By Radio.com Staff

No new artist—and, let’s be honest, few established artists—had as good a year as Sam Smith had in 2014.

The Brit had a No. 1 album with In The Lonely Hour and a chart-topper with his bittersweet single “Stay With Me,” which everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Ed Sheeran to Chris Brown to Vin Diesel attempted to cover.

But the cherry on top of this sundae has to be that Smith ended the year with six GRAMMY nominations—tying him with Beyoncé for the most nominations this year. Clearly, he’s also found some fans in the Recording Academy.

But Smith wasn’t the only new artist who caught our attention this year. Seriously, just peruse our New Music to Know section, which celebrates those break out artists who make us excited about music all over again.

Related: GRAMMY Nominees 2015: Best New Artist Predictions

Echosmith made not being cool, cool. Vance Joy got us reminiscing about Michelle Pfeiffer. Meghan Trainor helped bring booty back. Sam Hunt made us want to turn the night on. Kiesza had us dancing in the streets. Sturgill Simpson made country weird and druggy. Naughty Boy had us la-la-la-ing all over the place. Royal Blood got us believing in rock again. Dej Loaf represented for Detroit. Maddie & Tae were more than just girls in a country song. Vince Staples changed how we think of blue suede shoes. And Tove Lo made Twinkies the ultimate breakup food.

As the year comes to a close we’d like to honor those 14 artists who we think you’ll be hearing from for many, many years to come.

Read more about our picks for the best new artists of 2014.

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1. Sam Smith

(Courtesy of Capitol Records)(Courtesy of Capitol Records)

“I’ve never been in a relationship before,” Sam Smith revealed to Radio.com in March. “When I was writing this album [In The Lonely Hour], I really delved into that fact. I delved into [how] I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me back, last year. I really went inside myself and I wanted to write an album for lonely people, because I don’t think there’s been enough music out there that talks about unrequited love.”

It’s an interesting choice, to release a pop album that tackles loneliness in the summer–a time generally reserved for club bangers and fun in the sun jams. But it insures that Smith will be doing what no one else is.

At the time of this interview, Smith said he was no longer in love with the person he was in love with before, but he was still in the phase of wanting to talk about unrequited love and loneliness.

“Right now when I go on stage it’s good for me. I feel like it’s a therapy every night and the music comforts me. But hopefully I’m going to find someone soon,” Smith said. “Then when I do, I think it might be a bit more difficult to sing the songs because I’ll want to sing happy songs.” –Courtney E. Smith

Sam Smith kicks off his North American tour on Jan. 9 in Atlanta, GA. Oh, and on Feb. 8 he’ll be up for six awards—tied with Beyoncé for the most nominations—at the 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards.

 

2. Echosmith

(Smallz & Raskind)(Smallz & Raskind)

In the summer of 2013 Echosmith—the California band featuring Jamie, Noah, Sydney and Graham Sierota—held a spot on the Warped Tour, where they were exposed to a much different crowd than they were used to. “It’s a very eclectic tour…we wouldn’t have been a natural pick,” Jamie, the guitarist and eldest in the family, told Radio.com in January. “At first we were a little hesitant, but we said, ‘Let’s do it, but let’s see if anyone will like us.'”

People did and many of those new fans starting coming up to the band after shows to chat about their music. Most often they talked about “Cool Kids,” a dreamy song off their 2013 debut, Talking Dreamsthat tells the story of a boy and girl who just want to be noticed, hinging on the lines: “I wish that I could be like the cool kids/’Cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in.”

Jamie said the message of the song is simple: the coolest thing you can be is yourself. But more often than not, fans tell the band that they relate to the kids they’re singing about. That they feel like the outsider looking in.

“This cry to be like the cool kids… it’s something that everyone kind of goes through whether you want to act like it or not,” Jamie said. “There’s always somebody out there that you kind of wish, ‘If only I could do this, or do that.’ I think that’s why it connects with people so well.”

“What we wanted to do with our music is write songs that have messages,” Noah explained. “I guess at the core of our songs they are pop, but we wanted to embrace the pop song with real and raw music… We wanted to make something authentic.”

‘Authentic’ is a word that comes up a lot when you talk to the Sierotas. As in, they want their image and, more importantly, their sound to always be genuine.

