Well, list season is fully under way, and far be it from us to be left behind (after all, who doesn’t want yet another over-inflated opinion in the mix?). As always, we’ve got a three-pronged attack going on: songs, albums, and this here list of hidden gems in 2015. What do we mean by hidden gems? Rising artists, people under-the-radar, and generally banging tracks that – had they been released by household names – could have done some serious business. This one was by far the hardest list to narrow down when we’ve pushed so much amazing new talent this year, but here you go… (and, as usual, you can find a handy little playlist as a reward for getting to the end. We spoil you.)
50Hans Island – Start Over
It’s no secret that we love everything done by Danish vocalist Marie Dahlstrom. So when she formed Hans Island with Canadian producer Mawhs, we obviously sat up to take note. Even more so when they produced Start Over, the finest R&B cut of the year that was made by people with distinctly very little to do with traditional R&B. That’s saying a lot, both for their gall and their talent, but if it can make their peers sit up and get their arses in gear then it’s no bad thing.
49Kitty – Drink Tickets
You know, that whole Uffie-breed of cutesy rap might feel tired and expired to some, but fuck us sideways if we don’t love ourselves a bit of Kitty. Her insouciant flow is never anything but charming, and she’s put to perfect use on Drink Tickets. Commissioned by Adult Swim (which, if you’re in the UK like us, will mean nothing to you), it’s the freeloaders’ jam – “Say Kitty at the door and you’ll get in for free” – you always wanted as an underage teen. Well, at least we did anyway.
48Johanan – Go On (Let It Go)
Johanan kind of sprung up out of nowhere fairly recently, but the sheer joy teeming from debut track Go On (Let It Go) is so bloody infectious that it had to make it on to our list. As far as feelgood goes, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better, given how massively soaring that chorus is, and how it makes no qualms about taking a detour into free jazz. As you do.
47Actor – Uppercut
We’ll always have a soft spot for Actor, given Louisa Osborn’s band hail from our homestead of West Yorkshire. But they also have quite a spiky alt-pop sound that has impressed us throughout the year, culminating most recently in Uppercut. It really is quite the knockout (sorry), a perfect blend of chart-ready hooks and melody that will refuse to leave your brain after just one listen.
46Dagny – Backbeat
Of course it will come as no surprise to any lover of pop that Dagny is from Norway (though she’s currently sitting in London somewhere, we believe). Backbeat is one hell of a storming debut, with a beat that gallops underneath those pop-tastic vocals, which in turn sound like they’re having the best time on the planet through that unforgettable chorus. Welcome to the jungle, pet.
45Screaming Peaches – Sad Kid
Screaming Peaches sound like the most terrifying fruit on the planet. But luckily the London four-piece come armed with some ridiculously good indie-funk, as Sad Kid testifies. That rolling guitar lick. That wild chorus. The air-punch of “S-A-D”. What’s not to love?
44Noella Nix – Holding On
Sometimes writing about new music can be frustrating, as it is in the case of Noella Nix. Firstly, the Aussie pop merchant is infuriatingly young and makes us feel like we’ve achieved nothing in life. Secondly her Holding On is more fully formed than most label-backed peers, which makes us baffled as to why she isn’t a big star yet. If she keeps this up, 2016 will undoubtedly be hers.
43My Midnight Heart – Ghost
We’ve always got time for My Midnight Heart, aka Angelica Allen, ever since she knocked us sideways a couple of years ago with her Chest of Hearts EP. She’s been pretty quiet since then, but furtively released a couple of small EPs this year. The standout track from these was by far one called Ghost, which once again makes the most of Allen’s electronic soul sensibilities and, yep, that Mariah-rivalling vocal. More soon, please.
