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From SZA to Sampha: The 10 best new artists of 2017

Jim Farber
Yahoo Music

Every genre produced promising debuts in 2017. From the vintage country of Jade Jackson and the Americans to the innovative hip-hop of SZA and Sampha, a wealth of new artists shook our assumptions about what modern music should sound like. These 10 artists made the year’s best first impression.

SZA

SZA (pronounced “Sizza”) draws on the harmonic leaps of jazz, the ambient flow of chillwave, and the clicking beats of hip-hop to make her own sonic swirl. The 26-year-old St. Louis-born star, whose full name is Solana Imani Rowe, riveted attention early in 2017 with “Drew Barrymore,” a rumination on female body image whose video featured a cameo from guess which actress? She followed that up with the top-40 score “Love Galore,” which contrasted her enveloping vocal with the sinewy raps of Travis Scott. For more star power, SZA’s album also features a snaking cameo from label mate Kendrick Lamar. While the singer owes a clear debt to alterna-soul pioneers Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, she has a style personal enough to provide an alternative of her own. SZA has been nominated for five Grammys next year, more than any other female artist.

Julia Michaels

You can’t say singer-songwriter Julia Michaels didn’t warn us. Her breakout single “Issues” lays out some of her messiest ones right in the song, then follows up with a threat. “Don’t judge me or I’ll judge you too,” Michaels vows. Small wonder Michaels’s song has become the lay-it-on-the-line anthem of the year. The singer’s quirky vocal, a passive-aggressive yelp, surely didn’t hurt her in snagging attention, nor does the song’s off-kilter beat. Nearly all the cuts on Michaels’s seven-song debut EP, Nervous System, pivot on stop-start rhythms and elastic vocals. It’s refreshing to hear such an individual voice for an artist previously known for molding material for others. Over the past four years, the 23-year-old has penned pieces for everyone from Fifth Harmony to Justin Bieber while also forging special bonds with Gwen Stefani and Selena Gomez, resulting in scores of pieces for, or with, them. Like Sia, Michaels has used a wealth of experience channeling the emotions of others to find a voice very much her own. (Photo: Getty Images)

Khalid

In December 2016, I cited Khalid as one of Yahoo Music’s key artists to watch for 2017. One year later, he’s everywhere, with a platinum top-five album, a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, and hits like “Young Dumb & Broke” and “Location.” The 19-year-old from Fort Stewart, Ga., hit on impact with the latter track, whose tickling guitar, stroking beat, and warm vocals burned with need. Khalid’s voice has a gentlemanly maturity, which he matches to melodies blessed with the R&B formality of Maxwell’s sterling work. When the Grammys announce their Best New Artist winner next year, don’t be surprised if Khalid strides to the podium with pride. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cardi B

There’s no disputing the fact that Cardi B ruled the summer with her in-your-face trap single “Bodak Yellow.” A proudly rude graduate of the worlds of exotic dancing and reality TV (Love & Hip Hop), Cardi became the first female rapper to top the Billboard Top 100 Songs chart since Lauryn Hill back in 1998. Casting back even further, Cardi updated the drop-dead attitude of early Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. The unprintable verse found on her album Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2 matched those stinging words to trampoline beats and a bracingly clear production. One part John Waters, another part Millie Jackson, Cardi has the fire and wit to give mainstream hip-hop back its threat. (Photo: Getty Images)

Luke Combs

Blessed with a barreling voice and a flair for high-flying melodies, Luke Combs became one of country music’s brightest breakouts this year. Along the way, he broke the mold of pretty-boy country hunks, wooing fans instead with his everyday Joe appeal and — oh yes — music. The songs on This One’s for You, the debut album by this unpretentious 27-year-old from North Carolina, straddle the line between commercial country and Southern hard rock. Given the current potency of that nexus, it’s small wonder that the set spawned two huge Nashville hits: “Hurricane,” an irresistible rock ballad inspired by heartbreak (which got to No. 3 on the country charts), and “When It Rains, It Pours,” a Marshall Tucker-style country kiss-off that went even further (to No. 2). Combs’s album has even more to recommend it, from the shout-along opener, “Out There,” to the capper, “Honky Tonk Highway,” a boogie blowout fired by a rollicking piano. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sampha

