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: Justin Bieber hitmaker Julia Michaels, genre-crossing Twenty One Pilots tourmates Judah & the Lion, rising R&B star Khalid and more.
Sounds Like: The distilled, unfiltered version of the emo dance-pop she's written for other artists over the years
For Fans of: Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld, Dido remixes
Why You Should Pay Attention: At 23 years old, Julia Michaels has already built one of the music business' most enviable résumés, writing songs for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Britney Spears, among others. The fact that she finally released her debut solo single, "Issues," is only the cherry on top.
Michaels has spent her whole life writing poetry and songs, and at 17 years old she reached a mainstream breakthrough with a co-writing credit on the theme song for Disney's Austin & Ally. "My dad was actually pressuring me to go to college," she recalls. "But I was like, 'No, I think I'm good at this!'"
From there, with mentors and co-writers Joleen Belle and Lindy Robbins, she began writing songs for artists like Demi Lovato and Fifth Harmony. She later linked up with "song husband" and Semi-Precious Weapons frontman Justin Tranter, beginning a hot streak of writing hits like Bieber's "Sorry," Hailee Steinfeld's "Love Myself" and Gomez's "Hands to Myself." The pair have also caught the attention of Gwen Stefani, John Legend and Ed Sheeran. Like all her other songs prior, "Issues" began as part of a songwriting camp for another artist's album, but upon hearing the demo, she knew it was too personal to share.
"I didn't understand why I was so affected by [this song]," Michaels recalls. "I ended up crying in the bathroom for two hours. [Justin] knocked on the door and said 'Honey, I think you're denying yourself something that you really want because you're scared of it.'" Michaels is preparing for debut EP in between writing sessions for other artists.
She Says: "I think that women are afraid are afraid to be vulnerable because they think it makes them look weak. It's ingrained in people's minds that it's a typecast and a stereotype that women are just emotional and crazy. If you listen to the radio it's all men who are emotional and women who are sexual. There's nothing wrong with that! It definitely should be the case, but it makes me sad that women are afraid to be emotional because it makes them look weak. There is so much power in vulnerability, and I am proud to be that typecast."
Hear For Yourself: The personal, soul-bearing "Issues" is as catchy as it is tender, and her soft delivery helps her stand out from the pop crowd. Brittany Spanos
Sounds Like: Coffeehouse soul shot through with hip-hop and romantic befuddlement
For Fans of: India.Arie, Bryson Tiller, Donell Jones
Why You Should Pay Attention: His single "Location" – co-produced by Syk Sense, who also has a credit on the Drake anthem "Know Yourself" – recently debuted at Number 77 on the Hot 100, powered by close to 30 million Spotify streams, plenty of airplay on Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop stations, and the support of Kylie Jenner, who enjoys plugging young artists on Snapchat. Khalid's mother sings in the Army Band, so music was a constant presence in his life despite frequent moves. When he relocated from Germany to upstate New York, he discovered bearded folksters – Grizzly Bear, Father John Misty – and found they sat easily next to the R&B his mother loved. All that remained was to start writing songs, which he did when he moved again, this time to El Paso, Texas. "It's just vulnerability, literally throwing it all out on the table," he explains. "This is what I went through during high school: heartbreak, love, all the clichés – but not necessarily in cliché format."
He Says: "Syk Sense flew me to Atlanta the first time. We had this long session, and he asked me, 'Do you want to end the session or do you want to continue?' I'm like, 'I want to continue.' He played the 'Location' loop. I made the chorus there, then I had to go back to high school. I waited for my next vacation, which was spring break, and I recorded the rest. My mom helped me out with the harmonies of the song, I released it a couple weeks before prom, and I won prom king. Now I'm singing 'Location' and everyone knows the words.
"After every show I talk to every single fan who stays after. I'm telling them, 'Thank you for coming' – that's the core group. The people who come to your first shows are going to support your forever. I at least want to thank them on a personal level before things get too crazy."
Hear for Yourself: "Reasons" slows the bassline from 2Pac's "Do For Love" to a pensive creep. "Evade my intellect," Khalid sings. "Feed into my introspect." Elias Leight
Sounds Like: Jaunty alt-folk abetted by heavy beats, fuzzed-out synths and gigantic choruses
For Fans of: Mumford and Sons, OneRepublic, Imagine Dragons
Why You Should Pay Attention: Judah & the Lion's latest single, "Take It All Back," logged an impressive four-week run at the top of the Alternative Song charts. Beginning as a relatively traditional folk-rock group, they've recently broken out in a big way following the release of their third album Folk Hop N' Roll. The name of that record pretty much says it all: Rather than stowing their banjos and mandolins completely, the group incorporated drum machines, overdriven guitars and laser-like synths to create a hybrid unlike anything else going.