“Musically, it’s important for us to not be someone else or try to do something because it’s popular or because it’s in right now or because people tell us to do it,” Jamie explained, echoing the message of “Cool Kids.” “We’ve never been about that. We want to do what we want to do. For us, that’s all there is.” –Shannon Carlin

Echosmith kicks off their latest tour on Feb. 10 in Ames, IA.

 

3. Tove Lo

(Courtesy of Island)(Island Records)

“Breaking up is hard to do.” That old pop cliché is at its truest after taking in Tove Lo‘s debut EP, Truth Serum.

On her six-song release, the Swedish singer—real name, Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson—seems to be working through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to get past one devastating break-up. Lo’s latest single, “Habits (Stay High),” might be the depression stage as she tries to get over her ex: she watches people get it on in sex clubs, picks up dads on the playground and binges on Twinkies only to eventually vomit them up in her bathtub. Who hasn’t been there?

“We don’t have Twinkies in Sweden,” Lo told Radio.com back in June—before the release of her debut LP Queen of the Cloudsof the recently resurrected cream-filled sponge cake, which she thought was just another word for cookie. “But they’re good, I’ve tasted them.” Fans have yet to start bringing them as gifts to her show, but what she’s really hoping is that Hostess will thank her with a box or two for the rest of her life. “I should be getting some Twinkies!”

But, all Twinkie talk aside, “Habits” and her song “Over,” where she chronicles the drunken night when she realized her and her boyfriend were officially done, are just two of the reasons why she’s earned herself the nickname, “the saddest girl in Sweden.” After sitting down with Tove Lo — pronounced “Too-veh Loo,” but she doesn’t mind if you say it phonetically — it’s clear that nickname is rather misleading.

“Well, I think when people meet me, they’re like, ‘Oh,’ because they expect this kind of sad, doped up, kind of girl, but I laugh a lot,” she said.” I think [the nickname is] funny, but I do get what they mean because all my dark sides kind of come through in my music…I’m not the saddest girl in Sweden, but sometimes I am, yeah.” -S.C.

Tove Lo will be on tour overseas in 2015.

 

4. Maddie & Tae

(Courtesy of Kevin White)(Courtesy of Kevin White)

Maddie & Tae—Madison “Maddie” Marlow and Taylor “Tae” Dye—got the idea for “Girl In a Country Song,” off their self-titled EP, after listening to the radio and taking note of the words men use to describe their women. Or rather, the lack of words they use. These girls that Jason Aldean and Tyler Farr can’t seem to stop singing about are merely stock characters—”babys,” “honeys,” “pretty little things”—with no unique personalities of their own.

“Like we say in the chorus, literally all we’re good for is getting in your truck and saying absolutely nothing,” Dye told Radio.com in November. “As you can tell, Maddie and I have a lot to say, so that doesn’t really work for us.”

The young duo—both 19—grew up listening to ’90s country mainstays like George Strait and Vince Gill, who treated their ladies with respect instead of reducing them to “tan-legged Juliets” like “Redneck Romeo” Jason Aldean.

These days, Marlow says, women are constantly being objectified through song, but if a single is catchy enough most are willing to overlook it. She and Dye, however, could no longer sit back and ignore these silly cliches that they felt were actually harmful to women.

“If you really listen to it,” Marlow said of certain bro-country hits, which she elects not to name, “this poor girl has to show off her sugar-shaker and shake her moneymaker and show off those long tanned legs of hers. I’m 5’2,” Tae’s 5’3,” so there’s no long tanned legs for us.”

In the end, the duo wrote a song for all the women that don’t want to be another girl in a country song because they don’t want to be either. –S.C.

In 2015, Maddie & Tae will be working on their full-length debut, slated for a spring release.

 

5. Vance Joy

(Darren Ankenman)(Darren Ankenman)

James Keogh once had big dreams of becoming a lawyer, but right after earning his degree he decided he’d much rather be a singer/songwriter instead. While some parents would be pretty upset by their child’s decision to ditch the 9-to-5 world for the life of a rambling man, Keogh’s dad was more than happy to see his son make the switch. Mainly because he always wished he would have become a rock star himself.

“I didn’t want to play guitar when I was 14 years old, but [my dad] got an electric guitar and he was like, ‘You have to play this,'” Keogh told Radio.com in January. “He always had that regret that he didn’t play music.”

