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That's a Wrap-Up

Musically, the pallindromic 2002 was much like any other, just with slightly different outfits and different purty colors flashing on MTV. There was some really great stuff released, as well as some truly awful dreck. Most of the hundreds of thousands of CDs released in the world fell somewhere in between. For every Flaming Lips and Sigur Rós, there was a Kelly Osbourne and an Our Lady Peace. That's just nature, and we know better than to try to fight nature.

Still, we prefer the good stuff. Here's an exhaustive, but by no means comprehensive, guide to some of the year's best music.

BLUEGRASS/COUNTRY

Neko Case
Blacklisted
(Bloodshot)
Neko Case has dropped her boyfriends but not her pals: Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb and Kelly Hogan are among those who contribute to Blacklisted's large and luminous sound. But it's Case's show -- and she sounds more assured and inspired than ever. The honey-voiced singer-guitarist wrote most of this effort, and in her compositions, one finds world-wizened ruminations on childhood, love and the vast interior of the heart. Swirling lap-steel sounds and rural images tether Case to her alt-country affiliation, but Blacklisted also demonstrates how well she's learned the pop craft. Her take on "Runnin' Out of Fools" even suggests she could be a formidable force in the soul realm. If the blacklist is full of artists as good as this, we hope someone will name names. -- Laura Bond

Kasey Chambers
Barricades & Brickwalls
(Warner Bros.)
Critics of current country music are often sticklers for authenticity: They have severe doubts about anyone plowing this field who has never plowed a field. By these standards, Kasey Chambers comes up short, since, as an Australian, she picked up C&W (and her attendant twang) secondhand. But Barricades reveals these preconceptions for the prejudices they are. There's more guts and grit in the best of Chambers's songs -- like the scorching title track and the closing "I Still Pray" -- than in a dozen examples of prefab Nashville merchandise. She may not be another Hank or Tammy, but she's preventing the essence of their music from going the way of the passenger pigeon. In that sense, she's the genuine item. -- Michael Roberts

Dixie Chicks
Home
(Open Wide/Monument/Columbia)
Most country performers move closer to pop with every album, but the Dixie Chicks did just the opposite on Home. Embracing the acoustic newgrass sound of Alison Krauss, with top-notch songs by Darrell Scott, Patty Griffin, Tim O'Brien, Bruce Robison and others, the Chicks show off their superb vocal harmonies. They even manage to breathe new life into Stevie Nicks's "Landslide." It's heartening that Home has sold more than three million copies; maybe there's hope for mainstream country after all. -- David Hill

Jim Lauderdale
The Hummingbirds
(Dualtone)
Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
Lost in the Lonesome Pines
(Dualtone)
Contemporary yet firmly rooted in tradition, The Hummingbirds is pop-country the way it should be: smart, tasteful, original and a little twangy. Even better is Lost in the Lonesome Pines, Lauderdale's second collaboration with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. With his quirky, George Jones-meets-Greg Allman voice, Lauderdale sounds as if he were born to sing mountain music. His songs, written by himself or with partners like Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, seem to come from some ancient, dust-covered songbook. After listening to these two fine albums, you can't help but wonder: Is there anything that Jim Lauderdale can't do? -- Hill

Lucero
Tennessee
(Madjack)
One of the things that made Uncle Tupelo so good was that it butchered country music -- fucking up its cornpone conventions with the edginess of Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and the Soft Boys. Lucero seeks to do pretty much the same thing, though of course it doesn't sound quite as novel now that "alt country" has been officially canonized by the music industry. This Memphis band takes hard-core punk's immediacy and intolerance for bullshit and laces it with rustic twang and a hoarse, raw-hearted sensitivity that's equal parts Steve Earle and Jawbreaker. Piano, dobro and lap steel make some songs gently weep, while others shudder with tense, distorted guitars. But like Uncle Tupelo, Lucero knows how to plant a good, sad folk tune like a stolen kiss in the middle of all the uproar. ­ Jason Heller

Buddy Miller
Midnight and Lonesome
(Hightone)
Buddy Miller's known by highbrow country cognoscenti for having contributed to albums by Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams and other artists whose reputation is bigger than their bank balance. But his own albums remain criminally underappreciated -- and unfortunately, Midnight and Lonesome hasn't done much to change that. Those who manage to track it down will be rewarded for their toil with exemplary guitar playing, warm singing and smart arrangements, especially on the Everly Brothers staple "The Price of Love." Best of all, the CD contains originals by Buddy and his wife, Julie Miller, that are capable of transporting fans to honky-tonk heaven (the utterly winning "Wild Card") or relationship hell ("I Can't Get Over You"). Either way, it's quite a ride. -- Roberts

Allison Moorer
Miss Fortune
(Universal South)
The gifted, Alabama-born Allison Moorer has all but abandoned her twangy past and embraced a poppier sound on her third effort. You can still hear the occasional steel guitar, but more prevalent are lush strings, slinky electric guitar riffs, smoky organ fills and Burt Bacharach-style trumpet hooks. What makes it all hang together is Moorer's sultry, Patsy Cline-meets-Cher voice. With her vocal talent and fashion-model good looks, why isn't she as big of a star as Faith Hill? -- Hill

Phillips, Grier & Flinner
Looking Back
(Compass)
Tradition meets perdition on this mellow session as acoustic virtuosos Todd Phillips, Matt Flinner and David Grier delve into genre-bending territory. The trio takes mandolin, stand-up bass and acoustic guitar down twisting back roads using the vintage sounds of Bill Monroe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and others. Can you say bluejazz? ­ Nick Hutchinson

Railroad Earth
Bird in a House
(Sugar Hill)
Add to the jamgrass family Railroad Earth, a band whose name derives from an ode by Jack Kerouac. Songsmith Todd Sheaffer and his talented ensemble kick up an acoustic fuss reminiscent of the best bluegrass and folk. "Mountain Time" creates a dreamy landscape in which a sleepy river keeps the clock, a tableau that best reflects the group's ethos. -- Hutchinson

The Supersuckers
Must've Been Live
(MidFi)
A more aptly ragged reflection of the Supersuckers' alter ego as countrified genre-benders than the studio outing Must've Been High (1997), this live release is an unexpected keeper. Culled from gigs in Texas and California, warts-and-all renditions of "Good Livin'" and Buck Owens's "Alabama, Louisiana or Maybe Tennessee" capture the guts and glory of a remote rockin' barroom where the distinction between rock and country, it don't matter none, no how. -- Eric Peterson

Tommy Womack
Circus Town
(Sideburn)
Energetic and boisterous, the post-punk visionary behind Government Cheese and the Bis-quits fuses mid-tempo rock with a country-leaning dose of common sense. Singing odes to shitty jobs and falling in love (then trying desperately to stay there), Tommy Womack issues his third and most fully realized batch of songs to date. Circus Town's crown jewel, a richly detailed tribute to the Replacements (right down to the vomit on the ceiling!), locates the creative alliance between humor and sadness. -- John La Briola

BLUES/R&B

Solomon Burke
Don't Give Up on Me
(Fat Possum/Epitaph)
Don't Give Up on Me is a kind of positive payback for Solomon Burke. After having influenced entire generations of musicians with his warm, powerful voice, he's honored here with the songwriting of some of his biggest fans, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits. Giving voice to Dylan's "Stepchild" and Van Morrison's "Fast Train," Burke offers a fitting and mesmerizing continuation of a brilliant, largely unnoticed forty-year career. -- Kurt Brighton

Joi
Star Kitty's Revenge
(Crazy World/Universal)
Joi Gilliam Gipp's "Lick" and "Crave" would make even Prince blush. Sexy and smart, Gipp takes listeners on a fantastic drum-and-bass joyride with "Techno Pimp," which rewrites Outkast's "B.O.B" as a ladies' anthem. Raphael Saadiq, Big Gipp of Goodie Mob and the Dungeon Family help her get nasty on a cover of Bootsy Collins's "Munchies for Your Love." But the most moving track is "Jefferson St. Joe," an elegy written to her father, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Joe Gilliam, who struggled with substance-abuse problems throughout his adult life. Sassy, salacious and soulful, this is sweet revenge. -- James Mayo

Meshell Ndegeocello
Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape
(Maverick)
Whether serving up crackling pop or bedroom balladry, Meshell Ndegeocello gives you something you can feel -- and the stimulation is as physical as it is mental. Woven throughout Cookie are samples from well-known poets and activists; activist Angela Davis's words flow seamlessly through the salsa-tinged "Hot Night," which also features rapper Talib Kweli. Ndegeocello throws down lyrical jihads and rides the sensual grooves of her band, concocting a mixed tape designed to free your mind -- and other parts, too. -- Mayo

The Sugarman 3 & Company
Pure Cane Sugar
(Daptone)
While dusty-fingered archaeologists like Peanut Butter Wolf unearth fossilized 45s from R&B's golden age, the Sugarman 3 keep the funk alive. This Brooklyn-based instrumental quartet rocks the sweet, warm, analog sound of soul circa 1969, resurrecting JB's muscular shuffle, the Meters' clockwork syncopation and Young-Holt Unlimited's breezy jazz vibe. As authentically old-school as they may sound, the songs on Pure Cane Sugar are all originals -- save for the Sonics' savage garage-rock anthem "Shot Down," which is liquefied, then poured into a pure funk mold by guest vocalist Lee Fields. Pick up a little Sugar, put your hips in gear and get ready to break some sweat. -- Heller

Tweet
Southern Hummingbird
(Elektra)
Collaborating with Missy Elliott and Timbaland, the Atlanta-based Tweet dropped one of the most seductive odes to self-pleasure ever with the club hit "Oops (Oh My)." On the track, Timbaland's trademark computer bleeps accent Tweet and Missy's doo-wop choruses, creating space-age music for a modern girl's bachelorette pad. This songbird soars high above the rest of the formulaic R&B crowd. -- Mayo

