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: K-pop sensation BTS, alt-rockers Missio, worldwide dance smash Jonas Blue and more.
Sounds Like: K-Pop gone trap, trop-house and even neo-soul; the seven-headed boss you face at the end of a rap music arcade game
For Fans of: Justin Bieber, G-Dragon, Big Bang
Why You Should Pay Attention: BTS, short for “Bangtan Songyeondan,” or, in English, “Bulletproof Boy Scouts,” debuted in 2013 and quickly became one of Korea’s hottest new acts. In America, they’ve sold out arenas in Anaheim and New Jersey, and when their airplane landed in Chile, they were greeted with Beatles-esque pandemonium. On record, the group’s seven members trade quick, four-line verses that often tackle previously taboo subjects like politics and depression.
According to Rap Monster, the group’s leader, their songwriting process is part Rihanna and part Wu-Tang: After selecting beats from Korea’s top producers, plus a few made by the artists themselves, the seven members flesh out the songs through friendly competition, going head-to-head to see who can come up with the best verses. So far, the results have been positive. Wings, their second LP, was one the most conceptually and sonically ambitious pop albums of 2016, becoming Korea’s best-selling album of the year. It even boosted sales of Herman Hesse’s 1919 novel Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth when the group revealed that it was a big influence on the record and its accompanying music videos.
They Say: “I’ve been reading books, as many as I can, since I was five, seven, 10 years old, and before I made music I wanted to be an author,” says Rap Monster. He lists Hesse, Haruki Murakami and Albert Camus as three of his favorite writers. “Authors really create those human expressions too, like some specific feelings. Normal people, usually, when they try to express their emotions say like, ‘I’m sad.’ ‘I’m mad.’ But authors make those emotions totally different – they make it sound totally different. There are so many great diamonds in books and movies and we always try to get inspiration from them. Now we don’t have so much time to experience outside, like other people. We always have to go abroad and perform and make music inside our studio, so books and movies are the best things to experience instead of going outside.”
Hear for Yourself: “Come Back Home,” their latest single, has a beat that bridges the gap between Black Sheep and DJ Mustard, plus bilingual lyrics that make “hangry” feel like existential despair. Nick Murray
Sounds Like: Catcher in the Rye-level alienation (with a slim window of hope) set in a pulsing hip-hop/EDM landscape
For Fans of: Awolnation, Barns Courtney, Imagine Dragons
Why You Should Pay Attention: Earlier this year, Missio’s angst-ridden “Middle Fingers” shook SiriusXM’s Alt Nation, cracked Billboard‘s Alternative Songs Top 10 and stoked anticipation for their RCA Records debut, Loner. The Austin-based band have since landed on festival bills and some opening slots on Muse’s tour with 30 Seconds to Mars.
“If you look on the surface, we’d seem like a really black sheep,” Missio instrumentalist-producer David Butler says. “Our story is not, ‘We played local clubs and blew up.’ We’re more of an Internet success story. That’s how we got our start.”
Over the past three years, Butler and vocalist-producer Matthew Brue morphed Missio’s sound from ambient roots – an inventive Lana Del Rey cover lurks among earlier tracks on YouTube – to its current booming, razor-sharp state. Loaded with bruising bass, icy synths and dark imagery, Loner is an exploration of Brue’s winding road to sobriety. “If we can have one thing out of this record,” he says, “it’s just to let people know that they’re not alone.”
They Say: Thanks to “Middle Fingers,” Brue says “maybe like 8,000” people have flipped them the bird at once. “It is not an ‘eff you’ song,” he says. “When we play ‘Middle Fingers,’ it’s a chance for everyone in that room to be united. There’s so much stress that people go through in a day. It’s a really unique situation to come into a venue and leave all that stuff aside – political beliefs or whatever people disagree about outside of those rooms. It’s really cool to see 500, 1,000, 5,000, or however many people uniting for that three minutes and 40 seconds.”
