The concept of a sure thing in music seems more distant than ever right now.
At a time when a momentum for anything creative has been disrupted to such a staggering degree that entire careers have been derailed - some without any hope of realignment - making a plan for anything is risky and scary. Covid's legacy on music will be a gamechanger that means any tried and tested routes to success (whatever that means) can't really be trusted again. The creative environment has narrowed: while home studio setups, livestreams, Twitch and IGTV offer a proxy for their pre-pandemic equivalents, they're here to stay once things become less scary.
But human beings are very adaptable things. Creators and consumers have - and will continue - to change. Music will continue no matter how bad things get. In new and interesting ways, we’ll continue to get excited whether we see the inside of a sticky venue or a massive festival ever again.
With this is mind, our list of fifty artists to watch this year is more about discovery than it ever was. This isn’t a tips list, it’s not a bunch of sure things, and you should leave your expectations at the door. 2021 will be even more about adaptability than 2020 and these fifty artists encapsulate the best chance the music world has right now - each of them building the next steps in their career in the face of sheer fucking chaos and uncertainty.
If you're someone who listens to rap because it makes you feel like a diamond-grilled badass, Korean-American Audrey Nuna is your new best friend. Despite the roadrunner flow and her penchant for triple entendres, she sounds like she records her bars out the window of a speeding Merc, with minimal fucks given. Although Nuna began her career in 2018 with some feathery R&B – showcasing a powerful diva alter – 2020's about-turn has got her facing in the right direction.
The Dirty Hit-signed trio from Kansas City, TyFaizon, Deiondre, and TheBabeGabe could be the label's trump card, with a DIY work ethic that's led them to drop three albums to date, with a fourth due in 2021. Mixing nods to mid-noughties melodic indie alongside a genuine celebration of what it feels like to be young and make mistakes, BLACKSTARKIDS are creating a blueprint for the perfect indie disco anthem.
With only a couple of tracks to her name and just out of her mid-teens, Londoner Eaves Wilder's fresh take on indie music sees her reaching deep into '90s guitar sounds as much as the canon of classic songwriting. She claims to already have enough material to fill two albums and has Blur producer Steven Street - who helped out on debut single "Won't You Be Happy" - as a fan.
Dialling down the tempo via a string of single releases over the past few months, London three-piece Jacquard Looms’ muted palette, to some extent, resonates with the twilight tone of the times. Lulling acoustic vibes intertwine with laconic vocal drawls in a quasi-hip-hop motion that proves at once emotionally distant yet rejuvenating. Sparse ambience and subtle electronic nods saunter in an openness that strikes at the core of the band's slow-burning traction and appeal.
After guest spots on XL head Richard Russell's Everything is Recorded back in April, Berwyn Du Bois made his mark with debut "Glory" and a performance on Jools Holland's Later. The Trinidad-born and East-London raised multi-instrumentalist overcame bouts of homelessness, family instability and depression to find his musical footing through a sympathetic music teacher. DEMOTAPE / VEGA, his first mixtape recalls the same rich potential and genre-hopping that marked the likes of Frank Ocean or SZA for greatness and he enters 2021 as one of the UK’s most interesting talents.
New York-born Helen Ballentine channelled a summer of depression and obsessive Nick Drake listening into her first compositions and has inevitably found a home among her peers on Secretly Canadian. Last year’s “Places/Plans” toplined an EP that showcased an expansive melodic soundscape: crunchy acoustic guitar, open-tunings, and music to get lost in.
Sliding into the DMs of Dirty Hit label boss Jamie Obourne with adoring words about The 1975's Reading Festival headline set landed teenage social media crooner Beaux South his dream record deal. Having built a following online posting covers, inspired by Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth, he sent over the demo of his debut EP over to Obourne and the story makes for a very compelling Tik Tok. With his second EP out in 2021, beaux's soothing synth-pop explores loss, loneliness and love while you're figuring out everything else in the world around you.
Last year saw the fresh-faced Fiction-signed trio transcend the orbit of their utterly charming bedroom pop, as well as their suburban Hampshire hometown, rocketing towards London and tour dates with The Orielles. Their improvised cut-up methods of lyricism and celestial pop creativity know no bounds.
