The Future is Here: Meet 20 Australian artists to watch in 2021
From ASHWARYA and BEXX to Teenage Joans and will hyde, here are 20 Australian musicians you’re gonna fall in love with in 2021.
Every year since its debut a few years ago, our ‘acts to watch’ list has grown from being a prediction of the year ahead to a testament of our musical next generation’s strengths. It’s become an opportunity to relish in the faces of tomorrow, the acts bound to musically captivate us across the next twelve months, and no doubt play a part in the many months after that. They’re all acts that just feel like a dose of the future, regardless of their genre or background and regardless of whether they’re a major label signee from Melbourne or a small, independent musician managed by their family in rural West Australia.
To prove the typical dominance of the acts that feature in this list, take a moment to reflect on our artists to watch in 2020 list. Sure, some of them were quiet (we’d expect more of them to be quieter than usual too, considering coronavirus’ hardships on music and touring), but many of them became pivotal to Australian music, and encapsulated exactly why they were placed on our ones to watch list in the first place.
For example, Miiesha blossomed into one of Australia’s most brilliant new artists, ushered there thanks to her ARIA-winning debut album Nyaaringu. Perth-raised MC Hoodzyy eclipsed her home city and moved eastwards, joining a newly-minted Sony Music sub-label as she went. Meanwhile, flowerkid joined Warner Music Australia to share one of 2020’s most brilliantly potent singles in miss andry; Memphis LK, George Alice and Sycco proved exciting through their respective tastes of homegrown pop; Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers brought newfound energy to relatable indie-pop; EGOISM and Pinkish Blu shared breakthrough EPs and the list goes on. No matter where you looked, someone was moving forward.
We have no doubts at all that our 2021 is going to be similarly accomplished, if not even more-so providing that coronavirus stays at bay. It’s a list that stretches from those already making moves in 2020 to those without even a debut single out, from the depths of regional Australia to the capital cities, encompassing worlds of hip-hop, pop, punk, dance music and beyond. Some of them are DIY in spirit, building themselves up through live gigs and busking - where they can - while others are products of the internet’s continuing impact on music, which seems to pluck new heroes from the madness of TikTok and Twitter and throw them into the limelight.
It’s a list we couldn’t be more stoked with, so without further ado, let’s get down to business. Here are 20 Australian musicians and bands worth keeping a keen eye on in 2021. Meet the next generation, in alphabetical order, with a Spotify playlist right at the bottom just for good luck.
From the second we heard ASHWARYA’s debut single PSYCHO HOLE, we knew the Melbourne-based musician would have a spot on this list - if she didn’t grow too big for it, that is.
It was the best first impression we’ve heard in years, morphing together the heights of pop music at its most daring with the distinct flavour and charm that comes with a musician seemingly so sure of themselves and their craft as ASHWARYA. It felt like nothing else in Australia’s pop world, and in everything she’s put out since then, she’s doubled down on that energy, putting her personality and background into her music whether it be through the use of Indian percussion as a nod to her culture, or the twisted creativity that saw her excel both musically and visually in the face of coronavirus.
PSYCHO HOLE and its two follow-up singles since - BIRYANI and COMIN@ME - are some of the most exciting music we’ve heard from an Australian pop musician, and as she grapples with the early beginnings of an international breakthrough too, all eyes are on ASHWARYA - and what a show she’s going to deliver.
At the tail-end of 2020, Barkaa was a name on everyone’s lips. The Malyangapa and Barkindji woman was dubbed the “new matriarch of Australian rap” by GQ in October, and it’s a fair call to make; the Bad Apples Music (Briggs, Alice Skye, Birdz) signee overlooking Australia’s hip-hop generation not just in sound and image, but in what they stand for.
In reality, Barkaa’s music was invigorating the furthest corners of Australia’s hip-hop world for the longer side of six months by the time her glow-up became publicised. Her track Our Lives Matter was played over speakers as Indigenous Australians protested for action in-line with America’s Black Lives Matter speakers and her song For My Tittas has become a championing victory lap for First Nations women; two songs that see Barkaa channel the empowerment of hip-hop in the same way as some of her idols (think Missy Elliott or Lil Kim, for example).
Songs like these are just the beginning, however. Barkaa has spent years reconnecting with her family, community and culture, and the impacts of that - both personally and musically - reach fever pitch through her work, which is some of the most potent and powerful you’ll find in Australia. There’s a full album incoming too, bound to be one of 2021’s highlights come year-end.
