It’s a new decade and a fresh chance for emerging artists to shine. As part of Slingshot, NPR music stations have chosen a select group of artists who are sure to do big things in 2020. Some have been around for a bit, but just never had the chance to “slingshot” into the popular music space. Packed with discoveries, our 2020 Artists To Watch list features a diverse celebration of artists, with many releasing new projects later this year.
Dublin-based Æ MAK fell in love with writing and creating music while producing songs that were initially only a means for performing. Over the last year and a half, Æ MAK has released a handful of singles that are wonderfully quirky, experimental art pop. Æ MAK makes music that defies classification, songs that you can dance to with hooks galore and crystalline vocals. Driven by the need to create, dream and escape (along with the desire to perform and connect with others), Æ MAK is a young artist in full-on creative mode, taking energy and shaping it into sound, vision and movement. She’s crafting her own world of endless possibilities. Look for festival gigs over the summer, some tour dates in the U.S. and a string of new singles before her full-length debut album in the fall. —Kevin Cole, KEXP
Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram
Often these days, the term “blues” is attached to some multi-hyphenated subgenre: -rock, -jazz, -psych, -garage-rock. On Christone “Kingfish” Ingram‘s 2019 debut, Kingfish, there’s no need to dress up the blues when it’s at its raw and powerful best. At just 20, he’s earned the praise of Bootsy Collins, performed with rapper Rakim and wowed the crowd (and WFUV) at 2019’s NON-COMMvention. The Clarksdale, Miss., native was inspired by Muddy Waters, which is most clear in his singing; then there’s his refreshing, guitar playing style that omits the tropes of your average blues band, but maintains the integrity of the form. Keep your eyes open as this in-demand musician starts 2020 on his own national tour. He’s also only just getting started; later this year, he’ll be opening for Vampire Weekend‘s Father of the Bride tour and taking his career to the next level. —Eric Gottlieb, WFUV
As the story goes, Connie Han selected the professional musician route early-on. She subsequently opted out of her full scholarship to UCLA after a very short stay, and let’s just say that she hasn’t looked back, establishing an impressive run early in her career.
On the heels of her 2018 Mack Avenue debut Crime Zone, Connie’s journey continues to gain momentum and the attention of the jazz community. She received recognition in 2019 as a member of Jazziz Magazine‘s “Shape of Jazz to Come” list, toured vigorously and performed for an NPR Music Live Session.
The new year promises to garner additional attention as Connie Han’s star shines bright with potential. Her recent appointment as a Steinway Artist and the anticipated release of her sophomore project suggest that the soon-to-be 24-year-old pianist is finding her rhythm. —J. Michael Harrison, WRTI
Former-farm boy Sloan Struble celebrates his 20th birthday this year, having already spent half his life learning the ropes of bedroom pop production on his own (given, with some essential internet tutorials every now and then). Struble settled on UT Austin for his bachelor’s degree right around the same time that he introduced us to Dayglow with Fuzzybrain. The indie pop rock accessibility of Fuzzybrain‘s 10 tracks — recorded solo and entirely in his Aledo, Texas, childhood bedroom — have since made Dayglow an instant winner for many, made clear by nearly 50 million streams on Spotify alone. And though Dayglow’s recent success has led Struble to put his college education on hold for now, we have a feeling that pretty soon he’s going to graduate into full rock star status while continuing to shed his brand of positivity one riff, hook and smile at a time. —Jack Anderson, KUTX
Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary is re-airing this week and the history lessons contained within are so instructive. Country music has morphed with the decades, and though now the citified aspect of the genre is referred to as “The Nashville Sound,” the first time around they called it countrypolitan. It wasn’t just the music that made someone countrypolitan, it was the artist’s demeanor and even the way they dressed. Cut to 2020 and we have a new crop of flavors, many that hearken back to the past while leaning forward. Arkansas native Dee White comes into focus in his well-tailored suits, with music that recalls the great gents of yore. Early consult with Nashville music exec and family friend Harold Shedd helped shape Dee’s path. His latest album, Southern Gentleman, was produced by Dan Auerbach and came out on Dan’s Easy Eye Sound label. Take a look / listen to “Country Man” from this sweet country crooner. —Jessie Scott, WMOT
Originally from Morton, Penn. (near Philadelphia), Devon Gilfillian played in the Philly music scene, but it wasn’t until his move to Nashville in 2013 that he began to focus on his career. In Music City, Devon carved his own path as a singer-songwriter, finding a community appreciative of his blend of social consciousness, soulful grooves and rocking beats. In 2017, Devon was featured on World Cafe as part of the show’s Nashville sessions with Ann Powers.
