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Freshman Class of 2005

This group's likely to graduate with honors

November 27, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

KANYE WEST, the rapper-producer who topped last year's Freshman Class, makes his presence known again by contributing to the success of two members of this year's class: R&B singer John Legend and "American Idol" winner Fantasia.

Other entries in the annual salute to the year's most noteworthy pop arrivals include the radical cabaret sensibilities of Antony and the Johnsons and the stark commentaries of a 42-year-old former restaurateur.

Whether releasing a debut album or simply achieving a new level of attention, these 10 artists not only brightened the pop scene during the past 12 months but offer the promise of even better things ahead.

Antony and the Johnsons. Antony Hegarty is a British-born, Southern California-raised, New York-based wonder -- a singer, writer and performer with a high-pitched vocal style so fragile that major labels and mainstream radio will probably never know what to do with him. Yet his delicate, anxiety-driven tales about self-identity and desire on his "I Am a Bird Now" album (Secretly Canadian) may just stick with you forever.

Bloc Party. Like many promising young bands, this new British rock outfit can be riveting on some numbers and a bit anonymous on others, which makes it something of a coin flip for the future. The debut album "Silent Alarm" (Vice) is at its best when lead singer Kele Okereke and mates rely on some familiar British models (notably the Clash, the Cure and Gang of Four) to reflect on contemporary life in London in manic, guitar-driven songs that slice through the speakers with sometimes alarming force.

Fantasia. Who ever thought an "American Idol" star would make a critic's list? The material on her debut album, "Free Yourself" (J), was mostly lame, but she gained considerable credibility when talent-savvy West gave her the coveted opening spot on his U.S. tour. And she is making the most of the opportunity, demonstrating on the tour enough personality and vocal fire to make you think she could be something special indeed with the right material and arrangements in the studio.

Mary Gauthier. At 43, this folk-country-leaning Louisiana native is probably the oldest artist ever to make the Freshman Class list, but it just takes some singer-songwriters time to season -- and the former owner of the Dixie Kitchen restaurant in Boston didn't even get started writing songs until she was in her 30s. This year, on her first CD for Lost Highway Records, she delivered some tunes that look at addiction and loss with such intensity they can make you wince. There's enough craft, conviction and honesty in her "Mercy Now" album to remind you of Kris Kristofferson and John Prine in their prime.

The Go! Team. The chaotic sound on this British band's wonderfully energetic and entertaining debut album, "Thunder, Lightning, Strike" (Memphis Industries/Columbia), feels so much like the result of spontaneous combustion that you wonder if Ian Parton, the team's guiding force, can ever pull together another record that's as much fun. It's freewheeling electronica with a spirit that is part Blondie charm, part Looney Tunes exuberance.

Giant Drag. Some of today's most challenging and absorbing music is coming from coed duos, including the White Stripes and the Kills. Los Angeles' Annie Hardy and Micah Calabrese's music is in the stark, unsettling tradition of the Jesus & Mary Chain and the Kills. There's a bit of Courtney Love fearlessness in Hardy's approach, which makes the traces of little-girl innocence in her vocals all the more enticing. Giant Drag is clearly a work in progress, but there's a spark that could ignite.

LCD Soundsystem. The record industry long ago wrote off electronica as a major commercial trend, but key figures in the genre still make music that is fresh and alert, and James Murphy is at the top of the list these days. Murphy's strength, like his main influences (including Giorgio Moroder, New Order and the Prodigy), is based in large part on sensibilities tied as much to pop and rock as pure electronica.

John Legend. Though West lost the best new artist Grammy to Maroon5 this year, his protege Legend is the odds-on favorite to pick up that award this time. Legend doesn't aim for the raw soul aggression of D'Angelo in his hit album, "Get Lifted" (Getting Out Our Dreams/Columbia), but there's an elegance and grace to his work that feels both classic and contemporary.

M.I.A. Here's another artist who benefits from mixing musical cultures. M.I.A. is a London-based Sri Lanka native (real name: Maya Arulpragasam) who has absorbed influences that range from Europop and hip-hop to Hindi film music. What's especially surprising is that she doesn't just seduce us with those rhythms and textures but applies an underlying coat of social observation that gives the music unexpected substance.

Sufjan Stevens. Stevens has talent to burn. He's a writer with the intelligence and rhyming instinct to fit into the Cole Porter/Elvis Costello mold -- though you have to wonder if his music wouldn't feel a bit more compelling emotionally if he freed himself from the challenge of making every song on his albums revolve around the history of a specific state. Even with that restriction, the music on "Illinois" is often heartfelt and personal.

Contact Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, at Robert.Hilburn@latimes.com.

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