It seems like with each new year, the “Class of…” project gets stronger. That’s pretty much by design, though when I first introduced the Class of 2014 I wasn’t so confident it was going to work out. The Class of 2013 had set the bar almost impossibly high, what with now household names like Haim, Chvrches, Little Green Cars and Savages all part of that universe. Yet this past year’s group of 10 artists not only managed to hold their own, but one in particular rode the train to stardom and the third biggest selling record of 2014. And to think that when I made the introduction last Januaryu nobody had any idea who this artist was, to the point where a show was booked for a tiny 350 capacity venue and it took awhile to sell out. I’ll tell you all about that, and recap how the other nine artists in the Class of 2014 did after the jump!

If the Class of 2014 were to be viewed like kids in a high school, then Banks would likely be the Homecoming Queen (or Goddess, if you will). Her rise to popularity in 2014 was a bit of a slow burn, and it’s a little challenging to say exactly when she reached peak exposure because of it. One by one over the course of the year she leaked single after single from her debut album Goddess, primarily to stoke the level of excitement from an ever-expanding fan base. By the time the official release date came around in early September, a lot of random friends who aren’t really into music started to mention Banks and link to her songs/videos with the intention of spreading the word. And that’s how I assume she earned her popularity in the first place, because I saw very little commercial support for her early on. None of her tracks were played on the radio in Chicago prior to the album’s release, nor did they appear in any TV shows or movies that I’m aware of. A word of mouth fan base is always fun, which is partly why I was both surprised and impressed to see that Banks’ fall tour of mid-sized venues (around 1,200+ capacity) pretty much entirely sold out. This included a show at the Metro in Chicago, which I was lucky enough to attend. The crowd went absolutely nuts for her, with the sort of reaction reserved for superstars and future superstars. Her latest single “Beggin’ For Thread” is now getting solid radio airplay too, meaning that a whole new world of people are being exposed to her charms every single day. Banks has done quite well for herself in 2014, but it’s clear she hasn’t nearly hit her peak yet. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes over the coming years.

FKA twigs
When it comes to artists from the hip hop/R&B world, I sometimes find it difficult to determine who’s making waves, particularly if there’s not much crossover into other genres of music. When I saw FKA twigs perform at the Pitchfork Music Festival over the summer, she hadn’t yet released her debut album LP1. The crowd that had gathered at the small stage to see her performance wasn’t exactly huge, though when you’re stuck playing at the same time as St. Vincent and Neutral Milk Hotel of course it’s going to be tough to attract an audience. twigs’ stage presence wasn’t all that assured either, as she often came across as whispering most of the time with little bits of thin singing mixed in. To make matters worse, the sun was still out and the weather was pretty warm, which are not the ideal conditions for her particular brand of hypersexual R&B. That festival performance aside though, the actual album LP1 turned into a huge, critically acclaimed underground success, propelled in no small part by the song “Two Weeks,” which also happened to be my favorite track of the year. Toss in a pretty artful and mindblowing performance on Fallon back in November, and it’s clear this girl’s star is rising fast. I’ve yet to hear a song of hers on the radio, and in my social circles word of mouth about her is small at best, but she does have a very devoted fan base. A couple of months ago I felt the need to see twigs perform again, being fully familiar with her album and a desire to see how she fared in a dark venue at night. Like Banks, she sold out the Metro quickly and the crowd absolutely went nuts over her. The show was actually really great too, a vast improvement from the outdoor festival environment months earlier. Now that twigs is dating Robert Pattinson, that’s brought her a whole other kind of attention too – from paparazzi and tabloids. I don’t much care about that stuff, but if it’s going to help more people discover her music, then good for her.

Sometimes you bet on a band and it’s just not their year. You include them as part of the “Class of…” project because they’re likely to release something that will make serious waves, but then they decide to move more slowly than you might have liked. It happened to me with Azealia Banks in 2012, when she was expected to release her debut album Broke With Expensive Taste but then it wound up getting delayed for 2+ years, only finally seeing release a few weeks back. GEMS aren’t on record as saying they were planning to release an album in 2014, but following a debut EP in the fall of 2013 I thought it was at least a strong possibility. Instead, the duo chose to tour for pretty much all of 2014. And you know what? Good for them. I caught their live show back in February, and actually wound up being very disappointed with it. To me, they needed much more road experience, which is what they wound up getting. My hope is that if I wind up seeing GEMS perform again in 2015, that they’ll be much better and stronger for it. Chances are they’ll be back out there as soon as they finish their record, which will probably be released in mid-2015. Touring and some recording aside, the only big thing to report from the GEMS camp in 2014 was a new single called “Scars,” which provides another idea of where their sound is heading. If the rest of their forthcoming full length comes anywhere near that song’s brilliance, then 2015 will definitely be GEMS’ year.

