The “Class of” project originated at the start of 2012, as I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s attempting to figure out exactly what there was to look forward to in the coming year. Always on the prowl for the next big thing, there was a lot to be excited about. So I decided to choose a manageable 10 artists whose career I would keep close tabs on throughout the next 12 months. When that turned out well, thanks in no small part to now nearly household names such as Frank Ocean and Grimes, the hope was to keep going. 2013 was going to be bigger and better than the previous year, and by all accounts that turned out to be true. Haim, Chvrches and Savages turned out to be the heaviest of the heavy hitters, though in the end nobody really performed poorly. In fact, last year’s class was so successful, I had concerns about 2014. How do you improve on near perfection? The short answer is, you don’t. You close your eyes, keep going, and pray for the best. And truly, I do believe that the Class of 2014 is filled with the best that music has to offer (that I’m aware of). These ten artists are interesting, innovative and actually pretty fun when you get down to it, and I anticipate greater realms of success for each one in the coming year. So join me after the jump, and allow me to introduce you to the Class of 2014!

Banks [Official Site]

Breakdown: Banks is the dark and beat-heavy synth pop/R&B project from Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jillian Banks. She released two EPs in 2013, both have served as a launching pad and fantastic introduction to her intense yet sleek sound. She cites luminaries like Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Fiona Apple as her influences, and you can definitely hear a little bit of each in the handful of songs we’ve been given so far. Last fall she spent a lot of time on the road opening for The Weeknd, and the two of them complimented one another’s sounds perfectly. Banks has also benefited from working with notable producers like Sohn, Jamie Woon and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, who have all done a great job in helping her to find her unique voice and style among a crowded field of similar-sounding artists. The way that her warm and fragile vocals mix with the blown out and darkly gorgeous compositions is a wondrous thing. Let’s hope that 2014 will give us Banks’ first full length album, which if it’s anything like her EPs, will send her stock soaring into the stratosphere.

The London EP – [Soundcloud] [Video]
Warm Water – [Soundcloud]
In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel cover) – [MP3]
What You Need (The Weeknd cover) – [Video]
This is What It Feels Like – [Video]
Fall Over – [Video]
Brain – [Soundcloud]

FKA twigs [Official Site]

Breakdown: Tahliah Barnett is the UK-based singer-songwriter who operates under the moniker of FKA twigs. She originally called herself Twigs, as it’s the nickname her friends gave her due to the very loud way in which her bones crack. Unfortunately another artist named Twigs asked her to stop using the name, hence the FKA (formerly known as). The type of music she makes is probably best classified as experimental trip-hop with a healthy dash of R&B added to the mix. Thanks to her breathy, intimate vocals and lyrics, the music on her first two EPs has drawn serious comparisons to The xx and Janet Jackson. With the way that the beats and samples are constructed on each track though, she also has a lot in common with Massive Attack, Purity Ring and even The Knife. In other words, she has all the makings of a star who’s going to quietly build an army of fans wherever she goes. It’s already started, actually, but expect the real groundswell to kick in when the next dose of new material emerges from the primordial ooze later this year.

Water Me – [Video]
Papi Pacify – [Video]
How’s That – [Video]

GEMS [Official Site]

Breakdown: This past fall the Washington D.C.-based duo of Lindsay Pitts and Clifford John Usher, aka GEMS, released their debut EP Medusa to plenty of critical acclaim. What really grabbed me about it was how this band sounds like they’ve been making music for years already. Most artists stumble a little with their first set of songs and then evolve to find their sweet spot over time. GEMS have already reached that point, which is surprising, refreshing and really makes the case for supporting brand new acts, though they’re more the exception than the rule. Their sound is pretty and can be very pop-oriented, most notably in the case of a single like “Medusa,” which is an atmospheric love song that’s also effortlessly catchy. Pitts’ vocal work is always a highlight as well, no matter if she’s soaring in a falsetto or harmonizing with herself and [CJ] Usher. It’s an easy pun to say that GEMS’ music sparkles, but if you listen closely to anything they’ve released so far, that descriptor feels right on target. As for what 2014 will bring the duo, that remains to be seen. They’re cultivating quite the Internet following and will be touring this winter/spring, but beyond that they aren’t currently signed to a record label nor have they revealed any plans to record a full length debut anytime soon. The Medusa EP just came out in November anyways, so they can certainly take their time.

