2003 Music Reviews

!!! (Chk Chk Chk), Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard (2003) [EP]   B
Jack-hammering, sweat-heavy dance grooves from the band with a name that's three clicking sounds put together - at 19 minutes (for both songs), it's almost impossible to become bored with. Lyrics are provided in the case, but you can't tell what's being said anyway - leave the lingo to your body when you dance naked around your bedroom.

Dot Allison, We Are Science (2002)   B-
Dark and dreamy electronica album that teams up Aphex Twin-esque effects with Allison's glorious voice. I found it to be a surprisingly delicate work, not too unapproachable or overproduced.

Arab Strap, The Shy Retirer (2003) [EP]   A-
Must-have EP for fans of the Scottish duo - I mean, any time Van Halen and AC/DC are covered ("Why Can't This Be Love" and "You Shook Me All Night Long," respectively) ... and the group doesn't make a fool of itself, it's a bright moment. Even at six songs, it's probably the best album they've ever put together.

Arovane, Atol Scrap (2000)   F
Having been won over by the miraculous Tides, someone I know slipped me a copy of this record. I was expecting more of the same subtle ambient music and got bad (early) Richard James. Where'd the originality go?

The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (1966)   A
Yeah, this is pretty good.

Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It in People (2002)   A-
A remarkable and unique masterpiece from the Toronto dream-pop collective - whatever is in the ice water in Canada has led to some amazing musical talents emerging from that part of the world (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The New Pornographers are also from up north). I figured that with Broken Social Scene's colossal membership (eleven plus members?) their album would be all-over-the-map, but shockingly it's one of the most cohesive records of the year, blending instrumentals and a wide range of vocalists and an assortment of shifting moods into a smooth running whole - no individual song stands above the rest, all are consistently inventive. Ride the sonic assault.

Johnny Cash, The American Recordings (1994)   B
Exceptional Cash album filled with some truly unsettling songs - the bearded, scrupulous Rick Rubin, God love 'em, has helped the Man in Black change his image from cowboy to disillusioned sage, and their collaboration produced this tragic album. "Delia's Gone" is a highlight, and who the hell knew Glenn Danzig could write a song like "Thirteen?" (Though come to think of it, "Cantspeak," "Mother" and his work with the Misfits was clever....)

The Chameleons UK, Script of the Bridge (1983)   B+
I read in one of the magazines laying around my house that this was the album that inspired Interpol's "Turn on the Bright Lights," and for once, I agree with that assessment. Interpol goes a lot farther with the idea of repetitive guitar dissonance and a layered wall of sound, but this is an exquisite beginning nonetheless. Post-punk like this is truly delicious.

The Charlatans UK, Wonderland (2001)   C
There are a few highs ("Is It In You?" purrs gracefully) for the low lows - it comes to the latter when the lead singer tries to vocally emulate a drag queen with tin ear. I'm not much of a Stone Roses or Happy Mondays fan, so if you are, raise score accordingly.

Cody ChesnuTT, The Headphone Masterpiece (2002)   B+
I'm glad I picked up this compelling two-disc lo-fi funk/rock set from Mr. ChesnuTT. When you have the gumption to name your album a "masterpiece" you're opening yourself up to some potentially scalding critical feedback but it goes to show how much faith ChesnuTT has in himself and in his 30+ track juggernaut. "Looks Good in Leather" and "Bitch I'm Broke" are two of the best songs - "The Seed" was redone with Philly's own The Roots (and renamed "The Seed 2.0") - and I'd have a hard time removing any of the songs, since they're so personal and intense. It may improve even more on repeat listens.

The Children's Hour, SOS JFK (2003)   D-
Or, the kind of music you used to sing at camp. "Wyoming" is a lovely song, but the bareness becomes mundane and tiresome after a while; the fireside acoustic guitarist and chanteuse need to add a little more spunk to their repertoire.

Couch, Fantasy (2000)   D-
Half-hearted imitation of real kraut-rockers like Neu! and Can. They jam on a few chords and call it a night before I could actively dislike it. I don't ask for much in my albums, but this is too trifling to deserve a lot of thought.

Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Armed Forces (1979)   A
Impossibly energetic album from Costello and his backup band that has two great singles as bookends - "Accidents Will Happen" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" - and a lot of quality in between. His music is punk but his singing is something else altogether - it's like a teenager trying to cope with his newly-developed adult voice. "This Year's Model" preceded this, and both are classics.

Dead Meadow, Shivering King & Others (2003)   F
Once in a while you run into a band or an album in particular that's so bad, you wonder who heard it and felt like promoting it. This is one of those albums. The lead singer sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain in a wind tunnel (that is whenever they bother to include vocals) while the guitarists play a fuzzy, obnoxious variation on Led Zeppelin. I was tempted to rip the disc out and fling it in the garbage, but stuck through it like the trooper I can be. It didn't get any better.

Nick Drake, Bryter Layter (1970)   C
Am I committing blasphemy by saying that half of this sounds like perfectly acceptable elevator music? I am? I thought, although to make the Drake lovers out there happy, I will admit that "Fly" and "Northern Sky" are quite pretty. Not enough? Can't please all the people all the time. Going down?

Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks (1975)   A
It's hard to go wrong with almost any Dylan album - he's one of the most consistent artists of the last century - and "Blood" is a somber, pensive work, full of brilliant moments and splendid poetry. "Tangled Up in Blue" is as wonderful and timeless as "Like a Rolling Stone," and the rest of album works overtime to keep pace. I have not heard his entire catalog, so saying this is the most impressive album Dylan ever made would be presumptuous (I routinely listen to his "Bootleg" albums which span over thirty years).

Eels, Shootenanny! (2003)   B
It's a funny thing this came along when it did, since I was just going to write off E and company after their last two albums. I picked up the "Beautiful Freak" cassette when it came out for $4 - I liked the song "Novocaine for the Soul" and was curious what the rest of the album sounded like. "Electro-Shock Blues" was a decent follow-up, although not as consistent as their first record. Now, after two (!) failures and a degrading appearance on the "Shrek" soundtrack (remember the snake-balloon scene? UGH.), E and his drummer are back, and this disc is a real find. At only forty-five minutes, he breezes through 12 tracks - of which "Love of the Loveless" and "Numbered Days" are two of the standouts (the rest being very good as well) - about loss and loneliness. It re-establishes them as a cult band with an edge, and that should please die-hard fans.

Elefant, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid (2003)   D+
Okay record - comparisons to Interpol and The Afghan Whigs are just stupid, but whoever said they sound like The Cure really hit the proverbial nail: you can sense that group's glumness and creepy synth-rock in this first album. Sounds like it was designed for an indie film ... and I don't mean that as an insult, either.

Brian Eno, Another Green World (1975)   B
It's refreshing to hear Eno-circa-the-mid-70's after suffering through late-80's/90's Eno, who really grates on the ear canals with some dopey songs and his unfortunate pairing with Bowie. But his early work is refreshing, off-beat stuff; if it sounds familiar, that's because almost everyone under the sun stole from him. Had this been 1975 I might be calling this a masterpiece, but today I can only nod in recognition - nothing on here is especially revelatory or hallucinating (forgive me for preferring Music For Airports), although it's consistent and often quite delightful.

Four Tet, Rounds (2003)   C-
I get the feeling some people look at electronica like the way the public looked at abstract expressionism (de Kooning, Pollock): that any monkey with the proper equipment could do it. But the truth is, it's not that easy - groups like Autechre and Thievery Corporation and individual pioneers like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher delicately balance art and listenability. Kieran Hebden's solo album (under the moniker 'Four Tet') is more obnoxious than groundbreaking, making tracks that jar the hearing rather than shift or delight ... and when he kicks in with the brass instruments, get ready to adjust the volume. The last song "Slow Jam" gets it right - it's at once unorthodox and engaging, and easily the best crafted piece. But without smoothing out the rough edges or perfecting the proper degree of experimentalism (Merzbow gets away with his shrieking and noise because he never came out and said they're meant to be 'songs'), this is a poor man's Kid606.

