By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
Best Reason to Spend $10 on Five Songs
Broadcast -- Extended Play Two (Warp/ Tommy Boy)I can name a dozen better things to do with $10 than buy an import EP -- bring a friend to an all-day porn show, buy a homeless guy a fistful of roses, get a dog a flu shot -- but Broadcast is no ordinary band and this is no ordinary EP. Far better than the English combo's debut LP from earlier this year, Extended Play Two is both more and less like lounge o' drone mainstay Stereolab. Its intense layers of keyboard samples and drones compete successfully with sad-yet-sexy vocals and a push-the-envelope instrumental clamor that's exhilarating.
Music Is Dangerous Award
Maher Shalal Hash Baz -- From a Summer to Another Summer (Geographic)It used to be that terrorists did their little reign of terror thing and then had songs written about them. Now, the terrorists write the songs. This Japanese collective, which has been together in some form since the mid-'80s, fled its native home over its involvement with an extreme left-wing political group that attempted to assassinate the emperor. To some ears, the group's odd music -- a shambling, occasionally caustic semiblend of '60s free jazz piano, folkish guitar twanging, and the sad oompah sound of the euphonium -- might be considered downright protestable itself. Just remember: Charlie Manson was denied a recording contract before he went on to bigger things.
Best Use for the Program Button Award
Belle & Sebastian -- Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador)There are two kinds of good records for me: those that are immediately appealing but have short life spans, and those that are initially off-putting but, over time, reveal hidden traits and long-term likability. This Scottish band's fourth effort refutes my theory, much as its third album did, by offering good songs that stay good and bad songs that get worse with each listen. That nearly all the good tunes are written by main singer Stuart Murdoch makes me wonder about the inevitability of his first solo record, and what chip shop the rest of the band will retire to.
And It Doesn't Come With That Stale Odor Award
Kev Hopper -- Whispering Foils (Drag City)It once was easy to wander into a thrift store and buy a Don Ho or Herb Alpert album in decent condition. Then the exotica revival hit, and suddenly it was cool to wear Hawaiian shirts and listen to cheesy Burt Bacharach records. On his second solo album, Kev Hopper, once the leader of a Zappa-ish British band called Stump, fashions his own form of exotica out of marimba, singing saw, clarinet, fluegelhorn, tubular bells, glockenspiel, and more. Martini-swilling swingers should beware, however: These songs are devoid of kitsch, and they most likely won't get anyone but the most hip of hipsters laid.
V/A -- Calypso Awakening (Smithsonian Folkways)While the respective calypso albums of the renowned poet, the hard-knuckled actor, and the suave crooner may have introduced American listeners to the sounds of Trinidad, they couldn't touch the real thing. This compilation of 1956-1962 tracks comes from the releases of audio engineer Emory Cook, who used innovative recording techniques to capture the energy between performers and audiences. Heard live and in the studio, song-stylists like Mighty Sparrow and Commander offer harsh critiques of the government and cheeky complaints about the abundance of their women's needs, all told over shuffling piano, bongo, and horn rhythms.
Most Unlikely Revival Award
Limp British '80s PopThe Mountain Goats' John Darnielle once sang about how he would love his girlfriend again when "Bill Gates spearheads the Heaven 17 revival," an event as likely as seeing Gates arm-wrestle Janet Reno. While it seemed even less likely that someone would revive the tasteful, mildly orchestral sound of English bands like Prefab Sprout and Fairground Attraction, suddenly there were two bands doing just that right here in the Bay Area. Oakland's Sushi and S.F.'s Sweetheart share a love for jazzy female vocals, fluid guitars, and the occasional horn or vibe addition -- a sound that bobs along nicely without making much of a first impression. Studied wistfulness can give way to boredom rather easily, but I consider it a good thing that producers John Croslin and Myles Boisin are definitely not of the Howard Jones school; they give these songs tendrils that sneak around your ankles, slowly pulling you in.
Best Reason to Try Marriage
Yo La Tengo -- And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador) There've been plenty of albums chronicling in minute detail the breakup of a marriage and/or relationship, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and Quasi's Featuring "Birds" being two of the best examples. Records that try to capture an ongoing partnership -- John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, for instance -- usually come off as exciting as a tree stump. But on its ninth effort, this Hoboken trio wraps the realities of love, with all its quiet victories and painful defeats, in such a positive sheen that it's hard not to throw that twin mattress out the window.