Various Artists

Roots of Rumba

(Crammed Discs)

This is an endlessly compelling exploration of 1950s-vintage sides from the former Belgian Congo, where the Cuban rumba was originally invented and later transformed. When Cuban recordings reached Kinshasa (then known as Leopoldville), the Congolese instantly recognized them as the work of their kinsfolk, those who were taken in chains to the sugar fields. In the Congo, local musicians replaced Cuban piano parts with guitars and Spanish lyrics with others in Lingala, and their Afro-Rumba would go on to sweep the continent in the late '50s and early '60s. Many of those tunes are here, and they come with a beautifully photographed package with copious, informed liner notes.

DJ Spooky

DJ Spooky Presents In Fine Style: 50,000 Volts of Trojan Records

(Trojan)

Even if you consider yourself up-to-speed on the Trojan catalogue, you should still pick up this two-CD set. While DJ Spooky is characteristically pedantic in the liner notes, there is no doubt he did a fine job here harvesting obscurities like Derrick Morgan's weirdly incredible "The Great Musical Battle" and Peter Tosh's judicial proceedings in "Here Comes the Judge," placing them alongside ganja-baked covers of hits like the Beatles' "Come Together" and Peggy Lee's "Fever," along with classic Jamaican hits like "007 Shanty Town" and "Rudy a Message to You." It also touches on every era of Jamaican music, from ska to rocksteady right up to the first shimmerings of dub, making this a perfect gift for neophytes.

Dirty Dozen

What's Going On?

(Shout! Factory)

Marvin Gaye's soul classic gets a New Orleans brass band overhaul at the hands of the Dirty Dozen, and the band makes the most of both Gaye's masterpiece and today's prevailing post-Katrina /blunders-of-Dubya atmosphere of paranoia and resolve. Bettye LaVette growls a star vocal turn on "What's Happening Brother"; "Right On" funks along with righteous fervor; and "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)" is best of all, a second-line funeral parade that encapsulates the whole album — and the essence of New Orleans — in five glorious minutes.

Cedric Watson, Edward Poullard, James Adams

Les Amis Creole

(Arhoolie)

With the partial exception of New Orleans jazz culture, young black American musicians rarely spend much time looking to the distant past for inspiration. One exception is Cedric Watson, a 22-year-old Creole fiddler from the prairies just west of the zydeco hotbed of Houston. Watson's interests extend beyond zydeco, back to the music called "la-la," the pre-electric folk material of his Louisiana Creole ancestors. Here, he performs these French-language waltzes, reels, and two-steps with a couple of the few remaining older practitioners, and the result is as joyous and unexpected as that ivory-billed woodpecker sighting a few years back. This music was supposed to have gone extinct a decade or so ago, and now it appears safe for another couple of generations.

M. Ward

Post War

(Merge)

A melancholy imagining of what American life will be like once our wars against terrorism are finally over, young neo-traditionalist rocker M. Ward has created the most beautiful record of his short, already distinguished career. While his acoustic guitar playing retains its folky, John Fahey-esque bluesiness, Post War finds Ward's arrangements lushed up with strings, piano, and kettle drums and other such sonic grandeur, creating a vast panorama for his understated and, at times, eerie tenor. It's schizoid, by turns achingly gentle and violently boisterous, utterly joyous and profoundly depressed. In other words, it's the perfect album for our imperfect times. John Nova Lomax

What's indie rock? Who cares. Here's ten great CDs that will blow you away, no matter your definition

Clearly nobody needs a primer on indie rock. We all have our own idea of what it is, right? Nonetheless, why is it that so few of us can agree on who deserves such a designation? Fact is, attempting to define indie rock universally is as futile a task as trying to explain why Nyquil is green and Dayquil is orange.

Is the term literal? Should major label artists excluded from consideration? If so, where would that leave quintessential indie bands like Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, and R.E.M.? Or is indie purely an aesthetic, a euphemism for music that's lo-fi, lowbrow, homemade, hi-fi, highfalutin, derivative, experimental, subversive, literate, or jangly? Or is it an ethos, an ideal based solely on a DIY approach?

Ultimately, as any Pitchdork blogger or college radio DJ worth his salt could tell you, indie rock is a shape shifting term that encompasses any and/or all of those things. And many of my favorite releases this year offer a pretty good reflection of that sentiment.

1. TV on the Radio

Return to Cookie Mountain

(Interscope)

Critical consensus suggests that the members of TV on the Radio are some sort of interstellar academicians. Really, though, they're just some arty fellas from Brooklyn that strive to consistently put out compelling music. Ascending Cookie Mountain is a challenging feat thanks to the dense, unsettling backdrops created by guitarist/producer David Andrew Sitek. Fortunately, the penetrating melodies of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone blaze a trail to the top, revealing some stunning vistas along the way.

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