42Fallulah – Sorrow Is A Shadow
One of Scandinavia’s most underrated acts is Copenhagen lass Fallulah. She’s released a sterling collection of pop in the past, and seems set to repeat that if Sorrow Is A Shadow is anything to go by. Like the cross-breed of Lykke Li and Tove Styrke, it’s got the punch of chart-hit melody of the latter with the melancholy of the former. The result? An immensely accomplished gem that seems painfully overlooked.
41Elohim – Bridge and the Wall
Another day, another soaring pop banger. Elohim conquered the blog-waves earlier this year with She Talks Too Much, but it’s Bridge and the Wall that really sets the LA gal apart. It’s one of those rare tracks that gets everything right from start to finish, with crazy hooks that’ll remain burrowed in your brain long before it’s over. Smashing stuff.
40Muna – Promise
In the absence of Haim, there’s been a nice rise of other pop trios to fill that void. We had Jagaara last year, and this year it’s queer dark-pop group Muna who have utterly charmed us. Promise is a shining example of what they do best – from a collection of other very good songs, mind – as it brings forth the fiercest of their road-pop as it cruises through barriers. These girls aren’t messing around, that’s for sure.
39Bryde – Wait
Fun story: there was actually supposed to be a song called Nectar here. But it’s gone from Soundcloud as Bryde – aka Sarah from the lovely Paper Aeroplanes – has now acquired the right sort of backing to launch properly. Which is a testament to the music really, as she sears us with pointed alt-folk on Wait that feels like a fireside in winter. We can’t wait to hear more.
38Justine Skye – Bandit
It’s been relatively quiet for upcoming R&B types this year, but there are two who really stood out for us. One you’ll come across later in this list, but the second was Justine Skye, who emerged from internet sensation in to full-on star. Bandit was a highlight for her, the sort of jam that Rihanna ought to be making but can’t seem to get her shit together for. You snooze you lose, then, because Skye’s the limit when it comes to potential for domination.
37Blueyes – Skin
Blueyes is Bronagh Monahan, an upcoming London singer-songwriter type who clearly has a strong knack for what makes a song great. Her output this year has been low-key but consistent, with Skin being the finest of it – that haunting vocal stalks a dark and atmospheric beat, and as she utters ‘skin on my skin’, we’re feeling every moment of that sensuality. Wooft.
36Batts – Morals
Now this is what you call a debut. Correction: this is what you call a ridiculously good debut when the two members of the band aren’t even in the same continent. Batts is the pairing of Tanya Batt and Alisdair Mason, from Melbourne and Birmingham respectively, who create this incredibly rich London Grammar-esque soundscape on Morals. It’s been such a success that Batt is now moving over to the UK to do this gig full-time; we can’t help but think it’s the right decision, as this twosome have the potential to go stratospheric.
35Ardyn – Universe
Another alt-pop duo that’s made considerable waves is Ardyn, a sibling duo (two of triplets, in fact) that caught the fancy of Rodaidh McDonald. Unsurprising, given how perfectly they mine the melancholic atmospherica, erm, thing. Universe is the crown jewel from their fantastic debut EP, sweeping and far-reaching just like its title.
34LÉON – Nobody Cares
And the most ironic title of the year goes to this one. LÉON stormed out of nowhere and pretty much got everyone talking about her, with Nobody Cares standing out for us as a barnstorming, chart-raiding little number that proves that Scandi-pop cannot be fucked with. Nobody cares? We’ll be stuffed if she’s saying that in a year’s time.
33Kacy Hill – Shades Of Blue
When you come with a Kanye co-sign and your tracks come with some seriously hot producers (Jack Garratt, RKCB, Tourist, Stuart Price), you really better hope you don’t fuck it up. We’re pleased to report that Kacy Hill very much doesn’t – even though the EP name Bloo sounds like a variant of Toilet Duck, the actual product very much isn’t. It’s full of great tracks, but we’ve gone for Shades of Blue for these purposes: shimmering like light on a warm pool, it’s a fine exhibition of what makes Hill a star.
