2004 Music Reviews

!!!, !!! (2001)   B
Jangling guitar work is packed in jam-session-type songs while the lead singer shouts Underworld-esque disconnected phrases. Great fun for dabbling in once and a while - listening to the entire thing straight through isn't recommended because the band is far too frenetic (which was why 2003's 20-minute EP/single "Me and Giuliani Down By the School Yard" proved so effective).

Air, Talkie Walkie (2004)   C
Oddly forgettable release from one of my favorite bands - after two initial masterpieces, a great soundtrack and an experimental follow-up, they've made an album I can't remember less than twelve hours after I've listened to it. Moves away from gaudy synthesizers to new age ambience ... and becomes insignificant in the process.

Ambulance LTD, Ambulance LTD (2004)   C
Can't sustain the strength of its key one-two punch, "Anecdote" followed by the lush "Heavy Lifting" for the remainder of the album, so they revert back to a safe indie-rock formula. As a matter of fact, the majority of the disc is bland and generally unremarkable though improvement with future releases appears inevitable.

Animal Collective, Sung Tongs (2004)   B-
It's all too appropriate that Animal Collective is on tour with Black Dice: Black Dice are a bunch of art punks with electronics and guitars who try to sound like animals while Animal Collective dress like animals who want to sound like humans. I must confess that I prefer the "Creature Comforts" album to this - where Black Dice is consistently hypnotic and playful, "Sung Tongs" veers into jarring goofiness fairly often, like when they sound like babies babbling (on "Whaddit I Done") or make random noises.

The Apples in Stereo, Fun Trick Noisemaker (1995)   D+
The introduction tells us that the following music is being broadcast from space ... which means that space is filled with uninteresting, nonthreatening pop fragments that sound like the opening act for a Jefferson Airplane reunion. That's certainly good to know, so before I drift into the cosmos I'll remember to bring Radiohead and Squarepusher with me.

The Apples in Stereo, Velocity of Sound (2002)   D-
Insulting short and squeeky release from the Apples, who have made far better - and far trippier - music in the past. Instead of doing psychedelic powerpop with only a hint of cutesy (like their best songs, "Glowworm" and "Strawberryfire"), they're now exclusively doing songs for Super Sugar Cereal and various children's toys.

Arab Strap, Monday at the Hug and Pint (2003)   C+
I must admit that I have enormous reservations about this disc - it's wildly uneven - and yet in parts it's so raw and spooky it can't be outright dismissed. "The Shy Retirer" EP showed a clever sense of humor (covering two hard rock bands, for example) and was one of the most rewarding discs of 2003; the forays into country and the Casio beats on this are not that effective. A mixed bag, yes, but you gotta find something to love in the loners from Scotland.

Arcade Fire, The Arcade Fire (2003) [EP]   B
There's a solid group of songs here in the Arcade Fire's debut to make it a must find (especially for fans of "Funeral"), and two of them ("No Cars Go" and "Vampire/Forest Fire") warrant particular notice; there's a smidgen of Neil Young in the lead singer's voice and some touches of Coldplay in the band itself.

Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004)   A-
I still have some reservations as to the exact degree of greatness here - it's undeniably brilliant, each song growing more and more poignant with each and every listen, but does it belong in the pantheon of masterpieces? It'll take me some years to re-listen and re-visit, but it's definitely a favorite: the progression from "Wake Up" to "Haiti" to "Rebellion (Lies)" is a defining sequence.

Arling & Cameron, All-In (1999)   D
Mostly tolerable dance music ... that is, when it stays away from the sickeningly sweet J-Pop and samples of kids laughing.

Dave Attell, Skanks for the Memories (2003) [Comedy]
Funny, disposable recording of Attell's NC-17-rated material during a particularly rowdy show in Denver. The jokes are fast and inventive until the end, when it becomes one dick-and-midget joke after another. Worth listening for fans of the spunky cult hit "Insomniac."

Avenue Q: The Musical - The Original Broadway Cast Recording (2004)   A-
Probably the most brilliant thing I've heard in a while - the only thing from allowing me to revisit it on a continuous basis is the inherent negativity and feeling of irremovable depression I get after listening (point in a nutshell: everything is fucked; eventually we die, then whew, glad that shit's over, etc.). Still amazingly funny and witty despite the nihilism - it deserved its Tony Awards.

Basement Jaxx, Kish Kash (2003)   B+
Actually deserves the praise lavished upon it - it's a tight, fun, infectious record. It might sound corny ten years from now - I'm not sure about its long-standing power as an album - though anybody that can use this many guest vocalists sound cohesive is doing something right. Dizzee Rascal's track is particularly good; he should beg for these guys to produce his next project.

Björk, Medúlla (2004)   D
Who knew Bjork wanted vocal lessons? And that someone taped them!? Kooo kooooo! Tuuuuk tuuuuu! Harrrrr! Yarrrr! Frick tuuk tuuk! Click bang snap! You know, sometimes you can try too hard to be different, if you catch my meaning. It is still cool to see her on the nightly news beating the shit out of reporters, though.

