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, we talk to an 82-year-old Mississippian releasing his first blues album and a 16-year-old X-Factor veteran — not to mention the Nineties-centric rap of Vic Spencer, the chart-storming deep house of Robin Schulz, the critically acclaimed art-folk of Natalie Prass and more.
Sounds Like: "Mr. Brightside" racing Vespas with Iggy Pop in the desert at 3 a.m.
For Fans of: Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, Jake Bugg
Why You Should Pay Attention: Thus far, that clunker of a moniker — in January, David Letterman couldn't intro them without a massive shit-eating grin — hasn't hampered U.K. alt-rockers Catfish and the Bottlemen. On the sweaty back of fast-talking singer and guitarist Van McCann's unclipped encapsulations of working-class anguish, the band won a label deal with Communion Records, co-founded by Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett. Then the workaholics submitted three albums worth of material for a five-song EP. Catfish's hard-charging debut LP, The Balcony, was produced by Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian), and rallies 'round the throat-ripping chorus of "Kathleen," which has topped a million YouTube views. After packing in over 100 shows last year, McCann, lead guitarist Johnny Bond, bassist Benji Blakeway and drummer Bob Hall are on a stateside charge leading up to SXSW and Bonnaroo.
They Say: "Kathleen is the reason you start drinking," says McCann. "She's the one you call at three in the morning despite knowing she's the reason you went out drinking in the first place. You go around knowing you shouldn't, and before you know it, she's got your clothes off. She's that kind of person that everyone's been infatuated with — even when they know it's not the right path.
"I'm Northern, so it's hard for people to understand me in London and America. On the first tour we did, people were like [American accent] 'Dude, what's your band called? You guys rock.' I say "Catfish and the Bottlemen." They've had a few drinks. 'Catfish and the what? Boobtrotters?' And we go through like 20 names. We normally get to that point where we're literally sick of repeating it. It's a bad band name, isn't it? The band name is the reason we got our first ever radio play. They opened the email because the name looked so different. I tried to change it, but the label loved it."
Hear for Yourself: "Kathleen" is a smoothed-out garage rock anthem for late-night Snapchat sessions. By Reed Fischer
Sounds Like: An indie-rock Dusty In Memphis
For Fans of: Fifties Brill Building, Sixties Tropicália and Seventies Laurel Canyon songcraft
Why You Should Pay Attention: A singer/songwriter who had recently been making custom dog sweaters to pay rent, Prass abandoned her longtime Nashville homebase, joined Jenny Lewis' touring band and recorded her debut LP with indie-pop up-and-comer Matthew E. White in Richmond, Virginia, where she now lives. Prass' concise, self-titled set is full of lush orchestrations, mellow brass and an apiary of sparkly, fluttering, close-miked vocals that echo Laura Nyro and early Kate Bush. Early reports indicate her music has wowed plenty of critics — among them Ryan Adams, who invited her to open his European tour.
She Says: "My dad gave me the Introducing Dionne Warwick album when I was like 14," Prass says, explaining why she thanked the veteran soul-pop singer in her liner notes. "It was the first time I'd heard Burt Bacharach's songwriting and her voice, and it rocked my world. She's such a great singer, and communicator. It really helped me shape my own style….I'm really into the "classic" thing — the craft of writing something that will last, that won't die by next year."
Hear for Yourself: The lead track of her LP, "My Baby Don't Understand Me," is a crumbled relationship ballad with the bruised, cinematic majesty of a post-war Robert E. Lee retreating home. By Will Hermes
Sounds Like: Nina Simone and Play-era Moby forging millennial-era natural blues (with an uplifting cameo by Des'ree). An R&B passport with stamps from Scandinavia, Africa and the moon.