A true innovator in UK music, the 22-year old Gambia-born Pa Salieu Gaye kicked off 2020 with the explosive “Frontline” and dropped debut album Send Them To Coventry in November. Telling stories that pay tribute to his past and present - and set against a backdrop that draws from his Gambian heritage as much as life in Coventry - his comparisons with J Hus for an inventive approach to sound and rhyme is more than justified.
The moniker of London-based Bella Latham, Baby Queen taps and swipes through touchstone topics of the modern age with wit and refreshing honesty. She twins subjects such as mental health and the pervasiveness of internet culture with synth-rich bubblegum sheen. Recent six-track EP Medicine found the South African-born artist in her element, volleying flights of electro-pop with unfiltered lyrical depth – an off-kilter but irresistible duality that hooks without fail.
When Kamal. released his first track of 2020, "homebody", it became more relatable than ever as the world plunged in lockdown and we were all become more familiar than ever with our four walls. Based in London, the singer/songwriter has shared a lot with his string of singles. Confessional, but with a candid swagger, Kamal. is part of an exciting new generation of storytellers who can shapeshift through genres.
Greentea Peng’s exciting twist on neo-soul is informed as much by Dilla, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill as it is her time spent in both Mexico and the UK capital. A smoky South-London soul sound with a psychedelic filter, she’s making music that explores facets of identity, personality and spirituality - it’s expansive, intelligent and nourishing.
Whilst some (us) may have vegetated courtesy of their self-isolated 2020, others - namely singer-songwriter Jordana - had a very productive stint. What began as the release of her debut album Classical Notions of Happiness soon developed into the release of two new EPs, Something to Say and To You, later combined as her sophomore outing Something to Say to You (smart). Dropped in the middle of the year, “Big” is a perfect introduction to the Kansas artist’s quirky sound with its bubbling beats and chunky, gurning bassline. Think Warpaint at their poppiest, and you’ll dig.
Finn Askew’s take on melody-rich hyperpop sees the Somerset-born songwriter finding a summer-washed timelessness that revels in youth and excitement. A collab with Canadian producer Whipped Cream and a clutch of tracks in 2020 - beginning with “Roses” - have added colour and depth to the 19-year-old’s musical vision. A debut EP is promised at the end of the month.
2019 debut album To Myself saw Atlanta's Baby Rose announce herself through a smoky, seductive vocal unlike anything you’ve heard in R&B and a curveball take on the genre. Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse remain all too obvious comparisons for the 25-year old Washington-born, Atlanta-based singer whose delivery carries with it multitudes of depth and nuance.
Adding whispers and dark electronic twists to a more classical approach to songwriting Licolnshire-based aritst Holly Humberstone tackles self-loathing, pain, desperation and depression in the charming tracks which complete her debut EP Falling Asleep At The Wheel. Every track is like a conversation and through the captivating warmth of her voice and relatable lyrics Humberstone subtly slid into the lives of many as a new friend and beacon of hope during the pandemic. With three already sold-out London shows scheduled for later in the year, Humberstone is here to stay.
Velvet-soft vocals and a honeyed-up delivery filled with vulnerability and a gentle swagger marked out Karl Benjamin’s debut track. The London-based artist has been pursuing a modelling careet but has an EP ready to drop this Spring.
Auckland-raised Molly Payton relocated to London two years back, as a 16-year-old and dropped her debut EP Mess in Spring of last year. Her brand of lyrically mature, angsty, shambolic pop juts between extremes of melody and discord, and found a fan in schoolfriend Oscar Lang, who produced her first tracks.
From a Taylor Swift co-sign to landing Disney's Christmas ad, Griff's 2020 ended on some pretty serious highs. The singer, songwriter and producer may have only contributed her vocals to "Love Is A Compass", but on The Mirror Talk EP and singles like "Forgive Myself", we get to see all of Griff's talents shine. If you're looking for the next world-dominating British pop force Griff could be the answer.
Hong Kong-born and London bred, bb sway is part of a bubbling DIY scene generating that oh-so affable bedroom-pop sound in Blighty. “Habits”, her final single of 2020, is as delightfully sweet as it is soothing; opening with bright, tropical chimes and a chilled beat, sways’ impish vocal style drifts along her self-aware lyrics as she weaves messages of self-love and acceptance into her songs. Despite finding its nucleus in sway’s experience with depression, the track is the complete antithesis to a low mood.
