By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
1. Refried Ectoplasm (Drag City) and Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center (Duophonic, import), Stereolab. A collection of stray singles, revamped tracks, and unreleased treats, Refried Ectoplasm makes a more instant impact than any previous Stereolab offering, highlighting the dead-on pop sensibility usually obscured by the enlightened drone of their full-lengthers. The extraordinary "Lo Boob Oscillator," a spry 21st-century ditty on which blurts of organ and guitar perfectly punctuate Laetitia Sadier's oh-so-elegant French vocals, shows Stereolab at its catchiest. Music for the Amorphous Body Center, a soundtrack for an exhibit of contemporary artist Charles Long's work, finds Stereolab going lighter and brighter.
2. Me Hungry, King Kong (Drag City). The concept is inspired: Me Hungry is a nine-track Stone Age soap opera starring a caveman, his jilted yak lover, saber-toothed tigers, and beastly bears. Billed in the credits as "caveman" and "narrator," respectively, vocalists Ethan Buckler and Amy Greenwood do a flawless job of blending gruff Neanderthal philosophy and deadpan storytelling. When he breaks up with his yak on "Teardrop," the caveman growls sensitively, "I'm a man/You're a yak/Understand a fact's a fact"; then the narrator croons, "A teardrop comes to her eye/And the yak she started to cry."
3. Get Lost, The Magnetic Fields (Merge). His 1994 major-label foray as The 6ths boasted a line-up of indie-pop guest stars, but Stephin Merritt saves his best songs for himself. Most obvious case in point: "All the Umbrellas in London" finds beauty in despair as Merritt tries to drown out his sorrows in rich synth-pop. He goes globe-trotting, from London to New York to Tokyo, to escape his pain, but finds he can never get away from it because he's his own misery.
4. Bet the Sky, Lois (K Records). On Bet the Sky, Lois Maffeo gets her folkie-by-way-of-riot-grrrl schtick down pat. Lois' latest is her most vivid, vibrant work. Here she turns intimate feeling into something palpable whether she's cooing about static in a long-distance relationship ("Transatlantic Phone Call") or strutting around town as the Atomic Fireball Queen ("Flamer").
(Tie) 5. Vee Vee, Archers of Loaf (Alias) and Here's Where the Strings Come In, Superchunk (Merge). White-boy whiney punk's been done to death, but half of both these records would result in one great disc. Even if they sound familiar, Vee Vee's standout cuts bristle with a sense of urgency and spontaneity; and the best of Superchunk's latest batch are the ones that stick to the band's formula, most of which pogo even while standing in place.