For Fans of: Adele, Laura Mvula, Erykah Badu
Why You Should Pay Attention: Swedish soul singer Seinabo Sey — pronounce it "say-na-bo see," admits she "hasn't gotten the hang of EDM," but DJs haven't been picky. After her procrastination-busting anthem "Younger" (the chorus goes "You ain't getting any younger, are you?") got remixed by Norwegian producer Kygo, it racked up over 10 million SoundCloud plays, millions of YouTube views and hit Number One on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. Last December, she performed the song as it appears on her new EP, For Madeleine (her mother), with a symphony orchestra at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo. Shaped with studio whiz Magnus Lidehäll (Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Sky Ferreira), Madeleine shows off Sey's versatile vocal timbre. Now perfecting her debut album, she hopes to release it later in 2015.
They Say: "The first time I had to perform by myself, I was 13 or 14. It was in order to get a grade in school. Prior to that I'd sing in choirs, so I never had to sing solo. Afterwards, I thought maybe I'm better at this than some people. I was happy that I had done something that I was very scared to do.
"[Americans] can listen to new songs you've never heard and like them. In Sweden, people stand there and listen, and then applaud in between. They appreciate it, but they don't show it 'til the song is over."
Hear for Yourself: In "Pistols at Dawn," a psychological showdown, complete with gunclaps, unfolds. By Reed Fischer
Sounds Like: Chainsaw-guitar blues from the rural-Mississippi source.
For Fans of: Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Mississippi Fred McDowell
Why You Should Pay Attention: Following a half-century of mule plowing and logging, Leo "Bud" Welch, 82, made his recording debut in 2013 with Sabougla Voices, a powerful reflection of the hard electric gospel music he's played in the Sabougla Baptist Church and elsewhere for 27 years. And while churches outnumber juke joints by a wide margin in Mississippi, Welch decided to shake things up with I Don't Prefer No Blues, a throbbing album of distorted guitar and gravelly vocals titled after his pastor's initial response to Leo's stylistic departure. "I know you don't," Welch replied to the clergyman's blues bashing, "'cause you don't know anything about 'em." Welch saturates blues tunes extemporized largely on the fly, and now he has an international audience to bear witness.
He Says: "Too much wine can make you blind," cautions Welch on I Don't Prefer No Blues; so he prefers another beverage. "I drink a little to clear my throat. Give me some whiskey so I can bring my voice on up. If you singin' and you start off a song on a high key, you're like climbin' a tree startin' at the top. If you want to go higher, you can't go higher; all you can do is unlock and throw your ass back down on the ground. What keeps me playin' the blues is when I'm playing the guitar and there's two or three good-lookin' women over there. Someone'll holler, 'Sing it!' and I'll say, 'You said a mouthful, honey chile.' Yeah!"
Hear for Yourself: Two minutes into this video, Welch churns through the minimalist "I Don't Know What You Came to Do" at Otha Turner's Place in Mississippi. By Richard Gehr
Sounds Like: The kind of hard-but-smooth dance music that doesn't alienate those who aren't quite in the mood to dance.
For Fans of: Duke Dumont, Avicii at his least Avicii, the "toaster" Instagram filter
Why You Should Pay Attention: Schulz has become the go-to-guy for low-key dance remixes, and rightfully so: His two most famous edits turned mostly-acoustic tracks — "Prayer in C" and "Waves" —by barely-known artists (Lilly Wood and the Prick and Mr. Probz, respectively) into the sort of global hits that work equally well on pop radio and main stages. The 27-year-old grew up in clubs, his dad a DJ and his mom handling business behind the scenes. At 14, he started producing, and he kept grinding until the "Waves" went viral on Soundcloud. Now commissions come from giants like Coldplay, David Guetta and Axwell ^ Ingrosso. An album, Prayer, combines the best of these with a handful of original tunes.
He Says: The German Schulz isn't fluent in English, but is still able to communicate his top priority with his infectious deep house tracks. "I try to make the track danceable," he says. "I want to make people freak out on the dancefloor. I want to create music that people can dance to — great voices and great melodies — and of course I want to create emotion from the music as well. I love when I see the reaction from the crowd the first time I play a track."
Hear for Yourself: "Sun Goes Down" proves that the remix kingpin can also start from scratch, swallowing synths, guitar, horn and occasional piano notes under copious amount of melancholic reverb. By Nick Murray
Sounds Like: A slow-building breakthrough at an indie-rock therapy session.
