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Here are the best-reviewed pop/rock CDs of the year

Gift Guide: Every CD that got an A in 2004

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The Beta Band
Beta Band: Ewan Spencer

Pop/Rock

Aberfeldy Young Forever Grade: A-

Bjork Medulla Grade: A

Black Keys Rubber Factory Grade: A

The Blue Nile High Grade: A

Bobbie Gentry Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry Grade: A-

Brian Wilson SMiLE Grade: A

Buddy Miller Universal United House of Prayer Grade: A-

Candy Butchers Hang On Mike Grade: A-

Courtney Love America’s Sweetheart Grade: A-

The Divine Comedy Absent Friends Grade: A-

Eagles of Death Metal Peace Love Death Metal Grade: A-

Earlimart Treble & Tremble Grade: A-

Elliott Smith from a basement on the hill Grade: A-

Faces Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… Grade: A-

The Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat Grade: A-

Grant-Lee Phillips Virginia Creeper Grade: A-

Helmet Unsung: The Best of Helmet (1991-1997) Grade: A-

Jim White Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See Grade: A

John Cale HoboSapiens Grade: A-

Jolie Holland Escondida Grade: A-

Joseph Arthur Our Shadows Will Remain Grade: A

Kimya Dawson Hidden Vagenda Grade: A-

Los Lobos The Ride Grade: A-

Morrissey You Are the Quarry Grade: A

Mystic Chords of Memory Mystic Chords of Memory Grade: A-

Neko Case The Tigers Have Spoken Grade: A

Old 97’s Drag It Up Grade: A-

Pinback Summer in Abaddon Grade: A-

The Ponys Laced With Romance Grade: A-

Rachael Yamagata Happenstance Grade: A-

Rachelle Garniez and the Fortunate Few Luckyday Grade: A-

Rockpile Seconds of Pleasure Grade: A-

The Secret Machines Now Here Is Nowhere Grade: A-

Snow Patrol Final Straw Grade: A

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Shake the Sheets Grade: A

Tift Merritt Tambourine Grade: A-

Various Artists Hallucinations: Psychedelic Pop Nuggets From the WEA Vaults; Come to the Sunshine: Soft Pop Nuggets From the WEA Vaults Grade: A-

Various Artists Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the ’80s Underground Grade: A-

Various Artists Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo Grade: A

Aberfeldy

A Scottish quintet that makes chirpy, tinkly sounds with high, earnest harmonies, campy keyboards, and folkily strummed stringed instruments. Mitigating cuteness are lyrics that contemplate death, abandonment, and druggy trippiness. The tunes on Forever Young may evoke the ’60s, but Aberfeldy have already written more good songs than Donovan and Country Joe and the Fish put together.

Björk | VOCAL HERO Bjork's latest, riskiest album is mostly instrument-free
Image credit: Bjork: Warren DuPreez and Nick Thornton Jones
VOCAL HERO Bjork’s latest, riskiest album is mostly instrument-free

Björk and Lars von Trier didn’t really see eye to blind eye when he directed her in ”Dancer in the Dark” a few years back, but the mercurial singer might have absorbed more of the contrary filmmaker’s ethos than she realized. With his Dogma 95 ”Vow of Chastity,” von Trier dismissed supposed artificialities like sets, props, and scoring. In the similarly austere yet extravagant Medúlla, Björk ditches bourgeois frills like strings and drum machines in favor of, exclusively, the human voice. Well, near exclusively; perhaps still wary of complete dogmatism, she allows cameos on a few tracks by the odd bass synthesizer, piano, or (now she’s getting carried away!) gong. But aside from those passing instrumental cheats, Björk is taking a big, fat Gregorian chance on full-on a cappella.

Historians among us might wonder if there’s a good reason no major rock figure has attempted an all-vocal album since Todd Rundgren’s A Cappella in 1985, a moderately amusing if literally long-winded experiment in vocally mimicking real instruments. There’s a little of that sort of ear trickery in Medúlla; five numbers utilize Rahzel, formerly of the Roots, as a human beat box, and one has frequent Philip Glass vocalist Gregory Purnhagen credited as a ”human trombone.” But mostly, these voices are meant to sound like voices, whether Björk is wailing against the Icelandic Choir’s wall of sound or madly multitracking herself like The Matrix‘s Agent Smith. Besides all these mass exhalations, there’s a lot of flesh, bone, and blood in the lyrics, too (”Smooth soft red velvety lungs are pushing a network of oxygen joyfully through a nose…”). She’s like a convert to nudism, suddenly convinced that ”gear” is the equivalent of a heavy coat in May. Beware: Her evangelistic zeal is so strong, she’ll soon have you shunning electronica and skipping absentmindedly through the park in your birthday suit too.