Here’s another artist I thought would make big waves in 2014, but didn’t quite live up to that promise due to a lack of new material. Unlike GEMS, Kelela didn’t actually do a ton of touring last year. From what I understand, she spent most of her time in the recording studio, hard at work on a follow-up to her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me. Along the way she managed to release a series of one-off singles, including “The High,” “Want It (ft. Tink)” and “OICU (ft. Le1f).” They’re all great and add to her quickly building legacy, but none quite attracted enough attention to help significantly boost her profile. Kelela’s performance at the Pitchfork Music Festival this past summer was excellent and worth mentioning as well. Unlike FKA twigs, Kelela’s warm, somewhat upbeat R&B sound played strongly in a mid-day outdoor festival setting. It helped that she’s got a great personality, often smiling and engaging with the audience. If there’s any logic in this world, music fans are going to sit up and take notice of Kelela upon the release of her next full length or mixtape or whatever she chooses to put out. I remain excited for it, even though she’s making us wait.

Oh, what can I say about the year in Lo-Fang? It was a year of ups and downs for Matthew Hemerlein. As far as the downs go, his debut record Blue Film was largely met with tepid reviews, including one from yours truly. Ultimately I felt like it would have been wise for the multi-instrumentalist to have released it as a free mixtape as was originally planned instead of an official debut. There were some good moments, just not nearly enough of them. Still, the man’s profile grew in 2014, and his ups began by opening for Lorde on her U.S. tour in the spring of 2014. That was followed by a headlining tour of much smaller venues. I happened to catch his sold out show at Schubas in early May, and it was actually quite impressive. The guy is a very talented musician, particularly on the violin, and while he’s not at the level of Andrew Bird or Owen Pallett quite yet, there’s definite promise for the future. While I didn’t catch his return to Chicago this past fall, playing another sold out show at the considerably larger Vic with Class of 2013 veterans Rhye, reports seemed to suggest that Hemerlein continues to build on his strengths, which is great to hear. Most recently I’ve been hearing his cover of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease in the latest commercials for Chanel No. 5. You could claim he’s selling out, but honestly the guy’s got to earn a paycheck, and there are far worse companies to get paid by than luxury brand Chanel. He’s also put out the Every Night EP in late fall, which contained some b-sides, reworked versions of songs and a fascinating experiment or two. If the new stuff is any indication of where he might be headed with his next LP, critical acclaim might not be very far out of his reach.

Mas Ysa
Unlike GEMS and Kelela, Mas Ysa actually did release new music in 2014, specifically in the form of the Worth EP this past February. Per my review, it was a very solid effort that showed off the many different sides and talents of Thomas Arsenault. While nothing quite eclipsed the frenetic and multi-part masterpiece of the single “Why” (which was coincidentally my 20th favorite song of 2014), it often felt like that track was the centerpiece around which the rest of the EP was built anyways. Over the summer, Pitchfork put together a short documentary about Arsenault, his music and his live performances, which was pretty cool even though it was only about 7.5 minutes. He also performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July. I only caught part of his set, and what I saw wasn’t exactly great, but perhaps my ears and eyes failed me in that case and everyone else loved it. So those things aside, there wasn’t a whole lot else going on in the Mas Ysa camp this year. He spent much of the fall in the studio, recording new songs for another EP or a debut full length, but it’s very much undetermined when all that will see the light of day. Let’s hope for sooner rather than later.

Perfect Pussy
2014 was a really big breakout year for Perfect Pussy, even though they remain something of an underground success at this point. About a week before I unveiled the Class of 2014 at the end of last January, I happened to catch the band’s live show at Schubas. It was arguably the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced, and in some ways scared the hell out of me. The thing is, I love loud and I love to be scared, so there wasn’t really a problem. What I was really looking forward to was the band’s debut album Say Yes to Love, which finally saw the light of day in mid-March. It was a true triumph for a band that had already built up buzz based on an earlier EP from 2013. I made multiple attempts to write a review of the album, but had so much difficulty translating my feelings about it into text form that I gave up and never published it. Thankfully my year-end lists allowed me to better explain why Perfect Pussy earned the #17 slot on my Top 50 Songs countdown and also the #8 slot on my Top 50 Albums countdown. Long story short, they’re abrasively loud, but inject so much of their own emotions into the songs that it needs to be that way. Vocalist Meredith Graves is not only a fantastic lyricist, but also embarked on a writing career of her own, contributing pieces to everywhere from Pitchfork to Rookie Magazine to The Talkhouse and beyond. The band also toured incessantly throughout 2014, perhaps more than just about anybody. They seem to be intent on keeping it up through much of 2015 too, though Graves is also busy establishing her own record label and recording a solo album, which should come together within the next few months. Slowing down is not an option. They’re either all-in or not at all. It’s great to see how much they’ve done and grown in 2014, and I’m excited to see what will happen with them next.