Medusa EP – [Soundcloud]
Pegasus – [Video]
Don’t Cry (Seal cover) – [Soundcloud]

Kelela [Facebook]

Breakdown: Kelela Mizanekristos is at the forefront of what’s being labeled as the “experimental R&B” movement. If Frank Ocean is the king of that world right now, Kelela is quickly working her way up to become the queen. Thanks to collaborations with the likes of strange and unconventional producers such as Fade to Mind, Kingdom and Night Slugs, her Cut 4 Me mixtape from 2013 quickly set her apart from her peers and additionally impressed with direct, honest and intensely personal lyrics. Kelela’s entire goal is to find that perfect balance between the familiar and unfamiliar – to draw you in through recognition and then flip the script with a curveball you weren’t expecting. It feels fresh and exciting, and perhaps that’s why she’s caught the attention of the Knowles sisters, contributing a track to a compilation on Solange’s Saint Records label and being featured on Beyonce’s blog. She’s hard at work on an official debut album at the moment, which if it’s anything like her mixtape will likely send her career into the stratosphere.

Cut 4 Me Mixtape – [Free Download] [Soundcloud]

Lo-Fang [Official Site]

Breakdown: Matthew Hemerlein is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Maryland who operates under the Lo-Fang moniker. He’s been making music on an off for the last couple of years, mostly as he traveled around the globe collecting sounds and inspiration for the tracks that would eventually compose his debut album Blue Film, which will be out on Feb. 25th via 4AD. At first blush, the few songs he’s released so far are beautifully composed pieces that pretty much describe what James Blake would sound like if he made music with Andrew Bird. There’s something very grand and epic about the two tracks featured below, but also remarkably intimate as well. The combination of violin, piano and electronica elements also seems recognizable but also utterly unique. It’s no wonder that his music caught the attention of pop star du jour Lorde, who likes what he’s doing so much that she’s given him the opening slot on her forthcoming large venue U.S. tour this spring. Needless to say, a LOT more people are going to be introduced to Lo-Fang very soon, and it’d be foolish to think he’s not going to make the most of it.

Look Away – [Video]
#88 – [YouTube Stream]

Mas Ysa [Official Site]

Breakdown: It seems like 2014 is going to be the year of singer-songwriters operating under assumed names. Adding to the pile is Thomas Arsenault, who makes music as Mas Ysa. His origins are everywhere and nowhere, having lived a fair portion of his life out of a suitcase in everywhere from Brazil to Canada to America. His influences range from electronica artists like Aphex Twin and Manitoba to bands like Neutral Milk Hotel. These days he calls upstate New York home, where he’s working on his debut full length before heading out on a short west coast tour in mid-February. He’ll be supporting his nine track debut EP Worth, which will be out on Feb. 4th via Downtown Records. That’s going to be a big deal for him, considering he’s been making music for several years now but has kept it very private until last fall when he made the song “Why” available on Soundcloud. In the nearly 6.5 minutes of that track, Arsenault transitions between folk, techno and synth pop with reckless abandon, tossing all of his cultural, life and listening experiences into one huge melting pot of intelligent songcraft. The recently released EP closer “Years” is almost the exact opposite – a dark and sparsely composed ballad filled with tension and dread. That he is able to make both of these tracks work to incredible effect is strong evidence that he’ll definitely be a talent to keep a close eye on.

Why – [Soundcloud] [Video]
Years – [Soundcloud]

Perfect Pussy [Tumblr]

Breakdown: I’ve already given an introduction to and some thoughts on Perfect Pussy, but for those who don’t want to read a lengthy, separate piece on the band, let me reiterate some of the highlights. Perfect Pussy is a hardcore punk and noise rock band from Syracuse, New York. They are extremely loud and extremely abrasive, both on record and on stage. Their debut EP I have lost all desire for feeling was self-released last spring, and their debut full length Say Yes to Love will be out on March 18th via Captured Tracks. This isn’t a band that’s particularly easy to like, but then again very few things that are this revelatory typically are. The true heart of this band lies with singer Meredith Graves, whose vocals are so obscured you can never fully tell what she’s saying, but reading her intensely honest and vulnerable lyrics unveils a whole other side to this band. In short, everything they do and create is done at such a level of extremity that you might think they’re overdoing it. The reality is that they’re giving their all until there’s nothing left to give. Such total conviction is a rare thing in a band, which is why they’re so compelling and worth your time and support.