Black Dice, Creature Comforts (2004)   B+
Weird and proud of it, "Creature Comforts" is likely to disappoint anyone expecting 'traditional' music - a lot of the 'songs' sound like animals belching or fucking (hence the title) and will strike most as either juvenile or trite, but I think it's whimsy at its best. I have an MP3 of the band performing live and they're just as distorted and unconventional in person. Use headphones; close your eyes.

Bloc Party, Bloc Party (2004) [EP]   B
Pulsating EP from the indie rock foursome out of England who have been getting a ton of publicity and definitely deserve it: aside from the decidedly weak track two ("Staying Fat"), this is energetic to a fault: "She's Hearing Voices," with its rhythmic chanting ("Red pill/Blue pill") and overpowering guitars is arguably one of the best singles of the year.

Blur, Think Tank (2003)   B-
Nice little surprise from a band I never expect much out of: sure, you have you occasional good song like "Song 2" or "Girls and Boys," but I grouped them in with Bush and Dishwalla in terms of long-term appeal (read: irrelevant trash heap). From the "Matt's Really Clairvoyant" Dept.: When I was listening to track 4 I thought, "Hey, this is a good song" ... only to discover it's called "Good Song," and when I was listening to track 10 I immediately went "Sweet!" ... which, again, happens to be its title.

British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power (2003)   A-
Landmark LP from the eccentric foursome that fully establishes them as a major talent that warrants serious attention. The group, known for some strange on-stage behavior and cryptic lyrics, seems capable of doing almost anything, and it's still quite early: take, for example, the fourteen minute "Lately," which manages to be gorgeous even in its dissonance. They sound like Pulp, which isn't a bad thing at all. I'm already a huge fan.

Broadcast, Haha Sound (2003)   C-
Robotic melodies with a feminine touch; not quite as personal as Dot Allison's ethereal soundscapes, though the last two songs ("Winter Now" and "Hawk") are close. Will make you ask: Is that Laetitia Sadler?

Broken Social Scene, Bee Hives (2004)   C
Collection of B-sides from the band's early years (and during the "You Forgot It In People" recording era) seamlessly integrated into a smooth running whole - it isn't the most rewarding album, but should be taken for what it is: a bunch of outtakes. "Lover's Spit" sounds good no matter who sings it.

Camera Obscura, Underachievers Please Try Harder (2003)   B-
Belle & Sebastian copied and then twisted (to some degree): breezy acoustics and witty soft pop melded into a somewhat forgettable album of small victories and gigantic emotional strain. "Suspended From Class" is bubbly and amusing, while "A Sister's Social Agony" sounds like a prom song from the 40's.

Charalambides, Joy Shapes (2004)   F
Let's see here: harps, check, screechy, obnoxious female howler, gotcha, discordant pianos and guitars, I hear them. I know! This is the soundtrack to a laughably horrible movie! But where is the laughably horrible movie?

Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962)   B
Delightful set of sweet, poignant songs from long-time musician Charles - it's a shame it took his death this year (2004) for me to get around to listening to his material.

The Chemical Brothers, Come With Us (2002)   B
Part of me wants to pooh-pooh this, but tracks like "My Elastic Eye" and "Denmark" (with its combination of bass smacking and saxophones) are simply awesome. This was under-appreciated when released, but even without a the blessing/curse of guest vocalists (Richard Ashcroft shows up in the most UNKLE-like song) the Brothers put together a wild disc.

CocoRosie, La Maison de Mon Reve (2004)   C
Sometimes lovely ("Good Friday," for one), sometimes tedious experimental duets that get a little too hung up on odd sound samples (is that a robot rooster? is that one of those toy dinosaurs?) and intentionally off-key - and unpleasantly jarring - harmonies. It's a lot better than stuff put out by similar outfits (The Children's Hour, for example), but you won't find me itching for repeat listens.

Coldcut, Let Us Play (1997)   B-
A good hour-plus of diced up sound bites and music samples - since Coldcut doesn't release that many 'new' albums, the extended length is very welcome. I'm starting to wonder whether their remixes of other people's songs are better than the original songs (INXS' "What You Need") - or the remixes of Coldcut's original material by other artists (i.e. Mixmaster Morris' revamp of "Autumn Leaves" or Cornelius' tinkering with "Atomic Moog 2000") are actually better than the Coldcut originals - but thinking about applying a 'grade' on all that remixing and re-doing just makes it all so convoluted. Jello Biafra's rant on "Every Home a Prison," on the other hand, is certainly clear-headed.

The Constantines, Shine a Light (2003)   B+
Another Canadian band! Wow! Fantastic second album - good enough to make me want to find their first - that revels in confidence and bluesy charm. Gets its sound from John Cougar Mellencamp and (yes) Springsteen, but everyone has to get inspired from somewhere.

The Crystal Method, Legion of Boom (2004)   D+
Not even close to as good an album as "Vegas" with its many singles (including "High Roller") and I'd be lying if I said I'd listen to it again, though while I had it on I didn't exactly mind it.

Death Cab For Cutie, Transatlanticism (2003)   D-
Now I find this to be something: Death Cab's albums are mediocre at best (they get too preoccupied with their own dreariness; I happen to think the same of almost all emo-type bands except Modest Mouse), DNTEL's electronic noodling is average, yet when the lead singer from the former and the main guy from the latter got together (via the mail!) to make their Postal Service album, it was magic. Heh.