W.C. Clark
From Austin With Soul
(Alligator)
"The Godfather of Austin blues" does his home town proud with this wallop of honeyed blues and soul that's more upbeat than sullen (especially on its funkiest numbers, "I Keep Hangin' On" and "Bitchy Men"). Driven by Clark's nimble guitar and bolstered by the dense sounds of the Texas Horns, From Austin With Soul glides, jumps and kicks, plumbing the depths of romance gone wrong in unexpectedly groovy fashion. -- Peterson

Corey Harris
Downhome Sophisticate
(Rounder)
Some may suspect that Corey Harris was included on this list because he spent many of his formative years in Denver. But in truth, he'd be here if he'd grown up in Des Moines or Tijuana or Beirut. Downhome Sophisticate is well-named, in that Harris's music embraces the primitive side of the blues even as it displays a lyrical and thematic erudition that would seem contradictory if it weren't so natural and effortless. The slide guitar work on "Don't Let the Devil Ride" and elsewhere is utterly combustible, and songs like "Santoro" manage to address contemporary issues in the context of the folk tradition. It's a neat trick that no one does better than Harris. -- Roberts

Alvin Youngblood Hart
Down in the Alley
(Memphis International)
Veering from his normally progressive bent, Hart pares away the excess on this acoustic outing, using only a haunting guitar and an elemental voice to conjure the spirit of past masters. The bare-bones arrangement illuminates such traditional numbers as "Motherless Child" and Leadbelly's "Alberta." Down in the Alley is an unfiltered look at a vital living bluesman, as well as an ageless tribute to those who paved his way. -- Peterson

Musiq
Juslisen (Just Listen)
(Def Soul)
At its best, neo-soul doesn't simply give R&B conventions the high-tone gloss a modern studio can provide; it also infuses them with a contemporary sensibility that makes their trademark musical flourishes and emotional scenarios resonate with listeners who wouldn't know Mustang Sally from a Ford Focus. Musiq accomplishes these goals largely because of his ambidextrous voice, which is equally effective on deliberately paced romantic opuses like "Dontchange" and the cool but funky "Caughtup." But his lyrics have deepened, too, making "Halfcrazy," in which platonic affection turns into horizontal action with complicated results, much more than a straight-forward sequel to "Just Friends," one of Musiq's first hits. Don't take my word for it: Just listen. -- Roberts

Asie Payton
Just Do Me Right
(Fat Possum)
The phrase "an untimely death" is among the English language's hoariest cliches, since only a bare handful of demises can be said to have happened at the ideal moment. (One could argue that even Hitler's death wasn't timely; the world wouldn't have missed him had he keeled over twenty years before he did.) Still, Payton's timing was particularly bad, since a fatal heart attack in 1997 prevented him from taking full advantage of his discovery by Fat Possum. But at least the label went to the trouble of assembling Just Do Me Right, a collection of rough, sometimes homemade recordings whose lack of polish actually adds to their impact. For blues lovers, this disc has arrived right on time. -- Roberts

Joe Louis Walker
In the Morning
(Telarc)
Featuring guitar work by former Saturday Night Live axman G.E. Smith, Joe Louis Walker's latest brings the blues back home. Born to migrant workers on Christmas in 1949, Walker has led a storied existence that includes a time living with legendary blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield as part of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene. Walker blends electric and acoustic, soul, gospel and funk to create an album that should appeal to blues purists and progressives alike. -- Hutchinson

Various Artists
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
(Hip-O)
It took a whole lot of souls to create Motown. As director Paul Justman posited in his documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, studio musicians of the era were as important as the songwriters who sculpted the music and the singers who performed it. This live recording serves to further Justman's argument by pairing the oft-overlooked but ubiquitous backing band, the Funk Brothers, with contemporary arbiters of R&B. The experiment is largely a success (though Ben Harper's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" sounds more like karaoke than Gaye pride). Meshell Ndegeocello's outrageously sensual reading of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me" makes us wish, for a moment, that she would stop making mixed tapes and play with the Brothers permanently. And though the spotlight often defers to the singer in question, the band is tight, explosive and more familiar than we initially realize. -- Bond

COLLECTIONS/BOXED SETS

Beat Happening
Crashing Through
(K)
Before neo-garage, lo-fi or even grunge, Beat Happening ruled the Northwest underground rock scene by being the most humble band in the world. Sounding something like the Cramps covering the Shaggs, the coed trio confronted punk-rock audiences throughout the '80s with a baffling mix of doe-eyed innocence and dark sexuality. Were the players amateurs? Poseurs? Pretentious? Fey? Maybe a little bit of each, but their songs -- raw garage-pop anthems with depth and soul -- speak for themselves. All five of Beat Happening's studio albums, included on Crashing Through along with a huge booklet and two bonus discs full of videos, live material, singles and compilation tracks, testify to the power of modesty -- not to mention a hundred or so brilliant pop songs. -- Heller

David Bowie
All Saints: Collected Instrumentals 1977-1999
(Virgin)
All Saints illustrates why David Bowie inspired so many bands. The three decades' worth of instrumental output assembled here ranges from ambient dirges to tone poems to dance-club hits that never were. The '70s-era work shows off the creative success of Bowie's collaboration with Brian Eno, while much of the material from the '90s anticipates mainstream electronica by a number of years. Even Moby should kiss the Duke's ring. -- Kelly Lemieux

Charlie Christian
The Genius of the Electric Guitar
(Columbia/Legacy)
Seminal jazz guitarist Charlie Christian finally gets his due on Genius of the Electric Guitar, a beautifully produced four-disc set cleverly packaged to look like an old Gibson amplifier. Born in Oklahoma City, Christian was just 23 when he joined Bennie Goodman's sextet, which also featured vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Fletcher Henderson. Three years later, he was dead from tuberculosis. During his short life, he revolutionized the electric guitar by playing hornlike, single-note leads on an instrument used primarily for rhythm. His inventive artistry on such numbers as "Flying Home," "Rose Room" and "Good Enough to Keep (Air Mail Special)" still sound fresh and original sixty years after they were recorded. ­ Hill

Bob Dylan
Bootleg Series, Volume 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975
(Sony)
Bob Dylan never seems to leave the road these days -- and his live shows famously range from cogent and inspired to lackadaisical and discombobulated. But at the time his Rolling Thunder Revue rattled through America in 1975, a Dylan live experience was more like catharsis, or maybe exorcism -- something captured here for the first time, at least officially. (Snapshots of the Revue were previously available only in the poorly rendered Hard Rain, as well as in scenes from Dylan's bootleg-only film Renaldo and Clara.) With white paint on his face and a dervish in his psyche, Bob tears through his own material, deconstructing and reimagining everything from familar tunes ("Mr. Tambourine Man," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue") to then-unreleased numbers ("Hurricane," from Desire). The cast of characters is rounded out by the ambidextrous David Mansfield, guitarist Mick Ronson and Joan Baez, who interjects some perhaps necessary moments of relative calm into the tempest. -- Bond

They Might Be Giants
Dial-A-Song
(Rhino/Elektra)
John Flansburgh and John Linnell were born to soothe and affirm the hearts and minds of unabashed geeks, nerds, indie intellectuals and musical misanthropes the world over. Named for the band's infamous (and still in operation) song-a-day telephone service, Dial-A-Song is the perfect encapsulation of the duo's wry, witty and wonderful trip through the indie underground -- and the cerebral cortex. Hopping somewhat arbitrarily through two decades' worth of recorded output, this anthology is a fine introduction for those looking to further explore the little birdhouse in their soul. It's also a well-rounded display of the two Johns' happily off-kilter worldview. -- Bond

XTC
Coat of Many Cupboards
(Virgin)
XTC's Andy Partridge was and is an odd duck, so the idiosyncrasies of Coat of Many Cupboards, a four-CD boxed set, seem wholly appropriate. Rather than gathering studio renditions of familiar tunes, compilers have plunged into archives that are deep, rich and satisfying. This tack may leave novices behind, but devotees will be elated to leaf through the assembled oddities -- not just a slew of live cuts from a group whose frontman, Partridge, suffered from debilitating stage fright, but also a fascinating array of demos and outtakes. Most unexpected of all is an extract from the first rehearsal of "Life Begins at the Hop," which allows the listener to be present at the moment something awfully enjoyable was created. -- Roberts

Dwight Yoakam
Reprise Please Baby: The Warner Bros. Years
(Reprise/Rhino)
Dwight Yoakam pulled Nashville out of its '80s Urban Cowboy doldrums with his infectious cover of Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man," which kicks off this highly satisfying four-CD collection. Influenced by such West Coast renegades as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Yoakam produced one solid album after another for Reprise, and most of the highlights from those discs are here, along with a number of obscure or unreleased tracks. (His version of Warren Zevon's south-of-the-border drug tale "Carmelita," from Flaco Jimenez's 1992 Partners album, is magnificent.) The ten cuts from his unissued 1981 demo album make it clear that Yoakam's crystal-clear vision of country music was firmly in place right from the start. -- Hill

Warren Zevon
Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon
(Elektra/Rhino)
Warren Zevon's got one foot in the grave, and the other one's slipping; he's been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In recent interviews, however, Zevon has treated his impending demise with tough-guy resolve, dark-toned humor and indelible grace -- qualities that his finest songs sport in abundance. The long-players he made between 1976 and 1981 (Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and Stand in the Fire) are unimpeachable and well worth owning. But Genius does as respectable a job as any single disc could of capturing Zevon's essence, with the possible exception of omitting the suddenly apropos "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." A genius? Of mayhem, definitely. And he's not going quietly into the night. -- Roberts

