|Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-) Rating: 15/20
"Sings like an angel" is a cliché, but it repeatedly comes to mind as country-folk's favorite redhead floats through this heavenly set of haunting, reverb-laced ballads. Dodging genre pigeonholes through varied instrumentation and a knack for inserting an arty chord change in just the right spot, Case (with guest help including Howe Gelb, Garth Hudson, Calexico and the Sadies) draws wistful character sketches with a grace and poetry that leads the field of 2006 releases.
|Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped (Geffen) Rating: 14/20
Minus the rambling "Pink Steam" near the end, the tightly composed Rather Ripped may be Sonic Youth's most song-oriented album ever -- for once, this sounds like a case of Yo La Tengo influencing Sonic Youth, rather than the other way around. Still boldly adventurous like a band in its first (rather than third) decade, the New York noise-rock legends let bassist Kim Gordon -- and her much improved singing -- take a larger share of the spotlight on understated croons like "Reena" and "The Neutral," though Lee Ranaldo's showcase "Rats" is (typically) the most elegant, melodic track of the bunch.
|Jon Auer: Songs from the Year of Our Demise (Pattern 25) Rating: 14/20
Surprisingly, Jon Auer's first solo album equals -- and possibly surpasses -- any of the Posies' releases, offering the same tunefulness and polished vocals but hitting a more personal note which sidesteps his band's distancing tribute-pop filter. Caressing somber songs about broken relationships, regrets and even death, Auer winds through 55 minutes of material without a bum track, as his sweetly chiming melancholy rarely fails to enthrall.
|Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia) Rating: 14/20
Modern Times extends the focus on '50s country-swing influences heard on 2001's remarkable Love and Theft, introducing 10 new songs varying from superb ("Workingman's Blues #2," "Ain't Talkin'," the eloquent vows of "When the Deal Goes Down," the ballroom romance of "Beyond the Horizon") to thin (knockoffs like "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Someday Baby" and "The Levee's Gonna Break," where he's just impersonally playing a role and following old folk/blues templates). The tracks are loaded with dreamy atmosphere, though weaknesses include a shortage of humor (the oft-quoted lines about Alicia Keys are more silly than funny), some flat dynamics, an overly polite backing band, an extra stanza or three which might have been cut (the tracks average over six minutes apiece) and, naturally, Dylan's deteriorated voice.
|Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs: Under the Covers, Vol. 1 (Shout! Factory) Rating: 14/20
Sixties-pop devotees Sweet and Hoffs just chime through some of their favorite period nuggets, with expert help from guests like Van Dyke Parks, Ric Menck (the Velvet Crush), Richard Lloyd (Television) and Ivan Julian (the Voidoids). Not all the tracks are knockouts ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Sunday Morning" lack the proper forboding, and "Monday, Monday" was tepid from the start), but "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Care of Cell #44," the unjustly forgotten "I See the Rain," a gorgeous "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" and "She May Call You Up Tonight" are just perfectly sung, recorded, arranged and produced.
|Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino) Rating: 14/20
This year's U.K. hype act actually has the goods, fusing a chaotic rush of slapping guitar chords and Alex Turner's dizzy stream of anecdotes into a truly exciting noise. An understated, jazzy sense of melody balances the group's superficial sloppiness (and suggests greater things to come with maturity), as clattering tunes like "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," "The View from the Afternoon" and "When the Sun Goes Down" capture local nightclub rituals with brash immediacy.
|Robert Pollard: From a Compound Eye (Merge) Rating: 14/20
It's clear that Pollard intended this 26-track, 71-minute epic as an opening fanfare to establish himself beyond Guided by Voices and, accordingly, its tunes are impressively consistent by the lo-fi scoundrel's usual scattershot standards. With his effortless genius for British Invasion-style rock ("Dancing Girls and Dancing Men," "I'm a Widow," "Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft") broadened with some synthesizer-washed ballads ("Other Dogs Remain"), a dash of prog ("Conqueror of the Moon") and a few pithy fragments (only one of which is outright disposable), the disc stands among the best releases ever by a singer-songwriter who continues to redefine "prolific" with every passing year.
|Aloha: Some Echoes (Polyvinyl) Rating: 14/20
Aloha's fourth album is their best effort yet, a fascinating blend of Tortoise's contrapuntal complexity, restrained vocal melodies in the Sebadoh/Luna tradition and peculiar, fragmented imagery which is Aloha's alone. With intricately balanced arrangements of organ, hammered percussion and milky guitar, Aloha seem almost incapable of a dull composition, but they really shine when they boldly break through the prog barrier, as on "Brace Your Face," "Summer Lawn" and the amazing "Your Eyes."
