Originally posted on BuzzFeed
1. Sam Smith
By the time Sam Smith stood onstage at Saturday Night Live in March, he already had you hooked. You may not have recognized his face then or known his name, but you’d certainly heard his angelic voice anchoring Disclosure’s dance hit “Latch.” Now he’s obviously a giant star, and his haunting, gospel-tinged breakup lament “Stay With Me” is one of the undisputed biggest hits of the year. It was first played on Zane Lowe’s BBC radio show on March 25, and it hasn’t been done with our ears since. We’re not complaining.
2. Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran bolstered his songwriting career with credits on songs for One Directionand Taylor Swift, but he made a triumphant return to his primary gig with his latest chart-topping album, X. Sheeran went beyond his voice and his guitar on X, flirting with Justin Timberlake-styled pop ‘n B on lead single “Sing” and rapping on “Don’t.” What’s next for Ed Sheeran in 2015? He’ll continue his X tour, which will take him to Europe, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas. Not bad for a guy who came to L.A. in 2010 with no Hollywood connections.
3. DJ Mustard
The 24-year-old super producer’s signature sound grew from a hip-hop subgenre (“ratchet”) to radio ubiquity via hits including but not limited to Tinashe’s “2 On,” Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You,” and Fergie’s “L.A. Love (La La).” But the real sign that DJ Mustard was the producer to beat in 2014? Even the hits he didn’t produce (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” Migos’ “Fight Night”) bore his unmistakable influence.
4. Meghan Trainor
It seems inconceivable now, but Meghan Trainor and writing partner Kevin Kadishspent months trying to shop around her summer smash “All About That Bass” to no avail. Trainor was working as a songwriter in Nashville at the time and hadn’t considered cutting the song herself. All that changed when legendary record execL.A. Reid heard the song and knew immediately that “Bass” would be a hit and Trainor a star. The doo-wop-inspired ode to booty ultimately spent eight weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. and topped the charts in an astounding 58 countries. While the prospect of being a one-hit wonder loomed large, Trainor’s cheery follow-up single “Lips Are Movin” is climbing up the charts and the genre-bending singer-songwriter is poised for genuine pop stardom.
5. FKA twigs
Originally a backup dancer for acts like Kylie Minogue and Taio Cruz, FKA twigs has come to center stage as a breathy-whimpery goddess, ushering in a new era of R&B. FKA twigs has drawn comparisons to many fellow Brits who’ve come before her: her barely there voice to Tricky and the sultry Sade, her beats to the trip-hop of Portishead and Massive Attack. Her imagery is in a genre of its own: alternately beautiful and terrifying, from the Walter Keane-esque “Water Me” to the golden opulence of her 2014 hit “Two Weeks.” Music aside, FKA twigs is becoming a celebrity in her own right, with a Vogue photo shoot and feature and a buzzed-about relationship with Robert Pattinson.
6. Nico & Vinz
There were perhaps no better exemplars of the mass globalization of pop music in 2014 than Nicolas “Nico” Sereba and Vincent “Vinz” Dery, whose irrepressibly optimistic ode to moral rectitude, “Am I Wrong,” was the surprise hit of the summer, scaling to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sereba and Dery, who were raised in Norway by Norwegian mothers and fathers from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, respectively, began as a hip-hop duo before expanding those borders in a bid to bring their message of peace and positivity to a broader audience. They weren’t wrong.
7. Azealia Banks
After years of promising teases and a notoriously bitter and protracted fallout with her major label, Interscope, Azealia Banks’ long-awaited debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, had achieved near-mythical status. But in 2014, to everyone’s surprise, it actually saw the light of day. Even better? It didn’t disappoint. Rife with amiable club tracks that effortlessly hop, skip, and jump between hip-hop, electro, and even cumbia, Banks proved that she was well worth the wait. Twitter antics andblood feuds aside, this year her artistry spoke for itself.
After dropping out of Trinity College in Dublin, Andrew Hozier-Byrne embarked upon a musical journey that has landed him performances at this year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and on Saturday Night Live, and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year. The singer-songwriter’s breakout hit “Take Me to Church” is a sparse hymn that draws upon religious imagery to describe love, no doubt influenced by the Roman Catholic stronghold in Ireland. The accompanying music video is a grayscale depiction of a homophobic hate crime. Hozier, an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, has described anti-LGBT violence as “a human rights issue, and it should offend us all.”
9. Charli XCX
After years of being billed as “the next big thing,” Charli XCX finally broke through in a major way this summer thanks to the one-two punch of “Boom Clap” and “Fancy.” Instead of following up these successes with more of the same, XCX pivoted and released a dense, punk-tinged sophomore album. Both glossy and aggressive,SUCKER is the rebel yell of one of pop’s most gifted songwriters.
