|Elliott Smith: Figure 8 (DreamWorks) Rating: 15/20
Elliott Smith's second DreamWorks album trims the baroque arrangements of XO, returning the focus to the beauty of his gentle, deceptively intricate melodies. Solid from beginning to end, this superior disc is hampered by his weak voice, but the songs' wistful resignation has a deep emotional pull, whether it's chiming folk ballads ("Easy Way Out," "I Better Be Quiet Now"), tentative steps toward the mainstream ("Junk Bond Trader," "LA"), shuffling rock ("Son of Sam," "Stupidity Tries") or a welcome splash of piano-driven tracks ("Everything Means Nothing to Me," the adorably jaunty "In the Lost and Found").
|Amy Correia: Carnival Love (Odeon/Capitol) Rating: 15/20
This year's best new artist, Amy Correia wails wistful reveries in her frayed but graceful voice, while guitar, ukulele, cello and piano dress up a rustic blend of folk, blues and pop. Her debut's many highlights include the haunting "Angels Collide," the unfolding clomp of "Chinatown," the celebratory "The Bike" and the lilting "Starfishin'," while "Daydream Car," "He Drives It" and "Life Is Beautiful" are accessible enough to even grab some Sheryl Crow fans.
|Chris Knox: Beat (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 14/20
A genius of simplicity, New Zealand's Chris Knox (also, the leader of Tall Dwarfs) pounds out album after album of homemade pop, instantly identified by his rattling guitar strums, circular melodies, quirky percussion loops and elastic vocals. Beat finds Knox dissecting love, death, poverty and other afflictions, hitting his stride with "The Man in the Crowd" (a protest song about class divisions), "The Hell of It" (what's this...horn charts?), "I Wanna Look Like Darcy Clay" and the harrowing "Becoming Something Other" (an account of his father's deathbed).
|P J Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island) Rating: 14/20
Polly Jean Harvey bounds into mainstream waters with this accessible, surprisingly upbeat disc, which hides cynical tunes like "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore" amidst a batch of stirring, our-love-against-the-world exaltations. "Good Fortune," "This is Love" and "Kamikaze" show flashes of her past tenacity, but most tracks drop her tormented, bluesy underpinnings and swing toward extroverted, radio-ready rock.
|Eels: Daisies of the Galaxy (DreamWorks) Rating: 14/20
E rebounds from the commercial failure of 1998's desolate Electro-Shock Blues with this excellent disc, a set of thoughtful (yet highly accessible) songs centered around themes of rebirth and healing. The ghosts of his late mother and sister still lurk in the shadows (particularly in the woeful "It's a Motherfucker"), but the warmer, less gimmicky sound benefits powerful tunes like "The Sound of Fear," "Flyswatter," "Wooden Nickels" and "Jeannie's Diary."
|Lambchop: Nixon (Merge) Rating: 14/20
Taking a surprise turn from country to polished soul, Lambchop's fifth album is artfully decorated with strings, horns, vibraphone and pedal-steel guitar (check the liner notes, which credit over 25 musicians plus a gospel choir). Kurt Wagner's fragile, half-spoken quaver continues to be a handicap (especially when straying into Al Green territory), but his gentle observations about love, family, despair and small-town boredom enliven languid ballads ("The Old Gold Shoe," "The Book I Haven't Read"), frisky vamps ("Up With People," "Grumpus," "What Else Could It Be?") and the near-gothic horror of "The Petrified Florist."
|Jurassic 5: Quality Control (Interscope) Rating: 14/20
These West Coast rappers (four MC's, two DJ's) have assembled an inspired debut album, loaded with crossover potential due to its clean arrangements, catchy samples and jargon-free wordplay. The group's imagery is witty if thematically mundane (mostly old-school boasting, with the notable exception of the socially conscious "Contribution"), but the organic production values, soulful jazz/swing/R&B underpinnings and variety in rapping styles lift memorable tracks like "The Influence," "Great Expectations" and the wonderfully quirky "Jurass Finish First."
|Patti Smith: Gung Ho (Arista) Rating: 14/20
While not as lyrically powerful as 1996's mournful Gone Again, Gung Ho is the most accessible of Smith's recent albums, mixing anthemic calls for activism with polished production values and her best melodies in years. While a few songs are plodding, "Persuasion," "One Voice" and "Glitter in Their Eyes" are charismatic rockers, "Lo and Beholden" is an alluring tribute to Salome, "Strange Messengers" is an eloquent portrait of slavery and "Libbie's Song" is a lovely detour into Appalachian folk.
|Einstürzende Neubauten: Silence Is Sexy (Mute) Rating: 14/20
After several middling releases, these industrial pioneers unexpectedly come up with one of their finest creations, an elegant, gorgeously produced collection which banks on slowly building menace rather than assaultive clamor. As singer Blixa Bargeld details inner torments via elemental imagery of nature, science, philosophy and mythology, the crystalline spaciousness and innovative percussion (quick, name another song where someone is credited with playing maracas and jet turbine) of "Zampano," "Die Befindlichkeit des Landes [The Lay of the Land]" and the epic "Redukt [Reduct]" lead a fascinating, brilliantly paced batch of experimental moods.
|Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra) Rating: 14/20
Since this disc is essentially outtakes from 1998's much-acclaimed Mermaid Avenue (a fascinating project which matched new Bragg/Wilco melodies with "lost" Woody Guthrie lyrics), it's no surprise that the songs are less striking and somewhat underproduced. More slanted toward the Wilco camp than the first volume, Mermaid II has a few duff lyrics ("My Flying Sauce" and "Feed of Man," especially) and some slapdash musicianship, but "All You Fascists" is fiery rock 'n' roll, "Joe Dimaggio Done It Again" is a fun sing-along, "Meanest Man" has a Tom Waits-like lurch, "Remember the Mountain Bed" has a beautifully eloquent lyric and "Secret of the Sea" is a sweet pop tune.
Black Box Recorder: The Facts of Life (Jetset) Rating: 14/20
Black Box Recorder's second album is a radical switch from the unplugged social commentary of England Made Me -- instead it's all about plush, breathtakingly sensual odes to love and sex. Singer Sarah Vixey's coolly detached persona dominates the trio's synthetic, post-Gainsbourg balladry, which peaks with the "educational" title track, the extended courtship metaphor of "The Art of Driving," the lovely "Goodnight Kiss" and the domestic satire of "Straight Life."