Anyone with their toes dipped into Perth’s late-night community would’ve come across BEXX as somewhat of a master-of-all-trades, deeply connected to the city’s dance culture as a musician, DJ, promoter and general supporter of anyone thinking outside of the box with their work.
It makes sense then, that BEXX’s own music is some of the most exciting we’ve come across in Perth’s last twelve months, let alone in the niche pocket of club-ready dance music she specialises in. Her debut self-titled EP arrived at the tail-end of 2020 with comparisons to Confidence Man and The Presets, forging together high-octane, house-centric productions with the sass and energy that stems from a devotion to off-kilter pop musicians like Charli XCX (someone who BEXX is near-comparable to, albeit with four-on-the-floor productions to Charli XCX’s more edgy, PC Music-inspired rushes).
Where BEXX strives, however, is in her live show - and that’s where the comparatives to Confidence Man and The Presets strengthen. It’s a burst of completely thought-out energy that’ll give you whiplash by the time it’s over; BEXX’s music becoming an entirely different beast as it meets her background in theatre and performance art, and how that translates into choreographed routines and matching outfits. She’s a star, and as soon as WA artists begin their descent to the east coast for gigs, everyone else is going to see that too.
BRI CLARK, WA/NSW
West Australian-raised musician Bri Clark is one of those people whose name you’ll find dotted in the song credits, one of those people who work with others to tell their story and make brilliantly ear-catching music in the process of doing so.
Whether it’s on her own or with others, Bri Clark’s songwriting evokes the same emotional intensity as musicians like Ainslie Wills and Angie McMahon. In hindsight, it’s a probable reason why her name is so in-demand amongst the cusp of Australia’s indie and pop scenes - just look at co-writes alongside SKYE, Aya Yves and The Little Lord Street Band for example, or the heavyweights - like Andy Hopkins (Hauskey) and Konstantin Kersting - she’s collaborated with in the process of doing so.
Now based in Sydney, Bri Clark is a real musician’s musician - the person your favourite act will turn to when attempting to find their voice in their music, or nailing down the verses after which. However, that isn’t the reason why Bri Clark is in our 2021 list. Her own name is something that’s going to be ushered into the limelight more in the year ahead, and from what we’ve heard, some of the people that she’s helped along the way will be returning the favour for a longer-length release sometime through the year.
With just one song, Budjerah gave an introduction to himself, his music, his culture and his vision - a remarkably difficult feat in just three-minutes-thirty. It’s a testament to a craft the 18-year-old Coodjinburra musician has been building for years now, and in 2021, it’s all set to come together.
Arriving in late-October, Missing You was that first taste of Budjerah’s talents - and what a moment it was. Worked on alongside Matt Corby, the track plucks from a long-winding list of influences in soul, R&B, indie and pop to carve a sound that feels like the meeting place all of them, rich with the tapestries of a multi-faceted - and still developing - artist whose work builds from years and years of cultural impact. Budjerah is one of those artists bound to make an impact himself too; the teen being a breakthrough story for his hometown of Fingal Head - a small, surfing town in north New South Wales - and the greater Budjalung community his work builds from and is amplified by.
Missing You - and the further work you’ll hear from Budjerah in the year ahead - are glimpses of brilliance that you can latch onto, moments that connect with you regardless of how different your journey is to Budjerah’s. That takes one incredible talent, and Budjerah is exactly that.
DEAR SUNDAY, WA
One of the many benefits of Perth’s close-knit music community is that when an exciting new artist emerges, everyone seems to know about them pretty quickly, and before long, they’re a real force to be reckoned with.
Take four-piece Dear Sunday for example, the rising Perth four-piece who shared their debut single High just midway through 2020’s unknown depths. In the time since sharing their first song, the group have blossomed into a band that captures the excitement surrounding Perth’s new generation, using two more singles and shows alongside Sly Withers, COTERIE and Death by Denim to develop a sound that feels perfect for what Australia’s known to adore. Think part-Ocean Alley, part-Tame Impala; chilled and relaxed but a little rugged and off-kilter at the same time - something you can see blaring through festival speakers, but something that works just as much of a treat when you’re trying to find some down-time too.
They shared three songs in 2020 - their debut High, as well as Never Again in November and Suzie in December - but there’s no doubt plenty more to come too, and as more eyes move their way (and hopefully, more gigs than they played in 2020 to come), we have a feeling that Dear Sunday are going to excel.