For Fans of: Rilo Kiley, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Liz Phair
Why You Should Pay Attention: Mitski's recent Bury Me at Make Out Creek, showcases the singer's ability to turn delicate indie-folk into carefree heavy rock at a moment's notice. Her voice is both confident and sad, and her lyrics are personal and poetic — "I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony," she sings in "Townie," "and I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground."
It's a sound that's been a long time coming. Mitski studied composition in college and her past records have leaned more toward piano-driven, singer-songwriter tunes. She cites the international folk music her dad would play, and the Japanese pop her mom would sing to herself as inspirations, but she also draws influence from M.I.A., Mica Levi, Björk and J-pop singer Shiina Ringo, "because they all do what the fuck they want, and do it well." She learned guitar last year, and out came Bury Me at Make Out Creek ("I had to make songs that would be good even when played badly," she says). In turn, she's been gaining critical praise and a busy performance schedule, with an upcoming tour supporting Hundred Waters and Screaming Females and another with Speedy Ortiz.
She Says: "I'd never screamed in the studio before doing 'Drunk Walk Home,' but it just felt right for the song. I remember I did an initial take of screams and they were pretty tame because I was shy, and then the recording engineer stood up and said, 'Let me try,' and did a set of screams that were better, and I was like, 'Oh, OK fucker, watch this,' and did the screams on the record. I'm easily coerced by competition."
Hear for Yourself: The debauched "Townie" perfectly captures the feeling of losing control on a wild night. By Kory Grow
Sounds Like: Deft, late-Nineties hip-hop lyricism, with a dash of nonsensical free-association.
For Fans of: Sean Price or Redman if they were raised in Chicago a decade late.
Why You Should Pay Attention: Approaching his mid-30s, Vic Spencer is older than your average emerging rapper, and he embraces the irascible, grumpy persona in a way that's more entertaining than aggravating. He grew up on the distinct, personality-driven "lyrical" styles of the late Nineties underground — think Soundbombing-era Eminem or Redman — and though it's an old sound, Spencer approaches it in a fresh way. Few contemporary rappers sound much like him, which is part of why he's stood out in a crowded Windy City hip-hop scene. He recorded with Chance the Rapper and the similarly named (though stylistically distant) Vic Mensa before either were known quantities, and has the support of a who's-who of local producers, particularly the celebrated autuer Tree. Spencer's latest tape, The Cost of Victory, isn't something you'll hear on the radio, but it taps a stylistic vein that's been almost completely abandoned, a slice of classic late-Nineties backpack rap without the negative connotations.
He Says: Vic Spencer's parents both had problems with drugs, and he ended up living with his aunt from the time he was seven. In his early teens he transferred to a group home, where he began taking rap seriously. The year was 1997. "I was trying to defeat the odds of what I was going through. [We formed] a group called Uhlich Voices," says Spencer. "The CEO [of the group home] took an interest in how we were writing music and doing things to stay out of trouble while we were in the agency. Me and three other guys, we traveled across the country. Sacramento, Kentucky, Connecticut, St. Louis…a couple of other spots. [We performed in] DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] forums. DCFS is in Chicago, and we was always be a part of the entertainment. I wrote about being in the group home, being angry, about my parents being crackheads…for people that were going through the same stuff that I was going through, and I wanted to show them that there was another side and it would be alright." Today, his parents are both clean, Vic has been married for nearly a decade and has two daughters of his own — and he's still rapping.
Hear for Yourself: "Relapse" epitomizes the jazzy style of The Cost of Victory. By David Drake
Sounds Like: A languorous summer day spent sun-dappled in bed with a first love, a joint and the knowledge that the moment will end, as all good things do.