It’s telling that the most touching love song on Sampha’s debut album doesn’t address a person, but a piano. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” may be the most intimate ode to that instrument since Joni Mitchell’s salute to the device made of “broken trees and elephant ivories” back in 1972, “Judgement of the Moon and Stars.” A mix of dreamy electronics, closely stroked piano keys, and enraptured vocals, Sampha’s Process album leads you deeply into his own. The British musician somehow found a way to connect avant-soul with the impressionism of composers like Debussy and Eric Satie. Known in the past for his collaborations with stars like Drake, Solange, and Jessie Ware, Sampha has made something far more daring of his first solo work, creating one of 2017’s most startling debuts. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jade Jackson

“It’s been fun, but my motorcycle only seats one,” sings Jade Jackson to a lover she wants to dump on her tart debut. It’s one of many odes to ornery independence contained on Jackson’s album. In “Aden,” she takes her father’s advice not “to take s*** from no one,” while she later vows to “walk over the bridges I’ve burned.” Expressions of that order, tied to the raw punch of her music, have certified Jackson as a member of the outlaw country brigade. There’s a lot of Lucinda Williams in her delivery. Jackson’s rough-hewn voice has a similar, slurring cadence, giving her the power of a sneer. No doubt the years she spent entranced by Johnny Cash records in her small California town of Santa Margarita accounts for some of that. The musician got her break after playing songs for Mike Ness, leader of Social Distortion. (Ness’s wife knew Jackson’s mother from their high school days.) Impressed by her sound, Ness produced Jackson’s debut, titled Gilded, a name that highlights both her rough approach and her free spirit. (Photo: Getty Images)

Mappe Of

There’s winter in the bones of Mappe Of’s music. It shivers in the crisp and woodsy acoustic guitar pickings of the group’s leader, Tom Meikle. A native of Canada, Meikle spent time busking in Australia before returning home to Toronto to create the solemn and inward music on the band’s debut, A Northern Star, a Perfect Stone. Meikle’s high-floating vocals recall the ethereality of Bon Iver, while the highly textured sound of his guitar can remind listeners of the folky strokes of José González. It’s the clarity of Meikle’s playing that rivets, grounding his more aloof elements in the dexterity of his fingerings and the hard landscape of his tunes. (Photo: Facebook)

The Americans

Guitars chase each other in the jingle-jangle riffs of “Nevada,” the shimmering opening track from the debut album by the Americans. Fronted by Patrick Ferris and rounded out by bassist Jake Faulkner and guitarist Zac Sokolow, the Americans play the kind of U.S. roots music you’d expect from their name. Despite their conformity to genre, there’s a vulnerability to Ferris’s nervous vibrato that gives the music a fresh stamp. Ferris and Faulkner have known each other since childhood; their mothers met on a train to (where else?) Woodstock a decade before the boys were born. After solidifying their lineup in Los Angeles, the Americans released their debut this past summer. It impressed not only for its fine songwriting but for guitar playing that gives vintage roots music a jolt of rock. (Photo: Getty Images)

Lil Pump

Trigger warning: Lil Pump clearly meant to offend everyone he could with his debut album, a strategy that no doubt helped fast-track him to fame this year. The 17-year-old did an end-run around the music industry by releasing music on SoundCloud that proved so provocative, 70 million disaffected kids streamed it with impunity. Cuts of his like “D Rose” and “Boss” became outsider anthems, eventually garnering the attention of Warner Bros. Records, which signed the kid born Gazzy Garcia to a deal. Pump’s self-titled Warner debut shot to No. 3 on the Billboard Album chart; likewise, his song “Gucci Gang” pierced the top 10. Like all the rapper’s stuff, it’s a stripped-to-the-bone, rock-hard hip-hop track with lyrics guaranteed to outrage adults and make young fans cheer. (Photo: Getty Images)

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