32Heart/Dancer – Under
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from The xx, and we’ve all heard a billion derivatives since. But Sweden’s Heart/Dancer seem to capture that minimalist pop ethos better than anyone on Under, delivering a winning, cloistered back-and-forth that nestles beautifully around those nocturnal chords. Well worth your time, this.
31Sinead Harnett – She Ain’t Me
People who didn’t buy this track in 2015: have a word with yourselves. Has there been any better example of UK R&B pop this year? Absolutely not. Sinead Harnett killed it with a series of proper jams, with She Ain’t Me a fierce and prickly cut that really puts all the basics in their place, in every sense.
30Black Coast – Gold Chain (feat. Remmi)
This one took us by surprise, but it ended up being quite the repeat listen as the year went on. The product of New York producer Black Coast and Nashville vocalist Remmi (who smashed it on her own with Awake, Asleep – a close call for this list in itself), it’s a synth-stabbed electronic pop jam that has one of the most addictive melodies you’ll hear all year. Dynamite business.
29KStewart – Keeping You Up
If anyone showed us some proper pop star behaviour this year, it’s KStewart. Seriously, how y’all gonna have a banger THIS BIG and not make this girl huge? Keeping You Up is fresh, peppy, and everything we need in a homegrown act. Plus did we mention that it’s pretty bangin’? Cos it is. It really is.
28Scavenger Hunt – Till I See A Sign
When a band has not one but two potential tracks that could make it on this list, you know they’re on to something special. Scavenger Hunt have this updated Wilson Phillips quality about them (we mean that as the highest compliment), channelling superb 80s-indebted synth-pop into their own wonderful rhythm. It crystallises wonderfully on Till I See A Sign, a ballad that’s as wistful and wonderful as the LA band’s hometown sunset.
27Janelle Kroll – Numb
Janelle Kroll is a revelation. Also she’s a fine reason to continue loving any musician with the name Janelle, but that’s not the point. The point is Numb, which makes a very good point of its own being the most sumptuous blues-soul jam that we heard this year. We’re still a bit speechless over how good this is, so we’ll shut up and let you enjoy it for yourself below.
26Ji Nilsson – Special Kind
Ah, lovely Ji Nilsson with her Swedish pedigree and very easy-to-love electronic pop style. Blue Is The Saddest Colour might be the name of her EP, but this blue-maned chanteuse provided nothing but heart all the way through it. Special Kind is the most affecting of her sadface pop, an aching yearn based around insecurity. “I just want you to love me,” she sings, and just like that we’re rubble.
25Kehlani – Alive (feat. Coucheron)
If there’s one new name that should stay on everyone’s lips this year, especially in the R&B world, it’s Kehlani (yep, she’s the other name we hinted at in the Justine Skye entry). Her mixtape thing You Should Be Here was just one long smile, full of lilting and expressive jams that made her quite the frontrunner in the genre. Alive is that sunshine very much distilled, a superb bit of sunshine soul that will have you falling for her just as we did.
24ALA.NI – Cherry Blossom
Well, one thing’s for certain: they don’t make them like ALA.NI any more. Cherry Blossom doesn’t sound like it’s of this modern world, so much so that we had to painstakingly make sure it wasn’t a cover. But fair play to this talented Londoner for going zig when everyone else is going zag, channelling the likes of Doris Day and co to turn out something truly magical.
23Cecilia Meadows – Maybe We Do
We’re very much in the habit of championing the lesser known, and it pains us to think that Cecilia Meadows might not get the audience she deserves. The young singer-songwriter moved us very much with her Cerulean Blue EP, and Maybe We Do the most arresting and fragile lament on a relationship. It’s simple, it’s effective, and that middle-eight goes straight for the feels. Stunning.