Devon was raised in a musical family and caught the musical bug from his father, Nelson, who helped found Café Ole, a popular band in Philadelphia in the mid-70s. Music was all around his house; he grew up listening to Ray Charles, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and one of his musical heroes, Jimi Hendrix. Devon’s debut album, Black Hole Rainbow, reflects his love of many musical genres and decades of music. He oozes rock and soul music into a whole new thing. —Bruce Warren, WXPN
After a lot of teasing, the Free Nationals (aka Anderson .Paak‘s live band) finally started rolling out singles for a debut album towards the end of 2019. The final product is a heavy mix of Los Angeles low-rider anthems, smooth R&B and upbeat hip-hop with guests ranging from Syd (“Shibuya”), to Daniel Caesar and Unknown Mortal Orchestra (“Beauty & Essex”), to the late Mac Miller with Kali Uchis (“Time”) just to name a few. On “Eternal Light,” the band lays down a steady and mellow beat while Jamaican artist Chronixx sings of “good vibration,” giving the track a classic dancehall reggae vibe. It’s a great tune and shows how dynamic of a backing band the Free Nationals can be. —Brian Burns, WUNC
Illiterate Light‘s Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran used to run an organic farm to pay the bills while they worked on music. When the crops failed, they sold edible weeds under the name Wild Mix. The name could also be applied to their energetic live shows, with the two playing a full band’s worth of instruments. Close your eyes and you hear a four or five-piece band. Jake handles lead vocals, guitar and bass, which he plays on a keyboard with his feet. Jake provides backup vocals and propels the songs from a customized stand-up drum kit. This isn’t a gimmick; the music on the duo’s self-titled release holds up. And yes, they recorded this way in the studio as well. The Harrisburg, Va., duo plans to stay on the road playing festivals and gigs through 2020. —Jon Hart, KTBG, The Bridge
Six years ago, Kate Davis was a burgeoning trad jazz prodigy. She was also the subject of a viral YouTube video performance of Meghan Trainor‘s pop hit, “All About That Bass.” Despite her many accomplishments, that breezy, sepia-toned cover song quickly became her defining musical contribution. It’s since been viewed 18 million times, resulting in the kind of notoriety that could easily make you a novelty or destroy your life.
Thankfully, neither of those things happened to the now 28-year-old musician.
In the intervening years, Davis retreated and her once-promising career went seemingly dormant until 2019, when she emerged as the co-writer of Sharon Van Etten‘s hit song “Seventeen.” Davis quickly followed that up by releasing her indie rock debut, Trophy — a remarkable 12-song album that’s both thoroughly modern and all her own. It’s an incredible transformation that defies expectations and leaves listeners truly wondering what’s next from the resilient songwriter. —Jerad Walker, opbmusic
Neoma‘s infectious pop hooks, soothing synths and angelic vocals have captured the attention of thousands across South America, and now, she’s taking on the U.S. At just 18, Carla Huiracocha said goodbye to her hometown of Cuenca, Ecuador, and said hello to the mountains of Denver, Colo. With a No. 1 hit back home under her belt — the 2017 single, “Real” — and her producer, Danny Pauta, along for the ride, she’s poised to take on 2020 with a debut album of the same name, which was just released at the end of November.
“Real” can be read in English or in Spanish; it’s a title that at once unifies the band’s listeners, and highlights what Huirachocha herself calls her “crazy” power: being bilingual. “Whenever I’m writing, I’ve got this feeling to pull something out. It doesn’t matter if it’s English or Spanish. I’ve got something to say.” Whatever language it’s in, we’re all ears. —Bruce Trujillo, Colorado Public Radio
If there’s one thing to take away from Oompa‘s work, it’s that she means it. The queer hip-hop artist, whose passion ignited when performing at an open mic for the LGBTQI community of color, is using hypnotic melodies and socially-charged lyrics to cultivate inclusivity and change the face of a sound dominated by the hetero-male perspective.
Oompa’s music advocates for resource access in underserved communities. She hosts and performs at showcases to raise awareness for representation. And she collaborates with local musicians, like Anjimile, Red Shaydez and Brandie Blaze, to elevate voices and the acceptance of a comprehensive sound.
The momentum of Oompa’s 2019 album, Cleo, an expanding show schedule and a shelf brimming with awards indicate that she’s on the verge of breaking out. While her Boston identity is important to her sound and the local community, it’s her mission to open doors for marginalized voices across the industry that matters most. —Stacy Buchanan, WGBH
I first discovered the music of Sierra Sellers after hearing her single, “Smooth,” in 2017 and was drawn in by the soulful grooves, catchy chorus and the lyrics of empowerment. Sierra is a Pittsburgh-based neo-soul singer that found connection to and influence from musicians like India.Arie, Jill Scott, Beyoncé , and Erykah Badu. The past two years have been fast-paced and filled with artistic and professional growth, and she’s quickly developed into an emerging talent as a writer and live performer with her band. Sierra performed over 70 shows in 2019 alone, including the Deutschtown Music Festival, Pittsburgh’s Very Own and an opening slot for Adia Victoria. This fall marked the release of the song “Shine” with rapper My Favorite Color, and she has just released a new single titled “Grown,” which will be on her new EP, Ophelia, due out in March. —Kyle Smith, WYEP
North London band Sorry teeters between eclecticism and carefully constructed indie pop hooks. The band’s sound is a bit hard to define and that has us intrigued. Vocalists Asha Lorenz and Louis O’Bryen present a new take on the male / female delivery. Both are so relaxed and nonchalant with their performance; it’s a rare breed of cool that seems so effortless for the duo. Lorenz’s vocals channel Courtney Barnett just a bit, while we can’t help but think of Morphine with the bold and tasteful saxophone weaving in and out of their songs. And a lyrical nod to Tears for Fears in their latest single? What’s going on here? We’re not sure yet, but we love it. —Amy Miller, KXT
Stream these new additions with the NPR Slingshot Spotify playlist.