Destroyer, Your Blues (2004)   B+
This one catches you off guard - singer Dan Bejar sounds like a fake British pirate trying to get people to ride the new rollercoaster at a theme park - but once you grow accustomed to his voice (like Geddy Lee from Rush or even Stephin Merritt, plus many others), the lush synthesizers and delicate songwriting take over. Take your time with it.

Dido, Life for Rent (2003)   C
Follow-up to "No Angel" is probably better than that album even though it becomes more strained as it goes along. A little over-produced, naturally, but her voice is really lovely. "White Flag" is a powerhouse track.

DJ Danger Mouse, The Grey Album (2004)   C+
Technically impressive stunt that remixes Jay-Z's "The Black Album," adding background music from the Beatles' "White Album." What I thought, upon first listen, was an affront to music is actually an ingenious rethinking of the limitless potential of the medium; like Freelance Hellraiser's blending the Strokes and Christina Aguilera, it's highly gimmicky. Would love to know what super-asshole Paul McCartney thought of it (if he even heard it).

DJ Food, Refried Food (1997)   C-
Early collection of remixes of DJ Food by the likes of Wagon Christ, Squarepusher and the Herbaliser - some are a hell of a lot better than others, and this would be an ideal disc for a lounge or some similar environment, in the same album rotator that randomly picks songs from similar compilations. The Fila Brazillia mix of "Freedom" (also on "Brazilification") and Autechre's trippy alteration of "Sexy Bits" are both essential.

Dntel, Life Is Full of Possibilities (2001)   C
See my thoughts on the Dntel & Death Cab for Cutie collaboration, The Postal Service. Too mechanical and obnoxious especially when paired with such delicate vocals; following up buzzing static with acoustic guitars doesn't work unless you're Squarepusher or Autechre.

The Donnas, Spend the Night (2003)   C-
Purposely dumb and simple - I've seen the four girls on TV and they seem pretty smart so the flighty punk-chick thing is intentional - but doesn't really go the step farther with the song structure and emotional depth like Sleater-Kinney does (this is more like a PG-13 version of them). Essentially rock for middle-and-high school girls.

The Faint, Wet From Birth (2004)   C
Blur plays Depeche Mode! Then Depeche Mode plays Blur! Stilted indie-rock that wavers between the mechanical and the frank - the Crystal Method-inspired "Desperate Guys" and "Erection" work the best because of their sleazy, direct lyrics, while the rest of the tracks awkwardly fumble with gloppy synthesizers and dance beats.

The Fiery Furnaces, Blueberry Boat (2004)   D-
Why is everyone entranced by this cutesy-poo 21st century Donnie and Marie Osmond who just so happen to be stricken with O.C.D. and get all whimsical with sub-Dr. Seuss rhyming? Each song is a collection of several small, constantly changing pieces; they can't commit to a rhythm for more than two minutes. Music this self-conscious and precious is just a nuisance - maybe I should play it for some of the local kindergarten kids and see what they think. They'll certainly be more sympathetic to such complex concerns as having your puppy run away after kicking it and nod their soiled faces rapidly and drool when hearing about the "taco lettuce crunch." The Wiggles should watch their backs.

Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (2004)   A
It's late and you want dinner. You're overworked, you are in love with the copy girl, the coffee pot was broken by an intern and you had a Snickers for lunch. You want a good meal and a nice glass of wine. Don't just order out, take the time to do it right: take out of your cupboards the best rock song since "Paranoid Android" ("Take Me Out"), throw it in a pot, put it on high. Mix in the following spices: energetic pomp ("This Fire"), sexual tension ("Darts of Pleasure"), a smidgen of real life woe ("Jacqueline"). After mixing them together and stirring rapidly, turn it to simmer, then toss in a pinch of tongue-in-cheek misogyny ("Auf Achse"). Wait about fifteen minutes, remove it from the stove, scoop the meal onto your plate. Garnish the main entree with romantic longing ("Come On Home") and sprinkle lightly with grated homoeroticism ("Michael"). Pop the cork on your chiraz, sit down to your meal, eat slowly. It's the best company you'll ever have.

French Kicks, The Trial of the Century (2004)   B+
Corrects the major mistake of "One Time Bells" by adopting a more consistent sound; the bluesy falsetto delivery and low-key indie guitar work separate them from the rest of the post-punk clones. Plus, I picked this up for $7 off the Used rack two weeks after its release! People don't have taste.

Serge Gainsbourg, Aux armes et cætera (1979)   A-
Gainsbourg does Jamaica! Aside from Bob Marley, this is virtually the only kind of reggae I'd want to listen to on a regular basis - it's silly and light, and fine music to drive with. Was apparently dissed when it first came out, and understandably: all of Gainsbourg is an acquired taste, and this, for him, is truly a stretch. It works, however ... against all odds.

Ghost, Hypnotic Underworld (2004)   C-
Not very ... engaging (I wouldn't play it while sleepy and driving, in other words, which judging by the title is probably the point) ... and wavers between soothing to out-of-sync and completely grating. Once it gets past the super meandering opening four tracks it becomes a tad more tolerable. Very difficult music to listen to, but critics seem enthralled.

