|Tom Waits: Mule Variations (Epitaph) Rating: 18/20
Mule Variations may not expand upon the creaking junkyard ambience already established on Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years and Bone Machine, but these 70 minutes of bluesy introspection add up to 1999's finest album. Whether it's rock ("Big in Japan," "Filipino Box Spring Hog"), balladry ("Hold On," "House Where Nobody Lives," "Georgia Lee"), work-song dirges ("Get Behind the Mule," "Lowside of the Road") or a wry spoken-word piece ("What's He Building?"), Waits is at the top of his game here, sculpting his legendary growl and weathered arrangements into a haunting set of eerie, derelict landscapes.
|XTC: Apple Venus Volume 1 (TVT) Rating: 16/20
XTC's first album in seven years is one of 1999's top releases, even if it's mildly disappointing when compared with the group's best work. Billed as an "orchustic" album (half orchestral, half acoustic), the disc soars during the lustrous splendor of "Easter Theatre," "Harvest Festival," "I Can't Own Her," "Greenman" and "River of Orchids," but levels out during a couple of precious acoustic ditties, two clumsy Colin Moulding compositions, the crassly belligerent "Your Dictionary" and the overlong "Last Balloon."
|Beth Orton: Central Reservation (Arista) Rating: 15/20
Bravely dropping the folk/trip-hop confluence which put her on the map, Orton strives for a more classic sound on her second album, with an elegant set of acoustic musings which often recall the intuitive reveries of Van Morrison. The stark presentation of her songs has an inherent drama that's instantly compelling -- it's too bad that her garbled enunciation makes the lyrics so tough to decipher.
|Randy Newman: Bad Love (DreamWorks) Rating: 15/20
A wonderful comeback, this is Newman's best release since 1972's Sail Away -- no kidding. Freed from the slick session-guy textures of his other recent albums, Newman emphasizes intimacy, wit, humanity and melody through deeply resonant songs such as "Shame," "My Country," "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" and "The World Isn't Fair."
|Stereolab: Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra) Rating: 14/20
This 76-minute monster is simply a staggering explosion of ideas, spanning breezy pop ("Strobo Acceleration," "Infinity Girl"), post-Brian Wilson balladry ("The Spiracles," "Caleidoscopic Gaze"), space-age bebop ("Fuses," "Continuum"), experiments with odd meters ("The Free Design," "Blips, Drips and Strips") and disciplined minimalism (the 11-minute "Blue Milk"). Benefitting from extra dashes of trumpet, strings, musical saw and vibraphone, this heady effort elevates the band's Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane to the level of true contemporary composers.
|The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.) Rating: 14/20
Surely this imaginative band's most gorgeously crafted album ever, The Soft Bulletin lives up to its name with a set of atmospheric tunes focused on lush detail and vaporous melodies, rather than buzzing distortion and raucous beats. Cloaking guitars in a fanciful array of sampled instruments, effects and overdubbed harmonies, the Lips use studio wizardry to lead an imaginary orchestra through a suite of cosmic odes, highlighted by "The Gash," "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," the soaring "Race for the Prize" and the surprisingly Yes-like "Buggin'."
|Quasi: Field Studies (Up) Rating: 14/20
Showing improvement on every front, this Northwest duo's superior fourth album boasts more consistency and more variety, tighter song construction, sweeter harmonies, less grating keyboard tones and a blossoming talent for Lennon-esque balladry. The 14 tracks swing between energetic pop ("Under a Cloud," "Birds," "The Skeleton") and soaring, baroque epics ("Smile," "The Golden Egg," "The Star You Left Behind," "A Fable With No Moral"), as Sam Coomes hammers his pleasantly outdated keyboards and drummer Janet Weiss (on loan from Sleater-Kinney) adds her usual polished muscularity.
|Owsley: Owsley (Giant) Rating: 14/20
Multi-instrumentalist Will Owsley has a mainstream history as a hired gun, spanning stints with Judson Spence, Amy Grant and Shania Twain (he also fronted an early band with Ben Folds). His solo debut is a different story, however -- a tad generic, yes, but the indelible hooks should instantly grab fans of bright, crisply produced pop acts like Jellyfish, Jason Falkner, World Party and Neil Finn.
|Sleater-Kinney: The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars) Rating: 14/20
This wildly praised (perhaps overpraised) trio's fourth album aims for a less ferocious tone than previous discs, even adding violin/viola lines to two tracks. While the strident lyrics and post-Throwing Muses guitar textures keep the milder tunes interesting, the group's most attention-grabbing songs remain fiery anthems like "Start Together," "The End of You," "Burn, Don't Freeze" and "One Song for You."
|Beck: Midnite Vultures (DGC) Rating: 14/20
Faced with the monumental challenge of matching Odelay, Beck cheerfully strides into new territory, throwing out the raps and samples, confining the Dust Brothers to just two songs and steering his style from hip-hop toward a densely arranged brand of funky soul. "Sexx Laws" isn't a killer single on a par with "Devil's Haircut" and "Loser," but several other bursts of rambling genius (the growling drag of "Peaches & Cream," the energetic swagger of "Mixed Bizness," the edgy crunch of "Milk & Honey," the perverse chill-out of "Debra") are masterful creations.
The Olivia Tremor Control: Black Foliage: Animation Music (Flydaddy) Rating: 14/20
The Olivia Tremor Control's second album is much like the group's debut, Dusk at Cubist Castle: sprawling both in concept and in length (27 tracks spread over 69 minutes, this time), and paradoxically split between loves for simple, breezy pop and mindblowing avant-garde experimentation. The difference is that on Cubist Castle, the band's two contrasting sides are partitioned into discrete segments, whereas new tracks like "A New Day," "Hideaway," "California Demise" and "A Peculiar Noise Called 'Train Director'" weave bizarre tape edits, musique concrète and clusters of irrelevant instrumental parts directly into the melodies, creating a startling textural tension which alternately thrills, challenges and frustrates.