XTC: Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (TVT) Rating: 13/20
Wasp Star was promised to be XTC's brash return to electric rock, but these cuddly ditties wouldn't hurt a fly. Gravely disappointing by the band's own lofty standards, this innocuous disc is bookended with some excellent songs (the delightful "Playground," the elastically snapping "You and the Clouds Will Still Be Beautiful," the anthemic "Church of Women" and the one truly ambitious track,"The Wheel and the Maypole") but is sadly lightweight in the middle.
Sleater-Kinney: All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars) Rating: 13/20
This much-idolized trio's fifth album is somewhat disappointing, backing off the harmonic expansion and vocal interplay of last year's excellent The Hot Rock for straightforward blasts of pure punk energy. Still, the blend of Corin Tucker's banshee wail, the knotty throbs of interlocked guitars and Janet Weiss' powerful drumming is electrifying, and the many highlights span explosive rockers ("Youth Decay," "Ironclad," "The Professional"), melodic girl-pop ("Leave You Behind," the title song) and cynical takes on music-scene politics ("#1 Must Have," "Male Model," "The Ballad of a Ladyman").
Badly Drawn Boy: The Hour of the Bewilderbeast (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 13/20
Badly Drawn Boy, a.k.a. Damon Gough and various musical friends, has been riding an enormous wave of hype in the U.K., but the pleasing, folk-derived virtues of this debut are watered down with repetitive melodies, an abundance of filler and the wispy Gough's lack of vocal charisma. If you have the patience to sort through the instrumental fragments and half-written ditties, you'll dig up moving songs such as "The Shining" (currently used in a Gap commercial), "Camping Next to Water," "Pissing in the Wind" and "Once Around the Block" -- just don't expect Beck/Elliott Smith-level greatness.
Juliana Hatfield: Beautiful Creature (Zoë) Rating: 13/20
Hatfield's best album since 1992's Hey Babe, this subdued collection has unremarkable themes (forlorn cautions to lovers and friends, usually) and a few clunky rhymes ("This emotion is an ocean"), but the melodies are first-rate. "Close Your Eyes" and "Might Be in Love" are adorable little tunes, "Daniel" and "Somebody Is Waiting for Me" have a Weezer-like grind, "Until Tomorrow" has a waltzing beauty (and the best lyric), while "Cry in the Dark" is an anthemic climax.
Robyn Hitchcock: A Star for Bram (Editions PAF!) Rating: 13/20
Dropped by Warner Brothers after four overlooked albums, the veteran singer-songwriter releases outtakes from the Jewels for Sophia sessions on his own label. Careless, underwritten melodies sink some tunes ("I Used to Love You," "The Green Boy," "I Wish I Liked You," "I Saw Nick Drake"), but "Daisy Bomb" has some fresh twists, "The Philosopher's Stone" has a simmering throb, "Nietzsche's Way" drives home its moody cynicism, "Adoration of the City" boasts a soul-influenced swagger and the sly "1974" is fleshed out from an earlier acoustic version (see Storefront Hitchcock).
Bettie Serveert: Private Suit (Hidden Agenda) Rating: 13/20
No longer nestled in the bosom of Matador's powerful hype machine, this Dutch quartet drops to a tiny indie label, picks up producer John Parish and surprisingly creates its most absorbing album since 1992's acclaimed Palomine. Parish moves the group toward a more adult, dramatic sound not unlike his work with P J Harvey, while Carol Van Dyk's dusky voice and confiding lyrics are the soul of these caressing, classic-pop melodies.
The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic (Matador) Rating: 13/20
The New Pornographers' debut is a raucous celebration of ragged group vocals, chewy hooks and bashing pop chords. The guitars, drums and buzzing keyboards often swamp the vocals, and lack of variety is a problem, but the steamrolling exuberance of tunes like "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism," "Mystery Hours" and the two Neko Case spotlights (the title song and "Letter from an Occupant") is so infectious that fussing over details is almost futile.
Laika: Good Looking Blues (Beggars Banquet) Rating: 13/20
Laika's third album is short on variety (Margaret Fiedler's half-whispered vocals are practically interchangeable from track to track), but the group's frisky polyrhythms and razor-sharp production values reach new heights of brilliance in these slinky, exotic grooves. Atmospheric samples, keyboards and processed drums mix with organic fills of trumpet, flute and bass clarinet, as scissoring beats propel textural highlights like "Black Cat Bone," "Uneasy," "Knowing Too Little" and the novelty "Badtimes" (a droll parody of the "Good Times" virus hoax).
Blonde Redhead: Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons (Touch and Go) Rating: 13/20
This art-noise trio's fifth album takes a bold new direction, downshifting the band's post-Sonic Youth churn into a mellower, more melodic format. Packing a surprising emotional punch despite clumsy lyrics, this bound-to-be-overlooked disc is captivating from beginning to end, with harmonically rich workouts like "Loved Despite of Great Faults," "This Is Not" and "Melody of Certain Three" enriched with extra keyboards, broader dynamics, unconventional time signatures and airtight musicianship.
Neil Young: Silver & Gold (Reprise) Rating: 13/20
Young's latest album is an unusually cuddly affair, free from Crazy Horse's raging distortion and instead centered on acoustic guitar, harmonica, folk-country melodies and gently reassuring sentiments which seem almost willfully simplistic. Some tracks are warmly affecting ("Distant Camera," "Red Sun," "Horseshoe Man," the title song), others cross the line into pedestrian sappiness.
Marianne Faithfull: Vagabond Ways (Instinct) Rating: 13/20
Showing an impressive ability to stay contemporary, Faithfull switches to a new label and a lusher, more synthetic sound on this evocative set of world-weary ballads. As electronic rhythm tracks mesh evenly with acoustic piano and strings, the veteran chanteuse wraps her smoky voice around thoughts on love and disillusion, getting songwriting help from Roger Waters ("Incarceration of a Flower Child"), Elton John ("For Wanting You"), Daniel Lanois ("Marathon Kiss"), Leonard Cohen ("Tower of Song") and others.