Shortly after earning his degree, Keogh hit the open mic circuit and started going by Vance Joy. He took the name, which he hoped would help separate his personal and public persona, from a character in fellow Aussie Peter Carey’s novel, Bliss. “In the actual book, the character Vance Joy, he’s kind of a grandfather figure,” Keogh explained. “He’s only in it for a couple of pages, but they talk about how he brings people around him and tells these stories and that image just sort of fit.”

Keogh considers himself to be a storyteller, admitting that though he feels a closeness to his music, it’s not autobiographical.”You might start with a thread or a kernel of your own experience, but I think the best stuff is usually picked up from books or films,” he said. “I think I try to find things and combine them and fit them together like a puzzle. The more things you can put together and kind of smooth over the edges, the more you can’t really tell where everything came from and it comes out as an original thing.”

The singer initially started writing his first single “Riptide” off his 2014 debut, Dream Your Life Away, in 2008, but back then he wasn’t that interested in songwriting. He just thought it was fun coming up with random chords and says he didn’t even think he would ever finish the song. But four years later he started working on it again. In the end, Keogh focused on his fears, which include dentists, the dark and pretty girls. But it’s often the line about a particular pretty girl who looks like a certain blonde actress best known for playing Catwoman that fans ask him about the most.

“It’s funny, people are like, ‘What’s with Michelle Pfeiffer and that reference?'” Keogh said with a laugh. “To me it’s like, of course Michelle Pfeiffer. I love her movies and when she was in the Fabulous Baker Boys she was the embodiment of the beautiful woman.” -S.C.

Vance Joy will be on tour in his homeland of Australia before heading out with Taylor Swift in May.

 

6. Dej Loaf

(Courtesy of Columbia Records)(Columbia Records)

Dej Loaf—real name Deja Trimble—grew up in the Detroit projects, but had no interest in becoming another statistic. Her father was killed when she was only four years old, so she was raised by her mom, who has always been supportive of her music. Dej’s mom even joined her onstage at her first show in New York City earlier this month. Dej is also very close to her two brothers, the eldest of which is her personal hairdresser. “He’s the only one who can do it right,” she told Radio.com in October, before noting she’d like to give other members of her family jobs in her camp in the future.

Dej says she was a shy kid who understood the difference between right and wrong. “I was kind of uptight, a loner, music was a tool,” she says. “I was the serious girl and everyone wondered, ‘Why she in the house? Why she never come out? Why she doesn’t come to the parties?’ Now they see me and they see I kind of saved myself from a lot of stuff I could have gotten into.”

The rapper behind “Try Me” just dropped the Sell Soul mixtape and is already getting ready to work on her debut album, set to be released on Columbia Records—home to BeyoncéJohn Legend and now, Dej Loaf.

She also has a spot on Eminem‘s new track “Detroit Vs. Everybody,” off his two-disc compilation ShadyXV celebrating 15 years of Shady Records, which features a who’s who of the Detroit rap scene: Royce Da 5’9″, Big Sean, Danny Brown, Trick Trick.

Detroit rap is synonymous with Eminem, but Dej says the greatest part of the Motor City hip-hop scene is “all the flavors.”

“You can’t put a title on it, what we do,” she says. “What we offer in Detroit, musically, it goes beyond labels.”

Her hope is that more people will come to her hometown to see what the rap scene has to offer. “People do get killed everyday here. But, people get killed everyday other places too and we’re rebuilding. We’ll be alright,” she said. “The thing is, don’t be afraid to come here. It’s fine. You’ll live.” –S.C.

In 2015, Dej Loaf will be working on her full-length debut.

 

7. Meghan Trainor

(Courtesy of Republic Records)(Republic Records)

Meghan Trainor is bringing booty back at a rate we haven’t seen since 2001 when Destiny’s Child insinuated the world was not ready for this jelly. So it was only fitting that when the 20-year-old got on the phone with Radio.com earlier this week she was on her way to a dance rehearsal where she planned to channel Beyoncé‘s bootylicious moves.

“Oh, I watch Beyoncé videos every day with my friend at home,” Trainor told Radio.com in July. “That’s the one performer I study a lot. I’m not saying I am her though, she’s perfection.”