They're currently on tour supporting Twenty One Pilots in front of sell-out crowds in basketball arenas around the U.S. "Obviously [Twenty One Pilots] are at a way, way more massive level, but as far as the unorthodoxness of the sound, for whatever reason they kind of marry each other really well," says singer/guitarist Judah Akers. "I think [their fans] are accepting of people making honest music that's true to them."
They Say: The jump from the traditional folk-rock aesthetic of 2014's Kids These Days to a more eclectic sound was quite natural amongst the members of the band. "The older you get, the more you discover about yourself," Akers notes. "Just as being a band, traveling, and being together more, that self-discovery started happening, and we discovered more about each other and our identity as a band." He added, "All of us love hip-hop music. We like good, strong beats, but we also like the banjo, and we love the mandolin. We love the uniqueness of that and how no one is really doing that right now. With this last record, and even moving forward with new songs that we're writing now, it seems like that self-discovery is giving us more of an identity as to who we are and we're really, really excited about it."
Hear for Yourself: "Take It All Back" is the big single. Corbin Reiff
Sounds Like: Grimy, brooding, arty hardcore
For Fans of: Converge, Nine Inch Nails, the Dillinger Escape Plan
Why You Should Pay Attention: In the lead-up to the January release of their third album, Forever, the band earned praise from aboveground outlets including NPR as well as fellow adventurous headbangers such as the Dillinger Escape Plan and the Deftones, who nabbed Code Orange to open for them. "The super positive feedback is an unreal cherry on top for us," drummer-vocalist Jami Morgan says of the response to Forever. "I feel it's a record that has something for a lot of different groups of people, but you never know if that will be picked up on or not."
Formed under the name Code Orange Kids when the band members were just 14 and 15 years old, this Pennsylvanian quartet dropped the "Kids" in 2014, foreshadowing the darker, deeper, more diverse sound. Forever seamlessly juxtaposes mosh-fuelling crushers like the title cut with industrial downward spirals ("Hurt Goes On") and flannel-shrouded alt-rock ("Bleeding in the Blur," which cracked Spotify's Viral 50 chart).
They Say: Code Orange made headlines in the metal press last year, first when the band shared a video of Asking Alexandria on Facebook and called them out for their "fake rockstar mentality," and then in December, when Morgan was quoted saying that his group didn't want to tour with "bargain bin fucking deathcore bands."
"I feel some of what I've said has been misrepresented, and in the case of the only band I ever spoke the name of, it had nothing to do with their music as I've never heard it," Morgan says now. "I do think that bigger artists that play to 12 year olds have some level of responsibility not to intentionally implant horrible human values in those children's heads. And when it comes to heavy music, most of what's considered close to 'mainstream' simply doesn't appeal to us, and we offer an alternative. I think people are going to find that alternative."
Hear for Yourself: Guitarist Reba Meyers – one of Code Orange's three vocalists – takes center stage on grungy Forever standout and the band's poppiest song yet "Bleeding in the Blur." Brandon Geist
Sounds Like: A 21st-century folk music makeover
For Fans of: Lorde, Feist, Sylvan Esso
Why You Should Pay Attention: Last spring, the internet caught a video of Pharrell Williams being bowled over by "Alaska," the skeletal debut single by then-NYU student Maggie Rogers. Rogers, who grew up on a farm and played banjo in her youth, blends folk-inspired vocal melodies and heady beats in a way that wows: The full-fledged videos for "Alaska" and its follow-up single, the swirling "Dog Years," racked up streams and landed on year-end best-of lists. On February 16th, the self-assured, thoughtful Rogers will release her debut EP Now That the Light Is Fading, which also includes "Color Song," an updated version of a song the Maryland native sang at summer camp. This spring she'll tour North America as a headliner.
She Says: "I'm a college graduate. Dealing with anxiety or feeling overwhelmed in this whole new world is both incredibly unique to my own situation and incredibly general to the world that all of my classmates and I are in. But I felt a sigh of relief when 2017 came. 2016 has been a year that's marked on my calendar since I was born, since it was the year I would graduate college. 2017 just feels incredibly exciting because it feels new, like anything can happen – and now I feel incredibly grounded. I feel like I can handle everything. I feel good about the work I'm doing; and I feel so grateful that I get to wake up every morning and think about music. I feel really prepared and really present, and it feels good."
