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: Top 40 bubblegum R&B singer Daya, grime sensation Lady Leshurr, metal-inflected trap DJ Lookas, critically acclaimed art-rapper Milo and more.
Sounds Like: Norse folk ballads served on the rocks. Tales — some real and some imaginary — over a variety of synth claps, trills and other electronic curios
For Fans of: Of Monsters and Men, Lorde, Sia (not because of the hair, we swear!)
Why You Should Pay Attention: Like many budding pop stars, 19-year-old Aurora Aksnes was first discovered online after posting her original songs on Soundcloud and Youtube. She's since been signed to Glassnote in the States and Decca in the UK, who released her EP, Running With the Wolves, last May, highlighted by the viral lullaby, "Runaway." She's gone on to sell out shows in London, and scored the opening slot for Icelandic pop titans Of Monsters and Men in Brixton last November. She was later scouted by a representative of John Lewis, the UK equivalent to Macy's, who handpicked her to be the voice of its 2015 Christmas advertisement (she covered Oasis' "Half the World Away"). Across the pond she won over Katy Perry, who visited Aurora backstage after her show in Los Angeles. "I didn't know much about her until we met," says Aksnes. "She wasn't wearing her usual dresses or makeup, she was very lovely and down-to-earth. It must be strange being that famous. It's kind of unnatural for humans to have that much attention, but if you can manage it like she does, it's fine." Her debut album, All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend, is due in March
She Says: When listening to her compositions, it's easy to imagine the quaint, Scandinavian locale where she writes and records them, at home in Bergen, Norway. "I live by the sea. We use a lot of field recordings and samples from the ocean and from rainy days." she says. Delicate, folky lead single "Murder (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)" is a particularly grim introduction to her album, in which she sings from the perspective of a murder victim who embraces her murderer. "Lots of songs aren't even from my experiences, but they're about accepting … the dark things about yourself," says Aksnes. "You simply have to accept that your demons are a part of you. You have to accept them as your friends. You disagree with your friends. You get mad at [them], you still love [them], you make them cry and they make you cry too." In that dark vein, Aksnes also divulges a not-so-guilty pleasure: heavy metal. "Everybody's got that split between the beautiful and fragile, the hard and the dark," she says. "Gojira is my favorite band of all time, they're lovely, I've seen them live two times. I also love Mastodon and the Refused as well." Would she ever write a metal song herself? "I could. … If I happened to feel really angry. Actually, yeah, I would!"
Hear For Yourself: The second single off her upcoming album, "Conqueror" is an upbeat song for the modern Viking girl who bemoans the timidness of her love prospects. It's also featured on the official soundtrack for FIFA '16. Suzy Exposito
Sounds Like: Melancholic, androgynous pop noir set in smoke-filled darkness.
For Fans of: Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," Beach House, the XX
Why You Should Pay Attention: A recent upswell of millions of YouTube hits have rained on this romantic, wistful Brooklyn band that plays at a heartbroken crawl. Many of them originated from recommendations via the video platform and a fanbase of pleasantly surprised listeners. "That's a total mystery," says frontman Greg Gonzalez, brushing off any suggestion of selective targeting. "If I would've known how to get some sort of promotion like that I would've tried." As his YouTube numbers skyrocketed in the second half of 2015, it led up to November's Bandcamp release of the sweet-and-sour slowcore original "Affection" and a low-BPM cover of REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You." Another 10 to 12 songs in the same mood have been recorded for the debut Cigarettes After Sex LP — due sometime this year.
They Say: "['Keep On Loving You'] was always just a light joke to me," says Gonzalez. "It was always around in my childhood growing up. Finally, one day it just clicked and I thought it was a great song. Like, 'I can't believe I didn't see it until now.' My life boils down to that. A song finally hits the right spot. Something I've known forever. I started covering it for fun, as a warm up when I was recording. Then I started slowing it down, and it had this heartbroken vibe. It felt very desperate and sad. There was a pain to it, which wasn't as apparent in the REO Speedwagon version."
