The era of the vintage soul diva is, it seems, at an end. Where once each January heralded a never-ending procession of Amys, Duffys, Adeles and Estelles -- each sticking rigidly to the dictats of Motown and early-70s r'n'b -- the year ahead is notably short on retro princesses in slinky cocktail dresses.
Not that female singers have slipped from favour. If anything, they are as highly prized as ever, as record labels scrabble for a way out of their ever-deepening slump. What's different about the latest crop is that they're more likely to take the stage with mussed hair, skinny jeans and a battered leather jacket than a tasteful frock and gleaming high-heels. And they are junking their guitars in favour of keyboards and samplers. From the 80s charity-stall stylings of Pip 'Ladyhawke' Brown -- an artist who waves her devotion to Cindy Lauper like a badge of honour -- to the bedsit musings of Florence and the Machine, to Little Boots' home-recorded avant-disco, the message is clear: old-school swish is out, rumpled bohemian chic is in.
Pip 'Ladyhawke' Brown may not be all over daytime radio yet, but she's already racked up an impressive celebrity fan-base, including Kylie Minogue and Madonna. Brown is from Auckland, but, listening to her self-titled debut album, you could easy think she's fetched from New York circa 1985 (her stage name was inspired by a mid-80s Matthew Broderick film). Along with a collection of hippy-headbands that would put MGMT to shame, she's got a mile-wide independent streak. "I have this thing where I refuse to wear anything made for a female," she said recently. "I don't like conforming to gender stereotypes. It's so predictable to get girly-cut jeans and blouses. I wear men's clothes: jackets, shirts and shoes. It doesn't take away from my femininity." It's three weeks to her debut Irish show at Dublin's Academy and we're already breaking out in goose-bumps.
Though Victoria 'Little Boots' Hesketh's first album won't arrive until September, she's the most buzzed-about newcomer this side of the Atlantic. Last week Hesketh, 24, was placed first in the BBC's influential Sound of 09 poll -- previous picks include Duffy, Ting Tings and 50 Cent. From the faded English sea-side resort of Blackpool, Hesketh's mash-up of acoustic indie and lap-top beats has been dubbed 'bedsit disco'. Recorded with Hot Chip's Joe Goddard, debut single Every Little Earthquake is at once quirky and epic: four blistering minutes of Donna Summer-tinged electro, which side-steps its lack of originality courtesy of Hesketh's helium-diva vocals. "I just hope people in Blackpool will hear me on the radio now," she says. "I don't want to stay as this critically acclaimed cool thing -- I want to reach as many people as I can. I'm a real person. I just happen to make ridiculously epic pop songs in my bedroom."
Florence Welch is already being likened to Bjork and Kate Bush, but that may have more to do with her off-beam sartorial instincts and love for outre production than her actual songwriting, which is beefier and guitar heavy than her fey image suggests. In the UK, the hype process is at full tilt -- she recently won the Brit Awards Critics Choice prize (last year, the gong went to Adele). For her debut LP, released in the spring, she's hooked-up with producer du jour James Ford. "I've got a short attention span," she says of her unconventional music. "I'm always trying to experiment with different instruments and ways of singing."
This former classmate of Paris Hilton is already a star in the US, where her single Just Dance went top 10, earning her a Grammy nomination. She's no overnight sensation either, but an established songwriter in New York -- she's penned hits for Britney Spears and Pussycat Dolls. Her stage name was inspired by Queen's Radio GaGa and if you think that's a bit cheesy, consider that, at birth, she was lumbered with the distinctly un-showbiz moniker, Joanne Stefani Germanotta. In a year when singers seemed determined to 'keep it real', GaGa brings a sorely needed dash of glamour. "I believe there's a responsibility you have to your fans," she said recently, in reference to her exotic, Grace Jones-tinged dress sense. "You have an image they want to see. I don't want to see Madonna down at a grocery store in curlers, do you?"
Born in Canada but based in Dublin, former Dae Kim front-woman Katie-Kim Sullivan describes her sound as 'acousmatic screamo pop'. In fact, she's a trafficker in dreamy space-rock: her songs sound forever in the brink of sinking into Cocteau Twins pastiche, but there's always a sublime melody or quirky hook to keep the whiff of recycled ideas at bay. Independently released, her album Twelve has already basked in ecstatic reviews. If there's any justice in pop, 2009 will see her break free of the local circuit.
Elly Jackson's stage name is inspired by her flaming red Flock of Seagull fringe -- 'la roux' being French for 'red haired one'. Signed to the label behind Klaxons, 20-year-old Jackson typifies the current crop of young female contenders, with her keyboard-based sound and 80s-influenced songwriting. Little Boots may be attracting all the buzz right now, but when crunch time comes in the 2009 cyber-diva smack-down, expect La Roux to be in with a yell, although cynics may find it hard to gloss over the debt her debut single Quicksand owes to Prince's When Doves Cry.
Vanessa Brown, a London chanteuse with a voice like crushed velvet, appears determined to do her bit to keep the retro candle flickering. Feted as this year's Duffy, whose Rockferry was the biggest selling album in UK in 2008, Brown deals in a familiar array of soul moves, but with an urgency that feels entirely novel. To be released this spring, her LP Traveling Like The Light was written during an ill-fated spell in Los Angeles, when her label was busy attempting to air-brush her into an r'n'b star. "It was completely suffocating ... Now, I'm so grateful for that desperation, pain and loneliness. The music forced me to find myself on so many different levels, down to the way that I dress. It's sent a ripple effect to every part of my being."
Having released her debut album late in 2006, Bat for Lashes front-woman Natasha Khan is hardly a newcomer. Still, there's a feeling that 2009 will be the year the Brighton singer truly leaves her imprint. She was hotly fancied to bag the Mercury Music Prize last spring and expanded her fan-base when she went on tour with Radiohead in the summer. Recorded in New York and in a studio deep in the California's Joshua Tree desert, her second record, Two Suns, is slated for April release and she has also announced a summer tour -- alas, as of now, no Irish dates are listed.
Sounding like Kate Bush's wacky niece, Dubliner Abigail Smith has spent the past few years building her reputation as a session vocalist and violinist, with cameos on records by David Kitt, 3epkano and Star Little Thing. Something of a renaissance musician who counts the flute, guitar and keyboard among the instruments she's mastered, Smith is at the moment putting the finishing touches to her first LP. Expect it to feature prominently when critics come to assess their favourite Irish records of 2009.
In 2009, songwriters have stumbled upon an unexpected inspiration -- 90s 'electro-folkie' Beth Orton. You can hear her understated, faintly edgy sound in the records of the Katie Kim and Florence and the Machine. Nowhere is her touch more discernible, though, than in the music of Emma-Lee Moss, heralded as Britain's 'anti-folk heroine' on the back of a clutch of well-received EPs -- although non-believers point out that at her most twee, she bears a suspicious resemblance to Phoebe from Friends performing Smelly Cat.