what were the 2010s?

Who Was the Best New Artist of the 2010s? Vulture Investigates

Illustration: by Ari Liloan and Photos by Getty Images

The Grammy Award for Best New Artist recognized Adele, Mariah Carey, and the Beatles before they became stars, but it carries a level of infamy for gaffes like Christopher Cross’s subsequent disappearance after his 1981 win and the rescinding of Milli Vanilli’s after they faked their way to the award in 1990. Taffy Danoff of 1977 winner Starland Vocal Band called the award “the kiss of death” to VH1, promoting the idea that there’s a Best New Artist “curse” — that winning the award sets up expectations most artists will fail to meet and represents the peak of their career.

The past decade’s Best New Artist nominees mirror the category’s 58 winners pretty well, with heavy hitters like Drake and Ed Sheeran, critical darlings like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, currently defunct acts like Fun. and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and true musical C-listers like Brandy Clark and The Ting Tings. For some years, a nominee (or four) even eclipsed the success of the chosen winner.

So, how much foresight did this award actually have at the 2010s? Accounting for an artist’s total decade releases, Hot 100 and Billboard 200 hits, Metacritic album scores, placements on end-of-year and -decade lists (from Albumoftheyear.org), touring, and, of course, Grammy nominations and wins, 15 performers rose to the top.

15. Nicki Minaj (2012 nominee)

Releases: 4
Hits: 2 No. 1 albums, 0 No. 1 songs (“Anaconda” peaked at No. 2), 106 charted songs
Critical consensus: 68 average Metacritic score, no end-of-year or -decade appearances
Live: 1 American arena tour
Grammys: 0 wins out of 10 nominations

On one hand, Nicki Minaj deserves more — it’s a shock that she hasn’t topped the Hot 100, that Pink Friday got less than rave reviews, that she’s never won a Grammy. At the same time, she’s somewhat of a loose cannon of an artist, who can’t pull a major tour together, and collaborates with abusive musicians like Chris Brown and Tekashi 6ix9ine. But after coming in hot at the beginning of the 2010s as a centerpiece of one of its definitive albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, particularly with her star-making “Monster” verse, she quickly carved out her place as one of its icons.

14. Khalid (2018 nominee)

Releases: 2
Hits: 1 No. 1 album, 0 No. 1 hits (“1-800-273-8255” and “Talk” peaked at No. 3), 26 charted songs
Critical consensus: 59 average Metacritic and Allmusic score, 51st-place album of 2017
Live: 1 American arena tour
Grammys: 0 wins out of 6 nominations

Khalid tapped into something potent when he paired his anxious, teenage lyrics with R&B stylings complex enough to woo snobs and simple enough to crack the top 40. Like his year’s winner, Alessia Cara, he also scored a career-changing feature on Logic’s suicide prevention anthem “1-800-273-8255,” which directed guaranteed attention toward his own music. In fact, much of his best work has involved several of his fellow ’10s new artists: Lorde, SZA, Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes, and Normani, to name a few. Yet he held his own on 2019’s American Teen tour and replicated the success of “1-800” with solo single “Talk.”

13. Dua Lipa (2019 winner)

Releases: 1
Hits: 0 No. 1 albums (Dua Lipa peaked at No. 27), 0 No. 1 hits (“New Rules” peaked at No. 6), 8 charted songs
Critical consensus: 72 Metacritic score for Dua Lipa, no end-of-year or -decade appearances
Live: 41 North American stops on Self-Titled tour at midsize theaters
Grammys: 2 wins out of 2 nominations

The Grammys crowned Dua Lipa Best New Artist before nominations even came out, with announcements that two artists otherwise popular with the awards, Cardi B and Post Malone, wouldn’t be eligible in the category on technicalities. That’s not to say she wouldn’t have been a formidable challenge to the two, because she would’ve. Nonetheless, the husky-voiced hit-maker was among the quickest of her class to put out music after the awards, with “Don’t Start Now” cracking the top 40 and setting the stage for a follow-up album.