When Charli XCX gives you her nod of approval, the music world and pop obsessives quickly spruce their posture and take notice. With her bouncy beats and sugary pop sound, it’s no wonder that ELIO caught the attention of hyperpop’s queen bee with her unabashed love of a lean and mean hook. With her smart observations on the practicalities of love and life, choosing to name herself after Call Me By Your Name’s spurned protagonist feels apt. With a year full of promise, Charlotte Lee may be well on her way to explaining her anecdote to Timothée Chalamet himself.
It's no walk in the park upstaging Headie One, but on "Fuck U Pay Me", self-styled Queen of Drill Ivorian Doll does just that. Her sixteen on his and Kenny Beats' collab "ENDA" is so percussive and steeped in slang that it requires a few listens to take in, and the boys just fade into the background. ID wields her sexuality like a mace, just like her heros Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, and has wiped the floor this year with singles including the catty, Mean Girls-themed "Rumours". Next she's going to have your favourite drill artists hiding under the sofa.
Picking up the baton from Carole King and Joni Mitchell to create empowering coming-of-age music, Delilah Montagu began her music career with a featured vocal on Black Coffee and David Guetta’s Drive. While her 2019 debut EP put piano and vocals front and centre, last year’s “Loud” saw her embrace a more timeless pop sound and 2021 should see a full-length album finally drop.
He’s written with Taylor Swift, John Mayer and John Legend and began the year with the release of collaborative single “Cheesin’” - featuring Remi Wolf, Still Woozy, Sophie Meiers, Claud, Melaine Faye and HXNS - in aid of the COVID-19 Relief Fund, but it appears now is the time for Cautious Clay to truly shine in his own artistic right. Bubbling as an emerging artist since debut single “Cold War” in 2018, Clay - aka. New York’s Joshua Kareph - found himself giving his old demos a new lease of life; early converts may recall echoes of recent single “Agreeable” in its previously unbuttoned state. Undeniably 2020-topical, the track soulfully jibes at those with conflicting opinions unable to resist the opportunity to undermine each other.
It's no surprise that Martha Skye Murphy is living her best creative life: she cut her teeth lending vocals to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Push The Sky Away and their subsequent tour. She started as she meant to go on, co-founding a theatre company, performing a one-woman show and releasing a couple of striking, mythology-inspired EPs and working with Dan Carey, Jerskin Fendrix and Squid.
2020 saw Mysie win the inaugural Rising Star Award at the Ivor Novellos, and under the mentorship of super-producer Fraser T Smith, she's pushing new boundaries with her cinematic pop creations. She's as much inspired by her Ugandan jazz musician grandfather as she is Radiohead and Mac DeMarco.
AG Club have had an a meteoric rise over the past two years alone, growing from grassroots scene erupters in the East Bay Area of San Francisco, to collaborating with A$AP Ferg, being taken under the wing of Tyler, The Creator’s right-hand man, and already being on the cusp of dropping their second record. All this, and they’re barely touching their twenties.The multi-media rap collective are carving a new direction with their shapeshifting, “genreless” ambitions.
Another Charli XCX co-sign (hey, she’s got the knack!), Filipino-Australian artist daine has really identified her sonic niche despite clocking in at 18 years of age. Named after her great-grandfather, she is the latest reincarnation of emo-meets-trap-via-cloud-hop sub-genre. Finding a welcoming home during her teen years in the hardcore scene of Melbourne clearly left its audible mark; the alt-pop sound of recent single “bloody knees” or the ominous anaesthesia of “Ascension” showcase the seamless blend of all of daine’s influences topped with a cloying delivery all her own.
Rose Gray's breezy vocals in step with irrepressible '90s dance beats has set the East Londoner on a confessional, sonically optimistic path - lyrics speeding through a whirlwind of relationships and fast-paced urban living. With several singles already to her credit and a debut EP due this month, an ability to capture the everyday with a self-effacing sense of reality and distinct knack for a melody finds the singer-songwriter primed to reach a growing stream of listeners.
Remi Wolf is one of the most exciting voices in pop music. With her major label debut, her second EP, I'm Allergic To Dogs! she unleashed a vivacious, endlessly creative stream of sonic happiness while pairing each single with a unique, trippy visual. The California-born rising star, who was once a promising skiier, graduated from an acapella trio of friends, to a Hollywood ticket on American Idol to comandeering her soon-to-be expanding creative universe of no-fucks sugar-coated chaos.
