|Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: No More Shall We Part (Reprise) Rating: 16/20
Nick Cave knows he'll become a self-parody if he spends his life mining the same ferocious depths of depravity, death and corruption, and his switch to a more dignified, reflective outlook is perfectly timed. His finest album in years, No More Shall We Part uses stately piano and strings rather than slashing rhythms and feedback, but masterful compositions like "God Is in the House," "Oh My Lord," "Darker with the Day" and "Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow" have an intensity which transcends their muted dynamics.
|Bob Dylan: Love and Theft (Columbia) Rating: 16/20
Riding a phenomenal career resurgence at an age when most musicians are quietly tending their gardens, Dylan has even topped 1997's Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind with this warm exploration of rustic American styles. Resurrecting the delightful humor and rambling stanzas of his classic '60s albums, the ever-evolving songsmith hits typical themes (disillusion, romance, corruption, rural storytelling) with an anything-but-typical mix of sounds spanning rock ("Honest With Me"), folk ("High Water"), blues ("Cry A While"), a sock-hop rave ("Summer Days") and an almost unprecedented set of pre-rock 'n' roll crooners ("Bye and Bye," "Moonlight," "Floater," "Po' Boy").
|Ed Harcourt: Here Be Monsters (Capitol) Rating: 15/20
Here Be Monsters is a shockingly accomplished debut, an airtight songwriter's dream which also happens to be exquisitely arranged and produced. Equally comfortable with guitar and piano, this starry-eyed Brit croons through a lover's suite of indescribable sensuality, baring his romantic heart in flowing pop ("She Fell Into My Arms," "Shanghai"), ghostly weepiness ("Wind Through the Trees," "Something in My Eye") and near-gothic gloom ("Beneath the Heart of Darkness," "Those Crimson Tears").
|Foetus: Flow (Thirsty Ear) Rating: 14/20
Trent Reznor prays every night that someday he'll match Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell's intimidating precedent, and this virtuoso epic is Thirlwell's best work in years. Pulverizing big-band splendor, cool jazz and industrial crunch into a unified, bludgeoning assault, this one-man orchestra couches scalding urban cynicism in merciless grooves like "Quick Fix," "The Need Machine," the cinematic "Suspect" and the hepcat swing of "Heuldoch #7B."
|Ben Folds: Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic) Rating: 14/20
Folds' solo debut is a remarkable rebound from the erratic decay of Ben Folds Five -- he cuts the indulgent razzle-dazzle, tightens his melodies and even writes some of his best lyrics (check the melancholy characterizations of "Carrying Cathy" and "Fred Jones Part 2"). Playing most of the instruments himself, he powers through an impressively consistent set of well-written tunes, spanning exuberant pop ("Zak and Sara"), sweet ballads ("The Luckiest") and a funky novelty (the Limp Bizkit-parodying title track).
|Björk: Vespertine (Elektra) Rating: 14/20
Björk's brave new disc is a frosty blur of dreamy soundscapes, deriving its allure not from dance beats or explosive vocals, but an eerie collage of music boxes, harps, strings, choral voices and samples. Strikingly intimate and boldly uncommercial, Vespertine finds Björk tenderly musing about love and motherhood via drowsy, impressionistic grooves which are shapeless at times, but gorgeously evocative when heard as a conceptual suite.
|The Strokes: Is This It (RCA) Rating: 14/20
Drawing freely from the Velvet Underground's rattling pop and the classic CBGB's scene, these New Yorkers transcend their obvious borrowings with surefire hooks and rhythms -- amazingly, this brief but powerful disc lives up to its hype. The filtering on Julian Casablancas' Reed-meets-Morrissey vocals can be monotonous (not to mention destructive to his lyrics), but the band's wiry energy never sags in tense, catchy rockers like "Someday," "The Modern Age" and the title song.
|The Minus 5: Let the War Against Music Begin (Malt) Rating: 14/20
Who would have guessed the side project of Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) would produce an album better than their primary bands' concurrent discs? This cleverly arranged set of good-time pop also features Robyn Hitchcock, Sean O'Hagan (the High Llamas), two Posies and more, but McCaughey's warm songwriting is the centerpiece, highlighted by "You Don't Mean It," the irresistible "Got You," "Your Day Will Come" and the Pet Sounds-like "Great News Around You."
|The Kingsbury Manx: Let You Down (Overcoat) Rating: 14/20
This arty Chapel Hill quartet's more unified second album offers placid, contrapuntal pieces which recall Pink Floyd (circa 1969-71) and Swell, but these layered compositions have a pastoral allure which transcends any influences. The vocals drift by in a conversational murmur, while methodical rolls of picked guitars (often acoustic) carry beautifully harmonic tunes like "Porchlight," "Simplify," the title track and "Baby You're a Dead Man."
|Quasi: The Sword of God (Touch and Go) Rating: 13/20
The fifth album by this Northwest duo (lead singer/keyboardist/guitarist Sam Coomes, with ubiquitous drummer Janet Weiss) has enough overdubs that the group's two-person attack is barely a novelty anymore. The disc is mildly handicapped by its stress on sluggish ballad tempos, but Coomes' yearning voice, cynical lyrics and gnarled chord structures still elevate powerful tracks like "Genetic Silence," the Lennon-esque "It's Raining," "From a Hole in the Ground" and the dreamy "A Case of No Way Out."
Matmos: A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (Matador) Rating: 13/20
The San Francisco-based experimental duo comes up with a remarkably original concept: basing an album around musique concrète samples from the medical world, whether the sources are rhinoplasty, liposuction, laser eye surgery, galvanic skin-response testing or even human bones. The results are a bit dry when conventional instruments are held to a minimum (as with the bone and LASIK tracks, or another focused on "playing" the cage of a laboratory rat), but when the snippets are integrated with the group's usual contemplative, scuttling beats (as on "Lipostudio...And So On," "Spondee" or "Ur Tchun Tan Tse Qi"), the rhythms and textures are engrossing even without knowing the backstory.