Royal Blood
One of the best things about British duo Royal Blood is that they pretty much delivered on the promise of their early singles. They were chosen as members of the Class of 2014 based off the strength of only three songs that had been released up until last January. Thankfully by mid-summer they had completed and released their self-titled debut album, which proved to be every bit as loud and punishing as those first tracks. The record might not have gotten enough praise to call it “critically acclaimed,” but they’re also very much a band built for the alt-rock crowd, which tends to mean that quality doesn’t matter as much if you can compose songs that sound pretty dark and bad ass. They are respected enough in their home country of England to have been shortlisted for this year’s Mercury Prize, which is really nothing to sneeze at. Plus, I keep hearing their singles on the alt-rock radio station here in Chicago, which means they’ve officially earned a large fan base. While I had intended on seeing the band when they first came to town this past August for Lollapalooza, unfortunately their set time slipped my mind and I missed them. They returned in December to play a big holiday show as well, but that sold out before I could get tickets. These are all good things for Royal Blood, and it’s probably safe to assume they’ll be embarking on a headlining U.S. tour of small-to-mid-sized venues at some point during 2015. They’re accomplishing what they set out to do, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Saint Pepsi
As I’m writing this, Saint Pepsi has changed his name. Yes, it seems that sharing your name with an all-powerful soft drink company can become a bit of a legal hazard, which is why Ryan DeRobertis finally decided to give up and become Skylar Spence instead. Who or what is Skylar Spence? Well, DeRobertis took the name from a character in the Woody Allen film Everyone Says I Love You. It also happens to be the title of a song on his Hit Vibes mixtape from 2013. So at the start of 2015 we say an unofficial goodbye to Saint Pepsi and a hello to Skylar Spence. The only thing that changes is the name, and not the music, which is great because DeRobertis is great at what he’s been doing. Back at the end of February, he released the Gin City EP, which helped to push his style forward a bit. Ultimately it may not have been his best work, but it was good enough to earn the attention of Carpark Records, who signed him over the summer. What followed was the release of a double A-side 7″ single “Fiona Coyne/Fall Harder”. That wasn’t so much another step forward as it was a big leap. Those two songs were funkier and more confident than anything under the Saint Pepsi name, with the former even earning a highly respectable spot among my Top 10 Songs of 2014. Officially sanctioned Saint Pepsi tracks aside, DeRobertis also remixed a whole bunch of songs from other artists, and even put out a mix for Fader. That’s all when he wasn’t out on tour. Honestly, I’m a little upset that I missed him in Chicago all of last year, especially since he played a few shows and even stuck around town for a few weeks at the end of summer. Either I wasn’t aware he was performing, or had another conflict that same evening. Ah well, I get the feeling that 2015 is really going to be his year anyways, even more so than 2014 was.

Sam Smith
This was done in alphabetical order, but there’s nothing quite like saving the best for last. If you didn’t hear anything about Sam Smith in 2014, what rock have you been living under? Seriously, somewhere around late March people started to take note of this guy who had the voice of an angel, and before you knew it he was everywhere. If Lorde was the breakout star of 2013, Sam Smith has been that in 2014. The two of them are now good friends, by the way, among many other musicians and celebrities who are in the guy’s corner. Last January I bought a ticket to see him perform at the 350 capacity Subterranean in Chicago in March. It took about 2 weeks for the show to sell out. A few weeks after that, they moved the show to the 1,000 capacity Vic Theater. Smith then had to cancel that March date because Saturday Night Live asked him to perform. Thankfully he rescheduled and kept the same venue, because he’ll never play a room that small again. The next time he came back through Chicago, he sold out The 2,500 sized Riviera, and then the 4,000 seat Chicago Theatre after that. Later this month, he’ll be performing to a sold out crowd at the 9,500 capacity UIC Pavilion. The man’s become a true superstar. His show at the Vic back in March was incredible, by the way. At that point his debut album In the Lonely Hour hadn’t even been released, though the single “Stay With Me” was starting to gain some traction. Eventually attracting the attention of the adult contemporary crowd, that album would go on to sell more than 1.2 million copies in both the U.S. and United Kingdom, enough to make it the 3rd best selling album of 2014 in the former and the 2nd best selling album of 2014 in the latter. Oh, and should I also mention that he’s nominated for SIX Grammys this year? Not bad for a guy who was a small time underground success one year earlier, eh? It goes without saying that Sam Smith is the biggest success story of the “Class of…” project to date. What’s in store for the Class of 2015? Keep an eye on the site to find out!