Serge Gainsbourg, Couleur Café (1975 comp.)   B
Breezy collection of Gainsbourg's African music-inspired moments. If you are a Serge fan - and you should be - you probably already have this. If you are not a Serge fan, I hate you.

Joćo Gilberto, Joćo Voz e Violao (2000)   C
Gilberto's got the magic, all right, but the minimal production here is a liability - it would have been nice to have him oh, once or twice play solo, but after ten songs (all of which unfortunately blend into each other) my impatient ears wanted a little more. You'll need some of these tracks if you want to make a superb late-period Joćo mix CD, however, and it's good for dabbling. Background music and diversity are good things when used sparingly.

Grandaddy, Sumday (2003)   C-
Part of me really likes stuff that tries to rip-off The Flaming Lips, while part of me is wondering "What the hell - do these guys really think this is that great?" They show a tremendous amount of patience to let their songs move and develop, but there's an overriding feeling of pompous superiority conveyed, and though at times it can be quite lovely ("Saddest Vacant Lot In All The World"), the band's sound comes from too many other sources to be unique.

Hole, Live Through This (1994)   F
If a more obnoxious album exists from Courtney & Co., I beg you not to bring it to my attention. Love's acting is actually better than her musicianship - the whining/bitching here just grates on your nerves. God what an awful racket.

Isis, Oceanic (2002)   B-
Came to this a year late - damn! - but was glad I found it, since it mixes together two things I like most, guitars and yelling, into Cannibal Corpse Plays Dream Theater. The almost symphonic guitarwork offsets the sporadic atonal death screams - when it reaches "From Sinking," you're either in love with the gorgeous noise or totally out of sync with the disc. Less abrasive than Slayer, but more lively than Morbid Angel, it should please everyone with an interest in grindcore or sludge.

Ivy, Guestroom (2002)   D-
"Hey guys, you know what would be great? Like, making an album of all covers ... but, you know, stripping the songs of their essential meaning by reprocessing them through our IVY SUPER HAPPY SOUNDSYSTEM™. We can take that great Serge Gainsbourg song ... oh, and that Go-Betweens one too. The only one that sounds any good is the Orange Juice cover, but no one will notice." [taken from a band meeting]

James, Laid (1993)   A
A tale of romantic woe that builds wonderfully to the title track (and popular single), "Laid," which happens to be the album's both literal and figurative climax. Works much better with headphones than playing on a stereo since the lead singer's voice and words are so deeply personal and passionate - and the music so minimalist - that not paying absolute attention to it will make you tune it out. It's so effective in laying out the problems of love it's become a cult classic - the kind of album people give to each other as a 'you-have-to-hear-this' gift.

Danko Jones, Born a Lion (2002)   D+
Straight from the Andrew W.K. mold comes this trio from Toronto - it's an energetic disc, and Jones' growl provides some highlights, but just because you're making fun of dumb-rock doesn't mean you have to be dumb. "Lovercall" provides some obvious silly giggles in its none-too-subtle depiction of box munching.

DJ Krush, Message at the Depth (2003)   D
I understand wanting to have guest rappers and vocalists, but when they overwhelm the music, then you should cut back (it's a different thing entirely with actual rap artists, like Jay-Z and Ja Rule, where the added voices change the pace of the record for the better). I was expecting more - what I got was less than average, never becoming unbearable but never shocking me either. I'm still trying to figure out whether the Anticon (whose appearance on "cLOUDDEAD" was a big plus) track "Song for John Walker" is insulting, ignorant or a joke.

Arto Lindsay, Invoke (2002)   B+
Graceful Lindsay album that's subtle and pleasant and smooth. He's the Brazilian equivalent of Cornelius (or is Cornelius the Japanese counterpart to Lindsay?), and most effective as blissful chill-out glory.

