Considering last year was a curveball that no one expected, 2021 seems destined to deliver double the music we hoped for in 2020. That is, if pop stars who are happy to do it themselves have anything to do with it. Yes, pop has traditionally been the genre of sold-out stadium shows and producer-packed studio sessions, but with the rise of laptop production, TikTok fanbases, and an eager young audience stuck at home and looking for distraction, bedroom pop is back in a big way. And just because it was made at home doesn’t mean some of these stars aren’t headed for massive stages, either.
As we all navigate the transition between pandemic life and post-quarantine bliss, there’s going to be a sweet spot for artists who aren’t quite supernovas but were never meant for the world of indie after all. Expect the barriers that Billie Eilish broke down to change a lot about what we expect from female stars, whether that’s how they sing or how they look, act, and dress, and there’s lots of other changes on the horizon, too. Like self-correction for diversity and inclusion of all genders and races, and a creeping hint of rock and other forgotten sounds making their way back into the mainstream. So whether they’re collaborating with established icons, blowing up on social media, or changing the way we think about a trip to the DMV, here are our picks for rising pop stars to watch this year.
Olivia Rodrigo barely needs an introduction anymore. In just a few short weeks, Olivia Rodrigo went from a well-known Disney+ actress in High School Musical: The Series: The Musical to one of the most exciting voices pop music has heard in years. With her debut single “Drivers License,” Olivia broke Spotify records, earned co-signs from other massive stars like Taylor Swift, Halsey, and Cardi B, and ignited the kind of music industry gossip that only fuels the fire when it comes to new stars. With her first EP slated for sometime in the next few months and a dedicated following on TikTok that’s growing by the minute, Olivia isn’t just a rising pop star to watch, she’s the one to watch.
This Vancouver songwriter who is breaking out in a big way thanks to streaming, and thanks to the TikTok-first snippet of a frustrated declaration “I’m Not Pretty,” that rejected the impossible beauty standards women are expected to conform to. When Jessia turned those viral snippets into a full-length track, it became the kind of hit that turned heads at Spotify. Spotify Canada senior editor Gregg Henderson told Hits Daily Double that his team had a close eye on the unsigned artist. “We were instantly blown away by ‘I’m Not Pretty,'” he said. “We added it to various Canadian pop playlists upon the song’s release on 1/8 and quickly saw that it was reacting with fans and had big potential. We worked closely with our Global Hits team, who then added the song to our biggest playlist, Today’s Top Hits, as well as putting Jessia on the cover of Pop Rising. We always strive to spotlight local emerging artists on a global level and are excited for fans around the world to discover Jessia through Spotify’s worldwide reach.”
What if Suicide Squad was a pop star? Then it would be Ashnikko, a twenty-something musician raised in North Carolina on a steady diet of country music, Slipknot, and M.I.A who moved to Estonia with her family during high school. Speaking of Suicide Squad, one of Ashnikko’s first big industry looks was when a song she co-wrote for Doja Cat, “Boss Bitch,” was included on the all-female Birds Of Prey soundtrack in early 2020. Before that, she was going viral on her own in with the Yung Baby Tate-featuring standout single “Stupid” in 2019, while opening for Danny Brown and appearing on Brooke Candy’s debut album, Sexorcism. More recently, she collaborated with Grimes on the bubblegum electroclash track “Cry,” which appears on her early January 2021 released Demidevil. That project also includes Kelis and Princess Nokia, if you needed any more convincing. With her colorful, Tokyo-influenced hair, raunchy rap lyrics, and lots of bubblegum giggling, Ashnikko is poised to be pop’s next anti-heroine. Deal with it.
Country’s latest crossover star is a Colorado songwriting sensation who took Nashville by storm — and didn’t stop there. Her breakout hit “More Hearts Than Mine” went to No. 3 on the Country Airplay charts and also hit No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100, establishing it as the kind brilliant story-song that supersedes genre. Andress’ Atlantic records debut, Lady Like, went on to break streaming records as the biggest debut by a female country artist, doubling down on her potential as the next country artist to break into the mainstream, walking in the footsteps of other pop-leaning artists like Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift. And when your name is getting mentioned in that company, who cares about genre anyway?
One of the after-effects of Olivia Rodrigo’s sensational songwriting is that the person the song is rumored to be about — her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-star, Joshua Bassett — has been drawn into the spotlight as well. Not like he wanted to be anywhere else! Bassett is now rumored to be dating another Disney+ star, Sabrina Carpenter, but the gist of his own 2021 single is that somebody isn’t telling the truth about him. “Lie Lie Lie” might not totally make sense as a response to “Drivers License” (and let’s hope for his sake that it’s not because none of us can look into Olivia’s misty eyes and believe she’s lying), but it’s got a killer hook and the kind of bouncy, golden melody that is working for male pop stars these days. If he can give us a couple more tracks as good as this new one, Josh is well on his way to a solo career of his own.
Jensen McRae has been on the radar of LA tastemakers for quite some time now, even is she’s not big enough to have her own Wikipedia page yet. But if she did, the first entry would probably be this uber viral “cover” she made of a Phoebe Bridgers song summing up a very 2021 experience of hooking up in a car, in line to get a COVID-19 vaccine at Dodger Stadium. Please don’t stop at the hilarious social media content though, McRae’s own original music is just as stellar, particularly the standout “Wolves,” which has over a million streams on Spotify since release last spring. The song is about the psychic violence women face at the hands of men, a chilling reflection set against a beautiful melody, with devastating lines like “I was 19, still fun at parties.” McRae’s songwriting doesn’t just evoke Phoebe, but elements of other greats — the pathos of Mitski, the deadpan blues of Soccer Mommy — to let us into her universe. If I had a label in 2021, this is who I would sign. She’s said on Twitter that an album is coming this year, so keep an eye out for more music.