The Nantucket, Mass. native who now calls Nashville home is getting ready for a daytime appearance on Live with Kelly and Michael, which is set to happen in the next few weeks. Her excitement over her TV debut has translated into her spending as much time as possible rehearsing. “They got me dancing,” she said. “I’ve never danced before. So it’s like, ‘Oh man, I’ve gotta learn to be Beyoncé for a second.'”

Trainor is in high demand since her body-acceptance anthem “All About That Bass” took the internet by storm earlier this month, thanks in large part to its pastel painted video featuring women and one man — Sione Kelepi, better known as Vine star SioneMaraschino — with all the right junk in all the right places getting their groove on. The track has since crashed onto the chart, earning the No. 54 slot on the August 2 Billboard Hot 100, an impressive 30-spot jump since it debuted at No. 84 just a week ago.

Trainor’s debut track came out of a writing session where she decided to stop thinking about what would be right for the artist and simply write something honest. “That’s your first song to say, ‘Hey, I’m a little chubby, but I love myself,’ that was a scary thing to do,” she said. “I got a lot of support from a lot of people and it’s really helping me and my confidence.”

One of those people was L.A. Reid — head of her label, Epic — who heard the song and immediately told Trainor it was hers, and only hers, to sing. The track has since become an anthem for all those who don’t feel like they fit the perfect beauty mold. “I tear up all the time when I see young girls write about it,” she said. “It’s amazing.” –S.C.

Meghan Trainor will release her full-length debut, Title, on January 13 and kick off her first headlining tour in North America on Feb. 11 in Vancouver, BC. She is also up for two awards at the 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards including Song of  the Year and Record of the Year.

 

Continued on page 2…

 

8. Kiesza

Kiesza hair(Meredith Truax)

Kiesza hasn’t had a day off since she put out the video for “Hideaway,” which has her dancing through the streets of Brooklyn with a broken rib. Obviously, the Canadian singer didn’t actually know it was broken at the time.

“The guy at the beginning of the video kept lifting me up and putting more pressure on my rib and two days after the shoot I found out that my rib was fractured…and then I couldn’t move for about a month,” Kiesza told Radio.com back in October. “I think had I known my rib was fractured I wouldn’t have done it. Thankfully, I was completely ignorant.”

In its popularity, the video, which was filmed in one shot and has over 125 million views in eight months, has earned its fair share of parody versions, including one from a Russian comedy duo and another from BBC Radio One’s Greg James in which he becomes Kiesza in drag, bright red hair and all.

Kiesza also recreated the video for late night, dancing alongside Chewbacca on the streets of Los Angeles for Jimmy Kimmel and playing in a fire hydrant outside the Ed Sullivan Theater for David Letterman.

“I never expected any of this,” she says. “It’s been surreal, overwhelming at times, a lot to process. The opportunities it’s created, the doors it’s opened, is just incredible.”

Kiesza has very little time to herself these days, and the little free time she does have is spent doing laundry. She’s been on a whirlwind tour—first promoting the song and now her upcoming album, Sound of a Woman (out Oct. 21)—and says she sometimes forgets what country she’s in.

“Everything happened so quick with ‘Hideaway,'” she says. Literally, everything — she wrote and recorded the song in under 90 minutes. “I feel like I’m sort of catching up to the song. I feel like I haven’t had a day to process it…but I love performing more than anything, so I’m definitely not complaining.”

For years, Us Weekly has been trying to convince us that stars are just like us, but if that was really the case, Kiesza—real name, Kiesa Rae Ellestad—would be complaining about her packed schedule. Not to mention looking for a little sympathy for that broken rib. Kiesza is clearly different than you or I, she’s just too nice to admit it. –S.C.

In 2015, Kiesza will be on tour in Australia and Europe.

 

9. Naughty Boy

(Courtesy: Naughty Boy, Virgin EMI)(Virgin EMI)

When talking with Naughty Boy the words “fate” and “destiny” come up a lot. As they should. The former pizza delivery guy and hotel waiter started his music career thanks to a big win on the game show Deal or No Deal.

“I was in a bit of an all-time low,” he told Radio.com in May before the release of his debut, Hotel Cabana. “I never won anything so to go on a game show for the first time, the first time I ever applied for a game show, and to win gave me confidence.”

It should be noted, he didn’t just win, he took home millions.

