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: a still-faceless R&B mystery, a Los Angeles jazz shredder and the most Shazam-ed band in America.
Sounds Like: Skeletal EDM beats, swirling vocals and no shortage of pop smarts
For Fans of: Kiiara, Banks, Sylvan Esso
Why You Should Pay Attention: In January, Apple debuted its new ad for the wireless-headphone line AirPods, which featured the duo’s track “Down” soundtracking the gravity-defying moves of Los Angeles-based dancer Lil Buck. The eye-popping black-and-white clip’s synthesis of hypnotic visuals and dreamy music helped Marian Hill top the chart on Shazam, the “What’s-that-song?” app that identifies tunes for curious listeners. Jeremy Lloyd and Samantha Gongol have known each other since their youth outside of Philadelphia. After heading their separate ways for college they decided to collaborate, dubbing their project Marian Hill after the two main characters from The Music Man. (They both appeared in a production of the play during middle school.) Lloyd (production) and Gongol (vocals) released their debut, Act One, last June, which matches ideas borrowed from jazz and blues with of-the-moment electronics and Gongol’s gossamer voice.
They Say: “I actually saw the [Apple] commercial for the first time with my parents in a hotel room after we played Fallon,” recalls Gongol. “That was really, really cool. It’s just so beautiful. We couldn’t have asked for a better sync – they nailed our aesthetic.”
“Being the Number One Shazam song in America, that’s a serious triumph,” adds Lloyd. “That’s what you want people to feel when they hear your music for the first time: ‘What is it? I need to know what it is so I can hear it again.'”
Hear for Yourself: “Down” showcases Gongol’s smoke-plume voice over a stark background before blossoming into beat-heavy verses. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: Slow-burning R&B that zooms in on emotional highs and lows
For Fans of: Dawn Richard, Solange, Aaliyah
Why You Should Pay Attention: Last year, H.E.R. released H.E.R. Volume 1, an EP that shows off her rich, velvety voice and diaristic lyrics about love, pain and all the emotions in between. While the exact identity of H.E.R. is shrouded in mystery, her connection with audiences is plain as day; the Volume 1 track “Focus,” which shows off her voice’s delicate higher end, has racked up 2.81 million streams to date, and she’s received Twitter co-signs from Alicia Keys and Bryson Tiller. Last month, H.E.R. released the seductive “Your Way,” which samples Aaliyah’s 1996 track “Come Over.” She’s planning to tour and hit the TV circuit later this year.
She Says: “I was almost afraid to speak on the things I’ve dealt with as a woman. Once I released [the EP], I realized that I’m not alone, and that I am a voice for women who feel like they’re alone in these situations. This project came from an emotion, and that’s what I want it to be about – not what I look like or who I’m with, but the raw emotion and support for women. Seeing people Tweet my lyrics and really feeling for me, feeling what I’m feeling … in one of my lyrics I sing about ‘the watch I just got for you,’ and some girl was like, ‘Yes! I bought him a watch!’ I can be happy because these women feel me.”
Hear for Yourself: H.E.R. Volume 1 is streaming in full on SoundCloud. While the gently frustrated “Focus” has soared on the streaming charts, “Wait For It” creates a sublime tension between H.E.R.’s voice and the track’s stuttering beats. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: Electronic music taking back some of its long-lost soul and R&B roots
For Fans of: Flume, Cashmere Cat, anyone else into the death of genre
Why You Should Pay Attention: This L.A.-based, OWSLA-signed duo – real names Jared Poythress and Branden Ratcliff – play dance music, but are breaking out via original tracks for rap and R&B like Anderson Paak and Fat Joe and Remy Ma. That’s Vindata who laced their recent single “Heartbreak. The pair first got together as producers of more or less straight-ahead hip-hop and R&B, drawing on a love of gospel and soul for deeply groove-based tracks. Then, by chance, they discovered the “French touch,” that funky sound en vogue about a decade ago via Justice and the Ed Banger gang. Suddenly, the pair saw a new way to approach their craft.
“They sampled a lot of old-school and disco, and they had this heavier side of rock that they were able to mix in,” recalls Poythress.
“There was just a lot more emphasis on sound design,” says Ratcliff. “And they were doing weird and funky ways of sampling, and we really liked that.”
Finding their way into a new nighttime scene, Vindata started playing shows at dance-music events – where, like so many other lucky new artists in L.A., they met Skrillex. After signing to his label, that has meant plenty of collabs with fellow OWSLA artists like Mija.