Hear for Yourself: A disgruntled synth-rock “My Generation” for the millennial loner set, “Middle Fingers” is the year’s anti-anthem. Reed Fischer
Sounds Like: A sunset pool scene somewhere fashionable and expensive
For Fans of: Cheat Codes, Matoma, Zara Larsson
Why You Should Pay Attention: Jonas Blue’s dance-world stature and chart success across western Europe and Australia is hard to overstate. His breakout hit, a 2015 balearic-beats rework of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” hit Number Two on the pop charts in his native U.K., where it also went double platinum. It also hit Number One in Australia, where it went quadruple platinum. Not only did that track blow through summer of 2016 as a sunshine-house anthem, but it earned him a nomination for the MTV Europe Music Awards and two Brit Awards nominations.
Some of his follow-ups have already yielded monster success. “Mama,” featuring William Singe, is the latest, with Top Ten chart slots in eight major countries and an eye-popping 102 million views on YouTube since it was uploaded last month.
He Says: “Around 11 or 12, I started producing and my early influences of dance music came purely from watching a TV program about Ibiza [Club Reps]. It used to show a really bad side of Ibiza – it was not the greatest of programs – but there would be elements of that program where the soundtrack would be amazing. It would pan to DJs like Carl Cox, David Morales and even David Guetta in the early days, and I wanted to be a part of that. I was so hooked just by watching.”
Hear for Yourself: “Mama,” featuring Sydney-based singer William Singe, goes full-on pop-R&B with a chirping, four-on-the-floor backbone, pitch-perfect for summer radio.
Sounds Like: A manifesto on millennial femininity that includes genre agnosticism as one of its key tenets
For Fans of: Tori Amos, late-career Charlotte Church, Simone de Beauvoir
Why You Should Pay Attention: Discovered by Kanye West when she was a member of the dance troupe backing him up on his Yeezus tour, Arizona native Kacy Hill first made waves with the 2015 EP Bloo. Her just-released debut LP Like a Woman, which West executive produced, is a dizzying ride through early-20s womanhood that has arena-ready choruses and minimalist electro, confessional poetry and resolute kiss-offs. Production comes courtesy of DJ Mustard, synth-popper Stuart Price and more. She’s planning a tour, but she’s already thinking about where her art might take her next: “I just want to keep putting out as much stuff as possible,” she says. “Ideally, I would like to have another body of work – even just a smaller body of work – out in at least a few months.”
She Says: “Growing up, I was into a lot of stuff that doesn’t really directly influence the album. I listened to a lot of Nineties alternative – things like the Cranberries, Third Eye Blind, that whole world. Then I think I got really into folk and singer-songwriter-y stuff, like Regina Spektor and Laura Marling. It’s been a lot of everything. I don’t have one specific influence that I was looking toward; the whole thing was just really a discovery process.
“I spent a lot of time going in with different producers to figure out what worked and what didn’t. I think writing this album, I was really just figuring out how to write songs, honestly. … I had this pride where I felt like other people couldn’t write songs for me, that I needed to write everything. Part of that was establishing myself with myself. Now that I’ve done that, I feel like I’ve proven to myself, ‘I can finish something. I can do this.'”
Hear for Yourself: The Price-produced “Hard to Love” is a synth-pop anthem featuring Hill’s lithe soprano. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: An R&B casanova intent on returning his genre to the early-2000s
For Fans of: Avant, Lloyd, Ne-Yo
Why You Should Pay Attention: “B.E.D.” recently hit the Top 20 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart and Ty Dolla $ign and Quavo added extra lather to the remix. The track can be found on his 2016 Mood mixtape, a succinct collection full of trickling beats and libidinous entreaties. A similar meld animates Fuck a Friend Zone, an album-length duet project with Dej Loaf, and Since You Playin’, both of which arrived in January.
Jacquees hit the studio for the first time when he was 12, and by age 20, he had a deal with Cash Money Records. He started singing hooks next to rising rappers Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan – “they’re like my brothers,” Jacquees says – and his barbed falsetto perked ears: it’s springy but tart, with some of the liquid grace that propelled Lloyd in the mid-2000s.