Björk: Selmasongs (Elektra) Rating: 13/20
Barely an album (seven tracks, 32 minutes), Selmasongs contains an orchestral prelude and six vocal pieces taken from the award-winning film "Dancer in the Dark" (which stars Björk herself). A duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke will grab the headlines, but the blend of scuttling techno beats and grandiose strings is most effective with "In the Musicals" and the dramatically swelling "New World."
Neil Young, Friends & Relatives: Road Rock Volume 1 (Reprise) Rating: 13/20
Temporarily dropping Crazy Horse, the ageless icon supports his latest live effort with the same rootsy gang found on the recent Silver & Gold (plus his own wife and sister on backing vocals). The performances and song choices are frustratingly uneven, however -- the venerable "Tonight's the Night" gets a bluesy, extended reading while "Peace of Mind" and "Words" are beautiful, but "Motorcycle Mama" and the previously unreleased "Fool for Your Love" are lousy tunes and a 18-minute version of "Cowgirl in the Sand" is tedious overkill.
Queens of the Stone Age: R (Interscope) Rating: 13/20
The major-label debut of these Kyuss-descended rockers threatens to give grunge a second lifespan, often sounding like a crafty update of Screaming Trees' swirling rock (not coincidentally, Trees singer Mark Lanegan guests on three tracks). With lyrics fixated on death and drugs, the album is uneven (see the lame thrash of "Tension Head," the silly "Quick and to the Pointless" and the pseudo-minimalist climax of "I Think I Lost My Headache"), but "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret," "Monsters in the Parasol" and the soul-tinged "In the Fade" are fantastic highlights.
Lou Reed: Ecstasy (Reprise) Rating: 13/20
Reed's style is so consistent (did someone say predictable?) over his long career that his speak-sing vocals, verbose lyrics and circular guitar riffs hardly require description anymore. Ranking somewhere in the middle of his enormous catalog, Ecstasy stands out with excellent production, rich touches of horns and strings (including two violin cameos from girlfriend Laurie Anderson), some catchy rockers ("Paranoia Key of E," "Future Farmers of America," "Big Sky") and a few melodic ballads, but is undercut by a dismal, 18-minute monstrosity titled "Like a Possum."
Oasis: Familiar to Millions (Epic) Rating: 13/20
This two-disc concert was recorded at London's vast Wembley Stadium, and hence is hampered by stadium acoustics and a boisterous, stadium crowd (complete with distracting sing-alongs). The group's thick wall of aggressive, post-Beatles rock is fairly pat and established, so the known favorites ("Live Forever," "Wonderwall," "Don't Look Back in Anger," "Champagne Supernova") aren't twisted in any notable ways -- the best reasons to grab the album are the Noel Gallagher-sung "Step Out" (previously unavailable on LP) and ballsy covers of Neil Young's "Hey Hey My My" and you-know-who's "Helter Skelter."
J Mascis & the Fog: More Light (Ultimatum) Rating: 13/20
Retiring the Dinosaur Jr. name, J Mascis is back with a new one-man-band-plus-guest-players, this time borrowing the talents of My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard (neither of which are readily detectable). Though the prominent use of keyboards is a fresh touch (especially on "Waistin" and "Can't I Take This On"), Mascis' slack melodies, croaking vocals and bruising major-seventh chords are overly familiar, only sounding inspired on "Sameday," "All the Girls," "Back Before You Go" and the almost classic-rock stomp of "I'm Not Fine."
Great Lakes: Great Lakes (Kindercore) Rating: 13/20
Yet another nugget from the Elephant 6 motherlode, the Great Lakes aim for a less homemade feel than most of their Athens, GA peers, instead assembling majestic, cleanly arranged tunes with the expert help of producer Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo). Most of the songs have a similar psychedelic plod (see Beatles, circa 1967-68), but the ear-candy additions of piano, horns, banjo and woodwinds make hummable pieces like "Storming," "Giants and Tigers," "A Little Touched" and "An Easy Life" a bubblegum delight.
Nevada Bachelors: Hello Jupiter (Pop Llama) Rating: 13/20
In the tradition of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Presidents of the United States of America, the irresistible Nevada Bachelors play cheeky, buoyant garage-pop, brimming with punchy hooks and good cheer. The Bachelors' second album has better writing and production than their debut, and airtight melodies like "No Reason," "E-mail," "Bad Haircut" and (appropriately) "The Hook" are maddeningly catchy -- why has no one heard of these guys?
The Kingsbury Manx: The Kingsbury Manx (Overcoat) Rating: 13/20
This mysterious Chapel Hill quartet comes out of nowhere with its hypnotic debut, blending interwoven guitar pickings and droning organ into graceful pieces which brim with gentle spirituality. Carefully measured vocal harmonies gild the instrumental textures, and the best tracks ("Fanfare," "Piss Diary," the waltzing "How Cruel," the mildly psychedelic "Fields") have a sophisticated pacing which should have taken years to develop.
The Go-Betweens: The Friends of Rachel Worth (Jetset) Rating: 13/20
Once the standard-bearers for '80s jangle-pop, the Go-Betweens' Grant McLennan and Robert Forster have reunited after a 12-year break, fronting a makeshift band which includes the entire personnel of both Quasi and Sleater-Kinney (check "German Funhouse" and "The Clock" for some familiar jagged licks). The group's trademark introspection and gentle hooks are evident in lovely tracks like "Heart and Home," "He Lives My Life" and "Going Blind," while the songwriting balance swings between McLennan's flowing pop and Forster's more personalized lyrics.
Dusty Trails: Dusty Trails (Atlantic) Rating: 13/20
A new collaboration between Vivian Trimble (ex-Luscious Jackson keyboardist) and Josephine Wiggs (ex-Breeders bassist), Dusty Trails is all about silky smooth, easy-listening grooves which have surprisingly little to do with the members' past output. Instrumentals like "Pearls on a String" and "Spy in the Lounge" have a honeyed languor resembling a less sterile version of Air, while the even better vocal tracks include soulful cameos by Emmylou Harris ("Order Coffee") and fellow Luscious Jackson refugee Jill Cunniff ("Roll the Dice").