There’s something so incredibly exciting about this legion of DIY/bedroom-pop-esque artists to rise through the last twelve months, and how they’ve proved capable of bringing together different genre cliffs to create a sound that’s distinctly new and synonymous with a multi-faceted new generation of artists.
Brisbane-based musician FELIVAND is someone that’s been doing this for a while now, to the point where you could place her in any ‘acts to watch’ list from 2017 to current-day and she’d no doubt prove you right. However, you get the feeling that much of her peak is yet to come, and after a year largely absent of live performances, you get the feeling that FELIVAND is going to be one of those musicians that completely blows you out of the water when in front of the centre stage light.
In saying that, her 2020 was still incredible. The Brisbane-based musician went from strength to strength throughout the course of the year, with releases that eventually built a new EP titled Nerve. We’re not too sure whether her 2021 will be equally as big, but regardless, she’s an act that will prove a favourite when she eventually does make a return.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in acts typically behind-the-scenes emerge with music of their own - like Bri Clark mentioned just before. Genes is another, the project being a moment in the limelight for Townsville-via-Melbourne musician Maddy Rowe who has co-writes alongside Young Franco and Kilter to her name.
In 2020, Genes made a strong-armed entrance with Super Single, a song that wasn’t her first - not even her first for the year - but one that left such a refreshingly invigorating impact that it felt like a rebirth; a new side to the pop force that felt like it came from someone elevated onto a completely new level. It’s the type of charged, high-octane pop tune that you’d expect from those with labels - and the accompanying money - behind them, but coming from a completely independent rising face from Queensland’s north makes it even more exciting.
As for what’s next? Well, there’s bound to be plenty on the way with Genes no doubt invigorated by the creative release that Super Single brought, and if the work to come is even only a fraction as fun, it’s still going to be brilliant.
GHOST CARE, WA
If you were able to catch a bit of live music in Perth throughout last year, chances are Ghost Care were on board. They supported everyone from Spacey Jane to Sly Withers across the last few months, alongside single and EP launch shows of their own; each of their own shows being just as large and brilliant as the last.
And that takes us to their music. Ghost Care are one of Perth’s most potential-filled alt-pop acts; the trio known for their energy and craftsmanship that unites pacing energy and charging choruses with an interconnectedness between the band that ensures every line is delivered with its full potential. It’s something we saw on their debut EP Outdoor Recreation Centre right at the start of the year and the singles that have come out since, with Midnight, Oxygen and IDKY all seeing the trio take new steps into the future.
Speaking of the future, there’s plenty more to be excited about. Their time on the road with some of West Australia’s best shows through their own performances too, and with a sophomore EP ready and waiting, chances are you’re not going to have to wait too long to see that live show either.
Originally from regional New South Wales, JamarzOnMarz has a lot on his plate - and that’s something that was shown throughout his 2020, even amongst the quietness of coronavirus lockdown.
The rapper spent much of his year busy with a petition hoping to resolve ongoing discrimination against afro-textured hair in the schooling system, something which led him onto many of Australia’s biggest news networks. He then dropped a single - titled Tomorrow - that, together with its official video clip, centred on his journey through self-empowerment in the face of both racism and homophobia, telling stories of queerness through both English and Swahili - the latter being one of many native Kenyan languages, a place where homosexuality is criminalised - while encouraging expressions of empowerment and growth.
We’re not sure what JamarzOnMarz has incoming for 2021, but there are no doubts that it’s bound to be something powerful; something that people can see themselves in, just like Jamarz himself craved growing up a queer person of colour in central New South Wales.
Amongst all the beautiful voices in Australia, Kee’ahn has to be amongst the most remarkable. She has a voice that can stop you in your tracks, sharing stories that embody the spirit and culture of the generations before her.
On her debut single Better Things, Kee’ahn - a Kuku Yalanji, Jirrbal and Zenadth Kes - brought all of this to life in a way that still leaves a longing effect on your emotions some six months later, capturing the ethos of her name - the pseudonym Kee’ahn is based off the word “kee’an”, meaning ‘to play’ and ‘to dance’ in Indigenous language from Queensland’s far north - through a dancing celebration of everything that’s helped build her, and how she’s using that strength to look forwards into the future.
By the end of 2020, Kee’ahn was one of the busiest newcomers in music, performing for shows curated by TikTok Australia and ABC all while finishing her debut album, which she hopes will aid and heal others - and herself.