Björk began recording the album with those darned old instruments before her au naturel epiphany, but only a couple of tracks belie their origins as conventional pop songs. Most easily digestible is the peppy, nearly hip-hop-flavored ”Triumph of a Heart” tucked away at disc’s end, as if a reward for making it through the more challenging passages. Leading up to that, you get a few sinister-sounding examinations of human behavior whose growling, gulping, or moaning will alienate some ears. ”Submarine” has guest Robert Wyatt warbling for help in queasy falsetto, sounding like Carl Wilson trapped under ice. Her strikingly beautiful Olympics song, ”Oceania,” is more rapturously aquatic, the computer-enhanced choir behind Björk suggesting a cosmic harem of pleased dolphins. Here she imagines herself as the sea itself, proud of all the belegged creatures she’s spit out onto land over the last hundred million years. It’s the nearest evolutionists have come to having their own gospel tune.

Björk has said a guiding rule for the album was ”not to sound like the Manhattan Transfer or Bobby McFerrin.” Well, duh — but if that was hardly a danger, there was every likelihood that the album’s synths-for-larynxes quid pro quo would be remembered as a stunt, at best, instead of one of her best efforts. To anyone approaching Medúlla with that apprehension, we offer these four words: Don’t worry, be happy.

The Black Keys | WE'RE SO PUMPED The Black Keys: Carney (left) and Auerbach
Image credit: The Black Keys: Pieter M. Van Hattem
WE’RE SO PUMPED The Black Keys: Carney (left) and Auerbach

(David Browne was so transfixed by the Black Key’s new album, he couldn’t decide how to start his review…)

TAKE 1 The Black Keys consist solely of a guitarist (Dan Auerbach) and a drummer (Patrick Carney). They record for an indie that specializes in all things unpolished. They’re from the Midwest. And that’s where comparisons to the White Stripes end. The Black Keys aren’t as flashy as Jack White, nor do they have his folklorist’s range. But on Rubber Factory (out Sept. 7), they offer their own impossible-to-ignore alternative, on which the most primitive of thrash-about rock, the sincerest of blues, and the most completely unironic appreciation for the power of the riff converge.

TAKE 2 One steadfast rule of criticism (music or otherwise) is to approach your subject with an open mind, even when appraising an artist or genre that’s underwhelmed you before. Take, for instance, the Black Keys. Their first two discs, 2002’s ”The Big Come Up” and last year’s ”thickfreakness,” nailed the art of scruffy trash blues, but they were also undernourished and derivative. So I entered their third, ”Rubber Factory,” with due caution. What I heard was still familiar — a cobwebby back-porch dirge, ”When the Lights Go Out,” followed by a glorious caveman stomp, ”10 A.M. Automatic” — but shockingly well-done. Before I knew it, the Keys had bested not only themselves but just about everyone else in rock this year.

TAKE 3 Nearly halfway into this decade, every pop genre past, from garage to synth-pop to the eternally disreputable prog, has been brought back from the land of the dead. The only one left to revive was white blues, which hasn’t been relevant or good since the ’60s. But starting with the early Stripes albums, even that style has returned, and it’s been greased up further with the Black Keys’ mesmerizing third album, ”Rubber Factory.” It’s pretty nervy to take a crack at writing a bar-room murder ballad (”Stack Shot Billy”) as well as cover genuine blues (”Grown So Ugly”) and make it appear seamless and without affectation. Somewhere, George Thorogood is sobbing.

TAKE 4 ”What about the night makes you change/From sweet to deranged?” So snarls Dan Auerbach, the singing and guitar-playing half of the Black Keys. The same can be asked of his band and ”Rubber Factory,” a remarkable album on which fingerpicked Ohio-delta blues easily gives way to manic spurts of slide-guitar frenzy, where a country-laced version of a Kinks song (”Act Nice and Gentle”) shares space with a groggy shuffle (”The Desperate Man”). I’ve played ”Rubber Factory” on late-evening highway drives, and I’ve seen the band play on a sun-doused stage; either way, their music makes absolute sense.

TAKE 5 The third album from the Black Keys is called ”Rubber Factory” in honor of the deserted Akron, Ohio, manufacturing plant in which it was recorded. The title conjures a dank, mildewy, claustrophobic place, and the music takes you there as well. The Keys go in search of their own dark night of the soul, find it, and blast their way out of it with a fusion of junkyard-dog blues and songs that, with their roots in blustery old-school FM rock, dare to be uncool.