Victoria Williams: Water to Drink (Atlantic) Rating: 13/20
Thankfully, Williams has shook off the lethargy which poisoned 1998's Musings of a Creekdipper, but her sixth album's brighter arrangements and vocals can't compensate for a just-adequate collection of tunes. Mixing three standards (including "Young at Heart" and the Jobim-penned title track) with her usual feel-good homilies and gentle character portraits, the sweet but melodically thin songs lumber along without ever really taking hold.
Grandaddy: The Sophtware Slump (V2) Rating: 13/20
Grandaddy's sublime debut, Under the Western Freeway, was one of 1997's most delightful surprises, but unfortunately, the group's slumping second album lives up to its title. While the fundamental ingredients are the same -- the creamy highs of Jason Lytle's subdued voice, the apocalyptic unease of the lyrics, the cleanly pulsing chords, the pleasantly low-budget keyboards and gentle shades of guitar -- the new songs fall short of the last album's efforts, with the notable exception of the caressing "Hewlett's Daughter."
Vic Chesnutt and Mr. & Mrs. Keneipp: Merriment (Backburner) Rating: 13/20
The acclaimed Athens folkie tries the indie route again with this collaborative disc, a more piano-driven collection which, despite its title, is more somber and reserved than his typical work. Brief and somewhat undercooked, the album has Chesnutt's usual incisive imagery and sardonic edge, as the excellent "Sunny Pasture," "Preponderance" and "Mighty Monkey" lead a set of bittersweet musings on life's pitfalls and peculiarities.
Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos: ¡Muy Divertido! (Atlantic) Rating: 13/20
Best known for supporting roles with Tom Waits and the Lounge Lizards, this brilliantly versatile guitarist (and now, singer) offers his second tribute to Cuban composer Arsenio Rodriguez. The lumbering "Obsesión" and "No Puedo Frenar" recall Ribot's ornery licks with Waits, but the spicy flair of more traditional tracks like "El Gaucho Rojo," "Carmela Dame la Llave" and "Baile Baile Baile" is just as exciting.
The Third Eye Foundation: Little Lost Soul (Merge) Rating: 13/20
Matt Elliott's flair for arty, drum-n-bass montages blossoms on his third Merge disc, which beautifully avoids the crystalline sterility so common to the genre. Weaving together backwards effects, watery samples of operatic voices and a surprising number of acoustic instruments, Elliott floats through refreshingly unpretentious titles such as "I've Lost That Loving Feline," "Are You Still a Cliché" and the nearly song-like highlight, "Lost."
Super Furry Animals: Mwng (Flydaddy) Rating: 13/20
After the electronic experimentation of Radiator and Guerrilla, Mwng is a return to the band's roots, sticking with gentle arrangements, casual production values and, most importantly, a daring reverse to all-Welsh lyrics. Unfortunately, it's hard to get past the language barrier -- some tracks ("Ymaelodi A'r Ymylon," "Dacw Hi," "Y Teimlad" and especially "Ysbeidiau Heulog") are engaging, but most aren't focused or memorable enough to pay off purely through melody and musicianship.
The Sugarplastic: Resin (Escape Artist) Rating: 13/20
Cut from the DGC roster a couple of years ago, this Los Angeles-based trio decided to self-release its third album, a diverse feast of 17 tracks which stretches between pop, folk, psychedelic and faux-classical sounds. While the group goes a long way toward dumping its reputation as a mere XTC clone, this mild disc lacks some of the last album's teasing pull, even if several excellent songs (particularly "Dunn the Worm," "Little Ash Statue," "Talk Back" and "Novelty Man") emerge.
The Smashing Pumpkins: Machina: The Machines of God (Virgin) Rating: 13/20
Following lukewarm notices for the more subdued Adore, Billy Corgan returns the Pumpkins to fiery, electric rock with this bloated extravaganza, which is just as pretentious as its title suggests. Burdened with lyrics of self-pitying martyrdom and pseudo-mystical odes to Love, Machina fails most grievously on a sheer melodic level -- except for the mildly alluring "I of the Mourning," "Wound" and "The Everlasting Gaze," these overlong, overarranged, droning, riff-phobic songs lack the band's usual dynamic hooks.
Matthew Jay: Draw (Capitol) Rating: 13/20
This gentle Welshman shows a rich gift for melody on his pleasing debut, which offers a muted style of folk-pop landing somewhere between Nick Drake and (who else?) Paul McCartney. Jay's wistful lyrics and evenly inflected vocals are a bit short on charisma, but "You're Always Going Too Soon," "Call My Name Out" and especially "Let Your Shoulder Fall" are polished, mature songs which belie his young age.
Ween: White Pepper (Elektra) Rating: 13/20
Like 1997's The Mollusk, White Pepper is disconcertingly slick and palatable, as if the Weens have forgotten where parody ends and straightforward pop begins. Featuring polished arrangements which wouldn't sound out of place on an old E.L.O. record, the album is conventionally pleasing with sweet melodies like "Flutes of Chi," "Back to Basom" and "Exactly Where I'm At," then detours into lightly ironic pastiches which somehow lack the group's usual punch (the tropical "Bananas and Blow," the kitschy swing of "Pandy Fackler," the speed-metal "Stroker Ace," the monolithic rock of "The Grobe").
King Crimson: The ConstruKction of Light (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
Sorry to say, this tuneless set of time-signature exercises rivals Islands as King Crimson's worst studio album ever, failing at almost every turn to do anything except show off the quartet's undeniable technical brilliance. With much-admired members Tony Levin and Bill Bruford gone and singer/guitarist Adrian Belew squashed into a subordinate role, Crimson's new incarnation is purely Robert Fripp's baby, as his cold-hearted guitar flurries rehash past motifs and only transcend indulgent wankery on the ferocious instrumental "FraKctured" and the yowling roll of "Into the Frying Pan."