Richard Thompson: Mock Tudor (Capitol) Rating: 14/20
This is the legendary songwriter/guitarist's first album in years not produced by Mitchell Froom, and as a result, it's a tougher, bluesier record with none of Froom's baroque frosting. While the simple arrangements are a refreshing change, Mock Tudor isn't especially good by Thompson's standards -- his earthy voice and wonderful playing guarantee success (particularly on mellower tracks like "Sights and Sounds of London Town," "Uninhabited Man" and "Hope You Like the New Me"), but some melodies are uninspired and his relentlessly dour portraits of tormenting women can be tiresome.
Sonic Youth: Goodbye 20th Century (SYR) Rating: 14/20
On this heady double-disc, Sonic Youth plunges boldly into modern classical music, performing the material of iconoclastic, game-playing composers like Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Yoko Ono, John Cage and Christian Wolff. What could've been a tedious, dilettante indulgence ends up being intensely fascinating -- it's just too bad that the no-budget packaging doesn't offer any information about the schematics which generate the pieces (sure, it's easy to understand the swinging-microphone feedback which created Reich's "Pendulum Music," the simple three-line directive of Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano" and the hammer-and-nail havoc of George Maciunas' "Piano Piece #13," but the knottier tracks are more mysterious).
Robyn Hitchcock: Jewels for Sophia (Warner Bros.) Rating: 14/20
It took all decade, but Robyn Hitchcock has finally made a '90s-sounding record, thanks to producer Jon Brion and a purge of the old-school gothic reverb which cast Hitchcock as a holdover from the Smiths/Church/Go-Betweens generation. The new batch of songs is uneven, however -- "Mexican God," "Dark Princess," "No, I Don't Remember Guildford" and the title track are evocative, but others are hindered by repetition and so-so lyrics.
Jason Falkner: Can You Still Feel? (Elektra) Rating: 13/20
Falkner's second solo album is another set of harmonically sophisticated pop epics, again recorded almost entirely on his own. However, despite some exquisitely melodic tracks (especially "Eloquence," "I Already Know," "Author Unknown" and "The Plan"), the disc doesn't reach the heights of his fantastic debut, due to less consistent songwriting ("All God's Creatures" and "See You Again" are noticeably sub-par) and an influx of outdated synthesizer patches.
Fluid Ounces: In the New Old-Fashioned Way (Spongebath) Rating: 13/20
This Nashville foursome gets frequently compared to Ben Folds Five, but despite the similar sound (tricky, piano-based pop loaded with vocal harmonies and hints of Tin Pan Alley), there are just as many differences: better singing, better production and more detailed arrangements here, and on the negative side, less of Folds' emotional pull and post-punk scrappiness. The songs dart between ragtime bounce ("Lend Me Your Ears," "Vegetable Kingdom"), speedy romps ("Drought," "Go Lucky"), sophisticated ballads ("Bigger Than the Both of Us," "Run, Rabbit, Run"), a tropical tango ("Ambiance") and crowd-pleasing pop ("Have Fun," "Comfortable").
Moby: Play (V2) Rating: 13/20
After the uninvolving misfires of Animal Rights and I Like to Score, Moby gets back on track with this intriguing batch of compositions, ranging from serene ambience to half-rapped grooves to sampled blues/gospel hybrids. It's an enjoyable, engaging disc from start to finish, though Moby's arrangements aren't as clever and nuanced as some of his peers' (in particular, his drum tracks can seem rather perfunctory at times).
Chris Cornell: Euphoria Morning (A & M) Rating: 13/20
Bravely reinventing himself, the ex-Soundgarden frontman aims for a blend of hard-rock power, silky soul and singer-songwriter intimacy on this promising, if not entirely successful, solo debut. Fans seeking a visceral punch may be disappointed with these downbeat, introspective musings, but the highlights -- especially "Can't Change Me," "Follow My Way," "Flutter Girl" and "Pillow of Your Bones" -- are easily as good as anything recorded by his previous band.
Nine Inch Nails: The Fragile (Nothing) Rating: 13/20
Yes, it's a standard criticism, but this bloated collection of uneven songwriting and instrumental filler easily could've been whittled down to a stronger single disc. Both discs open with some excellent tracks ("The Day the World Went Away," "The Wretched" and "We're in This Together" on the first, and "Into the Void," "Where is Everybody?" and "Please" on the second), but gradually lose momentum -- Reznor's brilliance as a producer/arranger can't compensate for his dreary, repetitive lyrics and formulaic melodies.
The Hang Ups: Second Story (Clean) Rating: 13/20
The Hang Ups make a bid for the big leagues with their third album, hiring the superstar Don Dixon/Mitch Easter production team (reunited for the first time since R.E.M.'s Reckoning) and adding a fancy fold-out CD sleeve. The group won't toil in obscurity for long, if they sustain this disc's high quality -- the tone is still a bit emotionally cold, but Brian Tighe's distinctive, tricky melodies recall the glories of the much-missed dB's.
Matthew Sweet: In Reverse (Volcano) Rating: 13/20
Matthew Sweet rebounds from the disastrous Blue Sky on Mars with this strong collection, though he fails to recapture his Girlfriend/Altered Beast glories. Featuring another pedigreed lineup of guest stars (Greg Leisz, Carol Kaye, the Velvet Crush's Ric Menck and Paul Chastain, the Fowler Brothers, Fred Maher, the Moog Cookbook's Brian Kehew...), this densely arranged disc peaks with the chunky "Millennium Blues," the bubblegum joys of "I Should Have Never Let You Know," the Lennon-esque ballad "Hide," the majestic "Worse to Live" and a 10-minute suite titled "Thunderstorm."
