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: One of Korea's most popular female MCs, a social-media sensation turned pop star, goth rock's gravest new pleasure, a Blink-182-inspired party rapper and more.
Sounds Like: Exuberant and socially conscious electronic pop from the home of underground resistance
For Fans of: M.I.A., Dev Hynes, Kele Okereke
Why You Should Pay Attention: Tunde Olaniran's full-length debut, Transgressor, is only the tipping point for a self-sustaining multi-disciplinary force that can sing empowerment anthems with passion, spin party raps with confidence and humor, and produce his own dance tracks. He also choreographs his performances, which often involve costumed dancers moving in unison to the beat. Offstage, his writing recently appeared in the anthology Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements. "I have a really busy schedule," says the Nigerian-American, who has a day job at a Planned Parenthood office in Flint, Michigan. His social activism is present in Transgressor highlights such as "KYBM," where he calls on his fellow activists to "keep your body movin'" over a kinetic number that flips from a trap thump to a bracing house rhythm. As the lyrics of "Diamonds" make clear, Olaniran's projects have hardly made him wealthy, despite the critical acclaim given to his work. "I didn't have a couch for three years," he says. "I prioritize the stuff that makes me happy, like being able to design something and have it be creative."
He Says: "The idea of transgression is really interesting to me, whether it's being a musical artist who's black and male and you're not doing a certain kind of music," such as mainstream hip-hop or R&B, says Olaniran. "It only becomes transgression in the eyes of the reacting society. Sometimes, the reaction is kind of violent and more extreme than the act itself, whether it's blocking traffic on an expressway to make people stop and think about [#blacklivesmatter], or it's a woman deciding she's going to not follow in the path that's been laid out for her. A lot of those themes are in the lyrics and the album."
Hear for Yourself: In "Brown Boy," Olaniran and his friends twine, twirl and declare their otherness. By Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: A synth-pop Liz Phair headlining Warped Tour
For Fans of: Ellie Goulding, Chvrches, Lorde, dystopian concept albums
Why You Should Pay Attention: Ashley Frangipane, a.k.a. Halsey, may be new to many, but to her loyal and devoted following, the mermaid-haired 20-year-old has been setting trends and speaking to fellow young girls on the web for most of her teen years. "I wasn't trying to gain a following," Halsey says of her early fame on MySpace and other social networks. "The seemingly bohemian life of me and my friends may have seemed appealing to people." Poems and artwork she posted on Tumblr helped transform Halsey into a songwriter, and her debut LP Badlands — due August 28th — is about to launch her into international pop stardom. In the same way that she initially drew attention to herself online, the singer-songwriter is doing music her own way, and her album is a concept record told from the perspective of a person living in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian society where all negative behavior is permitted. "I felt very much like I was living in the Badlands," she recalls. "I just entered the music industry and was surrounded by all these pressures. I felt trapped inside my own head, and I couldn't escape."
They Say: "It was nice to live in a world where he and I were living, sleeping, eating Badlands," explains Halsey, who recorded the entirety of it with executive producer and then-boyfriend Lido "It was really nice to get up at six in the morning to work on the record and wake up in the arms of someone that I loved. I made this album for me. It was very therapeutic and was my way of figuring out why I was in a mental Badlands. I needed to escape it for myself. I think if someone can relate to that experience and understand that story, hopefully they will find some solace in the fact that I managed to escape. I would rather be an artist that's believable and real than an artist that's relatable and contrived and fake."
Hear for Yourself: New single "New Americana" is a rebellious and anthemic preview of Frangipane's massive debut. By Brittany Spanos
Sounds Like: R&B that glances toward soul's storied past while leaning into the 21st century.
Why You Should Pay Attention: Born in Sweden, Snoh Aalegra was steeped in soul music from a young age — and it inspired her enough to write her first song at nine years old. "It didn't make any sense at all because English was my third language," she laughs. "I was raised in Sweden and my parents were Persian, and English was something I was learning in school and from music." Her talents eventually grew, and thanks to her smoky voice and knack for capturing late-night melancholia, Aalegra eventually got the attention of hip-hop producer-guru No I.D., who produced last year's There Will Be Sunshine EP (which features a guest verse from Common on the rueful "Bad Things"). She's currently in L.A. working on a full-length that should be released early next year.