TAKE 6 ”Good band — sounds like Bad Company,” said my brother-in-law Dan as we were listening to ”Rubber Factory,” the third album from the Ohio duo the Black Keys. The remark was momentarily startling; until that point, I had taken ”Rubber Factory” as an example of subterranean savagery both crude (just guitar and drums) and crafted (those instruments lock into each other at every turn). But my relative had a point: Guitarist Dan Auerbach’s husky voice and the come-here-woman lyrics of songs like ”Till I Get My Way” did recall those of Paul Rodgers. And beneath the scuzz were guitar parts that, with more polish, could have been heard in long-ago arenas. And then it dawned on me: ”Rubber Factory” is indeed a lo-fi version of classic-rock boogie — done by utterly earnest indie-rock nerds, and done the right way.

Rejoice, acolytes — the Scottish priests of midnight yearning are back with High, their first CD in eight years, their fourth in 21, and their best since 1989’s Hats. If the lyrics now take in distant children and middle-aged loss, the music remains the same: crystalline midtempo soundscapes in which regret and ecstasy twine into a spiritual double helix. ”An ordinary miracle is all we really need,” croons Paul Buchanan. This will do.

Gentry was the Shelby Lynne of her time, a husky-voiced singer with a gift for melding strains of country, swampy rock, and slick Hollywood production values into music as beguiling as her dusky good looks. She perhaps leaned a little too hard on that plucked guitar chord from her ’67 hit ”Ode to Billie Joe,” but the range of her Artistry — waltzes, sexy ballads, chamber pop, tripped-out protest music, and more — is astonishing.

Brian Wilson | BEACH PARTY Wilson's latest was worth the (37-year) wait
Image credit: Brian Wilson: Bill Reitzel/Corbis Outline
BEACH PARTY Wilson’s latest was worth the (37-year) wait

Once, Todd Rundgren recorded an exact replica of ”Good Vibrations,” just because he could. Now Brian Wilson’s recorded his own note-for-note ”Vibrations” copy — a few rewritten lyrics or extended passages notwithstanding — with a better excuse: He’s painstakingly duplicating an entire 1967 Beach Boys album that never quite actually existed. SMiLE got consigned to the trash heap, and became the holy grail of rock projects, after other band members openly groused about its wigginess. But though it remained legendarily incomplete, several classic numbers (”Heroes and Villains,” ”Surf’s Up”) did see daylight, and lesser scraps have been widely bootlegged. Hearing its original architect re-create this treasure trove of lost-and-found material with ringers (Wilson’s touring band almost does the Beach Boys better than the Beach Boys), you may wonder if this is SMiLE-mania — not the real SMiLE, but an incredible simulation!

But screw all that, because the mirth and beauty of the work trump any concerns about reassemblage. As ”finished” by Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, SMiLE fulfills its 37-year promise, detailing what’d happen if you threw Stephen Foster’s parlor folk, Aaron Copland’s orchestral Americana, the Four Freshmen, some kiddie pop, and a sound-effects record into an acid-laced blender. With a new melodic idea occurring every 45 seconds on average, it’s a gorgeous trip back to a time when anything seemed possible, rendered only slightly melancholy through a four-decade filter of diminished musical expectations. Purists will suggest SMiLE was better off as myth, but I’ll take the version of the story where Schubert not only gets to finish his eighth symphony, but tours and sells T-shirts behind it.

If anyone else covered ”With God on Our Side” for an album of spirituals, you’d figure he missed the memo delineating Dylan’s gospel and protest periods. But Buddy Miller means to strike a cautionary note about misguided wartime zeal before resuming a mostly original set that otherwise does run closer to Slow Train’s best tracks (and not just because Dylan’s ”Christian years” vocalist Regina McCrary is featured here). However in love with Jesus the songs on Universal United House of Prayer are, this alt-country hero’s nervous, pit-of-the-stomach blues guitar solos unmistakably root them in dangerous times.

Candy Butchers | EAR 'CANDY' Viola's CD will set your blood thumping
EAR ‘CANDY’ Viola’s CD will set your blood thumping

”I gave you Bennie and the Jets/You gave me Kiss Alive II,” sings head Candy Butcher Mike Viola, flaunting his familiarity with (and love for) ’70s rock on Hang On Mike. On the Butchers’ third album, he leans decidedly more toward the Bennie template, using piano, not guitars, to drive his songs home. And what songs! Viola has a winning way with heartbreaking melodies that don’t turn maudlin. Never mind the lack of six-string frenzy: This is power pop (i.e., pop that’ll set your blood thumping) at its finest.

Courtney Love | SURVIVOR: SEATTLE What would Kurt think of Love's comeback bid?
Image credit: Courtney Love: David LaChapelle
SURVIVOR: SEATTLE What would Kurt think of Love’s comeback bid?