Barbara Manning, 1212 (1997)   D
This works for some people and I am not those people. I criticize male artists for being lumbering and unexciting, so here I am being equally lashing towards a female artist. Hey, Steinem wanted equality, so....

Massive Attack, 100th Window (2003)   D-
This is plainly not the quality you come to expect from Massive Attack, now down to only one of the original three members. Sinead O'Connor is a decent vocalist, but she's on one track too many - what, did Liz Fraser have any post-Cocteau Twins work to do? Give the lady a call - the middle tracks (4 though 8) sag noticeably: the remaining Massive Attacker gets too preoccupied with glitch and other annoying effects (leave that sorta thing to Kid606, Cex and the Tigerbeat6 legion). The last song is good for the first nine minutes, but then becomes ten more minutes of white noise. Sometimes you just gotta pad the length, even when you're supposed to be one of the best electronic talents around.

Matmos, The Civil War (2003)   B
Still not sure how to rate this, since it's another conceptual album (like A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure) though not nearly as successful - that disc could be judged on its quality as both (a.) music and (b.) art, but when the striving for art falters, how good does it sound (as music)? Schmidt and Daniel are no slouches when it comes to electronic music construction - as evident in their production work for Bjork and their remixes for Mouse on Mars - and in the end, it is their devotion to their craft that makes this one a triumph. Requires more listens than their former albums to let it sink in - I'm on my fourth run through - but is worth the attention.

Merzbow, Bastard Noise (1996)   rating not applicable
One of the most abrasive, outlandish, obnoxious "musical" acts ever devised, Masami Akita's 'Merzbow' recordings are intentionally alienating, painful and unique. No other "musician" in the history of "music" has created the catalog he has: dozens of albums of assaulting noise. It's difficult to tell the difference between them since there really isn't that much of a difference - noise is noise - making it a stab in the chest of the recording industry and musical talents in general. If you don't like it, you weren't supposed to. Can't get enough? I must admit that there is something to the avalanche of high-pitched squeals: when you stop the album from playing, listen for that low hiss in your head and the calm around you. It makes real life seem downright heavenly.

Modest Mouse, The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)   D
Excessively gratuitous early album from the indie pop band - it's like an endless novel desperately in need of an editor or a jam band unaware the audience is bored with the structure-less sound blasts and screechy vocals ("Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" and "Doin' the Cockroach" are pretty obnoxious). "The Moon & Antarctica," which came out three years later, is a much better - and tighter - album.

Mr. Dibbs, The 30th Song (2003)   C-
It's hard for me to listen to any turntablist and not think of two people: DJ Q-Bert and DJ Shadow, and Dibbs has learned a lot from those two masters. More than a little gratuitous, but how can you dislike anyone that samples Bugs Bunny?

The New Pornographers, Electric Version (2003)   C
A significant improvement over the pithy mediocrity of the first album, The New Pornographers' second outing is a bright and cheery listen, aided by better arrangements and a more consistent sound. However, on the 'faults' side, they underuse Neko Case and can't seem to top "Testament to Youth in Verse" with its catchy "no no no" chanting. Most bands peak early, and become ordinary and forgettable; this group has as high a ceiling as anybody.

Paul Oakenfold, Great Wall (2003)   D+
I read somewhere that Oakenfold was considered one of the 50 "worst" musicians alive, which I find to be nasty and incorrect - he's a DJ who plays other people's music and does some decent remixes (his version of Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy" is very good). There are better DJs and there are worse DJs. "Great Wall" isn't a fantastic album - I find his inclusion of Barber's "Adagio for Strings," for example, to be disgusting (he's not Duchamp; he can't get away with the musical equivalent of defacing the Mona Lisa) - and what might be great for European dance halls and clubs doesn't always make for emotive listening in the house (the album will annoy you if you're doing anything but dancing).

Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information (1974)   D
This is Psychedelic Soul? Isn't that the heading you file Curtis Mayfield and Parliament under? And if I can get into Mayfield big time, and worship Hendrix (Psych. Soul's Headmaster) why is this such an intolerable chore? "Strawberry Letter 23" woke me up and slapped me around, but when it was over I had difficulty paying attention.

Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)   B
Two albums from two talented artists - Big Boi's "Speakerboxxx" chooses guitar-driven intensity over Andre 3000's lounge-groove in "The Love Below." Both are very good, though I find it inexplicable why some are saying that "Speakerboxxx" is its Achilles Heel - not only is it shorter than the slightly bloated "Love Below," but also less pretentious and more addictive ("Love Below" blows its wad well before the disc ends; talk about premature irony!). "Roses," on "The Love Below," is a particular favorite.

Liz Phair, whitechocolatespaceegg (1998)   B
Now that everyone's crying "$ell out" at poor Liz I thought it might be best to take a listen to this 1998 disc - and I'm surprised to find it's hook-heavy indie pop, and that more than a few songs on here would have gotten significant airplay if mainstream radio sources put away their Aerosmith and Madonna discs. Her voice isn't the best, but her snide wit and sneer make up for it; the tone is almost always ironic (when she talks about wanting to be abused, she's sarcastically pandering to the male listener). "Shitloads of Money" predicts her desire for the 'nicer things' and better album sales - it is nice to be liked, but it's better by far to make money - and it borders on callousness to not want the best for her. She earned her bones.

Polygon Window, Surfing on Sine Waves (1992)   B+
Who does Richard James think he's kidding? After about ten seconds of listening time I realized it was him - like the best electronica artists, his sound is highly distinguishable; see also: Dan the Automator, Autechre, Thievery Corporation, etc. - with all the ominous sounds and intricate clanking beats. Like everything else RDJ has done - in his many guises - it's a momentous (and typically creepy) effort.

The Postal Service, Give Up (2003)   A-
Part Nintendo beeps and boops, part indie rock, this is an approachable album from the lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie and Dntel's Jim Tamborello - one that's heartfelt yet mechanical, half emo and half Eno. "Sleeping In's" lyrics are amazing - modern songwriting has none of the wordplay of Dylan or Mitchell - and only in a song or two do the backing electronics undermine the quality of the message.

Elvis Presley, 30 #1 Hits (comp.)   A
Although Elvis has become passé, and modern rockers view him they way they do classic film ("Where's the color?") a hearty helping of some of his greatest songs is a must (because this record only contains his #1 hits, it excludes a number of personal favorites, like "Viva Las Vegas"). He's one of the staples of musical appreciation, and ignoring his music as being ancient and unnecessary is ignorant and inconsiderate: he didn't amass a fortress of fans by being second rate. We picked up this disc in Graceland, and listened to it on the drive back - Mom remarked how sad and desperate the songs are under the surface despite the pop sensibility. His voice was, by far, his greatest asset.

Prince Paul, Politics of the Business (2003)   C+
Conceptual album about the pitfalls of working in the music industry - it's the hip-hop equivalent to Godard's Passion - that tracks how corruption wins, art is left behind, lives are ruined, girlfriends and significant others are ignored and so on ... but because of Paul's typically impressive production work and assembly of some fantastic talent, it's both informative and listenable. The skits and songs are tied together nicely - Dave Chappelle's role is hilarious - and for the intentional negativity, it never comes across as bitter. It does not withstand the pressure of repeat listens, however.

Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (2003)   A-
I believe it's no longer necessary to compare Radiohead to anybody but Radiohead, since they're in their own stratosphere, skimming the fine line between purely experimental rock and avant-garde tinkering; the only album of theirs (not counting "Pablo Honey" which was a purely functional release and nothing more) I'm not sure about is "Kid A," which is so cerebral it's unapproachable (time may reveal that it was a major development in music history, but for now...). It took three listens to get into this disc, and I still think the middle of the album sags, though whether it's because the bookends (tracks 1-4 and 9-14) are so strong or the middle tracks (5-9) are sub-par is debatable (maybe they're just the album's bridge ... I need a few more listens). I do feel comfortable, at this point, in calling Jonny Greenwood the most purely talented musician of our generation, hands down.