Hear for Yourself: Their dream-pop version of "Keep On Loving You" exposes the power ballad's secret, semi-morbid core. Reed Fischer
Sounds Like: Snappy Twitter snark set to a dramatic beat
For Fans of: Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Skepta's "Shutdown"
Why You Should Pay Attention: Grime has had a handful of near-crossover moments in America and the ever-flourishing genre's next best bet is Lady Leshurr: Her "Queen's Speech" freestyle series has over 33 million YouTube views, she's got an Erykah Badu's cosign ("ILL") and a feature in a Samsung ad. Her cracks at your personal hygiene showcase the more playful side of hip-hop chest-puffing and she has punchlines to spare (check the Kanye West "Slow Jamz" reference, "I got a dark-skinned friend that look like Rachel Dolezal/And I got a light-skinned friend that look like Rachel Dolezal"). "Too many people are too serious," she says. "They want to talk about things that I don't like to channel, whether that is violence or partying in the club with their new car. What I want to do is bring the fun back into music." Her next effort might help: Lady Leshurr's debut album, Queen of the Scene, is out later this year.
She Says: Of all the praise that Lady Leshurr has received as of late, Timbaland's meant the most. "I got to meet him and we spoke for a bit about my music. One thing I'll always remember is when he said that he sees Missy Elliott in me. That, to me, is a massive, massive compliment."
Hear for Yourself: Don't mess with Lady Leshurr. As she establishes in the fourth "Queen's Speech" episode, she's got "one eye on your man/Fetty Wap." Christina Lee
Sounds Like: The logical conclusion in the quest to make heavy festival trap even heavier
For Fans of: Carnage, Flosstradamus, those times Korn flirted with American dubstep
Why You Should Pay Attention Miami-based producer Lookas makes unrelentingly heavy, big-field-ready electronic trap that burbles and churns, designed to make eardrums bleed. As a teen, he convinced his parents to let him postpone college for a year to focus solely on music: Things took off with a spin on DVBB and Borgeous' track "Tsunami," which he remixed with fellow Miamian HLTR$KLTR. The rework notched some 100,000 plays in two days, despite Lookas' mere 500 follower count at the time. Now, at age 21 and after a few months' break to retool — and write most of an upcoming concept album(!) — Lookas is back with "Game Over," a collab track with fellow producer CrankDat. Just when festival folks thought their faces couldn't melt off any faster, Lookas created what might be a new breed of heavy metal trap. Propelled by pal Louis Martinee's crunching, death-influenced guitars and CrankDat's massive drops, the track has racked up more than 730,000 plays on SoundCloud in about three weeks. You can hear how it translates soon: Lookas has just announced his forthcoming Zero Gravity tour, spanning some 20 dates across two months nationally.
He Says: Lookas credits Miami's sketchy all-ages party circuit for pushing him into producing his own material. "There was [one club] where they would throw events and I would go there and get ripped off by the promoters. I would go there and DJ for like 1,000 kids and not get paid," he says. "So I told myself I would stop playing these gigs and getting ripped off, and spending some time writing music."
Hear for Yourself: "Game Over" is like the EDM version of Metallica's "Master of Puppets." Arielle Castillo
Sounds Like: Hyper-aware missives from a friend whose mind is always whirling.
For Fans Of: Eleanor Friedberger, Wye Oak, Sebadoh's "Rebound"
Why You Should Pay Attention: Richmond-based Lucy Dacus has a knack for writing disarmingly open indie rock songs, with plainspoken lyrics that hit even harder thanks to her soft, sturdy alto. Her debut No Burden, which comes out February 26th, was recorded in Nashville over the course of a single day. Dacus's voice is surrounded by gently churning guitars with forays into dreampop (the fuzzed-out ending to the sturdy "Dreamtime") and stark acoustic tracks ("Trust," one of Dacus's earliest songs).
She Says: "Usually I'll just be walking from my house to somewhere else, and melodies and words will start coming up, and I'll have to run home to write it all down. I have a huge note on my phone where things just start popping up. It doesn't make that much sense to me at the time, but once a song is finished, I can read into it and figure out who the characters are in my life. Hopefully when you listen to a song, you can say, 'That's me,' or 'That's someone I know' — you relate to it in a way that's cathartic."