Beulah: When Your Heartstrings Break (Sugar Free) Rating: 13/20
Yet another winner from the Elephant 6 posse, this San Francisco-based group stuffs a lavish array of instruments (guitar, strings, harp, french horn, trombone, sax, accordion, clarinet, flute, tabla and more) into 11 delightful pop songs. The lyrics are awkwardly wordy, but the sweet flow of the melodies and Robert Schneider's razor-sharp production make this disc a joy from start to finish.
The Velvet Crush: Free Expression (Bobsled) Rating: 13/20
Undaunted by the meager visibility of their post-550 Music releases, Ric Menck and Paul Chastain continue to issue reverent slices of classic guitar pop via this sweet, well-crafted album. Actually stronger than last year's Heavy Changes (originally intended for 550 Music, released belatedly on the band's own Action Musik imprint), Free Expression features new hints of Elliott Smith (check "Roman Candle" and "Things Get Better") and more variety in arrangements, such as the strident horns in "All Together," the piano in "Ballad of Yesteryear," the buzzing synthesizer in "Shine on Me" and the pedal-steel guitar in "Gentle Breeze."
Various Artists: Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (Almo) Rating: 13/20
Emmylou Harris (Gram Parsons' former singing partner) assembled this powerful collection herself, and maybe that's why it's the best tribute record of the past few years. Tracks are chosen from Parsons' solo records as well as his stints with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, while sympathetic names both young (Wilco, Beck, Whiskeytown, Gillian Welch, Evan Dando) and old (Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Harris) contribute a consistent set of polished, soulful readings.
Sigur Rós: Agætis Byrjun (PIAS America) Rating: 13/20
Starved 4AD/My Bloody Valentine disciples have leapt to deify this mysterious Icelandic quartet, whose slow-motion, meticulously paced hymns have both the Cocteau Twins' impenetrable vocals and This Mortal Coil's ambient orchestrations. Jonsi Birgisson's androgynous crooning leads these elongated, lunar pieces, which sometimes fade into decorative wallpaper but achieve exquisite tension with "Staralfur," the haunting "Svefn-G-Englar," "Flugufrelsarinn" and the grandiose waltz of "Olsen Olsen."
Paul Westerberg: Suicaine Gratifaction (Capitol) Rating: 13/20
Westerberg's third solo album is saddled with some clumsy melodies and painfully banal lyrics, but it's also his first record since the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me to sound like a human, personal project, and not just a coldly professional date with hired session players. None of these dozen songs are on a par with his acclaimed '80s catalog, but homespun reflections like "It's a Wonderful Lie," "Self-Defense," "Born for Me" and "Sunrise Always Listens" are more affecting than any track on his mediocre previous disc, Eventually.
Superchunk: Come Pick Me Up (Merge) Rating: 13/20
Adding a new producer (experimentalist Jim O'Rourke) and guest musicians on cello, violin, trumpet, sax and trombone, Superchunk's ninth album aims for a more subdued, textural sound. Some of the band's squalling power is lost, but nuanced tracks like "Low Branches," "1000 Pounds," "Pink Clouds" and "Honey Bee" may prove more durable in the end.
Of Montreal: The Gay Parade (Bar/None) Rating: 13/20
Far more ambitious than the band's homespun Bar/None debut, the third album from these child-like ingenues is puffed up with a host of quirky instruments and vocal arrangements à la their more famous Elephant 6 buddies (see the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel). The disc comes off like a tribute to attention-deficit disorder, however -- the songs are so ridiculously packed with cutesy modulations, twists and chord changes that they seldom take hold, despite their sweet Brian Wilson-like cadences.
Material: Intonarumori (Axiom) Rating: 13/20
Material's second foray into hip-hop is much more successful than 1991's The Third Power, thanks to thickly buzzing grooves and talented guest stars like Kool Keith (Dr. Octagon, Ultramagnetic MCs), Flavor Flav (Public Enemy), Killah Priest (Wu Tang Clan), Lori Carson (Golden Palominos), Rammellzee and the Ghetto Prophets. Declaring that "rap is still an art" on the album sleeve, svengali-at-large Bill Laswell adds his usual cosmic noise/funk/worldbeat textures to sharp-edged spiels like "Conspiracies," "Burnin'," "No Guts No Galaxy," "Temple of the Mental" and "Life Itself," creating an intriguing new synthesis.
Sebadoh: The Sebadoh (Sub Pop) Rating: 13/20
Everything about this album signals a fresh direction: the definitive title, new drummer Russ Pollard, new Sire distribution. Yet beneath the crisper production, these hard-hitting songs lack the intimacy and subtlety of Sebadoh's best work, instead offering aggressive but emotionally unmoving blasts like "It's All You," "Weird," "Flame," "Drag Down" and "Decide."
The High Llamas: Snowbug (V2) Rating: 13/20
Anyone familiar with the High Llamas knows exactly what to expect from the group's fifth album: dainty, orchestrated pop, fragrant with an air of post-Brian Wilson auteurism. Sean O'Hagan's thin, inexpressive voice is still a serious handicap, but when his arty chords and cadences gel (as on "Bach Ze," "Green Coaster," "Cut the Dummy Loose" and the instrumental "Janet Jangle"), the results are gorgeous.
Frank Black & the Catholics: Pistolero (spinART) Rating: 13/20
Frank Black's new "We're just a old-fashioned rock 'n' roll band, bashing it out live in the studio" philosophy isn't going to take him very far, judging from his past two albums. Armed with a new guitarist but no new ideas, the influential Pixies founder rumbles through 14 soundalike rock tunes, displaying a deepening world-weariness and a noticeably deteriorated voice.
Luscious Jackson: Electric Honey (Grand Royal) Rating: 13/20
Luscious Jackson weathers the loss of keyboardist Vivian Trimble quite well on their third album, crafting another consistent (if formulaic and lyrically slight) set of hip-hop-streaked pop tunes. Dumping previous producer Daniel Lanois was a smart move -- the best tracks here ("Nervous Breakthrough," "Summer Daze," "Gypsy," "Beloved") have a funky edge which the ethereal Lanois couldn't have provided.
