Once again, we talked to 10 of the hottest artists who are climbing the charts, breaking the Internet or just dominating our office stereos. This month: Sam Smith's genre-smashing croon, the Strypes' no-nonsense rock, Samsaya's pan-continental pop, Sohn's hiccupping beats and more.
Sounds Like: A house music crooner's wee small hours
For Fans Of: Disclosure, Adele, Jessie Ware
Why You Should Pay Attention: London singer Sam Smith, age 21, broke out last year with his vocal turn on "Latch" by house music duo Disclosure, and followed that by singing on Naughty Boy's "La La La," a number-one hit in the U.K. that's also charted in the States. But his actual vocal background is in classic pop and jazz, influences that come out on his debut In the Lonely Hour, which is full of somber, lovelorn pop that bridges U.K. dance music, soul, gospel, country and Sinatra-era crooner pop.
He Says: "I'd never listened to dance music before I met Disclosure. People would say "house music" and I didn't know what they were talking about. I come from listening to jazz music, and soul and pop, which are all about the lyrics and performance as much as the production… "[In the Lonely Hour] is basically about my loneliness and my feelings never experiencing what we call 'real love' ever in my life. It's for people who've loved people who don't love them back."
Hear for Yourself: The album-opening R&B-house of "Money On My Mind," where Smith's searing high-register torches an elegant beat from producers Two Inch Punch. By Jon Dolan
Sounds Like: With wailing harmonica and guitar parts that bite too hard to call "licks," these four Irish teens rip into old blues, rock and R&B not because they want to recreate history but because they want to make it.
For Fans Of: Nuggets, the Strokes, the Sonics
Why You Should Pay Attention: Released in the U.S. this month, the Strypes' debut, Snapshot, is already a hit in the U.K. and Ireland, where it came out last fall. Wowed elders from Elton John to Dave Grohl were already talking these kids up even before then. The band's now being exposed to wider audiences worldwide: They opened for the Arctic Monkeys on a European tour late last year, and they backed Irish oddball B.P. Fallon in a high profile Lou Reed tribute at SXSW, performing "Vicious."
They Say: As the Strypes make their way across the U.S. on their first full-fledged stateside tour, guitarist-singer Josh McClorey (the grand old man of the band at 18) has nothing but love for the crowd they're attracting. "I find the American audiences have really broad taste," he says. "They're real music fans, and there's a lot less cynicism over here in regard to old black music. It's not about trends. A lot of the time in the U.K. there are scenes that develop, and that's great too – there's a lot of kids our age, pogoing and moshing. But when I look out at American crowds I see a general public who just like the band."
Hear for Yourself: The Strypes plowed through "What a Shame" on Late Show With David Letterman. By Keith Harris
Sounds Like: The convergence of a Dirty South striver-rap sensibility with emotive, church-grown R&B
For Fans Of: The acoustic soul and post-incarceration wisdom of Lyfe Jennings and the tormented-and-tattooed pride of Chris Brown
Why You Should Pay Attention: August Alsina's gold-certified breakout hit, "I Luv This Shit," dominated urban radio for months. But its hard-edged ratchet lyrics and Trinidad James cameo are just one side of his music. On his 2013 EP Downtown: Life Under the Gun, he expresses a surprising amount of vulnerability, and in one heartbreaking moment sobs audible tears as he remembers an older brother killed by gunfire. For the full-length Testimony, out this month, he delves into a troubled childhood spent between New Orleans and Houston, which included dropping out of high school, hustling drugs to make ends meet, and bouts of homelessness. Now based in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood and signed to Island Def Jam, the 21-year-old singer has enough industry juice to pull guests like Young Jeezy, Rick Ross and B.o.B But he hasn't forgotten his difficult past, which he shares in songs like "Testify" and "Make It Home." "When somebody gives their testimony or tells their story, the next person can be motivated or inspired by it," says Alsina. "That's all I'm trying to do."
He Says: "[I don't do it for] the fame… I do it for my fam and my squad. My brother left three little girls behind and they need me. I got a deal, but my family didn't. My niggas that I came up with didn't. My come up is their come up, so I gotta work hard to make sure none of us ever have to take a step backward."
Hear For Yourself: The Rich Homie Quan-assisted "Ghetto," an appreciation of women "with billion-dollar bodies" that "keep it hood no matter where they are." By Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: A British, blue-eyed take on the sunnier side of alt-R&B. Not, in fact, actual jungle techno
For Fans Of: Kwes, recent Toro y Moi, some Blood Orange
Why You Should Pay Attention: Little was known about Jungle – a UK duo whose members only go by "J" and "T" and have yet to release a proper band pic – before their recent run of sold-out concerts. But if people only came to see how they looked (spoiler alert: two white guys), they stayed because of how they sounded. Live, the group expands to seven, a full band recreating the richness of tracks like "Busy Earning" and "The Heat" and a female singer, Rudy, making their vocals more dynamic. The duo cites Justin Timberlake as a formative influence, and last year the pop star approvingly directed fans to the music video for their "Platoon."
