Rhapsody Radar, Week 1: Nicolas Jaar, Sonny Smith, Jeff Bridges, Big K.R.I.T., Foster the People and Ximena Sariñana
By now we've got a pretty good handle on the biggest stars of 2011: Adele! Gaga! Rebecca Black! But what about the next wave the up-and-coming artists we're particularly excited about, those we expect will be clogging up RSS feeds and year-end critics' lists and possibly magazine covers sooner rather than later?
With that in mind, welcome to Rhapsody Radar, our month-long series highlighting 24 artists we're especially thrilled about, from blog-rap princesses to fledgling Latin-pop superstars, from roots-rock titans to hip dance-punkers. We'll be highlighting six new names a week, with tons of videos, playlists and additional ephemera to boot. Here's our initial batch, with all songs linked to their Rhapsody pages for instant discovery. Get acquainted, and have fun.
Nicolas Jaar: The Slow-Motion Party-Starter
Things have moved quickly for Nicolas Jaar since the dance-music website Resident Advisor profiled him for its Breaking Through series in late 2009. At that point he had just a handful of tracks to his name, mostly spread across compilation EPs. Since then, he has released his debut album; remixed bigger names like Matthew Dear, DJ T. and Ellen Alien; toured the world; and launched his own label, Clown and Sunset. Oh, and he finally turned 21.
With roots in Chile and France, the New York-based musician and Brown University student is no stranger to navigating boundaries. His music, which mixes keyboards, acoustic instruments, and vocal and digital processing, flits between house-music conventions and idiosyncratic songcraft. That hybrid nature as well as the music's moody, sultry spirit has found an avid fan base that runs from Ibiza to Pitchfork. Lately, he's been developing a full-blown live show: his laptop remains central, but drums, bass and electric guitar take the music into improvised territory, like a kind of slow-motion disco jam band. Philip Sherburne
Sonny Smith: The Cracked Bedroom Tunesmith
From The Fresh & Onlys to Kelly Stoltz, from Girls to Jason Quever's Papercuts project, the Bay Area suffers no shortage of savvy tunesmiths exploring classic-sounding pop in all its myriad permutations. Add the enigmatic Sonny Smith to that list.
Trying to dig up reliable info on this guy is like sticking both index fingers in a Chinese finger trap made of flypaper. He's from San Francisco kind of, maybe. But he's also bopped about the West playing barroom blues piano, as if he stepped right out of Truffaut's Tirez Sur le Pianiste. Apparently he has also dabbled in organic farming in Central America, spent time in Warm Springs Foundation Hospital in Texas, and is an accomplished visual artist.
He wears Huey Lewis shades, to boot.
Most of the time Smith works under the moniker Sonny & The Sunsets, which is fitting, as he crafts warm-weather pop that blends Jonathan Richman-informed eccentricity, lo-fi cool, Brill Building sublimity and California folk rock. Not unlike the aforementioned Stoltz (a friend and occasional collaborator), Smith possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of sonic hooks and ear candy. Since 2000, he has released a slew of albums and singles, with the Fat Possum imprint dropping his two most recent long players, Tomorrow Is Alright and Hit After Hit, the latter being his best to date.
If you want to hear one song that's tailor-made for immediate conversion, then crank the psych-o-delic instrumental "The Bad Energy from L.A. Is Killing Me" right this second. Total Link Wray biker-movie hell! Justin Farrar
Jeff Bridges: The Actor Turned Troubadour
Movies are often reflections of real life, but in this case the opposite is true specifically, as it pertains to the Oscar-winning 2009 film Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges played a grizzled, down-and-out country singer. Now, lo and behold, the beloved actor is signed to a major-label recording contract. But can he pull it off? The very question makes Bridges' self-titled debut album one of this summer's most anticipated releases. On the plus side, the album is produced by T-Bone Burnett (first introduced to the actor by Kris Kristofferson back in 1980, while on the set of Heaven's Gate) and features Rosanne Cash and Sam Phillips three genuine Americana icons. On the kind of weird side, it also features Ryan Bingham, who won an Oscar himself for actually singing Crazy Heart's "The Weary Kind."