Godspeed You Black Emperor, Yanqui UXO (2002)   D
Throbbing neo-symphony of guitars and guitars going on and on for almost an eternity. Sounds like a sub-par Mogwai record; the five-track structure prevents easy access to the best pieces of music.

Al Green, Al Green Is Love (1975)   C
Comes off like a blast, but drags much later on - not the finest Al Green record I've heard, but it's still Al Green. Where is the love, again?

Groove Armada, Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) (2001)   D-
Flat, generic dance-hall beats - these guys should stick to doing car commercials. Even DJ John, a fan, was underwhelmed ("It's ... okay").

PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her (2004)   C-
Passionate sludge from Harvey - she's slipped from her "Is This Desire?" days into some kind of murky swampland. Doesn't have much of a sense of humor and isn't that well paced - and last time I checked, there are more than two strings on the guitar. Still, like a devoted lover, I value all output from Polly Jean. "The Letter" is far and away the best song on the album.

The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004)   D-
Has the same frenetic tempo as "Veni Vidi Vicious," but without the song quality, like they were trying to rush out an album so they could go tour again (from what I keep reading, they're an infectious live act). Charming, unforgettable tracks like the hook-heavy "Main Offender" and the breezy, Caribbean "Find Another Girl" are gone; so is the lack of brash experimentation in favor of droll 'safety.'

Jolie Holland, Escondido (2004)   F
Dull, sleep-inducing lullabies like the kind your mother used to sing you when you were a child before she went off to watch Cinemax and slowly wash down a tin of Pringles with a fifth of Jameson. Actually, that's an insult to your mother, because her raspy voice probably had more life and experience in it than Holland's shameless Norah Jones imitation and, on a few tracks, her downright painful alt-country junk.

Interpol, Antics (2004)   B-
Decent follow-up to the landmark "Turn on the Bright Lights" has neither the reach nor the ambition of that album - nor its dense gloominess - but wisely so; it's also considerably less self-destructive than its predecessor. Like a depressive who can't stand his misery, the band has switched to a lighter, more snide gear, keeping the same minimalist riffs but also getting to know the stylings of their garage rock peers and having fun with the lyrics. It certainly isn't great, and there are a few draggy moments, but there is a conscious effort to try to keep things moving. Also, remnants of the "Bright Lights" era sneak in, like "Narc" and "A Time to Be So Small."

Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)   C+
I'm not entirely sure why my friends went ape over this fairly routine Simon & Garfunkel acoustic update, although I will concede that the band is far more interesting musically than similar sadcore acts like Damien Rice or Death Cab for Cutie but several notches below the powerhouse dynamic of North Carolina's Ticonderoga.

Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (2004)   D
Jones' first album was an overpraised, soulless piano lesson; she's now trying to jazz herself up with this sophomore effort, but the emotional epiphanies are barely believable - I doubt she's been dragged around by the hair a lot in her twenty some years of life. The music departments of Juilliard, Harvard, etc. only teach you the notes, sweets. Have a chat with Rachael Yamagata.

Keane, Hopes and Fears (2004)   C
Promising - if a wee fey in tone - album from three Brits who prefer pianos to guitars; Coldplay is the obvious inspiration here ... in fact, maybe too obvious, considering the hook-heavy wistfulness straight out of "Parachutes" and "A Rush of Blood to the Head."

The Killers, Hot Fuss (2004)   A-
Sure, they might be poseurs - reviews of their concert performances have been less than favorable - and this album's been getting some flak for sounding manufactured - yes, it seems a lot of it is methodically calculated - but it's also not afraid to make fun of itself (on "All These Things I've Done" they sing "I've got soul but / I'm not a soldier") or rock the androgyny angle ("Somebody Told Me") and get pretty clever with their goofball hooks (like on "Indie Rock and Roll"). In other words, they're making some of the best populist alt-pop right now. All you haters need to open your ears and give these Vegas lads more respect.

Kruder & Dorfmeister, The K&D Sessions (1998)   B
Every hipster on the planet has heard this double album, bought or made copies of it, plays it at parties and mentions it as something they use to "relax" to. Hipster bars always have it in their 100-disc CD player. Does it deserve the praise? I'd say yes: it's relaxing, mellow, Afro-Caribbean lounge music, and perfect for background music at your next gathering; disc two is not nearly as solid as disc one, however. The Thievery Corporation is their Washington D.C.-based counterpart.

Talib Kweli, Quality (2002)   B-
Addictive assembly of constantly changing beats and styles (as well as a much-welcome appearance by Dave Chappelle) - Kweli, along with Jay-Z, is one of the masters of the genre. Here, he talks about fatherhood, the present (terrorism, hate) and shaping the future.

Jens Lekman, When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog (2004)   C+
I understand this is supposed sarcastic - taking friendly jabs at the whiny white guy formula and whatnot - but that doesn't necessarily mean it transcends the genre in any way - it just comes across as less serious emo. And you know what I think of love-starved hipsters....

Love, Forever Changes (1967)   B
Quietly dignified and somber mood piece that was dismissed upon first release. Some of the lyrics consist of silly banalities that I think are supposed to be taken seriously, though the instrumentals - violins and horns and acoustic guitars - are meticulous and certainly compensate.