They Say: Their publicists have billed them as “the Neptunes of EDM” and the duo doesn’t shy away from that comparison at all. “One of the reasons we say that is how fluid they were back in the day,” Ratcliff says. “They had really, really hard hip-hop songs, really great R&B ballads, and really radio-friendly pop songs. … We definitely want to wear different hats and do different things, and still have our own sound.”
Hear for Yourself: “Right Now,” featuring Njomza and Alex & Alex, offers simmering and laid-back post-R&B grooves. Arielle Castillo
Sounds Like: Funky, exuberant blues-rock as imagined by four young adults barely old enough to remember when Bill Clinton was president
For Fans of: Alabama Shakes, Elle King, Lenny Kravitz circa “Are You Gonna Go My Way”
Why You Should Pay Attention: The New Respects are the odd Nashville-based band whose members didn’t move to town in hopes of making it big, having grown up in and around the city’s vibrant Christian music community. Comprised of singer/guitarist Jasmine Mullen – daughter of successful Christian/gospel singer Nicole C. Mullen – alongside her cousins, twin sisters Lexi (bass) and Zandy Fitzgerald (guitar) and their brother Darius (drums), the foursome has been onstage for years, including serving as background dancers for Mullen’s mother when they were teenagers. They’ve also been playing music in some configuration for some time, but really hit warp speed upon picking up electric instruments and honing a fuzzed-out blues-rock aesthetic. The band are already signed to a Universal Music subsidiary and recently released their five-song debut EP, Here Comes Trouble. They’ve been road testing the music opening select shows for Switchfoot and, beginning March 15th, they’ll hit the road for a brief tour with Robert Randolph & the Family Band.
“We went from zero to a hundred in no time,” acknowledges Zandy. “Sometimes you feel inadequate, like there’s people who’ve been doing this for years and we’re still trying to figure out sounds.”
“I still feel like we’re like the J.V. squad that got thrown into the varsity game or something,” adds Darius. “They look at you like, ‘Fitzgerald, you’re in!’ and you’re like, ‘What? I’m just on the bench!'”
They Say: “We weren’t really allowed to listen to music outside of Christian music, so hearing Chuck Berry for the first time, or Eric Clapton, it could have been a new artist to me, because I knew nothing about them,” says Zandy.
“The nice thing about us being so sheltered was that it forced us to have to create new things,” agrees Darius. “Whereas people [who] grow up listening to certain drummers and they play that way, I only listened to gospel stuff and I can’t do any of that stuff, so it’s like, ‘Well, I gotta do my own thing!'”
Hear for Yourself: The slinky, hypnotic single “Money” combines a propulsive drum break with Fiddler on the Roof-style musings about the pitfalls of wealth. Jon Freeman
Sounds Like: A supernatural nervous breakdown
For Fans of: Mazzy Star, Melvins, Royal Thunder
Why You Should Pay Attention: Since forming in 2009 as a solo project for ex-Whirr singer Kristina Esfandiari, King Woman have congealed into a raging tour de force of gloom and woe. Since releasing their debut EP, 2014’s Doubt, the foursome has gigged with Blonde Redhead and True Widow, and they’ve become more of a collaborative songwriting unit. Esfandiari says the stark, shimmery, glacial atmosphere of their latest album, their first for metal label Relapse, Created in the Image of Suffering, was a group effort and stronger because of it. “It took a while for us to get into our groove and trust each other and get comfortable with each other but now I feel we’re in such a good place now,” she says. Now Esfandiari feels comfortable singing personal lyrics about what she describes as a “very graceless” time in her life. The record was a cathartic experience that has elements of doom metal and shoegaze, but which she feels ultimately transcends genre. “To me, it’s just spiritual music,” she says. “Some people call it ethereal, transcendental or mystical, but for me, when I’m singing, I just go to a place where I don’t feel like I’m there anymore. It’s my way to connect to myself and to my own sense of spirituality.”
They Say: Esfandiari drew from the experience of partaking in an ayahuasca ceremony for the first time for the lyrics to Suffering‘s lead track, “Utopia.” “I really love psychedelics, but I learned that ayahuasca is a different animal,” she says. “It’s pretty intense. I did my first ayahuasca ceremony last June or July with my partner at the time, and the song is about how I felt in this new headspace and how beautiful it was. It was really crazy and kind of scary. You’re basically in this ceremony in the redwoods for nine hours and there are a bunch of strangers singing spiritual songs in Portuguese and playing guitar. It’s really intense, but it was a really beautiful experience and I did it several times after that. It’s helped me a lot to deal with some personal things. Somebody invited me to do one at the perfect time for me because I was in a desperate, messed-up place. I was like, ‘I really need something to happen in my life to shake me out of this headspace that I’m in,’ and that ceremony did that for me.”