Hear for Yourself: "I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore" is a pitch-perfect portrait of a woman feeling boxed in by the way her peers view her, with Dacus' thoughts about potential personas grounded by a steady chug. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: A dream conjured up during a quiet storm
For Fans Of: The S.O.S. Band, Klymaxx, Janelle Monáe and Miguel's "Primetime"
Why You Should Pay Attention: Since the release of their first EP in 2011, this Los Angeles-based R&B trio — made up of twins Paris and Amber Strother with Anita Bias — has made waves with their inviting, harmony-rich brand of R&B. They've opened for Babyface and Prince, and they appeared on Robert Glasper's star-studded Black Radio. Tracks like "The Story" and "The Greatest" nod to the lush textures of Quiet Storm and smooth jazz while having their sights set on the future. Bias and Amber Strother's vocals blend and bend into bliss, while Paris Strother's meticulously arranged instrumentals are tailor-made for whiling away an afternoon. Fizzy love songs and extended analog-synth fantasias are all over King's self-released debut album, which comes out on February 5th.
They Say: "All of this coming together [was the result of] us collaborating together and creating with ourselves," says Paris Strother. "In the last few years of getting to know each other better, we've approached this synergy where we're sharing ideas while completing each other's musical sentences. … There's a ton of analog synths in there, [and] we have a LinnDrum now. It's kind of an addiction of mine, hanging out on eBay and finding old vintage synths. There's also the modern touch of making sounds, and using sampling to really beef up the sounds that we like — we went and bought a cowbell and a hi-hat. [Our aesthetic is] coming from all over the place. But it's largely based on the warmth of analog synths; we want to recreate the feeling we get from listening to music from a particular era, when those synths were just coming out and changing the musical landscape."
Hear for Yourself: The gently boastful "The Greatest" makes romantic victory sound utterly sweet. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: A John Green book set to a dream-pop soundtrack
For Fans of: Broods, the Neighbourhood, romantic suburban angst
Why You Should Pay Attention: The South Africa-born, Australia-raised Troye Sivan had a Top Ten album last month with Blue Neighborhood and lead single "Wild" has more than 12 million YouTube views. Though he's only 20 years old, stardom has been 10 years in the making. As a pre-teen he began acting on stage (Oliver!, Waiting for Godot) and on screen (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but he got his real start just over three years ago with his YouTube channel, becoming a popular vlogger. Still, before he became internet famous, music had been his first love and he released four EPs since 2007 before finally unveiling his debut, Blue Neighbourhood, a lush electropop collection that tackles angsty teen romance in an idyllic manner. "I was very limited for a very long time," Sivan explains of why he waited so long to release a full-length album. "The song that ended up getting me signed to my record label was a song called 'The Fault in Our Stars,' which was my first time producing and writing everything. I did it all myself, and it took ages. If I listen back now, I'm pretty sure I hear glitches."
For the singer-songwriter, not only did he find pop icons like Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls influential, but he also credits the discovery of Swedish and Scandinavian artists like Robyn and Donkeyboy as a teenager with expanding his ideas of what pop can be. "It was mind-blowing to me that pop music could be really smart and cool and still be pop music and still make you feel as good and still be catchy." Later on, artists like Lorde and Lana Del Rey — "[With her lyrics,] it's guaranteed some young person is going to get it tattooed on their body" —paved the way for Blue Neighborhood, showing him ways that youth can be described in smart ways while still reaching a large audience.
He Says: "Most of my visual inspiration comes from spending a lot of time online, scrolling through beautiful Tumblr blogs and finding really cool artists and photographers on Instagram. The artist who did my artwork for the Wild EP and Blue Neighbourhood was an artist I found on Tumblr from Taiwan. I also found the typographer who did the Wild handwriting for the cover art online as well. Most of my discovery and inspiration for visuals comes from online."
Hear for Yourself: The gorgeous, dreamy "Wild" previewed his sweet and whimsical debut LP. Brittany Spanos
Sounds Like: An explosion of bubblegum R&B
For Fans of: Alessia Cara, 1989-era Taylor Swift, actual 1989 pop hits
Why You Should Pay Attention: Seventeen-year-old Daya has a hit creeping up the charts with the infectious "Hide Away" — it just cracked the Top 10 on the Pop Songs chart while the video has hit over 4 million YouTube views since its debut at the end of October. "It's crazy how quickly it can go from just being another song on iTunes to being well known by and downloaded by thousands and thousands of people," the young electro-pop singer says. On her self-titled debut EP, Daya, born Grace Tandon, leans towards infectious bubblegum but her influences are more on the softer side of rock. "I think the first concert I attended was Coldplay with my dad when I was around eight years old," she recalls. "I remember looking out into the sea of phone lights as Chris Martin belted 'Yellow' on the piano and deciding that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life." This spring, she'll tour with Vine sensations Jack & Jack and work on her debut full-length, due later this year.