When Kurt Cobain ended his life with a shotgun blast 10 years ago this April, he left behind a musician wife with a career-making album under her belt and a drummer without any apparent employment prospects. A decade later, how things have changed for Courtney Love. Since the high-water mark of 1994’s ”Live Through This,” Love has pummeled her credibility and sobriety so many times it’s no longer entertaining.

If we’re to believe America’s Sweetheart, the first album Love has released since the demise of Hole, Cobain’s ghost still hovers above her. ”Hey God, you owe me one more song/So that I can prove to them/That I’m so much better than him,” she rails in the sandblasting ”Mono,” and it doesn’t take a Seattle PI to determine who she could mean.

”America’s Sweetheart” may not have that one song that breaks her free of Cobain, but neither is it the gruesome wipeout one would have expected in light of her ongoing crises. Love aims to repair her damaged integrity by unleashing her scabrous, scabby old self again (as opposed to the waxy, faux Courtney of Hole’s flat finale, 1998’s ”Celebrity Skin”). The difference is most noticeable in her voice. Once again, Love is singing with the force of a hurricane, and her ability to project — to invest every syllable with conviction, determination, and personality ? remains undiminished. Try as they might, current quasi-punkers can’t match her razor-throated yowl. As for what she’s projecting, the mesmerizing lyric sheet is akin to one of her rambling, semi-coherent Internet postings. She sputters on about ”lots and lots of meaningless sex,” how she’s ”overrated, desecrated…I know I’ve got a screw loose,” and how ”you would never sell out just like I did ‘Playboy”’ — and that’s just one song (”But Julian, I’m a Little Bit Older Than You”). Throughout the disc, she depicts herself as a needy, unstable troublemaker who still yearns for fast times, drugs, and ”big black men.” Considering her recent busts, it’s easy to believe everything she sings: ”America’s Sweetheart” could be rock’s most graphic pre-rehab statement.

Love may never again tap into the ravaged beauty of ”Live Through This,” yet ”America’s Sweetheart” tries its damnedest to recapture her glory days. Love’s current vision of punk is more buff and polished than it was a decade ago, thanks to songwriting collaborator Linda Perry (who’s produced and written for anti-Courtneys like Pink and Christina Aguilera), but Love’s bristling energy and careening narcissism (and Perry’s love of a guilty-pleasure hook) overcome the occasionally clubfooted arena-punk arrangements. From full-throated exorcisms like ”Almost Golden” to the sleazy chime of ”Sunset Strip” and the creepy-crawly romantic-destruction saga ”Life Despite God,” you’ll feel as if you’re accompanying Love on a Jack Daniels-fueled drive through snaky Hollywood streets. For the moment, she’s kept the car on the road, and the trip, for all its chaos, can still be an exhilarating one.

With his Lou Rawls-in-hell locution and penchant for grand orchestral sweep, Neil Hannon could easily be mistaken for a smirking dandy. But even when he warbles a line like ”You and I go together like the molar and the drill” on ”Sticks and Stones,” one of the many velvet valentines found here, Hannon isn’t playing ironic games. He’s just an aesthete who can’t keep his ardor or musical ambitions in check, fashioning gorgeous, grotto-fabulous chamber pop.

Eagles Of Death Metal

Baring a feral yet suave soul, the saucy trio of Jesse Hughes, Timmy VanHamel, and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) are more Elvis than Entombed. Their album combines strut-worthy classic rock, rabble-rousing twang, and a whole lot of hubba-hubba, with Hughes going from soft falsetto to deep come-on, thrusting his hips into every bare-bones groove. It ain’t death metal, but Hughes’ titillating vocal performance makes these Eagles soar.

It’s no accident that the slow epiphanies, via minor chords and breathy introspection, on Earlimart’s fourth album plunge you deep into Elliott Smith land. Most of Treble & Tremble is about the band’s late friend, making its early-morning melancholy and simple request to ”take care of your heart” nothing short of gut-wrenching. On ”All They Ever Do Is Talk,” singer Aaron Espinoza explains, ”Nothing’s good until it hurts.” For this record in mourning, that’s especially true.

Elliott Smith | LAST SEDUCTION The only disappointing thing about Smith's new album is that it is also his final one
Image credit: Elliott Smith: Ethan Hill/Retna
LAST SEDUCTION The only disappointing thing about Smith’s new album is that it is also his final one

The phrase ”lowered expectations” could have been invented for the tapes Elliott Smith left behind when he was declared dead from knife wounds a year ago. His previous album, 2000’s Figure 8, was churlish and overproduced, and the subsequent years had found him sliding into a drug-exacerbated tailspin. At his infrequent public performances, he’d appeared listless and out of sorts. It has yet to be determined whether his death was a suicide or a murder.