Alanis Morissette: MTV Unplugged (Maverick) Rating: 13/20
Unveiling an overdue sense of dignity and nuance, Morissette transfers her caterwauling anthems to an acoustic format with pleasing results. Her groove-based melodies wear thin at times, but the mellower dynamics and added string parts nicely enhance proven favorites ("Uninvited," "You Oughta Know," "That I Would Be Good," "You Learn"), two previously unreleased songs and a cover of the Police's "King of Pain."
Super Furry Animals: Guerrilla (Flydaddy) Rating: 13/20
Immensely talented but equally confused, the Furries offer more kitchen-sink assemblages of pop, rock and experimentation on the uneven Guerrilla. When the group dives into densely produced pop -- as on "Do Or Die," "Turning Tide," "Northern Lites," "The Teacher" and "Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy" -- they're a joy, but detours into techno grooves are awkward and unconvincing, while a Beach Boys-influenced power ballad ("Chewing Chewing Gum") doesn't develop adequately.
Tori Amos: To Venus and Back (Atlantic) Rating: 13/20
Tori Amos' latest monument to herself is a double-length package, containing one disc of live performances and one disc of new studio recordings. The live disc has popular songs like "Precious Things" and "Cornflake Girl" plus a few neat obscurities ("Cooling," "Sugar," "Purple People"), but the studio disc is a noticeably uninspired batch of rambling melodies and synthetic vamping, only striking gold with "Concertina" and "1000 Oceans."
The Lonesome Organist: Cavalcade (Thrill Jockey) Rating: 13/20
The Lonesome Organist is Jeremy J. Jacobsen, a one-man-band eccentric who has previously played with blues-informed indie acts like Jon Spencer and 5ive Style. However, none of his collaborations will prepare you for his second solo album Cavalcade, an otherworldly delight staking out a zany, virtuosic perch somewhere between silent-film soundtracks, blues, white-trash hootenanny and dadaist whimsy.
Bryan Ferry: As Time Goes By (Virgin) Rating: 13/20
Once again testing his powers of vocal interpretation (and having burned out his own songwriting chops about 15 years ago), Ferry glides into a delicate collection of standards from the '20s and '30s. His voice has a bit more grit than it once did, but his slippery vibrato is charming on elegantly arranged jewels like "I'm in the Mood for Love," "September Song," "Miss Otis Regrets" and "Falling in Love Again."
Mark Lanegan: I'll Take Care of You (Sub Pop) Rating: 13/20
For his fourth solo album, the dour Screaming Trees leader explores his roots with an all-covers disc, avoiding the expected psychedelia and hard-rock oldies for an obscure collection of folk nuggets ("Shiloh Town," "Badi-Da," "Shanty Man's Life," "Little Sadie"), a Buck Owens standard, a bit of sexy fun (Tim Rose's "Boogie Boogie") and torchy soul. The latter is the greatest revelation -- Lanegan's velvety baritone has never been so vulnerable as on his stirring versions of the title track, O.V. Wright's "On Jesus' Program" and Eddie Floyd's "Consider Me."
Gorky's Zygotic Mynci: Spanish Dance Troupe (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 13/20
These underrated Welsh popsters' latest album is a surprisingly pastoral effort, full of acoustic instruments, relaxed tempos and gentle dynamics. Too many songs seem undercooked and slight (five of 15 tracks are under two minutes), but the intensity picks up with the wacky "Poodle Rockin'," the countrified "Faraway Eyes," the rambling "Desolation Blues," the lovely "Freckles" and the climactic "Humming Song."
Pavement: Terror Twilight (Matador) Rating: 13/20
The influential Stockton, CA rockers bow out with this noticeably tired collection, in which the sluggish, wandering jams sound just lazy rather than slyly understated. The opening "Spit on a Stranger" is a wonderful, teasing single, but "Carrot Rope," the erratically explosive "Billie" and the Beefheart-like "Platform Blues" are the only other tracks where the players wake up and actually enjoy themselves.
Mouse on Mars: Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey) Rating: 13/20
This electronic duo continues to humble its more sterile, knob-twiddling peers, standing apart with a gentle sense of whimsy and a percolating array of squirts, beeps and warbles. The group's sixth album even dares to insert traditional horns and strings, heard most prominently in "Download Sofist," "Mykologics" and the playful "Albion Rose."
Black Box Recorder: England Made Me (Jetset) Rating: 13/20
Seductive chanteuse Sarah Nixey is this British trio's initial calling card, but the group's true strength is the erudite arranging/songwriting of multi-instrumentalists Luke Haines (ex-Auteurs) and John Moore (ex-solo artist and short-lived drummer for the Jesus & Mary Chain). The muted intimacy of the group's debut album (boosted with four extra tracks for its U.S. release) can be drab and sluggish, but the strong melodies, haunting vocals and eloquent portraits of weary disillusion lift powerful tracks like "Child Psychology," "Girl Singing in the Wreckage" and the title song.
David Thomas & the Pale Orchestra: Mirror Man (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 13/20
The Pere Ubu leader's latest conceptual opus is a collaborative performance, recorded live at a commissioned London festival. Essentially spoken-word except for three tracks sung by Linda Thompson, Mirror Man continues Thomas' preoccupation with America's rural highway landscape, as he and guest vocalists spout layered observations over Ubu-esque mood music supplied by players including Chris Cutler and Peter Hammill.
Cibo Matto: Stereo-Type A (Warner Bros.) Rating: 12/20
Given the nutty hip-hop and aggressive sampling of Cibo Matto's debut, the group's second album is startlingly slick and commercial, sounding targeted more at mainstream Luscious Jackson/Tom Tom Club fans. Too many of these 14 songs are dull and anonymous, even if a few tracks (the easy-listening soul of "Moonchild," the half-rapped "Sci-Fi Wasabi," the catchy pop of "Spoon" and "Working for Vacation") are adorably infectious.
