The last time we did an Artists to Watch list, we did pretty well. Anna Burch, Caroline Rose, Dream Wife, Haley Heynderickx, Jesse Jo Stark, Men I Trust, Mt. Joy, October Drift, Rews, Stella Donnelly, Tiny Ruins, and Woodes have all become indie stars in their home countries and, in some cases, abroad. Others on the list – Anteros, The Blinders, Emily Yacina, Geowulf, Grace Vonderkuhn, Jesse Jo Stark, and Thyla – are critical darlings. So who will be this year’s breakout stars? We channel our inner Nostradamus and share 25 Artists to Watch in 2021 below. Some of the names will be familiar, as they’ve either been featured on The Matinee or included in our Most Anticipated Albums of 2021. If you’re seeking more options, our 20 Favorite Hidden Gems of 2020 is worth reading.
Without further ado, here is the list. It’s in alphabetical order of course.
“Bad News” was more than the theme of 2020: this was also the title of a groovy single from the eagerly anticipated album from soul artist Aaron Frazer. The drummer and co-lead singer of Durand Jones & The Indications gets 2021 off to a sweet start when his Dan Auerbach-produced solo debut, Introducing… arrives on January 8th via Dead Oceans. Based on what we’ve heard on the other singles (“Over You” and “If I Got It Your Love Brought It”), Frazer’s sweet falsetto will keep listeners inoculated against the blues all year long. An album this irresistible should come with a warning label, because these smooth, euphoric vibes are highly contagious.
Back in 2019, an emerging Americana/roots folk band wowed the crowd at Newport Folk Fest. Our Native Daughters may not have shared the headliner name recognition of the legends who graced the stage that year (hello, Dolly Parton), but their combined talent is certainly comparable. While Rhiannon Giddens (of Carolina Chocolate Drops) is the group’s most recognizable member, the talented singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Allison Russell seems poised to become equally known. She already achieved roots music acclaim in her native Canada where she formed Po’ Girl along with Trish Klein (of Be Good Tanyas). Now her eyes are set on a new venture outside of her Nashville-based group Birds of Chicago.
Later this year Russell will release her solo debut via Fantasy Records. The album will showcase not just her remarkable musical artistry and rich, vibrant vocals; it will also introduce new fans to her empowering message. Trust us: Allison Russell is a talent you need to know now. She is a future legend in the making.
We’ve been buzzing about Arlo Parks for more than two years because her re-imagination of R&B, soul, and pop has consistently left us in awe. The London-based artist (she’s literally an artist as she illustrates comic books), however, is more than just a creative musical genius. She’s an incredibly gifted songwriter, who beautifully and intelligently conveys stories about loss, grief, devastation, and hope. She’s already a budding star within the UK scene, but her forthcoming debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams (PIAS/Transgressive, January 29th), which we named as one of our Most Anticipated LPs of 2021, should see Parks catapult to global sensation. Expect to hear comparisons to Lauryn Hill, India.Arie, Erykah Badu, and Lana Del Rey be uttered throughout the year.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays left listeners dazed with her spectacularly intoxicating voice while her bandmates crafted dreamy melodies. They defined a generation’s long search for intimacy and immediacy in an age of increasing division. Fast forward more than 30 years, and time is repeating itself. As the world faces a reckoning, a young band from the English countryside emerges to save us. They are Bleach Lab, who, like their legendary predecessors, are creating dream-pop that redefines spellbinding. In the middle of Josh Longman (bass), Frank Wates (guitar), and Shawn Courtney’s (drums) stirring melodies lies the blissful and heavenly voice of Jenna Kyle, whose stories are reminiscent of those told on the big screen. The tales concern growing up, the everyday struggles we encounter, and the feint glimmer of hope we all hold onto during difficult times. And Bleach Lab are that glimmer.
A lot of bands could lay claim to being the UK’s next great outfit, and several of them are listed here. Each of them, though, occupy a different realm of the indie landscape. Within the pop-rock / guitar-pop arena, Jessica Eastwood, Guy Page, Joe Perry, and Stephanie Norris, who collectively are Coach Party, have the inside track. Despite a global pandemic, the Isle of Wight quartet used 2020 to unleash one infectious banger after another, offering music fans a reason to momentarily lose their marbles. This includes the influencers at BBC Radio, who have lauded the band for their hook-driven sound. Could 2021 be the year when Coach Party joins Wolf Alice as the UK’s pre-eminent indie band? We certainly think it will happen soon.