Before his Deal or No Deal win, Naughty Boy—real name Shahid Khan—was broke and struggling to keep his head above water. “My parents wanted me to take my life seriously,” he said. Khan was at first concerned that his appearance on a game show would ruin any chances of people taking him seriously, but he now believes his good fortune can be a lesson to others.

“Whatever I’m doing right now,” he said, “I believe anyone can do this if they put their mind and heart into it.”

“[Music] is the one thing that I don’t feel like I’ve ever worked a day and that’s what you ultimately want for your job,” he added. “I’m doing what I love.” –Annie Reuter

Naughty Boy currently has no tour dates in 2015.

 

10. Sturgill Simpson

sturgill simpson Top 14 New Artists Of 2014(Loose Music)

A half-dozen years ago, Sturgill Simpson was just one of hundreds of guys from Kentucky working a day job and playing music on the side. Fast-forward to 2014, and his life has changed drastically.

And in his case, the change is positively stunning. He’s married now with a new baby who’s turning his life upside-down at home. And at the same time, that music he’d been playing all his life is now wowing fans and critics alike, thanks to his acclaimed new album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

Metamodern Sounds is a purely independent project, yet since its release in May, Simpson has already appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, gotten a backstage visit from David Byrne (he’s a big fan of the album) and received a personal invite from country superstar Zac Brown to open arena shows on his Great American Road Trip tour this summer.

“We’ve done three so far and it’s been great,” Simpson told Radio.com in July about the experience so far with the Zac Brown Band. “They’ve been absolutely great to us, the whole crew, Zac, everybody. It’s an amazing opportunity to go out and get in front of that many people. Especially when you find out the other guy [Brown] pegged you himself just because he likes your music.”

Despite playing music since he was young, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is only Simpson’s second collection of songs (his first, High Top Mountain, came out in 2013). The album even debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard country album chart, a rare feat for an independent artist.

Related: 2014 Winners: Sturgill Simpson, The Metamodern Outlaw Savior of Country

“There’s a lot of hype,” Simpson admits, referencing the seemingly endless stream of interviews he’s been conducting and all the praise he’s earned around the release. “But I think it’s all organic. People are responding, so it makes us proud.”

Center stage on Metamodern Sounds are some of the finest country songs you’ll hear this year, all wrapped up in Simpson’s rich, full baritone voice. Strong but never overburdened, his vocals work as well on gentle ballads as they do on heavier, more guitar-driven material. As a singer, Simpson is frequently compared to Waylon Jennings — which is not off the mark, as the two do share vocal qualities, and much of the album’s production does echo the sparse, unhurried sound of Waylon’s early-1970s releases like This Time and Dreaming My Dreams.

The deeper you listen, however, the more complex things get. Lead track “Turtles All the Way Down,” for instance, has a lot more going on than its pared-down structure and easygoing rhythm might at first imply. Alongside a sound that appears inspired by ‘outlaw’-era artists like Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and the late Tompall Glaser, the song references Stephen Hawking in its title and includes lyrics that touch on Jesus, Buddha and various psychedelic substances—not to mention “reptile aliens made of light” that can “cut you open and pull out all your pain.”

Simpson doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “A lot of people have said it’s progressive and groundbreaking—I didn’t think it was that progressive,” he said of the song. “I mention a few hallucinogenic substances, but outside of that I don’t think it’s all that cutting edge. I was shocked that a lot of journalists put that spin on it.” At the same time, he admitted: “I doubt anybody’s ever talked about DMT in a country song.” –Kurt Wolff

In 2015, Sturgill Simpson will be on tour. He is also up for Best Americana Album at the 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards.

 

11. Royal Blood

Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher of Royal Blood (Courtesy Warner Bros.)(Warner Bros. Records)

Royal Blood graduated from playing nightclubs of fewer than 20 people to stadiums of more than 50,000 in just a year’s time, thanks in part to Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders.

The drummer wore the Brighton band’s T-shirt on stage at Glastonbury Festival and subsequently asked the very hard-rocking duo of Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher, to open for them at two shows in London’s Finsbury Park later this month.

Royal Blood certainly keeps in line with frontman Alex Turner’s rallying cry for a return to rock ‘n’ roll. After Arctic Monkeys won British Album of the Year at this year’s Brit Awards, Turner used his acceptance speech to talk about the importance of rock, and of course, poke a little fun at its antithesis, One Direction. “Yeah, that rock ‘n roll, it seems like its faded away sometimes, but it will never die,” Turner told the crowd. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“I kinda feel like rock’s really the only thing I’ve done,” Kerr confessed to Radio.com in May. “Every time I’ve gone to write a song, it’s just always come out that way.”

