1 = Skip it
5 = Try it
10 = Buy it

Illustrations by James Taylor

Peter the Enduring Enthusiast
Immersed himself in downtown music scene during NYU film-school days. Now writes about baseball from Park Slope home, where John Legend, the Broken West, and Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros are currently in heavy rotation. First saw Lucinda Williams live nineteen years ago.

Jos the Prodigious Teen
Well versed in a range of rock tuneage; favorites include the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and the Magnetic Fields. Disdains whiskey-fueled Americana songs about loneliness: “In my country, we drink tequila, and we never drink it alone.”

Sarah the Schoolteacher
Teaches fifth grade in Brooklyn; musical interests include doo-wop and lo-fi rockers like Yo La Tengo. Currently leading “Cooking Around the World” after-school program and listening to the British band Pipas.

Photo: Courtesy of Chris Floyd/Capitol Records

Alright, Still
Lily Allen
Jaunty, piano-and-horn- filled debut from the phenom who’s finally brought her mischievously flirtatious vibe and tales of nightlife misadventure across the pond after big success last summer in the U.K.

PETER: Like early, ska-heavy No Doubt: buzzing, blipping instrumentation with appealingly casual, potty-mouthed vocals and some super-hook-y tunes. That’s a great pop package, but it’s worth repeat listening, too: The lyrics are specific and engaging, even if Allen isn’t exactly the underprivileged street-smart girl she writes about.
Rating: 8
Best Track: “Smile”

JOS: Being a teenage guy, I would instantly dismiss her boys-and-breakups clichés if it weren’t for the lighthearted ska and reggae backbeats, which make the femme-power message a lot more tolerable than with, say, Alanis Morissette. Every girl in America 13 to 35 will love her, but I foresee a few male fans as well: Her music is just too easy to sing along to.
Rating: 7
Best Track: “LDN”

SARAH: After hearing samples from a few songs (not all of the album is kid-appropriate), one girl asks another, reverently, “Is this Barbie?” But Barbie isn’t nearly as clever as Lily Allen. The tales of lame ex-boyfriends and police trouble crack me up.
Rating: 8
Best Track: “Smile”

Photo: Courtesy of Brian Tamborello/Sub Pop

Wincing the Night Away
The Shins
Long-awaited follow-up to 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow from a band whose prominent mention in Garden State launched them into “favorite band” lists all across the MySpace universe.

PETER: The more I’ve listened to the Shins, the more irritated I’ve become by James Mercer’s vocals. He has a beautiful voice, but on many songs, his convoluted and cryptic lyrics come out in a rushed, whining singsong I don’t like. At least a few tracks here have an almost-jazzy feel, which mellows him out.
Rating: 5
Best Track: “Sea Legs”

JOS: It’s fine for a band to have signature sounds that give all their work a distinct personality, but this album is nothing but Shins idiosyncrasies we’ve heard before. Not a second of it could be confused with anyone other than the guys who made “New Slang.”
Rating: 6
Best Track: “Sea Legs”

SARAH: A kindergartner in a full fireman’s uniform, who has shaken his head without a word through a bunch of other bands, turns to me beaming when this album comes on. Then he asks if he can play it for his dog. I share his enthusiasm for a few of the songs, but just as many of them don’t do anything for me. I realize that I like the Shins at a medium tempo, and that’s about it—if you can sing that well, why try anything else?
Rating: 7
Best Track: “Phantom Limb”

Photo: Courtesy of Alan Messer/Lost Highway

Lucinda Williams
The alt-country titan adds some new musical twists (including appearances from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell) to her typically reflective stories of hard living in the South.

PETER: The lyrics here tell more of a first-person story than Lucinda Williams albums usually do, mourning the death of her mother and eulogizing a fouled relationship. It’s a testament to Williams’s skill as a writer and the musical inventiveness of her band that such non-uplifting material is so engrossing.
Rating: 9
Best Track: “Fancy Funeral”

JOS: My exposure to country music is pretty much limited to what has accidentally leaked through to me in Wilco and Bright Eyes. While I register the suffering in her voice, I would need to hear a bit more effort (at least a little emo-scream every now and then) to actually be moved by it. I know what this album is supposed to make me feel, but I don’t feel it.
Rating: 4
Best Track: “Unsuffer Me”

SARAH: It’s not my kind of music, but Lucinda’s beautifully raspy voice is mesmerizing. “This is music you can just be with,” one of the kids says, and—for once—everyone just nods quietly.
Rating: 6
Best Track: “Everything Has Changed”

Photo: Rennie Solis/Polyvinyl Records

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
Of Montreal
A group that’s launched many an indie dance party throws exotic instrumentation, genre crossovers, and introspective lyrics into the mix.

PETER: Lyrically, so far as I can tell, the band is fixated on a variety of theological issues and troubles with girls. Some of the beats are captivating, but just when the music starts to get hot, it’s interrupted by screeches, sound effects, and tempo changes.
Rating: 4
Best Track: “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” (All twelve minutes of it)

JOS: I never ever expected to take this band, known for silly techno-pop, so seriously. But by exploring darker lyrical territory and using more-complicated arrangements, they’ve managed to make some sinister glam-rock with surprising power. It’s an incredible album.
Rating: 9
Best Track: Gronlandic Edit”

SARAH: An all-around hit, described by one 10-year-old as sounding like “aliens from the seventies.” I like the idea of cheerful songs about a dark and sad winter. One kid dances himself into a table.
Rating: 8
Best Track: “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider”

Photo: Courtesy of Steve Double/Big Hassle

Some Loud Thunder
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Follow-up from the Brooklynites whose debut was such a surprise success that many who purchased the album online received a copy mailed personally by a member of the distributor-less band.

PETER: The band’s go-to move is to pair a wall of sound with oddly miked, oddly phrased vocals that sound like David Byrne standing way back from the microphone and shouting. That’s intellectually interesting, but viscerally, it’s a little dull.
Rating: 6
Best Track: “Underwater (You and Me)”

JOS: I liked CYHSY’s first album a lot: It reminded me of the Violent Femmes in the way they used acoustic dissonance and energetic singing to make exciting songs without a lot of instrumentation. The new album is closer to the Flaming Lips than the Femmes on the Indie Rock Scale of Production Polish, but the more-elaborate melodies and electronic details amplify the energy rather than drown it out.
Rating: 8
Best Track: “Emily Jean Stock”

SARAH: During the first track, the kids and I are wincing. One of them wraps a beanbag around his head. It sounds like Lou Reed playing with the Violent Femmes at a high-school party, and I have to turn it off. “This is one of the big new bands of the last year,” I tell them, but they’re not having it. “Why doesn’t a new band have to be good to get popular?” one of them asks.
Rating: 3
Best Track: “Underwater (You and Me)”