Hear for Yourself: "On and Off" combines an urgent beat with folk-inspired vocal harmonies and a dizzying piano riff. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: Young love, youthful ambition and California dreaming
For Fans of: Bryson Tiller, 6lack, Partynextdoor
Why You Should Pay Attention: Signed to Def Jam, Jahkoy is preparing for a national tour with Kehlani. Last October he earned critical acclaim with his debut EP, Foreign Water. Its first single, "California Heaven" is a blissful homage to the former Toronto singer's newly adopted Los Angeles home, produced by Rico Love and featuring a cameo from Schoolboy Q. Despite his rising profile, Jahkoy says he's still "rebranding himself" since he started making music as a rapper at the age of 11. "I've only been singing since 2014," he says. "Now I've got a vocal coach, and I feel a lot more comfortable with where my voice sits and how to control it." Journeying from his native Toronto home to Atlanta, and then L.A., the 22-year-old fomented his buzz with the 2015 mixtape Forward Thinking, while singles like "Still in Love" and "Odd Future" earned hundreds of thousands of online streams.
He Says: The current working title for Jahkoy's Def Jam debut is Glory Child. "I'm not calling myself the glory child," he explains. "It's a Toronto love story. … This girl, she's the one who got me to make the switch from rapping to singing. I started liking this girl, and I really wanted to impress her. So she made me want to do the most, or not the most, but do more. And to me, she won me over in a sense where she made me want to go harder for myself. With that being said, she is the glory child, you know?"
True, you can't really serenade a girl with a rap song.
"Yeah, definitely," he laughs. "I've tried it before, y'know? But it's not as sweet."
Hear for Yourself: On "California Heaven," Jahkoy raves that all the girls are perfect over flickers of reggae guitar and island vibes. Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: Classic collegiate guitar-rock with just enough muscle to make it big on Nineties modern-rock radio
For Fans of: Hüsker Dü, the Vines, Local H
Why You Should Pay Attention: The guitarist and bassist from Norwegian metal band Kvelertak came up with the idea of chasing their power-pop fantasy while on tour, and hooked up with a hard-hitting drummer and former synth-pop vocalist Børild Haughom. Their self-titled debut sounds like a metal-loving version of Sugar, or the Foo Fighters on a Big Star bender, or vintage Teenage Fanclub if they spent more time at the gym than the record store.
They Say: "Beachheads" implies a bunch of songs about gurls and beer, but Haughom's lyrics touch on deeper subject matter. "The first time I met up with Marvin and Vidar to test out vocals on some demos was in November 2013, a month after my father had passed away," he says, "It was after that I started writing lyrics, so it has definitely impacted my lyrics a lot. It's been a way for me to put it all into words and has helped me in processing the massive amount of thoughts that were lingering in my head in the months and years after his passing.
Hear for Yourself: "Moment of Truth" is bright and resiliently heart-heavy. Jon Dolan
Sounds Like: A soulful rose that grew from the South London concrete
For Fans of: Mary J. Blige in her My Life heyday, Jazmine Sullivan, Estelle
Why You Should Pay Attention: Ray Blk is an artist who both resembles the current R&B landscape and sounds nothing like it. She's a rapper-turned-singer that can still spit a rhyme or two, as she proves on the just released single "Patience (Freestyle)." Her beats, made by producers like SG Lewis (Gallant, Disclosure), have the same electro-pop tones that most of her peers use, but she sings with the full-throated passion of an earlier era – think Mary J. Blige on "Happy. "I learned how to sing from choirs, and from listening to my mum's Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston CDs," she says.
On her second project, Durt, she writes about a life growing up in her gritty South London neighborhood, whether it's with the defiant "5050," or "Chill Out," where she asserts her right to have platonic, casual relationships with the opposite sex. It's those qualities that helped her win BBC's Sound of 2017 poll last month. Meanwhile, her Durt EP has nearly a million SoundCloud streams, partly thanks to her "My Hood" collaboration with hot grime rapper Stormzy.
She Says: While unknown to most Americans, the annual BBC Sound of poll is highly regarded in the UK music industry. Past winners who went on to major success include Adele, Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding and Haim. Ray Blk is the first indie artist to top the poll. "I feel like from the second I put something out, labels have been trying to contact me and sign me, from, like, when I only had 200 listens. I don't know how they find people! But from that early state, labels have been approaching me. I've had conversations and stuff, but I just decided that, for me, I kinda just want to stay independent. If the time comes and I decide there's a right offer for me, and the right partner to partner up with, then I might be up for it."
Hear for Yourself: In the video for "Chill Out," Ray Blk's demand for self-determination takes on a new tone. Filmed in Jamaica, the clip spotlights members of the Gully Queens, a transgender community that has suffered homophobia and persecution. Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: Basement-show Beefheart
For Fans of: The Raincoats, the Residents, Half Japanese
Why You Should Pay Attention: After two well-received cassette full-lengths, Brooklyn/Philly noise-rock trio Palberta are finally going straight to vinyl for their third album, Bye Bye Berta. For their first release for Brooklyn's Wharf Cat Records, the D.I.Y. staples sing disjointed playground punk that embraces both dissonance and innocence, trading instruments as quickly as they change ideas: A good 80 percent of the songs poke and scurry off before two minutes are up. "At this point writing short songs feels more intuitive for us than intentional – it's the natural way," says Nina Ryser. "It kind of reflects the song writing process itself: frenzied, fast, kind of jumbled."
