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: Alt-pop digital-agers LANY, R&B boundary pusher Nao, Bay Area rapper Nef the Pharoah and more.
Sounds Like: Electronic pop mixing Eighties flash, blue-eyed soul, and the ongoing search for genuine connection on a smart phone
For Fans of: Phoenix, fun., Glass Animals
Why You Should Pay Attention: The synth-pop world of LANY — pronounced 'lay-nee' — shows that sometimes the best inspiration is the augmented reality you're staring at all day. The trio's song titles and sentiments carry over directly from text-message lingo and dating apps, replete with acronyms and all-caps. Instead of "I miss you," frontman Paul Jason Klein sings "I need my current location to be your current location," on "Current Location" off this year's Kinda EP. So far, the confessional slow-jam "ILYSB," (a.k.a. "I Love You So Bad"), has hooked the most listeners, and is approaching two million streams on Soundcloud. After coalescing in Nashville, Klein, drummer Jake Goss and keyboardist/guitarist Les Priest moved to Los Angeles. They signed to Polydor late last year, and used their recording budget to rent "the first house ever built in Malibu" to keep creating as they always have, with Priest engineering and mixing the tracks on a computer. So far, touring has been in support of artists also blurring the alt-pop lines, including Ellie Goulding, Troye Sivan, Halsey and X Ambassadors. Amid a quick transition from uploading songs themselves to the major label structure, they're still sticking with the sound that got them there. "We still have not put out a debut record," Klein says. "For us to take a departure from our original sound would be premature. That's what Coldplay did on their fifth album. We're very much still being introduced to the world."
They Say: "We are a very summery band," says Klein. "I didn't want to miss the opportunity to be the soundtrack to people's summers. We decided we would put out Kinda and give something to the people to live their lives to. I think singles aren't enough anymore. They kind of were a thing in 2014. When Drake's dropping 20 joints on ya, people want something to live in and explore.
"When we put this EP out, every time someone says 'kinda' or hears it or types it or reads it, they have to think of LANY. I'm very driven visually, so when I see something, I want to capitalize on it. When I wrote "Pink Skies," I knew that the month or two after releasing it that all of my tagged photos were gonna be pink skies and sunsets. I kinda know how people think and how people process. I don't ever want to write songs or use words that I don't use on an everyday basis. I just like to put it really simply. Maybe I'm poetic, but I'm not ambiguous and I don't hide behind too much mystery."
Hear for Yourself: "ILYSB" is their viral electro-pop hit. REED FISCHER
Sounds Like: Minimalist, glitchy anti-pop with the perfect rhythm for any party
For Fans of: FKA Twigs, Banks, Kaytranada, Cashmere Cat
Why You Should Pay Attention: Kiara Saulters has been racking up millions of Soundcloud streams for her moody, minimal, sharp electro-pop. Earlier this year she released her debut EP, Low Kii Savage, which included her breakout hit "Gold," a perfect antidote to more maximalist pop and dance topping the charts. Growing up, Kiiara mostly listened to Eminem, Rihanna and Linkin Park and first began writing at the age of 17 but her music between then and now has shifted dramatically. "I played piano, flute and guitar," she says. "[At 17], I was writing was mostly guitar and acoustic stuff. I started writing to beats when I met [producer] Felix [Snow], and he would send me beats for me to write to." Since then, she's embarked on her first-ever live dates which will include a set at Chicago's Lollapalooza, a festival the Illinois native never attended while growing up. Now, she's wrapping up her debut album which she's hoping to release this fall. "We've been in the studio for the last couple months," she reveals, noting that she'll be working with new writers and producers.
She Says: "The process was that we didn't really try that hard," Kiiara recalls of working with Snow, Campa and her other collaborators, who would all finish a song within a single five-hour session. The inspiration behind her song "Gold" was born of a similar don't-give-a-fuck philosophy. "It came from my feeling that you don't really have to answer to anyone. You don't have to answer someone's questions. That's just how I was raised."
