“There hasn’t been such a fun time to make music since the Sixties,” says Brian Oblivion, who, with his girlfriend, Madeline Follin, formed the Brooklyn indie band Cults last year. The film school dropouts, whose debut LP came out in June, are putting out nostalgic, beatific pop songs that have caught the ear of Lily Allen, who subsequently signed them to her new UK-based label. “Our generation is really optimistic and happy,” says Oblivion, 22. “Everybody loves Top 40 music, these annoyingly infectious songs. We’re trying to subvert that.”
A protégé of M.I.A., Baltimore rapper Rye Rye began touring with the pop star in 2007 and was instantly hyped as the next big thing. But as quickly as she blew up, she retreated from the spotlight, giving birth to a baby girl in 2009. This summer the 20-year-old firecracker will finally release her much anticipated debut album, Go! Pop! Bang! (“It’s very dance-y,” she says). And if her deliriously exuberant single “Sunshine” is any indication, the record will be well worth the wait.
“People are less cynical in the States,” says Ben Drew, the East London rapper and singer who goes by the name Plan B. “In the UK they don’t know a good thing when it’s right in front of them.” After his debut hard-core rap album sold poorly, Plan B—who is also a successful actor in British gangster flicks like 2009’s Harry Brown—reinvented himself as a crooner on his soul record The Defamation of Strickland Banks. A No. 1 hit in Britain, it arrived on these shores in April. Despite the project’s success, Plan B plans to return to underground rap for his next offering. “It’s dark—not what you’d hear on the radio,” he says. “But I can’t worry about radio play if it will compromise the record. To be honest, there’s enough bullshit in the industry right now.&rdquo
“Some people hate our music, but that’s better than being middle-of-the-road,” says Derek E. Miller, who, along with Alexis Krauss, makes up Sleigh Bells. Their lo-fi electro-pop isn’t for everyone—radio stations have refused to play their more distortion-heavy songs for fear listeners will change the channel—but that hasn’t affected the trajectory of their success. They released their debut album last year, and in January headed into the studio with Beyoncé. “Everything happened so quickly,” Krauss says. “There are times when we look at each other and are like, We should be playing in front of 12 people, not 12,000.”
Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa, who counts U2 and Rod Stewart among his myriad musical influences, released his first official single (and unofficial Steelers anthem), “Black and Yellow,” last September, and by February it topped the charts. A month later he dropped his debut studio album, Rolling Papers, and it landed in the No. 2 spot, just behind Britney Spears. Since then, the affable weed smoker has been riding high, but he hasn’t let the glory go to his head. Success, he says, has only “given me a lot of motivation to do it again and again.”
“I think we’re definitely in a time when you can do whatever you want, when there are no laws as to what’s cool and what sells,” says Brooklyn-based George Lewis Jr., aka Twin Shadow, who takes his musical inspiration from Seventies film scores and his style cues from James Dean. His debut album, Forget, was released last year and received instant acclaim for its slinky, soulful New Wave–tinged sound. “I push myself to exaggerate my music,” he says, “to make it more dramatic and lush.”
Pop siren Skylar Grey pierced America’s consciousness with a thrilling performance at the Grammys earlier this year. For the longtime singer-songwriter—whose anticipated follow-up to her 2006 debut album (recorded under her real name, Holly Brook) comes out in the fall—it’s all going according to plan. “A rocket will shoot up in the sky and fall right back down, but a hot-air balloon will float up gradually,” says Grey, whose steady ascent has been propelled by a string of collaborations with hip-hop stars such as Eminem, Diddy, and T.I. “I want to take the hot-air balloon approach.”