Madvillain, Madvillainy (2004)   B-
Too scattershot and amorphous to really gel as an album, but MF Doom and Madlib know how to use sound samples very effectively - as good as Coldcut, I'd say. Doom's rhyming is unstoppable and Madlib's production is top-notch; I eagerly anticipate future collaborations.

Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (1999)   B+
I have strong reservations as to whether or not it's one of the best albums of the 90's, but it is unquestionably one of the most complex and rewarding. Disc 1 is, for me, the weakest part, but with so many tracks to choose from, even the most stodgy listener can find a dozen he/she can cling to. Merritt and company require some getting used to (with all the Casio beats and constantly changing sound), but they really cover a lot of ground - and provide love songs for anyone regardless of orientation.

Massive Attack, Blue Lines (1991)   A
Massive Attack, Protection (1994)   A-
"Blue Lines" is an undeniably great album - it not only defines "trip-hop" but is a great repeat listen; "Protection" was greeted with high expectations when released, but is a different kind of work - more atmospheric and subdued. Many prefer the Mad Professor vs. Massive Attack work "No Protection," a rethink of "Protection," but honestly: it's Massive Attack, people. Up to and including "Mezzanine," they're essential.

Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me (2004)   A
Jaw-dropping debut from the witty 19-year-old lounge singer with a penchant for alcohol and puns. Album title is a great play on Norah Jones' self-conscious debut record, but McKay is not the female "Weird Al" Yankovic or Loudon Wainwright in any way - her songs are all original and very clever. Born in London, lived in Harlem, spent formative years in Poconos (!), moved out West and now back in NY - for being so young, she isn't short on experience. Added bonus: the eerie resemblance to Lee Remick.

M83, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (2003)   C
I have to be honest: I'm really conflicted about this one. On one hand, it has tracks like "America," which mix in herky-jerky beats, synthesizers and looping samples to haunting effect; on the other, a good portion of the album sounds like a repetitive soundtrack for a funeral (it's too self-consciously morose). I'm not saying I don't like it, but react a little oddly to its attempts to impress; I also keep mentally comparing it to fellow Frenchmen Air's first three albums and find I like their varying tone a little better. Repeat listens (and listens on headphones) may change my opinion.

Moby, 18 (2002)   B-
My original review in 2002 was accurate but missed a very important point: Moby is a phenomenal musician, mistakes and all. There are no less than 10 really fascinating tracks on here, including "In My Heart" and "Extreme Ways," so I had to add a star to my rating.

Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Like Bad News (2004)   A-
No doubt the band's best album to date - the upbeat single "Float On" sets the tempo early on, and the band seems to have found influence in downtrodden musical and literary outcasts, like Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits. It's like a misery carnival - dancing amongst the flames and ashes.

Mogwai, Happy Songs for Happy People (2003)   B+
Title's obviously a joke - it is Mogwai after all, the very band that had an album called "Come On Die Young" - but this work is certainly anything but, and to make things even more lovely, it's an extraordinary improvement over the minor slip-up that was "Rock Action." They remain one of the most beautiful instrumental bands in the world, and this is a must-own record for fans of space-rock and the irresistibly morose (in other words, it's better than 'traditional' emo).

Morrissey, You Are the Quarry (2004)   B+
Really intelligent album from the Moz (after such a long hiatus) - once you get past a few weak tracks near the beginning, it becomes progressively stronger, especially with the searing emotion of "I Like You." Just like his work with The Smiths, he's not afraid to bare himself completely - all of the songs are truly personal. "America Is Not the World" will no doubt offend staunch right-wingers, but keep in mind that the guy does live in Los Angeles so he can't have that big a problem with the country.

The Mountain Goats, We Shall All Be Healed (2004)   B+
It's as solid as you've heard. A few dissidents bitch about singer John Darnielle's sometimes abrasive voice, but I think it's one of his main assets, second to his taste for bugfuck lyrics you'd expect from King Missile frontman and underground poet John Hall. He's best when empathetic, worst when in full-out mocking mode - here's a case where self-depreciation is actually a blessing.

Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)   C-
Who told me this was a good album? I don't recall at the moment, but the lead singer of this outfit would, if he played any of these songs during a talent show, get laughed off the stage. I guess being musically off-key and boorish can be considered cheeky - the Moldy Peaches did it, but at least they're funny. "Oh Comely" is intolerable at eight minutes long.

Randy Newman, Twelve Songs (1970)   A-
Melancholy collection of songs by under-recognized performer Newman - people are more aware of the artists who covered his witty creations than the originals themselves, which is truly a shame. Best complaint I can offer: it's too short.

Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)   D
There is not a single person on this planet that could convince me Newsom has a tolerable singing voice. No one. This makes sense, since Newsom herself is from the Planet Pixie. (I do love the sparse instrumentals, though.)

Paul Oakenfold, Bunkka (2002)   D+
Most Oakenfold albums drift along on auto-pilot - yadda yadda yadda - until he pulls out something like "Starry-Eyed Surprise" (with the lead singer of Crazy Town) out of his back pocket and you wonder why he doesn't do something just dreamy like that more often. A lot of the other collaborations - Tricky and Nelly Furtado, Perry Farrell - fail to register.

