By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
René Spencer Saller
Susana Baca, Eco de Sombras (Luaka Bop). Singer/ethnomusicologist Baca, a Lima native, infuses these melancholy, mysterious Afro-Peruvian folk songs with a downtown-NYC feel, thanks to help from John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) and Tom Waits associates Marc Ribot and Greg Cohen. Fancypants collaborators notwithstanding, Baca's warm, expressive contralto is the real draw.
Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo (Six Degrees). Joao's daughter nudges bossa nova into the 21st century, with sexy trip-hop beats and scratchy samples courtesy of the Thievery Corporation, Amon Tobin, Mario Caldato Jr. and the late producer/arranger Suba. A dreamy conflation of past and present.
Handsome Family, In the Air (Carrot Top). On their fourth album, husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks grace us with more sad/funny, beautiful/brutal songs about Nature, red in tooth and claw. A girl is carried off by crows, kissed by a gravedigger's son. A mob hurls bricks and bottles at a milkman in love with the moon. Brother kills brother, and the dead roll their bones in the grass.
Ute Lemper, Punishing Kiss (Decca). Uber-glam mezzo-soprano Lemper delivers an exquisite musical bastard. These corrosively elegant songs -- penned by the likes of Kurt Weill, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and Philip Glass -- celebrate cabaret as concept, its festering sexiness, its high-camp appraisal of an exhausted, amoral culture overrun by perverts and pimps, misfits and murderers, unfaithful spouses and desperate debauchées.
Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego). Fed up with the record industry, Mann self-released this album, her best yet. Moody, majestic, George Martin-esque arrangements augment her sweet and throaty warble and canny pop craftsmanship.
Mekons, Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick). For more than 20 years, these post-punk geniuses have been putting out wonderfully uncategorizable records, and Journeyranks among their very best. An end-of-the-empire raucousness keeps the mood from getting too somber but never undercuts the prevailing prettiness.
Nadine, Lit Up from the Inside (Undertow). St. Louis natives Nadine bring us glimmering experimental Americana. Whatever alt-country is, they've done it one better.
Puerto Muerto, Your Bloated Corpse Has Washed Ashore ... (Actiondriver). On their debut album, married duo Tim Kelley and Christa Meyer cram spooky folk, glam-rock, spaghetti-Western weirdness, art-song and cabaret into 19 fiercely original tracks.
Sixths, Hyacinths and Thistles(Merge). Fourteen singers -- ranging from Momus to Melanie, from Odetta to Gary Numan -- interpret love songs by prolific pop genius Stephin Merritt. Exquisite and strange.
Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). On their fifth album, the all-woman trio combines the confrontational but cerebral punk rock of their earlier records with girl-group harmonies, poppy handclaps and even the occasional organ and Mellotron. They sound like themselves, only more so -- wholesome and dangerous, bubblegum catchy and heart-attack serious.
Black Heart Procession, 3 (Touch and Go). An indie/folk-rock tour through the shadowy crannies of love's lonely places. Sad like a breakup, quiet like man-crying and strong as the realization your ex ain't never coming back. The perfect soundtrack for introspection and regret, no matter whose fault it was.
Boredoms, Vision, Creation, New Sun (Sony Japan). No more of the spastic freak-rock, epileptic time signatures and mad-dog howling. The Boredoms discover a new genre, drum & whoosh, which is a lot like fingerpainting on LSD. Blurry mosaics of sound, bird calls, small animals with toy instruments and occasional crooning in Japanese.
Botch, We Are the Romans (Hydra Head). Incredibly dense sonic assault that takes the minimalism and anger of hardcore punk and forces it to breed with the iron riff structure of metal. Intelligent, loud, powerful, honest and human, Botch are the antithesis of everything Nu Metal represents.
Charles Bronson, Complete Discography (self-released). Two discs, 117 songs, 94 minutes. That is more hardcore than most people want, but with songs like "Phil Anselmo's Pain Burns in the Heart of My Little Brother" and "Tony Victory Knows How to Party," these guys prove that too much is never enough. Smart, smartass and oh-so-punk, Charles Bronson were a kick in the pants.
Various artists, Charlie's Angels soundtrack (Sony Music Soundtrax). It looks embarrassing on the shelf, but it's so sweet in the CD player. Marvin Gaye, Heart and Looking Glass acquit the '70s with grace, and Caviar and Fatboy Slim represent the finest of the Oughts. Pure pop pleasure, with the exception of Destiny's Child and Aerosmith.
High on Fire, The Art of Self Defense(Man's Ruin). Guitarist Matt Pike (ex of Sleep) continues writing monstrous fuzz-guitar psalms. Stony, burly, reverent caveman-style rock, just playing it will give you a contact high.
John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Inside the Dream Syndicate: Vol. 1: Day of Niagara (Table of the Elements). Thirty-plus minutes of tabla, viola, violin and vocal drone. Five minutes in, you wonder where they're going. Ten minutes in, you wonder where you are. When it stops, you wonder at where you've been. Brilliant.
J. Mascis and the Fog, More Light (Ultimatum/LLC). The soul of Dinosaur Jr. roars back to life with his best album yet. Caustic, catchy, plaintive without being whiny, J. and the Fog do everything Dinosaur did, only better. "Ammaring" should be the official prom song for the disenfranchised nationwide this spring.