COMPILATIONS

Various Artists
Dancehall 101 Vol. 3: The Ultimate Collection of Essential Dancehall Classics
Dancehall 101 Vol. 4: The Ultimate Collection of Essential Dancehall Classics
(VP)
Compiled by the Jamaica, Queens-based label VP Records, this series of club classics from the '80s and '90s is an outstanding survey course for the dancehall novice. The VP staff designed the lesson plans by carefully examining playlists used by popular dancehall-, urban- and Latin-format DJs. The resulting collection features mainstream classics (Mad Cobra's "Flex (Time to Have Sex)"), familiar riddims (Tenor Saw's "Ring the Alarm"), underground hits (Half Pint's "Crazy") and more traditional roots-reggae fare (Dennis Brown's "Revolution"). If your familiarity with Jamaican music begins and ends with Robert Nesta Marley -- or if you just want to reminisce about the good old days -- this is the class to sit in on. -- Mayo

Various Artists
Latin Jazz: La Combinación Perfecta
(Smithsonian Folkways)
Tracks by Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Machito and the Afro-Cubans and other classic Latin jazz masters surface on the pleasing Combinación Perfecta alongside interpretations by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Some of the recordings have the canned quality of vintage television and film scores, lending the music an old-school feeling that would delight Ricky Ricardo. More contemporary artists include Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez and tenor saxman David Sanchez of Puerto Rico. Perfecta, indeed. -- Hutchinson

Various Artists
The Silk Road: A Musical Journey
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
On the beautifully packaged two-CD Silk Road, the vast musical landscape of inner Asia is revealed by way of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Mongolia, Tajikistan and other far-flung and exotic points in what used to be known as the Orient. The first disc focuses on Masters and Traditions, while disc two features Minstrels and Lovers. From the insistent and ethereal strains of the santur (Iranian hammered dulcimer), the percussive pluckings of the Jew's harp or the bizarre-sounding throat singing of the Turkish Khakas, the vocals and instrumentation on this document are as diverse as the nations spanned by the Silk Road. Prepare to embrace your inner Marco Polo. -- Hutchinson

Various Artists
Soundbombing III
(Rawkus)
More than simply a rap roundup, Soundbombing III is a model for 21st-century hip-hop. The album destroys the fiction that this music is one-dimensional by drawing upon artists as different as Styles P. and Pharoahe Monch, who share "The Life," and Zap Mama, a multi-culti ensemble joined by Common and Talib Kweli on "Yelling Away." But the disc also establishes commonality between generations by pairing Kweli with DJ Quik on "Put It in the Air" and teaming Monche and Kool G Rap on Jonell's "Round & Round Remix." Blending so many elements into a cohesive whole isn't easy, but mixers Mr. Choc and Cipha Sounds make it work, emerging with a CD that's smart and incendiary. -- Roberts

Various Artists
60: Capitol Records Sixtieth Anniversary, 1942-2002
(Capitol)
This six-CD boxed set is not only a repository of great songcraft, but it also serves as an absorbing chronicle of an important label and, by extension, the music business as a whole. Anniversary documents the post-big band and swing of the '40s, the vocal sophistication of Frank Sinatra in the '50s, the parallel innovations of the Beatles and the Beach Boys during the '60s, the contrast between art rock and pop disco that marked the '70s, the corporate-rock invasion that dominated the '80s, and the scattershot market fragmentation that occurred between 1990 and the present, exemplified by the juxtaposition of Garth Brooks and Radiohead. It's not a coherent story, but every word of it is true. Or close, anyway. -- Roberts

ELECTRONIC/DANCE

Dot Allison
We Are Science
(Mantra)
Some of those who work with electronics seem to believe that their primary job is to turn on the gadgets, gizmos and whizbangs at their disposal and get out of the way. But Allison, a onetime member of One Dove prior to embarking on a solo career, isn't among them, thank you. She can get slinky, as on the seductive "Hex," but she's at the top of her game when she ups the drama; on "Performance," she manages to construct an entire universe of sonic atmosphere around her ethereal reading of four brief lines. Listeners won't be blinded by Science. Rather, they'll have their eyes opened to a cult figure whose cult deserves to grow. -- Roberts

Future Bible Heroes
Eternal Youth
(Instinct)
Nobody writes lyrics like Stephin Merritt, whose work with Magnetic Fields and the 6th's has won him a well-earned following among wry brainiacs, and his latest Heroic effort should add to their number. The wordplay on "I'm a Vampire" ("I am what I am/And I'm impossibly glam") and "Losing Your Affection" ("I would rather be the queen of the guillotine/In a bloody insurrection") is sharper than ever. Adding to the enchantment are the musical backdrops painted by the gifted Christopher Ewen and the singing of Claudia Gonson, whose affectlessness makes her the perfect mouthpiece for Merritt's darkly witty views. Eternal Youth may not live forever, but it will still sound great long after most electro-pop has faded away. -- Roberts

DJ Jazzy Jeff
The Magnificent
(BBE/Rapster)
Another stellar release from BBE's Beat Generation series, The Magnificent places DJ Jazzy Jeff (who teamed up with Will "Fresh Prince" Smith in the '80s) in the role of musical director. Jeff guides his A Touch of Jazz production crew through a soulful sound that recalls the jazzy melodicism of the Native Tongues and the Large Professor. The DJ reunites with Jill Scott, whose career he helped jump-start, on the hometown homage "We Live in Philly," while an impressive array of other guests -- J-Live, Freddie Foxxx and Raheim -- help The Magnificent shine. -- Mayo

Moby
18
(V2)
Critics say 18 is a glorified mixed tape, but even so, there's no denying that Moby is the best mixed tape maker on the scene today. Falling into step with 1995's Everything Is Wrong and 1999's Play, this disc is heavy on soul-searching ambient house and electro-rock with bluesy samples. And when he gets his second wind, the bald New Yorker doesn't cut corners with pop and hip-hop blowouts and four-on-the-floor club anthems. -- Lemieux

Peaches
The Teaches of Peaches
(XL/Beggars Group)
Merrill Nisker was born in Canada and spent time making music in New York City. But it was the discovery of Berlin, the acquisition of a Groovebox and the awakening of a G-spot that brought to life Peaches, the joyously oversexed, decidedly Germanesque diva of the electro-pop movement. Originally issued by the EFA imprint two years ago, The Teaches of Peaches was re-released by XL in 2002 with a bonus disc. Despite its rebirth, the recording remains a lo-gloss batch of no-wave beats, minimalist bombast, self-love and sleaze. For Peaches, the road to redemption is located squarely between her fuzzy thighs. And because she's funny, furious and almost unbelievably bold, Peaches challenges even the most puritan listener to resist her. -- Bond

Pet Shop Boys
Release
(Sanctuary)
The aging Pet popsters have dropped the ennui on the self-produced Release, resulting in their most cohesive collection to date. Britain's smartest electronic band offers emotional ballad rock -- a surprise for fans of their mega-electro roots -- and includes "The Night I Fell in Love," a love song dedicated to Eminem. Will the real Pet Shop Boys please stand up? -- Lemieux

The Streets
Original Pirate Material
(Vice/Atlantic)
Using downloaded samples and a massive set of lyrics, 23-year-old Mike Skinner puts punk rock back into white-boy hip-hop on the omnivorous Original Pirate Material. Whether sweating it out for his dealer or rapping about the vices of city life, Skinner is urban contemporary in its truest form: angry, young and electronic. Not bad for a bedroom recording made in Britain. -- Lemieux

Thievery Corporation
The Richest Man in Babylon
(ESL Music)
The latest effort by Washington, D.C.'s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton is a musical exploration that crosses continents and splices stylistic genres. Cultural anthropologists in the best sense of the world, the lads build a hodgepodge of organic sounds that range from Afro-Cuban to reggae to Icelandic soul; "OVID (HOPE)" is an ethereal song sung in Farsi. The Richest Man in Babylon is a chilling musical offering that gives voice to the world's exiles, some of whom appear in the book of photographs included in the CD insert. -- Mayo

2 Many DJ's
As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Part 2
(Pias)
This import compilation from Belgium's 2 Many DJ's duo - Stephen and David Dewaele of Soulwax -- is a mind-blowing example of the art of the DJ, both in content and dexterity. Sometimes blending three songs simultaneously, the Dewaeles find the rhythmic balance between Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and Royskopp's digital "Eple." Elsewhere, Destiny's Child is fused with 10cc while New Order mingles with the Detroit Grand Pubahs. Thank God for these 2: Where else are you gonna find the Stooges, Adult. and Lords of Acid all sharing electronic condominium rights? -- Lemieux

HIP-HOP/RAP

Afu-Ra
Life Force Radio
(Koch)
A protegé of Jeru the Damaja, Afu-Ra shares his teacher's view of hip-hop as a martial art in which wisdom is as important as lethal moves and killer technique. This old-school approach is underlined via production by DJ Premier and cameos from venerable names such as Guru, Big Daddy Kane and -- believe it or not -- Teena Marie. (M.O.P. and the RZA also turn up.) As such, there's a mildly retro feel to tracks like the raucous "Hip Hop," in which Afu-Ra spits back-in-the-day boasts: "Head first/With a verse/My excerpts got Eskimos in igloos sweatin'." But Life Force Radio comes through loudest and clearest on "Lyrical Monster," a title that fits Afu-Ra like a black belt. -- Roberts

AZ
Aziatic
(Motown)
While Jay-Z and Nas wasted time battling over who is the King of New York, AZ ended up producing the City That Never Sleep's sleeper hit of the year. Too bad so few heard it. Ever since the debacle over the Firm -- the ill-fated Dr. Dre-produced supergroup featuring Nas, Foxy Brown and Nature -- AZ has struggled to establish his own identity and get his music heard on urban radio stations. But with Aziatic, AZ put the smackdown on rival crews with an intoxicating blend of old-school samples and well-crafted verses. -- Mayo