22Kylie Odetta – Too Deep In Love
Who’s the best pop star you’ve never heard of? That will be America’s Kylie Odetta, who crept out a little EP this year containing two pop smashes. Take Caution was a total jam, but Too Deep In Love really revealed the depth and layers of her songwriting (while being a proper smash). “I wanna be angry/ and shout your name through the halls, throw your stuff against the walls/ but maybe I’m just not crazy enough,” she sings, before revealing her ace card of vulnerability. “Or maybe I’m just too deep in love,” she shrugs. Damn, girl.
21Wafia – Heartburn
Australia’s Wafia came to us quite late in the year, but boy did she make an impact. Heartburn is one of those crazy good electronic-pop jams that you just have to listen to again immediately – the sentiment, the unique production, and those aching words. “Tell me why does my heart burn this way/ When I see your face?” So much simplicity, and still such a dart in the chest. That’s proper power.
20Kiiara – Gold
This is how you make an entry, especially if you’re a late-teen pop aspirant like Kiiara. Sod the same old schtick, just come armed with the quirkiest production and a dexterous vocal to match it, resulting in the absolute winner that is Gold. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more endearingly innovative debut, and there’s no doubt this girl is about to go sky-high very soon.
19Ritual – Low Season
At first, London group Ritual‘s Low Season might feel quite underwhelming and not worthy of a place here. The slow pace, the vocoded chorus, it all seems a bit askew. But a few more listens and it becomes something special, revelling in its sparsity and lodging itself in your psyche. We found ourselves coming back to this one a hell of a lot this year, and we’re sure that you will too.
18Nao – Inhale Exhale
If you haven’t heard of everyone and their aunt talking about Nao by now, go have a word with yourself. There’s never been a realer deal than this girl, armed with past hookups with brother-of-Jai-but-actually-are-they-the-same-person AK Paul. It was incredibly difficult to pick just one track from such an impressive body of work, but Inhale Exhale sums up what she’s all about: killer production, sassy vocals, and an earworm for days. Believe the hype.
17Dive in – Can’t Hold Me Down
Confession time: we’re just suckers for good old-fashioned road pop-rock. So Glastonbury’s Dive In finally won us over with their relentless joy on Can’t Hold Me Down. And literally they can’t be held down on an absolute smiler of a song, punching the air in all the right ways before that chorus kicks in. Go on, we dare you not to feel anything but utterly smitten after this one.
16Mieke – Sleeping Alone
Another one that took us by surprise this year was Mieke, aka Elissa Mielke (nope, we haven’t worked out the deal with the name either). Sleeping Alone was one of the year’s finest ballads, making us ugly cry with it’s suffocated, piano-driven loneliness and those haunting backing vocals through the chorus. This is how you reduce us to rubble, people. Listen and learn.
15Monika – Secret In The Dark
Monika is a star in her native Greece, but here she’s barely known. Which baffles us, given how strong Secret In The Dark is. This is disco-pop done with effortless cool, as Monika’s husky tones sashay over a beat that’s both original yet familiar. With enough power, we’re pretty sure the sheer love for this could get Greece back to solvency. Yep, that good.
14LEVV – Arrow
OK, we’ve already mentioned an act filling the London Grammar sorta void in this list, but honestly LEVV do it better than anyone. Arrow pierces just like it’s namesake, a beautiful and haunting piano-driven slice of electronic pop that’s unforgettable. It’ll be hard for the Nashville duo to top this, but we’re sure as hell keen to see what they do next.
13Bora York – Arrest Me
We have so much time for husband/wife-led band Bora York. They make synth-pop look so easy, and the way its executed on Arrest Me is on another level altogether. This is as brilliant as the genre gets, with verses giving way to an absolutely massive chorus that makes full use of the boy-girl dynamic in the band. Nothing in their album (nor any similar one) comes close to this, but that’s what happens when you set the bar this high.
12Glass Face – Holland
Tissues at the ready. Canadian quartet Glass Face had us stopped in our tracks with Holland this year, a slow-thumping and elegiac stunner that’s drowned in the best kind of melancholia. And the moment those strings kick in, it’s all over – this is stirring stuff, a fragile beauty that won’t ever be able to be captured again.