Hear for Yourself: From its crashing, descending opening riff to Esfandiari moaning, “And this is really happening,” the band’s ayahuasca-brushed “Utopia” is a trippy explosion. Kory Grow
Sounds Like: The hippest prom band ever, exuding classic soul, cosmic consciousness and righteous resistance.
For Fans of: Os Mutantes, Los Freddy’s, ? and the Mysterians
Why You Should Pay Attention: The quartet has been called Los Angeles’ house band, and they’ve been selling out small theaters regularly on a West Coast run that follows opening slots on tours with Jack White and the Claypool Lennon Delirium. Their audiences consist largely of Latinxs vibing ecstatically to a classic soul sound, which they deliver in color-coordinated tuxedos, puffy shirts and bow ties. While Mexican cumbia and banda bass lines still find their way into the mix, the band’s new Freedom Is Free is both their most lucidly soul-stirring music and a step or two removed from the prog-rocking psychedelia informing much of their first two releases.
They Say: What about those tuxes? “The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Los Freddy’s and all these bands from Venezuela and Latin America were rocking them on the covers of their records in the Sixties and Seventies, so that’s definitely an inspiration,” says frontman Bardo Martinez. “Our bassist, Eduardo [Arenas], was the one who actually suggested, ‘Hey, let’s get suited and booted!’ He threw it down. We’re all aesthetically on that boat, but he’s the one who actually stepped into the vintage shop – and it was a stroke of luck that what he bought fit everybody in the band. Off the rack, man! It’s been 10 years, brother, and we’ve gone through a few of them. We try to keep it classic, man; we try to keep it polyester.”
Hear for Yourself: On the creamy slice of positive soul power “Freedom Is Free,” Bardo croons, “You got your guns up on display/But you can’t control how I feel, no way.” Richard Gehr
Sounds Like: A fire-throated singer-songwriter who as sweet as she is salty
For Fans of: Lorde, Astrid S, Adele’s “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”
Why You Should Pay Attention: After finding success in her native Norway, Scandinavian alt-pop star Sigrid is releasing an Island Records EP on April 7th. Four years ago, the now-20-year-old was asked to perform with her brother’s band but under one condition: no covers. She wrote a song called “Sun” that was eventually picked up by Norwegian National Radio, helping give her some local shine. While her music career was picking up, Sigrid chose to stay in high school, still considering a future as a lawyer. She changed her mind once she finished school and moved to the Norwegian city of Bergen to pursue music full-time, linking up with producers and eventually getting major-label contracts in both Europe and America. Her as-yet-untitled EP pulls influences from her parents’ obsessions with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell as well as her own interest in grime.
“I was very shy as a child,” she says of blending her love for grime with folkier, softer pop. “I started doing covers and writing and got confident from that, so that led to me liking more aggressive music. I find it interesting when you can mix that aggressiveness into pop tunes.”
She Says: “It was about feeling not wanted in a room,” Sigrid says of the disastrous recording session that inspired her debut single. “It’s quite difficult when you’re going to write a song [with someone else], and when you’re writing a song it’s about chemistry. I find it quite hard to write when you feel like it’d almost be better if you weren’t in the room. The thing that was discouraging the most was the comments. I don’t know if it was my gender or my age or what it was, but I was made to feel that my opinion wasn’t as important. And that’s just not OK. It’s not OK to treat people that way.”
Hear for Yourself: “Don’t Kill My Vibe” shows how much bite she has in her booming voice by the time the chorus hits. Brittany Spanos
Sounds Like: The house pianist for the party at the end of the universe, pulling in signals from John Coltrane, J Dilla, Meshuggah and points beyond.
For Fans of: Kamasi Washington, Miles Davis, Stanley Clarke, Thundercat
Why You Should Pay Attention: A founding member of the West Coast Get Down collective that thundered to global renown with the release of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, Cameron Graves, 35, cut his teeth playing the classic works of Bach, Schubert and Chopin before he hit Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. There, he bonded with Washington over a shared love of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and the mainstream jazz canon. “I met him when I was around 15, and we both would just hang out and listen to Coltrane all day, and practice with each other,” says Graves, “just ‘shed on tunes like ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘A Love Supreme.'”