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic: Petrophonics (Cuneiform) Rating: 12/20
Birdsongs of the Mesozoic's latest disc is another set of increasingly refined pieces which build contrapuntal jams around intermeshed, rhythmically diabolical keyboard runs. The music can seem dry and clinical during the mellower cuts, and Ken Field's sustained sax/flute notes become too predictable, but the group still generates plenty of intrigue with the title track, "Birdhead," the airy fusion of "One Hundred Cycles" and the almost Brian Wilson-like canter of "Gravity Theme."
Belle & Sebastian: Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador) Rating: 12/20
Scotland's kings of wistful folk-pop sound strangely uninspired on their fourth album, a drab set of melodically lacking tunes which are full of studious reflection but short on insight. The delicate vocals and classy orchestrations pay off with "I Fought in a War," "The Model" and the Isobel Campbell-sung "Family Tree," but other tracks (especially the terrible "Beyond the Sunrise") seem aimless and flat -- the group's slant toward chorusless structures leaves too many songs stuck in a loop.
Pizzicato Five: The Fifth Release From Matador (Matador) Rating: 12/20
Yes, the trendy Japanese duo has issued another splashy, razzle-dazzle collage of chirpy, post-Bacharach pop and cut-and-splice dance music. Ignore Yasuharu Konishi's shallow, glamour-girl complaints (easy to do, since this requires studying the booklet's English translations), and focus on the wildly imaginative production and frisky melodies (best bets: "A Perfect World," "A Room with a View," "Wild Strawberries," "20th Century Girl" and the instrumental "Roma").
The Jayhawks: Smile (American) Rating: 12/20
With their most talented songwriter long gone, their commercial potential faded and the alt.country movement on the wane, the Jayhawks go for broke and hire heavyweight producer Bob Ezrin (known for producing bombastic rockers like Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper and Kiss) to whip their sound into a glossy, radio-friendly sheen. Weak lyrics and Ezrin's excessive sweetening taint the group's once-rootsy intimacy, leaving only a few compelling tracks (mostly those dominated by Gary Louris, like "Better Days," "Broken Harpoon" and the title cut).
Eels: Oh What a Beautiful Morning (EWorks) Rating: 12/20
The Eels' self-released live album is disappointing, as the big-band splendor of the group's recent tour is mostly set aside for stripped-down, solo performances which underscore E.'s lazy sense of melody. Fully arranged tracks like "Flyswatter" and the titular "Oklahoma!" standard are wonderful, but other tunes lack textural intrigue and the "previously unreleased" songs are half-improvised trivia (no one will need to hear "Hot and Cold" more than once).
Meat Puppets: Golden Lies (Breaking) Rating: 12/20
Armed with a new label (Hootie & the Blowfish's first notable achievement?) and a fresh set of band members, Curt Kirkwood rouses the Meat Puppets back into action after a five-year break. However, these conventional songs lack his usual fiendish riffs and gnarled rhythms -- "I Quit," "You Love Me" and "Endless Wave" are facile by Puppets standards, while "Armed and Stupid," "Take Off Your Clothes," "Hercules" and "Tarantula" are the only tracks which truly burn.
Toshack Highway: Toshack Highway (Catapult) Rating: 12/20
A new side project of Swervedriver's Adam Franklin, Toshack Highway offers mostly instrumental, electronically textured pieces which are more about mood and glistening production values than songwriting. "Wurlitzer Waltzer," "Valentine Number One" and "I've Lost the Feeling" have a strong Swervedriver flavor (albeit in much subdued form), but hypnotic trickles like "Waking Up" and "Theme" are more typical of the disc's graceful, keyboard-oriented landscapes.
Air: The Virgin Suicides (Source) Rating: 12/20
Not really the sequel to the wildly acclaimed (and somewhat overrated) Moon Safari, this 40-minute disc comprises Air's soundtrack to the same-named Sofia Coppola film, exhibiting the medium's typical drawbacks (repetitive themes, sketchy pieces which don't quite hold up as freestanding compositions). "Dead Bodies" is the only upbeat track, though the duo's clean synthesizer lines sparkle on sensual themes like "Bathroom Girl," the related "Afternoon Sister," "Highschool Lover," the ascendant "Cemetary Party" and "Playground Love" (the one vocal track, flavored with a dash of saxophone).
Sonic Youth: NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen) Rating: 12/20
Having failed to cash a ticket in the great Alt-Rock Sweepstakes (despite being a pivotal influence), Sonic Youth is retreating to its experimental roots, turning from rock 'n' roll fury to chiming guitar harmonics and subdued interplay. Sounding like a weary contractual obligation, this pallid disc -- sadly, the group's least satisfying release in years -- concentrates on rise-and-fall dynamics, slowly unfolding textures and Beat-influenced lyrics, but the insular noodling only comes to life on "Renegade Princess," "StreamXSonik Subway" and the ominous title track.
Land of the Loops: Puttering About a Small Land (Up) Rating: 12/20
Unfortunately, Land of the Loops' overdue second album shows little growth beyond 1996's Bundle of Joy, instead returning with another cute, unassuming batch of synthetic grooves heavy on sampled vocal soundbites. One-man band Alan Sutherland constructs peppy instrumental vamps varying from ethereal ("Drive Safely") to lightly funky ("Slumber Party"), while borrowing female singers (including Takako Minekawa and Beat Happening's Heather Lewis) for occasional pop lullabies like "The Warm Glow of Waltham," "Patience" and "Fresh Pond Parkway."
Oasis: Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (Epic) Rating: 12/20
Oasis falls off rock 'n' roll's A-list for good with this sadly uninspired, lackluster album, which backs off the bombastic extravagances of Be Here Now for milder strains of psychedelic pastiche. Amidst a dismal batch of tired chord progressions and the monotonous bleat of Liam Gallagher's voice, the disc has exactly one strong track: the Noel Gallagher-led "Where Did It All Go Wrong?"
Placebo: Black Market Music (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
Placebo's third album finds singer Brian Molko (a flamboyant martyr-cum-heartthrob whose charisma unfortunately exceeds his talent by miles) still in a holding pattern, wrapping his keening vocals and slave-to-love lyrics in formulaic tunes and unimaginative musicianship (Stefan Olsdal's one-note bass lines get old real fast). These simple melodies might work if converted to full-bore punk, but when presented as glam-descended pop, they wear out their welcome (exceptions: "Black-Eyed," "Special K" and the tender "Commercial for Levi").