LIYAH KNIGHT, NSW
At 2020’s last moment, Sydney musician Alliyah Cici Adejoke Fareo seemed to lock in her place as an act destined to bring a reckoning in the year ahead.
After a trio of singles earlier in the year, she released a collection of tracks as Liyah Knight right at the tail-end of November 2020; Nesting - the musician’s debut EP - being a string of six singles that capture Liyah Knight at an introductory best, with all the talent and prowess that paths her future journey into brilliance. She carries the power of Sampa The Great through the honey vocals of SZA or Summer Walker, drawing you in with the weightlessness of her sound that comes crushing down as she lets go, exploring facets of her life and the life around her through each song.
Nesting proved that there was something brilliant in Liyah Knight, while introducing the musician and everything that fuels the music you hear. We’re not too sure what’s next, but chances are it’s going to make you feel some kind of way.
MAPLE GLIDER, VIC
There’s a saying around Australia’s indie scene that if Pieater sign someone, they’re worth paying attention to. Okay, it might not be a saying but it’s one that deserves to be, with the Melbourne label being home to some of the country’s most beautiful acts: Big Scary, No Mono, #1 Dads, Airling, Christopher Port and others included.
Melbourne-based musician Tori Zietsch is the latest addition to the label, releasing her debut single as Maple Glider in September last year, and with it, bringing the usual calls of the ‘next best thing.’ However, while others attached to that tag fall by the wayside, Maple Glider is one of those acts that you know will persist, and a large reason behind that is said debut single As Tradition. It’s the type of song that quivers with its intimacy, drawing from the same deeply personal chord of Julia Jacklin and Angie McMahon, albeit with nuances and touches that make it distinct to herself.
And As Tradition is just the start. It’s her debut single, recorded at Pieater’s Bellbird Studios earlier in 2020 alongside Tom Iansek. There are no doubt many more songs to come from those sessions, and here’s hoping a few of them will come out this coming year.
One of 2020’s breakthrough sounds was this specific branch of indie-pop that felt perfect for pivotal scenes of a teen drama movie, music that blasts in your ear as you walk down the street, deepening the emotions of whatever you’re feeling at that moment.
The genre was dubbed ‘main character’ - a worthy and apt title - and MAY-A’s song Apricots was at the heart of its Australian representation. Coming after a dose of songs littering her last two years, Apricots proved a pivotal moment not just in MAY-A’s sound or her career progression, but for her personal development too; the single being a moment of queer exploration for the Sydney-via-Byron Bay musician, one that’s sure to likely define her future songwriting as much as it’ll define her greater personal life, and the stories that fuel her work.
Between Apricots and Green (the musician’s other single last year, released earlier on in 2020), MAY-A seems to be on the cusp of that low-key, hyper-relatable indie-pop sound that’s carving new stars out of the next generation, and we have no doubts that Maya Cumming will be one of them.
NICK WARD, NSW
Speaking of intimate and personal songwriting, Sydney’s Nick Ward has been quick to cement himself as somewhat of a master. The 19-year-old has proved a king-of-all-trades in the past - there’s work dating back to 2018 written, produced, mixed and mastered by the newcoming wunderkind - but his 2020 singles really stepped it up, and it’s only just the start.
First, came Aubrey Plaza in what was surprisingly not a nod to the acting queen but rather a touching exploration of queerness and masculinity, doubled down on with his second single I Wanna Be Myself or Nothing At All, a stirring collaboration alongside New Zealand’s Lontalius. It was one of the most beautiful songs we’ve heard from an Australian artist, navigating the complexities of queerness and self-adoration amongst a wash of gentle keys and twinkling melodies - the type that reinforce the strengths of the vocals that move around it.
There was also Holding The Man, a song that proved that Nick Ward wasn’t just a one-or-two-trick-pony - but considering the sheer amounts of power and talent encapsulated in what we’ve heard already, there was no thinking that anyway. Keep your eyes peeled for a new collection of tracks coming out sometime early 2021.
REST FOR THE WICKED, NSW/VIC
A search for Rest For The Wicked online comes up with near-nothing, and while it’s a bit of a stab in the dark to list an act without even a debut song as one worth paying attention to in 2020, Rest For The Wicked are one of the most promising acts in Australia, and 2021 is bound to prove why.