Given such shaky circumstances, it’s reasonable to assume that from a basement on the hill — the disc Smith was recording sporadically during those intervening years — would have been a collection of despondent, incoherent fragments. But in a shocker not quite on par with his death but pretty close, the record is strong and radiant, if not always upbeat. Turning mental breakdown into its own form of frazzled beauty, the album is, ironically, one of the best he ever made.

Smith always was a puzzling character: an indie rocker who was a closet folkie and sang unemotionally about emotion. His silken voice, which tended to float above his melodies, had an opaque quality that held everything in check; it was the sound of passion trying to emerge from numbness. He made balladry worthy again, and his influence has filtered down to Bright Eyes, Badly Drawn Boy, the Shins, and many left-of-center singer-songwriters, some of whom went on to outsing and outwrite him.

Was any of this consolation to him during his darkest hours? Listening to basement, one thinks not. The songs are filled with references to wasted days and wasted nights, enervation and sloth, a house that scares everyone away, and codependent relationships: When Smith pleads to a wayward lover, ”Don’t go down/Stay with me” in ”Don’t Go Down,” he sounds as if he’s afraid of falling into the gutter too. In one particularly disturbing image, he sings of a girl who dreamed she ”had seen her own body outlined in chalk.” In ”A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” he feels let down by the world; in the musically hallucinogenic ”Strung Out Again,” he chides himself for getting high. The lyrics aren’t incoherent, but they’re often rambling and confusing: ”Is it destruction that you require to feel?” he laments in ”Pretty (Ugly Before).” But is he attacking himself or someone else?

None of these subjects broke new ground for him, and in some ways, neither did the music that accompanied it. Once again, the songs alternate between feathery unplugged ruminations and shaggy electric shuffles. But before his death, according to Benjamin Nugent’s new bio Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, Smith had become fixated on the Beatles’ White Album. You hear Smith trying to attain the same blend of stark minimalism and pungent melody as on that sprawl, and you also hear him succeed plenty. Chaste tracks like ”A Fond Farewell” and ”Let’s Get Lost,” in which the beautiful melody implies that dissolution can be heavenly, are delicate but not vaporous. ”Don’t Go Down,” with its guitar tornados, and ”Coast to Coast,” with its psychedelic blues, have a razory toughness John Lennon would have admired. Smith doesn’t sound energized — then again, he rarely did — but he does seem like someone who, amidst all the turmoil in which he found himself, found his focus in ways he hadn’t always before.

Smith could still come across like something of a jerk: In the vindictive ”Shooting Star,” he cuts down a woman who wants to ”f— some trophy boy that you won tonight at the bar.” His sighing delivery blunts the bitterness, but his ire and emotion are palpable — and, in a strange way, welcome. One wonders what Smith made of the state of alt-rock at the time of his death, when musicians who most heavily traffic in out-front earnestness, like Dashboard Confessional, are treated like circus freaks, and the fake exuberance of the loathsome Polyphonic Spree is championed despite its clear-cut mockery of all things sincere. If Smith took his own life, did part of him feel there was no longer a place for what he did? In the saddest news of all, he may have been right.

Faces

Five Guys Walk Into a Bar…

Sadly, Rod Stewart’s ’70s pub-rock gang is best known nowadays for the remake of ”Ooh La La” in a car commercial. But these four discs of album tracks and rare stage and radio performances make the case that the Faces should be remembered as more than just a defunct band. One of their decade’s warmest, scrappiest, and most joyful acts, they were capable of both folkie intimacy (thanks to the late Ronnie Lane) and pranksterish raunch, and Stewart never sounded so human as he did on forgotten gems like ”Just Another Honky.” A vault-exhumed live take of the thundering ”You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want to Discuss It)” is enough to melt his wobbly standards albums.

The Fiery Furnaces

Long, long songs about work at sea, in the field, and in the forest, with guitar riffs that howl like hurricanes and melodies that bend like trees. Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger have mastered rock as a journal of recorded experience — their music is as ruminative as their wordplay, which can be simple or impenetrable. But it’s always urgent, heartfelt, fearlessly fiery, utterly sincere.