The Ladybug Transistor: The Albemarle Sound (Merge) Rating: 12/20
This Brooklyn collective's third album is a pretty (if somewhat cloying) set of lushly arranged pop, recalling '60s ear candy like the Left Banke and the nascent Bee Gees mixed with a modern dash of the Magnetic Fields' deadpan moodiness. The songwriting is uneven (tellingly, the best track, "Like a Summer Rain," is a cover), but the artful layering of piano, guitars, horns and strings is enough to smooth over the awkward moments.
Arto Lindsay: Prize (Righteous Babe) Rating: 12/20
Lindsay (best known for work with the Lounge Lizards and Ambitious Lovers) returns with his fourth album of airy Brazilian pop, this time via Ani DeFranco's self-run label. The disc includes a few traces of Lindsay's old avant-noise edge (witness the title track and "Prefeelings"), but his lyrics are abstract to the point of impenetrability and there just isn't much terrain left to mine within this narrowly defined sound.
The Folk Implosion: One Part Lullaby (Interscope) Rating: 12/20
Capitalizing on their 1995 hit "Natural One," Lou Barlow and John Davis move up to Interscope for the duo's first true major-label release. The blend of hip-hop beats and flowing folk-rock is attractive, but the songs are hindered by Barlow's timid voice, claustrophobic melodies and overly familiar lyrical concerns (oh, stop deliberating and do something, already).
Paul McCartney: Run Devil Run (Capitol) Rating: 12/20
McCartney revisits his rock 'n' roll roots with this casually made set of vintage covers, adding three self-written tunes (the title song and "What It Is" are contemporary enough to fit on any McCartney album, while "Try Not to Cry" isn't). Somewhat lacking in chemistry and inspiration, his workmanlike band includes other slumming veterans such as David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Ian Paice (Deep Purple) and Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention), while Larry Williams' "She Said Yeah" (strong echoes of Beatlemania here), Big Joe Turner's "Honey Hush" and a Cajun version of Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" supply the most sparks.
Foo Fighters: There Is Nothing Left to Lose (Roswell) Rating: 12/20
Dave Grohl's third Foo Fighters disc is another unapologetic singles album, full of energetic playing, fat hooks and easily digested melodies...and not much more. "Stacked Actors" and "Live-In Skin" are catchy rockers, "Next Year" has a pretty flow and "Gimme Stitches" adds a gritty blues edge, but otherwise Grohl's songs are uncomfortably thin and generic.
Primus: Antipop (Interscope) Rating: 12/20
Primus makes an obvious attempt to grab the trendy rap-metal crowd here, beefing up the guitar textures, cutting back on the goofiness (both lyrically and vocally) and borrowing the talents of some appropriate mosh-pit icons (Metallica's James Hetfield, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst). The ongoing stagnation of the group is unmistakeable in these tuneless, compulsively jagged grooves, but "The Antipop," "Electric Uncle Sam" and "Mama Didn't Raise No Fool" excel as fist-pumping anthems, while the Tom Waits-produced "Coattails of a Dead Man" (an attack on Courtney Love?) has a warped, carnival-esque charm.
Guided by Voices: Do the Collapse (TVT) Rating: 12/20
New label, new band members, new producer (Ric Ocasek), songs averaging over two-and-a-half minutes -- no, this batch of polished, well-produced tunes isn't the Guided by Voices we once knew and loved. However, the prime problem with this disc isn't the loss of lo-fi charm, but the erratic songwriting -- "Teenage FBI," "Wormhole," "Surgical Focus," "Things I Will Keep," "Hold on Hope" and "Wrecking Now" are nice, but the other 10 tracks range from fair ("Much Better Mr. Buckles") to terrible ("Zoo Pie").
Elf Power: A Dream in Sound (Arena Rock) Rating: 12/20
Elf Power's second album wades into the delightfully cluttered, folk-art psychedelia typical of the Elephant 6 collective, adding two distinctive traits: an odd love for shuffling, martial rhythms and -- more crucially -- weak, weak vocals. The singing problem leaves a few acoustic tracks gasping for air, but loopy assemblages like "High Atop the Silver Branches," "Will My Feet Still Carry Me Home" (which could fit in fine on an early Eno album), and the poppier "Olde Tyme Waves" are plenty of fun.
The Buzzcocks: Modern (Go-Kart) Rating: 12/20
Demoted to the tiny Go-Kart label, the legendary Buzzcocks sound anything but "modern" on this underwhelming disc, which is plagued with outdated New Wave production values and five mediocre songs written by guitarist Steve Diggle. Unfortunately, even Pete Shelley's contributions are spotty -- "Thunder of Hearts," "Sneaky" and "Runaround" are irresistible, but his other tracks are variable, despite the enduring appeal of his boyish, high-strung vocals.
David Bowie: "hours..." (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
Bowie's latest disc is being billed as a deft return to the classic sounds of Heroes and Hunky Dory, but don't believe the hype. "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" and "New Angels of Promise" are mildly engaging -- the other songs are a pallid batch of midtempo grinds, dragged down by empty melodies, bland arrangements and uncharacteristically weak singing.
Macha: See It Another Way (Jetset) Rating: 12/20
This unusual quartet may call Athens, GA home, but they sound nothing like the other acclaimed acts from the region. With an instrumental attack centered around zither, hammered dulcimer and exotic gamelan rhythms, Macha blends moody college-rock sensibilities with world-beat novelty via tantalizing tracks like "Salty," "The Nipplegong" and the aptly titled "Until Your Temples are Pounding."
