Parker right there

When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts...
Fiona Apple
Clean Slate/Epic Records

The second installment of Apple's engaging brand of White Girl Angst. Fueled by longing, acrimony, and regret, Apple vocalizes what most of us only dream of unleashing on our exes. Though her debut, Tidal, expressed some of the same sentiment, her singing on Pawn is the most impassioned yet. She sings louder, almost growling lines such as, "So put away that meat you're selling / Cuz I do know what's good for me / And I've done what I could for you," on "Get Gone." Each track is swollen, nearly bursting with bitterness and disillusionment. Apple's soulful, ripe-beyond-her-years voice, the lyrical catharsis, and the off-kilter accompaniment to her spirited piano-playing puts Pawn in a league of its own.

Midnite Vultures
Beck
Interscope-Geffen Records

Who would've guessed that Beck's follow-up to Mutations would find this skinny, white, moppish artist masquerading as a sexy soul daddy? The entire theme is hilarious and engaging. The pairing of James Brown horns with bluegrass banjo and Beck's newfound falsetto (a la Prince) with funky break beats is just plain brilliant. Favorite lyric: "Your home girl's on the line / But your daddy's off the hook." Exactly.

Social Dancing
Bis
Grand Royal/Capitol Records

This is a surprisingly mature, well-produced set of punky, disco-tinged pop anthems from the love-'em-or-hate-'em Scottish trio. Social Dancing is more polished than any previous efforts, but sacrifices none of the kinetic DIY spirit that characterizes the band. It's especially on tracks such as the stunning electro-punk "Am I Loud Enough?" that Bis prove too pure to be pop saviors. These songs buzz, crackle, and pop with such spirited energy that resistance to dancing is futile.

13
Blur
Virgin Records

A sloppy, self-indulgent, and painfully introspective documentation of a breakup; thank goodness for musicians with such sad love lives. While Spiritualized's Ladies & Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space was like a page out of J. Spaceman's diary, 13 is less obvious, but just as emotionally potent. Eschewing the Anglophile tales of the English working-class for which the group was once so famous, Blur plays at moody dirges and, in some places, sounds like Radiohead scoring The X-Files. From the album's pew-stomping gospel opener, "Tender," to the depressing, but simply perfect "No Distance Left to Run," Damon Albarn and company have constructed the most feel-good album to feel bad to.

Stereo-Type A
Cibo Matto
Warner Bros. Records

The smartest pop album this year. In contrast with the album title, this collection of songs defies pigeonholing. Hip-hop in the hands of two Japanese women never sounded so fresh. Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda have reinvented the genre and added bits of savvy sampling, R&B, and bossa nova into the mix. Smooth, punchy, irresistible.

Luxury
Fantastic Plastic Machine
Emperor Norton

Luxury is the perfect soundtrack to a summer party -- if the party had one foot in 1960s Brazil and the other in Japan in 2000. FPM is basically just one fat Japanese guy, Tomoyuki Tanaka, with a gift for sampling and composing dancey, eccentric electronic music. The album's "Theme of Luxury" is like a spastic, souped-up version of The Price is Right theme -- proof that the neo-bossa nova movement (ironic, isn't it?) still has room to grow.

The Soft Bulletin
The Flaming Lips
Warner Bros.

With a sound all its own, The Soft Bulletin is that rare gem of an album -- enchanting, anomalous, inspiring -- that doesn't seem to belong in this year, much less this decade. Sure, the Flaming Lips have always been weird, but now they're weird and accomplished, having produced a robust yet intricate work on which Wayne Coyne contemplates love, loss, and hope.

Darkdancer
Les Rythmes Digitales
Astralwerks

Admittedly, this is a cheesy dance album -- made conclusive by the fact that the artist thanks Toni & Guy in the liner notes. Darkdancer is an unabashed homage to '80s synth pop, not out of step with New Order, early Depeche Mode, or even Kraftwerk. LRD is actually just the young, French-born Jacques Lu Cont, who made his musical debut from the mental institution to which he was committed at age 15. Seriously.

Black Foliage
Olivia Tremor Control
Flydaddy Records

The sophomore effort from Olivia Tremor Control (another 27-tracker) contains more hummable pop hooks than before, but just as many random moments of musical spontaneous combustion. The Olivias still evoke The Byrds and The Beatles, but have clearly found their own variation of the Elephant 6 affinity for '60s Brit-pop. Imagine your high school marching band on drugs and joined by a baroque quartet, and you've got only half a sense of the Olivia's creative eccentricity.

Pick Up
Solex
Matador Records

Solex is just one woman from Amsterdam: the inventive Elisabeth Esselink. Combining whimsical samples with odd percussion and kittenish vocals, Esselink sings bizarre, fragmented narratives made more endearing by her broken English. The best tracks ("That's what you get with people like that on cruises like these" and "Chris the birthday boy") are warm, animated lullabies.

 
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