Music's Ruling Class of 2018: 25 Artists and Producers Dominating the Grammys and the Charts

6:00 AM 1/26/2018

by THR Staff

Ahead of the annual awards, THR ranks the hitmakers who shook up the business this year, as Spotify streams, YouTube views and Super Bowl syncs truly turn artists like Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift into global influencers.

It started, as feuds so often do, with a snub.

It was Jan. 6, 1997 — back in the days when the Grammys annually alternated between Los Angeles and New York — and the year's nominees were about to be announced at a news conference at Radio City Music Hall, where the awards would be held the following month. Country artist Clint Black was supposed to be one of the announcers, but he got sick, so somebody at the Recording Academy invited New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to take his place. But for reasons that remain mysterious to this day, that invitation was retracted at the last minute; Giuliani got a phone call in the limo on the way to the news conference requesting that he not show up. The mayor was furious. "If they want to go back to L.A., they can," he fumed to reporters. "We could replace the Grammys in about a day."

And there it is, the story of how the music industry's biggest night — the most watched awards show after the Oscars, typically drawing 25 million to 30 million viewers — eventually got kicked out of New York and ended up at Staples Center in Los Angeles for the past 14 years. It was bad blood, long before Taylor Swift sang a word about it.

But no feud lasts forever, and this year the Grammys are finally returning to the Big Apple. The Jan. 28 show will take place at Madison Square Garden, broadcast (and streamed) live by CBS and hosted for the second year in a row by The Late Late Show's James Corden, with musical performances by Cardi B, Bruno Mars, U2, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, among others. "Most awards shows are processions of millionaires giving one another gold statues," says Corden, "but the Grammys are all about the performances, so as a host you try to stay out of it and add little moments of joy when you can."

There will undoubtedly be moments of other emotions as well. While this year's nominees are the most diverse ever — for the first time, all the lead artists up for record of the year are people of color — they're mostly men of color (Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Mars and Childish Gambino among them). Female artists are vastly underrepresented, a problem in a year when female voices have dominated the discussion throughout the rest of the entertainment world. Expect to hear something about that at the podium and on the red carpet. "We have always supported artists to speak their minds," says Academy chief Neil Portnow, clearing the decks for some stormy speeches. "That will be their personal decision and personal judgment as to what they want to say, or if they want to say anything at all."

No matter who says what, though, or on which coast they say it, the Grammys give the recording industry — which has recovered from the demise of CDs and with sales up 17 percent, thanks to increased streaming — its biggest spotlight. And that's why THR is taking this moment to introduce Music's Ruling Class of 2018: the 25 artists and producers who've moved the needle the past year. The magazine's editors weighed many factors — albums sold, streaming stats and tour receipts as reported by sister publication Billboard, plus critical response, business moves and, of course, Grammy nominations — to determine the following rankings, and also considered harder-to-measure qualities, like heat and buzz and the ability to drive the pop culture conversation just by dropping a song or posting a video. On these pages, you'll find the greatest collection of musical talent assembled since Clive Davis' 2017 pre-Grammy party at the Beverly Hilton (this year, it will take place at the Times Square Sheraton).

Profiles written by Seth Abramovitch, Ashley Lee, Andy Lewis, Alan Light, Ryan Parker, Mia Galuppo, Aziza Kasumov and Lou Vanhecke

This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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    Jay Z

    Rapper, producer, mogul

    Ari Perilstein/Getty Images for Roc Nation

    After more than 20 years in the music business, after 13 solo albums and 21 Grammys, after becoming, in June, the first hip-hop artist inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Jay Z finally scored his first album of the year nomination. In fact, 4:44 has earned the 39-year-old rapper turned mogul eight Grammy noms, more than any other artist this year, including song of the year (for the album's title track) and record of the year (for the single "The Story of O.J."). But it's not just his musical prowess that propelled Jay Z to the top of this list; it's also his business savvy. Mr. Beyonce upended the usual distribution model by bypassing Apple Music and Spotify and instead releasing 4:44 on his own streaming platform, Tidal, where in June it went platinum (selling at least 1 million copies) in just six days. By cutting out the middleman, Jay Z doesn't have to share the profits — which include another $48 million from the 4:44 tour — or at least not as much of them: Earlier in 2017, Sprint paid a reported $200 million for a 33 percent stake in the struggling Tidal, which rakes in about $30 million a month from its 3 million subscribers (Sprint promoted 4:44 with free downloads to its customers). Says Tidal vice president Tony Gervino, "Between the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the success of 4:44 and the eight Grammy nominations, 2017 was a defining year for Jay Z."