Like Charli XCX, Tinashe successfully transitioned from tastemaker favorite to bona fide pop star in 2014, delivering on the potential of a series of well-received internetmixtapes with the monster radio hit “2 On,” produced by DJ Mustard. But the mainstream exposure didn’t dilute the former actor and dancer’s liquid fusion of Aaliyah’s velvet croon and Drake’s sense of mood and atmosphere. Aquarius, her debut album and one of the year’s best, heralded the dawning of R&B’s new golden age.
11. Bobby Shmurda
Now that Shmurda’s been locked up in Rikers on myriad charges (conspiracy to commit murder, assault in the first degree, possession of weapons, intent to sell and possession of narcotics, etc.) the title “Breakout Star” carries a whole different connotation, but before things went the wrong way for him he clearly had a big 2014. His “Hot Boy” was inescapable, and he had everyone doing the “Shmoney Dance” — even Queen B Beyoncé. His exuberance in the “Hot Boy” video, along with the song’s memorable lyrics — “ABOUT A WEEK AGO!” — made him easily meme- and Vine-able, two unquestionably valuable keys to finding success in music in 2014. Shmurda could face up to 25 years on conspiracy charges and 15 years each on the weapons charges. If convicted, his would be the quickest rise and fall of a young, talented artist we’ve ever seen.
12. Tove Lo
Flung to our shores from Sweden — global pop music’s molten, ever-bubbling core — like a tendril of white hot plasma, Tove Lo was a refreshing presence on Top 40 radio this year, where her irreverent, drug-themed party anthems “Habits (Stay High)” and “Not On Drugs” were intoxicating insurgents. Her impressive debut album, Queen of the Clouds, delivered some of 2014’s most frank discussions of love, drugs, and sex in mainstream pop music, earning her a slot opening for Katy Perry on tour, a gig writing for Max Martin, and firm status as one of her genre’s most promising new stars.
13. Troye Sivan
If there was any doubt that 2014 was the year that Internet fame eclipsed mainstream celebrity, consider this: When YouTuber Troye Sivan released his debut EP, TRXYE, in August, it shot to the top of more than 50 iTunes charts around the globe. (Up from the 13 countries that sent his lead single “Happy Little Pill” to No. 1 a few weeks before.) A surprisingly sophisticated collection of electro-ballads, the EP announced Sivan as a pop force to be reckoned with.
You could call Makonnen lucky — plucked from his bedroom and obscurity by Drake to turn the remix of his ode to midweek partying, “Tuesday,” into a legit hit — but there’s more to him than just catching a break. His success has been a long time in the making. He was working with It producer Mike Will Made It as far back as 2008, and much of the in-the-know early fans of the Atlanta-based soulster were the result of songs he’d uploaded to his Myspace page. His voice — smooth but gravel-tinged at the same damn time — is undeniable and undeniably appealing. Whether he’s singing about how he no longer sells Molly or… the drugs he is selling… he’s doing it over fat synth chords and entrancing beats that hook listeners in. Big year.
15. Run The Jewels
There was a lot to be angry and sad about this year, and no one captured those two feelings with as much eloquence and awe-inspiring bombast as NYC rapper-producer El-P and Dungeon Family patron saint Killer Mike’s Run The Jewels. Particularly, Mike’s verse on the RTJ song “Early” — about how quickly a police stop can go wrong if you’re the wrong color — had particular resonance this year. The duo’s performance of it on Letterman shortly before the verdict in Ferguson was one of the most powerful performances on TV this year. Their 2014 offering Run The Jewels 2 was Pitchfork’s Album of the Year, and Rolling Stone named it Best Rap Album of 2014. It, like their newly found slow bleed into crossover success, is well earned.
16. Jack Antonoff
Between the Bleachers album and his contributions to Taylor Swift’s world-conquering 1989, Jack Antonoff carved out a niche for himself as pop music’s foremost ‘80s enthusiast. Everything from his aggressive, abounding optimism to his fondness for sugary synths, clattering drum machines, and anthemic choruses evokes the Decade of Decadence. What separates Antonoff from other ‘80s imitators, however, is the way he incorporates his influences into the current pop landscape; as a result songs like “I Want To Get Better” or “Out of the Woods” sound nostalgic instead of dated.
17. Young Thug
Decoding the dyspeptic yaup of Atlanta’s Young Thug was every rap nerd’s favorite pastime this year, but whatever he was really saying on breakthrough tracks including “Stoner,” “Danny Glover,” “Lifestyle,” and “About the Money,” Thug’s magnetism, originality, and influence were unmistakable. In record time, his oddball persona and idiosyncratic flow became the new normal in rap, clearing the way for other weirdos like ILOVEMAKONNEN, Shy Glizzy, and Dej Loaf, while established heavyweights (*ahem,* T.I.) struggled to catch up. That his label situation still seemsunsettled and a proper debut album remains elusive may be a moot point: Hip-hop’s Young Thug era is already well under way.
