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Posted at 4:38 PM ET, 01/21/2011

Looking ahead: Five new artists to look for in 2011

By Chris Richards

yelawolfRapper Yelawolf is bound to make an impact in 2011.

How's your new year going? Heard your new favorite song yet? Be patient. In 2011, the hits are expected to come thundering down from the Mount Olympus of popular music with the fury of a thousand Gagas.

Some of pop's biggest names are reportedly scheduled to drop new albums this year. Among them: Coldplay, Green Day, Beyonce, Radiohead, OutKast, Madonna, Lady Antebellum, Foo Fighters, R.E.M., U2 and even Lady Gaga herself. There's also talk of long-promised comeback discs that we won't believe until we hear them (Dr. Dre, D'Angelo, Amy Winehouse, the Strokes - where are you guys?).

As ever, rookies abound. And in a crowded field, the new faces will have to work especially hard to grab our eardrums. After the jump, five emerging artists who we hope will leave their musical fingerprints all over 2011.

James Blake

The most arresting moment on this London singer-producer's debut album sounds like a swarm of Apache helicopters gathering on the horizon. As the 22-year-old Blake croons "Limit to Your Love," a cover of Canadian indie chanteuse Feist, in comes an almost subsonic rumble - the kind you don't hear in your headphones so much as feel in your kidneys.

Those strange tremors are the sonic hallmark of dubstep, a strand of British dance music defined by its plunging bass and spectral vocals. Blake, however, has been deemed the crown prince of "post-dubstep," thanks to a string of 2010 EPs that evaporated the style down to its ghostly essence.

In addition to giving the genre a voice, Blake also provides it with a face. Until recently, dubstep's champion was William Bevan, better known as Burial, a producer who managed to keep his identity a secret until the success of his 2007 masterpiece "Untrue" provoked the media's curiosity. Blake seems to be generating even more excitement with a sound that many have called "dreamlike." But that's not quite right.

Blake's self-titled debut, landing Feb. 7, suggests a fitful sleep full of sonic slipstreams and rhythmic hiccups that are far too intriguing to sleep through.

K. Michelle

Do you have room for another post-Mary J. Blige R&B star in your life? Another deeply wronged diva who sings her heartbreak through clenched teeth? Another gale-force wailer who smudges the line between anger and sadness like so many tears through Revlon eyeliner? No matter how many Jazmine Sullivans, Melanie Fionas and Keri Hilsons overpopulate the R&B airwaves, the answer to these questions will always be "yes."

And that's good news for K. Michelle, a Memphis singer who sprinkles her heartsick ballads with glints of humor. Her best song, "Fakin' It," a tune about deceiving an egomaniacal lover, is equal parts sad, cruel and hilarious.

She's even funnier onstage. During an opening set for her mentor R. Kelly at DAR Constitution Hall in 2009, Michelle paced the stage between songs, talking trash about her exes and bonding with her audience like five-minute epoxy. But so far, her music hasn't had the same effect. Two heavy-hearted singles released last year, "Fallin' " and "I Just Can't Do This," failed to make a dent on radio or BET.

Michelle's debut album, "Pain Medicine," is due out sometime this year and will hopefully offer a 360-degree glimpse of the funny girl who strutted across that stage in 2009. After all, the album is being produced by Kelly -- a guy who certainly knows how to temper love songs with levity.


Ashton Shepherd

As 2008 came to a close, two of the most enchanting voices in country music belonged to young women with a lot on their minds. One was singing about the first day of school. The other was singing about tossing her wedding ring in the trash. The first was Taylor Swift. She was 19. The other was Ashton Shepherd. She was 22.

What a difference three years can make. While Swift's teen-beloved sophomore disc "Fearless" went on to win a Grammy for album of the year, Shepherd's all-grown-up debut "Sounds So Good" clung to the country charts for dear life. It's something the Coffeeville, Ala., native seems poised to correct with the disc she's now wrapping up with Buddy Cannon, the esteemed producer who had a hand in another recent Alabama success story, Jamey Johnson.

Like Johnson, Shepherd has a voice that is instantly recognizable - a sharp twang that she brandishes like a weapon. On her new single "Look It Up," she uses it to send an unfaithful man crawling to the dictionary: "You said you're sober? Look it up. It's right next to 'hell is freezing over,' 'flying pigs' and all that stuff."

Smith Westerns

These cherub-faced glam-rock revivalists were being trumpeted as The It Band of 2011 long before (in indie-rock Internet time: weeks before) their hyped second album, "Dye It Blonde," arrived Tuesday.