Still, spare hours spent shredding out Van Halen and Slipknot tunes on guitar came in handy during Graves’s stint in Jada Pinkett Smith’s nu-metal project, Wicked Wisdom. Since then, he’s also held his own alongside one of the heaviest pioneers of fusion jazz, bass virtuoso Stanley Clarke. Mix up those experiences, stir in a taste for Prince’s revolutionary funk and J Dilla’s mixing-board skills, then add a twist of cosmic insight gleaned from The Urantia Book, an esoteric tome that purports to sort out the whole of creation. The result is Planetary Prince, Graves’s debut album as a bandleader, newly released on the Mack Avenue label.
He Says: “In sports, we always revere the most talented person on the field, the most talented person on the court, and it’s through their extreme skills that we end up revering that person, and creating a celebrity out of that person. And that is exactly what my mission is, personally: to do that in music, to showcase the virtuoso and to try to make the virtuoso a celebrity again, because I think that’s been lost in our society with all the … I kind of call it ‘plastic music.’ It’s brought the bar down in terms of the talent and the quality of the playing.”
Hear for Yourself: “Satania Our Solar System,” the opening track on Planetary Prince, presents all the essentials: a classically poised introduction, a writhing beat equally beholden to slick funk and prog-metal, serpentine electric bass lines, and lean, tight jazz-combo interaction. Steve Smith
Sounds Like: A young woman finding her voice amidst sounds and colors
For Fans of: Solange, Jhené Aiko circa Sailing Souls, Kelela
Why You Should Pay Attention: Ravyn Lenae is a high school senior – she graduates from the Chicago High School for the Arts this summer – who crafts thoughtful and highly lyrical electronic soul. On her 2015 debut Moon Shoes, reissued by Atlantic Records last year, she sings about life as a dreamy, sometimes-melancholy teenager in a softly assertive voice. Her just-released follow-up, the appropriately titled Midnight Moonlight, delves into more romantic concerns with the same quiet grace. From January to March, the 18-year-old toured across the country with hotly tipped rapper Noname. “Before I left, we had put together an academic plan for me where I would basically be doing school online,” she says. “I thought it would be much easier juggling tour and school. But there’s literally no time to even sleep.” Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Lenae knew she wanted to pursue music at an early age. She sang in church and studied guitar and piano before she linked up with producer Monte Booker, who helped assemble her two EPs. “Honestly, I didn’t know it was a project,” she says of Moon Shoes. “I wasn’t creating with an intention, I was creating solely for releasing my emotions and being creative,” .
She Says: Lenae likes to connect colors with emotions. “I’m a very colorful person,” she says. When asked to describe the difference between Moon Shoes and Midnight in the Moonlight, she explains, “Moon Shoes is very pink and yellow, and maybe orange, very bright, whereas Midnight Moonlight is purple and blue and, I don’t know, gray. Not to say those colors are sad, because a lot of times people like to equate those colors with sadness, or [being] blue. But those colors are more emotion-felt, and deep, and sultry.”
Hear for Yourself: In the short but evocative “Alive,” Ravyn Lenae breaks free of a romantic attachment with no regrets. Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: Ambient music for hyper-digital hyper-realities
For Fans of: Oneohtrix Point Never, Ryuichi Sakamoto, 2814
Why You Should Pay Attention: Nico Niquo is getting the rare vinyl release from Orange Milk Records, the taste-making cassette label existing at the Tron-bike parallels of vaporwave, experimental electronic music and cutting-edge graphic design. The Melbourne-based 23-year-old born Nico Callaghan creates drifts that nostalgically soothe like some synthetic Windows 3.0–era New Age record but also yearn with the melancholy only time can provide. His second album, In a Silent Way, has the textures of dance music (he’s a fan of electronic experimentalists like Jam City and Huerco S.), but instead of throbbing, it swirls in a beatless cloud cluster. “Making music inspired by dance music, grid-like structures and Futurism is really fun because you can let your imagination run kind of wild,” says Callaghan, “but I wanted to give myself a really odd constraint to drive me to make something a bit more unusual, so no beats. A beat implies something very distinct, but I think it’s possible to make more evocative music in a slightly askew and odd sonic environment.”
He Says: “There are only a handful of ‘instruments’ on the album – some clarinet, saxophone and mallet percussion that friends and I recorded. Apart from that, everything else is kind of like a cheap, plastic impression of an instrument or something divorced from reality altogether. But the main instrumental sound I built everything else around is the ‘eski’ grime synth that Wiley brought to real prominence about 15 years ago. To me, that synth sound is the most futuristic, evocative sound ever.”
Hear for Yourself: The title track to In a Silent Way is a cinematic cluster of arpeggios that recall an anime rendering of Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi. Christopher R. Weingarten