Grammys 2016 Preview: What You Need to Know About Best New Artist Nominees From Courtney Barnett to James Bay
Five rising solo performers -- three of whom play guitar -- including an Aussie indie-rocker, a doo-wop-pop singer and a country jock
One of the few independent singer-songwriters ever to be nominated in this category, Barnett -- a dry-witted DIY rocker -- closes a breakout year with her first Grammy nod. Following a string of EPs, the Sydney native released her brazen full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, in March -- on Mom & Pop and her own Milk Records, which she runs with her girlfriend, musician Jen Cloher. Arriving on the heels of buzz-building performances at the CMJ and South by Southwest festivals, the LP crowned the Top Rock Albums and Independent Albums charts and set off a nonstop tour that yielded slots at Pitchfork, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. The deadpan 28-year-old also appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where she performed the critically lauded single "Pedestrian at Best" (which hit No. 8 on the Billboard + Twitter Emerging Artists chart) and won four trophies at Australia's Independent Music Awards, including best album.
The British singer-songwriter may not be as recognizable in the States as he is at home in England, but with three Grammy nominations, that very well may change. The falsetto crooner, who was also nominated for best rock song ("Hold Back the River") and best rock album (Chaos and the Calm), has been steadily gaining momentum since signing to Republic Records in 2012, after an A&R rep saw YouTube footage of him performing at an open mic. The next year, the 25-year-old released debut EP The Dark of the Morning, followed by an additional trio of EPs that built up to Chaos, a 12-track LP that arrived in March 2015. Though the full-length peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard 200, the album bowed at No. 1 on the Official U.K. Albums Chart. Bay recently won the Critics' Choice honor at the Brit Awards and landed a pair of top 10 hits ("River" peaked at No. 2).
An anomaly in country music, Hunt has spent the past few years bucking the genre's expectations. The former college quarterback -- more likely to opt for a baseball cap than a cowboy hat -- tipped the scales with his debut full-length, Montevallo (also nominated for best country album), an LP that codes as country with strong shades of hip-hop, EDM and pop. The Cedartown, Ga., native first made a dent as a songwriter by penning hits for Kenny Chesney ("Come Over") and Billy Currington ("We Are Tonight"), but Montevallo made the 31-year-old a star. Released in October 2014, it entered the Top Country Albums chart at No. 1, reigning for nine non-consecutive weeks. Seven out of 10 of the set's tracks cracked the upper regions of the Hot Country Songs chart; three went to No. 1. "Leave the Night On" reached that summit in tandem with Montevallo crowning Top Country Albums, making Hunt the first artist in more than 22 years to lead both charts simultaneously with a freshman single and album.
Years after making her mark on YouTube by posting cover-song videoclips that racked up millions of plays, Kelly swoops into the best new artist category following the June release of her studio debut, Unbreakable Smile. The singer, whose powerful pipes made her a standout performer at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards and MTV Video Music Awards, may be a youthful 22 years old, but she has been active since signing to Geffen Records at the age of 12. She had a rocky start: The deal fell through, and an American Idol audition left Simon Cowell cold. Undeterred, the California native self-released her 2012 EP, Homemade Songs, which led to her signing with uber-manager Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber). Kelly's Capitol Records debut, Unbreakable Smile, entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2 and spawned the Billboard Hot 100 hit "Nobody Love."
The 21-year-old singer might seem like a peculiar inclusion in the best new artist category. After all, the former Nashville songwriter scored two nominations for the 2015 Grammy Awards when her Billboard Hot 100 topper "All About That Bass" was honored in the record and song of the year categories. But her first full-length album, Title, came out in January, which not only made her eligible for this year's best new artist nod but unseated Taylor Swift's 1989 from the top of the Billboard 200 and logged the strongest debut by a female pop artist since Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream in 2009. (Title also became the first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for Epic Records in nearly five years.) Additionally, Trainor stacked a pair of solo hits this year -- "Dear Future Husband" and "Like I'm Gonna Lose You," featuring John Legend, peaked at Nos. 14 and 8, respectively, on the Hot 100 -- and reached No. 21 on the same chart as a guest vocalist on Charlie Puth's "Marvin Gaye."
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 2 issue of Billboard.