She Says: "I was introduced to a lot of great artists as a kid, [like] Stevie Wonder, Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston — all these big singers. I used to get goosebumps [when I heard them]; I was struck by music in a very emotional way. So I started singing at a very young age and I never stopped. The grain in my voice comes from my influences and the melancholy of Sweden — growing up there we had very long winters where it was very dark most of the year, and it affects us. It's beautiful in the summer; everybody's so happy in the summer because there's endless daylight, but in wintertime, we have maybe two or three hours, and that affected my music for sure. I love melancholy. I think it's beautiful."
Hear for Yourself: The slinky, RZA-produced "Emotional" (which samples the Emotions' 1972 cut "If You Think It (You May as Well Do It)") pulls off the trick of being both catchy and gut-punching. By Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: Goth rock for metalheads, Interpol with balls
For Fans of: Joy Division, Misfits, the Sisters of Mercy, Killing Joke
Why You Should Pay Attention: Finland's Beastmilk were sharpening the cutting edge of both goth and post-punk when, shortly after the release of their 2013 debut Climax, they split with guitarist and major songwriter Johan "Goatspeed" Snell. Enter Grave Pleasures, the new venture of Beastmilk singer Mat "Kvohst" McNerney and bassist Valtteri Arino, which picks up where that band left off. Cut in a haunted recording studio — "It was getting so irritating with this ghost coming in and out [of the halls] that we considered getting an exorcist in!" says Kvohst — the group's new Dreamcrash is a grim yet grooving album of self-described "apocalyptic death-rock" that draws on the band members' backgrounds in metal outfits including Dødheimsgard and the Oath. (Out in the group's homeland next month, the record will be released stateside later in the fall via Metal Blade.) "I write catchy, almost pop melodies [but] I'm still here to do the devil's work," Kvohst says. "Albeit in a slightly different presentation. It's black magic."
They Say: "I grew up as a goth and a black metaller," the singer says of his band getting slapped with the "goth" tag. "I just saw it as being an outsider, which you were back then. These days everyone has some gothic style — even people into hip-hop or dance music — and it's all crossed over into the melting pot of modern fashion. But back in the Eighties and Nineties, it was about making a clear distinction that you were different and wanted to be an outcast. It took some guts to be a goth back then, I tell you! You were victimized by kids at school but, at the same time, were part of a rare group of outsiders who listened to somber and melancholic music as an escape from the modern world and your social standing. It was about freedom."
Hear for Yourself: "I pay all my dues to the dark," Kvohst croons on "New Hip Moon," a shimmering, swirling blood pool of romantic gloom. By Brandon Geist
Sounds Like: The relief you feel when everything is beginning to shift into its right place
For Fans of: Waxahatchee, Liz Phair, sitting back and dreaming
Why You Should Pay Attention: On OK, the recent full-length from her solo project, Eskimeaux, prolific artist Gabrielle Smith has crafted winsome songs that read like full-fledged novellas, at once capable of spitting truth, romancing the listener and offering consolation from life's more gnarled moments. Thanks to the honesty in Eskimeaux's luminous bedroom-pop arrangements — witness salient lines like "Accept that this has ended/Nothing in this world is holier than friendship" — Smith has amassed a growing cult following and toured with like-minded wonders Elvis Depressedly and Mitski. Smith's schedule is tight these days, as she's been working around the clock in many bands (Frankie Cosmos, Bellows and new supergroup Puppy Club are just a smattering of projects she's involved in besides Eskimeaux), but luckily, all that activity never feels like work: "Ever since I graduated from high school, I feel like I've been on summer break for 100 years," she says.