The Replacements, Tim (1985)   C+
Slightly above-average rock album - in my opinion - that's considered great by some. I didn't hear the brilliance others did; either it's Westerberg's irksome Springsteenesque singing or the ordinary quality of the guitar work. The lyrics don't resonate that deeply, though I'm not sure they're supposed to, and the music's long-term impact is negligible. I know, it's only rock and roll, but I'm not sure I like it ....

Damien Rice, O (2002)   D-
Lots of whiny-white-guy moaning about how Rice longs for this girl or how his life is in the toilet - the problem with emotional folk rock is that, you know, once you're a goddamn millionaire there isn't much left to really bitch about. All external problems are solved: only cancer and the Final Judgment of God stand in the way. Some tracks soar, but more often than not it became tiresome to listen to. It's this year's "Sea Change" ... as performed by Ryan Adams.

Scanner vs. DJ Spooky, The Quick and the Dead (2000)   F
Some of Spooky's (earlier) work is very good, some of it is mediocre; this tag-team effort with Scanner ranks in the latter category, not distinguished enough to have it stand out in any way. In other words: dull.

Seal, Seal IV (2003)   F
Title's more appropriate than Seal probably imagined - his career is now officially on a drip-feed. His adult-contemporary style has always veered between the deeply personal and the deeply Neal Secada-esque, but now it's all easy-listening snoozing for 35-year-old women who work for insurance companies and need to have something on the radio all day. I don't know: "Crazy" and especially "A Prayer For the Dying" had a power to them (the latter one of the saddest songs ever written and still got heavy airplay) so it's obvious he has a gift, but now he's lost track and can't get back to where he was. His work on "Killer" had a techno edge to it - why not go back in that direction? Or, you know, get whatever members of Massive Attack that aren't in jail for child porn or even The Matrix to engineer something?

Sex Pistols, Live in Chelmsford Prison (2002 / Sanctuary Release)   B
Muddy sound may be an issue, but I'd almost venture to say that anything the Pistols did is worth listening to, for better or worse (I can't find a 'definite' collection of all the Pistols' work in one box set; come on, Lydon ... do something). "Anarchy in the UK" and a few of the tracks sound better on assorted other discs.

Shpongle, Are You Shpongled? (1999)   F
The answer is "no." This gives electronica a bad name: cheesy, long, unbearable.

Spymob, Sitting Around Keeping Score (2003)   D
Never capitalizes on the pop genius of the single (and first track) "2040," about the rapidly approaching future and past experience; the rest is rather one-note, failing to even get close to that track's delightful catchiness. Spymob was the backing band for Pharrell, Hugo & Co.'s N.E.R.D. album "In Search Of...", though you wouldn't know it without reading the liner notes. Pharrell said this album was 'perfect' and didn't require extra production, which makes me wonder what he was listening to.

Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)   B
Quite enjoyable disc from the art-pop group; it fits snuggly in their canon. "Cybele's Reverie" is a luscious piece that shows off Laetitia Sadier's voice (and Tim Gane's delicate production work) and the album's greatest moment (though there are several to choose from); their breezy blend of bouncy, light tunes fit wonderfully with relaxed summer days or - just as appropriately - as jogging music. By the way, the title comes from a super-obscure art film from Japanese poet and avant-garde filmmaker Shuji Terayama.

The Strokes, Room on Fire (2003)   A
Took me a long time to get into this disc - now I can't stop playing it, and have listened to it at least twenty times. Like its predecessor, it has a very addictive, edgy feel, is still very short (30 minutes and they're fuckin' out the door) and still rewards repeat listens. In fact, it may be a masterpiece. Including Anselm Kiefer on the CD case is a nice touch ... though for what reason I'm not entirely sure.

