Look at the nominees for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards (so far), and you’ll see a whole bunch of familiar names in the major categories. Grammy darlings like Taylor Swift, U2, Eminem and John Legend have all scored nods, while newcomers like Sam Smith, Meghan Trainor, Iggy Azalea and Sia have become familiar to the general public before scoring their Grammy breakouts on Friday (Dec. 5). But what about the names that the non-diehards might not recognize — the songs, albums and artists nominated this year that make you furrow your brow and partake in some furious Googling? This roundup honors — and explains — that select number of Grammy noms.
Become familiar with these lesser-known Grammy nominees, from a rising country star to a quirky French folk-pop polymath, before they threaten to grab the gold in February:
Nominated For: Best Rap Performance (“All I Need Is You”)
Lecrae has long been known as a Christian rapper, with his album Gravity winning best gospel album at the Grammys last year, but in 2014, the veteran MC’s grassroots appeal officially spilled over into the mainstream. In September, his new album Anomaly became the first full-length to top the Billboard 200 chart and Gospel Albums chart in the same week, and the Texas native’s inspirational hip-hop has earned him endorsements from Busta Rhymes and Kirk Franklin, and an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Now, he’ll compete against heavy hitters like Drake, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar in the best rap performance category.
Nominated For: Best New Artist, Best Country Album (12 Stories)
In nine out of the past 10 years, a country artist has been nominated for a best new artist Grammy, and Brandy Clark continues that tradition by joining Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith, Haim and Bastille this year. After co-writing “Mama’s Broken Heart” for Miranda Lambert with Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves (who was nominated for best new artist last year), Clark’s debut album flaunted her taste for dark comedy and lingering country-pop hooks when it was released in October 2013. 12 Stories has not been a commercial success yet (37,000 copies sold to date, according to Nielsen Music), although a tour with Sugarland‘s Jennifer Nettles helped expose Clark to the country community earlier this year.
Nominated For: Best Alternative Music Album (This Is All Yours)
British art-rock trio alt-J won the British Mercury Prize with their 2012 debut An Awesome Wave, and won over U.S. audiences on a tireless tour over the past two years. This Is All Yours, the group’s sophomore album, featured more inscrutable indie-rock compositions (and a Miley Cyrus sample on the track “Hunger of the Pine”), and notched a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart upon its September release.
Nominated For: Urban Contemporary Album (Mali Is…)
For the uninitiated, Mali Music is not a group, but a deeply talented singer-songwriter named Kortney Jamaal Pollard who combines a gospel sensibility with traditional R&B production. Mali Is…, his debut release on RCA Records, includes the lovely soul single “Beautiful,” which has garnered 1.8 million YouTube views since March.
Nominated For: Urban Contemporary Album (Sail Out)
Before releasing her debut album, Souled Out, in September, Los Angeles R&B starlet Jhené Aiko was featured on Drake’s track “From Time” and Big Sean‘s “Beware,” and joined Drake on tour as well as on his Saturday Night Live performance. Curiously, Souled Out is not nominated for best urban contemporary album; Aiko’s debut EP, Sail Out, scored the nod after introducing the singer’s neo-soul stylings and poetic lyrics in November 2013.
Nominated For: Best Music Video (“The Golden Age”)
Up against Sia’s “Chandelier,” Pharrell‘s “Happy,” DJ Snake & Lil Jon‘s “Turn Down For What” and Arcade Fire‘s “We Exist” videos this year is a deeply strange, black-and-white, nearly 11-minute clip from experimental French musician Woodkid, whose “The Golden Age” video plays out like a bite-sized version of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (Americana + existentialism + an unsettling opening 80 seconds). Fans may recall that Woodkid remixed Pharrell’s “Happy” — making it “Sad” — earlier this year.
Nominated For: Best Dance Recording (“Faded”)
If you’re not sure who ZHU is, you’re not alone: the electronic musician has earned fame while staying completely anonymous, leading to endless speculation as he dropped immaculate dance grooves. “Moves Like Ms. Jackson,” a mash-up of three Outkast songs, earned ZHU some blog love earlier this year, but the hit single “Faded” — a sleek groove built around wobbly vocals and slightly sinister synthesizers — became a proper breakout and has earned more than 20 million YouTube views since March. ZHU has become a little less faceless in recent months — he performed for the first time at HARD Day of the Dead in November — but don’t be surprised if his Grammy acceptance speech is on the terse side.