Hear for Yourself: Kiiara's hit single "Gold" drips, drops and shines like nothing else this year. BRITTANY SPANOS
Sounds Like: The sweet spot between modern U.K. pop and Nineties U.S. R&B
For Fans of: FKA twigs, Zhané, Jai Paul
Why You Should Pay Attention: The debut full-length from East London singer Neo Jessica Joshua, For All We, is already being touted by BBC Radio 1's Annie Mac as the "Hottest Record in the World." She began as a backup singer for the likes of Kwabs and Jarvis Cocker and was a member of an all-girl a capella group before venturing out on her own as Nao. Boasting a sultry coo of a voice that can rise to helium-inhaled heights, Nao soon self-released a series of EPs that melded Soulquarian-styled R&B with electronic flourishes. It increased her profile in the U.K., where she toured with Little Dragon and collaborated with Disclosure on Caracal.
She Says: "None of my family are musicians and I used to annoy everybody because I just sang all the time," Nao says. "But as I got older, I just followed my nose." She credits British Ghanaian singer and songwriter Kwabs for giving her the confidence that she too could have a singing career, even if she wasn't like Rihanna. "It's just about having enough confidence in yourself to say, 'It's OK.'… With music, you can just keep changing everything. You can change the bassline, you can change the beat, there's hundreds of billions of places you can go. It's endless. I had a moment where I couldn't put out any more music until I found 'my sound.' But then I realized that your sound is ever-evolving."
Hear for Yourself: "Inhale Exhale" is sultry neo-soul psychedelia. ANDY BETA
Sounds Like: Witty wordplay and cocky panache that weds Bay Area rap history to modern sensibilities.
For Fans of: Wiz Khalifa, Mac Dre, Juvenile
Why You Should Pay Attention: Vallejo, California native Nef the Pharoah broke out with the video for "Big Tymin," a sunbeam of a single that had a West Coast sound but operated as a tribute to the New Orleans duo he'd grown up listening to. Though he was raised on Bay Area artists —"A lot of Messy Marv and San Quinn, the Click and Mac Dre," he says — his dad was a big fan of the Cash Money crew. The "Big Tymin'" video was a tribute to all these inspirations: The opening scene, in a dilapidated-looking house, was based on old Cash Money videos; and when Nef pops up at a tennis court, it's a tribute to Mac Dre and Mac Mall's Da U.S. Open. An early cosign came from Bay legend E-40, who signed him to his Sic-Wid-It label.
He Says: "When all the people started recognizing who I was, I used to have real bad anxiety. The walls were closing in on me, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I feel like a lot of rappers go through that — a lot of entertainers go through that — where you're going up that hill to the top and everything is coming at you and you're dealing with your nerves. I used to be so nervous I would throw up before every show, and still end up rocking the show! I used to go to the doctor for that shit, I thought I was going to die. But they told me nothing was wrong, and I really had to tell myself nothing was wrong, just chill out, bro. This is your following, this is what you're here for…. Honestly the best part of making music in my life — I have a one-year-old son, and he's learning to talk. And I actually play him my music and he remembers songs and tries to sing along. That's the greatest part to me. My son singing my song."
Hear for Yourself: "Big Tymin'" has more than 7 million YouTube plays. DAVID DRAKE
Sounds Like: Late-night porch hangouts lit by fireflies
For Fans of: Hop Along, Waxahatchee, rare Elephant 6 seven-inches.
Why You Should Pay Attention: The debut from the Athens group, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired, got rave reviews for its sparse, muscular rock and the stark poetry of its lyrics. Initially the solo project of singer-songwriter Kristine Leschper, Mothers blossomed into a band and spent the first half of 2016 on an extensive tour that included stops at SXSW and Bonnaroo. The deluxe edition of Distance, out July 29th, features five new tracks. That weekend they'll also be making their first appearance at Lollapalooza.
They Say: "Making that first record was very careful," says Leschper, "whereas now, we feel a little bit more able to experiment; we're comfortable with each others' styles, a lot more capable of reacting to each other."
