2011 was a good year for Ambrose Akinmusire. His Blue Note Records debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening was widely acknowledged as one of the best jazz releases of the year. He received the profile treatment in most every major newspaper across the country. And if that wasn’t enough, he took home both the Rising Star Jazz and Trumpet awards in Downbeat’s annual critics poll. But what truly sets him apart from many of his peers is the following, not-always-guaranteed fact: He deserved it. The 29-year-old has been studying music for a while now, and as a winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2007, we should have seen his breakthrough coming. If the emotions he’s able to display and the pictures he’s able to paint throughout all of When The Heart Emerges Glistening is any indication of where he’s headed, it’s going to be hard to bet against the California native in the future. His effortless style and intricate tone manipulation on tracks like “Regret (No More)” and the striking “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter” are lessons in composition and performance themselves. How he follows such a brilliant year and debut is anybody’s guess, but the notion that he’s off to a pretty good start is utterly indisputable. Colin McGuire
A glowing blurb on a music blog, word of mouth, some fiery shows and all of a sudden the Alabama Shakes are not only opening for the Drive-By Truckers but also landing their song “You’re Not Alone” in a Zale’s commercial. Not bad for a band with a four-song EP to their name. Most of the attention goes to frontwoman Brittany Howard, a force of nature who careens between achin’ soul balladry, classic rock wails, and blues fire. Throughout that self-titled EP, you can hear Howard’s vocals pushing the equipment to its limits. It’s the sound of the band as a whole, though, the sound of a band of young kids making old-sounding Southern soul through modern ears, that makes the whole thing work. The Shakes just signed a deal with ATO Records, and are hoping for full-length release in the first half of 2012. There’s no reason to think that the Alabama Shakes, who are enjoying a hard-working meteoric rise, won’t offer something even more amazing in the coming year. Andrew Gilstrap
He’d better hope his outlook is good, otherwise Warner Bros. is going to come knocking wondering what they’ve invested so much in. But I don’t think there’s much doubt Rocky’s going to be able to capitalize on his considerable hype this past year. Unlike plenty of rising hip-hop acts, ASAP Rocky didn’t rely on spending a few years churning out free mixtapes and touring to build a solid fanbase. He simply released two videos on YouTube that quickly went viral and let word of mouth do the rest, providing him with two of the best producers in the still-growing “cloud rap” scene, Clams Casino and Beautiful Lou, as well as Alabama’s disturbingly consistent DJ Burn One. The end result is an artist that appeals to fanbases of both Curren$y and Lil’ B in nearly equal fashion, all while he recalls classic ‘90s acts like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Three 6 Mafia and E.S.G. As he’s currently on tour with megastar Drake, the sky is pretty much the limit for this kid from Harlem romanticizing Midwest and Southern rap, and few of his peers carry with them such exciting potential. David Amidon
Danny Brown, perhaps more than any other figure, captures the complexities and contradictions of the current moment in hip-hop culture. His glammed out look of tight jeans, hipster tees and dramatic, asymmetrical hair style apparently cost him a deal with 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records, but his depraved and irreverent tales of Adderall addiction, crack dealing and sexual conquest may be a bit much for the liberally educated fans of frequent collaborators Das Racist and other more critically minded hip-hop. One thing is certain, Danny Brown doesn’t care what any of these people think about him. His style is visceral and raw, combining a strange and manic flow with grimy electro style beats on his 2011 mix-tape XXX for a sound that holds the potential for greatness, and the possibility of revitalizing the mostly stagnant arena of popular hip-hop. At 30 years old, Brown might be a bit long in the tooth for some to consider him a rising prospect, but for fans of outside the box hip-hop, one can only hope that his best years are ahead of him. Robert Alford
There’s an old saying that goes something like, “All musicians want to act, and all actors want to be musicians.” It’s self-evident that people in the former category have been more successful than people in the latter over the years. But Donald Glover, aka rapper Childish Gambino, might be one of the rare exceptions. Glover is a skilled writer and comedian, but he also has real talent as a rapper. Gambino has been bubbling under in hip-hop circles and amongst hardcore fans of his acting in the Derrick Comedy troupe and on Community for the last couple of years. His gruff, hard-edged delivery may come as a surprise to folks who know him from his comedy, but his use of nerd references (Invader Zim, Toejam & Earl), probably won’t. Now, with a legitimate album (Camp) release under his belt and an internet-savvy fanbase (not to mention mainstream media attention) ready to sing his praises, Childish Gambino has a real shot to break out to a wider audience in 2012. Chris Conaton
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// Sound Affects
"Natalie Hemby's Puxico is a standout debut from a songwriter who has been behind the scenes for over a decade.READ the article