Kristin Hersh: Sky Motel (4AD) Rating: 12/20
Kristin Hersh's financial hardships seem to have sapped the life out of her -- this listless, unmemorable disc is her third disappointing release in a row. Indifferently written, sung, produced and packaged, Sky Motel has two decent tracks ("A Cleaner Light" and "Spring") spaced amidst a slew of undercooked, sluggish meanderings which barely sustain attention.
Lida Husik: Mad Flavor (Alias) Rating: 12/20
This wildly underrated artist continues to explore an innovative blend of techno beats and melodic songwriting on her eighth album, but it's hard to ignore that none of her recent dance records have topped 1995's more organic Joyride. Mad Flavor's new wrinkle is a partial return to acoustic instruments (the saxes in "State of the Empire," the cello in "Jupiter's Star," the aggressive drums of "Trash Out Tonight" and "Glo Stick"), but it's not encouraging that "Choco Deluxe" and "The Slide [Reprise]" are both retreads of previously released songs.
To Rococo Rot: The Amateur View (Mute) Rating: 12/20
There's just something about Germans and synthesizers -- this talented trio sculpts modest little instrumentals with a sense of composition, tension and discipline which eludes most of their UK peers. No flashy technology or samples here, just a methodical set of tick-tocking vignettes with shifting melodic shapes.
Soundtrack: Stigmata (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
The big story here is Billy Corgan's first foray into film scoring, with help from pianist Mike Garson (whose contributions to David Bowie's Aladdin Sane remain legendary). After opening with six pop tracks (Natalie Imbruglia's "Identify" is the lone new song), this lengthy disc adds 25 short instrumental cues from the score, creating a pleasant suite of pulsing, keyboard-based meditations (which sound nothing like Smashing Pumpkins).
The Tinklers: Slowpoke (Serious) Rating: 12/20
The Tinklers leave Shimmy-Disc behind with this hourlong release, but the skeletal stories don't suffer at all from Kramer's missing production talents. The group's introverted, near-comatose performance style is always both unsettling and amusing, but these 19 songs -- focused on animals, aliens, love, childhood and various social misfits -- have a resonance which can go far beyond mere novelty (check "Up From the Basement," "Highway From Heartache to Home" and "Girl in the Mirror").
Ben Folds Five: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (550 Music) Rating: 11/20
Arguably the year's most glaring disappointment, Ben Folds Five's successor to 1997's breakthrough Whatever and Ever Amen misfires badly. Some of the more upbeat tunes ("Army," "Don't Change Your Plans," "Your Redneck Past") retain the group's old pizzazz, but the rest of this skimpy album wobbles under the weight of shaky melodies, lax energy, intrusive orchestration and overly elaborate songwriting.
Blur: 13 (Virgin) Rating: 11/20
Apparently distraught over his breakup with Elastica's Justine Frischmann, Damon Albarn sends Blur over the edge with this utterly confused collection of sonic experiments. "Tender," "Coffee & TV" (penned by guitarist Graham Coxon) and "No Distance Left to Run" barely maintain the band's past songwriting standards, while the rest of the disc is split between ridiculous Krautrock indulgences and trashy "Song 2" derivatives.
The Muffs: Alert Today Alive Tomorrow (Honest Don's) Rating: 11/20
Sadly, the Muffs' fourth disc is another missed opportunity, a cheerless batch of punk-edged pop which comes off just as blasé as its title. Songwriter Kim Shattuck retains her knack for crafting seesaw melodies out of classic British Invasion hooks, but her swollen-tongued singing sounds increasingly indifferent and destroys any potential impact of the lyrics.
Luna: The Days of Our Nights (Jericho) Rating: 11/20
Fledgling label Jericho rescued this disc from Elektra's trash pile, but it may have been an act of mercy. Luna's fifth album of dryly intellectual pop is pallid, safe and uninvolving, tarred with a pointless cover of "Sweet Child O' Mine" (an A&R exec's suggestion?) and a dull batch of songs (the extended acid jam of "U.S. Out of My Pants" is the only truly inspired moment, though "Dear Diary," "Superfreaky Memories" and "Four Thousand Days" have modest virtues).
David Sylvian: Dead Bees on a Cake (Virgin) Rating: 11/20
Beyond a few new experiments with sampling, Sylvian's first solo album in 12 years (!) is scarcely different from his previous releases -- just another batch of vaporous, tuneless, slow-moving grooves over which he breathes numbing reflections in his sodden, extravagantly mannered croon. Still, the arty elegance of the arrangements and superior taste in backing musicians (Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kenny Wheeler, Steve Jansen, Talvin Singh) manage to salvage the project, aided by tighter compositions like "I Surrender," "The Shining of Things," "Wanderlust" and "All of My Mother's Names."
John Linnell: State Songs (Zoë) Rating: 11/20
The solo debut of John Linnell, the cheerfully nasal mouthpiece of They Might Be Giants, is a predictably quirky affair: a set of custom tributes (presumably, the first of three volumes?) to 15 of our 50 states. However, the disc isn't nearly as ridiculous as it could've been, since Linnell portrays the states via personification and vague metaphor rather than nerdy textbook facts -- actually, "Montana," "Iowa," "Maine," "Illinois" and "West Virginia" could hold their own on any TMBG album.
Ministry: Dark Side of the Spoon (Warner Bros.) Rating: 11/20
Ministry's final Warner Bros. album is appropriately unmarketable, with bruising sludge pushing aside the group's past speed-metal crossovers (enjoy the opening blitz of "Supermanic Soul," because the disc's adrenaline quickly tapers off). The Ministry formula has worn thin despite the visceral dazzle of Allen Jourgensen's crunching mixes, though faint quirks turn up in "Nursing Home" (with its nattering banjo and wails of free saxophone), the time-signature twists of "10/10" (actually, it's more like "7/4") and an upped Butthole Surfers influence heard in "Eureka Pile" and the stop-start "Step."