He Says: “I seen somebody in my comments today like, ‘I feel like you was what’s missing in the game.’ I think they mean there wasn’t a lot of real R&B on the radio. You had Chris Brown and Trey Songz, but you had them since I was in middle school. You got a bunch of other artists too, but not with the sound. My sound is more like 1990s, 2000s slick. It’s like, ‘Damn, when you make this record?’ But it still feels good.”
Hear for Yourself: Make sure you stay for the finale of “B.E.D.” – after a series of blunt come-ons, Jacquees concludes with a Jodeci-like round of acrobatic call-and response. Elias Leight
Sounds Like: Folk music conventions blown up, then vividly reassembled, with jazz and world beat glimmering through the cracks.
For Fans of: Courtney Barnett, Sylvan Esso, Sufjan Stevens
Why You Should Pay Attention: TITK’s fourth album, Moonshine Freeze, is the project’s first for Rough Trade. Here, experimental folk songs unlock truths occupying the space between dream states and waking life. “Things get said, things get don’t,” singer and primary songwriter Kate Stables declares in the slowly unfurling “Solid Grease.”
“Sometimes a meaning is so much easier to transmit or absorb if you don’t use normal sentence structure,” the U.K.-bred, Paris-based Stables says. “It’s almost like a magic spell or something.”
Contributors to Moonshine Freeze include past collaborators John Parish (PJ Harvey, Perfume Genius), who produced 2008’s debut Krulle Bol, and Aaron Dessner of the National. Each song teases out Stables’ poetic double meanings with arrangements that elevate brass, banjo and immersive harmonies at opportune moments.
They Say: “This album came out of a time of lots of change and intense experiences,” says Stables. “You realize what you used to think isn’t the case anymore. The inevitable change that hits you in life. Sometimes it hits you and sometimes it creeps up on you.
“I am always choosing. My approach is a bit of collaging different writings I have in a few different notebooks. I really like messing around with the English language. I can’t spell, I can’t do grammar. But I love playing with words and meanings and the sounds of the words.”
Hear for Yourself: Inspired by a child’s clapping game, the hypnotic “Moonshine Freeze” is a psychedelic meditation on evolving human behavior. Reed Fischer
Sounds Like: Where ancient West African fiddles meets future R&B
For Fans of: Kelela, Tune-Yards, Massive Attack
Why You Should Pay Attention: In September, revered funk, rap and avant-pop label Stones Throw will be releasing the self-titled debut from Britney Parks’ Sudan Archives, a unique melding of West African strings and contemporary beatmaking. A self-taught violinist, Parks picked up her instrument after a group of fiddlers played Irish jigs before her fourth grade class in Cincinnati. But her family (including her stepfather, who worked at LaFace Records in the early days) envisioned a different sort of musical career for her, originally pairing her with her twin sister as a teen pop act. When Parks rebelled at the age of 16, she was kicked out of the group and out of her house, finding herself on her first plane ride ever out to Los Angeles, where she juggled odd jobs and slowly taught herself how to use her violin and laptop to make her own beats.
She Says: “I realize now those old Irish jigs I first heard remind me of the West African fiddle music I like now; it’s a ‘rooted’ sound as opposed to violin in the classical way. … My mom nicknamed me Sudan when I was 16. When I moved out to L.A. at 19, I started to just YouTube Sudanese music just to see what came up. Ironically, most of the music has violins on it. But I was shy about my stuff. The confidence came from my stepdad [who passed away in 2015]; he was the biggest supporter of my music. He encouraged me to work towards that, to not go to college but instead take a break and find myself.”
Hear for Yourself: The plucked and sawed “Come Meh Way” is assured yet spare. Andy Beta
Sounds Like: An updated version the heady late-Nineties days when rock and “electronica” commingled freely
For Fans of: Deadmau5, Pegboard Nerds, Surrender-era Chemical Brothers
Why You Should Pay Attention: Deadmau5 fans will recognize Buffalo, New York native Grabbitz, real name Nicholas Chiari, as the wistful crooner on his track “Let Go.” The official YouTube video has racked up more than 13 million views to date. That prog-house slab’s minor keys and synth washes meshed nicely with the vocalist’s lyrics of lopsided love. That team-up came by social-media kismet: Chiari, inspired by previous work, wrote his own melody to another Deadmau5 track and uploaded his new version. The man himself eventually found it, asking Grabbitz to collab.