Of Montreal, Satanic Panic in the Attic (2004)   C-
What is with the neo-children's music being released on indie labels and gathering critical acclaim? Lead singer's voice not the problem - the dorky songwriting and annoying repetition are. Fans of Joanna Newsom's debut and the Fiery Furnaces might find this to be a delectable appetizer to those albums - I'm less than satisfied. Oh, hey, look, it's the Shins, why not team up with them and condense the awfulness?

On! Air! Library!, On! Air! Library! (2004)   C-
It let me think it was going somewhere with its mesmerizing leadoff song "Faultered Ego" and a minute or so of the next track before failing to make do on that promise - it turns into a scattershot (singers and styles change as all nine songs stumble into each other) and at times unlistenable work (due to an unwise reliance on electronic noise).

One Mile North, Minor Shadows (2003)   F
Sluggish ambient music inspired by Godspeed You Black Emperor, Mogwai and probably Richard D. James himself. Too often sounds like the score for a funeral (and tops that with sound clips of the extremely talented Ray Winstone in "The War Zone") which thankfully none of the aforementioned three musical artists ever do.

Outkast, Stankonia (2000)   B-
It's hard to consolidate the apologetic "Ms. Jackson" with the irksome "Ha ha ha we love these hoes" song that follows it, but this kind of bi-polar attack seems to be a trademark of the group (take for example the "Speakerboxxx/Love Below" split). There's some filler in here - a common problem with the genre - but its best moments beat the piss out of most other rap outfits' career-defining #1 singles or popular videos. Big Boi's talent at unleashing seemingly endless streams of clever rhyming is impressive whether or not you care for this kind of music; Andre 3000, meanwhile, is the Mad Hatter.

An Pierlé, Mud Stories (1999)   D
Yeah ... let's face it: we have one Tori Amos, and really, one is all you need for not simply one country but pretty much the entire world.

Preston School of Industry, Monsoon (2004)   D+
Half-decent mixed-bag from the less-pretentious-than-Malkmus former member of Pavement. Dabbles in some alt-country here and there, but still isn't sure what it wants to be: pop, emo or what. "Caught in the Rain" is a pleasantly addictive ditty.

Pretty Girls Make Graves, The New Romance (2003)   F
If this is the sound of a new romance - that of grating, carbon-copy punk rock (not to mention a completely inferior impersonation of the Donnas) - it's no wonder some people choose to remain single. Atrocious.

The Ramones, The Ramones (1976)   C-
There's nothing particularly wrong with this album from the very influential Ramones, but I find myself lukewarm to it - it's got the typical brain-dead guitar chugging and sarcastic chanting ("I wanna sniff glue"), but when compared to a band like the Sex Pistols, they lack concrete political ideals and a certain fury. The Ramones kept it simple, played loud but were ultimately too stoned to really get worked up about much of anything; the Sex Pistols played louder, were high on speed and actually wanted to dismantle you. You can tell where my affinities lie.

Dizzee Rascal, Boy in Da Corner (2003)   D
"Attention teachers and students, this is your Principal speaking. I'm sorry for the interruption, but it seems as if one of the Special Ed. students, and I won't say his real name, has snuck into the Music Department after hours and recorded himself babbling into a microphone and mocking gangster rappers. This student, who I promised I won't name, has managed to use the iMacs in the room and some clunky sound samples and made an album. Now, I'm no rock critic, like that Lester Bang-ham or anything like that, but it's nothing to get excited about musically, except of course when this Special Ed. student rambles over a really good INXS song - that's a fun one. Um, but otherwise, I think that guy from The Streets is a little better at this 'garage' stuff, and is a lot easier on the nerves, if you know what I mean. So, please, Music Department, lock up after school is finished, all right? Thank you."

R.E.M., Around the Sun (2004)   F
The pop rockers from Georgia have officially lost it. "Leaving New York" is a loose variation on "Everybody Hurts"; a later track actually switches from their uninspired indieness to ... rapping. That's as stomach churning as putting ketchup on a hot dog (or watching one of the movies Stipe's produced).

Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous (2004)   D+
Attempted imitation of Flaming Lips-type flippantry - singsong sarcasm over glorious rising melodies (guitars! percussion! violins!) that sounds uplifting even while singer Jenny Riley is chirping about corpses and murder fantasies, concluding, during the final song, that we're all going to die. "It's a Hit" is a standout the way the deeply felt and honest "With Arms Outstretched" was before it, but the rest of the album is busy flicking you in the nose when you're not looking and then skipping away just as fast.

The Rosebuds, Make Out (2003)   C+
If you, like me, heard them live before listening to the album you'd think they were another post-punk group, but this release is more along the lines of bouncy Buddy Hollyesque pop. It's far more accomplished than similar bands; the husband and wife team (along with a rolling log of drummers) dynamic works.

Sahara Hotnights, Kiss and Tell (2004)   C
A lot like the Donnas in the fact that their sound is entirely too consistent and processed - most of these tracks, while not terrible, could have been on their last album (or even on their next album, at this rate). "Keep Calling My Baby" has a great hook.

Saturday Looks Good To Me, Every Night (2004)   D+
60's rock reprocessed for a modern audience - it's like Scotland's Camera Obscura without the quality songwriting or pop hooks.