MC Paul Barman
Paulellujah!
(Coup d'Etat)
The most talked-about white rapper of the year was, well, not Paul Barman. But maybe it should have been. A Brown University grad, unabashed name-dropper and überliterate, Barman paired with Prince Paul to find funk where it didn't previously exist -- in rhymes about multi-national bookstore chains and feminist writer Erica Jong. Still, his pedigree does not prevent him from occasionally diving into the toilet -- as evidenced by the enjoyably adolescent "Burping & Farting" -- or from demonstrating the same machismo that mars so much mainstream rap. ("Cock Mobster" is Barman's wish list of future conquests, full of couplets such as "Winona Ryder?/I'm goin' inside her.") And with his nasal twinge and overly articulated phrasings, Barman can be insufferable and annoying. But his persistence, humor and sense of self -- as depracating as it sometimes is -- make Paulellujah! an undeniably guilty pleasure. -- Bond

J-Live
All of the Above
(Coup d'Etat)
A Brooklyn-born MC and eighth-grade teacher, J-Live has something to say about the state of hip-hop, about life as an artist, about relationships and about his home town. And he says it so eloquently on All of the Above, a highly musical solo effort that places the longtime hero of the New York rap underground in the spotlight for a change. J-Live's delivery is informal and friendly in tracks such as "Like This Anna," in which he takes the unusual approach of reminding a female peer of how special she is; elsewhere, he's direct and damning in his assesment of mainstream rap without posturing or just picking a fight. All of the Above is lyrical jazz, directed by an eminently likable and articulate bandleader. -- Bond

Missy Elliott
Under Construction
(Elektra)
Although Elliott isn't known for Western Union rap, she delivers a clear anti-hatred message during her latest CD's intro. But with the exception of "Can You Hear Me," a sentimental tribute to Aaliyah and Lisa Lopes made with the surviving members of TLC, the disc is more concerned with sounds than speechifying. Along with collaborator Timbaland, Elliott creates one terrific musical backdrop after another, each more clever and entertaining than the last. Guest star Method Man is at his best during "Bring the Pain," and Jay-Z gets loose on "Back in the Day," even quoting "Whoomp! (There It Is)." Still, Elliott is the architect of Under Construction, which is built more solidly than most of what passes for finished product. -- Roberts

Mr. Lif
I Phantom
(Definitive Jux)
Hot on the heels of this summer's scathing Emergency Rations EP, Boston hip-hop savant Mr. Lif has big ambitions for his debut full-length. I Phantom is a rap opera, a fourteen-track song cycle that chronicles the life, death and resurrection of its unnamed hero, a B-boy stuck in a samsara of shitty jobs, violence, exploitation and the occasional nuclear holocaust. Lif's rhymes bristle with authority and intelligence; they're lectures on political dissent and cultural philosophy coded in parables of everyday life. The production, supplied mostly by Def Jux headman El-P, is dense and restless, hitting everything from meaty funk to bitmapped static to retro-futurist electro. Spin this disc after seeing 8 Mile; your brain will thank you for it. -- Heller

The Roots
Phrenology
(MCA)
The world's greatest hip-hop band again supplies plenty of brain food for soulquarian documentarians who wonder where hip-hop is headed in the 21st century. Serving up interludes that sound like outtakes from a Bad Brains recording session and some spastic, bombastic percussion, Phrenology also features a loose jam with Cody Chesnutt ("The Seed (2.0)") and guest appearances by skronk funkster James Blood Ulmer ("The Water") and extended family member Jill Scott ("Complexity"). The Roots have produced a record that is simultaneously their most experimental and their most accessible. -- Mayo

Scarface
The Fix
(Def Jam South)
On his seventh solo record, Geto Boy vet and Def Jam South president Scarface cooks up his dopest record yet. There are still street-thug tales to sate longtime fans, but "What Can I Do?" -- a pensive look at the gloomy poetics of depression -- show listeners that there's more to this hip-hop don than recycled tales of drugs, guns and money. "Someday," featuring Faith Evans, and "Heaven," with Kelly Price, bring out the gospel in this G. During "On My Block," Scarface masterfully paints the street corner as an extended metaphor for all the pride, beauty and tragedy that co-exist in our urban neighborhoods. The fix is in. -- Mayo

JAZZ

Ben Allison
Peace Pipe
(Palmetto Records)
Thirty-five-year-old bassist Ben Allison is proof that jazz is alive and well. Stretching out on material by Malian kora player Mamadou Diabate and even Neil Young, Allison and his messengers slide effortlessly between moods and grooves on Peace Pipe. He plays his composition "Third Rail," which is inspired by the music of Duke Ellington and the subways of New York City, by using a folded MetroCard for a pick. How's that for realism? -- Hutchinson

Jane Bunnett, Stanley Cowell and Dewey Redman
Spirituals and Dedications
(Justin Time)
After a decade of lucratively exploring the earthy rhythms of Cuba, soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett decided to get a little more celestial this time around. Spirituals and Dedications is an homage to the gospel spirit of Charles Mingus and Nina Simone, cast in a decidedly post-bop light. The tone here moves from tender balladry to abstraction, from folk to vintage avant-garde; "Illusion Suite" is dark and spectral, while Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "A Laugh for Rory" swings with wit and playfulness. Tenor man Dewey Redman, a bit more restrained now than in his free-blowing days, sculpts arresting solos on the spiritual "Shadrac" as well as Mingus's own hymnal blues, "Ecclusiastics." With the benefit of Dean Bowman's sonorous baritone voice and Stanley Cowell's magisterial command of the keys, these ten songs soar with grace and soul. Heavenly. -- Heller

Chicago Underground Duo
Axis and Alignment
(Thrill Jockey)
Sometimes Trio, sometimes Quartet, sometimes Orchestra, the Chicago Underground collective has released its first album as a duo: just core members Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek. Taylor is a member of the renowned avant-rock outfit Tortoise, and both he and Mazurek belong to Isotope 217, a group that pumps out a mutant funk/fusion amalgam. Axis and Alignment, though, gives the two musicians a more open frontier to explore, and explore it they do. Layered with overdubs, these songs piece together passages of cornet, vibes, keys, guitar and percussion in miniature movements that are brainy yet melodic and accessible: Think of a stripped-down Art Ensemble of Chicago (Taylor has played with both Fred Anderson and Malachi Favors of the AEC) or a laptop-addled Miles. Though the tones sometimes verge on the antiseptic, the Duo knows how to use such frigid textures to its advantage, invigorating its sound with bracing improvisation and freshness. -- Heller

Dave Holland Big Band
What Goes Around
(ECM)
Dave Holland remains better known in some quarters for having played alongside Miles Davis than for releasing solid solo albums for over three decades. What Goes Around shows what many people are missing, demonstrating again Holland's gifts as a bandleader -- in this case, a big-band leader. Most of these compositions have appeared on previous Holland albums, but this time around, he reconceptualizes them with the help of a sprawling ensemble keyed by trombonist Robin Eubanks. Given the size of Holland's team, the tunes might seem in danger of buckling under the weight, but "Triple Dance" and the rest hold up quite well, and the music is powerful without seeming ponderous. It's another triumph in a career full of them. -- Roberts

Norah Jones
Come Away With Me
(Blue Note)
Arguably this year's most astounding vocalist -- and certainly its most celebrated -- Jones entrances listeners with a voice that's been described as a mix of smoke and honey. Her jazz-pop cut "Don't Know Why" has garnered regular rotation on major radio stations, though the album, which has been a top seller, is thankfully far deeper than its lead cut. Jones, on vocals and keys, blends her creations with material by Hank Williams, Hoagy Carmichael and originals by bandmembers Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander. -- Hutchinson

Arto Lindsay
Invoke
(Righteous Babe)
Former DNA guitarist Arto Lindsay might be growing less experimental with age, but his curiosity has never waned. On Invoke, he shows us what he's learned about Brazilian pop and, typically, colors it with his own delightful penchant for odd rhythmic patterns, hypnotizing loops and other atmospheric elements. Though not nearly as mind-bending or progressive as Mundo Civilizado, Lindsay's breakthrough amalgam of techno and worldbeat, Invoke is nonetheless likely to evoke something in you. -- Bond

Mat Maneri Quartet
Sustain
(Thirsty Ear)
As a moniker for this album, Sustain works on several levels, including the purely descriptive. "Alone (Origin)," the first offering, begins with plaintive, unadorned notes drawn from Maneri's violin that slowly lure the listener into "In Peace," an expressionistic soundscape featuring some of the jazz world's foremost colorists, including saxophonist Joe McPhee, bassist William Parker, drummer Gerald Cleaver and others. Upon first listen, these compositions seem formless, but subsequent spins expose hidden structures that owe more to musical intuition than to rigorous planning. Maneri and artistic director Matthew Shipp know better than to rush this process. Instead, they allow the music to develop at its own, unhurried pace and are rewarded for their patience with songs that are organic and magical. -- Roberts

Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Un Gran Día en el Barrio
(Ropeadope)
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra does for Puerto Ricans what the Buena Vista Social Club did for Cubans. The all-star group, led by renowned keyboardist/arranger Oscar Hernandez, gets some respect, Nuyorican style, for the homegrown salsa music style it helped popularize. Composed of players who've put in work for Celia Cruz, Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades, this fiery ensemble faithfully traces the evolution of salsa through smoky devotionals like Pedro Flores's 1947 hit "Obsesión" to Willie Colon and Hector LaVoes's incendiary '70s classic "La Banda." The horns, keyboards and percussive beats will lead you to sing along: "Mi voz es la mensajara de la música latina (My voice is the messenger of Latin music)." ­ Mayo