The singer and guitarist also seems to agree with Turner’s assessment of the current state of rock and roll. “I guess I feel at the moment that there’s not enough rock bands that I like,” he said. “Things that inspire me rock-wise like Led Zeppelin, Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age, Raconteurs, Foo Fighters… The list kind of gets thin after that.”

But, Royal Blood’s self-titled debut, which dropped in August, should give lovers of rock hope. Their first release is four tracks of blistering rock that sets them apart from their contemporaries, who seem to need four or five people to do what these guys can do with only two.

The guitarist also believes “heavy” and “loud” music is not created by the instruments alone. “It’s what you’re playing that makes it loud, it’s not necessarily distortion,” he said. “We like to write heavy content.” They also like to do everything live. “We don’t have anyone extra,” he said. “Everything you hear is being played by real people.” –Jay Tilles

Royal Blood will kick off 2015 touring overseas before heading back to the States in July to open for the Foo Fighters.

 

12. Tinashe

(Gomillion & Leupold)(Gomillion & Leupold)

At 21 years old, Tinashe has already toured with Justin Bieber and acted alongside Charlie Sheen. Of course, this was way back in 2008 when she was known as Tinashe Kachingwe, an up-and-coming teen actress and a member of the all-girl R&B group The Stunners; years before Beiber was throwing eggs or stealing phones and Sheen was “winning.” So long ago, in fact, that when Tinashe guest starred on Two and a Half Men she said the soon-to-be-highest-paid actor on TV was a “nice guy who was nothing but professional.”

After witnessing the pitfalls of those who started young and later lost their way, you can’t blame Tinashe for choosing not to move out of her parent’s house in La Crescenta, Calif. just yet. She’s seen what too much freedom can do to a person. And her mom and dad, well, they have no problem keeping her in line.

Not that Tinashe (pronounced Tee-NAH-shay) really needs anyone to push her into high gear. After leaving The Stunners and going solo in 2011, the bedroom in her parent’s house became her private studio where she worked on three mixtapes—2012’s In Case We Die and Reverie, 2013’s Black Water — that had many comparing her to Ciara.

With her dance-filled performances (Tinashe has been studying ballet, tap and jazz since she was four years old) and a collaboration with Future featured on her upcoming debut Aquarius, these comparisons hold true. Though, she would appreciate it if people stopped calling her the “new Ciara” when the current one is doing just fine.

Exploring her power as a woman is something that’s important to Tinashe. With her song “2 On,” off her debut, Aquarius, which features her favorite L.A. rapper, Schoolboy Q, she knew she wanted DJ Mustard to produce, mostly because she felt he needed to work with more women. Mustard has scored hits with YG, T.I. and Kid Ink, but other than a production credit on Keyshia Cole’s new single “She” off her upcoming album, Point of No Return, Tinashe is the only female artist Mustard has worked with.

Tinashe’s music is written from the point of view of someone who is both young and female. Some people unfortunately are not quite ready for this POV. But Tinashe isn’t interested in pleasing a few prudes who don’t like the idea of her smoking or drinking.

“I’m young, I want to hang out, I want to have fun just like everybody else,” she explained. “For me, it’s about saying what men are saying on most songs and not giving in to the double standard or the stigma.” –S.C.

In 2015, Tinashe will be on tour overseas.

 

13. Sam Hunt

(David McClister)(David McClister)

The very first song Sam Hunt learned on guitar was Kenny Chesney‘s “What I Need to Do” off his 1999 album Everywhere We Go. Over a decade later, Chesney would take “Come Over” — a song Hunt wrote with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne — to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and give Hunt his first chart topping hit as a songwriter.

“I still have that wide-eyed view of country radio,” Hunt admitted to Radio.com in October, whose own song “Leave the Night On,” which name-drops Levis, Train‘s “Drops of Jupiter” and California, is rising on the country charts. It’s currently No. 4 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart.