12. SZA (2018 nominee)

Releases: 1
Hits: 0 No. 1 albums (Ctrl peaked at No. 3), 0 No. 1 hits (“All the Stars” peaked at No. 7), 10 charted songs
Critical consensus: 86 Metacritic score for Ctrl, 3rd-place album of 2017, 18th-place album of the decade
Live: 45-stop Ctrl North American tour at midsize theaters, then a spot on Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment’s The Championship arena tour
Grammys: 0 wins out of 9 nominations (plus an Oscar nomination)

Few Best New Artist nominees in the 2010s made as big of a splash as SZA did with her confessional, hypermillennial auditory coming-of-age Ctrl, which topped critics’ lists and earned her Grammy nominations across the R&B and hip-hop categories. Leaving the night empty-handed was no issue for her — she just recorded a hit on one of the decade’s best movie soundtracks (Black Panther’s “All the Stars”) and returned with nominations in all the major categories, plus an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Even if SZA never released another album, she’d already have a permanent place in the culture.

11. Bon Iver (2012 winner)

Releases: 4 (including For Emma, Forever Ago before nomination)
Hits: 0 No. 1 albums (Bon Iver, Bon Iver and 22, A Million peaked at No. 2), 0 No. 1 songs (“Monster,” by Kanye West featuring Bon Iver peaked at No. 18), 2 charted songs
Critical consensus: 85.25 average Metacritic score, 2nd-place album of 2011, 31st-place album of the decade
Live: 1 American arena tour, 4 years of Eaux Claires festival
Grammys: 2 wins out of 8 nominations (3 pending)

The other artist on this list who started the ’10s as a prominent fixture on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy didn’t enjoy as much name recognition afterward — when Bon Iver won Best New Artist, viewers famously wondered who “Bonny Bear” was afterward. Justin Vernon already had one acclaimed album under his belt before the awards recognized him, but after he became the first indie musician to win Best New Artist, he delivered his own version of success on two more acclaimed albums, each expanding further than the last. He’s a welcome presence back in the general categories this year for i,i thanks to the expanded fields of nominees.

10. Mumford & Sons (2011 nominee)

Releases: 4
Hits: 3 No. 1 albums, 0 No. 1 songs (“I Will Wait” peaked at No. 12), 11 charted songs
Critical consensus: 61 average Metacritic score, 22nd-place album of 2010
Live: 3 American arena tours, headlined Bonnaroo in 2013 and ’15, Lollapalooza in 2013, Glastonbury in 2013
Grammy wins: 2 wins (including Album of the Year for Babel) out of 13 nominations

Mumford & Sons’ career has been a roller coaster, not unlike going from losing Best New Artist to winning Album of the Year in two years flat. Eight months after their debut record Sigh No More’s American release, they finally began to reap its successes as lead single “Little Lion Man” topped Billboard’s alternative songs chart. Fast-forward two years and the folk-rock quartet is selling out amphitheaters and headlining Bonnaroo; in two more they’d do it all again, but with electric guitars. Despite their music’s divisiveness, they’re undeniably one of the most successful touring rock bands to come out of the 2010s.

9. Sam Smith (2015 winner)

Releases: 2
Hits: 1 No. 1 album, 0 No. 1 songs (“Stay With Me” peaked at No. 2), 15 charted songs
Critical consensus: 67 average Metacritic score, 55th-place album of 2014
Live: 2 American arena tours
Grammys: 4 wins (including Record and Song of the Year for “Stay With Me”) out of 6 nominations (plus an Oscar)

Sam Smith’s first Grammy wins were a foretold prophecy given how much weight the awards had previously thrown behind big-voiced British singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele. Thanks to a not-so-strong follow-up, Smith didn’t quite reach the same heights as Adele did after her Best New Artist win, but the awards did build enough buzz around Smith to get them onto a new Bond song, like Adele, and then net them an Oscar. After coming out as gender nonbinary, they seem to be back in their groove on new music like the dark, sensuous Normani collaboration “Dancing With a Stranger.”