MISCELLANEOUS

Gogol Bordello
Multi Kontra Culti VS. Irony
(Rubric)
According to certain Eastern Bloc legends, the best violins come from trees that have been struck by lightning. With an electrifying, multicultural giddiness, Gogol Bordello not only lassos lightning on its second album, but learns how to juggle it with gypsy, rai, flamenco, art-rock, punk, humor and debauchery, too. Dubbed "immi-core" by Ukrainian frontman Eugene Hütz, this infectious brand of outsider music ignores borders -- musical and otherwise -- and turns searching for the New World into an untamed Brechtian cabaret. -- La Briola

Cornelius
Point
(Matador)
Many entertainers enjoy a variety of musical styles, but the majority dip into only a few in their own work. Not so Keigo Oyamada, aka Cornelius, who sees no reason to put a fence around his eclecticism. Point isn't quite as scattershot as its ecstatic predecessor, 1998's Fantasma, which seemed to suffer from an exceptionally tuneful variation of attention deficit disorder, but that's only because Cornelius's myriad influences are more seamlessly integrated this time around. "Point of View Point," an instinctive merging of pop and lounge, and "Drop," a song whose liquid grooves are supplemented with samples of actual liquid, are chirpy, chipper and entirely irresistible. In the case of Cornelius's music, more is more. -- Roberts

Gomez
In Our Gun
(Virgin)
After the druggy hybridity of its first two records, Gomez's third official album is everything it should be: mysterious, exciting, hinting at new directions, and plain old fun. All of the links in this thirteen-song chain are equally strong, due in no small part to Gomez's extensive dabbling. In Our Gun is a provocative mishmash of looped, rootsy harmonica lines that morph into pseudo-electronica, watery vocal effects and lovely harmonic bridges. With little downtime, Gomez doesn't let up on its listeners much this time out -- thank goodness. -- Melanie Haupt

Maktub
Khronos
(Ossia)
Soul music from Seattle seems like an odd proposition -- on par with, say, rockabilly from France or exotica from Bayonne, New Jersey. But somehow, Maktub's Reggie Watts, Davis Martin, Daniel Spils, Thaddeus Turner and Kevin Goldman have emerged from the Pacific Northwest's renowned indie scene with a multifaceted sound that makes room for grooves. The occasional nod to grungy rock can be found here: Witness the distorted chorus of "Give Me Some Time" and a moderately quizzical cover of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter." But even a track as outwardly aggressive as "Motherfucker" incorporates vocals by Watts that slip in and out of falsetto and organ fills that are rooted in R&B. Clearly, soul can be found in the unlikeliest places. -- Roberts

Negativland
Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak
(Seeland)
The culture jammers in San Francisco's Negativland describe their latest, confounding twelve-track effort (which is actually one extended piece of musique concrète) as the "destruction of its studio." Audio-wise, it's a free-flowing and cohesive 45 minutes of electro-acoustic sound collage that's completely devoid of bass lines, melody, singing or even a discernable beat. Cleverly packaged as an automotive owner's manual, with found text taken from the scenes of fatal car collisions (including grocery lists, love letters, homework assignments and the like), the conceptual art project becomes a fascinating, voyeuristic, dark and occasionally funny glimpse into the lives of totaled strangers. -- La Briola

Out Hud
Street Dad
(Kranky)
In order, Out Hud's Street Dad is a composite of: dubbed-out U2, tranquilized Liquid Liquid, abstract electro, disco, goth, disco-goth, kraut rock, lo-fi trance, Eno-style ambient, Space Invader funk, shoegazer pop and old-school breakbeat techno. This instrumental group from Brooklyn somehow makes these disparate sounds hang together with cohesion and style; cavernously delayed guitars and throbbing sub-bass morph from one protean blob to the next, while the damn-near-danceable rhythms lend structure to the shifting tones and textures. Try reading between the beats if you like, but there's not too much high concept here -- just fun sounds, pretty lights and an air of quirky playfulness. -- Heller

My Name's Not Rodriguez
Luis J.Rodriguez
(Dos Manos)
Luis Rodriguez's spoken-word recording will hit you like De La Hoya hit Vargas in their last championship bout. Well known for his graphic memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., Rodriguez reads verse that's both tender and fierce. Accompanied by a seven-piece jazz-funk ensemble, he delivers defiant epistles like "To the Police Officer Who Refused to Sit in the Same Room as My Son Because He's a 'Gang Banger'" and elegiac offerings to eccentric family members: "Tía Chucha" recalls an aunt who "once ran out naked to catch the postman with a letter that didn't belong to us." Rodriguez, who recently released a critically acclaimed collection of short stories called The Republic of East LA, runs a small publishing house and cultural center in San Fernando, California. Fittingly, it's named Tía Chucha, in honor of his favorite aunt. -- Mayo

Sigur Rós
( )
(MCA)
Those who first pounced on calling Sigur Rós's ( ) "precious" and "pretentious" had plenty of ammo. Singer Jon Thor Birgisson employs an invented language called "hopelandish" when wailing in his haunting, ethereal falsetto, and the band's album carries an unpronounceable punctuation-heavy title and eight lengthy, untitled songs. But the cynics were wrong: ( ) is liquid evolution. The Icelandic outfit's mournful, floating sense of timelessness and orchestral flourish resonates with a nearly symphonic completeness. Amid the brooding despair and bombastic crescendo lies music from another world -- and it isn't Iceland. -- Brighton

Twinemen
Twinemen
(HI-N-DRY)
With Twinemen, surviving Morphine members Billy Conway and Dana Colley find a comfortable middle ground between sounding dynamic and fresh and sounding, well, Morphine-like. Backed by imaginative drumming and densely layered grooves of dreamy baritone sax, vocalist Laurie Sargent (Face to Face) casts her ethereal spell throughout this exceptional self-titled debut, in which trance, blues, jazz and trip-hop unite with psychedelia and evil midgets. Somewhere, Mark Sandman is smiling.-- La Briola

POP

Badly Drawn Boy
Have You Fed the Fish?
About a Boy/Original Soundtrack Recording
(XL)
It's hard to know which of these albums should be considered Damon Gough's official followup to The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, the stunning debut that brought the thoroughly British songwriter his country's Mercury Prize. Taken together, this creative diptych testifies to Gough's prolificness and talent, which leaps out of almost every verse, chorus and crafty turn of phrase. Written to accompany the thoroughly forgettable feature film of the same name, About a Boy is the stronger of the two, a loose thematic cycle that can be enjoyed for its buoyant surface elements or burrowed into for its textures. Fish displays a sensibility that is undeniably Lennonesque, right down to the vocal delivery, But influences aside, with three albums now sprung from his consciousness into ours, we can clearly see Gough for what he is: a unique stylist, a wit, a visionary producer and one of the finest songwriters we've got. -- Bond

Coldplay
A Rush of Blood to the Head
(Parlophone/Nettwerk America)
Chris Martin and company have dried their tears, snuffled their last sobs and shifted their gaze upward from their collective bellybutton to create a brilliant sophomore album, and for that we thank them. Parachutes, the band's debut, was a fine album, but A Rush of Blood trumps it through dramatically clanging openers ("Politik"), sweetly sentimental but not maudlin ballads ("In My Place") and country-fried (as much as Brits can be country-fried) goodness ("Green Eyes"). If loving these boys is wrong, being right must suck royally. -- Haupt

Deathray Davies
The Day of the Ray
(Idol)
Though the Deathray Davies formed in 1998, its tempting to lump them in with all of the other garage-rock revivalists, to whom they bear more than a passing resemblance. The key difference is that with The Day of the Ray, the Davies revel in the simple pleasure of distorted guitars, big drums and solid melodies with none of the smirky, detached aloofness of, say, the Strokes. This album abounds in clever, silly lyrics -- such as those found on the hilarious "Her First Party" ("'Everyone here sucks'/She says to me...") -- and harmonies worthy of the namesake Davies brothers. The band hooks you without making you choke on either attitude or treacle. -- Brighton

The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
(Warner Bros.)
The Flaming Lips raced for, and claimed, the prize with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by doing what seemed impossible: producing a record that rises to the mastery of 2001's The Soft Bulletin. Wayne Coyne and his often-animal-suit-cloaked bandmates -- Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins -- grapple with life, death, karate, good, evil, love and robot invaders while fusing everything from plaintive acoustic guitars to time-bending rhythmic loops. Unlike the grandiose and bombastic Bulletin, Yoshimi is understated and meditative, cerebral, emotional and ultimately optimistic. (Not to spoil it, but Yoshimi wins!) It's a pop record, yes, but it also sometimes feels like dreamscape music from another plane. How do they do it? It's all a mystery. -- Bond

Kaito
Montigola Underground
(Devil in the Woods/Future Farmer)
Pop composers from the intellectual side of the musical continuum frequently complicate their hooky arrangements, frosting them with layer upon layer of sugary goodness. But even though the members of Kaito, a quartet from Norwich, England, all appear to sport fully functioning medulla oblongatas, they take the opposite tack, cobbling together catchy songs using the most basic tools available and then bashing the hell out of them. "Sweet Allie" features cheeky drum rolls, rinky-dink riffs, nonsense rhymes and vocal "oohs" that fail to hang together in an utterly charming way; "Bow Wow" pits a rudimentary melody against screaming feedback and outer space noises; and "Go" puts chaos on wheels. The disc is sweet, but it leaves an intoxicating aftertaste. -- Roberts

Wilco
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
(Nonesuch)
After a perilous period that saw Wilco split with both Reprise Records and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, the band unveiled its most dichotomous effort to date: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot navigates the delicate balance between sonic experimentation and pop-centric accessibility, with some songs so hummable and sweet-sounding, you might not realize they've been beamed directly into your subconscious. Having distanced himself almost totally from his band's alt-country beginnings, Jeff Tweedy moves through the album with the confidence and vision of an auteur and the emotional vulnerability of a bona fide poet. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot shimmers with occasional strings, computer-generated adulations and ambient guitar swells that mirror the emotional highs -- and very, very lows -- contained in its eleven songs. Beautiful. -- Bond