Here's what they really are: The best interpreters of T. Rex since Prince wrote "Cream." It's not just the glitter-dusted choruses or the juicy guitar solos that earn them this distinction (though they nail those, too). It's the Chicago troupe's ability to make their emotive urgency feel cool, to make the epic stuff feel casual. You can hear it in the song "All Die Young," which contains hints of the Beatles' "Something" and opens with some heavy thoughts:"I want to grow old before I grow up/I want to die with my chin up."

Even better is "Weekend," a lead single that should elicit involuntary air guitar spasms from anyone who's ever loved rock-and-roll. This is fantastic-sounding stuff, but like with so many indie bands that spend months hunched over laptops sculpting great albums, it'll be interesting to see how it takes shape on the countless festival stages Smith Westerns are sure to grace this summer.

Yelawolf

When you're trying to be the next Eminem (a great white rapper widely touted as a hip-hop genius), you must be careful not to become the next Bubba Sparxxx (a great white rapper quickly dismissed as a hip-hop novelty). So explains the measured ascent of Yelawolf, a nimble Alabama newcomer who avoided flashing in the pan in 2010 by not releasing his debut album.

Instead, the heavily tattooed, unabashedly mulleted MC took things slow and steady. He dropped a superb mix tape, "Trunk Muzik," last January, signed a contract with Interscope Records in March, landed a sly verse on Big Boi's solo album in July and re-released "Trunk Muzik" as "Trunk Muzik 0-60" on Interscope in November.

"Radioactive," his debut full-length album, is due in April. For Yelawolf, going from zero to 60 apparently takes about 16 months. As his career has bloomed in relative slow motion, his rhymes have exploded from his mouth at dizzying speeds. Whether boasting of his rural roots ("Pop the Trunk") or his hip-hop bona fides ("I Wish"), he sounds like he's being paid by the syllable.

By Chris Richards  | January 21, 2011; 4:38 PM ET
Categories:  In today's Post  | Tags:  Ashton Shepherd, James Blake, K. Michelle, Smith Westerns, Yelawolf  
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Comments

K Michelle is a wonderful artist and should not be compared. I know that is what alot of people do they try to put you in your box.With K michelle that is a big mistake.She absolutely blew me away with her vocals when I heard her sing.Please do not make the mistake of throwing her in a box with the others and miss out on her amazing music. She is so underrated and slepped on and that is why I have made it a point to make sure she gets her due exposure in music. I have never met her,not part of a pr team, not a manager none of that. Just a fan of great music and people who have a real shot of longevity in music. K Michelle is the future be sure to put her in your music collection and remember her name. She is what rnb so desprately is missing. Quality voice, music and a real talent,asset to the music industry.

Posted by: SarahP4 | January 22, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

K Michelle is a wonderful artist and should not be compared. I know that is what alot of people do they try to put you in your box.With K michelle that is a big mistake.She absolutely blew me away with her vocals when I heard her sing for the first time. In 2009 she had me and everyone else in the entire building on our feet the entire time she was on the stage. I had already made the mistake of writing her off as just another typical, non singing opening act big mistake.Every since that night I have been trying to get the word out about her. Please do not make the mistake that I did that night of throwing her in a box with the others and miss out on her amazing music. She is so underrated and slepped on and that is why I have made it a point to make sure she gets her due exposure in music. I have never met her,not part of a pr team, not a manager none of that. Just a fan of great music and people who have a real shot of longevity in music. K Michelle is the future be sure to put her in your music collection and remember her name. She is what rnb is so desprately missing. Quality voice, music and a real talent,asset to the music industry.

Posted by: SarahP4 | January 22, 2011 2:45 PM | Report abuse

K Michelle is a wonderful artist and should not be compared. I know that is what alot of people do they try to put you in your box.With K michelle that is a big mistake.She absolutely blew me away with her vocals when I heard her sing for the first time. In 2009 she had me and everyone else in the entire building on our feet the entire time she was on the stage. I had already made the mistake of writing her off as just another typical, non singing opening act big mistake.Every since that night I have been trying to get the word out about her. Please do not make the mistake that I did that night of throwing her in a box with the others and miss out on her amazing music. She is so underrated and slepped on and that is why I have made it a point to make sure she gets her due exposure in music. I have never met her,not part of a pr team, not a manager none of that. Just a fan of great music and people who have a real shot of longevity in music. K Michelle is the future be sure to put her in your music collection and remember her name. She is what rnb is so desprately missing. Quality voice, music and a real talent,asset to the music industry.

Posted by: SarahP4 | January 22, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

OOps sorry dont know what happened but I didn't mean to post my comment 3 times. The post right above this at 2:46 is my complete post.Can the other 2 be erased??? Please moderator.. Thanks

Posted by: SarahP4 | January 22, 2011 2:52 PM | Report abuse

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