Hear for Yourself: The bereft "Copper Mines" lurches between a gently loping elegy for a lost love and a distortion-fueled rave-up. MAURA JOHNSTON
Sounds Like: A dropkick into the surreal, over-the-top, dirty mind of a reality TV phenom
For Fans of: Lil Kim, Nicki Minaj, Trina
Why You Should Pay Attention: Excluding the contestants on shows like American Idol, reality television stars rarely produce music as memorable as their on-screen spats. Enter Cardi B, the Bronx-born former stripper-turned-Love & Hip-Hop star whose Instagram speeches on getting shmoney and screwing over scrubs keep bringing her closer and closer to a household name. Her debut mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1, has B taking her emotional frankness, humor and confidence to the mic, rhyming like a veteran over beats worthy of her energy. "I was a little hesitant to do Love & Hip-Hop because sometimes reality TV can be good for your music career and sometimes bad," the rapper reveals while in the middle of her summer tour. "I don't want my personality to overshadow my talent. To see the positive reaction to my music makes me feel good." She's plotting her debut album, one that she's hoping to release in October.
She Says: One of the most important aspects of Cardi B's persona and music is her positive, complex take on sex and relationships, something she's learned from heroes like Missy Elliott. "When it comes to sex, you could be a professional, you could be an artist, you can be any type of person you want. A lot of these people be like 'I'm a good girl. I don't fuck like that.' But at the end of the day, you feel like that," she says. "Everybody have a little sex on them. Everybody gets aroused on the inside. Even if you're not like me, even if you didn't grow up the same way as me, even if you don't have the same profession as me, I know that everybody thinks about sex and everybody likes it! That's why I talk about [it] — everybody's going to relate one way or another."
Hear for Yourself: The turnt, confident, brassy "Washpoppin" is a perfect introduction. BRITTANY SPANOS
Sounds Like: Bubblegum electro-pop that transports you to Working Girl-era realness
For Fans of: Wham!, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure
Why You Should Pay Attention: Welsh singer-songwriter Rod Thomas (who goes by this Gremlins-inspired moniker so he won't be mistaken for Matchbox 20 singer Rob Thomas Stateside) became pals with Elton John a few years ago, and opened for the rock legend on his 2014 tour. John contributed vocals to Bright Light Bright Light's anthemic summer single "All in the Name," as well some other songs on his recent Choreography. His U.S. tour starts in September.
He Says: Thomas made two mixtapes for John's recent birthday: one labeled "greatest hits," the other "greatest shits," which included "really, really awful bargain-bin artists … with reggae ballads, B-sides and terrible remixes. "[John] rang me, 'Oh, my God, it's amazing,'" Thomas says. "It was a lot of fun to put together and it's insane to think that Elton has heard them. … He's the biggest music fan in the world."
Hear for Yourself: "Careful Whisper" evokes the New Romantics for a new generation. JERRY PORTWOOD
Sounds Like: Dancing alone in the dark and not apologizing for it.
For Fans of: Blondie, Kate Bush, Chromatics
Why You Should Pay Attention: Teeth & Tongue is the cheeky moniker of Jess Cornelius, a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based musician who specializes in dark, disco-tinged pop. What started out as the name of Cornelius' solo album took her on a long, peculiar journey — involving the breakup of a longtime relationship, living like a nomad for the better part of a year and retreating to the Nes artist residency in Iceland. The band recently supported Courtney Barnett on her headlining album tour, and they're set to release the shimmering LP Give Up On Your Health on Captured Tracks later this fall. It vibrates with arpeggiated synths, drum machines and Cornelius' wistful croons. "It's a little more curious, I think," Cornelius says of the album. "I got a little sick of writing about myself as well. [So] I'm looking at other kinds of relationships, not just the romantic ones or ones in front of my face all the time."