ROCK

The Donnas
Spend the Night
(Atlantic)
Those who complain about the music industry's current obsession with manufacturing pop bands should remember two words: Sex Pistols. As Malcom McLaren proved, sometimes a band's origins matter less than the man behind the curtain. Whatever doctor created the Donnas wisely followed the blueprint laid by the Ramones, the Runaways and early Mötley Crüe to come up with some explosive, estrogen-fueled cock rock. Besides, on their major-label debut, the girls' musicianship blows away their earlier work: When a band rocks with this much conviction, who cares who's actually steering the juggernaut? Spend the Night is less about exploitation than it is a rock-and-roll celebration. Ultimately, these little girls understand. -- Patrick Casey

Drive-By Truckers
Southern Rock Opera
(Lost Highway Records)
Originally conceived as a feature-length screenplay, Southern Rock Opera revisits and rejuvenates classic Southern styles with a rough-edged and heartfelt sound deftly propelled by a three-guitar lineup. Recasting the Lynyrd Skynyrd fable with fictitious characters, the two-disc epic's story tracks the abrupt rise and disconcerting fall of a rock band from Alabama (like the Truckers themselves), deconstructing a few of Dixieland's social and political myths in the process. -- Peterson

Engine Down
Demure
(Lovitt)
Demure, the third album by Virginia's Engine Down, might just be the most entrancing dose of suffocation and despair you'll ever ingest. Resembling either a low-gear Fugazi or an even more overcast Sunny Day Real Estate, this emo foursome walks a tightrope between jaw-clenched tension and epic melody. Beatles-esque chord progressions are twisted into knots of hummable dissonance, while intricate rhythms lurch and churn underneath. On "Closed Call," singer Keely Davis's brittle tenor duets with his sister Maura's airy bel canto; the harmonies hover above a droning swirl of minor-key arpeggios and piano. If the guys in Coldplay had grown up listening to Superchunk instead of Sting, their music might have ended up sounding half as good as this. -- Heller

Bryan Ferry
Frantic
(Virgin)
Once and future Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry brilliantly recaptures his crooner crown with this blues-rock opus. All of the tracks are lean, beautifully crafted pop songs of girth and substance that never forget the hooks. After years of covering other people's compositions, the rock star is in fine form on Frantic. -- Lemieux

The Hellacopters
High Visibility
(Gearhead)
The Hellacopters were Swedish rockers before Swedish rockers were cool. Super Shitty to the Max!, the first of the band's recordings to reach these shores, arrived in 1998, and plenty of others preceded High Visibility, a title that may have been intended ironically but is now semi-appropriate. Nick Royale and his fellows make music that's more American-sounding than CDs by many homegrown groups, lashing together wailing guitars, throat-straining vocals, lyrics that glory in their lack of profundity (e.g., "Truckloads of Nothin'") and the sort of balls-out enthusiasm that's more infectious than smallpox. Think too hard about this stuff and it'll never get off the pad. Surrender to it and the Hellacopters will take you on a flight to remember. -- Roberts

Jucifer
I Name You Destroyer
(Velocette)
Jucifer guitarist Amber Valentine plays through a serious wall of sound, a rig that includes bass heads and cabinets as well as guitar amps. This makes for a sludgy sound that borders on the demonic, especially when combined with Ed Livengood's alternately crazed and elegant drumming. By layering Valentine's atmospheric vocals atop seething musical fury -- and mixing up psychotic, ranting screechers and more nuanced songs -- Destroyer shows that this husband-wife duo has an ear for arrangement as well as thrash. -- Brighton

Promise Ring
Wood/Water
(Anti-)
Davey Von Bohlen and friends took a promising left turn with this album, a sharp, witty effort that straddles the line between the emo stridency of earlier Promise Ring and Von Bohlen's more lo-fi side project, Vermont. The record combines bright, jangling guitars, smart, honest lyrics and high energy with texture and finesse, laying out a hopeful path for future growth. Unfortunately, Wood/Water is the band's last, as Promise Ring announced its dissolution in the fall. And while purists might quibble with the direction Von Bohlen was steering things, Wood/Water is a worthy swan song for an exuberant, inventive act. -- Brighton

The Pupils
The Pupils
(Dischord)
Singer Daniel Higgs and guitarist Asa Osborne have been playing together since 1984 in the Baltimore outfits Reptile House and Lungfish; with their side project the Pupils, the two have boiled down their ominous post-punk-folk until only the skeleton remains. Higgs's eerie, tortured howls are driven like slivers under a brittle shell of droning guitars and tape loops. His lyrics, as always, conjure cryptic poetic images of anatomy, philosophy and even the Savior himself ("You're a carnivorous tree/A cyclopean star/You're a plesiosaur/O Jesus Christ"). Reference points are few and far between: Alan Lomax's Appalachian field recordings, later Swell Maps, the gothic Americana of early REM. Ultimately, though, the Pupils' primal, hypnotic sound is entirely their own. -- Heller

Queens of the Stone Age
Songs for the Deaf
(Interscope Records)
Queens of the Stone Age live up to the hype with this thinking man's stoner-rock record, lampooning the sameness of corporate FM and rocking your socks off in one fell swoop. Fusing together industrial-strength riffs, subversive lyrics and Dave Grohl's hyper-kinetic drumming (making one wonder why he ever picked up a guitar), Songs for the Deaf slowly grows on ears of all kinds. The methodically cynical "Just Another Love Song" is a standout, at once catchy and harsh. -- Peterson

Rocket From the Tombs
The Day the Earth Met the Rocket From the Tombs
(Smog Veil)
Overshadowing the historical importance of Rocket From the Tombs --whose newly stumbled-upon primal expression briefly christened Cleveland as ground zero for the punk movement in 1974, squeaking in front of the Sex Pistols' 1975 formation by a bloody hair -- are two better-known groups that emerged from its sudden demise: Pere Ubu and the Dead Boys. Credit guitarist Peter Laughner, the last of a dead breed, for first romanticizing nihilism in the American rust belt, as captured in these muddy-sounding rehearsal tapes. Like Petey once sang: "Ain't it fun when your friends despise what you've become?" -- La Briola

Sing-Sing
The Joy of Sing-Sing
(Manifesto)
From the ashes of Lush rises Sing-Sing, a slinky female duo featuring Lisa O'Neill on vocals and Emma Anderson on guitar. The two brainy British gals have crafted languid electro-pop that's utterly feminine without being too pink or cutesy. On The Joy of Sing-Sing, O'Neill and Anderson utilize deep, deep bass lines, horn and chiming harmonies to accentuate their tales of the party life and romantic odes to all-girl weekends in the sun. Sadly under the radar, but definitely worth a look. -- Haupt

Spoon
Kill the Moonlight
(Merge)
Spoon, Austin's musical hometown heroes (second only to Stevie Ray Vaughan) are finally overnight sensations after a dozen or so years in the trenches. In fact, the group recently taped an episode of Austin City Limits, an honor not often afforded to quirky pop-rockers. Kill the Moonlight is chock-full of singer-songwriter Britt Daniel's wry wit, bald sentimentalism and beautiful, emotive instrumentals. Everyone's favorite, beatboxing, is even featured on one of the coolest songs on the record, "Stay, Don't Go." -- Haupt

Ugly Casanova
Sharpen Your Teeth
(Sub Pop)
Ugly Casanova is the creepy alter ego of Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, a doppelgänger capable of surprising breadth and depth, as evidenced on Sharpen Your Teeth. While some may call the outing self-indulgent -- then again, the whole purpose of a side project is to meet creative needs that a band can't fulfill -- the record ventures into territory that flirts with the kind of twisted genius one associates with Tom Waits (only with more bad swears). The instrumentation blends Brock's unmistakable guitar with gently clanging rhythm lines, banjo, synthesizers and a saw (on "Smoke Like Ribbons"), which go nicely with the poignant lyricism about loving and losing, as well as being born in mashed potatoes and discovering "cum on the piano." -- Haupt

The Warlocks
Phoenix Album
(Birdman)
One of the great things about druggy music is that it can serve as a substitute for drugs, providing listeners with mind-expanding experiences that don't require any midnight rendezvous with dealers. That's especially true in this case, since the Warlocks deliver a double dose of Velvety ingredients. Understanding that there can never be too much of a good thing, the band uses three guitarists and two drummers on songs such as the wonderfully counterintuitive "Shake the Dope Out" and "Cosmic Letdown," which is anything but. Sure, there's a retro feel to "Stone Hearts" and the throbbing "Stickman Blues," but that's part of the fun. Phoenix Album is a strange trip that can be taken again and again without side effects. -- Roberts

SINGER/SONGWRITER

Tori Amos
Scarlet's Walk
(Epic)
Everyone's favorite piano-bench floozy emerges from post-Strange Little Girls hiding to take listeners on a Kerouac-style journey across these United States, narrated by the titular Scarlet (a thinly veiled representation of Amos). It starts in the West and ends up in devastated New York City (all right, already, with the 9/11 songs, people). Scarlet's Walk documents Amos's musical maturation and is also her most ambitious lyrical work to date. Yet Scarlet's stories are complemented by gorgeous if fairly straightforward and accessible instrumentation. This time, Amos's journey is worth taking. -- Haupt