Teenage Fanclub: Howdy! (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 12/20
Now reduced to a trio, the band which put Matador Records on the map is settling into decline, as shown by this thinly recorded, weakly played set of ready-made pop. "Accidental Life," "The Town and the City" and the country-tinged "The Sun Shines from You" still boast the group's signature harmonies and flowing hooks, but the dull lyrics and unimaginative chord progressions are a serious problem here.
Juliana Hatfield: Juliana's Pony: Total System Failure (Zoë) Rating: 12/20
Conceived as a power-trio record, Total System Failure relies on repetitive, grunge-derived riffs which sound at least six years behind the times. The lyrics are an improvement over Beautiful Creature, adding more topicality and storytelling detail, but there's no getting past the dreary tunes (exceptions: "Houseboy," "Breeders," "Leather Pants" and "My Protégée").
Various Artists: Heroes & Villains: Music Inspired by the Powerpuff Girls (Rhino) Rating: 12/20
As the title indicates, this isn't a strict soundtrack from the popular cartoon, but a batch of songs written especially for the album (plus the show's opening and closing themes). These silly, sugary tunes reflect the youth of the disc's prime audience, but it's a surprisingly good collection of artists (Devo, Bis, Frank Black, Shonen Knife, Cornelius) and the Apples in Stereo, Komeda and Sugarplastic tracks stand up quite well on their own.
The High Llamas: Buzzle Bee (Drag City) Rating: 12/20
Now demoted to an indie label, Sean O'Hagan and his accomplices are still crafting delicate, orchestrated pop, but their narrow sound has run out of fresh corners to explore. "Get Into the Galley Shop" and "Tambourine Day" have pretty enough melodies, but most of these overlong, lyrically feeble pieces lope around aimlessly without ever coming into focus.
David Thomas & Foreigners: Bay City (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 12/20
David Thomas' current group is well-named -- the Danish trio who guests on the Pere Ubu leader's umpteenth solo album adds a distinctly European flavor to these typical snapshots of hidden Americana (in this case, the short stories of Raymond Chandler are Thomas' main inspiration). Thomas speaks as much as sings in his love-it-or-hate-it warble, while the wildly unusual arrangements -- junkyard percussion and clarinet are the prime musical elements -- add intrigue to introspective rumbles like "Clouds of You," "Salt" and "Shaky Hands."
Michael Penn: MP4: Days Since a Lost Time Accident (Fifty Seven) Rating: 12/20
Penn's self-produced fourth album is often bland, but his pleasing voice and melodies still yield a few attractive tunes. "Lucky One" has sweet echoes of Phil Spector, "Whole Truth" has a stirring chorus, "Perfect Candidate" juggles some clever key modulations, while the unusual "Footdown" contrasts a tropical verse with an intriguing mantra-like hook.
The Marshmallow Coast: Marshmallow Coasting (Kindercore) Rating: 12/20
Yet another cousin of the incestuous Elephant 6 scene, the Marshmallow Coast is essentially Of Montreal with multi-instrumentalist Andy Gonzales swapped into Kevin Barnes' spot at the microphone. Gonzales writes better arrangements than melodies, but the gentle flow of the music has a soothing charm and the sprinkles of woodwinds, horns and strings enliven the more focused tracks ("Shimmering in a Bulb of Glass," "Hung Up," "Oblong Destiny," the folksy "Loneliest Heart in Texas").
The Loud Family: Attractive Nuisance (Alias) Rating: 12/20
The problem with Scott Miller isn't so much his notorious "cleverness," and accompanying love for smarty-pants allusions, puns and word games -- it's his erratically paced melodies and outdated arrangements, which are still rooted in underground geek-pop of the mid '80s. The Loud Family's fifth album isn't as swamped with corny synthesizers and precious harmonies as most Miller projects, however, and the band does splice together some pleasing tunes, especially the crunching "720 Times Happier Than the Unjust Man," "Years of Wrong Impressions" (nicely sung by keyboardist Alison Faith Levy), "Backward Century" and the pretty "One Will Be the Highway."
World Party: Dumbing Up (Seaview) Rating: 11/20
Karl Wallinger's accessible brand of anthemic, peace-and-love pop has yielded some wonderful songs (especially on 1990's Goodbye Jumbo), but this slack, cannibalizing album is just a retread of past ideas, whether the source is himself or others ("Another Thousand Years" and "Who Are You?" are so musically similar to "Baby, You're a Rich Man" and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" that they're impossible to take seriously). Sounding more low-budget than past releases (particularly the keyboard parts), Dumbing Up also revisits some falsetto funk ("Here Comes the Future") and a cynical ballad from the Ian Hunter playbook ("Always on My Mind"), but even the best tunes have the depressing air of an artist whose time has come and gone.
Chumbawamba: WYSIWYG (Universal) Rating: 11/20
Chumbawamba's first album since their fluke "Tubthumping" breakthrough has its priorities all wrong -- it's like the group spent most of their time slaving over the booklet's smug lectures against government and bourgeois conformity, quickly scribbled down some words and melodies to support that text, then used a fat recording budget to inflate those flimsy tunes into seamless, radio-friendly mush. Cramming 23 tracks into 47 minutes, the disc is loaded with half-baked ideas and shallow potshots, though "I'm Coming Out," "Lie Lie Lie Lie," "I'm Not Sorry, I Was Having Fun," "Jesus in Vegas" and "She's Got All the Friends" have a familiar mix of pleasing harmonies and fist-pumping hooks.
Enon: Believo! (SeeThru) Rating: 11/20
Ex-Brainiac guitarist John Schmersal hooks up with two members of Skeleton Key to form Enon, retaining his old band's offbeat mix of indie-rock and electronics but (unfortunately) dropping its spastic giddiness. With vocals typically half-spoken, filtered or whined in thin falsetto, the melodies don't make much impression, but the brittle punch of the grooves is enough to carry better tracks like "Conjugate the Verbs," "Come Into" and the surging title cut.
