A Very Good Year

Want to know why I do this, over and above it's a living? Because as of August 14 or so I thought it was a lousy year—until the grading discipline made me come to terms with just how good the new Sleater-Kinney, Mekons, and Spoon albums are.

THE APPLES IN STEREO
Velocity of Sound (SpinArt)
After years of taking the band name literally, I realized that not even Magical Mystery Tour was this arch. If Robert Schneider's falsetto affect evokes the '60s, it's such extreme cases as the Hollies of "Carrie-Anne" and the Small Faces of "Itchycoo Park," a narrow frame of reference even as formalism goes. Here it's played for teen ambience rather than musicianly musing. The gurl cameos help, as does the antigurl Beach Boys closer, but since the teens it speaks for are as imaginary as the era it honors, that Schneider (just barely) brings the conceit off is the usual tribute to his songwriting chops. If he had anything to say, he could be a contender. A MINUS

DEXTER'S LABORATORY: THE HIP-HOP EXPERIMENT
(Cartoon Network/Rhino)
With sci-fi a linchpin of hip-hop's nerd underground, a kiddie show gets it right for the ideal length of one EP. De La Soul are grownups who could have sent up "Sibling Rivalries" on their own, but both Coolio and a Black Eyed Pea to be spelled later benefit mightily from what Kool Moe Dee used to call sticking to themes. Also from cultivating what Kool Moe Dee didn't know enough to call innocence. A MINUS

MARIANNE FAITHFULL
Kissin Time(Virgin/Hut)
She's a professional sufferer, to be taken seriously as who she is rather than what she symbolizes. That said, and despite two dull Billy Corgan copyrights, these collaborations with the likes of Blur and Beck are her best bunch of songs since—not Broken English, that's ridiculous, but Strange Weather or A Child's Adventure. And that said, its peak is a ghost closer from the '60s, Goffin-King's supremely untortured "I'm Into Something Good"—inspired by Earl Jean's version, not Herman's Hermits', all feminists devoutly hope. B PLUS

ICE CUBE
Greatest Hits(Priority)
He's always been intelligent, and talented. What he hasn't always been is honest. So though I miss "Dead Homiez" and the late anomaly where he plays an ex-G in a wheelchair, and note that this garbage scow lists alarmingly when it takes on his 1998 and 2000 albums (both named War and Peace, after how hard it is to get through them), I'm grateful to be able to access so many of his best beats and rhymes without once hearing him incite a race riot or force a Catholic schoolgirl to lick his testicles. A MINUS

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO
Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape(Maverick)
Age increased the wisdom she trafficked in while familiarity cut into the sexual allure that ran the roadblocks. So here's hoping Madonna Inc. is as ready to forgive Ndegeocello's limited profitability as she is to not be a materialistic girl. Her basslines prove that unmaterialistic ain't immaterial, and without resorting to anything so obvious as a hook she manages to maintain continuity and interest over an hour-plus of poetry-with-funk. Quiet storm music for people who don't turn off their brains when they get down to bidness—at least not right away. A MINUS

PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES
Good Health(Lookout)
"All we are, all we are, all we are/Is trying not to fall into line," goes half of one song, and by dint of palpable effort and notable skill, this grrrlish Seattle neopostpunk quintet succeed—except insofar as neopostpunk sets a line of its own, of course. For three EPs now become one 27-minute CD, they thrash out herky-jerk bombardiering, guitar abrasions that won't go away, and themes, classic themes: alienation, separation, betrayal, all that negative intensity. The counterbalance is a golden age they strive to re-create in the present tense: "And nothing else matters/When I turn it up loud." Probably the struggle will prove too much in the end. But Fugazi has made a life of it—a life some pretty girls aspire to. A MINUS

RIZWAN-MUAZZAM QAWWALI
A Better Destiny(RealWorld)
You bet I A-shelved The Rough Guide to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Music Club's Ecstasy even better. Nevertheless, my basic attitude toward the prolific late great is enough already: We atheists need only so much Allah, and a little marginal differentiation helps the Sufism go down. I didn't notice the first two albums by this group, led by two more of Nusrat's numberless nephews, and I might like the first, by the label's account "traditional" rather than the "hypnotic fusion" of the Count Dubulah-aided follow-up. But when I grabbed this one blind, I had a reconversion experience. Even by qawwali standards Rizwan and Muazzam have big voices—rival nephew Rahat is distressingly reedy by comparison. They're at once more forceful and more eccentric than fraternal competitors the Sabri Brothers. And they're also lively, leaping higher and crazier than nephew Basrat on his latest speed-qawwali venture, the imaginatively titled Lost in Qawwali III. A MINUS

SPOON
Kill the Moonlight(Merge)
It's so reassuring when the indie rumor mill isn't just licking its own asshole. Britt Daniel and company's Merge-reissued 1998 Elektra cutout A Series of Sneaksdoesn't qualify as the instant pleasure hypesters claim. It's too spiky and too cryptic. But it certainly earned its cult, which was onto something much bigger than last year's Girls Can Tell, the breakthrough album skeptics like me took for a fluke peak: namely, this one. Eggo Johansen's piano-styled keybs mark the hooks as Daniel exploits the catch in his voice to establish a humane mood. There's even a thematic thread. If I was feeling cranky I might argue that songs about marginality will consign you to the margins every time. But the two titles that set the course, "Small Stakes" and "How We Get By," seem pretty universal to me. A

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