Beck
Sea Change
(Geffen/Interscope)
Breaking up with his longtime girlfriend probably wasn't very much fun for Beck. But there was a happy outgrowth of that turn of emotional events: It forced him to to dig in and produce a recording that eschews the conceptual noise of his previous work. After years of albums addled by all the studio toasting devices his mellow gold could buy, it was easy for listeners forget that, deep down, the guy can sing. And play guitar. And though there's sometimes a same-samey quality to the tone here, we found out Beck is capable of writing lyrics full of intimacy, pain, loneliness and hope -- and not just quixotic non sequiturs. And with Sea Change, he may singlehandedly usher in the return of the glockenspiel to popular music. Which is perhaps reason enough to declare that Change is good. -- Bond

Franklin Bruno
A Cat May Look at a Queen
(Absolutely Kosher)
Franklin Bruno looks more like a professor than a rock star, for an excellent reason: He's spent much of his time as a philosophy student and teacher. But he's also a music journalist of some renown, having written for publications such as the L.A. Weekly and the Village Voice, and a songwriter gifted enough to have inspired Tsunami's Jenny Toomey to devote an entire disc to his oeuvre (Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno, released in October). Cat May Look is a nice introduction to Bruno's work, which is witty, self-deprecating and marvelously verbose. "Will you take this true companion over all these hangers-on?" he asks amid the typically charming "Dashboard Issues." If the answer isn't "Yes," it should be. -- Roberts

Richard Buckner
Impasse
(Overcoat)
On Impasse, his first release of all-new music in four years, Richard Buckner gathers up his demons and pounds them into submission. Somewhere between alt and country, Impasse finds Buckner mining the sad-eyed territory he's traversed so often. This time, though, he sounds a little more balanced than he has on past efforts. He still commiserates in a tortured, raspy voice, but his mania feels slightly less desperate; the depths of despair are not so cavernous as before. Could it be that he's starting to enjoy his songwriting, just like his fans do? -- Brighton

Seana Carmody
Struts and Shocks
(Kimchee)
With her atmospheric solo debut, Swirlies founding girlie Seana Carmody combines focused songwriting and a casually aggressive demeanor for alterna-pop that avoids the shoegazer label. With distinctly sweet melodies, catchy choruses and a fragile, sleepy voice, Boston's best-kept secret hasn't quite matched Kim Deal or Kristin Hersh. But she's off to an impressive enough start that a fella can only dream of what's around the corner. -- La Briola

Ani DiFranco
So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter
(Righteous Babe)
More often than not, live albums are contract fillers that take advantage of fans by making them purchase generally inferior versions of songs they already own. But DiFranco is a performer known for giving her audiences their money's worth, and this approach extends to So Much Shouting/So Much Laughter, a two-disc package sprawling enough to capture even more facets of her persona than her previous in-concert offering, 1997's Living in Clip. Accompanied by a lineup that includes reed expert Hans Teuber and three trumpeters, DiFranco manages to crawl deep inside many of her best compositions even as she's communing with worshipful crowds who become supplementary members of her band. More important than the shouting and laughter, there's so much exceptional music. -- Roberts

Beth Orton
Daybreaker
(Astralwerks)
Beth Orton has traded in her spacey, electro-folk vibe for a stint as a singer-songwriter, relying more heavily than ever on her acoustic guitar. Consequently, the innovative instrumentation on Daybreaker is more emotive and less alienating than Orton's excellent debut, Trailer Park. Plus, this record boasts the guest vocalizations of Ryan "Don't Call Me Bryan" Adams and Emmylou Harris, which reflects Orton's sometimes country-mouse sound. All in all, this is a more eclectic and sadder record than her previous two -- which is, in a way, a happy development. -- Haupt

John Vanderslice
Life and Death of an American Fourtracker
(Barsuk)
Having ingested heroic doses of solitude on two back-to-back solo albums, John Vanderslice makes twisted concept albums respectable once again. Ignoring satellite transmissions from the North Pole this go-round, Johnny finds himself holding impromptu seances for William Blake, writing a musical treatise for basement living and dealing with more heartache than Aladdin Sane ever dreamed possible. Armed with nothing but his Tascam 424, a box of TDKs and a head packed to capacity with songs and insomnia, Vanderslice enlists members of Beulah, Spoon and Death Cab for Cutie for this brilliant Bay Area-based bouillabaisse. -- La Briola

Tom Waits
Blood Money
(Epitaph)
One of two first-rate 2002 releases by the sandpaper-throated sage, Blood Money transports listeners to a world oddly familiar to Waits fans, an unkempt, old-continent carnival where sin, salvation and the apocalypse are each a stone's throw away. Not as easily navigated as Alice (Waits's other release of the last year -- both were originally soundtracks for collaborations with avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson), this record rewards the patient, dredging deeper and deeper into its creator's irregular worldview with every play. -- Peterson

Chuck E. Weiss
Old Souls & Wolf Tickets
(Rykodisc)
Onetime Denverite Weiss hits the mark with his second album since 1981 (after 1999's Extremely Cool), merging down-home boogie-woogie and uptown jazz with a slacker's sensibility. Bouncing between the greaser nostalgia of "Two-Tone Car," the spoken word and rock rumble of "Jolie's Nightmare" and the snaky funk of "Sneaky Jesus," Chuck E. demonstrates a singular unwillingness to paint himself into any particular stylistic corner. -- Peterson

Thalia Zedek
You're a Big Girl Now
(Kimchee)
After a prolonged absence fronting murky blues-noise collectives like Dangerous Birds, Come, Live Skull and Uzi, the charismatically somber Thalia Zedek returns with half a dozen world-weary tunes. Lumbering rhythms, Spartan pianos and mournful strings accompany raw, deep vocals through songs of lost love and redemption -- including covers of Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. It's all so bleak, it positively sparkles! -- La Briola

TRIBUTES/REISSUES

Roy Acuff
The Voice of Country Music/Songs of the Smoky Mountains/The Great Roy Acuff
(Dualtone)
Although Acuff was known as "The King of Country Music," some historians seem to believe that his achievements as Grand Ole Opry host and canny businessman (he co-founded Acuff-Rose Publishing) outdistance his accomplishments as a performer. But a trio of Acuff reissues serves as a reminder that he was a terrific stylist. The Voice of Country Music collects a dozen prime slabs of his '50s material, proving along the way that he was as adept at secular honky-tonk as he was at the gospel-tinged efforts with which he made his name; Songs of the Smoky Mountains contains an appealing version of "The Great Speckled Bird," his first real smash; and The Great Roy Acuff is sentimental in the great C&W tradition he helped establish. -- Roberts

Articles of Faith
Complete Vol. 1 1981-1983
Complete Vol. 2 1983-1985
(Alternative Tentacles)
Credit Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles imprint for putting the music of Articles of Faith back into circulation. AOF's outspoken leader Vic Bondi injected left-wing politics and practices into the nascent Chicago hardcore scene, organizing collectively run all-ages shows and playing benefits for various social causes. The band's songs are a reflection of this methodology: They were enraged, rapid-fire indictments of hypocrisy and injustice, as articulate, cerebral and technically advanced as hardcore ever got. Songs like "Every Man for Himself," with its 5/4 time, octaves chords, broad dynamics and introspective lyrics, embodied "emo" well before Rites of Spring ostensibly invented the genre in 1985. These two volumes, complete with bonus tracks and extensive notes by Bondi, are a must for anyone with even a passing interest in punk rock. -- Heller

The Band
The Last Waltz
(Warner Bros./Rhino)
The Band's 1976 "farewell" concert at San Francisco's Winterland Arena was an extravagant affair, complete with turkey dinners for the show's 5,000 audience members and an all-star group of guest musicians. With more than four hours of music -- including sixteen previously unreleased concert tracks, five songs from the show's rehearsal, and several heretofore unheard studio numbers -- the four-CD reissue of The Last Waltz is also a bit excessive. (Two lengthy guitar jams featuring Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Ron Wood and Stephen Stills were best left in the vaults.) Still, the Band produced some of rock's most enduring music, and much of it is here. -- Hill

Johnny Cash
Orange Blossom Special
(Columbia/Legacy)
Johnny Cash is among the most iconic figures in American music to still reside above ground, and to celebrate his seventieth birthday, Columbia/Legacy reissued a slew of his original albums complete with bonus tracks, pristine sound, new liner notes and packaging that befits his accomplishments. Orange Blossom Special, cut in 1964 and featuring the indelible title track and inspired covers of "The Long Black Veil" and Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe," is a highlight of the series, but it's hardly the only one. The Fabulous Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West and many others are first-rate efforts from a man (in black) whose contributions to country, rock and folk are damn near immeasurable. -- Roberts

Danielson Famille
A Prayer for Every Hour
(Tooth & Nail/Secretely Canadian)
A Prayer for Every Hour is the kind of album that record store clerks put on when it's time to clear out the customers and close up shop. Family leader Daniel Smith's voice is not what you'd call soothing: It's a nasally twinged falsetto peppered with odd inflections and the occasional shriek. But get beyond the initial impulse to run from this recording and you discover a strangely delightful work of "outsider" art, a cut-and-paste carnival of tinker-toy instrumentation and celebratory tunage. Conceived by Daniel while a student at Rutgers University and issued on Tooth & Nail in 1996, A Prayer for Every Hour finds the Danielson clan, armed with bells and whistles, exploring their Christian faith in a way that's totally outside popular conceptions of "religious" music. The album was rereleased on Secretly Canadian this year, and for this you can thank the higher power of your choice. -- Bond

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Will The Circle Be Unbroken
(Capitol)
This landmark 1972 album has long been available on compact disc, but with substandard sound quality and truncated liner notes. Gloriously restored in honor of its thirtieth anniversary, with four bonus tracks, Will the Circle Be Unbroken is a must-have recording. The album -- an unlikely collaboration between a group of long-haired California musicians and some of Nashville's most venerated performers, including Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs -- introduced a whole new generation of fans to the joys of traditional country music. It also helped break down some of the barriers that existed between hippies and rednecks. Music, they discovered, was common ground. -- Hill