18. Shawn Mendes
While Shawn Mendes ended this year mugging with Taylor Swift at her star-studded birthday party, the 16-year-old singer-songwriter began 2014 as just another social media star singing covers in his bedroom. It wasn’t until the Canadian cutie signed with Island Records in May that things really began to take off. In June, Mendes made history as the youngest artist to debut in the top 25 of Billboard’s Hot 100 with a first chart entry with his single “Life of the Party.” Just a few weeks later, The Shawn Mendes EP reached No. 1 on iTunes within 40 minutes of its release. His earnest guitar-driven pop has earned him an enormous internet following, a Teen Choice Award, and a much-coveted spot on Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour.
19. Angel Olsen
Bolstered by her leap from a tiny record label to the still-small but formidable Jagjaguwar (home of Bon Iver), Angel Olsen’s third album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, achieved cold fusion in February, breathing life into the young year like kindling to a flame. Her signature voice, which seems to have wafted in from somewhere outside of time, thrived over muscular instrumentation from a new backing band (the singer-songwriter and guitarist’s first), and reviews of a retooled live show were rapturous. Alt folk has a new hero.
20. Future Islands
A cult favorite in blog circles and around their native Baltimore for years, three and a half minutes on David Letterman in March changed everything for Future Islands, thrusting the amicable yet hard-to-classify band into the national spotlight. The gods of popular culture are mysterious and fickle, but fame hit Future Islands at a fortuitous time, heaping a little extra love on the band’s enchanting fourth album,Singles, while bringing a new and well-deserved audience to earlier recordings. Frontman Samuel Herring has always sung and danced like a man on fire; this year, he really was.
After the East Coast/West Coast rap war of the ’90s crowned a clear winner (the South), the focus shifted away from both and has yet to come back. Enter Compton’s YG. His bold and catchy album My Krazy Life reminds us that California knows how to party — it’s a funky, Funkadelic-inspired concept album that, like Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, emulates the West Coast classics, but with a twist: Krazy Life takes us through a day in the life of a South Central L.A. gangster. With beats by longtime partner and undisputed producer of the year DJ Mustard (please, Tupac in Heaven, let this new beef between the two be a publicity stunt), it bumps with a ferocity so lyrically astute listeners sat up and took notice this year, raising YG’s profile along the way.
22. St. Vincent
Annie Clark’s fourth album as St. Vincent follows 2011’s critically acclaimed Strange Mercy. On St. Vincent, Clark’s eclectic lyrics are laid over jaunty guitars and nontraditional melodies, with her lines spanning topics from routine masturbation in “Birth in Reverse” to the Burning Man-meets-Bible-verse visions of “Rattlesnake.” Earlier this year, she charmed and confused the masses with her Saturday Night Live performances of “Birth in Reverse” and “Digital Witness,” featuring hand and arm choreography, mechanical movements, and an unblinking stare. And she is definitely ending 2014 on a high note — she’s been featured on numerous year-end best of lists for her innovative take on pop.
23. Sturgill Simpson
It’s not often you find a country album that espouses the benefits of using DMT or that’s named, in part, after a Seth Abramson poem, but then again Sturgill Simpson’sMetamodern Sounds in Country Music isn’t your average country album. In fact, it’s a shot between the eyes to a good deal of the so-called “Bro Country” that runs the radio waves these days. Simpson himself has said he aimed to make “the kind of country record I’m having trouble finding anywhere else” — outsider art with a rebel edge that’s a throwback to Nashville stars of yesteryear but still, somehow, thoroughly modern. Metamodern, even. Simpson’s second self-released album, bolstered by the philosophical meditation on religion and drugs “Turtles All the Way Down,” is on every year end list worth its salt — NPR, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, etc. — and was, according to Simpson, the last album he would’ve been able to write and record on his own had it not sparked a fire. Luckily, it didn’t just catch, it exploded, ensuring we’ll all be able to enjoy this kind of music for a long time to come.
24. Us The Duo
Michael and Carissa Alvarado — better known as Us The Duo — posted their first six-second cover on Vine in November 2013 and made history when they landed a deal with Republic Records and became the platform’s first major-label signing less than six months later. However, the married musical team’s meteoric rise didn’t stop there: They rereleased their sophomore album, No Matter Where You Are, headlined an international tour, and released their first music video — all while continuing to post their popular six-second videos on Vine. They may be a product of the internet age, but their sweet folk-pop sound is timeless.