This post has been updated. See below for details.
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is a mere two weeks away, so those looking to impress with underground knowledge better start cramming.
Few souls are more in demand than geeks armed with superfluous knowledge about the undercard, right? Hopefully, but regardless of whether you're out on the Empire Polo Club in Indio or tucked on your couch looking for diversion, the music booked for the annual festival sets a conversation for the year to come.
The big acts get all the ink, and that will likely be the case again this year, considering Outkast, Queens of the Stone Age, Nas, Muse, Arcade Fire and others are headliners. But the smaller-fonted minor leaguers feature future stars from across genres.
As a way to ease us into sounds of 2014 and predict 2015's breakouts, what follows are a dozen artists worthy of early introduction.
Those who know history know to pay close attention to Japan when it comes to mesmerizing rock. The country that brought us the Boredoms, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Amon Duul knows something about building mantras and getting lost in them. New evidence comes from Bo Ningen, a four-piece Japanese (by way of London) quartet as serious about their mission as they are about their matching haircuts (long black hair a la Black Sabbath-era Ozzy Osborne). Fast sludge rock that will likely pound Foster the People and their ilk into the turf, Bo Ningen will leave some bruises in its wake.
Los Angeles-based minimal R&B singer Banks earned a recent slot opening for the Weeknd, which makes total sense. Her new single, the simmering, candlelit "Brain," features the vocalist's smoky tone, crawling phrasing and sinister, Massive Attack-suggestive production from established beatmaker Shlohmo. She's also worked with hot producers Jamie Woon and Sohn. Recently signed to the revitalized imprint Harvest Recordings, Banks' debut comes out later this year.
One of the best make-out records of 2013 was by English singer and producer Dev Hynes, who over the last decade has built an impressive discography as Lightspeed Champion and with the group Test Icicles. Called "Cupid Deluxe," the album was released under Hynes' most recent pseudonym, Blood Orange, and it didn't hide its intentions. This was music built for between the sheets, but not gratuitously so. Rather, through 11 songs that exuded sensuality rather than bragging about it, Hynes offers lush songs of longing, heartbreak and desire that recall quality ballads and midtempo groovers from Prince, Lauryn Hill and Michael Jackson.
As one of the newest signings to No I.D.'s Artium imprint under Def Jam, Jhene Aiko's got a soulful, immediately recognizable voice. Breathier and more relaxed than many of today's overblown singers, Aiko's work is best heard on the 2013 EP "Sail Out." Featuring tracks with rappers Childish Gambino, Vince Staples, Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul, the release is a perfect introduction.
A young trio of New York rappers whose creepy, hissy underground tracks over the last few years have drawn raves from the city's hipper corners, the group releases its very above-ground debut through the taste-making XL Recordings imprint on April 6. It's not a sound that'll be landing on KIIS-FM anytime soon, but that's for the best. The act has been touring with kindred spirits Earl Sweatshirt (Odd Future) and Brit crooner King Krule, and put on a pretty ripping live show. Start at their recent singles "So Sick Stories" and "Canal."
Those looking for scream-along rock, minus posturing and over-production, probably already know about Ty Segall, the electrifying San Francisco/Los Angeles-based guitarist and bandleader. Taking up where the late, lamented garage-rock genius Jay Reatard left off, Segall's work over the last half-decade reveals a musician in touch with the raw history of underground, nonterrible guitar rock, and an adventurous spirit devoted to exploration.
Amid the thumping and distortion, the strobes and ecstatic musings typical of Coachella, British singer Tom Odell uses real piano tambourines, percussion and acoustic guitar to craft love songs that are mostly noncheesy. Yes, he's another Brit hellbent on shouting a la Ed Sheeran and Mumford & Sons with folk-filled enthusiasm, but Odell's cut from another swatch of tweed. His odd inclinations and curious psychedelic wanderings pepper his more emo moments with a touch of danger.
Young & Sick
Better known in the biz for his visual art, singer/producer Nick Van Hofwegen is apparently as versatile with audio software as with layout programs. Designer and illustrator of album covers by, among others, Foster the People, Maroon 5 and Robin Thicke, the artist known as Young & Sick has landed his artistic creations atop the charts a number of times. His music is just as precise and curious: a mix of spacial R&B, dubby electronic tones and weird synthetic squiggles, combined with his high-pitched wail.
A duo of two already established musicians, the inventive electronic producer Nicolas Jaar and his touring guitarist Dave Harrington, Darkside offers a synthetic nuance seldom seen on the Coachella pitch. Rather than stomping beats and grand bridges, the New York-based team offers on their debut album, "Psychic," something more dynamic. Absent repetition and the party-starter vibe to drive the Sahara Tent, the pair will be better suited for those less on the adrenalin tip than the hallucinogenic one.
You perhaps saw Future Islands' transformative performance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" of their new single, "Seasons (Waiting On You)." It stars singer Samuel T. Herring, who consumed the stage with his intense dance moves and odd vocal utterances. Taken from their new album "Singles," the song is a portal into this Baltimore band's curious career as would-be hitmakers. Featuring songs that are nearly as aspirational as U2's but without the messiah complex, the group's work through nearly a decade as a band has prepared them well for the breakout awaiting them this year.
Last week I swung by a Hollywood recording studio to check in with Guy Gerber as he was working tracks from a forthcoming project. The Tel Aviv-born musician was wearing a pink polo shirt, had a feather tucked behind his ear and looked more like a flower child than one of the world's most inventive house/techno producers.
That new project features rapper/businessman/actor Diddy, and it's going to mess with a lot of heads. The tracks I heard were sublime, featuring Gerber's trademark way with wobbled-beats and stuttering melodies -- and Diddy's voice tracked in mysterious ways. The new sounds seemed crafted for a festival, but that stands to reason. Gerber told me he and Diddy collaborated on a few tracks while together at Burning Man.
Updated, 4:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified Jhene Aiko as having signed to Top Dawg Entertainment.