The artists who muscled their way to the front of USA TODAY's On the Verge pack didn't just edge out the competition - they mowed it over. Our weekly interviews with promising up-and-comers included Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who beat the biggest names in the music with seven Grammy nominations (including three of the top four categories), as well as Kacey Musgraves, who was nominated for a half-dozen CMA Awards (tying the indomitable Taylor Swift). The success of these six serves as ample warning to those at the top: Don't get too comfortable.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Arguably the biggest success story of the year, the Seattle duo turned the genre on its ear with Thrift Shop, a sendup of songs that boast about expensive cars, wild women and overpriced clothes. The follow-up single, Can't Hold Us, proved to be one of the year's catchiest dance songs, yet it was Same Love, the ballad that has become an anthem for gay rights, that solidified their status as hip-hop game changers. "Thrift Shop pokes fun at society, and there's some humor in it, but it's very much my life and personality," Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, told USA TODAY. "Same Love starts from a story of me describing what it was like growing up as a kid who thought he might be gay, leading into addressing homophobia in the church and the hip-hop community. It all comes from personal experience, and I try to do that in a way that has no filter."
The Texas native told USA TODAY that one of the best compliments she's ever received was from a fan who said, "I don't like country music, but I love you." And that's her mark in a nutshell. You'll find no tear-in-my-beer tunes on her first album, Same Trailer Different Park, which made its debut at No. 2 on Billboard's album chart. Musgraves' skepticism sends a pretty clear signal: Life is tough, but get over it. With a CMA new-artist win and a Grammy new-artist nomination to her credit, she's ready to sand down country music's shimmering pop overtones and get a little dirty.
The Los Angeles-based dance-pop duo is proof that you can find more than great deals on Oriental rugs and armoires on Craigslist. After Sebu Simonian posted an ad seeking work as a music producer in 2008, Ryan Merchant responded and they've been making music magic ever since. "We just had this creative chemistry and kept working together on commercials for two or three years," Simonian told USA TODAY. Safe and Sound, which peaked at No. 3 on USA TODAY's alternative airplay chart and No. 5 on hot adult contemporary, has pulled in 50 million page views and counting on YouTube and snagged a Grammy nomination for best music video. "Safe and Sound is an ode to humanity and all living things. We want people to recognize that life can be good, things are getting better," he says.
"We feel empowered and invincible together, and that shines in our music," singer Caroline Hjelt told USA TODAY. That devil-may-care defiance has turned the Swedish electro-house duo into the icon of besties everywhere and the pied pipers of all-night partying. I Love It featuring Charli XCX, off the album This Is ... Icona Pop, has hit the 2.6 million sales mark, and the two are locked into opening slots for both Miley Cyrus' Bangerz and Katy Perry's Prismatic tours. This well-oiled pop machine has no intention of taking a proverbial nap, figuring they might as well take advantage of youthful energy. "We're having too much fun to take it easy," Aino Jawo says. "So we choose this life. Non-stop. That's what we want."
Haim who? That question didn't last very long as the quartet - three sisters and a mister - became the hottest band to come out of this year's South by Southwest music festival, winning the inaugural Grulke Prize for a developing U.S. act. Add opening gigs on tours of big-name acts such as Mumford & Sons and Florence + the Machine and it's no surprise that Los Angeles-based act's first full-length album, Days Are Gone, made its debut at No. 6 on Billboard's album chart. The group's crisp blend of soft rock, R&B and pop has earned comparisons to Fleetwood Mac. "Basically, we describe it as mixing organic and non-organic sounds and not knowing exactly what is real and what is not," Danielle Haim told USA TODAY. "That is kind of our mission: Is that a real drum set or is that fake?"
Although Scottish-born singer Emeli Sande has been playing piano since she was 9 and wrote her first song when she was 11, she had a more practical career path planned. She studied neuroscience with the intention of becoming a doctor, using songwriting as financial support. Good thing she didn't stay the course. In her native U.K., her debut album, Our Version of Events, is the top-selling album two years in a row and broke The Beatles' 50-year record of consecutive weeks in the U.K. top 10 for a first album. In the USA, the album has sold 238,000 copies and she's written for Rihanna and Alicia Keys. On Jan. 22, she'll add another honor to her collection: She'll be feted as the honoree of Essence magazine's 2014 Black Women in Music celebration.
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