New sounds of 2011

Some of pop’s biggest names are scheduled to drop new albums this year. Among them: Coldplay, Green Day, Beyonce, Radiohead, Madonna, Lady Foo Fighters, R.E.M., U2 and Lady Gaga.
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Updated on Jan 22, 2011 11:11 PM IST
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None | ByChris Richards/ The Washigton Post

Some of pop’s biggest names are scheduled to drop new albums this year. Among them: Coldplay, Green Day, Beyonce, Radiohead, Madonna, Lady Foo Fighters, R.E.M., U2 and Lady Gaga.

In a crowded field, the new faces will have to work especially hard to grab our eardrums. Here are five emerging artists who we expect to do just that hope will leave their musical fingerprints all over 2011.

James Blake

The most arresting moment on this London singer-producer’s debut album sounds like a swarm of Apache helicopters gathering on the horizon. As the 22-year-old Blake croons “Limit to Your Love,” a cover of Canadian indie chanteuse Feist, in comes an almost subsonic rumble — the kind you don’t hear in your headphones so much as feel in your kidneys.

Those strange tremors are the sonic hallmark of dubstep, a strand of British dance music defined by its plunging bass and spectral vocals. Blake, however, has been deemed the crown prince of “post-dubstep,” thanks to a string of 2010 EPs that evaporated the style down to its ghostly essence.

In addition to giving the genre a voice, Blake also provides it with a face. Until recently, dubstep’s champion was William Bevan, better known as Burial, a producer who managed to keep his identity a secret until the success of his 2007 masterpiece “Untrue” provoked the media’s curiosity.

Blake seems to be generating even more excitement with a sound that many call “dreamlike.” But that’s not quite right. Blake’s self-titled debut, landing February 7, suggests a fitful sleep full of sonic slipstreams and rhythmic hiccups that are far too intriguing to sleep through.

K. Michelle

Do you have room for another post-Mary J. Blige R&B star in your life? Another deeply wronged diva who sings her heartbreak through clenched teeth? Another gale-force wailer who smudges the line between anger and sadness like so many tears through Revlon eyeliner?

No matter how many Jazmine Sullivans, Melanie Fionas and Keri Hilsons overpopulate the R&B airwaves, the answer to these questions will always be “yes.”

And that’s good news for K. Michelle, a Memphis singer who sprinkles her heartsick ballads with glints of humor. Her best song, “Fakin’ It,” a tune about deceiving an egomaniacal lover, is equal parts sad, cruel and hilarious.

She’s even funnier onstage. During an opening set for her mentor R. Kelly in Washington in 2009, Michelle paced the stage between songs, talking trash about her exes and bonding with her audience like five-minute epoxy.

Michelle’s debut album, “Pain Medicine,” is due out sometime this year and will hopefully offer a 360-degree glimpse of the funny girl who strutted across that stage in 2009. After all, the album is being produced by Kelly — a guy who certainly knows how to temper love songs with levity.

Ashton Shepherd

As 2008 came to a close, two of the most enchanting voices in country music belonged to young women with a lot on their minds.

One was singing about the first day of school. The other was singing about tossing her wedding ring in the trash. The first was Taylor Swift. She was 19. The other was Ashton Shepherd. She was 22.

What a difference three years can make. While Swift’s teen-beloved sophomore disc “Fearless” went on to win a Grammy for album of the year, Shepherd’s all-grown-up debut “Sounds So Good” clung to the country charts for dear life. It’s something she seems poised to correct with the disc she’s now wrapping up with esteemed producer Buddy Cannon.

Shepherd has a voice that is instantly recognizable — a sharp twang that she brandishes like a weapon. On her new single “Look It Up,” she uses it to send an unfaithful man crawling to the dictionary: “You said you’re sober? Look it up. It’s right next to ‘hell is freezing over,’ ‘flying pigs’ and all that stuff.”

Smith Westerns

These cherub-faced glam-rock revivalists were being trumpeted as The It Band of 2011 long before (in indie-rock Internet time: weeks before) their hyped second album, “Dye It Blonde,” arrived on Tuesday, this week. Here’s what they really are: The best interpreters of T. Rex since Prince wrote “Cream.” It’s not just the glitter-dusted choruses or the juicy guitar solos that earn them this distinction (though they nail those, too). It’s the Chicago troupe’s ability to make their emotive urgency feel cool, to make the epic stuff feel casual. You can hear it in the song “All Die Young,” which contains hints of the Beatles’ “Something.”


Alabama rapper Yelawolf avoided flashing in the pan in 2010 by not releasing his debut album. Instead the MCtook things slow and steady. He dropped a superb mix tape, “Trunk Muzik,” last January, signed a record deal in March, landed a sly verse on Big Boi’s solo album in July and re-released “Trunk Muzik” as “Trunk Muzik 0-60” on Interscope in November. “Radioactive,” his debut album, is due in April.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post

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