The M's: Future Women (Polyvinyl) Rating: 13/20
If you can forgive that it's mostly assembled from bits of 10-year-old Elephant 6 records (not to mention 40-year-old Kinks records), the second album from these Chicago-based popsters is a charming dose of fuzzy hooks and offbeat philosophy. Perfect pacing, crunchy guitar licks with a genuine edge and a catchy way with irregular rhythms are just some of this disc's virtues, as tracks like the barnburning "Plan of the Man," "Never Do This Again" (Ray Davies might as well earn royalties from this one), "My Gun" and the unexpectedly Beck-like "Shawnee Dupree" are sure to thrill any indie-rocker with a '60s-garage heart.
Quasi: When the Going Gets Dark (Touch and Go) Rating: 13/20
The biggest story about Quasi's seventh (!) album is just how great it sounds -- Dave Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) mixed it, and Sam Coomes' guitar and keyboard lines are intertwined so well that the two-person-band novelty becomes wholly irrelevant. Quasi remains a bit erratic when it comes to structuring -- sprawling instrumental introductions and codas leave songs feeling unfocused -- but Coomes and drummer Janet Weiss (ex-wife, ex-Sleater Kinney, now of the Jicks) still deliver his no-sellout ideals with plenty of panache in thorny anthems like "The Rhino," "Peace and Love," "I Don't Know You Anymore" and "Poverty Sucks."
The Fiery Furnaces: Bitter Tea (Fat Possum) Rating: 13/20
With one of pop music's most idiosyncratic, indescribable sounds (storytelling folk with attention deficit disorder, recorded on '70s-prog synthesizers?), the Fiery Furnaces almost defy criticism with their bizarre, complex pieces that casually ignore verse/chorus convention and all sense of sustained momentum. The lyrics on their latest creation jump between absurdly personal anecdote ("The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry") and formal, traditionalist laments ("Black-Hearted Boy"), and only a few tracks ("Police Sweater Blood Vow," the almost doo-wop "Waiting to Know You," the Lennon-esque ballad "Whistle Rhapsody") have any easy accessibility for new listeners -- but who's complaining?
Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint: The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast) Rating: 13/20
Elvis Costello's collaboration with elder legend Allen Toussaint may be Katrina-inspired, but only a few tracks directly reference the storm or its mishandling -- this is much more a tribute to the region's rich heritage of music. Unfortunately, Costello fans aren't likely to flip for a genre album with only one track that fully bears Costello's songwriting mark (the gospel-tinged "The Sharpest Thorn") -- "Freedom for the Stallion" is stirring and "Ascension Day" has some amazingly eloquent piano from Toussaint, but the appeal of other tunes may depend on how infatuated you are with the funky, slow-boil grooves of the New Orleans sound.
Matthew Friedberger: Winter Women (859 Recordings) Rating: 13/20
This solo album from the Fiery Furnaces songwriter/keyboardist is packed with a staggering amount of information -- between his bewilderingly dense, Pynchon-esque lyrics, left-turn song structures and fat lines of splurting, crunchy synthesizers, you may never get to the bottom of this 62-minute extravaganza. The sheer sensory overload is intriguing enough on its own, but what's surprising is that behind all the wordy, almanac-chewing rambles and dissonant arrangements, several tracks (especially "Ruth vs. Rachel," the jaunty "Up the River" and "The Pennysylvania Rock Oil Company Resignation Letter") are among Friedberger's catchiest tunes ever.
Beth Orton: Comfort of Strangers (Astralwerks) Rating: 13/20
The UK singer-songwriter's fourth album is slow to catch fire -- it begins with its most monotonous tracks, has Jim O'Rourke's resolutely low-key production as a commercial barrier (no folk/electronic hybrids here) and has such offhand, jazzy vocals in spots that Orton sounds distracted to a fault. However, stick around and the beauty of her frayed voice emerges, and songs like "Conceived," "Feral," "Safe in Your Arms" and the unexpectedly frisky "Shopping Trolley" (hey, who woke up the drummer?) make this one of the year's most soulful releases.
Mission of Burma: The Obliterati (Matador) Rating: 13/20
Mission of Burma's second reunion disc doesn't match the band's hard-earned reputation as post-punk giants -- sounding almost like a first-take live record, the album is roughly sung, murkily mixed and texturally monotonous, with few of the extra electronic tweaks which distinguished the original releases (founding member Martin Swope remains AWOL). Singing and songwriting are democratically shared (not the greatest idea, considering Roger Miller's superior voice and Peter Prescott's inferior writing), but harsh yet literate tracks like "2wice," "Donna Sumeria" and "1001 Pleasant Dreams" will reward patient listeners.
Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3: Olé! Tarantula (Yep Roc) Rating: 13/20
The veteran British songwriter has been predictably mining the same Beatles/Byrds/Barrett influences for years, but this 10-track disc is a welcome return to a user-friendly pop sound after some releases with a more isolated, homemade feel. Borrowing storied players including Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey (the Minus 5, the Young Fresh Fellows), Chris Ballew (the Presidents of the United States of America) and Kimberley Rew (the Soft Boys), Hitchcock writes lazily at times -- "Belltown Ramble," "Red Locust Frenzy" and "N.Y. Doll" are essentially words, a picking pattern and no melody -- but adds fresh tricks such as overdubbed sax charts, the rumbling "'Cause It's Love" (including an unusually gritty guitar solo and an Andy Partridge co-writing credit) and the psychedelic, occasionally profane gnash of "The Authority Box."
The Long Winters: Putting the Days to Bed (Barsuk) Rating: 13/20
One of today's most underrated bands, the Long Winters play a precisely constructed, no-gimmicks style of collegiate pop centered on songwriter John Roderick's abstracted lyrics and characteristic, against-the-groove phrasing. The group's third album weathers the loss of keyboardist Sean Nelson (now back with Harvey Danger) and isn't quite as colorful as 2003's When I Pretend to Fall, but "Pushover," "Rich Wife," the horns-boosted "Teaspoon" and the country detour of "Clouds" headline another set of accessible, intelligent tunes.
David Mead: Tangerine (Tallulah!) Rating: 13/20
David Mead's labels get smaller and smaller as his records get better and better -- this lovely, suite-like sleeper adds a crucial interest in George Martin-like arrangements, lifting Mead out of bland singer-songwriter turf and pushing him closer to the florid pop of Rufus Wainwright and late XTC. Mead's voice is pretty if limited in emotional range (think Paul Simon or Ron Sexsmith) but, again and again, songs like "Chatterbox," the carnivalesque "Hard to Remember," the ukelele flutter of "Hunting Season" and the majestic "Suddenly, A Summer Night" latch onto sublime melodic twists.
Frank Black: Fast Man Raider Man (Back Porch) Rating: 13/20
Pixies zealots may never fully accept the aw-shucks casualness and relaxed, lower-register vocals of Frank Black's recent work, and this defiant double disc gives no further consolation, instead dwelling on a mainstream Americana sound more likely to recall John Fogerty ("Kiss My Ring"), Van Morrison ("Elijah"), Tom Petty and Memphis soul. The old-school ambience is no coincidence, given the polished contributions of Rolling Stone rockers like Levon Helm, Steve Cropper, Carol Kaye, P.F. Sloan, Al Kooper, Tom Petersson, Spooner Oldham and Jim Keltner, but the 95 minutes of music is far too uniform not to benefit from editing, and only scattered tunes ("If Your Poison Gets You," "Seven Days," "Sad Old World," "In the Time of My Ruin," the muted Pixie-isms of "Johnny Barleycorn") are distinctive enough to stand out from the pack.
Lylas: Lessons for Lovers (Fictitious) Rating: 13/20
This acoustic Nashville ensemble is an overlooked treasure, crooning tight, understated sketches which owe less to the local country scene than to the pastoral Kinks tunes of the late '60s (in fact, the borrowed Ray Davies licks may offend some purists). The pleasing, gently frisky melodies of tracks like "No Seance for Sweetheart," "Twice on Sunday," "Star of the Family Portrait" and "Tiny Echoes" are deceptive, however -- singer Kyle Hamlett's lyrics often have a morose, even macabre, edge (one suicide-themed song even uses "a lazy spray of wrists and veins" as a central image).
Kelley Stoltz: Below the Branches (Sub Pop) Rating: 13/20
Bedroom-pop maven Stoltz released a few micro-indie records before this one, but none of them touch the joyful din of his Sub Pop debut (appropriately packaged like a miniature vinyl album). Showing old-fashioned loves for the Beach Boys ("Ever Thought of Coming Back"), the Velvet Underground (his crude piano-pounding is pure John Cale) and other nuggets, Stoltz sings wobbly, optimistic anthems which tip off their charms even through title alone: "Summer's Easy Feeling," "Birdies Singing," "The Rabbit Hugged the Hound," "The Sun Comes Through."