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    Taylor Swift

    Singer, songwriter

    Mark Davis/Getty Images

    Her sixth album, Reputation, didn't come out until November — too late for Grammy consideration (though she's still up for "I Don't Wanna Live Forever," her tune for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack) — but the album dominated the pop music world. Not only was it the biggest hit of the year, selling 1.2 million copies in just its first week (or about what her 2012 album, Red, sold in total), its chart-busting single, the electro-pop revenge fantasy "Look What You Made Me Do," was the year's most polarizing, talked-about song. Still, even as the public's fascination with her life continues (as do the endorsements, from everything from Target to UPS), Swift, 28, maintains that everything about her music starts with old-school fundamentals. "I still do a lot of prep work before I walk through the studio door," she tells THR. "I think that's the Nashville songwriting school of thought, which will always be deeply ingrained in me. With a songwriting baseline firmly in place, that's when we feel the freedom to go in and take risks with production. And we took quite a few with this one."

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    Kendrick Lamar

    Singer, songwriter

    Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

    DAMN was the most critically acclaimed album of 2017 as well as the year's third-biggest seller (900,000 copies), trailing only Swift's Reputation and Ed Sheeran's Divide. And now it's one of the most nominated, up for seven Grammys, including album of the year and record of the year (for the single "Humble"). But DAMN wasn't Lamar's only project in 2017; he also collaborated with U2, Maroon 5 and SZA and curated the soundtrack for Marvel's Black Panther. "He can reinvent himself with every album but stay true to himself," says producer Sounwave, who has worked with Lamar, 30, since the rapper's first album in 2009. "He loves to push boundaries. If they expect [one thing], he goes in the exact opposite direction. You never know — he might put a country album out next!"

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    Ed Sheeran

    Singer, songwriter

    Amanda Edwards/WireImage

    Divide, the second-biggest-selling album of the year, spawned multiple hit singles, but none with quite the ubiquitous reach of "Shape of You," Billboard's No. 1 song of 2017. Sheeran, 26, co-created the tune with U.K.-based songwriter Steve Mac — it was originally titled "I'm in Love With Your Body," and at the time they were writing it for Rihanna. Recalls Mac of how the song ended up on Sheeran's album: "Ed said, 'There's something about this song — maybe it's for Rihanna, but I'm meeting with the record company tonight, and I'd love to play this for them.' He played [Divide] and then at the end played 'Shape of You.' They stood up and said, 'This is your first single.' " Despite Divide, Sheeran didn't get any big Grammy noms in 2017 (just best pop solo performance and best pop vocal album), but he earns bonus points for appearing in one of the most discussed TV cameos of the year, playing a Lannister soldier on Game of Thrones.

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    Bruno Mars

    Singer, songwriter

    Matthew Eisman/WireImage

    One of pop's biggest stars had one of his best years ever. 24K Magic went double-platinum and spawned five hit singles — most recently, a new remix of "Finesse" with Cardi B — while the 24K tour grossed more than $200 million and a CBS special (filmed at Harlem's Apollo Theater) pulled in 5 million viewers. In November, Mars, 32, was the biggest winner at the American Music Awards, taking home seven trophies; now he's up for six Grammys (he's been nominated 21 times so far, with five wins). Along with Jay Z, he's the only artist with nominations in the record, song and album of the year categories. The secret of his success? "Not following trends," he says, "and always remembering that it's not about likes on Instagram — it's about the song. If you can write a good song, that's what will always last."

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    Metro Boomin

    Producer

    Bobby Metelus/Getty Images for New Era Cap

    Statistically, no producer came close to Metro Boomin's success in 2017. He was credited on a mind-boggling 90 songs during the calendar year — including smashes like Migos' "Bad and Boujee" and Future's "Mask Off," which hit the top 10 — for a total of 23.5 million sales. He also released three full-length, all-star projects under his own name and launched his own label, Boominati Worldwide, a joint venture with Republic/Universal. "I created it," he has said, "to represent a collective of highly gifted individuals who have the shared gift of being able to influence the world through art."