They Say: "I'm a quite a shy person," T says. "When people are like, 'Yeah, let's take a photo,' I'm like, 'Nah.' I think a lot of new artists feel like they need to be very visible and have an opinion on things. But after years and years and years, after you've released great album after great album, that's when you've got your platform to say what you want. With the visual side of things, we just loved the idea of people dancing to our music, and we found some really cool people who could do that incredibly well, in a really rare way.
Hear for Yourself: Horns – some sounding live, others synthesized – push "Busy Earning" higher and deeper. By Nick Murray
Sounds Like: Melancholy and the infinite slackness – loose, easygoing alt-rock with the sense of gentle self-awareness that many first-gen alt-rockers lacked
For Fans Of: Juliana Hatfield, the Go-Betweens, Lou Reed
Why You Should Pay Attention: One of Rolling Stone's best discoveries at last year's CMJ, Courtney Barnett has little more than two EPs to her name, collected together on the comp, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, due in America on April 15th. Yet she has lined up appearances at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Primavera and more – not to mention gigs with MGMT, Phosphorescent and Sharon Van Etten. She writes whole-hearted, often-funny confessionals about everything from writing her best songs when she's asleep in a drunken stupor ("History Eraser") to masturbating to get to sleep ("Lance Jr."); and does it all with imaginative, quasi-psychedelic guitar playing and a sweetly sublime vocals.
She Says: "I think anything that influences you for the worse you've just gotta use and turn it into something good – like Guernica," she says, joking. One of the bad experiences Barnett turned into something positive was the very true event she sings about in "Avant Gardener." On one especially hot day (104 degrees, according to the lyrics), she suffered an anaphylactic panic attack while gardening and needed an adrenaline shot à la Pulp Fiction. "That is a real story," she says emphatically. "The only untrue part is that I actually got adrenalin to the thigh, not the heart."
Hear for Yourself: Barnett's easy, breezy panic attack number, "Avant Gardener," dramatized in the video as a tennis kerfuffle. By Kory Grow
Sounds Like: Hyperactive pop that draws influences from all over the globe
For Fans Of: The softer side of Santigold, the poppier offerings of M.I.A., the inspirational slogans of Nelly Furtado.
Why You Should Pay Attention: Hailing from Norway by way of India, Samsaya isn't beholden to any particular genre or style, cherry-picking elements of hip-hop, ska, raga and EDM, throwing them into her motivational, upbeat pop. The music on her forthcoming Bombay Calling LP thrills as often as it gets the body moving. "Breaking Bad" smashes together militaristic drums and slippery synths in a way that makes its kicking-against-the-grain message even more potent; and the loose-limbed "Beginning At The End" twists the breakup song into something actually hopeful. The New York Times caught her at SXSW and noted her "cheerleader energy somewhere between peak No Doubt and Lady Gaga."
She Says: "I've been told that I sang a lot as a kid. I remember the first song I wrote. When I was around 13 years old, I was really mad at my mother because she wouldn't let me hang out with the older kids at the youth center. So I wrote a song called 'Why Do You Want To Rule Me,' and I even tried to get my two best friends to start a girl group with me. We were big fans of Michael Jackson, TLC, Prince and Aaliyah. I loved how they would accentuate their lyrics and melodies with their moves and style. These [new] tracks represent my emotions, and are full of warmth, heat, and energy – like magma that's building up inside of me."
Hear for Yourself: Single "Stereotype" doubles as a mission statement, a rebuke to listeners who want to place her in a box before turning up their boomboxes. By Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: Flannery O'Connor gave up fiction for a Coors and a Gibson SG
For Fans Of: Drive-By Truckers, Bruce Springsteen's storytelling, Alabama Shakes
Why You Should Pay Attention: Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires are the best argument against paying for a Brooklyn rehearsal space. Bains was an NYU literature student who decided to return home to Birmingham, Alabama, to play music (first in the Dexateens, then with an old friend and a pair of brothers in the Glory Fires). Toiling away in a relatively buzz-poor town, the band was discovered when their producer emailed friend and Sub-Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman a zip file of their second album, Dereconstructed. The label finally signed Lee Bains after they got to witness the band's fire and Keystone spirit in person, and will release the album in May. Lately they've been touring with like-minded neighbors the Alabama Shakes.