They Say: "We were in this tiny town [at the Iceland residency], and no one had a car," says Cornelius. "We only had access to this little corner store and that's where we did our shopping. Sometimes you'd go and there'd be a cabbage, and it'd be like $12. Sometimes you couldn't get fresh bread but you could get like, turmeric root. One time the village put on a traditional dinner, with gray, fermented meats. The whole idea was that you'd go to the dinner, you'd have a piece of fermented shark and they'd give you a shot of Brennivin, the liquor that they drink, to wash it down. But when we went home, the girl I was staying with, we had to wash everything — hats, gloves, because the cloakroom had been in the same room as the fermented shark! It kind of smells a bit like like ammonia."
Hear for Yourself: Cornelius says the infectious forgiveness banger "Dianne" is "a bit of a letter to myself I was writing when I was a teenager." PAULA MEJIA
Sounds Like: Sashaying onto the dance floor in bejeweled platform heels and watching heads turn.
For Fans of: Television Personalities, Thee Oh Sees, Purling Hiss
Why You Should Pay Attention: The jittery glam pop quartet Terry — comprised of power couples Amy Hill and Al Montfort, and Xanthe Waite and Zephyr Pavey — was born on a holiday in Mexico, right after one of Zephyr and Al's other bands, Total Control, wrapped up a tour. Each Terry-er is a mainstay of Melbourne, Australia's vibrant music scene in their own right (at last count they're in 11 bands total, including UV Race and Dick Diver), but this time they sought to wield instruments they didn't usually play in any of their other groups. "I think it sounds better when someone doesn't totally know what they're doing," Montfort says. Their debut LP, Terry HQ, released last month on the taste-making U.K. label Upset the Rhythm, is full of shambolic country ditties and smart post-punk bangers that feel loose and fun, removed from inhibition and doubt. The Terry operation is firmly rooted in D.I.Y., from the songwriting process to the band's distinctive swagger-y uniform of Terry-emblazoned denim jackets and fringe shirts. "Me and Al, we always wanted to have nudie suits. And of course we couldn't afford to do that, so we tried to make our own," Hill says. "Then it got a bit mutated," Montfort chimes in.
They Say: "It's all pretty relaxed. We kind of make demos at home, and then send them off [to each other]. And then we all get together and figure them out," Hill says. "Zephyr wrote a few songs and wasn't sure what to do about lyrics, so we said, 'Just write all about your Uncle Greg who's a bus driver. Like, who the fuck is Uncle Greg? What was the story?'"
"He always tells these stories about this Uncle Greg and we're like, 'Ah yeah, he sounds like such a prick,'" says Montfort. "So [Pavey] wrote all these lyrics, heaps and heaps. Too much for one song. Uncle Greg got in trouble on the bus … but also Zephyr had it in for him because he stole Zephyr's wah pedal to sell. Zephyr's got a lot of stories from his childhood about people from the Blue Mountains in Sydney that kind of sound like fictional characters."
Hear for Yourself: The galloping country ditty "Hot Heads" flexes the band's talent for deadpan harmonies. PAULA MEJIA
Sounds Like: A hazy soundtrack to an existential Seventies western
For Fans of: Kate Wolf, Bill Frisell, Bruce Langhorne's music for Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand
Why You Should Pay Attention: The deft and vigilant way Portland-based guitarist Marisa Anderson has with a six-string garnered her some old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Anderson's ingested both the country blues and bluegrass lexicon in such a way so as to voice something new. Her recent Into the Light is her most satisfying solo album to date, finding new timbres in pedal steel, piano and Wurlitzer, weaving a mesmerizing spell with only her fingers.
She Says: "From age 19 to age 29, I lived with no fixed address, hitchhiking, living in tents, school buses, whatever. It made me really open to experience, in terms of being in a new place all the time, meeting every kind of person. It made me self-reliant…. For Into the Light, there was a narrative coming up for me, based on time I spent in the desert and about politics and what's going on in the world. The word 'alien' got in my head, as in an alien that comes from space and someone who's not from where you are."
Hear for Yourself: Into the Light's title track is a shimmering noir instrumental. ANDY BETA