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Ballad of the Broken Seas (V2) Rating: 13/20
This would-be collaborative album is definitely Campbell's baby -- the more talented Lanegan has only one songwriting credit and sounds awkwardly restrained, as if he's trying hard to keep his booming voice from overpowering Campbell's wispy dabs of nursery-rhyme balladry. Writer/producer Campbell casts herself and Lanegan as call-and-response lovers (memories of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra hang heavy in the air), and when these waltzing mood tunes don't come off thin and incomplete, they're pleasingly atmospheric (try the title song, the dreamily orchestrated "The False Husband," "The Circus Is Leaving Town" or the more accessible "Honey Child What Can I Do?").
Golden Smog: Another Fine Day (Lost Highway) Rating: 13/20
This intermittent supergroup retains its pedigreed personnel (members of Wilco, the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum and even Big Star), but Golden Smog's third album of journeyman country-rock wears thin, due to inconsistent songwriting, a shortage of humor, an often muddy mix and a load of flabby track lengths (the same material could have been covered in 54, rather than 64, minutes). Given that Jeff Tweedy is the one Smogger still in his creative prime, it's not surprising that his showcases (the stripped-down "Long Time Ago" and "Listen Joe") are the most affecting tracks, but the disc also includes a couple of zesty rockers ("Corvette," "Hurricane"), the rippling piano pop of "I Can" and two other strong ballads ("Never Felt Before," the concluding "Think About Yourself").
Tom Verlaine: Songs and Other Things (Thrill Jockey) Rating: 13/20
Sixteen years had passed since the influential Television frontman's last song-based album, but he doesn't sound rusty at all on this nicely produced set of understated rumbles. Verlaine's thin, muttered vocals are too difficult to understand and signs of Television's spiralling instrumental frenzies are scarce ("From Her Fingers" and "All Weirded Out" are the only scraps for punk lovers), but his clean, haunting guitar style still glows in more focused tracks like the Stan Ridgway-esque "Orbit," the waltzing "Blue Light," the near-Eastern jam of "The Day on You" and the lovely spirituality of "The Earth Is in the Sky."
The Flaming Lips: At War with the Mystics (Warner Bros.) Rating: 13/20
Wayne Coyne's superlative producing and arranging skills continue to grow, but as the Lips' records become more and more painstakingly studio-constructed, the group's days of primal psychedelic rock are missed. This surprisingly dull, mellow disc has too many dead patches and some of Coyne's laziest writing ever, and his hippie-guru philosophizing -- seeming somewhat forced at this point -- only takes root when the music is solid, as on "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," the nostalgic space-rock of "Pompeii am Götterdämmerung," "The W.A.N.D." and the Brian Wilson-like hymn "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion."
The Futureheads: News and Tributes (Startime/Vagrant) Rating: 12/20
Longer songs, weak hooks and middling tempos plague the Futureheads' disappointing second album, which might be viewed as a transitional record akin to another troubling sophomore disc, XTC's Go 2. "Cope," "Area" (a US-only bonus track) and "Favours for Favours" retain the debut's effervescent magic, but most other tracks have little to offer beyond snappy rhythm changes.
The Essex Green: Cannibal Sea (Merge) Rating: 12/20
Playing like a forgotten effort from some second-string folk-pop outfit of the '60s (We Five, anyone?), the Essex Green's curiously dry third album is so carefully crafted, performed and arranged that its emotional pull just evaporates. Sasha Bell's polished but plain voice is the biggest problem (along with dispassionate, storytelling lyrics which scroll past like faded newspaper clippings), and when an edgy guitar solo suddenly leaps out of "Cardinal Points," it only underscores the lack of life elsewhere.
Placebo: Meds (Astralwerks) Rating: 12/20
This proudly androgynous trio has boosted its production values (for the better) on recent releases but, mysteriously, Brian Molko's tormented anxieties still haven't found a commercial footing with American emo kids. However, Meds's thin songwriting (a step down from 2003's Sleeping with Ghosts) does the group no favors -- beyond a powerful pair of opening tracks and a classically flavored ballad with a Michael Stipe cameo, the nagging repetition which conveys Molko's sense of neurotic obsession too often turns formulaic and monotonous.
Les Claypool: Of Whales and Woe (Prawn Song) Rating: 12/20
After indulging too many of his jam-band tendencies on other recent albums, Claypool restrains himself with a shorter, song-focused disc that's one of his best releases outside of Primus. The versatile Claypool accounts most of the instrumentation (including capable drumming), but Skerik's saxophones and the marimba/vibes of Mike Dillon add a robust, earthier feel to warped, funky tracks like "One Better," the mock-grandiose "Phantom Patriot," "Lust Stings" and the rapping "Rumble of the Diesel."