Various Artists
Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash
(Dualtone)
Dressed in Black is one of those rare tribute albums that don't necessarily make you want to go back and listen to the originals; these covers are that good. Featuring a number of left-of-center performers -- including Hank Williams III, Robbie Fulks, the Rev. Horton Heat, Dale Watson, Rosie Flores, Chris Knight and former Denverite Kenny Vaughan -- the album is as much a tribute to Sun Records owner Sam Phillips as it is to Cash. Most of the songs come from Cash's amphetamine-fueled days at Sun, which gives the album a distinct, echo-heavy rockabilly flavor. It's raw, a little rough around the edges and utterly beguiling -- just like Cash himself. -- Hill

Various Artists
Nothing to Lose: A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson
(Incidental Music)
Kris Kristofferson's compositions have been recorded by over 500 artists, a number sure to increase due to this well-deserved and beautiful tribute album by seventeen of today's most authentically idiosyncratic musicians. Honoring the Rhodes-scholar-turned-helicopter-pilot-turned-potent-country-songwriter is a new generation of unlikely outsiders that includes the Handsome Family ("Sunday Morning Coming Down"), Calexico ("Casey's Last Ride") and Zmrzlina ("Me & Bobby McGee"). Rootsy and sophisticated, this fresh, re-evaluated material blows the trumpet for America's often overlooked king of cowboy cool. -- La Briola

Various Artists
Total Lee!: The Songs of Lee Hazelwood
(Astralwerks)
The traditionally electronic-affiliated Astral-werks label seems an unlikely source for a tribute to the somewhat unsung songwriter/producer Lee Hazelwood, who's best known for penning "These Boots Are Made for Walking" for Frank's daughter. But it all makes sense when you consider how Hazelwood's influence has splintered and influenced contemporary artists of every stripe, from Beat Happening/Dub Narcotic's Calvin Johnson -- who pays homage on a characteristically down-tempo reading of "Sand" -- to Kid Loco ("If It's Monday Morning") and song scribe Johnny Dowd, who breathes quirky life into "Sleep in the Grass." The collection saunters rather than sprints along, with twangy guitars, cinematic lyrics and loving interpretations of Hazelwood's enigmatic ouevre. -- Bond

The Who
My Generation: Deluxe Edition
(MCA/Universal)
From the first chord of the first song of its first album, the Who's sound was distinct and unmistakable. "Out in the Street" opens 1965's My Generation, and its ripped-to-shit approximation of American R&B is still clearly evident in each jagged chord and pummeled snare. From the clear-eyed pop of "La-La-La Lies" to the savagery of the ubiquitous title track, this British Invasion masterpiece has been tied up in red tape (it's a legal matter, baby) for 35 years; producer Shel Talmy, also famous for his work on the early Kinks oeuvre, has remixed the album using the original master tapes and vintage analogue equipment, enhancing its raw sound with warmth and immediacy. Included on the bonus disc are the original, shelved sessions for My Generation, featuring credible covers of soul hits like Martha Reeves's "Heat Wave" and Garnet Mimms's "Anytime You Want Me" as well as alternate, instrumental and a cappella outtakes. Rounded out by "I Can't Explain," the group's indelible debut single, and a book packed with essays and rare photos, My Generation now stands to re-enter the rock canon as a truly quintessential work. -- Heller

Townes Van Zandt
Live at the Old Quarter
(Tomato)
On his best album, the late Townes Van Zandt sings of love and loss in a world-weary voice that begs you to pay close attention. After apologizing for the club's broken air conditioner, he kicks things off with a stirring version of "Pancho and Lefty," perhaps his most famous song. But that's just one gem among many: the longing "If I Needed You," the fatalistic "Don't You Take It Too Bad," the bleak "Kathleen," the bitter "Tower Song" and the touching "Tecumseh Valley." Unlike his studio albums, which often suffer from overly busy arrangements, Live at the Old Quarter finds Van Zandt performing solo and acoustic, which only makes his emotionally honest music all the more powerful. -- Hill

WORLD

Bounty Killer
Ghetto Dictionary: The Art of War
Ghetto Dictionary: The Mystery
(VP)
Conceived as a double CD, this ambitious project from one of Jamaica's premier dancehall artists gives listeners a glimpse into the bloody, village ghettoland of Kingston, Jamaica. Having grown up in some of Kingston's most notorious neighborhoods, Bounty Killer minces no words when it comes to tales of gunplay. (At the age of twelve, BK -- then known as Rodney Price -- barely survived two bullet wounds to his ribs and neck.) Every track on The Art of War is a lyrical minefield littered with fatalistic tales of war and bloodbaths. Because of the diversity of its subject matter, The Mystery is the stronger of the two discs: Tracks like "Sufferah"(featuring Wayne Marshall), "Gunz in the Ghetto (with Morgan Heritage) and the heartfelt "Pot of Gold" (with Richie Stephens) brutally reflect on the impoverished conditions of ghetto life. -- Mayo

Bhagavan Das
Now
(Razor and Tie)
Born Michael Riggs in Laguna Beach, California, aesthetic holy man Bhagavan Das once said that "singing and chanting the divine mantras repeatedly creates a heightened ecstasy that leaves the mind behind and brings pure stillness of the heart." Attempting to do just that, Das teams up with producer Mike D of the Beastie Boys for a tasteful combination of Indian classical instruments (tabla, dholak) and Western drum-and-bass rhythms. Even slick production doesn't overshadow the passion behind Now's lengthy, trance-inducing, sonic meditations on Krishna, Shiva, Ganesha and that li'l monkey god, Hanuman. -- La Briola

Nati Cano's Mariachi Los Camperos
¡Viva el Mariachi!
(Smithsonian Folkways)
In addition to shaping mariachi music on their own terms, Los Angelitos Campos and the Camperos have distinguished themselves by backing up Linda Ronstadt in live performances and on her album Canciones de Mi Padre. Cano, who has lived in California for decades, is considered to be the patriarch of mariachi music in North America. Bound through the sagebrush on your trusty steed to the backdrop of classics such as "Tequila con Limón" and "Que Te Vas, Te Vas." More mariachi than you can shake a gourd at. -- Hutchinson

Kodo
Mondo Head
(Red Ink)
Having collaborated with everyone from Brazilian thrash-metalers Sepultura to DJs Strobe and Krush, taiko Japanese drumming group Kodo has always been open to experimentation. And though Mondo Head was produced by a real live Deadhead, Mickey Hart adhered to Kodo's traditional Asian aesthetic, which involves a concise and disciplined musical approach, when shaping the disc. Hart did bring some new tricks to the mix: Kodo's monastic dedication to rhythm was spiced up with some much needed melody, along with just a touch of jam-band improvisation. These elements helped to finally capture Kodo's musical explosion of energy and spirituality previously present only in its breathtaking live shows. -- Casey

Lumin
Hadra
(World Class)
Lumin creates ancient folk music birthed from the womb of a laptop. Hadra highlights Lumin's virtuosity on organic musical instruments -- those that don't emit gamma rays -- while still managing to show an egghead's dedication to breakbeats and trance grooves. Irina Mikhailova, the only human voice heard in the group, succeeds in carefully dancing around the landmines of new-age and Enya associations. With Hadra, Lumin displays beautifully the sensual sounds that can result when two disparate worlds gracefully collide. -- Casey

Manu Chao
The Live Album
(Virgin)
Born in Paris to Spanish parents, Manu Chao has been clashing cultures since he vacated the womb, and his love affair with all-worldly music blossomed anew on his three previous tri-lingual recordings. On The Live Album, culled from the final date of a crosscontinental tour that ended in Japan, Chao leads a ten-person band through a performance that touches on everything from flamenco to Euro-rock and every musical meridian in between. Each of the players was plucked from a different country, which only adds to the authenticity of the global-a-go-go vibe. Clearly, Chao's got the whole world in his hands. -- Bond

Estrella Morente
My Songs and a Poem
(Real World)
Flamenco music has been used for countless sequences in cheesy Hollywood films, which tend to reduce the form to energetic guitar strumming, stomping feet and steamy expressions. But flamenco has much more to offer, as Estrella Morente reveals with this live showcase. "Cockles," the opener, is seemingly typical fare, in that it incorporates rhythmic hand claps and lyrics of naked passion; one couplet translates as "Come with me and you will be/Captain of my ship." But Morente's singing, at once pristine and feral, speaks to emotional depths that are explored more fully during the ardent "At the Top of the Cerro de Palomares," a keening ballad called "Alcazaba" and the appropriately titled "Why Do you Deny the Frenzy?" Good question. -- Roberts

Ustad Mohammad Omar
Virtuoso From Afghanistan
(Smithsonian Folkways)
Ustad Mohammad Omar, Afghanistan's finest rabab (short-necked lute) player, teams with legendary tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain (perhaps best known for his work with drummer Mickey Hart) on this recording, which captures the magic of two dervishes as they whirl through the tweaky tonal territory known as Eastern music. With their instrumental help, "the soul goes dancing through the king's doorway," to quote a 700-year-old Persian poem. -- Hutchinson

Niamh Parsons
Heart's Desire
(Green Linnet)
Identifying artists by genre is convenient, easy and fun, but it also sends the message that certain performers will appeal only to select groups, which limits their potential audience. Parsons finds herself in just such a conundrum. A note on Heart's Desire -- "File under: Celtic/Ireland" -- sets up a range of preconceptions about melody, arrangement and green ale. But while Parsons sings with an unmistakable lilt, her voice is more than strong enough to transcend categorization or country of origin, and Dennis Cahill's production is so spare as to be practically invisible. "My Lagan Love," rendered in a cappella fashion, the jaunty "A Kiss in the Morning Early" and the lovely, complex "Syracuse" should be classified only as beautiful. -- Roberts


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