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    Cardi B

    Rapper, songwriter

    Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

    In 2017, the 25-year-old Bronx-born rapper did something that for most musicians would be unthinkable — she bumped Swift from the top of the charts. In September, her song "Bodak Yellow," which had been building all summer, took the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 from Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" and held on to it for three weeks, the longest No. 1 streak for a solo female rapper ever. To date, the triple-platinum song has streamed more than 245 million times, and the music video has more than 400 million views. But even before "Bodak Yellow," Cardi B had been building a fan base through Vine and Instagram and as a breakout star on VH1's Love & Hip Hop: New York.

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    Dave Cobb

    Producer

    Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

    What do Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton have in common? Aside from releasing some of the biggest-selling and best-reviewed country albums of 2017, they're all guided by Cobb, perhaps the biggest country producer in Nashville. He follows a traditional country formula of finding great voices to tell great stories. "I remember my mom and dad saying, 'I like records where you can understand the lyrics,' " says Cobb, 43, who also has recently worked with Zac Brown, Anderson East and Brandi Carlile, "and I thought that was so lame. But with a lot of records now, I feel like the track is more important than the artist."

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    SZA

    Singer, songwriter

    Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Mastercard

    Claiming inspiration from Wes Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald and the American Ballet Theatre (where she studied), 27-year-old Solana Imani Rowe — just call her SZA — jumped to the front of the line in the world of alternative R&B in 2017. Her gold-certified debut album, Ctrl, was one of the year's most critically acclaimed releases and earned her five Grammy nominations — the most for any female singer — including best new artist. Two platinum hit singles from the album — "The Weekend," which climbed to No. 1 on the R&B charts, and "Love Galore," which reached No. 40 in the Billboard Hot 100 — made her minimalistic sound something everyone wanted a piece of; she's collaborated on projects with Lamar, Maroon 5, Lorde and Calvin Harris.

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    Greg Kurstin

    Producer

    Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

    Last year's producer of the year (and a nominee again in 2018) has helped create pop hits for Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Sia and scores of others (he played virtually all the instruments on Adele's "Hello"). But in 2017, the 48-year-old jazz-trained musician turned his attention to rock, reuniting with Beck for Colors (Kurstin used to play in his touring band) and pro­ducing the Foo Fighters' Concrete and Gold album ("A fucking genius," Dave Grohl once called him). Kurstin's latest project: He's in the studio finishing up an album with Paul McCartney.

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    Jack Antonoff

    Singer, producer

    Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for Gibson Brands

    In 2017, his indie pop band, Bleachers, released its second album — Gone Now, which climbed to No. 20 on the Billboard sales chart — then embarked on a headlining world tour, including two nights at Madison Square Garden. But at this year's Grammys, the 33-year-old frontman (and Lena Dunham's ex) is being recognized for his work behind the scenes: He's nominated for Lorde's third album, Melodrama, which he co-wrote and produced, and for the song he wrote and produced with frequent collaborator Swift, "I Don't Wanna Live Forever" from the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack (up for the best song written for film or television). Antonoff also produced and co-wrote Swift's Reputation, the biggest-selling album of the year.

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    Mike Will Made It

    Producer

    Paras Griffin/Getty Images

    "A producer is like the manager of a store," says Michael Len Williams, aka Mike Will Made It. "Someone comes in, you say, 'What are you looking for today?' You find what they're missing." Business has been booming at Williams' store. In the past few years, his Atlanta-based hit factory has produced platinum singles for Rihanna, Lil Wayne, Miley Cyrus and Beyonce, and he's now in the studio with Eminem and Dr. Dre. In 2017, Williams helmed two songs that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Rae Sremmurd's five-times-platinum phenomenon "Black Beatles" and Lamar's "Humble." But like every shop manager, Williams, 28, has to keep the inventory fresh. "My most consistent thing is being new," he says. "I don't want my next record to sound like my last record."