Elastica: The Menace (Atlantic) Rating: 11/20
Coming an exasperating five years after the band's acclaimed debut, this mediocre sequel is crushingly anti-climactic. Trashy, derivative, weakly produced and melodically threadbare, the album tries to hide rudimentary songs behind quirky keyboard samples and fails badly, only achieving minor joys with "Generator," "Love Like Ours" and the raucous single "Mad Dog."
The Who: BBC Sessions (MCA) Rating: 16/20
This exciting compilation is loaded with 25 prime Who tracks, recorded for BBC radio during 1965-67, 1970 and 1973. The selection could be better (no "Can't Explain" or "I Can See for Miles," only one Tommy song, nothing from Who's Next, scattered mediocrities like "The Good's Gone" and "See My Way"), but we do get a host of Who classics, some interesting rarities (two cute radio jingles, James Brown's "Just You and Me, Darling," a minor-key try at "Good Lovin'" which precedes the Rascals' famous hit, a fantastic cover of "Dancing in the Street," the later single "Relay") and especially inspired versions of "Substitute," "The Seeker," "Happy Jack" (oh, the drumming!), "Run Run Run," "A Quick One (While He's Away)," "Pictures of Lily" (note the extra organ part) and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere."
The Lovin' Spoonful: Greatest Hits (Buddha) Rating: 16/20
The ever-underrated Lovin' Spoonful see their indelible '60s hits spin around the label circuit again, as they return to their original Buddha homeland. It's easy to take cynical shots at the group's aw-shucks cuddliness, but their dexterity with folk, country and blues is wholly authentic, and there's no denying the joys of irresistible tunes like "Do You Believe in Magic," "Daydream," "Summer in the City," "Rain on the Roof," "You're a Big Boy Now," "Six O'Clock" and "She Is Still a Mystery."
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Hot Burritos! Anthology 1969-1972 (A&M) Rating: 15/20
This two-disc compilation has all the tracks from the seminal country-rockers' three pivotal albums (The Gilded Palace of Sin, Burrito Deluxe, The Flying Burrito Brothers), plus some choice leftovers and singles. The second disc's pleasing but conservative material with Rick Roberts edges toward '70s-radio blandness, but the early, Gram Parsons-led recordings (including "Sin City," "Christine's Tune," the transcendent "Hot Burrito #1," "Hot Burrito #2" and an aching version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses") are a heavenly show of reedy harmonies, sharp melodies and gentle compassion.
Jeff Buckley: Mystery White Boy (Columbia) Rating: 14/20
The sound quality could be better, but this posthumous compilation of Buckley's live performances boasts adventurous reinterpretations and dazzling vocal gymnastics. Songs from the acclaimed Grace are predictably magical ("Mojo Pin" and the title track, in particular), but the disc's biggest lure is its bounty of rarities, which includes three previously unreleased compositions ("What Will You Say" is superb) plus covers of Big Star's "Kanga Roo" and Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away."
The Doors: Essential Rarities (Elektra) Rating: 14/20
This compilation does a good job of collecting a disc's worth of highlights from the recent Doors box set, despite one grievous error in judgment: the inclusion of a crummy recording of a crummy, overlong song ("The Soft Parade"), when three or four better items could've been substituted (perhaps more Madison Square Garden tracks, or the demos of "Go Insane," "My Eyes Have Seen You," "Summer's Almost Gone" and "End of the Night"?). In any case, the existing disc's material spans live hits ("Roadhouse Blues," "Break on Through," "The End"), quirky demos ("Hyacinth House," "Moonlight Drive," "Hello I Love You"), a swanky alternate take of "Queen of the Highway" and, most importantly, rare songs like "Who Scared You," "Whiskey, Mystics and Men," "Someday Soon" and "Orange County Suite."
Cracker: Garage D'Or (Virgin) Rating: 13/20
A mild-selling, eight-year-old band like Cracker has little need for a greatest-hits package, but this is an enjoyable anthology, collecting most of the top songs from the group's four albums plus three new tracks (none of which are indispensible). Radio hits like "Low" and "Teen Angst" best showcase the band's sardonic mix of country, blues and folk, but the biggest selling point is the limited-edition bonus disc, which adds 12 outtakes, demos, live tracks and B-sides (highlights: "Whole Lotta Trouble," "China 3" and a loopy orchestral version of "I Want Out of the Circus").
The Electric Prunes: Lost Dreams (Birdman) Rating: 13/20
These acid-pop stalwarts draw cynicism with their silly name and lack of personnel integrity, but this near-definitive compilation solves the latter issue by focusing on the original, pre-Mass in F Minor lineup. Spanning singles, outtakes and songs from the band's first two albums, this 23-track disc has a lightweight second half (too many tunes recall the Monkees' failed psychedelic experiments), but the effects-drenched relics do boast hallucinatory blasts like "Get Me to the World on Time," "Shadows," "Long Day's Flight ('til Tomorrow)," the raga-influenced "Hideaway" and the legendary "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)," plus some bluesier British Invasion-style stomps for variety ("Little Olive," "Everybody Knows You're Not in Love," the Hollies' "I've Got a Way of My Own").
Crowded House: Afterglow (Capitol) Rating: 13/20
This mop-up collection of leftovers and outtakes stands up fairly well as a distinct album -- none of the tracks sound fragmented or incomplete and, apart from a couple of rough guitar leads and vocals, the recordings are just as polished as the group's prime releases. Paul Hester's "My Telly's Gone Bung" is the only silly novelty, and Neil Finn's serenely beautiful voice and thoughtful songwriting are more than evident on "I Love You Dawn," the swinging "Sacred Cow," "Lester" (a song for his ailing dog), "Anyone Can Tell" and an intimate demo of Together Alone's "Private Universe."
The Muffs: Hamburger (Sympathy for the Record Industry) Rating: 13/20
Given the diminishing returns of the Muffs' last two albums (not to mention the recent departure of drummer Roy McDonald), this rowdy, 28-song collection of singles and rarities is a welcome reminder of the band's glory days. While cover songs account for a third of the disc (some highlights: Elvis Costello's "No Action," the Troggs' "You Can Cry If You Want," the Beat's "Rock & Roll Girl" and Kim Wilde's "Kids in America"), Shattuck's own punk-pop tunes supply the spark, especially "Right in the Eye," "When I Was Down," "Everywhere I Go," "New Love" and "Become Undone."
