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: Kendrick Lamar's saxman Kamasi Washington, burgeoning country star Kelsea Ballerini, speedy post-hardcore quartet Super Unison, Mali's celebrated rock band Songhoy Blues and more.
Sounds Like: Jazz fusion that rockets everywhere from electric Miles groove to Sun Ra sputter, from velvety smooth to hardcore squawk — and still sounds as future-minded as any hip-hop or experimental electronic LP out
For Fans of: Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Weather Report
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Los Angeles saxophonist is the most audacious player in a movement making the electric flurry of Seventies fusion jazz cool again: His lush, bustling arrangements can be heard on both Flying Lotus' You're Dead and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. His gorgeous debut opus, The Epic, is 173 minutes of virtuosic playing alongside a 20-piece choir, 32-piece orchestra and the West Coast Get Down, the eight-man jazz Wu-Tang Clan he's a member of alongside Thundercat. The group spent a month recording, working 10 to 12 hours a day, every day, resulting in, what Washington claims is eight individual solo projects, nearly 200 songs and two terabytes of music. The three-disc Epic, the first album released from the sessions, is 17 songs trimmed from 45. "The hardest part was shrinking it down," he says. "The 17 songs kind of became the complete sentence of what I wanted to put out. Any song that I take out, then I'm missing something."
Washington and the West Coast Get Down honed their connection with one another by practicing furiously in a shack in his dad's backyard in Inglewood, California. "We were at every concert and then we'd go home at 3 o'clock in the morning and play until 7 o'clock in the morning," remembers Washington. "I had cool neighbors. They knew me. They were just proud to see some young brothers doing something positive. Even though they were kind of mad like, 'Why are they up playing "Giant Steps" at 1,200 bpm for two hours from 3 to 5 o'clock in the morning?' We were just obsessed with the music, that's all we wanted to do."
He Says: "I think people were starved for it," says Washington of the sudden appeal of contemporary jazz. "And they had a misconception of what it was. We took it as a challenge. We played at like gothic clubs, literally, for a crowd where upstairs they have an apparatus where they're beating people with whips. . .That spiritual, soul-repairing thing that jazz has been missing in society for a while. People haven't had that fix. What fixes your spirit when Ferguson happens? When Trayvon Martin and those kind of things happen, they hurt your spirit, it hurts your heart and your soul. You need something to fix it. . .And now that they're getting it it's like, 'Oh wow, this is soul fix, not a history lesson.'"
Hear for Yourself: Disc three of The Epic kicks off with the blazing, funky 14-minute piece "Re Run Home." Christopher R. Weingarten
Sounds Like: Usher as a vintage soul crooner in 1963, backed by Motown's Funk Brothers
For Fans of: Sam Cooke, Aloe Blacc circa "I Need a Dollar," John Legend
Why You Should Pay Attention: Leon Bridges' elegantly smoldering voice often evokes comparisons to Sam Cooke at his finest. However, his tone is unmistakably modern, a result of listening to 112 and Dru Hill as a teenager growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, before discovering Cooke and the Temptations. "I come from a slow jam background, and that carries over into the music I have now," he says. Four years ago, he started performing at open mic nights, accompanying himself on guitar. It was at Magnolia Motor Lounge where he met Austin Jenkins of rock group White Denim. "His vision was, 'I want to make it exactly like it came out in the Fifties and Sixties,'" remembers Bridges. Together with White Denim's Josh Block, they recorded "Coming Home" and "Better Man," and premiered the songs on Dallas-based music blog Gorilla vs. Bear last October. A bidding war ensued, with Bridges signing to Columbia, and he subsequently earned raves at this year's SXSW for songs like "Lisa Sawyer," where he lovingly details his mother's childhood in New Orleans, and "Brown Skin Girl," a celebration of women of color. His debut album, Coming Home, drops on June 23rd.
He Says: Born Todd Bridges, he originally performed under the name Lost Child. "My mom, she used to always tell me whenever I had a haircut or something, 'Boy, you look like a lost child," he says. "Later, I wanted a more professional-sounding name. A lot of people in college would call me Leon, after the actor. He acted in Cool Runnings, The Five Heartbeats and The Temptations. People were saying I looked like him. I felt that 'Leon' and 'Bridges' went together very well."