Though Palberta recall angular British post-punkers like Liliput and the Raincoats, the band is more likely to be listening to Al Green, Fleetwood Mac and Arthur Russell these days. To wit, the highlight of Berta is their cover of "Stayin' Alive," a spectral, funky, 68-second deconstruction of the disco classic in the tradition of the Slits' "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."
"'Stayin' Alive' is one of the greatest songs ever, it makes you feel like a million bucks!" says Ryser. "We only knew fragments of the lyrics so Lily [Konigsberg] decided to stick with her rendition: 'Jenny's eatin' burgers and everyone's uh-shakin and uh-stayin alive.'"
They Say: "We still switch instruments as a result of writing our songs in different formations. It's a great thing, because we're all eager to learn and grow as drummers, bassists and guitarists, so it gives us a chance to rock on each instrument," says Ryser. "The drawback is that it lends itself to pretty awkward transitions when we play live – mostly because breaking up loud, heavy songs with silence can be awkward. Lots of muttering aloud as we pass instruments to each other, sometimes someone is stuck with a bass and guitar in each hand, tripping over cables."
"It happens all the time and it's hilarious," adds Konigsberg. "The transitions, though sometimes awkward feeling, definitely add to our performance and make it more uniquely Palberta."
Hear for Yourself: Within the span of 90 seconds from start to finish, "Ode to Honey" switches from Yoko-centric skronk-funk into dreamy, harmony-soaked broken pop. Christopher R. Weingarten
Sounds Like: The score to a Puerto Rican retelling of Boogie Nights
For Fans of: Helado Negro, Goldfrapp, Glass Candy
Why You Should Pay Attention: Under the Spanish moniker for “troublemaker,” Brooklyn-based electronic duo Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle are accelerating a delicious new wave of Latin alternative sounds, ripe with unabashed sensuality and buffed with a vintage Seventies sparkle. The pair met in New York, when Berrios played a house show in a cheeky two-woman folk-punk band called En Teta. They hit it off at once, both creatively and romantically. The two were later scouted by Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange), who would produce their silken 2014 EP, Caer. That same year, the band’s song “Métele” themed the critically acclaimed documentary film Mala Mala, which spotlights transgender communities in Puerto Rico. Of their new EP, II, Berrios says, “We’re fighting so hard to make this work – while paying rent, raising a kid – there’s a new aggressiveness here. The spirit of the hustle is embedded in this record.”
With their two-year-old daughter Charlie in tow, they joined Helado Negro – who features in the new EP – on the Northeast leg of his recent U.S. tour. “We played from Boston to Baltimore with a toddler in the back,” says Berrios. “One night we had to stay extra late, sitting with the baby in a green room, with all these dicks drawn on the wall. I was like, ‘We have to get the fuck outta here. Are we doing the right thing? What are we putting our child through?'”
Alfredo describes Helado Negro as “a samurai,” who mollified the band with encouragement. “He described it as a breakthrough,” says Alfredo, “We played our best show that night.
“Now, we look to the Paul and Linda McCartney in Wings example,” he laughs.
“Well, they had a ton of money, and a staff. … And the worst hair,” says Berrios.
“But we’ve gotten to Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile,” says Del Valle. “We make it work.”
They Say: In the video for “Tártaro,” filmed in the Rococo kitsch of San Juan’s Hotel OK, Berrios tiptoes across the tiles in ankle socks and sinks into a heart-shaped tub. “In Puerto Rico, the sex motel is a countercultural thing,” she says. “There’s a strip in a town called Caguas, full of kooky sex motels. I lived with my parents through college, so I used to go there with my boyfriends, or hang out and drink with my friends. I was really inspired by the author Mayra Santos-Febres – while she was going through a divorce, she rented a room at a sex motel to write books and get peace and quiet. Cut to my obsession with Frankie Ruiz, who’s like this seedy Eighties salsero with a gold chain, loves coke and women, but has the most beautiful voice. I wrote “Tártaro” as a tribute to him, and wanted to film the video in a sex motel. We took Adam [Uhl], the cinematographer from Mala Mala – but the motel has a strict two-person policy, so we had to hide him in the trunk. It was like we were robbing a bank. We even brought cleaning products because everything was sticky, it was so gross.”
Hear for Yourself: “Tártaro” is a beguiling revamp of Eighties salsa erótica, stimulated by Berrios’ softcore purr. Suzy Exposito