Of Montreal: Horse & Elephant Eatery (No Elephants Allowed): The Singles & Songles Album (Bar/None) Rating: 13/20
These Athens, GA eccentrics violently divide indie-pop fans -- either you're charmed by their childlike, topsy-turvy ditties or you think they're the most agonizingly saccharine group on the planet. Horse & Elephant Eatery is a 14-track grab bag of cute/cutesy singles, outtakes and overseas rarities, skipping between ramshackle bounce ("The Problem With April," "Was Your Face a Head in the Pillowcase?"), ragtime quirkiness ("Joseph and Alexander," "In the Army Kid"), '60s garage-rock ("Buried with Me," "Julie the Mouse," covers of the Gants' "Spoonful of Sugar" and the Kinks' "The World Keeps Going Round") and multi-sectioned indulgences ("Nicki Lighthouse," "Scenes from My Funeral").
Mudhoney: March to Fuzz (Sub Pop) Rating: 13/20
This career retrospective of Seattle's most notorious underachievers splits two CDs between expected favorites ("Touch Me, I'm Sick," "You Got It," "Here Comes Sickness," "Suck You Dry") and rarities ("Overblown," "Ounce of Deception," "Run Shithead Run" and a slew of cover songs). Since most fans already have the original albums, the best reason to grab this is the second disc, which not only collects 30 non-LP tracks but gives a neat snapshot of the band's influences (everything from Suicide to Elvis Costello to Motorhead to Roxy Music to the Adolescents).
Badfinger: Head First (Artisan) Rating: 13/20
This long-delayed epitaph for Badfinger's classic Ham/Evans lineup collects rough mixes of a "lost" 1974 album, along with a bonus disc of short demos which shows the band was well on its way to writing an additional record. A personnel switch (keyboardist Bob Jackson replaced guitarist Joey Molland) brings some stale synthesizers and dated blues-rock elements, but the doomed power-pop legends still come through with "Lay Me Down," the bitterly autobiographical "Hey, Mr. Manager," "Keep Believing" (a tender farewell to Molland), "Moonshine" and several promising fragments (especially "You Ask Yourself Why" and "To Say Goodbye").
The Olivia Tremor Control: Singles and Beyond (Kindercore) Rating: 13/20
Given the Olivia Tremor Control's notorious indulgences, it's predictable that the group's rarities collection is stuffed with half-baked ideas and errant experiments. Boasting a generous bounty of 1992-96 singles and compilation tracks, this druggy disc is long on superficial psychedelia but short on songwriting -- "Love Athena," "Fireplace," "Beneath the Climb" and "Shaving Spiders" are buzzing blasts of '60s-descended pop, but too many tracks noodle aimlessly just for the sake of weirdness.
David Sylvian: Everything and Nothing (Virgin) Rating: 12/20
More than anything else, this career anthology shows Sylvian's shrewd use of collaborators, whether it's Robert Fripp ("Jean the Birdman"), Marc Ribot ("Midnight Sun"), Mick Karn ("Buoy"), Ryuichi Sakamoto ("Heartbeat") or a host of other elegant, avant-garde craftsmen. Yet when the tracks focus on Sylvian's own talents, his free-floating melodies and extravagantly mannered vocals can be numbing, even if some tracks ("Let the Happiness In," "I Surrender," "Orpheus," the previously unreleased "Scent of Magnolia") do have merit beyond their musicianship and textural beauty.
Genesis: Archive#2 1976-1992 (Atlantic) Rating: 12/20
Genesis' second box set of outtakes, live tracks and B-sides is far inferior to the previous Archive 1967-75, as ethereal guitarist Steve Hackett appears on only four of 34 tracks and (of course) we're subjected to the group's disheartening top-40 phase. Yet amidst the uneventful live tracks, excruciating remixes and contemporary banalities, the three discs squeeze in some fine studio rarities, such as "Vancouver," "The Day the Light Went Out," "Open Door," "You Might Recall," "Evidence of Autumn" and especially the gorgeous "Inside and Out."
Claudine Longet: The Very Best of Claudine Longet (Varèse Vintage) Rating: 11/20
Even us fans have difficulty explaining the haunting/cloying allure of this infamous chanteuse's wispy vocals, so it's a shame that Longet's first Stateside compilation was crippled by record-label bureaucracy (her best-known albums on A&M are represented by a mere four tracks, due to licensing restrictions). With the selections focused on her post-A&M period of the early '70s, the muted intimacy of her previous albums is missed, though the best songs ("God Only Knows," "Sleep Song," "Every Night," "Here, There and Everywhere") are still aglow with that eerie Longet shimmer.
Dinosaur Jr.: In Session (Fuel 2000) Rating: 11/20
Yet another compilation culled from the BBC's radio archives, In Session collects 10 Dinosaur nuggets dating from 1988, 1989 and 1992. The selections include "Budge," "In a Jar," "No Bones" and "Raisins" (all taken from the seminal You're Living All Over Me and Bug albums) plus a pair of interesting acoustic performances, but too many tracks are mired in bludgeoning, unfocused distortion.
Blonde Redhead: Melodie Citronique (Touch & Go), Amy Correia: Transportation Songs (Odeon), Gorky's Zygotic Mynci: The Blue Trees (Mantra), Guided by Voices: Hold on Hope (TVT), Macha & Bedhead: Macha Loved Bedhead (Jetset), the Minders: Down in Fall (spinART), Nine Inch Nails: Things Falling Apart (Nothing), Portastatic: De Mel, De Melao (Merge), the Spinanes: Imp Years (Merge) [compilation], Stereolab: The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra), A Sunshine Fix: The Future History of a Sunshine Fix (Kindercore), Jen Wood: This Uncomfortable Light (Tree), XTC: I'm the Man Who Murdered Love (TVT)
Endorsed but still unreviewed
Aloha: That's Your Fire, Cinerama: Disco Volante, Elf Power: The Winter Is Coming, Múm: Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK, Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out // Cinerama: This Is Cinerama, Martin Phillipps: Sketchbook Vol. 1