Bridges doesn't have the most powerful voice, but there is something warm and comfortable about his gentle warble on forlorn songs about lost loves. The album, due for release on August 16, includes songs written by many of the writers who contributed to the Crazy Heart soundtrack, including the late Stephen Bruton ("What a Little Bit of Love Can Do"), John Goodwin ("Maybe I Missed the Point"), alt-country singer-songwriter Bo Ramsey ("Either Way") and Bridges himself. Linda Ryan
Big K.R.I.T.: The Dirty South Poet
It's not unusual these days for critics and fans to proclaim that the best new rap albums are free online mixtapes. Big K.R.I.T.'s recent Return of 4eva may actually deserve the honor.
Mixtape specialists like Gucci Mane, Curren$y and Lil Wayne use the format to offer a venomous spontaneity often missing from their "official" albums, from meandering songs featuring uncleared samples to rambling yet energetic freestyles. With an hour-plus running time, 4eva has its share of filler, too. However, the Mississippi rapper is hardly treading water for blog buzz and Hulkshare fiends. He produces most of his songs while interpreting mid-'90s Dirty South spiritualism, evoking early solo Scarface and Aquemini-era Outkast. He even sings most of his own hooks. Like most well-made homage, the result honors its sources while sounding wholly unique.
K.R.I.T.'s only major retail single to date is "Country Sh*t," an unapologetic celebration of Southern clichés like candy-painted Chevys and pimping. But he's no hardened trapper. Much like Little Brother, he discusses life as a young man in the South, from writing rhymes on his glove while playing baseball in high school to proclaiming "I don't want to be another n*gg*r" on "Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism."
This rise follows years of paying dues, including early mixtapes such as 2005's See Me on Top. His debut retail EP, R4: The Prequel, includes four tracks from Return of 4eva and a remix of "Moon & Stars" with Killa Kyleon, Devin the Dude and Curren$y. As impressive as K.R.I.T.'s recent run has been, one senses that he's got much better music in store and hopefully bigger, too, if the mainstream still recognizes quality hip-hop.
Foster the People: The Hip Dance-Rockers
Less than two years after forming, L.A.'s Foster the People have already struck the fancy of hip kids worldwide, selling out shows all over the nation and receiving the ultimate stamp of approval with a jam-packed crowd at 2011's Coachella Music Festival all before the release of an actual album. If you haven't yet heard their breakout single, "Pumped Up Kicks," listen up: it's on its way to being this year's "Young Folks" with its whistle-tinged smooth dance groove.
With the strength of this single, the band's debut album, Torches, is primed for summertime ubiquity. Frontman Mark Foster, drummer Mark Pontius and bassist Cubbie Fink know their way around a hook it may have something to do with Foster's previous gig as a composer for TV and commercials. That expert touch for catchy jingles mixes well with the trio's proclivity for breezy electro-pop; the result rings with the relentless synth bounce of Passion Pit, the deadpan dreaminess of Peter Bjorn and John, and the deceptive darkness of MGMT's Oracular Spectacular. (Just listen closely to the chorus of "Pumped Up Kicks": "You better run/ Better run/ Faster than my bullet.") It's a recipe for success far beyond one hit single. Stephanie Benson
Ximena Sariñana: The Latin-Pop Multi-Tasker
This young singer-songwriter has been on the radar of discriminating music fans ever since her elegant Latin alt-pop debut, Mediocre, dropped in 2008, earning a clutch of Grammy and Latin Grammy nods. Graceful, carefully composed and gorgeously sung, the record didn't sound like anything a 22-year-old should be capable of. It spoke volumes, however, to the experiences that formed her. The child of a film director and screenwriter, Ximena Sariñana grew up acting as often as singing. She also grew up on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border, immersing herself in both cultures and languages. Her sound reverberates with these influences: Mediocre is thick with drama (see the growling rock pathos of the title track), but it's a thoughtful, almost cinematic theatricality; she regularly crosses aesthetic borders, interweaving indie rock, coffee-shop pop, jazz, subtle Latin elements and mainstream-friendly pop beats.
Her self-titled English-language sophomore album, out August 2, promises to continue exploring such rich terrain. TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, Latin alt-popper Natalia Lafourcade and The Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez Lopez (who is also Sariñana's boyfriend) have all contributed production work; she says it's steeped in jazz, though the songs that have trickled out ("Different," "Shine Down") have a distinctly electro-pop feel. A track on the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack and several appearances on the gazillion albums Lopez has put out recently have helped raise Sariñana's profile outside the Latin music world. We can't wait to watch this gifted young artist break out. Rachel Devitt