8. Kacey Musgraves (2014 nominee)

Releases: 3
Hits: 0 No. 1 albums (Same Trailer Different Park peaked at No. 2), 0 No. 1 songs (“Follow Your Arrow” peaked at No. 60), 3 charted songs
Critical consensus: 84.5 average Metacritic score, 3rd-place album of 2018, 24th-place album of the decade
Live: 0 American arena tours, 2 nights at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall in 2019
Grammys: 6 wins (including Album of the Year for Golden Hour) out of 9 nominations

Kacey Musgraves could feasibly be called alternative when she was nominated for Best New Artist off the success of Same Trailer Different Park — here was a Texas woman singing country songs about queer love and hating her hometown. By the time she came out with her masterpiece Golden Hour, she no longer represented a second path but the path forward, with most critics ranking that record as the second-best country album of the decade behind a former Nashville darling named Taylor Swift. They’re also the only two country artists to win Album of the Year in the ’10s: Swift for Fearless in 2010, Musgraves for Golden Hour in 2019. In the ’20s, country music has a new queen.

7. Ed Sheeran (2014 nominee)

Releases: 4
Hits: 3 No. 1 albums, 2 No. 1 songs, 37 charted songs
Critical consensus: 63.25 average Metacritic score, 72nd-place album of 2014
Live: 2 American arena tours, headlined Glastonbury in 2017
Grammys: 4 wins (including Song of the Year for “Thinking Out Loud”) out of 14 nominations (1 pending)

Pop music had an Ed Sheeran-size gap before the English boy-next-door type came in with just a guitar and looping pedal, ready to captivate stadiums. When those stadiums are full of hungry Taylor Swift fans and you can satiate them for half an hour, your career is pretty much set (see also: Shawn Mendes). A proved songwriter as much as a performer, evidenced by his Song of the Year Grammy for “Thinking Out Loud,” Sheeran adapted to pop as much as he molded it in his image this decade. Later nominees like Khalid and Sam Smith have him to thank.

6. Chance the Rapper (2017 winner)

Releases: 4 (including mixtapes 10 Day, Acid Rap, and Coloring Book before nomination)
Hits: 0 No. 1 albums (The Big Day peaked at No. 2), 1 No. 1 song, 13 charted songs
Critical consensus: 67 average Metacritic score, 7th-place album of 2016, 41st-place album of the decade
Live: 1 American arena tour (1 set for 2020), headlined Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo in 2017
Grammys: 3 wins out of 7 nominations

It’s no time to debate whether Chance the Rapper should’ve been nominated for Best New Artist at the 2017 awards even though he released a popular, lauded mixtape (his second, mind you) in 2013. The fact is, he won the award handily, and would you rather it have gone to the Chainsmokers? Chance ranks so highly in large part thanks to his pre-Grammys career, but he’s also capitalized on his newfound mainstream recognition with festival headlining sets and a star-studded first proper album.

5. J. Cole (2012 nominee)

Releases: 5
Hits: 5 No. 1 albums, 0 No. 1 songs (“Middle Child” peaked at No. 4), 44 charted songs
Critical consensus: 72.2 average Metacritic score, no end-of-year or -decade appearances
Live: 2 American arena tours, headlined Lollapalooza in 2016
Grammys: 6 wins out of 11 nominations (4 pending)

So far, Best New Artist is the only Grammy J. Cole has lost (expect him to lose at least one more in 2020 as he competes against himself for Best Rap Performance), and he easily ranks higher than his year’s critical-darling winner, Bon Iver. Critics have rarely been on J. Cole’s side, something he and his fans are acutely and loudly aware of. He’s found success thanks to those fans alone, who nearly guarantee him a No. 1 for every album and will yell in your face that he did it with “no features!”