Hear for Yourself: On "Better Man," Bridges and his band strum soulfully on a black & white stage straight out of Shindig! Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: A blast of speedy Oakland post-hardcore that goes even harder than the Drive Like Jehu song they're named after
For Fans of: Black Flag, early Sleater-Kinney, Pretty Girls Make Graves
Why You Should Pay Attention: Northern California's Super Unison have moved faster than their songs (none of which have yet to hit the two-minute mark). Following her split from band Punch, Meghan O'Neil Pennie was asked to join a musical project formed by Justin Renninger of Snowing and former Dead Seeds members Danny Goot and Kevin DeFranco. They had their first practice in December, recorded a self-titled EP in February and have just wrapped up a tour with Composite. "We really just hit he ground running," Pennie says, noting how quickly the band clicked. Together, the quartet has created tight hardcore tracks perfectly paired with post-punk sensibilities — Pennie describes their sound as "a weird intersection of Dischord Records and riot grrrl." Next up for the band is a limited tape out on Conditions Records and a seven-inch via Deathwish Inc.
They Say: "I feel like we all take very good care of each other. It's a very caring band. It's really nice. I feel the love in this band," says Pennie. "They're sweet guys. You know, we've all been in bands. We're all older, so there's just a bit of knowing what to do and having friends to help us do it and keeping the momentum going."
Hear for Yourself: Their debut EP is available to stream on Bandcamp — four songs, 7-and-a-half minutes, five bucks. Brittany Spanos
Sounds Like: Chilling with your friends at Jamba Juice
For Fans Of: Drake in his "Best I Ever Had" days, Childish Gambino, G-Eazy
Why You Should Pay Attention: "Super Duper" Kyle Harvey makes unabashedly sunny pop-raps, whether it's looping early Nineties one-hit wonder Jane Child into the winning "Don't Wanna Fall in Love," or rhyming about "Fruit Snacks and Cups of Patron." He claims Jadakiss, Will Smith and Incubus as inspirations. He's a Ventura, California beach kid whose childhood resembled the Nickelodeon cartoon Rocket Power, and is known to surfboard over his adoring audience at sold-out concerts. But he also raps to provide income for his mother and his three siblings. "My mom is a single mother, and she's worked really hard to raise us. I'm in a unique situation to make a good sum of money and take that weight off her shoulders," he says. He's built a following by really connecting with fans: "touring, trying to see them as much as possible, talking to them before shows. On Twitter I tell them, 'If you're having any problems, if you need advice, let me know, I'll follow you back, and let's talk about this.' I want to let my fans know that I'm there for them."
He Says: Yes, the 1975 Bob Seger song "Beautiful Loser" inspired Kyle's album title. "My aunt played me that for me as a little kid. I wanted a title that in two words could describe me as a person," he says. "I wasn't really a loser in high school, but I was kinda one. I was on the football team, but at the same time, I hung out with the nerdy kids, staying up until 7 a.m. playing medieval video games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim."
Hear for Yourself: Kyle and R&B singer Kehlani bring back Eighties pop on "Just a Picture." Mosi Reeves
Sounds Like: If Sara Bareilles went country
For Fans of: Taylor Swift (circa 2010's Speak Now), Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry
Why You Should Pay Attention: If anyone can fill the void Taylor Swift left in country music, it's this East Tennessee native, who rivals the "Style" singer with diary-entry lyrics, striking guitar prowess and a lot of stage swagger. But after moving to Nashville at age 15 to try to be the next Swift, she learned a lesson that has ended up being the secret to her success: "You can't be who your inspirations are," the now 21-year-old relates. So Ballerini found her own voice — both as a singer and songwriter — and became one of the most unique new talents the genre has seen in a long time.
She Says: "I listened to a lot of outside songs, and they're so good," Ballerini recalls of putting tracks together for her debut album, The First Time. "But the whole reason I'm an artist is because I'm a songwriter. So I thought it would be more honest of a record if I had my voice and my hand in all of it."