2020 was the year of post-punk. The best music of a largely forgettable year came from this genre, including outstanding albums from Fontaines D.C., IDLES, Ganser, and Deeper. This year should not be any different because Galway’s The Clockworks have set themselves up for a breakthrough year. Last year, they released a handful of mind-blowing songs that were equally blistering in their sonic approach as they were lyrically. They tackled the decaying of the world (“The Future Is Not What It Was”), capitalistic manipulation (“Can I Speak To A Manager?”), and the racist undertones of Brexit (“Enough Is Never Enough”). James McGregor (vocals, guitar), Sean Connelly (guitar), Damian Greaney (guitar/drums), and Tom Freeman (bass) are unabashedly a politically-charged and socially-conscious band, which should quickly lead them to being known as one of the most important bands of their generation. Heck, they already might be.
Dead Naked Hippies
In 2016, Lucy Jowett, Joe Clarke, and Jacob Marston introduced themselves as Dead Naked Hippies, and the Leeds-based outfit immediately put themselves on the UK indie scene. They were seen by many, including BBC Radio and DIY, as being England’s answer to Savages. In the four years since, the band have sporadically released music, including taking most of 2019 and 2020 off. Then in late November, they unexpectedly unveiled, “Curiosity (Dawn)”, which showcased a new energy and dynamism to their heavy, alt-rock sound. Accompanying the song’s release was a promise that the trio would be releasing more music in the very near future. If this is the case, then 2021 could be the year that Jowett, Clarke, and Marston fulfill their immense potential and become the supernovas many, including us, predicted.
It’s not a matter of if but when Madeline Bradley, via her project deryk, will be a star. Her debut EP, WOMb, was pure brilliance, as the New Zealand-based, UK-born singer-songwriter showcased how subtlety and simplicity can be stunning and piercing in its effect. Not surprisingly, it was named one of our 20 Favorite EPs of 2020. With a major label behind her in Universal Music Australia, the young artist has a chance to achieve similar heights as Maggie Rogers and bring downtempo, indietronica, and dark-pop to whole new levels. Or maybe she will follow in the footsteps of Lorde and Benee and become Aotearoa’s latest international pop superstar.
Once upon a time, Anthony Gonzalez hovered under the radar despite releasing several terrific albums as M83. His big break came more than decade after his debut, demonstrating that even the greats must patiently wait for their luck to change. Similarly, Swedish duo Gidge are Sweden’s best-kept electronic secret. Their latest album, New Light (out on Atomnation), was released in November 2020, and it was as enchanting and cinematic as any M83 album. Ludvig Stolterman and Jonatan Nilsson’s meticulous work may eventually lead to them scoring an epic film like Oblivion in the future, and, thus, experiencing their long-awaited breakup. Or maybe it will come sooner, like this year. Some albums need to simmer below the surface for a bit before exploding. In this day of social media, hopefully this will happen sooner than later and more people invest the time to get lost in Gidge’s transcendent universe.
After a couple of years of toiling under the radar, Gustaf started turning heads late in 2020 with their head-bending approach to post-punk. Forget dark, brooding, and harrowing, Lydia Gammill (vocals), Tine Hill (bass), Tarra Thiessen (vocals, percussion), Melissa Lucciola (drums), and Vramshabouh Kherlopian (guitar, vocals) have turned the genre into a dance-inducing tailspin. Their songs are quirky, intelligent, and gigantic gales of fun. The New York City-based band’s unpretentious approach, however, should not be mistaken as five friends having a good time. On the contrary, like the great post-punk bands of the past and present, they address issues such as identity, one’s place in the world, and society’s fall. They just do it with a sense of humor and creativity.
Even before releasing her sensational debut EP, Falling Asleep At The Wheel, 21-year old Holly Humberstone had amassed a sizeable online following. While her covers of Bon Iver songs first grabbed people’s attention, the young Grantham, UK resident is a gifted singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in the Phoebe Bridgers mould. In other words, she is able to make emotionally-jarring stories sound cathartic, which is an extraordinary gift. Her talent resulted in Lewis Calpaldi asking her to open for him when touring was possible early in 2020. It may not be long, however, before the roles are reversed with Humberstone headlining her own tour and recognized as a global tour-de-force. This might come when her debut LP is released, which might come this year. If it does, do not be surprised if she explodes like Lorde did back in 2013.
Australia has no shortage of great singer-songwriters. It also has no shortage of great singer-songwriters who are also outstanding guitarists. Courtney Barnett comes immediately to mind as does Alex Lahey. Following in their footsteps is Jess Locke, who signed this year with the excellent Dot Dash Recordings. With a label that introduced the world to Methyl Ethel and Gena Bruce behind her and an approach that is part Barnett and part Angel Olsen, the Melbourne-based artist is one to know. Check that, her bandwagon is one that fans of great songwriting and guitar work should get on board immediately. It’s only a matter of time before tastemakers and festivals start exalting her name.