Neil Young: Living with War (Reprise) Rating: 11/20
Young's most problematic album in 20 years, this impulsive blast of rage against the George W. Bush administration is spoiled not so much by its unsubtle preaching but by its utterly generic, "Neil Young-esque" rock (not-so-helpfully expanded with a large, informal choir who anthemically/anemically sings along on most tracks). Even the brown-bag artwork looks like a rush job, and the rehashed, lazily structured melodies suggest that Young arrived at the studio with a wrinkled notebook of lyrics and just said "OK, someone lay down a good drum beat and we'll work out the rest as we go."
Matthew Friedberger: Holy Ghost Language School (859 Recordings) Rating: 11/20
Bundled with Winter Women but recorded separately, this more difficult album has sparser arrangements, noodling rhythms, longer instrumental stretches, mumbled flurries of spoken word and, seemingly, a huge Residents influence (particularly in "Seventh Loop Highway," which has a scratchy guitar riff that's pure Snakefinger). A fuzzy narrative emerges involving teaching English in China (Japan?), but only the most patient listeners will stick around until the end.
Buzzcocks: Flat-Pack Philosophy (Cooking Vinyl) Rating: 11/20
The harsh truth: Pete Shelley has aged and lost his piercing vocal range, and it makes all the difference in the world on this brief, sadly ordinary disc. The band's gift for aggressive melody is mostly intact -- along with their high-tension anxieties about love and materialism -- but only a few tracks ("Dreamin'" and "Wish I Never Loved You," especially) show more than a glimpse of these classic punks' original flair.
Cracker: Greenland (Cooking Vinyl) Rating: 11/20
Palpably dejected over falling commercial fortunes and conflicts with ex-label Virgin, Cracker sounds weary and depressed slogging through the lackluster performances on this forlorn, joyless disc. Shrugging off his once-sardonic wit, David Lowery ruminates about bad relationships and sings as if he wants to disappear (weak attempts at swampy, Daniel Lanois-style production further bury him), and the Who-like flourishes of "The Riverside" are just about the only spot on the disc where the band comes to life.
Barry Adamson: Stranger on the Sofa (Central Control) Rating: 11/20
The esteemed Magazine/Bad Seeds bassist unfortunately backs off the orchestrated spy-flick swagger of his early solo records, and moves toward sleek European grooves with a more synthetic, self-assembled feel. Now relaunching himself on his own label, Adamson blends bloodless instrumentals with solid but undistinguished vocal tracks like "The Long Way Back Again," "My Friend the Fly" and "Theresa Green" which seem coldly drawn from David Sylvian and ex-boss Nick Cave.
50 Foot Wave: Free Music (Throwing Music)
Endorsed but still unreviewed
Annuals: Be He Me, Badly Drawn Boy: Born in the U.K., Beck: The Information, Adrian Belew: Side Three, Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit, Bettie Serveert: Bare Stripped Naked, Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar, Cornelius: Sensuous, Ray Davies: Other People's Lives, the Decemberists: The Crane Wife, Tanya Donelly: This Hungry Life, Grandaddy: Just Like the Fambly Cat, Great Lakes: Diamond Times, Grizzly Bear: Yellow House, Albert Hammond Jr.: Yours to Keep, Ed Harcourt: The Beautiful Lie, Lambchop: Damaged, Sean Lennon: Friendly Fire, Matmos: The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, Eric Matthews: Foundation Sounds, Nellie McKay: Pretty Little Head, the Minders: It's a Bright Guilty World, the Minus 5: The Minus 5, Mogwai: Mr. Beast, Mosquitos: Mosquitos III, Mouse on Mars: Varcharz, Mudhoney: Under a Billion Suns, Joanna Newsom: Ys., Cale Parks: Illuminated Manuscript, Parts & Labor: Stay Afraid, Pere Ubu: Why I Hate Women, Robert Pollard: Normal Happiness, Portastatic: Who Loves the Sun, Portastatic: Be Still Please, Paul Simon: Surprise, Snow Patrol: Eyes Open, Stereolab: Fab Four Suture, the Strokes: First Impressions of Earth, David Sylvian: Blemish, Tom Verlaine: Around, Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, Soundtrack: Open Season, Soundtrack: The Proposition // Battles: EP C/B, Cocteau Twins: Lullabies for Violaine, Vol. 1, Cocteau Twins: Lullabies for Violaine, Vol. 2, Ben Folds: Supersunnyspeedgraphic: The LP, Lambchop: The Decline of Country & Western Civilization Part II, Maxïmo Park: Missing Songs, Andy Partridge: Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album, Sonic Youth: The Destroyed Room, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: Hammersmith Odeon, London '75, Turquoise: The Further Adventures of Flossie Fillett, Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, the Wedding Present: Search for Paradise, Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live at Fillmore East