The Beta Band
Image credit: Beta Band: Ewan Spencer

Gift Guide: Every CD that got an A in 2004

Pop/Rock

Aberfeldy Young Forever Grade: A-

Bjork Medulla Grade: A

Black Keys Rubber Factory Grade: A

The Blue Nile High Grade: A

Bobbie Gentry Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry Grade: A-

Brian Wilson SMiLE Grade: A

Buddy Miller Universal United House of Prayer Grade: A-

Candy Butchers Hang On Mike Grade: A-

Courtney Love America’s Sweetheart Grade: A-

The Divine Comedy Absent Friends Grade: A-

Eagles of Death Metal Peace Love Death Metal Grade: A-

Earlimart Treble & Tremble Grade: A-

Elliott Smith from a basement on the hill Grade: A-

Faces Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… Grade: A-

The Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat Grade: A-

Grant-Lee Phillips Virginia Creeper Grade: A-

Helmet Unsung: The Best of Helmet (1991-1997) Grade: A-

Jim White Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See Grade: A

John Cale HoboSapiens Grade: A-

Jolie Holland Escondida Grade: A-

Joseph Arthur Our Shadows Will Remain Grade: A

Kimya Dawson Hidden Vagenda Grade: A-

Los Lobos The Ride Grade: A-

Morrissey You Are the Quarry Grade: A

Mystic Chords of Memory Mystic Chords of Memory Grade: A-

Neko Case The Tigers Have Spoken Grade: A

Old 97’s Drag It Up Grade: A-

Pinback Summer in Abaddon Grade: A-

The Ponys Laced With Romance Grade: A-

Rachael Yamagata Happenstance Grade: A-

Rachelle Garniez and the Fortunate Few Luckyday Grade: A-

Rockpile Seconds of Pleasure Grade: A-

The Secret Machines Now Here Is Nowhere Grade: A-

Snow Patrol Final Straw Grade: A

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Shake the Sheets Grade: A

Tift Merritt Tambourine Grade: A-

Various Artists Hallucinations: Psychedelic Pop Nuggets From the WEA Vaults; Come to the Sunshine: Soft Pop Nuggets From the WEA Vaults Grade: A-

Various Artists Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the ’80s Underground Grade: A-

Various Artists Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo Grade: A

Unsung is right. Without this underground metal-punk quartet, we wouldn’t have the subterranean guitar chunk and drum thunder of nu-metal superstars like Linkin Park. Imagine roaring rage delivered with laser-guided precision. Extras ”Just Another Victim,” a vicious rap-rock collaboration with House of Pain, is headbanging bliss.

American gothic hipster and Pentecostal refugee Jim White was a New York cabbie, filmmaker, and serpent handler before he perfected ”hick-hop,” an artful blend of old-country weirdness and propulsive beats. His third release adds errant trumpet and soul-sister gospel hollering, as White conjures lost souls drifting through a mythical nation of pawnshops and cheap motels, his voice a sensual whisper over their rattling bones.

The Velvet Underground cofounder undergoes a startling rebirth with HoboSapiens, his most sonically exhilarating, lyrically passionate effort in two decades. Such darkly playful tunes as ”Magritte” seamlessly match the sixtysomething auteur’s sepulchral baritone with an assortment of modernist studio frills, making for an audacious marriage of restless experimentalism and eloquent melodic craft.

Holland, fronting a small band with her guitar, her fiddle, and her smoky, slurry phrasing, is a bohemian folkie from Texas and a cofounder of the Be Good Tanyas. She avoids folk piety by hymning morphine (”It was good enough for Billy Burroughs…”) and feigns ”immaculate calm” while admitting to romantic craziness. Starbucks should replace Norah Jones with Holland as its mood musician of choice; her compositional brew is smooth, with jolts of witty malice.

With his razor-shredded voice and love of murky sonic textures, Joseph Arthur always sounds as if he’s groping his way out of the dark. But as heard on Our Shadows Will Remain, an especially forceful and cohesive album, no one fumbles about better. On beautifully dank songs like ”Wasted” or ”Can’t Exist,” Arthur never fails to find his way to the light — and, in the process, lay waste to just about every coy male singer-songwriter in his path.

The chalky voice of the Moldy Peaches offers her fourth solo release, Hidden Vagenda, and at this point, Kimya Dawson’s unaffected earnestness, firm sense of morality, and pretension-cutting playfulness are starting to seem like a miracle. These qualities are distilled in the shimmering ”My Heroes,” but, really, they combine over the entire album — which includes unironic mentions of everyone from Jay Leno to Julian Lennon — with Dawson’s acoustic guitar, toy piano, and tootling brass accompaniment to achieve the rare bliss of adult pop wisdom.

The veteran roots-rockers’ 12th album features a passel of guests, but it’s no all-star indulgence. Richard Thompson lends gravity to the sea chantey ”Wreck of the Carlos Rey,” and Tom Waits’ ghostly growl haunts the playful clatter of ”Kitate,” while reinterpretations of Lobos classics by Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples, and Latino rock legend Little Willie G underline the band’s gift for resonant balladry. The collaborative approach yields some of the most potent music of the group’s career, making this a consistently rewarding Ride.

