Top 10 British Breakout Acts of 2010

Starting today and rolling on until Christmas, Anglophenia will be taking a look back at 2010 and all of its marvelous mishegoss. A lot has happened in the past year in UK pop culture: Gordon Brown exited stage left, and David Cameron took up residence at 10 Downing Street; David Tennant bid Doctor Who fans adieu, and Matt Smith took up residence in the TARDIS; and we lost Alexander McQueen and Lynn Redgrave far too soon. Robbie Williams finally rejoined Take That, and Cheryl Cole finally got her ass a divorce (yeah, girl!) before catching malaria (oh, hell no).

But this week, our focus is purely on music. Today, we list the new British acts who’ve made the greatest impact on U.S. shores this year. Some of them made a splash in ’09 and took things up a notch in 2010. Others are just now finding their footing, but we think they’re destined for greatness. (Or, if not greatness, boatloads of fine American cash.) Here’s our list:


10. Rumer

Who is she? She’s a Pakistan-born, 31-year-old singer/songrwriter who has spent the better part of the last decade trying to land a record deal. Now she has one and she looks set for massive global success.

Her music: Her drowsy, sobbing contralto spookily conjures up the late Karen Carpenter without the sense of tragedy. Her sound is pure Sunday afternoon Bacharach, all lazy horns and languid atmosphere. Think The Carpenters‘ “Close To You” meets Dusty Springfield‘s “The Look of Love.”

Her breakthrough: Bacharach reportedly flew Rumer out to California to hear
her perform. “I was so happy. You can’t get higher validation than that,” she
told
href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/aug/29/rumer-burt-bacharach-slow”
target=”_blank”>The Guardian.
“It doesn’t matter if the record company
thinks you’re good or if your family thinks your good or if your friends think
you’re good. If Burt Bacharach says you’re good, it’s time to start believing in
yourself.” Everyone from Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and Sir Elton John to
British politician John Prescott has joined her fan-wagon. You just know that U.S. adult contemporary stations are salivating.

Sample song: “Slow”



9. Pariah

Who is he? He’s Arthur Cayzer, a 21-year-old Scottish-born, London-based college
student. When he wasn’t too busy with his English Lit coursework, he’s found
time to become one of the most popular producers in the UK’s dubstep (a.k.a. “bass music”) scene.

His music: With his chopped-up R&B samples layered over 2-step beats, he owes a
lot to the critically beloved British dubstep icon Burial. But Pariah’s music is surprisingly clubworthy and accessible.

His breakthrough: He’s been steadily growing a profile since the 2009 release of
his single, “Detroit Falls.” However, his 2010 follow-up EP, Safehouses, has reaped
Pitchfork’s approval
and taken him to the next level. BBC‘s Ben Arnold praised the EP as “very encouraging,” and Muso’s Guide called it “an impressive amalgamation of influences, past and very present, and makes you wonder where Pariah will go next.”

Sample song: “Crossed Out”



8. Ellie Goulding

Who is she? A 23-year-old English former drama school student with golden hair and a scratchy, elfin voice.

Her music: She’s been billed as “folktronica” — combining singer/songwriter intimacy with electronic textures — drawing comparisons to everyone from Björk to Stevie Nicks.

Her breakthrough: Interest in Ellie Goulding has been swirling since 2008,
building up to a hurricane of hype into 2010. She topped the BBC’s Sound of 2010 list and
won the Critics’ Choice Award at the BRITs. Her sales, however, were merely
respectable — her subtly erotic single “Starry Eyed” made the UK top 5 —
and the overall critical reception of her album Lights turned out decidedly reserved. “Lady Gaga is blasting more fresh and interesting ideas out of her left bosom than Goulding exhibits on this entire album,” NME roared earlier this year. But The Daily Telegraph‘s Neil McCormick said, “On the evidence of her debut album, it turns out the hype may be justified for the 22-year-old winner of the Brits Critics’ Choice Award.”

And maybe all that early PR is finally paying off. Ellie’s hushed rendition of Elton
John
‘s 1971 standard “Your Song”
was the talk of Twitter in recent weeks and
hit No. 2 on the UK charts this weekend.

Sample song: “Guns and Horses”



7. Tinie Tempah

Who is he? He’s a 22-year-old London-born rapper who rose from the underground grime scene to challenge Dizzee Rascal for the title of Britain’s most successful homegrown hip-hop star.

His music: Electronically adventurous rap tunes with jittery beats and Tinie’s witty, revealing lyrics.

His breakthrough: How can one argue with a debut album — 2010′s
Disc-Overy — with two No. 1 UK singles (“Pass Out,” “Written in the Stars”) and two others that made the Top 5 (“Frisky,” “Miami 2 Ibiza”)? His album just dropped Stateside this past month, and all the leading indicators of success are good. Jay-Z has embraced him. Could he become the first UK MC since Slick Rick to entice the U.S. mainstream?

Sample song: “Pass Out”



6. James Blake

Who is he? Like the American tennis player who shares his name, the 22-year old is both tall in stature (he’s 6’5″) and talent (he’s a classically trained pianist). He is electronic music’s producer du jour.

His music: He’s a new-millennium Moby, using both soul samples and his own vocals to populate his productions. His deconstructed R&B manages to be nearly as soulful as its source material.

His breakthrough: In very short order, Blake has released four EPs that have transcended the electronic music scene, and his upcoming album is possibly the most eagerly awaited UK debut of 2011.

