Kanye West, whose "The College Dropout" is the most satisfying debut album since Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me," tops this year's unusually diverse Freshman Class.
Other entries in the annual salute to the year's most noteworthy pop arrivals include the irresistible energy and wit of the Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand and the moody country introspection of Mindy Smith. Whether making an album debut or simply breaking through to a new level of attention this year, each artist is blessed with a strong sense of individuality and the promise of even better things to come.The Arcade Fire: This Canadian rock group's debut on Merge is a hit on college radio, thanks to inventive, artful musical touches that use Talking Heads as a starting point. The songs on the CD, "Funeral," are about getting a grip on things in an anxious age, with characters being battered from all sides, even by acts of nature. Defining lyric: "I am waitin' till I don't know when / Cause I'm sure it's gonna happen then."
Jamie Cullum: This jazzy British singer-pianist with a rich pop sensibility could be special if the cocky Bobby Darin side (smart genre-breaking) eventually triumphs over the cocky Billy Joel side (conventional tunesmith). He's talented enough in his Verve album "Twentysomething" to write his own songs and bold enough to sing tunes by Cole Porter and Radiohead.
Franz Ferdinand: There hasn't been a more immediately disarming rock album all year than this self-titled debut on Epic. The music combines the dance-hungry seduction of Roxy Music and the Pet Shop Boys, and the lyrics deal in such extremes of romantic pathos that they become uplifting and, at times, even sweet.
The Killers: There's something so straightforward about "Hot Fuss," the debut album from this Las Vegas-based band, that the whole thing seems like "meat and potatoes" in a rock age where exotic dishes are much more prized (see Ferdinand, Arcade Fire). Yet the group uses those melody and pop-hook basics so well that you'll find yourself humming along.
Nellie McKay: Like Cullum, McKay's a modern pop figure with strong ties to Tin Pan Alley tradition, although the more apt comparison might be Rufus Wainwright. Although not as ruthlessly obsessive, she shows in the best moments of her Columbia debut, "Get Away From Me," that she's not afraid of digging deep for emotional revelations. Indeed, she seems unable not to do so.
Dizzee Rascal: Along with rival Mike Skinner of the Streets, Rascal (real name Dylan Mills) uses hip-hop to talk about his struggles in working-class London, which places the songs closer to the British rock tradition of the Who and the Kinks than American hip-hop. Who knows if U.S. audiences will identify with the experiences of Skinner (who was in last year's Freshman Class) or Rascal, but the music feels trailblazing.
Mindy Smith: On her moody Vanguard album debut, "One Moment More," singer-songwriter Smith moves deftly between gospel-edged tension, a folk-country simplicity and a bluesy defiance in her search for emotional comfort. Rather than Shania Twain or Faith Hill superficiality, Smith fits into the heartfelt country tradition of Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.
Snow Patrol: All those Coldplay comparisons aren't necessarily wrong, just misleading. This rock band from Northern Ireland does deal in wistful harmonies and caressing instrumental textures, but the songs on the A&M album "Final Straw" assert their own gripping sensibilities. "Run," a warm, wonderful statement of self-affirmation in the face of loss, is one of the year's unforgettable singles.
Martina Topley-Bird: If radio had embraced the English singer's restrained, melancholy "Anything" with anything near the fervor it did Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why," Topley-Bird, the magical female voice on Tricky's best recordings in the '90s, might have been the year's new pop sensation. But her solo debut album on Palm, also titled "Anything," is one of the year's overlooked gems. It's a bluesy, jazzy, trancelike "after-hours" number.
Kanye West: In this album-of-the-year contender, West proves to be the freshest voice in American hip-hop since Eminem. He builds upon hard-core rap beats but avoids the stereotypes of hard-core lyrics. Instead, he gives us evocative stories about his life, told so convincingly that he ended up with the best-selling rap album of the year.