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    The Chainsmokers

    DJs, producers

    Brad Barket/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

    The EDM-pop duo of Alex Pall, 32, and Andrew Taggart, 28, broke Justin Bieber's one-day record for YouTube views in February with a cartoon music video that looked like it was drawn with chalk on a blackboard. "Something Just Like This," which features Coldplay, racked up some 9 million views in just 24 hours and now, a year later, is up for a best duo/group performance Grammy. When the pair aren't producing songs, they're spinning albums in dance clubs as the third-highest-earning DJ act in the world, making $38 million a year (they recently signed an eight-figure deal with Wynn Nightlife to appear exclusively at its Vegas clubs through 2019). The duo's stage name, by the way, goes back to their college days. "I smoked a lot of pot," explains Pall.

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    DJ Khaled

    Producer

    C Flanigan/FilmMagic

    There aren't a lot of producers who can cram so much talent into one album. Drake, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Beyonce and Jay Z were just some of the stars the 42-year-old DJ corralled for his 10th studio release, Grateful, which went platinum in August. Its single, "I'm the One," featuring Bieber, Migos' Quavo, Chance the Rapper and Lil Wayne, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 14 weeks in the top 10, vying with "Despacito" for song of the summer.

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    Erika Ender

    Songwriter

    John Parra/Getty Images for LARAS

    The Panama-born singer-songwriter already was going to have a pretty great 2017 — at 43, she became the youngest-ever inductee into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame — when a little thing called "Despacito" happened. "It just exploded," says Ender of the smash-hit crossover she co-wrote with Puerto Rican pop star Luis Fonsi (who performs the song with countryman Daddy Yankee providing Spanish-language rap). The tune came out of a writing session at Fonsi's home in 2015. "He threw out the line, 'Vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico,' " Ender recalls ("We're gonna do it on a beach in Puerto Rico.") "So I said, 'You know what? Hasta que las olas griten ¡ay, bendito!' " ("Until the waves scream, 'Oh Lord!' ") Pretty soon they had the whole tune sketched out. The song reached No. 1 on Latin music charts shortly after its Jan. 13 release — but a Bieber remix in April shot the single into the stratosphere, making it the first Spanish-language song to hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 since "Macarena." And now it's the first Spanish-language song to be nominated in the song of the year category. Meanwhile, the video has racked up a staggering 4.7 billion YouTube views — the most ever.

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    Calvin Harris

    DJ, producer

    John Shearer/Getty Images

    Discovered at the modern-day musical Schwab's — Myspace — Harris, 34, has topped Forbes' list of the world's highest-paid DJs every year since 2012 (total earnings in that span: $289 million). Not a bad take for a guy who started as a grocery store stock boy in Dumfries, Scotland, and who is still known by many as Swift's ex (they dated in 2015-16). He picked up his sixth Grammy nomination and first producer of the year nom for his fifth studio album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 — which features guest vocals from Pharrell Williams, Ariana Grande, Snoop Dogg, John Legend and Katy Perry and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart — and for the song "Don't Quit," his collaboration on DJ Khaled's Grateful.

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    Julia Michaels

    Singer, songwriter

    Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for FIJI Water

    Only 24, Iowa-born Michaels has written songs for just about everybody in pop — Bieber, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Linkin Park, Selena Gomez and Sheeran, to name just a few. But this year, she stepped out on her own as a recording artist, releasing Nervous System and winding up with a Grammy nomination for best new artist. Her triple-platinum single, "Issues" (about an insecure ex-boyfriend), which climbed to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, is also up for song of the year. "It's definitely not what I expected," she says of the spotlight. "I have horrible stage fright, so obviously there was a lot of stuff I didn't think about."

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    Childish Gambino

    Singer, songwriter

    Michael Tran/FilmMagic

    In 2017, Donald Glover, 34, picked up two Emmys for his FX show Atlanta. This year, his music alter ego is concentrating on Grammys. Gambino is nominated for five awards, including album of the year for Awaken My Love, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and spawned the hit single "Redbone," up for record of the year. However, it may turn out to be the persona's penultimate recording. Glover was quoted in June as saying he'd soon be shuffling Gambino into retirement. "There's nothing worse than a third sequel, like a third movie and we're like, 'Again?' " he said. Funny, but Glover doesn't seem to have anything against 11th sequels; this year, he'll be starring as a young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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    Starrah

    Songwriter

    Joyce Kim/The New York Times/Redux

    She's written hits for everyone from Rihanna to Drake to The Weeknd, but she seldom shows her face in photos, always hiding behind her hands or a mask. "I'll let the music speak for itself," Starrah says of her fame phobia. Her first major breakthrough was penning "Needed Me" for Rihanna's 2016 album Anti, but in 2017 she wrote five tracks for Scottish DJ/producer Harris' Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 (including "Feels," the massive summer 2017 banger that featured Williams, Perry and Big Sean on vocals) and did "True Colors" for The Weeknd's Starboy. But Starrah, 27, says she isn't consciously trying to write chart-toppers. "Music just comes to me naturally," she says. "The rest of the world decides if it's a hit or not."