Hear for Yourself: Inspired by the "sass" of Rihanna's "Take a Bow," Ballerini's debut single, "Love Me Like You Mean It," is a Top 15 hit — a huge feat for a new female artist in country music. By Beville Dunkerley
Sounds Like: Sun-drenched, shimmery crush-pop with hooks to spare
For Fans of: Velocity Girl, Talulah Gosh, limited-edition seven-inches on lollipop-colored vinyl
Why You Should Pay Attention: The Roanoke-based trio of Nicole Yun (guitar/vocals), Daniel Cundiff (drums) and Jonathan Woods (bass) has been fashioning clamorous indie pop since 2009. On their fourth full-length, Gold and Stone, Eternal Summers burrow deeper into feedback-drenched guitars and just-sweet-enough vocals, displaying a newfound urgency on songs like the charging "Bloom" and the whispery "Ebb Tide." They're hitting the road at the end of May, kicking their tour off at the NYC Popfest, where they'll be sharing the bill with similarly heart-on-sleeve acts like Club 8 and the Darling Buds.
They Say: "With this album, a lot of the songs were written in different types of spaces," says Yun. "I was a counselor at Girls Rock! Camp — a really great experience — and the drive was about 30 minutes every day; and I'd be like, 'There's only one way for me to deal with this.' Roanoke is a small town, so any drive over 15 minutes is, oh my goodness, a big deal. During the drive, I would use my phone to record vocal melodies and melodic ideas. When the band first started, I wrote those short, jangly nuggets of songs while noodling around with vocal ideas. [We didn't] worry about guitars until later. A lot of that was because I really sucked at guitar and wanted to highlight my strength, which is writing tunes. I've slowly gotten a little bit better at guitar over the years, but I thought it would be cool to go back to that method of just humming something and seeing what happens."
Hear for Yourself: "Together or Alone," the first single from Gold & Stone, is feisty yet wistful, with Yun's voice ping-ponging between a sigh and a yelp. Maura Johnston
Sounds Like: A churning, loose-limbed garage-rock take on traditional Malian music
For Fans of: Tinariwen, the Black Keys, Amadou & Mariam
Why You Should Pay Attention: In Bamako, Mali's capital, the group's electrified version of the stately desert boogie personified by the late Ali Farka Touré was quickly recognized as the real deal. They appeared on Damon Albarn's Africa Express compilation in 2013 and opened for him at the Royal Albert Hall in London last year. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner co-produced their recent debut album, Music in Exile, whose tough, hypnotic thwack also nods to the vamping guitars and excitable spirit of northern Mali's nomadic Tuareg rebels. The group — Aliou Touré (voice), Garba Touré (guitar), Oumar Touré (bass) and Nathanael Dembélé (drums) — half-joke that they'd never have started a band if three of them hadn't been driven out of their northern Mali hometowns by militant jihadists vehemently opposed to non-religious music. "It's not safe at all to play music," Garba Touré says. "It's quite dangerous."
They Say: "The world has known our country as Mali since independence in 1959," says Touré. "Before that, the Songhai empire extended across Mali, from north to south and east to west. That empire included many different ethnicities, and the Songhai musical tradition includes many different things. We take different parts of that tradition, rhythmically and melodically, and play them on modern instruments like the drum set and electric guitar. But it all comes from traditional Songhai music."
Hear for Yourself: "Al Hassidi Terei" is a grooving critique of selfishness. Richard Gehr
Sounds Like: A Guitar Hero song that you've five-starred but can't stop playing
For Fans of: Queens of the Stone Age, Velvet Revolver, Royal Blood
Why You Should Pay Attention: Highly Suspect are from Brooklyn, and they've played shows with very Brooklyn-sounding bands (like Grizzly Bear) — but the hard-charging, Cape Cod-born rock trio sound like they'd rather guzzle battery acid than sip artisanal coffee. Their upcoming debut, Mister Asylum, is the first album by a rock band released on the Lyor Cohen co-founded 300 imprint; and it's a hooky trip to the gutter with guitars that melodically gleam under the grit. This summer they're hitting Bonnaroo, touring with Scott Weiland and then following that up with a trek alongside New Artists You Need to Know alumni Catfish and the Bottlemen.