Seachange, Lay of the Land (2004)   B
Aggressive art-rock that mixes guitars and a violin - behind the dissonance is a sense of sadness and perseverance. It took multiple listens to get into it; the last time I used headphones and it just blew me away. Bizarrely enough, NME said the album sounded like it was by people who "still go for walks with their parents," which sounds funny but does not make sense.

The Secret Machines, Now Here Is Nowhere (2004)   C
Lots of atmosphere, but the effort is more in posing than producing - the drums seem endless but pushed to the background (it's as if someone turned down the volume on the Automator's beat machine) - and the album's like one giant, stretched out chunk of taffy instead of individually wrapped pieces like the kind you get in a sampler box from Atlantic City.

The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (2003)   D
Trite little record from a band that has received a great deal of critical acclaim and I'm still not sure why. Songs are tight and structured but instantly disposable; the lyrics are at times pretentious yet once in a while something oddly genuine sneaks in. The New Pornographers and this group could be kissing cousins, and truth be told I'm not sold on either.

South, With the Tides (2003)   B-
Arguably a more cohesive album than 2002's "From Here On In" - it doesn't have a song as grand as "Paint the Silence" on it, but neither is it overlong or inconsistent. They use a variety of instruments to make up their sound - a banjo sneaks in when you least expect it - and the songs move forth with delicate emotion.

Stereolab, Margerine Eclipse (2004)   C-
This disc is a major let-down - if you took some of the tracks off this, mixed them in with (what I consider) their best album in "Dots and Loops" and maybe even some of the songs from "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" I'm positive most casual listeners couldn't tell they came years apart, that they evolved musically. This strikes me as the fundamental problem with Stereolab: my growing fear that they're becoming too homogenized for their own good. Fans should still take a listen and judge for themselves.

The Streets, A Grand Don't Come for Free (2004)   C+
Concept album about breaking up with your girlfriend, trying to sleep around and general nightlife tomfoolery. Only a minor improvement over the first Streets album - it's still about laziness and drugs but has a more serious attitude towards them.

Tangiers, Never Bring You Pleasure (2004)   D+
It's a serious struggle to pay attention to this - numerous times I've had to restart the album because my focus shifted to something more original, like the way the wallpaper border that wraps around my bedroom is starting to peel off. I understand post-punk is supposed to rock the paper off your walls, but I'm pretty sure it's from a lack of glue and not the music. Sorry.

Ticonderoga, LP (2004)   B-
I realize no one who knows about this North Carolina-based band is reading this, but my God, will someone please do a little advertising for them? Just a tad? You can't find their album on Amazon or Cheap CDs.com, Googling them just comes up with the Fort in New York and they aren't listed in AllMusic.com. It's certainly better than most of the lo-fi indie rock that's readily available but largely disposable.

TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004)   D
After two listens through I find a lot of it to be downright abrasive, and the best song is from last year's "Young Liars" EP ("Staring at the Sun"). Why did they try to change their sound so quickly? Was "Young Liars" such a small masterwork that they got scared they could never repeat it and wanted to mix things up quickly? Did they put their best five songs together for one album and leave the more didactic tracks for this? It knocks them out of the "next great thing" musical hierarchy and into the "promising but unfulfilled" bracket.

TV on the Radio, Young Liars (2003) [EP]   A
Just because two of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are on here doesn't mean that this band sounds anything like them - if anything, they're opposites: the YYYs are sexual and hostile, while this trio prefers doo-wop, ambient minimalism and a good deal of electronics. Simply put, it's a brilliant EP - a clever a capella rendition of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves" is the unmarked 'fifth track' and ends the disc on a haunting note.

The Twilight Singers, She Loves You (2004)   A-
Greg Dulli and Company add sexual swagger to their wholly unique covers of classic songs - it's almost as good as Dulli's work with the Whigs, which is some high praise indeed. I'm not sure I agree with the selection of tracks they cover ("Strange Fruit?"), but the pop/blues mixture works nonetheless; imagine the sleazy intensity of "Something Hot" for eleven songs.

UNKLE, Never, Never, Land (2003)   D+
Drop that mike / Turn off your Mac / Call DJ Shadow / Make him come back.

U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)   B-
The band is never less than heartfelt, even when Bono is espousing on what he thinks of love - trouble is, they are starting to sound like they're cannibalizing themselves, especially on "Yahweh" (the "Achtung Baby" years) and "Vertigo" (a "Pop" re-assemblage). Other dedicated fans may have slightly different opinions, and I must confess that it took a month or so of listening to "All That You Can't Leave Behind" to set me right.

Various, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack (2004)   C
Very much a take-it-or-leave-it album; it fits within the movie well enough (even though I don't care much for the movie), so that's a compliment (of sorts). Some of it sounds like it could be the from the lost soundtrack for "Xanadu," which is not a compliment.

Various, Napoleon Dynamite Soundtrack (2004)   C+
It's not on par with the cult movie, I'm afraid. Whereas Jared Hess' cinematic debut relies on timing and stilted camera movement for effect, this tries to turn the visual comedy into audio comedy by including a few lines of disconnected dialogue and some out-of-context retorts in between an uneven list of songs (double plus good: Jamiroquai, Figurine [itself a masterpiece of synth-pop and lost love], Money Mark; bad: Bow Wow Wow, Rogue Wave, Fiction Company). With a track listing of 47 (47?!) little fragments, it's a bit much.