She Says: "On this tour, I haven't been very productive because I spent a lot of the Eskimeaux tour making comics," Smith explains. "I ran out of merch really early. So I made comics and sold them with downloads of my record. I would make a five-to-six panel one-page thing that was a weird, surreal thing that happened to me in a dream. I was taking a lot of Benadryl because we were staying at a lot of cat houses, so I was dreaming a lot on that tour. After I made the seventh comic on a drive or something, I would just start making them up. They'd be weird daydreams or pictures of the road passing. I didn't take any pictures of [the comics] for some reason, so whoever has them has the only ones and the only documentation of it."
Hear for Yourself: The mighty "The Thunder Answered Back" roars with one of the more cutting couplets written in recent memory: "You hummingbird!/You coward!" By Paula Mejia
Sounds Like: "California Love" for the iHeartRadio crowd
Why You Should Pay Attention: Like his grade-school favorites Blink-182, this Riverside, California, native has thrived off boyish charms and bratty, immature lyrics. Unlike the pop-punk band, though, Mills raps and sings — a move inspired by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. His breakthrough single (released as T. Mills) was 2011's "Vans On," as in "I fucked her with my Vans on," a glitzy club-rap single that led to an appearance at, yes, Vans Warped Tour and girls sneaking out of their parents' houses just to see him. Now signed to Lava Records and rapping under his government name, Mills retains both the same taste in women as before (hint: he's an ass man) and a rabid social-media following (1.3 million Facebook fans). For his upcoming debut album, he is working with Dr. Luke and Wallpaper, producers who are fittingly adept fusing hip-hop, pop and dance.
He Says: Travis thanks his parents for supporting his love for music, no matter what: "Some of the kids I grew up with, they were older than me and listening to NOFX and Blink[-182], like old Blink. So when I was in fifth or sixth grade, I went to a record store and I saw what my friends would always talk about. I bought Cheshire Cat, Buddha and Dude Ranch, and I just became obsessed. Oh, and NOFX's Heavy Petting Zoo! My mom opened the CD — she freaked out. 'Oh my god, what did I just let you buy?' I had to challenge her. I was in sixth grade, telling my mom not to censor stuff. She was so cool — she took away the booklet and let me keep the CD."
Hear For Yourself: While Mills does tone down his language in "Young and Stupid," he sounds like he is having just as much fun, this time with 99-cent kazoo melodies and a guest verse by T.I. By Christina Lee
Sounds Like: Tales of urban alienation conveyed through resolutely catchy post-punk songwriting and bolstered with rich vocal harmonies
For Fans of: Ex Hex, Wolf Parade, La Luz
Why You Should Pay Attention: Cold Beat's second album, Into the Air, reaffirms Hannah Lew's penchant for writing songs that are at once ebullient and subtly sinister. And, as always, the use of vocal harmonies is excellent. (Lew came to prominence as a member of post-punk trio Grass Widow, who excelled in that category as well.) What's different here is an expansion of the band's range: They can still simultaneously evoke the Zombies and punk anthems, but there are also songs that make much bolder use of keyboards and electronic elements, playing up the sense of dread and alienation inherent in the group's music.
They Say: When talking about Into the Air, Lew contends that there's a more collaborative aspect present on this album. "I invited people to participate a little bit more, to try that out with the project," she says. "I think you hear a few different voices on the record." But the electronic elements – which grew out of a brief stint when the band had no drummer — are also critical, and they're something that Lew feels reflects the evolution of her own music. "I've been leaning more towards making electronic music with less people," she says. "I'm sort of in awe of bands that just play rock music for a long period of time. I think it takes a lot for that to be sustainable."
Hear for Yourself: "Cracks" addresses a sense of perpetual disquiet, one of this band's preferred themes, but the emphasis here shifts away from guitars and towards an ominous synthesized earworm. By Tobias Carroll
Sounds Like: Bad-bitch anthems for listening to atop a queenly throne
For Fans of: Miley Cyrus, Sasha Go Hard, Rihanna
Why You Should Pay Attention: The self-proclaimed "Baddest Female" is one of the buzziest female rappers in Korea, and she's poised for a major breakthrough in the U.S. come fall with a debut EP out on Mad Decent. One fourth of the wildly famous K-pop group 2NE1, CL is now taking her career solo stateside under the helm of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande manager Scooter Braun. Still, she's hesitant to label herself too quickly. "I don't actually like calling myself a rapper," CL says. "I'm more a performer. I don't like to box myself into anything, because I also sing and I love to dance; I do everything." And while the raspy-voiced singer's debut EP is still shrouded in tight-lipped mystery, for now CL has collaborations with Skrillex, will.i.am and Diplo under her belt, plus a spot on the latter's Mad Decent Block Party tour.