Morrissey | 'QUARRY' MAN Morrissey returns with more gorgeous gloom
‘QUARRY’ MAN Morrissey returns with more gorgeous gloom

On You Are the Quarry, Morrissey’s first new CD in seven years, the Pope of Mope continues to reign as the social critic with the most luscious croon. No one but Morrissey could purr ”you big fat pig” with such elegant panache (”America Is Not the World”). He’s enlisted Roger Manning on keyboards to add texture to Boz Boorer’s and Alain Whyte’s ominous guitars, resulting in a set of irresistible tracks both danceable and desolate.

As a member of Beachwood Sparks, Christopher Gunst makes psychedelic country as light as a fluffy cloud. On the hazily gorgeous debut of his band MCOM, Gunst is still spinning ice cream castles from reverb-drenched drums and whimsical F/X, but it’s more Elliott Smith than Gram Parsons: Fey double-tracked vocals and ambling acoustic guitars languorously tumble over arrangements that gently rumble and churn.

Part torched twang and part blue-eyed soul, Neko Case’s voice vaults impressively over pedal steel, banjo, and assorted countrified six-strings on her fourth CD, The Tigers Have Spoken, recorded at several concerts this year with surf-C&W practitioners the Sadies and other guests. Case runs the emotional gamut of her alt-country songbook, from the swaggering ”If You Knew” to the haunting ”Blacklisted,” then takes on Loretta Lynn’s sassy ”Rated X” and turns ”This Little Light” into a string-plinked gospel breakdown. A breathtaking 35 minutes.

Old 97’s

Experienced enough to have some perspective on life, the veteran (and aptly named) Old 97’s spend their rootsy sixth disc recalling growing up. The CD opens with a birth (the cathartic ”Won’t Be Home”) and ends with a death (the mournful ”No Mother”), and in between covers love and loss with dreamy nostalgia (”Bloomington”) and utter goofiness (”Coahuila,” where they rhyme ”ravioli” with ”kind of lonely”).

In the Book of Revelation, it says that Abaddon is the fallen angel in charge of the bottomless pit. Sorry, but Pinback are not the house band for or from hell. Instead, San Diego prog-pop duo Armistead Burwell Smith IV (a.k.a. Zach) and Rob Crow drop the listener into an infinite well of intricate chord progressions and dueling harmonies. The catchy songs on Summer in Abaddon are so sonically enthralling, you could call them heavenly. Amen.

Yes, it’s another bare-bones rock band with an article in its name, and no, it’s not striated with white stripes. The Ponys come on primal and fierce, feeding time-tested riffs (think Velvets, Standells) into a cyclotron of fuzzy guitar distortion. Vocalist Jered has Tom Verlaine’s petulant whine and a gift for mangling words into mush. These white punks are dope.

Rachael Yamagata | IT DIDN'T JUST 'HAPPEN' Yamagata holds her own
IT DIDN’T JUST ‘HAPPEN’ Yamagata holds her own

On Happenstance, her full-length debut, this 26-year-old singer-song-writer oozes end-of-the-affair resignation, sketching tales of failed romance over a mix of piano-based pop, blues, and even cabaret. Yamagata’s drowsy delivery, journal-entry lyrics, and slinky rhythms will inevitably draw comparisons to Beth Orton and Fiona Apple. And rightly so: With standouts like ”Worn Me Down,” which deftly details her exasperation with an unrequited crush, she proves she can hold her own with the best of the distressed songstresses.

Rachelle Garniez And The Fortunate Few

Slipping between pop, polka, country, ska, jazz, and yodeling, while playing accordion, piano, guitar, and plastic bells, Garniez is a master of surprise. Her CD is available only online, but fans of Bjork, Sinead, and Rickie Lee should seek it out.

Featuring frequent collaborators Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner, and Terry Williams, this underappreciated 1980 album ranks with Lowe and Edmunds’ other great work of the time (most of which boasted the same lineup). Edmunds’ exuberant take on pre-Beatles rock sits nicely next to Lowe’s charming late-’70s-style pub pop; and well-chosen covers of songs by Chuck Berry, Joe Tex, Gene Chandler, and others round out classic originals like ”When I Write the Book.”

The Secret Machines want to rock your body ’til the break of day, but they sure take their time doing it. Many songs on their first album, Now Here Is Nowhere, start as sinister rumbles — imagine a drowsy New Order with Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham behind the drum kit. Only after a few minutes do the singers open their mouths and does the music lurch into full-throttle acceleration, as if the songs had just woken from a deep sleep and downed five cups of coffee.