Rest For The Wicked is the new collaborative project between Victorian rapper Ivan Ooze and Sydney super-producer Tasker, bringing their wealth of musical knowledge and prowess together for a duo project that’s bound to excel. However, if you’re waiting for Ivan’s return to hip-hop or Tasker’s signature experimentalism, then look away - Rest For The Wicked is bound to an entirely different project that steps away from what you’d expect, launching forward with a newfound sound that pins the pairing as multi-dimensional, genre-veering experts that’ll always keep you on your toes.
As for when to expect things? Well, we do know that a label deal has been done, signed and dusted, so now we just have to wait - but chances are Rest For The Wicked will be a name on everyone’s lips by the time winter comes around.
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Brisbane-based musician Joe Agius couldn’t be further from a new act, acting as a producer, co-writer and live performer for Hatchie throughout her recent meteoric rise. Under his solo project RINSE, however, he made his debut at the quarter-point of 2020 - and there’s plenty more to come.
Throughout the last year, RINSE has given Joe Agius an opportunity to show how his sound flourishes with full creative freedom; the musician being in centre spotlight amongst a collection of collaborators as he moulds together rich pop choruses with washes of post-punk, shoegaze and new-wave. His debut single Tell Me Tell Me Tell Me showed that brilliantly as did its follow-up Trust In Me, but his last single in 2020 Back Into Your Arms showcased the heights of RINSE when left to his own devices, all while enlisting Hatchie back into his musical circle for the occasion.
At the tail-end of last year, he used a Bandcamp campaign to raise money for the production and distribution of Wherever I Am, a debut collection of tracks recorded over the last few years that’s sure to serve as a well-rounded introductory point to the seasoned musician. It made its target, so chances are we’ll be hearing the full release sometime soon.
SIOBHAN COTCHIN, WA
One specific niche of music that we don’t talk about often enough in country music, but even despite that, we know that West Australian musician Siobhan Cotchin is an act that captures the promise and potential of the sound’s next generation.
The alt-country musician has become one of Perth’s most brilliant songwriters, capable of squeezing every ounce of emotion out of her lyrics in order to form swirling, touching moments of potent beauty - ones that always hit extremely hard. With a string of singles shared through 2020, Siobhan explored the crossroads of her country roots with the more crunchy and rugged introduction of alt-rock and indie, adding further dimensions to her work that propels Australia’s country sound forward - leaving everyone else behind in the dust.
2020 brought both Siobhan’s official entrance through Tear Myself Apart and already she’s built upon it with the three songs that have come out since, and no doubts 2021 will bring more (and don’t get us started on her live show either, which is truly something else).
TEENAGE JOANS, SA
Teenage Joans are the act you’ll probably see on the most Australian one-to-watch lists this year. It’s a pretty safe bet too, considering the Adelaide duo took out triple j Unearthed’s High competition last year, joining a legion of alumni including Arno Faraji, Snakadaktal, Montaigne and Genesis Owusu.
Teenage Joans, however, are something special. The pairing of teenagers Cahli Blakers and Tahlia Borg are unstoppable, capturing the energy and rush of a band with triple the members condensed down into a duo that thrives on their connection and friendship with one another; a connection you can even feel right down to their trading riffs and relentless excitement. Three Leaf Clover was a big song for them that opened a lot of doors, and keeps its fun even nine months after its initial March release.
However, you’re not going to have to wait long to hear Teenage Joans’ return, don’t you worry. In fact, if you’re scrolling through Pilerats come the end of the week, you might find something worth listening to from the ever-brilliant duo.
WILL HYDE, VIC
Melbourne musician will hyde is someone we’ve known for years now, initially as a bright-eyed teenager making up one-half of breakthrough electronic duo SYDE - who had a hell of a list of achievements before exploring new paths sometime in the last year or two.
With will hyde, the musician can relish in full creative freedom (and personal freedom too) and that’s exactly what he does, plucking intimate moments from his life and turning them into transformative bursts of pop that range from the energetic and lively to the subtle and reflective. Regardless of what sound they make, will hyde’s work typically centres around mental health and the greater world around him, rich with introspection and nuance that often are translated into music so bright and cathartic that it washes off on yourself too.
Will already has the beginnings of something wonderful, building himself an unstoppable audience with his debut EP with u in mind. back in October 2020. However, with this audience behind him - and more joining every day - will hyde has what it takes to be Australia’s next blockbuster pop act, it’s just a matter of when.