4. Justin Bieber (2011 nominee)

Releases: 4
Hits: 6 No. 1 albums (including Never Say Never: The Remixes and Believe Acoustic), 5 No. 1 songs, 73 charted songs
Critical consensus: 63.25 average Metacritic score, 40th-place album of 2015
Live: 3 American arena tours
Grammys: 1 win out of 10 nominations

Do we even remember how Justin Bieber started at this point? That before he was an internet-derided bad boy or a (still internet-derided) born-again Christian, he was the biggest teen heartthrob in years, breaking records and playing for tens of thousands of screaming fans. Justin Bieber’s numbers look so good because of that earlier part of his career (aside from a single Grammy for his 2015 collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo, “Where Are Ü Now”), but he ranks highly because he never fell off despite taking a hiatus. Unlike many teen heartthrobs before him, he can still sell out arenas and top the charts — with no signs of stopping.

3. Frank Ocean (2013 nominee)

Releases: 4
Hits: 1 No. 1 album, 0 No. 1 songs (“Slide” featuring Frank Ocean peaked at No. 25), 14 charted songs
Critical consensus: 84 average Metacritic score, 3rd-place album of 2016, 7th-place album of the decade (with 1 other appearance)
Live: Not really, but headlined FYF Fest in 2017 and will reportedly headline Coachella 2020
Grammys: 2 wins out of 7 nominations

It’s one thing for a musician to make one of the year’s best albums the same year they debut. It’s another for them to follow that up with an even more definitive album, as Frank Ocean did with Blonde four years after Channel Orange. The singer notoriously works by his own rules and on his own schedule, seldom playing live or giving interviews anymore and releasing singles when he feels like it because he can. Even after missteps like his queer club night, his fans will still listen and the critics will still rave.

2. Drake (2011 nominee)

Releases: 7
Hits: 9 No. 1 albums (including Future collab What a Time to Be Alive and compilation Care Package), 6 No. 1 songs, 198 charted songs
Critical consensus: 75 average Metacritic score, 15th-place albums of 2011 and ’15, 27th-place album of the decade
Live: 4 American arena tours, headlined Coachella 2015
Grammys: 4 wins out of 42 nominations (2 pending)

If this were about the biggest Best New Artists, Drake would have it in the bag. Given his prolificity and quick rise, it’s hard to believe Drake’s debut record came out six months into 2010, and not years before. After coming into his own on Take Care the following year, he was on his way to defining 2010s rap — even as the genre shifted thanks to the new guard of SoundCloud rappers in the decade’s last few years, Drake’s shadow loomed larger than just about anyone’s as the pop-star rapper. He finished with one more flex: a bloated, 90-minute double album with a lead single that broke streaming records and debuted at No. 1. He’d call it God’s plan.

1. Kendrick Lamar (2014 nominee)

Releases: 6 (including Section .80 before nomination)
Hits: 4 No. 1 albums, 2 No. 1 songs, 48 charted songs
Critical consensus: 88 average Metacritic score, 1st-place albums of 2012 and ’17, 1st-place album of the decade (with 2 other appearances)
Live: 2 American arena tours, headlined Bonnaroo in 2015 and Coachella in 2017
Grammys: 13 wins out of 37 nominations (plus an Oscar nomination and a Pulitzer Prize)

Kendrick Lamar’s relationship with the Grammys has been defined by losses, from Macklemore’s apology after winning Best Rap Album over him in 2014 to his serial Album of the Year losses. But who needs a Grammy when you have a motherfucking Pulitzer Prize — plus a solid 13 Grammys anyway, the most of anyone on this list? It’s even more impressive for the definitive artist of a decade, who helped it grapple with racism and history, to also be a product of that decade. To be able to count hundreds of thousands of fans on top of that (not to mention Black Panther viewers) as an audience for such a worthy message is icing on the cake for Lamar. No need to stay humble about that.

Who Was the Best New Artist of the 2010s?