Bis: Social Dancing (Grand Royal) Rating: 11/20
"Sell-out" is a overused term, but this bland, compromised album heartily deserves the label (look no further than the artificially slimmed pictures of Manda Rin in the booklet -- shades of Paula Abdul). Producer Andy Gill (Gang of Four) replaces Bis' punky aggression with synthetic New Wave values, just like he once neutralized his own band with Songs of the Free and Hard, while the kids in Bis turn down their faux-revolutionary rhetoric for less volatile observations about talk shows, style and shopping.
Iggy Pop: Avenue B (Virgin) Rating: 10/20
Purportedly an introspective set of taking-stock-at-50 reflections, the mostly acoustic Avenue B is an embarrassing misfire for Iggy, coming off three winning albums in a row. It's not all bad -- "Miss Argentina" is a sharp portrait of a conflicted lover, "Corruption" provides some riff-rock relief and "Long Distance" is a somber look at loneliness and the title song has some potent observations -- but otherwise, it's just sluggish, indifferently arranged misery, including a leaden cover of "Shakin' All Over," four banal spoken-word pieces, an unconvincing stab at Spanish dance-rock and a track which plays the "Nazi" card for pointless shock value.
Natalie Merchant: Live in Concert (Elektra) Rating: 10/20
Daring her fans to stay awake through the decline of her career, the ex-10,000 Maniacs leader rolls out this appallingly listless disc, which is so stripped of anything resembling energy that it's almost a self-parody. The 11 elongated tracks span recent material (adequate: "Ophelia" and "Wonder"), cover songs (Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" is decent, Bowie's "Space Oddity" is utterly pointless) and sadly enervated versions of the Maniacs' "Dust Bowl" and "Gun Shy."
10,000 Maniacs: The Earth Pressed Flat (Bar/None) Rating: 10/20
Talk about a band being more than the sum of its parts -- Natalie Merchant's solo career has descended into adult-contemporary tedium, while the surviving Maniacs have lapsed into aimless folk-pop. The group can still craft pleasing acoustic textures, but Mary Ramsey's voice has no body, her lyrics are dismissably mild and the melodies skim past without ever taking hold.
Lakuna: Castle of Crime (4AD) Rating: 10/20
David Narcizo is one of the world's most underrated, exciting drummers, but his hippity-clippity allure is well-hidden on his first project since the demise of Throwing Muses. Practically begging for a songwriting collaborator, Narcizo pours aimless beats and samples into eight repetitive, vaguely exotic instrumentals which rarely rise above tedium ("Lemongrass" and the flutey "So Happy" are the only decent tracks).
The Birthday Party: Live 81-82 (4AD) Rating: 14/20
This influential Australian band's only sanctioned live album is one of the most terrifying discs you're ever likely to hear. Roaring with chaotic guitar noise, assaultive rhythms and the young Nick Cave's demonic rambles, these archived performances scarcely take a breath, as harrowing rants like "Big-Jesus-Trash-Can," "Release the Bats" and "Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)" pummel grateful audiences into dumbfounded awe.
Bruce Springsteen: 18 Tracks (Columbia) Rating: 14/20
Well, Springsteen is Springsteen, but these career-spanning rarities (15 distilled from last year's Tracks box set, three previously unissued so fanatics will have to shell out for both releases) usually sound like the leftovers they are, due to pat melodies and too many of Springsteen's typical "Come on, little girl, I just got off work from the gas station -- let's escape down this dusty highway" storylines. While some of the later songs are worthwhile ("Pink Cadillac," "The Promise," "Sad Eyes"), the highlights are the eight '70s-era tunes, especially an awe-inspiring demo of his debut album's "Growin' Up."
XTC: Homespun (TVT) Rating: 14/20
Whether it's a plea for cash, a friendly gesture to obsessive collectors or a cheeky attempt to prove that even XTC's outtakes surpass most proper releases, Homespun is an intriguing -- if highly redundant -- package. Compiling all the demos for Apple Venus Volume I (in order, with no extra tracks), this unusual disc mainly shows just how meticulous the duo's compositions are -- there are no meaningful differences between these "rough" versions and the finished product.
Soundtrack: Go Simpsonic With the Simpsons (Rhino) Rating: 14/20
Predictably, Rhino's second compilation of Simpsons soundtrack material doesn't measure up to 1997's Songs in the Key of Springfield, but hardcore fans will be thrilled with these 60-plus cues and song snippets culled from the show's top episodes. Sonic Youth, Hank Williams Jr., Linda Ronstadt and the Ramones are among the celebrity guests, while essential tracks include "We Put the Spring in Springfield," "Those Were the Days," "The Garbageman," "Cut Every Corner," "You're Checking In," "Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel," "You're Gonna Like Me (The Gabba Song)" and a kitschy medley from "The Simpsons Family Smile-Time Variety Hour."
Pete Ham: Golders Green (Rykodisc) Rating: 13/20
It's easy to be cynical about Rykodisc's second compilation of the deceased Badfinger leader's home recordings (especially when half the songs are under two minutes, and most are boosted by contemporary backing tracks), but "When the Feeling" and "Gonna Do It" are the only tunes here which don't have the potential for greatness. In fact, several of these demos are wonderful, as is -- witness the upbeat "Makes Me Feel Good," the ballads "Midnight Caller" and "I'll Kiss You Goodnight," the Ray Davies-like "Keyhole Street" and especially "Dawn," arguably the most harmonically complex tune Ham ever wrote.
Billy Bragg: Reaching to the Converted (Rhino) Rating: 13/20
This compilation collects 17 Bragg rarities and B-sides recorded between 1985 and 1997, leaning toward his softer romantic side rather than his bludgeoning political views. The selections include alternate versions of album tracks ("Shirley," "Accident Waiting to Happen," "Wishing the Days Away," "Days Like These"), cover songs ("She's Leaving Home," "Jeane," "Heart Like a Wheel," an odd instrumental version of "Walk Away Renée with comic monologue laid on top) and, most importantly, tough-to-find originals like "The Boy Done Good," "Bad Penny" and "Rule Nor Reason."