They Say: "I went up to New York like a lot of artsy Southern kids would hope to do, to learn about the art scene, the music scene, to be exposed to different people and ideas and all that," says Bains. "I was exposed to those things, which was amazing. But ironically, in doing that, in seeing people making art from all over the world with their own voices, what kept popping up in my mind was, 'What is my voice? What is my cultural context?' I see a band or an artist that is struggling with their cultural identity in one form or another, and playing off that in their art, it made me reflect on what my cultural identity was."
Hear for Yourself: Dereconstructed opener "Company Man" covers religious prophets, politicians, poets and union busters in three minutes and 21 seconds of sweaty soul-tinged garage. By Jessica Suarez
Sounds Like: Thom Yorke's soul-loving younger brother
For Fans of: Rhye, the Weeknd, James Blake, Bon Iver after a feverish digital-editing session
Why You Should Pay Attention: With a string of chillingly pretty singles and a production/remix résumé including Disclosure and Rhye, English expat Sohn (a.k.a. Toph Taylor) has finally finished a debut LP, Tremors (4AD), a solo joint featuring his elegantly glitchy electro-beats and falsetto-laced high tenor. Songs like "The Wheel" and "Paralysed" show a lyricist unafraid of raw emoting. And his video clips show his taste for soulful minimalism extends to his music videos too – check the Weather Channel time-shift of "Bloodflows" and the desolate panic-attack meditation "Lessons."
He Says: "When I was a kid in school, I really enjoyed singing in front of people," he confesses, "but I hated that I really enjoyed singing in front of people. I hated what that meant – that I needed that confirmation from others. It took me a long time to come to grips with it."
Hear For Yourself: "The Wheel," a song about despair that seems as if voiced from beyond the grave. By Will Hermes
Sounds Like: A bouncing bass-heavy blend of rap, hip-hop, baile funk and Afro-Brazilian beats delivered with bracing positive energy
For Fans Of: Lauryn Hill, M.I.A., Azealia Banks
Why You Should Pay Attention: There are few overground female rappers in Brazil, and even fewer blending hip-hop with the tropical traditionalism of the Bahia region, where Karol Conka's grandmother was raised. Born Karoline dos Santos Oliveira, Karol Conka (i.e., "Karol with a K") enlisted the ubiquitous Nave to produce her terrific debut. Released by Vice in Brazil last year, and internationally on England's Mr Bongo label this month, Batuk Freak earned her Brazil's prestigious Multishow Best New Artist award for 2013. Conka delivers uplifting rhymes in Portuguese over booming bass lines wrapped around raw percussion, traditional pifano flutes, and samples from the proto-rap improvisational rhymes of repente – all in the service of a good time.
She Says: "We have excellent MCs and beat makers with a growing space to show their work. In this scenario, I situate myself in a position where I sing about joy; my protest is against sadness. I always try to sing about self-esteem and respect with festive and danceable beats… "Batuque is a term generally used to designate beat. 'Batuk' is a 'karolish' version for this word."
Hear for Yourself: Booming bass and a female chorus guarantee a "Boa Noite" in her video – which currently has more than one million views. By Richard Gehr
Sounds Like: Masterful fingerpicking that's equal parts American primitivism and German motorik
For Fans of: John Fahey, Neu!, Six Organs of Admittance
Why You Should Pay Attention: Tyler's already a 15-year Nashville veteran whose plucked with everyone from Lambchop to Charlie Louvin. He's honed his shimmering, minimalist, wistful picking over two acclaimed solo records, but his upcoming EP Lost Colony, might be his most talked about yet. Recording his arrangements with a full band for the first time (including JEFF the Brotherhood drummer Jamin Orral), Tyler finds common ground between the churn of contemporary country blues and the driving rhythms of krautrock.
He Says: It's a constant challenge [playing quiet music]. If you're playing a bar… You might have 15 people with you, you might have 15 people against you. You're just gonna have to play to the people that are listening. I've seen shows where guys like Richard Buckner and Jack Rose yell at the crowd. That's not my personality – and I'm probably not intimidating enough physically for that to work.
I've been in bands with 10 people, I've been in bands with two or three people, but I basically enjoy doing it solo. It doesn't feel like touring. Right now I'm driving through a national park. I stopped in Roswell today and went to the alien museum gift shop or whatever. When you're in a band with five other dudes, really other than peeing or eating fast food, you don't tend to stop and do interesting things… To be honest, man, I'm 34 and I can't imagine trying to keep a band together.
Hear for Yourself: The A-side of Lost Colony, "Whole New Dude," ambles through 5/4 rhythms, steel guitar whines, Can-style beats, and one sunshine-y guitar solo within 13 gorgeous minutes. By Christopher R. Weingarten