She Says: "I don't want to take too much responsibility, where I'm like, 'Oh, I'm representing Asia,'" CL says of whether her imminent breakthrough into Western pop will serve as a gateway for K-pop stars. "I'd want to, of course, because I am Korean, and after Psy, there were no Asian artists out here doing music. I would love to represent Asian girls and be an example or an idol for girls [in the U.S.] That is my dream, but I don't want that to be my main goal. I just want to do something I love, and music comes first for me."
Hear for Yourself: CL's catchy trap track "Doctor Pepper" —written while the MC was annoyed with Diplo after he canceled a recording session — brims with icy sass. By Hazel Cills
Sounds Like: Urban dreams and nightmares from a young father in Compton
For Fans of: Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Vince Staples
Why You Should Pay Attention: Anthony "Boogie" Dixson has established himself on the West Coast rap scene with two mixtapes of impressive depth. On last summer's Thirst 48, he harmonized ruefully over a broken relationship. The Reach, which hit the Internet in June, is one of the best rap projects of the year so far, and finds him rapping with hardened purpose as he critiques L.A. gang culture and acknowledges his past as a Campanella Park Piru Blood. "I ain't in this shit, but I'm still in this shit," he raps on "First Evergreen." Boogie remains proud of his set, but the 25-year-old has evolved since his teenage years. His six-year-old son, Darius, features heavily in Boogie's music. On The Reach cover, Darius lies in bed, sleeping, as an anonymous stranger looks over him from a window. Meanwhile, Boogie pays respect to Darius' mother on "Intervention," a refreshing sign of growth after the frustrated anger he exhibited towards women on Thirst 48. "On this tape, I decided to show that it's cool to glorify the good women that we do got out here," he says. "But I still go through my phases, like 'fuck bitches,' you know?"
They Say: "The title of The Reach came about because, after Thirst 48, I started getting a little more public notification, and my people around me started acting weird, like we made it, reaching into my comfort zone, always asking me questions. It's just a local term that called 'reachin',' when people do that. At the same time, I was reachin' for a different level in my life," he says. "I'm still adjusting [to all the attention]. Lately, I've been letting them know that I'm still working, and I haven't really accomplished what I feel I need to."
Hear For Yourself: On "Oh My," which has clocked nearly 1 million YouTube views, Boogie and his crew get lit over a Jahlil Beats banger. By Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: Hard, nuanced techno unaware of its own limits
For Fans of: Nina Kraviz, outside-the-box drum programming, for-the-club bass
Why You Should Pay Attention: Bjarki grew up in northern Iceland and began making music when he moved in with his dad at age 12. "It was his turn to make me do better at school," the DJ says, as he twirls a cigarette in his Copenhagen basement. Bjarki's grades never rose, but he learned his most important lessons from a friend's older brother who demonstrated how to make basic beats — hard trance, then Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy — on a home computer. His break came when he almost met Nina Kraviz at the end of a long night out. After he accidentally got too drunk at an early Tiësto show his girlfriend had forced him to attend — "bullshit," he says — she made it up by passing a USB of his tracks to the Russian DJ. One year later, Bjarki's first single, "I Wanna Go Bang," is the breakout hit from Kravis' new label, Trip.
They Say: "I got into techno because of a promoter in Iceland who brought in Mistress Barbara," Bjarki recalls. "I went to the show — snuck in — and there was this attitude, this anger in the music. I was like, 'I want to make something like this.' Then I made 'I Wanna Go Bang' two years ago. I had come back to Iceland, and I was working a shitty job. Those were really tough months. I guess I was missing the 'bang' I had found in Amsterdam. I finished it in 40 minutes, and it was sitting on my computer this whole time."