11Meg Myers – Sorry
And now for some serious moxie. Meg Myers ain’t taking no ounce of shit on her break-up jam Sorry, which ironically remains completely unapologetic in its approach. And we love the renaissance of the rock chick on this one, as guitars crash around the debris of a relationship, leaving Myers standing as tall and proud as she bloody well should be.
10I Am Karate – Bloom
Ok, so it looks like we fell for another piano-driven beauty this year. But how can you not be utterly enamoured with Swedish duo I Am Karate? They do spectacular straightforward pop on songs like Elevate – which almost made them appear twice on this list – but the haunting beauty of Bloom is really something else. Everything about this song is totally on-point, so waste absolutely no time in diving right in.
9Anne-Marie – Do It Right
From I Am Karate to an actual karate champion. Anne-Marie proved to be quite the pop revelation this year, and there’s every chance she can have some mainstream success next year. Do It Right was the apex of her output in 2015, an frenetic pop track that mixes all of her sass and kinetic energy into a very British sound. Knockout.
8Chinah – Minds
Danish trio Chinah (lead singer’s called Fine, innit) should be on everyone’s minds after, er, Minds. It might not be the one that catapulted them to internet stardom this year, but it is the one that speaks volumes for their longevity. The simple synth-work, the resigned delivery, it’s all indicative of a band really hitting their stride. “But you never seem to make up your mind,” sings Fine. We definitely have when it comes to this lot.
7Party Nails – Break
Everyone should play this song and then instantly feel ashamed of themselves. Why? Because not enough people were talking about what was quite frankly the jam of the summer. With Break, LA’s Party Nails (aka Elana Belle Carroll) managed to produce a song that sounds just as much fun as the name, shimmering like a disco ball and a bit of a non-stop, well, party.
6VÉRITÉ – Colors
We’ve always got a bit of time for VÉRITÉ on any of our lists, given that over the past year or so she hasn’t put out a single bad song. Quite an impressive streak for someone with fewer resources than a major label name, and even more so when a song like Colors is the result. It has all the VÉRITÉ hallmarks (spiky electronic pop work, stadium-sized melody) but with the addition of the most incredible vocal-run on a chorus you’ve ever heard. And when she tops it off with that “make me feel at home” refrain? Say goodbye to your faves.
5Petite Meller – Baby Love
Another song that should have done a lot better in the UK charts (seriously, what is wrong with us as a country? Wait, don’t answer that). Baby Love is a winner from the off, with that 90s house piano backing Petite Meller‘s curious and very French-pop charm. Of course, none of that would matter if it didn’t have one of the most arms-aloft infectious pop choruses of the year. Which, duh, it really really does.
4Dua Lipa – Be The One
There’s a reason Dua Lipa is on everyone’s, er, dua lips. Be The One built on a tremendous debut to ensure that pop doesn’t necessarily have to remain factory line. She’s got the melody down pat here, but it’s the affected delivery that really sells it – seriously, this lady throws more yearning emotion into a pop song than you’d ever think the genre has any right over. Check it out below.
3Shura – White Light
This girl is the one, the absolute one. How can you not be utterly in love with White Light? Those cosmic synths, the twinkly puppy-eyed chorus, and of course the full seven-minute version that includes an intergalactic coda. In just one song, Shura made good on all the promise from the year before, making this song one of the year’s essentials.
2Rationale – Re.Up
It’s all over in the first few seconds. The way London’s Rationale uses a female voice to gently coo the start of Re.Up just shows an ounce of this man’s musical sensitivity, balancing as it does his own rich-as-molasses vocal. It’s an incredible song from start to finish, full of deep soul with a throwback vibe (“ooh, I wanna be your lover” is key), and just wait till you hear the man belt out a note towards the end. Fucking fantastic, and more than worthy to sit at the top of this list.