S.T.U.N., Evolution of Energy (2003)   F
They should have named their band D.U.M.B. Obviously inspired by a combination of Rage Against the Machine and the Sex Pistols, but without the former's creative guitar-work and ballistic sound assault or the latter's originality and rawness. It is grossly dull and painfully redundant, and by song eight they're still going on about "revolution" and "hey, the rich people are still rich!" If you're going to talk about political nonconformity, at least know about the intelligent political dissidents that have come before you (and study what they had to say); putting a slapdash rant together about how "everything is wrong" is amateur hour. You got a record contract, now get an identity.

Television, Marquee Moon (1977)   A
While I like a little more diversity in my albums (there are only eight songs on here) ... what songs these are! The title track may be one of the greatest rock songs ever written. I'm not sure if it belongs in the pantheon of sonic masterpieces, but I can't stop listening to it, so that has to count for something.

They Might Be Giants, They Might Be Giants (1986)   D+
Attention-getting first album from the cult band is bouncy and cute in parts but most of the songs are on a sub-Yankovic level, trying to be clever with nerdy riffs and dry humor. Compared to truly inspired gonzo acts like Ween or Mr. Bungle (notably their first album which was produced by John Zorn), this lacks vital energy and creative momentum.

Thievery Corporation, The Richest Man in Babylon (2002)   C-
The first track "Heaven's Gonna Burn Your Eyes" is probably the best 'single' the boys from D.C. have ever created (I was never a big fan of "Shaolin Satellite") and the album is decent, though it's no coincidence that the best parts are the strictly instrumental numbers, free of the reggae and foreign lyricists, both of whom drown out Thievery's trademark downbeat background textures (this is a real problem with a lot of dance groups and their insistence on "guest vocalists").

T. Rex, The Slider (1972)   D
"Cosmic Dancer" may be a truly magical song, but nothing remotely as strong that appears on this album. There is a lot of whining ("ahhhhhhhh") and gobs of glam-rock theatricality ... and since I'm a fan of neither, it's not surprising that this didn't particularly move me. Songs are short and structured, but it never takes off.

Tricky, Vulnerable (2003)   C
A solid Tricky album - after two bad misfires - that keeps the same trip-hop idea while subtly altering parts of the overall sound. Guitars add some power the drum and bass, and the whispered duets are sultry. It's going to take a while until he's able to get back to his "Maxinquaye" days, but it's a step in the right direction.

U2, Zooropa (1993)   B+
An old friend of mine - back when we were in high school (eons ago, in other words) - liked "Pop" so much he bought this album the next day, and complained that it was relegated to the discount bins (where he picked it up from) because it had only two good songs on it, "Numb" and "Lemon." Either this album was ahead of its time or that my old friend was temporarily high, but this is a strong effort from U2 - it has the desperate "Stay (Faraway, So Close)" and the painfully sad "The First Time" on it, not to mention guest vocals by Johnny Cash ("The Wanderer").

Various, Ikebana: Merzbow's Amlux Rebuilt, Reused & Recycled (2003)   D
It's a concept album with a concept only half of the artists seem to understand: take Merzbow's "Amlux" and incorporate it in a new, unique work ... not 'remixing,' but 'reusing.' The results are varied: fellow Japanese artist Keigo Oyamada's "untitled" uses the Merzbow sonic assault as the sound of damage incurred from lighting blasts during a rain storm, the jokesters from Negativland actually parody 9/11 (... and it works!) and DJ Spooky applies the Merz to hip-hop/IDM; but others (cough, cough, Nobukazu-san, cough, cough, Kawabata-san, cough) just rearrange the various squeals. Stick to the original.

Various, Kill Bill Vol. 1 Soundtrack (2003)   B-
The soundtracks to Tarantino's films are some of the best mix tape collections I've ever heard - the styles range from jazz to J-pop to surf rock to rockabilly ... and yet the transition from one song to the other is seamless. Unlike the CD-Rs and cassettes you make for your friends, these were selected with care, and they mesh perfectly with the motion picture. Q.T. is a genius at making colorful and harmonious sight-and-sound collages.