Cocteau Twins: BBC Sessions (Rykodisc) Rating: 13/20
It's too bad that these radio recordings were only taped during 1982-1984 and 1996, because the Cocteaus' most fruitful years are bypassed. The later sessions are unremarkable, while the early tracks are dreary and tuneless, leaving us with some beautiful hymns from Treasure ("Beatrix," "Ivo," "Otterley") plus isolated highlights like "Hitherto," "From the Flagstones," "Golden-Vein" and the previously unreleased "Strange Fruit."
Adrian Belew: Salad Days (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 13/20
This disc compiles solo acoustic tracks from Belew's recent self-released albums (adding two new instrumental snippets as a bonus) in order to showcase his songwriting skills, isolated from his renowned guitar-effects wizardry. The results are pleasing enough -- particularly "The Rail Song," the pop gems "Everything" and "Bad Days," the Eleanor Rigby'd remake of "Men in Helicopters" and a new version of King Crimson's "Dinosaur" -- but he could've made a more powerful statement by constructing songs specifically for the acoustic medium, rather than just re-adapting old favorites.
The Minders: Cul-De-Sacs & Dead Ends (spinART) Rating: 13/20
Yup, it's yet another endearing Elephant Six act with a knack for sugary melodies, this one based in Portland and keen on the scrappier end of the early British Invasion (the Kinks, in particular). This disc compiles four years' worth of odds, sods and singles, sweeping through 17 pleasing tunes in just 35 minutes.
Air: Premiers Symptomes (Astralwerks) Rating: 13/20
Following the overwhelming acclaim of last year's Moon Safari, Astralwerks has reissued the duo's first EP, boosted with two bonus tracks. The expertly arranged keyboard colors, processed vocals and gently repetitive patterns have a familiar ring, but there's one surprise: the heavy "Brakes On," which throbs with almost a Chemical Brothers-like intensity.
Ween: Paintin' the Town Brown: Ween Live '90-'98 (Elektra) Rating: 12/20
You have to admire Ween's audacity, proudly releasing a two-disc live compilation even though the group's hardly a major concert draw. As might be expected, it's a peculiar mix of material, ranging from country-western pastiches ("Japanese Cowboy," "Mister Richard Smoker") to would-be power metal ("Mushroom Festival in Hell," "Doctor Rock") to noisy duets with backing tapes ("Cover It With Gas and Set It on Fire," "Mountain Dew") to catchy pop ("Voodoo Lady," "I Can't Put My Finger on It") to sheer nonsense (two aimless bouts with space-rock which stumble on for 26 and 30 minutes).
Adrian Belew: Coming Attractions (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 12/20
The King Crimson frontman continues his mad-scientist experiments with this 12-song sampler of current projects, which include a rock album, a rarities box, a possible live disc and a set with his occasional pop band, the Bears. What's dismaying here is that Belew spends more time fiddling with old demos than moving forward -- seven of the tracks have been previously issued in some form (admittedly, the revised "House of Cards" and "The Man in the Moon" are beautiful), and "Inner Man" is the only first-rate new song.
Various Artists: Oh, Merge: A Merge Records 10 Year Anniversary Compilation (Merge) Rating: 12/20
The proudly independent, North Carolina-based label celebrates a decade of uncompromised success, presenting rare tracks from its entire active roster of artists (nonchalantly arranged in alphabetical order). A few bands stumble (Seaweed, the Rock*A*Teens, Pipe), but the quality is generally strong, especially the contributions from Guv'ner, Superchunk, the Magnetic Fields, the Ladybug Transistor, Neutral Milk Hotel and Third Eye Foundation.
The Go-Betweens: 78 'Til 79: The Lost Album (Jetset) Rating: 11/20
An intriguing historical document, this self-explanatory disc collects a few singles plus lo-fi bedroom recordings from the Go-Betweens' formative, pre-album days. What's most interesting is how little the tracks have in common with the band's later jangle-pop sound -- instead, we get a rough mix of '60s mod influences, best heard within "Lee Remick," "Help or Something" and "Don't Let Him Come Back."
They Might Be Giants: Long Tall Weekend (Emusic) Rating: 11/20
The medium is the message -- the big story here isn't this so-so collection of They Might Be Giants leftovers, but the fact that it's only available in the MP3 format through the EMusic website. These brief, half-baked songs really aren't up to album quality, with the mild exceptions of "(She Thinks She's) Edith Head" (also scheduled to appear on the band's upcoming CD), "Operators are Standing By," "Lullaby to Nightmares," "Dark and Metric," "Reprehensible" and a cover of Lesley Gore's "Maybe I Know."
Mrs. Miller: Wild, Cool & Swingin': The Artist Collection (Capitol) Rating: 11/20
Against all odds, the warbling vibrato of Mrs. Elva Miller is now available on CD, via this 21-track compilation of her late-'60s novelty albums. The liner notes are weak and the packaging is hideous, but there's no denying the hilarious horrors of standards like "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," "Downtown," "Yellow Submarine" and "The Girl From Ipanema," when filtered through Mom Miller's shrieking soprano.
Aloha: The Great Communicators, the Interpreters, the Non-Believers (Polyvinyl), The Essex Green: The Essex Green (Kindercore), Grandaddy: Signal to Snow Ratio (V2), Chris Knox: Almost (Dark Beloved Cloud), Tom Zé: Postmodern Platos (Luaka Bop)
Endorsed but still unreviewed
Deerhoof: Holdy Paws, Matmos: The West, Mogwai: Come On Die Young, Bill Rieflin/Robert Fripp/Trey Gunn: The Repercussions of Angelic Behavior // King Crimson: The ProjeKcts