She Says: "I have a lot of surprises in store. I promise it will never be a boring ride! I honestly just hope to continue creating music that people can relate to and connect with in a personal way."
Hear for Yourself: "Hide Away" — currently at Number 31 on the Hot 100 — is a breezy sleeper hit likely still on the rise. Brittany Spanos
Sounds Like: Hyper-literate, thoroughly self-engrossed art rap
For Fans Of: Open Mike Eagle, Serengeti, Busdriver
Why You Should Pay Attention: Rory Ferreira's immersion in underground hip-hop dates back to his youth: His uncle is respected Chicago MC Nizm, and he has known Open Mike Eagle since childhood. The latter led him to Nocando, a host at the iconic L.A. beats showcase Low End Theory, and owner of the Hellfyre Club imprint that released his early work. While Milo (who took his name from the hero in Norton Juster's children's classic The Phantom Tollbooth) honed his craft through modest releases like 2012's Milo Takes Baths, he studied philosophy at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. His collaboration with beatmaker Kenny Segal, So the Flies Don't Come, marks his finest work to date, and earned a position on Rolling Stone's best rap albums of 2015 list. "I want to focus on radical freedom in the art that I'm making, and the way that I live as an artist," says Milo, who dropped out of school to focus on music, and now runs his Ruby Yacht imprint in Milwaukee. "I have a perspective that people think of as not that common in rap, and for that reason alone it has value."
He Says: A highlight from So the Flies Don't Come is "Napping Under the Echo Tree," which has a beat eerily similar to the Twin Peaks theme and a title inspired by a Henry Dumas poem. "I had been reading a lot of [Martin] Heidegger, man," he says, adding that he consumed the German intellectual's collection of lectures, What is Called Thinking? "I flew to L.A., and I had all this cumbersome, weird, mid-20th century German continental philosophy words in my mind. Kenny had a very weird beat that he had done. I was thinking about Sun Ra and Heidegger, and how [both are] obsessed with being in time. And there's Henry Dumas who is kinda like a talk box in a lot of ways for Sun Ra — as a friend and collaborator — and his poetry is obsessed with being in time. So I wanted to make a piece that's a synthesis of all those different people."
Hear For Yourself: The lo-fi clip for "Re: Animist" finds Milo and his Ruby Yacht crew exploring the woods and practicing tai chi. Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: Unsettling, wordless sonic narratives that are sometimes blissful and sometimes sinister.
For Fans of: Haxan Cloak, Tim Hecker, Philip Glass's collaborations with Godfrey Reggio
Why You Should Pay Attention: The onetime member of dubstep duo Vex'd is returning with Third Law, his first album for acclaimed avant-garde electronic label Tri Angle. Porter's unpredictable forays into composition and narrative make for an album that contains moments of quiet beauty and ominous fury. This is music that's constantly in flux, challenging while remaining accessible. Devotees of heavy metal, ambient and contemporary composition will all find elements to embrace.
He Says: After two albums with relatively clear narrative lines, Porter opted for a slightly different approach for Third Law. "It was more about sonic ideas that I wanted to explore, that had to do with pace and rhythm and things like that, finding new ways to inject speed and beats and rhythmic ideas that didn't fall into any genre ideas but that propelled this soundscape along in a different way," he said. "It's kind of about pace and intensity, but without using any traditional rhythm structures." Porter notes his fondness for metal and noise, both of which can be heard here. "I grew up loving metal, and I'm still listening to a lot of metal now," he says. "But I'm still waiting for some kind of variation on metal that works for me. The intensity and the noise is there, but there's some variation, especially with bass ideas, that hasn't happened yet, and I'm still hoping will happen."
Hear for Yourself: The exhilarating "Known Space," which closes Third Law, embraces the low end and the abrasive before letting in an unsettling chorus of voices and giving way to John Carpenter-like minimal synths. Tobias Carroll