Olof Grind established himself as a photographer, his work adorning Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher cover, Vogue, and having exhibited at the Swedish museum of photography. 2020 saw him add another string to his bow, melding his ephemeral analogue visuals with gloriously intimate, queer meditations under his Luminous Kid project, setting up the February release of his debut album and photography book.
South-East London rapper Enny found breakout success with “Peng Black Girls”, but it’s the single’s sentiment she’s holding true to as she charts her future. Released via Jorja Smith’s label Famm and featuring the vocals of Amia Brave, the track garnered instant acclaim for its sharp insight and effortless groove.
Strong out-of-the-gate collabs with James Blake and Jamie XX - who co-produced, respectively, debut single “Stay Alive” and its follow-up “Air Forces” - gave a leg-up to Mustafa Ahmed. With a deft touch for timeless, affecting melody, the 24-year-old - born to Sudanese immigrants in Canada - cut his teeth as a performance poet in his native Toronto, earning co-signs from local boys Drake and The Weeknd. A debut album When Smoke Rises is due this year.
Working in the same leftfield R&B space as genius almost-ran Jai Paul; Ankara, Turkey-born and LA-based emir taha channels East and West into his sultry low-fi creations. Hoping to do for Turkey what Rosalía has done for Spain, Taha’s deft hand of the interplay between vocal and melody marks him out for greatness this year.
Growing up in Switzerland’s sleepy St. Gallen doesn’t lend itself to an international music career, but Priya Ragu was undeterred by the lack of Swiss artists making it big time. Leaving her mark on the Zurich scene, in 2019 Ragu quit her day job and upped sticks to New York with one goal: write ten songs in six months. She did it, and recorded them at the studio of US rapper and friend Oddisee, however the production is a full Ragu affair courtesy of her brother Japhna Gold. Blending soulful melodies and pop sentimentalities with the South Indian influence of their Sri Lankan heritage, the pair have brewed a sound wholly their own.
It might seem a bit premature to champion an artist with only two singles to her name. But between the rolling, back-seat rap of "Skippin", and the rambunctious Latin rhythms of "Sativa", Dreya Mac displays more originality than most emcees squeeze into two albums. Her bars have the humour and acrobatics of someone like André 3000, but unlike André, Mac is not laughing with you (see her sly yet brutal delivery of the line "Nah, you must be mistaken fam I'm not your bitch" on "Skippin"). She's an intimidating new voice bouncing between Britain's often polarised rap subcultures.
Pop futurist glaive, aka Ash Gutierrez, is proof the hyperpop movement is going nowhere. A contested term – but it's his favourite for the scene which largely groups boundary-pushing artists like Charli XCX and 100 gecs together. Releasing his debut EP cypress grove through Interscope, he channels negative feelings into his music in order to rid himself of anger, frustration and even suicidal thoughts. Take his debut single, for example: it's called "life is pain". Adjusting to the new reality of being a hotly tipped newcomer, glaive could be the person to put his small North Carolina town on the map.
Rising glitch-glam-pop Mancunian Phoebe Green toured with Sundara Karma, Courteeners and Mac DeMarco before dropping her debut EP. It's bolstered by The Big Moon's Juliette Jackson, who co-wrote “Reinvent” with Green, as well as Alex Robertshaw of Everything Everything, whose production project worked on the EP with the Chess Club signee.
Hamburg-based singer/songwriter Zoe Wees' debut single "Control" is her only solo release so far, but it showcases her limitless potential. Confronting the struggles she faced growing up with benign rolandic epilepsy, one of her biggest fears was the sensation of losing control, and she channels that into this heartfelt ballad. Racking up hundreds of millions of streams, she should've already been headlining a sold-out European tour, but we'll have to wait to hear the power of her voice as she confronts more demons as she readies her first EP.
Building her rep up over two years with debut “Good Food”, a set at Stormzy’s Merky Festival, and strong support from 1Xtra, West London’s Br3nya is infusing the attitude of Nicki and Megan with a shot of her own Ghanaian heritage. Finding a space for her self-described “bad bitch” music among Afroswing hasn’t been hard, but once Covid’s over, she’ll take that to the next level.