First things first, Kiwi Jr. are not from New Zealand. They’re four dudes from Toronto that share the witty sense of humor as New Zealanders. They also sound like an indie band that could be on the Flying Nun roster with their jangly pop-rock and immensely clever songwriting. Instead, Jeremy Gaudet (vocals, guitar, keys), Brian Murphy (guitar, backing vocals), Mike Walker (bass, keys, backing vocals), and Brohan Moore (drums, backing vocals) are signed to another influential label in Sub Pop. With their sophomore album, Cooler Returns (Bandcamp), out next month, no one will care where the Canadians reside. They’ll instead be rocking and rolling to the most exciting indie band since Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever.
Way back in 2015, a young singer-songwriter from Virginia made us do double-takes with her dreamy, shoegaze-y “Born in the Summer”. More than five years later, Lael Neale finally landed her big break when the great label Sub Pop signed her to their roster. During the intermittent years, Neale evolved. In place of the reverb-drenched guitars are synths, keys, and an omnichord. Where her music once left us in a delirium, her dream-folk approach leaves us dazzled. Her gorgeous voice, intimate stories, and poetic approach to songwriting, however, remain. For long-time fans, her transformation will wow them. New fans, meanwhile, will be like us when we first heard Neale – bowled over by the beautiful power of her songs.
With just a handful of singles to their name, Brighton four-piece LIME have already attracted the attention of a few notable curators, such as BBC Radio and Apple Music. When a band sounds like the brilliant experiment of Blondie, The Velvet Underground, and Dream Wife, the reasons for their soaring popularity become obvious. Chloe Howard (vocals/guitar), Leila Deeley (guitar), Tippi Morgan (bass), and Annabel Whittle (drums), in other words, are throwbacks yet innovators. They’re introducing young people to ’70s disco, post-punk, and pop while reminding the older folks that the classics can be reinvented. If the quartet continue to push the envelope and carve out their own niche, they’ll eventually become household names with everyone in the home spinning their tunes.
Officially, Lina K.O. has only one release to her name, the two-track Starter Apartment Recordings. She also became a common presence on shows in small venues in New York City before live music shut down. In 2021, Lina K.O. plans to release an EP, and if it’s anything like her first release, it’s going to be an attention-grabber. On Starter Apartment Recordings, K.O. captured quiet moments in Brooklyn in a truly stunning way. From ambient noise, to her dreamy voice, to her vivid lyrics, she’s among some of the best songwriters out there. Featuring layered harmonies, her songs ebb and flow beautifully, making each word leave a big impact. If everything’s right in the world in 2021, Lina K.O. will release her EP, and she’ll be out there stunning audiences once again, and it feels inevitable that they will get bigger and bigger, and she’ll no longer be one of Brooklyn’s best kept secrets.
In 2019, Miss Grit released a well-received EP, Talk Talk. The reception was nice, but it left Margaret Sohn questioning if she was “someone who was impersonating a musician”. That battle with impostor syndrome inspired her upcoming EP, Impostor, due out February 5th. It’s completely self-produced, to prove to herself that she was not a fraud. From the first track she shared from the EP, “Dark Side of the Party”, it’s obvious Sohn is onto something with her sound. Sohn studied music technology at NYU, and has created something completely her own with her expertise in sound manipulation. It’s reminiscent of the boundary-pushing qualities of artists like St. Vincent and TORRES, but also completely unique. Lyrically, Sohn is honest, at times brutally, with herself and the listener. While at first, she wasn’t convinced, it seems like her commitment to her own ability will position Impostor as a break-out release.
The Nagging Doubts
Bands can go one of two ways – follow the pack and recycle what has been done or take some chances. The latter is more difficult road, but the successes are more rewarding. The product can be exhilarating. It can be extraordinary. For Sydney collective, The Nagging Doubts, their hard work has them on the cusp of being recognized alongside Gang of Youths as Australia’s master innovators. The five-piece effortlessly move from art-rock to post-punk to darkwave to pop-rock. Every song they’ve released so far is unique, and the stories they tell are equally provocative. As their music does not approach commercial, Joe Wilks (vocals), Eden Neilson (lead guitar/vocals), Ruby King (bass), Gabe Jessop-Smith (rhythm guitar), and Tom O’Rourke (drums) may not achieve immediate international stardom. They will, however, win the hearts and minds of those at Triple J and gain traction as one of Down Under’s most exciting young bands.
