By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
Ladytron, 604 (Emperor Norton). Imagine the Stereolab pop album you've dreamed of, as sung by Annie Lennox. 604 purges pathos from new-wave revivalism and restores synth pop to pristine glory. The cold comforts they sing of (tenuous relationships and compulsive shopping) match their burbling pop.
Radiohead, Amnesiac (Capitol). Neither the return to "real songs" that some wanted nor Kid A redux, Radiohead's fifth album is avant-garde without disservicing their songcraft. But it's the lurch of "Life in a Glass House" that proves Radiohead is most powerful without fancy production.
The Faint, Danse Macabre (Saddle Creek). Nebraska emo punks pretending to be Gary Numan pretending to be the Prodigy? Yes, it's thoroughly posed. But the Faint are so fake they're beyond real. Their synth hooks are electroshocks, and "Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen" is the most touching weepie ever about lifeguards and drowning hoaxes.
Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album (Barsuk). Seattle's Death Cab finally found themselves on this graceful, melancholic album. With reverb-laden guitar work, The Photo Album's lovelorn stories assume a late-night poignancy without emo histrionics. And on the groovy "We Laugh Indoors," they've beaten Modest Mouse to their own hit.
Varnaline, Songs in a Northern Key (Artemis). This fusion of studio finesse and roots rock could give Grandaddy or Wilco a run for their money. Frontman Anders Parker's songs mix pedal steel and windblown Hammonds with dreamy lyricism. It's the sound of a hopeful drive through the Mojave.
Beulah, The Coast Is Never Clear (Velocette). After flirting with the majors, Beulah sounds more radio-ready than ever. Coast is the trimmest Elephant 6 effort since the Minders, full of hits from some Day-Glo alternate universe where FM radio never appeared.
Gorillaz, Gorillaz (Virgin). Along with countless hooks, there's a Trojan-horse appeal to Gorillaz. As pop radio swallows the bouncy "Clint Eastwood," the teens who spring for the record also get the rhymes of Del tha Funky Homosapien, snippets of dub and even the Buena Vista Social Club. Beneath their animated visages, Gorillaz are less cartoonish than 'N Sync.