By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
4. Sue Garner, To Run More Smoothly (Thrill Jockey)
In her band--and what now sounds like her other life--Garner is a city sophisticate, the bassist and singer for the convoluted New York avant-pop group Run On. But on her debut solo effort, Garner is a country girl making time as a townie, a woman from Georgia pining for the country while looking at flowers on a windowsill. Delicate, personal, and full of wonder.
5. PJ Harvey, Is This Desire? (Island)
"There was trouble, taking place." Something about that line, from "The Garden," captures Harvey's icy distance and the cold detachment of her fourth proper record. (That John Parish thing was a John Parish thing.) If To Bring You My Love completed a trilogy about women, sex, and PJ Harvey--incidentally inverting gender roles in the process--then Is This Desire? gets to the inherent messiness before and after sex, the loneliness, the abuse, and--what else?--the desire. This time, however, the record stars other women, with names like Angelene, Catherine, Leah, Elise, and Joy. The interesting question is whether Harvey is channeling them or they are channeling Harvey.
6. Cornelius, Fantasma (Matador)
Actually released last year in Japan, where Cornelius is some sort of teen idol, Matador made Fantasma available this year for those of us who can barely afford $14.99 at Blockbuster Music, much less $30 for an import. I thought I'd never say this again, especially in a year that saw the release of Liz Phair's godawfuldisappointment whitechocolatespaceegg, but praise be to Matador. Recorded with futuristic 3-D mikes in high-tech Japanese studios, and surfing from My Bloody Valentine to Pet Sounds, from Cheap Trick to Aphex Twin, Fantasma is an audiophile's choicest headphones, a bubble-gum popster's Hubba Bubba. And the best track features Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney from the Apples in Stereo. Wheee!
7. Tom Ze, Fabrication Defect (Luaka Bop)
A manifesto, in miniature, from "Esthetics of Plagiarism," in the liner notes of Brazilian Tom Ze's bizarre and unwieldy Fabrication Defect: "The esthetic of the fabrication defect will re-utilize the sonorous civilized trash (everyday symphony), be they conventional or unconventional instruments...It will recycle an alphabet of emotions contained in songs and musical symbols of the first world that sealed each marked step of our affective and emotional life." (Sounds like Beck has a Brazilian grandfather.)
8. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)
Better, and even more poetic, than the title.
9. The Push Kings, Far Places (Sealed Fate); and The Aislers Set, Terrible Things Happen (Slumberland Records)
The Push Kings--all major chords and bright vocal bursts--sound like what the Beatles might have if all four lads were named Paul. The Aislers Set conversely drone on in odd minors with Amy Linton's sweet "After Hours" voice chirping along. The Push Kings probably like sunny beaches, while the Aislers would prefer rainy days indoors. The differences are glaring, but like all twee bands, the two fraternal twins of San Francisco indie rock share the same obsession: love--sweet, bitter love.
10. the eels, electro-shock blues (DreamWorks)
As a faux-bedroom pop artist, the man called E--who used to record bad dance music with an outfit he called Man Called E--has all the hardened street credibility of, say, the Wallflowers. But electro-shock blues, the eels' sophomore record, only proves that pop music means any loser can shed his past and make a masterpiece. electro-shock blues is consumed by all the serious stuff: insanity, alienation, suicide, and ultimately death. But more than that, the album is about what becomes of those of us who have to live through the fallout when those things happen to other people, people we happen to love. And E makes it all sound so pretty.
What the Intern Heard
1. Komeda, What Makes It Go? (Minty Fresh)
Pop makes it go, of course. Juxtaposing Kraftwerkian electronics and saccharine strings with the Siouxsie-like vocals of Lena Karlsson, this Swedish quartet reinvents ebullient pop for the academic crowd. More hooks than a boatful of pirates.
2. Radiohead, Airbag/How Am I Driving?(Capitol)
A haunting, enigmatic collection of mini dramas that, with the exception of "Airbag," didn't make it onto OK Computer. Why not?
3. Air, Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)
A breakthrough voyage into French lounge, ambient electronic arrangements, and sedated disco rhythms. Air diffuses the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow without the irritating faux-irony of lesser composers.
4. Stereolab, Aluminum Tunes (Elektra/Duophonic)
The prolific collective sums up the last four years of its career with this sprawling rarities compilation. It includes everything from percolating pop to bossa nova to droning krautrock, all accompanied by the unmatched intertwining vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen.
5. Belle and Sebastian, The Boy with the Arab Strap (Matador)
Stuart Murdoch, the primary singer-songwriter for the revered Scottish band, manages to be soft and sharp all at once. Looking back on adolescence with nostalgia and trembling, Murdoch narrates townie tales of lascivious, lovesick, wistful youth. With his effeminate, lilting voice and droll narratives, The Boy With the Arab Strap would be one of the year's best even if it were just spoken-word.
6. R.E.M., Up (Warner Bros.)
Eschewing the overvamped rock of Monster and revisiting the more subtle melodics of Automatic for the People, R.E.M. sounds like R.E.M. again, but with enough variation and innovation to make Up a surprise and delight. Tepid vibes and humming organs render this record as warm and soft as an electric blanket, but the atmospheric guitars and punchy percussion are reason enough to get out of bed.