For Fans of: Jeff Buckley, Foals, Buffalo Springfield
Why You Should Pay Attention: Since these four British lads' debut single, 2014's "Veins," racked up nearly 50,000 plays on Soundcloud in just two weeks, the U.K. music press has been all over them like they were the world's last jar of marmite. Rowdy rocker Jamie T handpicked Palace to open for him at his first live shows in four years, which raised the band's profile in its homeland to yet another level. Amazingly, even the Internet commentariat have had mostly positive comments for the group's new EP, Lost in the Night. "Someone on Soundcloud said it's like Morrissey and Buckley had a baby, which I guess is kind of cool," says drummer Matt Hodges. "Another guy said we're like Foals on Xanax, which was quite interesting. We've had a few comments about our music being good baby-making music too, so that's nice. Sex music, basically."
They Say: Palace write and rehearse in a unique North London space that Hodges describes as "a musical commune/squat." "It's had a big influence on us as a band, as there are so many different people working on many different genres of music," he says. "It's also a bit of an instrument graveyard — sitars, organs, endless guitars and percussion stuff lying around, which makes for a lot of fun in our downtime when we're recording. It's a pretty craggy place with a lot of crap everywhere. It's gets down to arctic temperatures in the winter, and in the summer we have to pretty much play in our boxers it's so hot, but it's been amazing for Palace."
Hear for Yourself: Languid and shimmery, "Bitter" finds the sweet-sad spot between indie emo and Sixties blues. By Brandon Geist
Sounds Like: All the best Nineties teen movies compressed into three minute pop jams.
For Fans of: Demi Lovato, Boyce Avenue, the Warped Tour
Why You Should Pay Attention: Before she even turned 16 this month, Miller had competed on the X-Factor, nabbed a deal with Hollywood Records, opened for Demi Lovato and released her dark and angsty single "Young Blood," which has already racked up millions of YouTube views. This year, she has an untitled debut album slated for late spring and a new single on the radio, "Fire N Gold."
"I really gravitate towards music that's fun to listen to, but when you listen to it and dig deeper you find the true meaning of the song," says Miller, a huge fan of classic and alternative rock bands like the Beatles and Nirvana, who inspire much of her sound and style. "A lot of kids my age don't listen to those bands and don't appreciate those artists as much as I would want them to," she notes with a laugh.
They Say: "I'm really honest. I think that's important because I'm the same age and gender as the majority of my fans, and I understand what they're going through. I'm not going to tell them that everything is going to be fantastic and wonderful all the time. I'm going to be real and say, 'You're going to fall down, and you're going to go through bad times. It's really going to suck, but we all go through bad things.' Not a lot of pop artists talk about the negative sides of life, which is fine. I've just always wanted to say the things that I wish pop artists when I was 8, 9, ten would've said to me. "
Hear for Yourself: The ebullient and angsty new single "Fire N Gold" fits right into Miller's brand of upbeat pop accompanied by melancholy lyrics.
Sounds Like: U.K. kids tinkering with the ill-angled tantrums of of L.A., D.C. and San Diego punk.
For Fans of: Future of the Left, Dead Kennedys, 400 Blows
Why You Should Pay Attention: Boldly dubbing themselves "the loudest live band in the U.K.," gnashing trio Youth Man stand in sharp contrast to the croony "B-Town" indie rock bands like Peace and Swim Deep. Their brand of punk leans heavily towards the weirdos (not the Weirdos) of early California hardcore, in which bands like Fear weren't too afraid (or too unskilled) to throw in an odd time signature. Since dropping their first music in 2012, Youth Man have opened for Pissed Jeans and Sleaford Mods.
They Say: Youth Man have been releasing a steady stream of singles and EPs — second extended play, the five-track Hill of Knives, is due in August — but have yet to commit to a full-length album. "Everybody these days has a short attention span. We do too," says singer Kaila Whyte. "Plus nobody has offered us enough money yet." Lead single "Skin" is only 77 seconds long, but for bassist Miles Cocker, it will last a lifetime — for the video, he gave himself a tattoo. "It was like watching someone poke themselves with an inky needle. Over, and over, and over, and over," says drummer Marcus Perks. Adds Whyte, "We were all pretty drunk by then so it's a slightly hazy memory."
Hear for Yourself: The jittery "Skin" yowls, churns, and explodes with feedback — but its irregular pulse includes tricky bars of 5/4. By Christopher R. Weingarten