Searching for universality in music, KennyHoopla is the change that indie has been crying out for. The Cleveland-born and Wisconsin-based artist's committment to transparency when it comes to what he describes as “the battle with my head”, and his total lack of pretence when it comes to sharing his experiences with it, are both refreshing and a lifeline for the growing community he's building around him.
Reykjavik-based composer Eydís Evensen laid down her first music at age seven, finding her voice through the piano and an approach to melody that eschewed the rules of classical composition. Graduating from the famous Hamrahlíð College, she sang in the same choir that once featured Björk, but turned her back on music for a time, pursuing a modelling career that took her away from her native Iceland. Showcasing her contemplative, cinematic and melancholic sound at Airwaves in 2018, she won a deal with Sony and is set to deliver her debut album this year.
Texas-based Katy Kirby roams indie rock's outer perimeter, graceful in pace and nimble in lyrical footing, finding space for crushing guitar solos as well as moments of ambling playfulness. Inviting comparison to artists akin to Phoebe Bridgers and Angel Olsen, Kirby inhabits a singular style in her own right - lending the experience of her upbringing to a wistful pastoral sound.
Brixx has one of the most curious flows coming out of the UK – a super-low drawl with her two accents, Brummy and Jamaican, fighting for control. Growing up in Illinois, her big brother got her into DMX, Missy Elliot, Ja Rule, Aaliyah and Erykah Badu, but her strict Christian household forbade her from indulging. That was until she moved to Birmingham, got deep into grime – and got kicked out of school a few times, despite being top in her class for English. Brixx got round her teachers the same way she gets in your ear: with impeccable wordplay and iron-clad confidence. May's "Man" was a savage introduction for the emcee, an in-your-face anthem about rejecting dependency on men in relationships, and the only guarantee for 2021 is that she's not about to tone it down.
One of the best kept secrets of his native Ireland, it is a wonder that Christian Cohle has not garnered more attention than he has already. Like a mid-era James Blake, Dubliner Cohle’s atmospheric electronica ricochets between bright yearning and ominously dense; take a detour from his debut single “Breathe” through to recent foreboding release “Drown Me Slow” to experience the full gamut. “Wallflower” itself captures a near-hypnotic ambience with its static gurn, mechanical stomps and breezy chimes. Set for release later in the year, Cohle’s debut album Holy Trouble may prove to be a sublime leap of faith.
Limerick artist Sinead O’Brien's sprechgesang-meets-post-punk poetry spills over with evocative literary references and captivating everyday observations. The Vivienne Westwood fashion designer started out penning poems and performing them with the musical backing of her regular contributor Niall Burns of whenyoung, with a style that's since grabbed the attention of Chess Club and Speedy Wunderground.
Alewya Demmisse's first escapade into music making was soundtracking the animations she created as a digital artist. This multimedia creative fell into a rabbit hole of experimentation following a spiritual awakening. Scouted by Cara Delevingne at Notting Hill Carnival she began modelling, and as she began taking music more seriously, Shy FX became her manger and Demmisse became Because London's first signing. Sharing her sweltering debut single "Sweating" in 2020, as well as a collaborating with Little Simz on "where's my lighter" (a highlight from the latter's lockdown EP) her musical ambitions became a reality. Taking influence from her Egyptian and Ethiopian heritage and the rich culture of her London community, we're excited to see the full extent of Demmisse's musical talents.
Nigeria-born South London emcee Shayon Brown left 2020 as the next breakout drill star. Rapping since she hit her teens, she racked up over 20k views for an early YouTube clip, uploaded when she was just 13. Ten years on, she’s dropping the Yoruba slang of her heritage (The title of breakout track “Dobale” refers to a “gesture of respect”) alongside fighting talk (“I was born in the ghetto / I was fighting with these bitches in stilletos”) and it all comes together with confidence and craft.
Masked artist Midas the Jagaban gave 2020 some feelgood bangers courtesy of her debut Midas Touch EP. The 19-year-old South Londoner is taking on Afroswing with the same innovation as Koffee and Naira Marley, with her own left field freshness.
LA-based singer/songwriter Noah Weinman leads Runnner, often recruiting close friends including Skullcrusher’s Helen Ballentine and A.O. Gerber to help with vocals. His poetic, melancholic lyrics shine through on his 2020 second EP One of One, which meanders through contemplative, folk-tinged ballads to an almost unrecognisable, anthemic rework of Thundercat’s “Captain Stupido”.