Nané is a six-piece outfit from Austin, Texas who caught the attention of Brittany Howard in June 2020 with their “Blue Velvet” music video. Daniel Sahad is the frontman and commands attention with his vocal range and songwriting flair. Nané further impressed with their self-titled debut back in November, and it’s a solid offering worth a listen. “Clementrine Tree”, “Blue Velvet” and “Ladybird” are notable tracks. Their soul-infused sound is exciting and refreshing. The band truly has the potential to break out in a big way. Hopefully 2021 allows for more live shows and just the opportunity to get their live performances out to the masses.
The Ninth Wave
We’re not sure why we have not named Glaswegians The Ninth Wave as Artists to Watch in the past, but everything happens for a reason (we did name them a Favorite Hidden Gem in 2018). Maybe 2021 is the year that Haydn Park-Patterson, Millie Kidd, Kyalo Searle-Mbullu, and Calum Stewart’s Gothic noise-pop / post-punk mix becomes a permanent part of BBC Radio’s rotation. They can create exhilarating, intoxicating numbers, such as on “I’m Only Going to Hurt You”, or send chills down your spin with a harrowing number like “Happy Days”. They are a band that is on the cusp of not just stardom but greatness with their creativity and intelligence. Another prediction we’ll make: The Ninth Wave are future Scottish Album of the Year winners.
Early on in 2020, Pink Laundry emerged quietly with an infectious pop track, “Like It Like This”. The lyrics included “this is the start of something…..” and so it is. After digging a bit further, Pink Laundry is Judah Akers (frontman for Judah & The Lion), through which he creates electronic-influenced pop tracks that get you moving. So far the handful of singles released have been energetic and addicting, and any one of them could easily be heard on the radio. “Thumbs Up” tackles dealing with haters and not letting harsh critics or haters get the best of you. “Dirty Converse” is a story of meeting his wife and ends with a killer guitar and violin solo. Pink Laundry is allowing Akers to experiment and produce what ever he likes. So far so good.
When people think of Liverpool, The Beatles come immediately to mind. And rightfully so. The industrial city on the River Mersey, however, has a rich indie music history. Ladytron, The Wombats, Circa Waves, and The Night Café are just some of the names that originated here. As great as they are, Lizzie Hillesdon’s project Pixey has the chance to be la crème de la crème with her infectious and brilliant mix of neo-psychedelia, disco, and pastel pop. The young Liverpudlian, though, is much more than just an entertainer. She is also a social provocateur, who challenges current societal norms and what it means to be human in the 21st Century. Hillesdon, as such, personifies the ideal image of a mover and a shaker. She is someone that can move people physically while changing the world in the process.
SKIA is from Norway and this year she has been turning heads with her electro-pop goodness. She released her Apricot EP earlier this year, and it featured “Not Anymore” and “IDWTAI” which tackles relationship issues and dealing with negative thoughts. “Feeling Fine” is her newest release that talks about getting over the last relationship. SKIA’s combined talent of songwriting you can relate to and captivating vocals offer the perfect mix to make some waves in the electro-pop arena. She seems to keep most of her electronic additions subtle so that her best assets, her vocal range and delivery, are front and center. Hopefully 2021 will be filled with more new track from this rising talent.
Like a prized heavyweight fighter, Sprints delivered the perfect combination of songs that left us floored. Every song – “Manifesto”, “Drones”, and “The Cheek” – were like stiff uppercuts to the jaw. But instead of staying on the ground, we got up and shouted, “More!” The only way to experience the pulverizing post-punk of Karla Chubb (lead vocals/guitar), Sam McCann (bass/backing vocals), Colm O’Reilly (guitar/backing vocals), and Jack Callan (drums) is similarly standing, thrashing one’s head, and feeling the raw power of Chubb’s scorching vocal and hammering lyrics. More importantly, this young band is quickly becoming the voice of the disenfranchised and the powerless. They use their platform to attack misogynists and racists, abusers and manipulators, and the power-hungry. Sprints have arrived just in time, leading the charge for change in 2021.
Within 10 months between 2018 and 2019, two post-punk bands surged in popularity, and 2021 could see history repeating itself. We mentioned The Clockworks above, who could follow their fellow Irishmen, Fontaines D.C., in achieving widespread critical acclaim. Assuming the role of IDLES is another English outfit that possesses the same explosive sound and hard-charging lyrics. They are TV Priest. The London-based band only has two gears – fast and hard. Every song they’ve released to date is mind-blowing and cathartic. At times, the sonic fury of Alex Sprogis’ blistering guitar and Nic Smith (bass, keys) and Ed Kelland’s (drums) unrelenting rhythms lead the way. Most times, though, the booming vocals and powerful lyricism of Charlie Drinkwater take center stage. The quartet are relatively unknown now, but come February 5th, when their debut album, Uppers, is released on Sub Pop, their anonymity will be history.
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