In an interview with XLR8R, Blake explains his use of Aaliyah, Kelis, and Brandy samples on his CYMK EP: “[T]hey’re not just any songs — they’re still songs I loved when they came out, probably quite embarrassingly, I would have been afraid to admit it at the time, but nowadays those vocals really sit in your subconscious. And I think using them taps into a massive subconscious in our generation. But people don’t just want to hear them straight; they want to hear echoes of them in their dance music.”

Sample song: “Limit To Your Love”


5. Hurts

Who are they? The duo consists of vocalist Theo Hutchcraft and instrumentalist Adam Anderson. Often performing in meticulous suits, they’ve been praised for their fetching and refined sense of style.

Their music: Everything you liked (or hated) about ’80s synthpop – PSB, Human League,
Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet
– in a Cuisinart.

Their breakthrough: They bubbled up in 2009, but their lush singles and videos conquered the blogosphere and divided critics this year. The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis slammed the band in a snarky two-star review, comparing them to Johnny Hates Jazz of “Shattered Dreams” fame and dismissing most of their songs “all climax and no build-up.”

However, music site Popjustice has been banging the drum on Hurts for almost two years, and NME declared, “Music needs a band like Hurts right now. When the pfft-core indie heroes of the day are all writing songs about getting baked and sprawling on the sofa, here’s a band not afraid to display titanic ambition.”

Sample song: “Wonderful Life”



4. The xx

Who are they: A fabulous indie trio from London.

Their music: The xx’s sound is low-key and spare, yet alluring. It’s the sonic equivalent of a late-night hookup, all moaning bass and sinuous guitar with whispery male-female vocals.

Their breakthrough: They aren’t personality-plus, these xx folks. Their self-titled 2009 album takes a while to grow on a listener, but once it
takes hold, it’s irresistible. And the xx finally sank into the U.S.
consciousness in 2010, with their moody minimalism featured in everything from
Winter Olympics ads to episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. When they won this
year’s Mercury Prize in the UK, it almost seemed like an afterthought in light
of what they’d already achieved.

Sample song: “Intro”



3. Mumford and Sons

Who are they: Led by singer/multi-instrumentalist Marcus Mumford, this London quartet emerged from the city’s active folk scene, which also produced Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling. (Marling and Mumford are currently indie music’s “It Couple.”)

Their music: An arena-ready acoustic sound with nods to Americana and bluegrass. And those harmonies. They’re almost biblical.

Their breakthrough: Talk about a stratospheric rise: how many folk bands can boast that their debut
single made the Billboard Hot 100? Supported by a gorgeous, MTV VMA-nominated video, Mumford and Sons’ “Little Lion Man” did just that. In spite of
href=”http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/13906-sigh-no-more/”
target=”_blank”>a scathing early review
of their album Sigh No More
from Pitchfork, they’ve pulled in a sizable U.S. following with
their recent sold-out tour of North America.

Sample song: “The Cave”



2. Taio Cruz

Who is he? The 28-year-old Cruz had penned successful tracks for artists like Will Young before launching his solo career.

His music: Modern hip-hop R&B with a Euro-dance sheen.

His breakthrough: British R&B acts have floundered Stateside since the late ’80s/early ’90s heyday
of Soul II Soul and Lisa Stansfield. But in the past few years, a British
soul renaissance has been stirring, led by Estelle (“American Boy”),
Jay Sean (“Down”), and now, most successfully, Taio Cruz. But just don’t call Cruz’s music “urban.”

“I don’t think of it as urban music at all,” he told The Daily Telegraph earlier this year. “I just think it’s good, catchy pop. What’s really happened is the musical trends are changing, and U.S. artists are starting to make Euro-sounding records, which has the effect of making European electro-influenced music sound more urban.”

In 2010, he topped the Billboard Hot 100 with the electro-soul “Break Your Heart,” and quickly escaped one-hit wonderdom with the unavoidable summer club banger “Dynamite.”

Sample song: “Higher” (remix featuring Travie McCoy)



1. Florence + the Machine

Who is she? Red-haired 24-year-old from London with vision and style beyond her years.

Her music: Epic sonic castles filled with tickled harps, thunderous percussion,
and Florence’s airy yet forceful voice, which recalls everyone from Kate Bush to Sarah
McLachlan
.

Her breakthrough: The 2009 critics’ darling was already a household name in the
UK before setting her sights on these shores with her sumptuous debut album
Lungs. Early on, radio wasn’t biting. “Certain songs on the album could
work on rock stations, others on alternative and in America the radio is very
specific,” she told
href=”http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/popwrap/new_florence_the_machine_music_sQujIg2y7YzYVadkX5BZzH”
target=”_blank”>The New York Post
. “And because I don’t fit in any genre, it’s
hard to get airplay.” Florence lifted her profile here in that uncouth, 21st
century way – through licensing her music for use in commercials promoting stuff
like the Julia Roberts flick Eat, Pray, Love.

When the
stunning video for “Dog Days Are Over”
was nominated for four MTV VMAs, producers
for the ceremony recruited the unknown
singer to perform among their A-list lineup including Eminem, Usher, and Taylor Swift. She sang live in a wildly
theatrical setpiece featuring contemporary ballet dancers and a gospel choir.

Soon,
she was playing everywhere from Dancing with the Stars to Saturday
Night Live
, her music is set to be featured on this week’s Glee, and she’s poised to dominate this week’s Grammy nominations. A British artist hasn’t infiltrated our culture with such tenacity since Amy Winehouse. Let’s hope Florence faces fewer speed bumps…

Sample song: “Cosmic Love”

Which British breakout act was your favorite in 2010?

by Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks

Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.

See more posts by Kevin Wicks