After four years of playing college football at Middle Tennessee State University and then University of Alabama at Birmingham, Hunt moved to Nashville and had songs cut by Keith Urban (“Cop Car”) and Billy Currington (“We Are Tonight”). It’s taken Hunt a few years to pinpoint his own sound, but he’s finally found it with his first album, Montevallo, out Oct. 27.

On his debut, Hunt blends country and R&B to make his own kind of music. A kind that could easily be played alongside Drake and Ed Sheeran on any Top 40 radio station.

Hunt’s track “Speakers,” which was originally featured on his 2013 acoustic mixtape Between the Pines, is a sexy, but rather emo take on making love in the back of a truck that almost sounds like a Drake song. Whether the country singer knows it or not.

“I never listened to a lot of Drake but I imagine that Drake and I are influenced by a lot of the same people,” he says. “There was definitely a sound that was heard throughout ’90s R&B. I think that influenced a lot of what I’m doing. I remember the first time I listened to Usher. I was blown away by that vibe and I think that stuck with me since then.”

Country artists embracing different genres is nothing new. Luke Bryan, who shouts out T-Pain on his song “That’s My Kind of Night,” told Radio.com that he felt as if music fans are “less inclined to stick to just one kind of music these days.”

“I think they’re listening to all forms of music, and they just pick which song of the genre they like, and they put it in their playlist,” he said. “I think a lot of the walls and stereotypes have come down. You can be a rock, rap and country fan all in one, and nobody’s going to look at you funny about it.” –A.R.

Sam Hunt kicks off his headlining Lipstick Graffiti Tour on Jan. 29 in West Hollywood, CA.

 

14. Vince Staples

(Credit: Def Jam)(Def Jam)

Authenticity is an increasingly fragile prospect. Nowadays, shifting digital platforms refract lived experience into a dappled wormhole of maybes and half-truths. The further it slips away, the harder America’s youth grasp for it. Therein lies the appeal of Vince Staples, a rising star in the crowded constellation of Los Angeles street rap.

Kids don’t love Staples because he presents the hardest front, they love him because he takes hardness as a given—as it’s been for most of his life—and works backwards, injecting his narratives of violent struggles and broken homes with humor, sensitivity and crystalline grit. Staples’ songs arrest his audience’s imagination like vivid short films. In a world of copies, he’s undeniably an original.

Childhood looms large in Staples’ creative repertoire. Over the phone he doesn’t pause when asked about his early life, telling Radio.com in October, “When I was a little kid we were watching cartoons, Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon,” he explains before noting this was while he and his friends were trying to figure out where they were going to go “gangbang.”

At 21 years old, Staples barely has to look backwards to document his formative years. They’re the subject of his 2013 Stolen Youth mixtape, a collaboration with Mac Miller’s production alias, Larry Fisherman. “Back Selling Crack” scrutinizes his own development against the backdrop of Long Beach County’s endemic gang violence: “Fighting to live since I was kid/ Playing in the yard with a .30-06/ House look like a gun range/ Room look like a gun store.”

He recreates that childhood room in the video for “Nate,” off this years’s Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 mixtape. A young Staples watches his parents’ tortured relationship explode before his eyes: his father, caught up in a life of drugs and violence, fighting with his mother, who begs him not to bring cocaine into the home. As they exchange words and blows Staples leaves to buy a soda. He arrives home in time to watch the cops arrest his father, his mother yelling from the porch. The imprint of his father’s fists in the drywall echo the indelible impression he’s left on his son. “As a kid all I wanted was to kill a man/ cause my daddy did it,” Staples rhymes.

As Staples grew up, trouble followed close behind. “I did some s–t back in my day, in high school,” he explains. “I’ve done it all man, all the stuff you’re not supposed to do. I’m lucky to get out of that situation unscathed.” His exploits brought him into frequent contact with the police, whose brutality he illustrates on “Hands Up,” a track he shared a few weeks ago: “Shoot him first without a warning/ And they expect respect and non-violence/ I refuse the right to be silent.”

You might assume he’s reacting to the situation in Ferguson, but, in fact, these lyrics were written a year ago. Police violence may be in the media spotlight now, but it’s shadowed him for years. “We’ve been getting into problems with the police since I was younger,” he notes. “It’s a generational thing. Your parents raise you to not trust the police. You get in trouble for being a tattletale when you little. I’m just being real to my environment.” –Ezra Marcus

In 2015, Vince Staples will release his debut LP on Def Jam.

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