Caetano Veloso, Live in Bahia, Discs 1 & 2 (2002)   B
Veloso is my Phish: stoners can mutter all they want about the merits of that group's laidback 'charm' - I'll take the breezy cool of the great bossa nova artist myself. I've even found that Caetano's better live than in the studio ... how about that? Get your Romeo y Julietas and pitcher of Mint Julep ready. Indulge.

The Velvet Underground, VU (1985)   A
It's hard to argue against anything by the Velvet Underground, since all of their albums (and live recordings, and bootlegs, and compilations) are brilliant. This is one of my favorite records of all time.

M. Ward, Transfiguration of Vincent (2003)   C
Alt-country indie record that sounds like was performed in a saloon but remains paradoxically modern - a little dry but mostly endearing. Matthew Ward's husky voice reminds me of Nick Cave - though without the rock overtones - and his album's conceptual scope isn't so large that his lyrics can't bear the burden. "Sad, Sad Song" is infectiously good despite its subject matter and Bowie's "Let's Dance" is given a fresh spin.

Weezer, Maladroit (2002)   D-
The guys from Weezer have quickly become the old men of the College Rock circuit, losing their grip on the indie scene after releasing what I think is one of the greatest - and most misunderstood - albums in Rock History ("Pinkerton"), then losing their guitarist (Matt Sharp) and putting out a truly terrible record in the "Green Album." They haven't changed much over the years, and that's part of the problem: much of "Maladroit" sounds like it came off of the "Green Album," and in the last several years all the countless Weezer imitators have come out with similiar sounding rock-pop. It's too short to be painful, but also too enervating to be worth a listen.

The White Stripes, Elephant (2003)   B
Deserves some sort of criticism for its over-length and two ill-advised ballads, but what the hell - this rocks the pants off your grandma, and what else could we ask of the brother/sister/boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife outfit (as far as incestuous pairings go, they rank up there with Faye Dunaway and John Huston in "Chinatown")? There was a musician who, not that long ago, put up a web page and some audio files adding bass lines to the "White Blood Cells" disc and offered his help to the band - naturally, they don't need him, since White's voice alone is worth two more band members. Smashing good.

The Who, Who's Next (1971)   B+
Other than this three track stretch near the end where the quality drops off, it's a delicious record by The Who - I'll take it over "Tommy" or "Quadrophenia."

Wilco, More Like the Moon (2003) [EP]   C+
Once posted as a free EP on the Wilco website, this continues on with the themes established in the "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" album. While not the grand moment "Yankee" was, it was free and I like free things.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell (2003)   A
Karen O. is the absolute real thing (who needs the "real thing tonight") and her unbelievable voice - filled with lust and hostility - dominates the noisy, loop-heavy soundscape. At a brisk 38 minutes, it's a no-nonsense album, packed with continuous energy a dozen other bands would have trouble maintaining through a single track alone. While you're in the store, try to find the three-track EP, "Machine," which has the sexy/dirty title track on it and an experimental remix of "Pin."

Singles of the Year: !!!: "Me and Giuliani Down By the School Yard (A True Story)," Broken Social Scene: "Stars and Sons," Johnny Cash: "Hurt," Cat Power: "I Don't Blame You," Dizzee Rascal: "Fix Up, Look Sharp," Eels: "Numbered Days," Electric Six: "Danger! High Voltage," Goldfrapp: "Black Cherry," Grandaddy: "The Final Push to the Sum," Guided By Voices: "My Kind of Soldier," Head Automatica: "At the Speed of a Yellow Bullet," Liam Lynch: "United States of Whatever," M83: "America," Midwest Product: "Duckpond," The New Pornographers: "Testament to Youth in Verse," Pleasure Forever: "Wicked Shivering Columbine," The Postal Service: "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," Radiohead: "Myxomatosis," The Strokes: "Automatic Stop," TV on the Radio: "Satellite," The White Stripes: "The Hardest Button to Button," The Wrens: "Thirteen Grand," Yeah Yeah Yeahs: "Y-Control"