Now, Grabbitz’ debut album, Things Change, is out, mixing moody alt-rock melodies with burbling, breakbeat-inflected rhythms and, yes, the occasional drop, all recalling the era when rock stars flirted with block-rockin’ beats and guested on electronic albums.
He Says: “As a kid I was always singing and rapping and playing guitar, but when I was about 12 or something, I started making beats on an Xbox game called MTV Music Generator. Then one day I passed by an Apple store and I saw an upgraded version of Music Generator, something much cooler – Garage Band. I begged for it for two years, and finally I got my parents to get me a computer, and it was over from there.”
Hear for Yourself: Chiari penned his latest single, “I Think That I Might Be Going Crazy,” unsurprisingly, during a personal maelstrom, as he both tried to launch his music career in L.A. and tend to a major family illness back home. The quickfire-repeated chorus over snaking snares and syncopated guitar wraps up the anxiety in a melodic bow. Arielle Castillo
Sounds Like: The howling, tumultuous resurgence of Sunset Strip rock
For Fans of: The Darkness, Guns N’ Roses, sleaze and glam
Why You Should Pay Attention: This four-piece that comes from Helsinki but sounds like Hollywood have been causing havoc in Europe since the late Aughts thanks to their debaucherous, flamboyant flair. Their third full-length, Bad Blood Rising is due out September.
They Say: “I was probably eleven when I started listening to punk and rock music. Then I found Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, Poison and W.A.S.P. These guys seemed to have a better time than anyone else!” says frontman Archie Cruz. “I wanna play that kind of music! It just hit me hard. But this third album is about dealing with the issue of depression. Outsiders don’t see the side when you party hard for a few years, you [eventually] start to feel pretty down. That’s why I believe Jim Morrison died and Kurt Cobain shot himself. Chris Cornell fucking offed himself a month ago. When touring – that whole rock & roll lifestyle – half of the time you’re drinking or using other substances. When you live hard, it takes a toll on you. You can get pretty ill, and it needs to be addressed more. You just hear about the glorious side.”
Hear for Yourself: The down ‘n’ dirty “River Phoenix” is driven by fuming, accelerating power chords. “To me, River Phoenix’s soul was pure. He was a perfect actor, and in the end Hollywood ruined him,” says Archie Cruz. “That spark is still lit.” Isabela Raygoza
Sounds Like: Rainy English afternoons in the company of a cryptic storyteller and dazzling acoustic guitarist
For Fans of: Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake
Why You Should Pay Attention: In a groovier world, you’d already know British-bred, Chicago-based singer-songwriter James Elkington from the four smart, charming albums he recorded in the ’00s with the Zincs. And if you haven’t yet clocked him as a keen guitar sidekick with Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson and others, you should definitely make his acquaintance through his debut solo album, Wintres Woma, an alterna-folk epiphany reflecting Elkington’s years-long immersion in the fingerpicking guitar style associated with the late British folk legend Bert Jansch. More than just another bustle in your hedgerow, Wintres Woman (meaning “sounds of winter”) contains songs written from the points of view of Caligula (“Sister of Mine”) and a tripping teenage friend (“Greatness Yet to Come”) swaddled in swirling overdubbed guitars and occasional strings. Elkington’s guarded introspection makes for a subtle tension that the killer guitar playing gently dissolves.
He Says: “Growing up in England during the Eighties, folk music seemed like it was from a different planet … and part of its appeal for me was that it was so reviled and ignored. We had country dancing and sang folk songs in school – including some strange pagan and Wicker-Man-type tunes – but we used to laugh about folk music. Instead, we were all listening to the Smiths and measuring our quiffs. I only appreciated folk music when I moved to the States, where nothing ever really goes away and fashions don’t cycle as fast as they do in the U.K. I was working in a guitar store and couldn’t believe it when a 10-year-old came in wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. That would never fucking happen in England.”
Hear for Yourself: “Make It Up” features Elkington’s laid-back voice and exquisite fingerpicking. Richard Gehr