1 = Skip it
5 = Try it
10 = Buy it
Tom the Guitar Hero
Plays in an indie-rock power-pop outfit and an AC/DC tribute band. Currently listening to Van Halen bootlegs and discovering the Band.
Madison the A&R Chick
A pop fanatic since she first heard Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac. Depeche Mode defined her teenage years. Obsessed with finding the next Prince.
Sarah the Schoolteacher
Plays indie pop like Architecture in Helsinki for her Park Slope students during lessons about discussing opinions with others. Currently in the midst of a heavy doo-wop phase.
The Go! Team
Thunder, Lightning, Strike!
This old-school sample-loving British band’s largely instrumental debut album (released last year in the U.K. and widely bootlegged) alternates between up-tempo exuberance and up-tempo wistfulness. The Go! Team made this album in a basement, and it sounds like it. That said, the deliberately crappy fidelity and vaguely out-of-tune, almost childlike manner in which the instruments are played add tension and grime to tracks that might otherwise be a little too upbeat for their own good. Every time I listen to “The Power Is On,” which I did, like, twenty times in a row, I think of the band from The Muppet Show performing Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” and it makes me very, very happy.
Best Track: “The Power is On ”
Imagine a party hosted by Andy Warhol, your favorite cartoon character, and an overenthusiastic cheerleader, and this CD would be the soundtrack. They’re still a young band, though, and the recording is not the best—they have a hip sound but didn’t put much effort into developing it, and it’s in danger of being too kitschy. I couldn’t help thinking I would like them more if I saw them live.
Best Track: “Huddle Formation” I listen to most of this album with three fourth-graders. They immediately start dancing to the first song—a good sign. When I ask what they think of it, one of them simply says, “Wooooooooo!” I agree. We all love the trumpets, the little bits of funk, and the cheerleaders. Especially the cheerleaders. We spend at least three songs jumping straight up and down. One of the kids says, “Right now, this is the most energy I ever had. This music gives me superpower energy.”
Best Track: “The Power is On ”
The erstwhile lo-fi hipster hero continues to mine the same vein of guitar-hook pop that she introduced on the controversially radio-friendly Liz Phair. Can we all agree that Liz Phair is a terrible singer? It was kind of charming when she was still indie, but now that she’s trying to cross over and do middle-of-the-road, adult pop, her flat caterwauling is unbearable. And her band sound like they’re busy daydreaming about spending their paychecks.
Best Track: “Can’t Get Out of What I’m Into ” The first three adjectives that came to mind while listening to Phair’s latest attempt to capture the teen market are hooky, catchy, and completely predictable. There are nice melodies and the songs are very tightly structured, but the album doesn’t have any character. Other than Phair’s distinctive vocals, this could be any teen-pop songstress’s album. Anyone who liked Phair’s last release will enjoy this. It’s nearly the same album.
Best Track: “Somebody’s Miracle” I don’t love the album, I don’t hate it. But to 8-year-old girls, these songs are the best thing in the world. They find a girl-power message in lyrics they can’t literally understand. I ask one of them what message she was getting from the singer, and she replies, “That a girl can have rock and roll. A girl can have power of music.”
Best Track: “Can’t Get Out of What I’m Into”
Chaos and Creation in the Backyard
Working with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the former Beatle played most of the instruments on this album himself; the resulting sound is quieter and more laid-back than much of his solo work. When Paul McCartney totally loses his mojo, I don’t want to know about it. Luckily, this isn’t the album where it happens. In fact, it’s the best thing he’s done in years—a really honest, restrained record. The arrangements are really sparse, much more akin to early solo albums like RAM than the incredibly bombastic “Live and Let Die” orchestration that people who watch the Super Bowl associate him with.
Best Track: “Jenny Wren” Not great, but by far his best release in the last few years. All the McCartney signatures are present—plenty of melodies, memorable choruses, and a sentimental point of view. Possibly not adventurous enough for those living on the edge—the majority of the album is reflective and mellow. Maybe a little too melancholy, even. He used to do “sentimental” a lot better than he has recently.
Best Track: “Fine Line”
The kids are concerned that Paul McCartney is poor because he’s pictured on the front of the album behind a line of drying laundry. “Can’t he afford a dryer?” one asks. I assure them he’s doing fine. Another says, “These songs you could listen to if you have a wife.” Which actually makes some sense: Almost everyone has grown up listening to Paul McCartney’s music, and even if these songs aren’t quite as clever lyrically or musically as his past work, listening to them is like spending time with someone you’ve known and loved for years.
Best Track: “Fine Line”
The Bay Area duo, longtime favorites of underground-hip-hop aficionados, return with another album full of eclectic, meticulously arranged beats and elaborate, rapid-fire lyrics. When you call your album The Craft, deliberately drawing attention to your technique, you’d better have serious chops, and Blackalicious do. The sound of the production on this album is Grammy-quality, and the music, particularly the bass, could not be funkier. The rhymes seem really well informed, although admittedly I don’t necessarily connect on a visceral level with raps that reference Queen Nefertiti.
Best Track: “Rhythm Sticks” There’s a huge place in the market for hip-hop with a quirky, laid-back Tribe Called Quest vibe, but for some reason, no one wants to fill it. So kids end up putting on “Can I Kick It?” at parties fifteen years after it came out. This CD is a perfect example of a band hesitating to play that kind of role. One minute it’s light-hearted and fun but then immediately turns dark and serious. It’s so stylistically diverse that it gets confusing.
Best Track: “World of Vibration ”
The truth is, this is the first time I’ve listened to an entire hip-hop album. I’ve been missing out: Blackalicious is good, really good. The hooks are catchy, the lyrics are smartly political, and the emceeing is perfect at times. The next day, I tell my dry cleaner, a hip-hop fan, that I have found my gateway album. He offers to make me a mix.
Best Track: “World of Vibrations”
My Morning Jacket
Famous for their raging live shows, the Kentucky quintet continues to explore their spacey-soundscape side on this album, produced by the guy who engineered Dark Side of the Moon. While I would definitely classify this band as an indie-rock act, their laid-back, southern sensibility, love of guitar solos, and trippy, elastic arrangements make me feel like they’d do pretty well on the jam-band circuit as well. I guess that would explain why they’re signed to Dave Matthews’s label.
Best Track: “Anytime”
A lot of great guitar parts on this album. The sound combines Pink Floyd–like experimental stuff with hard-hitting southern rock. Both of those kinds of music can be ruined by bands acting like self-important poseurs, but they avoid that problem by making fun of themselves. For example, there’s one song with a wordless chorus—it’s called “Wordless Chorus.”
Best Track: “World of Vibrations ” I listen to some of the album with three kindergartners (carefully avoiding track six, which starts with the words “A kitten on fire”). One covers her ears. Another runs away. I’m with the kids on this one: A few of the songs are lovely, sparse, and lonely, but others drone on too long for my taste and without the twang I liked so much on their last album. This one doesn’t make much of an impression on me.
Best Track: “Gideon”