Discovering new artists is like going on an endless series of blind dates, where we want to trust our eyes, but can't, quite. Is Lana Del Rey for real, or a manufactured product, the world wants to know? Fortunately, we don't have to wait till she excuses herself to go to the powder room to Google her and make our own determination.
Our list of the year's 10 most promising new artists runs the gamut from R&B/hip-hop (Frank Ocean, J. Cole) to rural Americana (Pistol Annies, Steel Magnolia) to whistling would-be gangsta rockers (Foster the People). Join us in celebrating the freshness of these frosh:
THE CIVIL WARS
Okay, so maybe there's something ironic about honoring the newness of a duo who sometimes sound like they really did just play the wrap party for the War Between the States. But the (non-husband-and-wife) team of Joy Williams and John Paul White captivated a lot of fans who normally wouldn't go in for all things (or any things) acoustic, thanks to effortlessly exquisite harmonies that represent the highest form of musical peace treaty. They got the Adele seal of approval—which meant a lot, obviously, in 2011—and Taylor Swift's, too, even though she didn't make a mission out of taking them on tour like Adele did.
Ocean is poised to be the next Nicki Minaj—not in terms of flamboyance, certainly, but as the artist who makes the leap from "featured guest" to featured attraction. He would have had a good year if he'd only been a member of the hip-hop group Odd Future, or only written "I Miss You" for Beyonce's album, or only been the Official Recurring Singing Voice of Watch the Throne. But his real triumph came in releasing a "mixtape" called nostalgia, ULTRA. And in the case of this collection of solid original material, the only reason for differentiating a mixtape from, you know, an "album" seemed to be his determination to circumvent the label and give it away for free. Here's betting there's some money to be made off his eclectic R&B yet.
LANA DEL REY
How dumb do you have to be to announce to the world that you're a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra"? But Del Rey appears to be dumb like a fox, in that way. And, also, a fox, if we must say so ourselves. Not everyone is crazy about her plumped-lip look in the video for "Video Games," but 12 million video views (and counting) later, she's doing something right. That shrewdness isn't just in her knack for self-marketing, but also the real craft heard in that knockout single, a funereal ballad which makes her lover's fondness for World of Warcraft sound like the stuff of very high tragedy. We'll have to wait till her full-length album comes out in January to find out if her boots were really made for walkin'.
FOSTER THE PEOPLE
How did a song as peculiar as "Pumped Up Kicks" make it to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, spend months on end in the iTunes top 5, and end up selling over 3 million downloads? Gotta be the whistling, right? Or maybe it's just that an ostensible rock & roll band can never go wrong turning down the guitars and turning up the dance beats and gauzy harmonies.
Cole has a best new artist Grammy nomination, a reward not just for being the rare freshman to bow at No. 1 on the Billboard chart (he sold 218,000 copies his first week) but for the combination of cockiness and thoughtfulness he brought in his official debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story. Tackling an issue as thorny as abortion, as he did in "Lost Ones," showed he's wise beyond his years and certainly beyond his official number of releases (though he put out a number of mixtapes while waiting for his label chief, Jay-Z, to take him off the "sidelines"). But if you just want hottie anthems ("Work Out"), why, sure, he can do that, too.
Yes, Scotty McCreery won Idol, and the sales levels of the first No. 1/No. 2 country finalists in the show's history reflect who's the boss (the baritone) and who's buying the records (women). But, talented as he is, Scotty still seems a bit like a deep-voiced blank slate, still waiting to grow into his vocal age. Alaina arrived—or at least landed, post-Idol—just a bit more fully formed. She may get sexier as she grows up, but the winsomeness with a hint of an earthy edge was all there in Wildflower, her coming-of-age debut. "I'm Not One of Them," Alaina sang, and she just might live up to that individualist's vow.
Alaina wasn't the only Lauren we took a shine to in 2011. There was also Miss Pritchard, an American who made a bit more of a name for herself in England than she did here. If you go to Broadway shows, you might remember her as one of the two young women from Duncan Sheik's hit musical of a few years back, Spring Awakening—the other one being Lea Michele. It's Pritchard's smart lyrical sensibilities and ever-so-slightly husky R&B-pop voice, though, that really make us gleeful.
Blake found the sweet spot where state-of-the-art electronic music meets acoustic soul. His cover of Feist's "Limit to Your Love" was the perfect teaser for his debut full-length, veering as it does between simple piano chords and flights of electro-fancy, married by the singer-producer's tender warble. With his self-titled freshman album, Blake proved there's a meaningful next step beyond dubstep.
They may not have been "new" to everyone, since this duo won CMT's Can You Duet competition way back in 2009 and had a top 5 country hit with "Keep On Loving You" after signing to Big Machine that same year. But it wasn't till 2011 that their debut album came out and really established Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones as the preeminent male-female duo in country music—a category that's gone underfunded since the days of Loretta and Conway or George and Tammy. Unlike those predecessors, Linsey and Jones bring a lot of R&B/soul and rock undertones to what they do. And unlike the not-really-quite-country Civil Wars (see above), they're a duo off-stage as well as on, which accounts for some of the heat in tracks like "Last Night Again," the video for which became a lovably goofy homage to Grease.
In the "who says they don't make 'em like they used to" category comes Dawes, the latest toast of the rock festival circuit, for so ably bringing back the Laurel Canyon sound of the early '70s (and not just spiritually—they even live in the canyon that Joni and Jackson used to call home). Though they had one indie album prior to this, 2011 brought their first major label effort, Nothing is Wrong, which even landed them a TV spot as the backing band for no less an icon and ancestor than Robbie Robertson.When they played L.A. this fall, Big Star's Jody Stephens and the Heartbreakers' Benmont Tench came out to play with them. And Jackson Browne teamed up with them to play a gig at Occupy New York. Can you say "anointed"?