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    Steven Mac

    Songwriter, producer

    REX

    The U.K.-based songwriter and classically trained musician has produced records for opera singers like Il Divo and Britain's Got Talent discovery Susan Boyle but in recent years has returned to crafting more commercial earworms. "I decided I love pop music," says Mac, 46. "I wanted to get out of the middle-of-the-road lane." In 2017, he composed hits for One Direction's Liam Payne ("Strip That Down") and Pink ("What About Us") and, most notably, co-wrote Sheeran's infectious "Shape of You." It rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, stayed there for 12 weeks and holds the record for Spotify's most streamed song (more than 1.5 billion streams). "You come into 2018 and think, 'Am I ever going to beat 2017?' " says Mac of his monster success. "But I'm hungry. And I want to win."

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    Andres Torres & Mauricio Rengifo

    Producers

    David Becker/Getty Images

    The Colombia-born producers behind "Despacito" spent a year working on the tune with Puerto Rican pop star Fonsi before they got it just right. But the remix with Bieber took less than a week. "He was on tour in Colombia and partying after a show and he heard the song, which was already No. 1 on the Latin charts," says Torres, 31. "So he called his manager and told him he wanted to feature in the song because it was such a smash. So his manager called us. I think that was on a Saturday. By the next Friday, the remix was out." Within a few more days, it was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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    Marshmello

    DJ, producer

    Jeff Kravitz/AMA2017/FilmMagic for dcp

    Nobody knows his true identity (though many believe he's 21-year-old American DJ Christian Comstock) or what his face looks like (since he only appears in public wearing a marshmallow-shaped helmet over his head). But this mysterious masked man is dominating the EDM market. His ascendance was lightning fast: Within months of posting his first tracks to SoundCloud in 2015, superstar DJs like Skrillex, Diplo and Zedd were seeking out his bouncy remixes. By 2017, he was headlining gigs at major festivals and producing songs with Demi Lovato ("Anymore"), Khalid ("Silence") and Gomez ("Wolves"). His latest single, a collaboration with Lil Peep called "Spotlight," was supposed to stay under wraps after the 21-year-old rapper fatally overdosed Nov. 15 — but Peep's mother insisted it be released.

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    No I.D.

    DJ, producer

    Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Spotify

    The 46-year-old DJ and producer — whose real ID is Ernest Dion Wilson — has worked with Kanye, Common, Drake, Usher and Alicia Keys. But it wasn't until 2017 that he got a credit as solo producer, and it just happened to be on Jay Z's 4:44. The album has garnered eight Grammy noms, including record of the year, song of the year, album of the year and — for No. ID — producer of the year.

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    The Stereotypes

    Producers

    Splash News/Alamy Stock Photo

    This R&B producing foursome put their fingerprints on songs by Iggy Azalea ("Mo Bounce"), Fifth Harmony ("Deliver"), Mars ("That's What I Like," nominated for best song of the year) and about 20 other artists in 2017, earning them, among other things, a producer of the year nomination. But while attending the Grammys just two years ago, one of them was so broke, he actually got an overdraft text message from his bank during the ceremony. "My wife said, 'Don't worry about it — you'll be back here in a couple of years,' " recalls Ray Romulus. "It's now literally two years to that day and we're nominated!"

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    Blake Mills

    Guitarist, producer

    Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Columbia Records

    As a guitarist, Mills, 31, has recorded and toured with everyone from Kid Rock to Pink to the Dixie Chicks. But it's as a producer that Mills has come into the spotlight: This is his second year in a row as a producer of the year nominee, thanks to his work with Legend, Jim James and Perfume Genius. He continues to play the guitar (most recently on Randy Newman's Dark Matter album) and thinks of producing as an art in itself. "I'd be dead weight to an artist I wasn't actively inspired by," he says. "Next comes whether there's a connection. If we can communicate and there's common ground, I'm there."

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