I have lost all desire for feeling EP – [Bandcamp]
Driver – [Soundcloud]

Royal Blood [Official Site]

Breakdown: Unless you’re from the UK, there’s a fairly good chance that you haven’t heard of Royal Blood…at least not yet. The Brighton-based duo of Mike Kerr and Ben Thatcher formed in early 2013 and to date have only released a single, though there are a couple of other songs floating around here and there. Their sound? Let’s just call it rock and roll that’s all killer, no filler. Here’s a list of bands that Royal Blood sounds like to some degree: Queens of the Stone Age, Led Zeppelin, Pixies, Japandroids, The White Stripes, The Black Keys, Sleigh Bells and Arctic Monkeys. Speaking of Arctic Monkeys, they’ve really taken these guys under their wing and have tapped Royal Blood to open for them on several UK tour dates. It should only be a matter of time before their debut LP gets finished and the inevitable world tour brings them a massive amount of new fans. They may sound like a lot of bands you’ve heard before, but whatever they’re doing somehow feels fresh and original. Get on board with this band now, because I’ve got big expectations for them this year.

Out of the Black – [Soundcloud] [Video]
Come On Over – [Soundcloud]
Figure It Out – [Soundcloud]

SAINT PEPSI [Facebook]

Breakdown: With the over-availability of music today thanks to streaming services and just the Internet in general, there’s a whole new generation that’s taking full advantage of this incredible breadth and scope by doing things we never thought possible. SAINT PEPSI, aka Bostonian Ryan DeRobertis, is part of the next evolution of artists who sample in such a way that the line between an original track and a remix becomes incredibly blurred. Granted, any individual who puts together a remix is doing something original, but few can take a song you know and maybe even love and transform it in such a way that you don’t even recognize it anymore. Case in point, I listened to his new single “Mr. Wonderful” and had no idea it was built off the Aretha Franklin hit, which I’m familiar with. That’s how much he transformed it, complete with bits of Mario Kart 64 samples. DeRobertis put out a couple of free, downloadable albums last year (see below), and each new one has sounded better and brought more fans into the fold. It’s also become increasingly difficult to define what his particular “sound” is, considering he’s pulling from anywhere and everywhere, including but not limited to pop, soul, funk and disco. His next record Gin City will be out on Feb. 25th and may just be his most crowning achievement to date. It’s safe to say you won’t want to miss it.

Mr. Wonderful – [Soundcloud] [MP3]
We Belong Together – [Soundcloud]
Burn – [Soundcloud]
Call Me Maybe Remix (Carly Rae Jepsen) – [Soundcloud]
Hit Vibes album – [Free Download on Bandcamp]
Empire Building album – [Free Download on Bandcamp (use mirror link)]

Sam Smith [Official Site]

Breakdown: If you’ve heard of Sam Smith, you’re probably most familiar with him thanks to the Disclosure track “Latch,” which he contributed vocals to. The UK singer-songwriter also scored his first number one hit in his home country last year for his collaboration with Naughty Boy on the track “La La La,” which hasn’t impacted in the U.S. quite yet. In terms of solo work, Smith did put out a UK-exclusive debut EP called Nirvana last October, but it’s his forthcoming debut album In the Lonely Hour that has people really hot under the collar. The two songs he’s released from it so far, “Money On My Mind” and “Lay Me Down,” are both incredible examples of both his songwriting prowess as well as the jaw-dropping range of his vocals. Not since Jeff Buckley have I heard a voice with such power and elasticity. Unlike his collaborations with electronica artists, Smith’s solo tracks seem to fall somewhere in the soul, R&B and pop genres, and offer up proof that he can sing under just about anything and make it sound great. As a result, there are a lot of people expecting big, big things from him this year. You can definitely count me as one of them.

Money On My Mind – [Soundcloud] [Video]
Lay Me Down – [Soundcloud]
Make It To Me – [Soundcloud]
Safe With Me – [Soundcloud]