The weak in rock

Summer Teeth
Reprise Records

The literalists assumed these songs were about a crumbling marriage, wedding vows written on a set list to be tossed at the end of the night. Frontman Jeff Tweedy, though, insisted otherwise. He explained that songs such as "I'm Always in Love" ("Why, I wonder, is my heart full of holes") and "We're Just Friends" ("Forget the implications / Infatuations and / If love's so easy, why is it hard?") and "Via Chicago" ("I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt all right to me") were but the product of too much reading and so much loving. Either way, the results were thrilling and chilling -- one man's heart beating to perfect, polished pet sounds.


The Chemical Brothers

No reason to argue: Even Public Enemy couldn't top Fear of a Black Planet. Not that they tried too hard.
No reason to argue: Even Public Enemy couldn't top Fear of a Black Planet. Not that they tried too hard.

Now that techno's been absorbed by a pop culture that turns every revolution into a Volkswagen commercial, the leaders of the new school pause long enough to look backward even while sprinting ahead. Moby's use of field recordings and other eclectic errata made the grave-robbing Play the best old new record of the year; turns out there's still a little life left in the cut-out cemetery after all. And the Chems' third full-length disc subs out the block-rockin' for some head-noddin'. "Let Forever Be" provides the best Oasis single of the year; "Out of Control" is the best New Order sampler ever released; and the rest of the disc actually feels warm to the touch. See, kids, it's still all about the songs.

The Hot Rock
Kill Rock Stars

I said I'd put it on my list at the end of last year, so here it is -- though, truth be told, I'd rather listen to Dig Me Out, which has better songs (e.g., "Words and Guitars"). Or maybe it's just a matter of avoiding the issue: Where its predecessor was catchy and kinda cute, The Hot Rock's a real fucking mess -- a cry for help by three women who wouldn't take it if you offered. It's like stepping on broken glass for 41 minutes and 32 seconds.

Mule Variations
Tom Waits

Another cagey vet suits up years after the farewell press conference and finds himself at the top of the game; no singles here, baby, just triples and homers. Especially "Georgia Lee," in which Waits recalls a dead girl even God forgot; and the elegiac "Take it With Me," which does indeed feel like the old days. This is what you call a brand-new best-of, even when Waits stoops a little to sing about the "Eyeball Kid."

Virgin Records

Us and Us Only
Charlatans U.K.
MCA Records

"Tender," the leadoff track from 13, posits pop as pure religion; its gospel choir alone could convert any nonbeliever. Same goes for "Impossible," the finest track on the Charlatans' finest album (imagine Oasis covering Wilco doing Dylan, if you go for that sort of thing). Both contain those tangible, imperceptible moments that transform music into emotion -- that create tears of joy, if only because you forgot all about the power of pop. You can feel those songs as they work their way from the head to the heart, their uplift so contagious all you can do is smile, nod, and repeat over and over again.

Return of the Grievous Angel
Various artists
Almo Records

More Oar
Various artists
Birdman Records

The only two tributes that matter, if only because nobody involved felt it necessary to play down to the material -- or, for that matter, lay claim to it. The Gram Parsons disc, Return of the Grievous Angel, contains the best Cowboys Junkies performance since Trinity Sessions ("Ooh Las Vegas") and the best Sheryl Crow performance since, well, ever ("Juanita," her duet with Emmylou Harris). Elvis Costello, Wilco, the Pretenders, and Lucinda Williams bring it all back home, and Beck's turn with Emmylou on "Sin City" (of course) reminds you of how deep the dude can get when he isn't playing shtick-'em-up on his own funkin'-witcha discs. Same goes for his "Halo of Gold" on the Skip Spence record, which is part Beatles, part Johnny Cash, and all heart. That Beck (or Tom Waits, or Mark Lanegan, or Jay Farrar) isn't even the best part of More Oar -- that honor would go to lead-off man Robert Plant, kept in check for the first time in years -- is the highest compliment.

Magnolia: Music from the Motion Picture
Various artists
Reprise Records

Movie's a piece of shit, a real waste of three hours and eight minutes. So let's just sum it up: Be nice to people, blah blah blah. There, done. You're better off with the soundtrack, which inspired Paul Thomas Anderson's whole sordid affair anyway; don't hold Aimee Mann (nine of the disc's 12 tracks) responsible for a filmmaker's spastic colon. The titles give it all away: "Deathly," "Nothing is Good Enough," the wrenching "Wise Up," all followed by the no-shit "Save Me." Mann still writes like Elvis Costello, only she replaces clever with direct; with her, there's no such thing as useless beauty.

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