Unlike many a U.S. underground band, the trio — once of Dallas, now of New York City — aims to build an imposing castle of sound that owes more to proggers and shoe gazers past than to punk thrashers. (They stand apart vocally, too: Singer-guitarist Benjamin Curtis and brother/bassist-keyboardist-singer Brandon Curtis sound like Brits imitating Americans.) It’s therefore utterly logical that Now Here Is Nowhere, in stores May 18, has been available for months on iTunes and the band’s website: It proudly revives the long-moribund genre of headphone rock.

You remember headphone rock, don’t you? The Secret Machines do, and their influences are slathered all over the album. One can hear hints of Pink Floyd, My Bloody Valentine, and other sound envelopers who were always better when cranked directly into one’s ears. The Machines tap into that majestic legacy of world-unto-itself psychedelia and modernize it with melodic-meat-grinder sonics. After opening with ”First Wave Intact,” nearly nine minutes of breaker upon breaker of metallic thrash, the trio proceeds to blend the pulverizing, the hooky, and the enigmatic in bewitching tracks like ”Light’s On,” ”The Leaves Are Gone” (Nick Drake gone Kraut rock), and ”The Road Leads Where It’s Led,” with its creepy ”blowing all the other kids away” refrain. The latter could be interpreted as a Columbine reference, but the songs’ lyrics are eerily ambiguous — all hazy images of wintry desolation, ceaseless rain, and people who sleep in due to psychic or chemical exhaustion.

At times the Machines get too prog & roll. All doomy atmosphere and Roger Waters-inspired war imagery, ”Pharaoh’s Daughter” is little more than a poor man’s Dark Side of the Moon. But even such weak links on an otherwise potent disc serve a purpose. Back when bands like Floyd were in their mid-’70s prime, those who preferred to huddle in their bedrooms with headphones and favorite LPs did so out of ennui, complacency, or post-’60s burnout. In contrast, Now Here Is Nowhere is solitaire rock for a new era, in which shutting out the world isn’t just a luxury but sometimes a necessity.

Snow Patrol’s third full-length proves the Irish quartet keeps getting better. Much of the credit for this catchy set of Britpop goes to the intelligent use of samples: The band has added pulsing strings and staticky textures to its luscious mix. And ”Run,” with its haunting lyrics of romantic distress and walls of guitars, should put Coldplay on notice.

The hardest-working man in indie rock — DIY poster boy Leo toured the States no less than five times with his last album — shows up the slackers yet again with his fifth release, Shake the Sheets. Practically every song is a near-perfect amalgam of straight-up melodies and pogoing beats. Let’s hope he never takes a vacation.

While Tift Merritt?s debut established her alt-country chops, this follow-up Tambourine finds her hitting the Dusty trail?as in ”Dusty in Memphis”’ blue-eyed soul. Maybe ”Al in Memphis” is even more apropos, given the mostly upbeat nature of a set that mixes rousing R&B horns with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell?s understated guitar. Merritt?s voice is a magical combination of cool reserve and effortless warmth; when she serenades a ”Good Hearted Man,” you suspect he?s getting a pretty grand ticker in return.

Various Artists

The 48 tunes on this pair of compilations were recorded by seasoned pros for major labels, unlike the DIY garage rock that (mostly) made up the original 1972 Nuggets set. But they’re just as inspired and strange, even though — or maybe because? — many were slick cash-ins meant to capitalize on hip late-’60s sounds. Highlights include songs by such no-name acts as the Misty Wizards, Baker Knight & the Knightmares, and, er, the Everly Brothers. Both:

This may be the first boxed set inspired by a book?in this case, Michael Azerrad’s chronicle of ’80s underground rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life. But where Azerrad homed in on a handful of standard-bearers, this four-CD survey pulls in some questionable choices. Does Kate Bush rate as underground? No matter: Erring on the side of inclusion, Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the ’80s Underground is like the great college radio station that never was.

In his 30-year career, Alejandro Escovedo has been a punk rocker, alt-country pioneer, garage-band leader, singer-songwriter, and composer, all culminating in the 2000 musical ”By the Hand of the Father,” a bittersweet meditation on his Mexican-American heritage. Just as eclectic as his sonic explorations are the covers on Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, this superb two-CD set created to benefit Escovedo, who’s been debilitated by hepatitis C. Among the gems: Lucinda Williams’ bluesy ”Pyramid of Tears” and Los Lonely Boys’ rockin’ ”Castanets.” But no matter who’s singing, Escovedo’s remarkable songcraft shines through.