We all know there’s a heap of massive releases en route this year that the big labels are hoping will cure their low-CD-sales blues, but don’t think they’re the only important releases coming this year. MTV News has rounded up several alternatives to Mariah, Coldplay, etc. — less obvious artists that we think you shouldn’t miss. For example, if you’re jonesing for the new Mariah you should check out Estelle; if you can’t wait for the new Gnarls Barkley, see what Santogold has to offer. Here are the five newcomers who could be household names by the end of the year.
You could call Kate Nash the next Lily Allen — but don’t tell her that. “I think it misses the point,” Nash protested. “[If] I’m like Lily Allen, everyone else is like the new Kate Nash.” OK, whatever, fair enough — we’re just crushing on you (MTV’s Buzzworthy blog even named her Artist of the Week just last week). To be fair, the girl’s folkie/ big-band/ hip-hop ditties have their own influences. While Nash actually studied classical piano, she gives the nod to Regina Spektor for her playing style. Then she got turned on to punk, from the Buzzcocks to Nirvana and the riot grrrls of Bikini Kill. And like another recent U.K. female breakout, Bat for Lashes, Nash also names Kate Bush and Björk as inspirations for nonconformity. “Because of what they do and the way they experiment and their long-lasting careers and the way they present themselves,” she explained. “I just like throwing paint around.” Combining this experimentation with the cut-and-paste of punk, Nash also started a Xeroxed fanzine called My Ignorant Youth, packed with short stories and confessional rants by the singer and her friends. “It kind of made me feel how I used to feel when I started doing stuff and it was all really DIY,” she said. “Just do it and get it out there, rather than all the complications that come with it when it becomes a bigger deal.” Nash will bring the third issue of the ’zine, usually tossed out into the crowd, along on the next leg of her tour.
The only band of our ’08 crew — and the most straight-up rock act — the Kooks hail from the U.K.’s Brighton, the seaside town that brought the world the Who movie-musical “Quadrophenia” and … the Vespa trend? After meeting in music school, the shaggy-haired, chain-smoking foursome formed a garage-rock outfit named for a song from David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. Their debut, Inside In/ Inside Out, dropped in the U.S. in 2006, with a sound that gives a nod to the Police, the Kinks and the Clash. Now the guys have just finished their sophomore effort, Konk, named for the North London studio where they recorded both their albums, mostly live-to-tape. Not bad that Konk Studios is owned by former Kinks frontman Ray Davies (“Lola”? “Waterloo Sunset”? Seriously, hit up iTunes). Konk arrives Stateside in April, and you can catch the boys on tour starting next month — assuming singer Luke Pritchard doesn’t get into another nasty scrape with Amy Winehouse.
Hailing from West London, Estelle (born Estelle Swaray) is just 27 and already staging a “comeback.” Having broken through in the U.K. in 2004 with her infectious single “1980,” Estelle — then a much-hyped female rapper — scored a multi-album deal with label V2. But, she says, once she veered from the straight hip-hop path into old-school soul — closer to James Brown and Dinah Washington — the label didn’t really know what to do with her. “It’s like they have a template and you have to stick with it,” Estelle said. “I’m not cookie-cutter. No one’s listening to one style of music anymore. Get rid of genres!” Luckily, John Legend, who teamed up with her on an early track, was both smitten with her singing chops and shopping around for artists to sign to his new label, HomeSchool Records. The second single from her new album, Shine, (due stateside in February) is “American Boy” and features Kanye West, who Estelle opened for in the U.K. And as for what to expect next? The genre-jumping artist just might get even more international. “I’ve started getting into a lot of salsa,” she said. “I’ve just discovered Hector Lavoe. He’s my dude!”
Philly MC Spank Rock seems to be posing the question: What if Luke were an art-school kid and 2 Live Crew were a totally over-the-top conceptual prank? The clinically insane video for the track “B.O.O.T.A.Y.” says it all: a mashup of idiotically down-and-dirty lyrics, art-house effects, Robert Palmer-style backup dancers and a rapper rocking Devo glasses. So how did Spank Rock (real name: Naeem Juwan) get this way? Maybe by growing up in a “kinda druggy” West Baltimore ’hood (“not as bad as ’The Wire’!,” he stressed) while commuting to prep school. Maybe by getting raised on schizophrenic mixtapes that were equal parts hip-hop, reggae and pop — from Public Enemy to Talking Heads. Once he moved to Philly, Spank Rock was knocked out by the boundary-free Hollertronix parties led by DJ (and M.I.A. producer) Diplo, who would help land him his first record deal. “They were playing everything from, like, Dirty South to ’80s pop-rock music and Baltimore club [tracks]. There weren’t any rules to the party,” the MC said. He approaches his own music with the same attitude. So when he paired up with 19-year-old producer Benny Blanco for their waaaaay filthy Bangers & Cash EP, Spank Rock felt free to just put out tracks “about sex and making people dance.” “Whether it’s a dance song or Dead Prez,” he said, “it doesn’t matter. I like all music just the same, as long as it has that spirit behind it.”
Rocking uncharted turf at the crossroads between new wave, hip-hop, dub and ’80s pop, Santogold (Santi White) is as much of a musical hybrid as her friend M.I.A. and as much of a pop renegade as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. Part of Spank Rock’s extended Philly family, Santi got her style tips from the public-school tough girls and her education from Quakers (seriously!) — not to mention what she picked up from her free-thinking parents. “My mom’s from Mississippi, picking cotton and desegregating schools, and she’s like a psychiatrist and a Southern crazy person,” Santi said. “And then my dad is from the projects in north Philly. [He] changed the name of his school to Malcolm X High School and went from having nothing to going to Wesleyan and then to Penn Law School. A constant theme in my upbringing across the board has been to create your own path and to think for yourself.” After starting out penning songs for other artists (including Res), Santi finally starting writing for herself, as the frontwoman for punk outfit Stiffed, which released an indie album called Burned Again in 2005. When the group split, she and bandmate John Hill started Santogold. Diplo brought producer Switch (who worked on M.I.A.’s Kala) onboard, and soon Santogold’s sound became as much about live instruments as messed-up beats. The resulting self-titled album (due in April) runs from the dreamy ’80s pop of “Lights Out” to the freaked-out hip-hop/dub of “Creator.” “It’s totally cross-genre,” she said. “Call it something if you want, but I don’t know what it is.”
[This story was originally published at 2:58 p.m. ET on 01.14.2008]