They Say: Highly Suspect's music is chaotic and barnburning, and it sounds like their live shows are no different. "There has been a disaster at every show in one way or another," says guitarist-vocalist Johnny Stevens. "A kick pedal breaks or an amp blows, or [drummer Ryan Meyer] has the flu and keeps his puke bucket right next to him — but it's our mission to never let the audience know when things are going wrong." They have a sweet side too: First single "Lydia" is about a failed relationship, but Stevens got to keep their cat, Pam. "I want to have my own house and a yard one day that she can explore," he says. "I wanna have a nice warm fireplace nestled into a big hearth and on the shelf above it there will be a Grammy."
Hear for Yourself: Stevens may have Pam on his side, but that doesn't make the static sludge of "Lydia" any less heartbroken. Larry Fitzmaurice
Sounds Like: A smoky, slow-mo mosh pit in a high school gym
For Fans of: Nirvana, Failure, Title Fight, melancholy and infinite sadness
Why You Should Pay Attention: The second album from the Pennsylvanian band once known as Daylight, Ours Is Chrome, debuted at Number One on the Billboard Alternative New Artist chart and Number Two on the general New Artist chart. Call it a breakthrough; just don't call it grunge, as many critics have branded Superheaven's superfuzzy bummer rock. "People comment on the fact that we wear flannel kind of often, but shit, man, so does the rest of the world!" gripes singer-guitarist Taylor Madison. He adds, "I think it's cool to draw influence from something you really like and put your own spin on it — that's what we try to do." Superheaven succeed by mixing shimmery shoegaze and emo-smeared post-hardcore into their grungy big riffs.
They Say: Madison taps into many dark real-life experiences with his lyrics, from the time his family was evicted from their home ("Room"), to the motorcycle accident that paralyzed his younger brother ("From the Chest Down"), to the struggles surrounding his sister's heroin addiction ("Gushin' Blood"). "My family is aware of what a lot of the songs are about," he says. "They like some of it, because they think it's cool that I care enough about them to write about them. But I don't think my mom knows the one song is about us being evicted. And I think if she knew, she'd be embarrassed and probably not be that happy about it. But I write about my life, and that was a very big part of it, unfortunately."
Hear for Yourself: Guitars squeal and soar on "I've Been Bored" as Madison, in his gravelly, slackerish voice, shares a worthy sentiment: "I've been so sick of flowers on everything." Brandon Geist
Sounds Like: Tradition-spanning contemplative folk that captures rare beauty in both lyrics and melodies
For Fans of: Joni Mitchell, the Tallest Man on Earth, Sufjan Stevens
Why You Should Pay Attention: On her third album, Loyalty, Toronto-based songwriter Tamara Lindeman's poetic reflections are set to minimalist combos of acoustic guitar, keys and just enough percussion to add bite to her words. For the album, she worked closely with Feist engineer Robbie Lackritz and Afie Jurvanen (a.k.a. Bahamas). "Lately, I've outsourced my boundaries to other people," she says. "I require someone or something to tell me when to stop." In the case of Loyalty, she found out with two months to spare that she was going to record at La Frette Studios in France. When she arrived, she was still rewriting, and had to sing scratch vocals on a few tracks. "There were still one or two words, or like one line that I was going to change," she recalls. "Everyone just loved the scratch vocal. My two collaborators were like, 'You're not allowed to sing it again.'" In turn, her low, rich voice brings out the textures of dry grass, the cityscape, and relentless rain in intimate fashion.
She Says: "I listen really closely to words. I love country music and I love a lot of pop music. Different singers require different material. I can appreciate the simplest song, or the simplest sentiment. If Otis Redding sings it, it's amazing. I'm always just curious. It's often very obvious in a song, you can tell if someone believes in what they're singing. Generally when I don't like music, it's when I hear it and I can tell the person doesn't believe what they're saying. It can be anything, as long as you're committed. . .My style of songwriting is I tend to play guitar and daydream and sorta sing stuff. I tend to record it to remember. In that phase, I tend to sing all the same stuff anyone else sings. I sing about rain and the moon. My tendency over time is to refine that into something that feels really meaningful and I can hang onto it for a long time."
Hear for Yourself: Lindeman's pin-point attention to detail turns a late-night phone call into a gorgeous, lonely meditation on "Loyalty."