Mickey Guyton (photo: Getty Images)
It may be a fool’s errand, trying to pick the top developing artists of 2015 before the year even gets started. But we can’t help but noticing a consensus forming around the promising fates of some freshman or sophomore newbies, from the gentle Englishman James Bay to Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$.
Will Ryn Weaver be this year’s Charli XCX? Can Mickey Guyton use what sounds like a guy’s name to sneak onto the thoroughly male-dominated country charts? Will Pharrell-produced Francesco Yates be the year’s biggest-haired pop heartthrob?
Here are 10 acts just waiting for the opening bell of 2015 to bust out of the gate:
When this Englishman releases Chaos and the Calm, expect more of the former than the latter, at least as far as the media is concerned. At the beginning of December, Bay was named as the Brit Awards’ Critics’ Choice Winner for 2015. Last year’s winner was Sam Smith, preceded by some other folks who did pretty well as exports, too, like Adele and Florence & The Machine. Favoring an acoustic guitar to go along with his sweet voice, and wearing a hat that makes him look a little like a sunken-cheeked Jack White, Bay is really less the next Sam Smith than a likely heir to the Brit-folk-pop throne intermittently held by Ed Sheeran and Mumford & Sons. After three EPs, his full-length Republic Records debut is due in March.
In 2012, Ekko was talked into giving a song he’d been saving for himself, “Stay,” to Rihanna. But it wasn’t like he just had to count his royalties behind the scenes; Rihanna brought him on as a featured vocalist and even brought him back when she performed the smash on the 2014 Grammys. More recently, he appeared on a David Guetta record and has been out opening for Alt-J, but none of these connections are an exact genre giveaway. From Nashville by way of New Orleans, Ekko, 29, is a pop balladeer who’s been compared to the likes of Jeff Buckley and Chris Martin. He utilizes the collaborative skills of Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco, Jeff Bhasker, and Stargate on Time, a debut that’s out Jan. 20. “I love desperate-sounding music,” Ekko told Interview magazine. “I love things so intensely that if I don’t set them free, I’ll crush them.” At least his is a velvet fist.
We love our Mikkys, but we adore our Mickeys, too. This Nashville upstart is a woman and an African American — two things you don’t see a whole lot of on the country chart these days. But if you’ve seen her get standing ovations from radio programmers at her private showcases, you’d be hard-pressed to bet against Guyton, who has the good looks, sweet spirit, and — most importantly — serious vocal chops to go all the way in the genre. Could she really be the black Carrie Underwood? Stranger things have happened, so we’ll be curious to see what happens when her single “Better Than You Left Me” goes for radio adds in January.
Joey was nominated for Rookie of the Year at the 2013 BET Hip-Hop Awards, but it looks like 2015 will really be the year the Brooklyn rapper starts collecting on those symbols in his chosen last name. After being promised for almost two years amid the usual flurry of mixtapes, his proper debut album, B4.DA.$$ (pronounced “Before da money”), is set for release Jan. 20 and arrives preceded by a lot of love from MTV, among others. Pop songstress Kiesza is a guest, returning a favor he did on her last album, with Statik Selektah handling the production. Though he hails from Bed-Stuy, his current single “Curry Chicken” salutes the culinary benefits of having familial Caribbean roots, because you can never be too badass to go home for the holidays.
Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that Charli XCX was the hot newcomer, instead of so established a figure that we’re now touting Weaver as a heated freshman because of her association with Charli? Ms. XCX co-wrote “OctaHate,” which provided just the right prompt for a lot of poptimists to pay attention to Weaver, a 22-year-old San Diego native. All it took was one single for Billboard to trumpet her with a headline about her “Semi-Charmed Life” and promise to answer “Why the Internet is Infatuated with the ‘OctaHate’ Singer?” Hit producer Benny Blanco was infatuated enough, for his part, to sign Weaver up for his own fledgling label, Friends Keep Secrets, which is distributed through Interscope. She made a high-profile debut at this year’s CMJ Festival, so maybe she’ll grow up to be more like one of the indie artists she reveres instead of the Top 40 flavor she’s being touted as. Either way, she’s likely to be a lot of people’s dream Weaver.
Justin Timberlake is a booster, having tweeted that Yates’s song “Call” “the summer jam of 2014.” So is Pharrell Williams, who’s handling some of the production duties on Yates’s upcoming album. What did this 19-year-old Canadian college freshman and Pharrell bond over? Led Zeppelin, if you can believe that… to the point that Pharrell convinced the kid he should start playing electric guitar onstage, even though he seems definitively pop at this point. Williams does have a vested interest in Yates, but you still might listen when the guy who made the world “Happy” proclaims: “He’s absolutely gonna be just a huge, huge, huge pop star.” And maybe, just maybe, when Yates’s full-length Atlantic debut comes out, he’ll re-popularize the white Afro once and for all.
At the tender age of18, Raury is established enough that the site Hotnewhiphop.com published a gallery of “10 Essential Raury Tracks,” as if the Atlanta rapper/singer already merits a best-of collection… which plenty of hip-hop insiders would say he does. But he’s not quite established enough to have his own Wikipedia page, unlike everyone else in America. If you want to know who he is, just ask Andre 3000, who, when asked about comparisons after Raury opened for Outkast, said it was “a fair comparison. I think Raury is stepping out and pushing it through.” Or Lorde, who back in June tweeted simply: “@raury I like you very much.” Or SBTRKT, who took him out on tour. Raury is officially a Kid Cudi-worshipper, which means he’s all over the map, a trait that could either leave him as a celebrated cult artist or put him on the path to ground-breaking superstardom. His 2013 digital EP, Indigo Child, made a splash among insiders, but we’re waiting for his first album under the Columbia aegis to be the test of how eclectic a newcomer can get and still hit the top 10.
Raury was one of only two American artists to make the 15-artist list of nominees for the BBC Music Sound of 2015 award. The other? Shamir, a Las Vegas-born, New York-based R&B singer-songwriter who released his first EP, Northtown, last June. He’s only marginally less wide-ranging than Raury, having once fronted a punk band and touted his love for the all-female group the Slits, while also incorporating a dash of country into a funk/soul sound that harks back to the Prince-ly R&B of the halcyon ’80s and ’90s. (His look, meanwhile: think Kid ’n Play.) So is he a Vibe dude or a Pitchfork guy? Why ask what, when the only relevant question is how soon we’ll be getting his first full album.
Years & Years
This will be “the year of Years & Years,” according to the clever wordplay of DIY magazine, which has the dance-pop trio “on the brink of being 2015’s success story.” Do they really have what it takes to be around for, you know, years and years? The Brits think so, or are happy just to savor the moment; Years & Years were just named one of two runners-up to James Bay for the Critics’ Choice award. Led by the adorably curly-topped actor/singer Olly Alexander, the group just got off a tour with Sam Smith, further establishing their European beachhead. Dance-pop sung by Englishmen is always a slightly tougher sell in the States, but their new single “Desire” could induce plenty of pop-lust over here.
McPherson’s first album, Signs & Signifiers, won him a reputation as a first-rank roots-rock revivalist, and got him hired as an opening act for everyone from the Dave Matthews Band to Eric Church to Nick Lowe. But his forthcoming sophomore effort, Let the Good Times Roll, goes deeper and darker and has the stuff to push him to a wider audience that may not even recognize the influence of the late-’50s R&B records that inform his sound. Could he be this generation’s Chris Isaak — without the hair gel and wisecracks — making the raw sounds of early rock into something that hits a general audience where they live? Superfans like the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (who co-wrote a song on McPherson’s album) and QOTSA’s Josh Homme hope to help make it so.