Various, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie Soundtrack (2004)   B
This soundtrack is on par with the movie, combining such talents as Ween, Wilco (!), the Flaming Lips, Motorhead (!?) and Prince Paul for a wild melding of rock, pop and hip-hop into a fun record for kids and adults; even Avril Lavigne's dumb-and-proud-of-it 45 second opening track captures the anarchistic aura of the (soon to be) cult film. Beware: the Goofy Goober Theme is bound to get stuck in your head; as expected, the worst part belongs to the Shins. Man, I really hate them.

Kanye West, College Dropout (2004)   B
A worldly concept album that acknowledges the temporary state of fame, how quickly money goes away, how jobs in retail are soul-killers, how terror now runs rampant, how schooling isn't for everyone (certainly not Kanye) and so many other social problems. It's as good as you heard ... but what's with the background singers that sound like chipmunks? And why waste over twelve damn minutes with the endless "Last Call?"

Wilco, A Ghost Is Born (2004)   D-
Quite a disaster following the band's splendid "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" that takes its sweet old time - the two songs over 10 minutes are overkill (and what's with the five minutes of noise? I can do that too, you know), and the best track on it, "Handshake Drugs," was actually from the "Yankee" sessions (and "More Like the Moon" EP). Maybe swallowing fistfuls of Seconal and recording an album isn't the finest idea, guys; Jim O'Rourke can only do so much with nothing.

Windsor for the Derby, We Fight Til Death (2004)   D+
Overindulgent when it should be clipped and repetitive when it needs a more direct approach, this really takes its sweet old time getting where it needs to go. Sometimes when they go the Mogwai/space rock route it works (like on "The Door Is Red") while other times their jamming leads nowhere in particular.

The Wrens, The Meadowlands (2003)   B+
The schizoalbum of last year, where songs go from breathtaking to average in a matter of chords, and where the quality depends on the point you're at in whatever track you're listening to at the time. Sometimes they sound like Wilco, sometimes like Green Day, sometimes like Top 40 processed pop ("She Sends Kisses"), sometimes like post-punk, sometimes alt-country and back and forth, within seconds. Their next album, once they find a real producer and not some shyster, should be dynamic.

Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles (2004)   B
Depressing at the same time it is heartfelt and almost frighteningly experimental - like the best surreal films, its disconnectedness has a way of lodging itself in your head. Naturally, there's always room for a hands-down great song like the scary/scrappy "Clowne Towne." Someone love Jamie Stewart before he starts slitting throats.

Rachael Yamagata, Happenstance (2004)   B-
Interesting debut from Yamagata, who sounds like Fiona Apple and Tori Amos' love child. Problem is that the disc simply goes on too long, and after an explosive beginning (the first five songs are marvelous), it becomes less effective. That said, I think if she continues to improve with each album she has the stuff to become a major figure in music.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Maps (2004) [Single]
Neato little single of "Maps" off last year's masterful "Fever to Tell" with a good B-side ("Countdown") and a performance of "Miles Away" for John Peel (of the BBC). For people with a computer, the tasteful video for "Maps" is provided in Quicktime format. Cringe as Karen cries real tears! (Get this girl a blanket and some Valium.)

Other albums I've listened to (unsigned, obscure or both):

·  Dawn Landes, Dawn's Music (2004)

·  Nil Lara, Da (2004)

Live Acts Caught, or: Why Yes, I Do Leave My House At Times

  January 7, 2004: Yeah Yeah Yeahs with The Tallboys, North Star Bar, Philadelphia, PA

  March 19, 2004: Hem with Dawn Landes, Tin Angel, Philadelphia, PA

  July 28, 2004: Camera Obscura with Rosebuds, North Star Bar, Philadelphia, PA

  September 22, 2004: Rachael Yamagata with Tom McRae, Tin Angel, Philadelphia, PA

  October 5, 2004: Alter Bridge with Submersed and Crossfade, Crocodile Rock, Allentown, PA

Singles of the Year: Ambulance LTD: "Heavy Lifting," The Arcade Fire: "Rebellion (Lies)," Beastie Boys: "Ch-Check It Out," Marit Bergman: "Adios Amigos," Bloc Party: "She's Hearing Voices," The Blood Brothers: "Love Rhymes With Hideous Car Wreck," The Crystal Method: "Born Too Slow," Delays: "Long Time Coming," Destroyer: "The Music Lovers," The Faint: "Desperate Guys," Franz Ferdinand: "Take Me Out," French Kicks: "One More Time," The Go! Team: "Huddle Formation," Her Space Holiday: "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend," Maroon 5: "This Love," Nellie McKay: "David," The MFA: "The Difference It Makes (Superpitcher Remix)," Modest Mouse: "Float On," Phantom Planet: "Big Brat," Portobella: "Vive La Difference," Seachange: "Glitterball," The Streets: "Fit But You Know It," Tegan and Sara: "Where Does the Good Go," TV on the Radio: "New Health Rock," 22-20s: "Such a Fool," Xiu Xiu: "Clowne Towne," Rachael Yamagata: "Be Be Your Love"