At 19, Sasha Sloan moved to Los Angeles to be a songwriter. A few short years later, she was on national television performing “Older” on The Late Show With Steven Colbert. Working with DJs like Kaskade and Kygo as a featured vocalist, Sloan co-wrote tracks for Camila Cabello (“OMG” and “Never Be The Same”) and worked with Charli XCX (“Track 10” off Pop 2), before releasing her own debut EPs Sad Girl and Loser in 2018, and disrupted the self-deprecating theme in 2019 with a third EP called Self Portrait. With one foot in the EDM world and another in the realm of soft songwriting, on her debut full-length, last year’s Only Child, she finally began to meld the two, bringing whispers of a drop and other energy-shifting elements to sparse, acoustic tracks. Recently, she’s collaborated with Charlie Puth on a remix of Only Child‘s cheeky standout “Is It Just Me?” and the vocal chemistry between these two might finally land Sloan a hit of her own. In the meantime, if you’re looking for 2020 gems that got overlooked, her debut is definitely one — and it’s more than likely the follow-up will be even better.
When I interviewed Alaina Castillo last March, she was already becoming a global superstar off the strength of her moody, mesmerizing songs, influenced by hymns and Latin music. Hearing Alaina’s voice and her penchant for mixing R&B with both trap and vocal runs, it’s impossible not to see her as the natural heir to Ariana Grande’s throne, and she’s just continued building her in the last year, releasing her mostly acoustic EP The Voicenotes in English and Spanish, Mensajes De Voz, and slowly tackling more adult themes in more recent singles. Plenty of emerging artists decided to put most of their plans on hold last year, and odds are Alaina will have a lot of new music dropping in 2021.
Nobody does haunting like the British, and Holly Humberstone nails bluesy, end-of-the-road ballads like Adele before her, with a touch of Lorde’s itchy midnight percussion thrown in for good measure. Though Humberstone came up performing during intermissions at Lewis Capaldi shows, she’s heads and shoulders above him in both material and delivery, and her debut EP, last summer’s Falling Asleep At The Wheel, hit like a ton of glass bricks. The songs are both blocky and iridescent, lightweight but strong enough to build a career upon. “Overkill” has enough indie rock in it to perk up fans who have been missing guitars in the pop world, but my enthusiasm for the title track, “Falling Asleep At The Wheel,” hasn’t diminished at all since I heard it last August. Add in a Radiohead cover, and a self-deprecating Instagram presence, and Holly’s future success is all but clinched. While I hope we get more new music from her soon, I have a feeling this is the kind of artist who will make us all remember why live shows are so essential to this business.
Last summer, Remi Wolf’s “Monte Carlo” became an inescapable earworm — a song about driving around and flexing for no reason was the perfect soundtrack for a time when most people had little to do but drive around. Game recognize game, and fellow high-pitched, glitterati-pop connoisseur Tune-Yards hopped on a remix to show her appreciation for the song’s brilliance. With a history as a former American Idol contestant, a remix of her track “Hello Hello Hello” appearing in an iPhone commercial, and with her latest EP, I’m Allergic To Dogs! released through Island Records, it’s only a matter of time until Remi is a household name. And I’m looking forward to plenty more I Love Lucy references in her subsequent hits.
Claud (Formerly Toast)
Endorsed by Phoebe Bridgers and friends with Clairo, what more does a rising indie songwriter need? How about dreamy hooks, conversational verses, and a vulnerability that so many artists try to reach but never really achieve? Fans of King Princess will love these sad subjects done up in sparkling pop melodies, and the chance to hear from a queer artist grappling with issues of identity, isolation, rejection, and, eventually, self-sufficiency. Their debut album Super Monster is the first release on Bridgers’ new label imprint, Saddest Factory Records, and is already shaping up to be one of 2021’s early gems. Look for it dropping in mid-February, right before Valentine’s Day, and get used to hearing about Claud Mintz — their unassuming songwriting just grows and grows with every listen.
It’s going to be impossible to talk about incoming pop stars for a few years without mentioning Billie Eilish, and Tate McRae is the entry on this list that is the most directly connected to Billie and her crew. The 17-year-old Canadian star has been in the entertainment industry for years now, dancing on Justin Bieber’s Purpose tour, appearing on So You Think You Can Dance (and placing third!) at the tender age of 12, all while populating her own Youtube channel with dance videos and songs since 2011. One of those songs, “One Day,” broke out in a big way in 2017, and eventually led to RCA Records signing her in 2019. She released the All the Things I Never Said EP in late 2019, featuring lead single “Tear Myself Apart,” co-written with Billie and Finneas. But things are moving so fast for Tate now that her 2020 material — even the TikTok hit “You Broke Me First” — is already being eclipsed by her latest material, namely “Rubberband,” which only came out five days ago and already hit well over a million views. Since Tate came up as a dancer first, expect that to tie into her songwriting and music videos in a way that sets her apart from most modern pop stars.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.