A smash first single (”Day ‘n’ Nite”) and one of the year’s best debut albums (Man on the Moon: The End of Day) — plus high-profile collaborations with everyone from Jay-Z to Shakira — transformed the introspective Kanye West protégé into a genuine star in short order. ”It’s been an intense roller coaster, but I’m adjusting,” the 25-year-old rapper told EW in May. ”I’ve always been a dude who’s kept to myself. Now when I go out, people see me all over the place. But it’s all good!”
KEY TRACK: ”Day ‘n’ Nite”
— Simon Vozick-Levinson
The frumpy 48-year-old’s April performance on Britain’s Got Talent initially seemed more laugh-inducing than awe-inspiring. But Susan Boyle’s take on ”I Dreamed a Dream” proved unforgettable, wowing judge Simon Cowell and a theaterful of skeptics, then garnering more than 20 million YouTube views over the next week. In November, her album shifted a remarkable 701,000 copies its first week, making Boyle 2009’s most unlikely new pop star.
KEY TRACK: ”I Dreamed a Dream”
— Clark Collis
Adam Young spent endless hours in his parents’ basement last year playing around with melodic electro sounds. So have lots of aspiring musicians. The difference: This fall, one of Young’s tunes, ”Fireflies,” hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. ”It’s pretty surreal for me, being a shy boy from the middle of nowhere in southern Minnesota,” says the 23-year-old musician, whose debut album was recently certified gold. ”Every night on tour, people sing that song back to me the loudest. It’s totally crazy.”
KEY TRACK: ”Fireflies”
— Simon Vozick-Levinson
This sweet-voiced R&B singer-songwriter scored a Best New Artist Grammy nod on the strength of hot radio tracks like ”Knock You Down” and ”Energy,” from her debut album, In a Perfect World…. ”I wanted women to connect to my lyrics,” says Keri Hilson, explaining World‘s tongue-in-cheek title. ”Embrace your imperfections. That’s what makes you you.” Now her goals are even simpler, the 27-year-old says. ”I’m chasing pure happiness. No amount of success can give you that.”
KEY TRACK: ”Knock You Down”
— Whitney Pastorek
Go ahead and make fun of Drake’s eight seasons on Degrassi: The Next Generation. The actor-turned-Grammy-nominated rapper will just record another smash. ”All my strikes against me fuel a lot of my writing,” says the 23-year-old, who this year released two big hit singles and worked with the likes of Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. ”It’s beyond flattering,” he says of collaborating with his heroes. ”It really pushes you.” That drive should help when he puts out his debut album next year.
KEY TRACK: ”Best I Ever Had”
— Tim Stack