-20s). By the end of the year, Jesso had come full circle, placing one of his signature wistful ballads ("When We Were Young") on Adele's 25.
Kehlani Parrish's 2014 mixtape As I Am made her a cult fave for a lot of R&B lovers. The 20-year-old Bay Area singer's follow-up, You Should Be Here, is making her a star — just ask the Recording Academy, who nominated the mixtape for a Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy. Kehlani's songs chronicle her struggle to get past all kinds of romantic fuckery — even "Wanted," the track where a dude finally treats her right, is addressed to a no-good ex. ("I'd hate to be you watching him touch me," she gloats.) But whether working with Chicago hip-hop notables like Chance the Rapper and BJ the Chicago Kid or pop biggies like Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth, her sound is her own, steeped in the romanticism of Nineties R&B.
The hottest mainstream dance sound of 2015 was tropical house, a sun-splashed bath of rhythmic Balearic ripples that felt far more soothing than the ecstatic build-and-drop of most festival EDM. This 24-year-old Norwegian DJ didn't invent the genre, but he sure did take it to the bank. Kygo first gained attention for his reworking of Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire," along with a remix of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" that's slower yet somehow breezier than the original. Soon superstars like Avicii and Coldplay came calling. After a heated bidding war, Kygo signed with Sony International and Ultra Records, and scored a deal to compose the Ultra Music Festival's official 2015 anthem. How's that for a victory lap?
Shawn Mendes hit the big leagues this year by fusing the charm of a Justin Timberlake with an Ed Sheeran-ish musicality. The teenage heartthrob and talented singer-songwriter initially gained fame on Vine, becoming a megastar in 2013 for sharing six-second covers on the video app. He nearly crossed over in 2014 with single "Life of the Party" — but 2015 was truly Mendes' year, as his full-length debut, Handwritten, debuted at Number One and spun off a Top Ten single in the soulful, catchy "Stitches." Now he's dueting with members of Fifth Harmony and prepping for a headlining show at Radio City Music Hall in March.
Composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda conquered Broadway back in 2008 with his Pulitzer-nominated and Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights. This year, he went even further with his next smash musical, Hamilton — an across-the-board triumph that revolutionized Americans' ideas of theatre and history. With a cast composed of mostly non-white performers and a libretto that was equal parts Jay Z and Sondheim, Miranda created a historical show that reflects what our country looks and sounds like. It was no surprise when Miranda earned a coveted MacArthur "Genius Grant."
Way back in 2008, this genial Jamaican singer wrote a little ditty called "Cheerleader"; four years later, he recorded it with producers Specialist and Sly Dunbar. The song became a small hit back home, and OMI went on with his career. But in 2014 Ultra Records commissioned German DJ Felix Jaehn to remix the bubbly ode to female subservience, and the trendy tropical house sheen he overlaid on the all-but-forgotten tune catapulted it to the top of the charts in America. OMI capitalized on his newfound fame by releasing his debut full-length, Me 4 U, in October; Salaam Remi, known for providing Nas and Amy Winehouse with sleek funk tracks, acted as executive producer. The follow-up single, "Hula Hoop," hasn't gotten as many spins — but few pop stars know as well as OMI that success can take a while.
Adults aren't ashamed to listen to Justin Bieber any more and Jason Boyd, who co-wrote the lyrics to "What Do You Mean?" and "Where Are Ü Now," can take more than a little credit for that. Better known as Poo Bear, Boyd first made his name writing for R&B softies 112 back when the other, older Justin was still in 'N Sync. He and Bieber met in Las Vegas two years ago at a time when the jerky public behavior of the awkwardly aging pop star was attracting more attention than his music. The two hit it off and Poo Bear became the Bieb's chief collaborator. He had a hand in most of the tracks on Purpose, helping nudge Justin toward R&B sensitivity.
Of course you immediately recognized the plaintive lead voice on the chorus of the Top Ten hit "Locked Away" — Adam Levine, duh. But what about those Caribbean accents crooning and toasting during the verses? Those belonged to R. City, a.k.a. Theron and Timothy Thomas. Born and raised in the Virgin Islands, the Thomas brothers spent nearly a decade co-writing hits for other artists, from Sean Kingston's "Take You There" in 2007 to more recent smashes like Usher's "I Don't Mind" and Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop." In 2015, the two finally got the chance to step out on their own.
When Denver folkie Nathaniel Rateliff's career stalled out, he threw a hail mary pass, putting together a new backing band with a classic R&B sound straight out of Stax Records circa 1966. "I wanted to make that music for such a long time," he told Rolling Stone, "but I couldn't figure out how to do it without being cheesy." Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats swings and stomps, and the band's live shows got as crowded as a late night at a juke joint. The breakthrough single, "S.O.B." was an unlikely anthem about wrestling with a drinking problem. "Son of a bitch," Rateliff swore over a funky groove, "if I can't get clean I'm going to drink my life away."
Travi$ Scott has been building his rep for a while now. First discovered by T.I., he signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music as a producer back in 2012. But what this guy really wants to do is rap, and after a couple of buzzy mixtapes, the shirt-avoidant Houston artist completed his first full-length commercial project this year with Rodeo. Loaded up with guests — the lead single "3500" featured both Future and 2 Chainz — it was the kind of big money rap record that's too big to fail. No one was surprised to see Rodeo hit the top of the rap charts in 2015. And when he wasn't off becoming a star on his own, Scott kept up his side hustle as a producer, gaining a credit on Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money."
Chris Stapleton might have seemed like an overnight Nashville sensation when his debut album, Traveller, topped the Billboard 200 and nabbed an Album of the Year nomination from the Grammys. But before he released that rough-hewn, rootsy solo debut in May, Stapleton spent years paying his dues as one of Music City's most prolific songwriters, as well as fronting bluegrass band the SteelDrivers. Traveller is full of songs about country-music staples like drinking, life on the road, and ugly breakups — but Stapleton always made them feel like reality, not open-mic-night clichés. After he performed at the CMA awards show in November, harmonizing with Justin Timberlake, America realized that Stapleton was a star.
The Semi-Precious Weapons singer and Lady Gaga pal has gone from sleazy NYC glam rock to sleek, bubbly teen-pop hitmaker, notching songwriting credits on Selena Gomez's "Good for You," Justin Bieber's "Sorry," Hailee Steinfeld's "Love Myself" and Gwen Stefani's "Used to Love You," to name a few of his many contributions to 2015's pop charts. Up next: He's working with frequent writing partner Julia Michaels on Britney Spears' next LP.
After years of slowly building an enthusiastic teen fanbase on the onetime emo label Fueled by Ramen, this Columbus, Ohio band topped the Billboard album charts with their fourth album, Blurryface. The songs are blunt and catchy, with plenty of atmospheric synths, but the real selling point is Tyler Joseph's vocals — conversational, rap-inflected monologues that nod at anxiety without wallowing in it. "Stressed Out" is a startling anthem for anyone who wants to retreat from adulthood: "Out of student loans and tree-house homes, we all would take the latter." Kid's got a point.
In the Eighties and Nineties, Lyor Cohen played a crucial role in transforming hip-hop from an underground phenomenon to a major commercial force — he's the guy who landed Run-D.M.C's Adidas endorsement. With his latest venture, 300 Entertainment, formed with two other former Warner Bros' execs, Todd Moscowitz and Kevin Liles, alongside Roger Gold, proved he's still one of the industry's most important businesspeople. 300 first established its reputation as the home of excitingly ragged-voiced yet commercial rap by signing brilliant up-and-comers Migos and Young Thug, then proved it could sell albums when it landed out-of-nowhere sensation Fetty Wap.