• Arctic Monkeys, 'Favourite Worst Nightmare' (Domino)

    Imagine you're 19 or 20, and your first album breaks sales records, wins multiple awards, and shows up on virtually every critics poll. What do you do next? If you're Sheffield, England's Arctic Monkeys, you work and work and work, a tactic that soon resulted in the quiet departure of apparently exhausted bassist Andy Nicholson. Released just more than a year after Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, Favourite Worst Nightmare captures a maturing band caught in a relentless hurricane of archetypal British hype. Wound up from constant gigging while integrating replacement bassist Nick O'Malley, the quartet eschews Brit-pop finesse, playing heavier and tighter, with rough punk precision. Though the album retains the keenly articulated observations and tricky rhymes that link songwriter Alex Turner to A-grade rappers, there are fewer hooks to support them.

  • Mika, 'Life in Cartoon Motion' (Casablanca/ Universal Republic)

    From the Beatles at their campiest to Scissor Sisters at their catchiest, this Lebanon-born Londoner comes on like an agreeably eager compendium of every gay and gay-ish pop act of the past 40 years. Sometimes he veers too close to his source material and surrenders to sap (check the Robbie Williams-sucking "Erase," with its fleeting rip of the Cranberries' "Zombie"), but mostly this U.K.-chart-topping magpie makes good with bountiful tunes and Broadway vocal dazzle that could slay even the High School Musical crowd. Now Hear This: Mika - "Grace Kelly" DOWNLOAD MP3 BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Fujiya & Miyagi, 'Transparent Things' (Deaf Dumb + Blind)

    Stealing shamelessly from Neu!'s propulsive kraut-rock rhythms, Talking Heads' angular guitars, and Wire's deadpan abstraction, the three Brits who call themselves Fujiya & Miyagi skillfully flatter their obvious sources. There's tension in the coolness of "Ankle Injuries," plus equal helpings of tuneful pop, orderly art, and compressed rock. On "Collarbone," amid a minimal arrangement, singer David Best sighs about shoes with classic Anglo detachment, but the guitars and synths interlock in engaging and invigorating ways. This is dance music downsized for iPods but also indie rock expanded for the dance floor. Now Hear This: Fujiya & Miyagi - "Photocopier" DOWNLOAD MP3 >> Listen to Fujiya & Miyagi on Napster BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Air, 'Pocket Symphony' (Astralwerks)

    While retaining the meticulous sonics of Beck/Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, Air's Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel eliminate almost all percussion from their fourth album, streamlining the music's already intimate Gallic lushness and plaintive melodicism. The resulting tunes occupy a hushed netherworld between classical minimalists like Erik Satie and Timbaland (without the beats). And while the subtly unsettling ambience lacks the fireworks of their 1998 debut, Moon Safari, the breathtaking peak, "One Hell of a Party," featuring ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker aching bittersweetly over traditional Japanese string instruments (played by Godin), menaces in miniature. Now Hear This: Air - "Once Upon a Time" DOWNLOAD MP3 >> Listen to Air on Napster BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • LCD Soundsystem, 'Sound of Silver' (DFA/Capitol)

    Of all the current dance-rock acts, LCD Soundsystem generates grooves that are the most simultaneously disco and punk. On the nine-track sequel to 2005's double-disc debut, one-man band James Murphy (of production/remixing duo DFA) relies not on sequencers or samples, but on his own propulsive drums, walking bass lines, scratchy guitar figures, and clattering percussion, all of which lurch and accelerate with the momentum of an often hardened but always human heart. There's nothing on Sound of Silver as overtly soulful as the Paradise Garage–worshipping opening segment of 45:33, Murphy's Nike-commissioned iTunes workout opus. He's genuinely singing here, and although he's traded most of the Mark E.

  • Alela Diane, 'The Pirate's Gospel' (Holocene Music)

    Accompanied mostly by her acoustic guitar, newcomer Alela Diane Menig sings stark, ghostly folk. And while her chords and picking may be beginner's stuff, she's already flaunting a large, lived-in growl flavored by antediluvian blues and jazz inflections. Far less girly than kindred spirit Joanna Newsom, and no less commanding, this Portland-based siren shares with her pal a primitivism shaped by backward glances and backwoods living. Warning of nightmarish rural invaders in "The Rifle" and vowing to keep her eyes open on the showstopping sea chantey title track, Diane seems destined for grander endeavors. Now Hear This: Alela Diane - "Pieces of String" DOWNLOAD MP3 >> Listen to Alela Diane on Napster BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Sufjan Stevens, 'Songs for Christmas' (Asthmatic Kitty)

    Collecting four privately distributed EPs, plus a new one, this two-hour, five-disc retrospective of the Brooklyn songwriter's Christmas-themed output documents Stevens' transformation from unremarkable folkie Jesus freak to unorthodox Christian mega-talent. Recorded in December 2001, the first disc features feeble banjo plucking, forgettable original tunes, awkward renditions of traditional hymns, and patently atrocious singing. The next two, recorded in '02 and '03, are slight improvements. But Stevens extends the vibrant ambition of last year's breakout album Illinois to '05's confident Joy, then tops himself on this year's lush and livelier Peace with bejeweled pop ornaments like "Get Behind Me, Santa!" Now Hear This: Sufjan Stevens - "Sister Winter" DOWNLOAD MP3 Now Watch This: Sufjan Stevens - "Put the Lights on the Tree" BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Nellie McKay, 'Pretty Little Head' (Hungry Mouse)

    Late last year Columbia sent this New York alternative cabaret singer's 16-track second album to some magazines (including this one) for review (read more), despite her intention to release it as a more sprawling 23-track disc. The label then dropped McKay over the dispute, but the full album has finally surfaced with quirkier and catchier results than the short version. More Ben Folds than Norah Jones, McKay's refreshingly impulsive songwriting, arrangement, and piano skills run amok: "Swept Away" flaunts a fresh banjo solo, while "Mama and Me" kicks rapped verses that tellingly rhyme "embryo" and "Nintendo" with "Brecht, though." Now Hear This: Nellie McKay - "There You Are in Me" DOWNLOAD MP3 On SPIN.com:Spin's review of the abridged Pretty Little HeadNellie McKay to Columbia: 'Get Away'Artist of the Day: Nellie McKay BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Ima Robot, 'Monument to the Masses' (Virgin)

    Like the twitchy new-wave bands on which they're modeled, Los Angeles' Ima Robot enthusiastically satisfy sugar cravings when they hang their prefab power chords and plastic synth hooks on spiffy melodies, like during their second album's Oingo Boingo–esque opening and closing cuts ("Disconnect" and "Dangerous Life"). In between, the tunes get so thin that frontman Alex Ebert's pinched Angloid yelping sometimes breaks down into very white rapping. These bleats need more than beats. Now Hear This: Ima Robot - "Creeps Me Out" WINDOWS MEDIA | REAL PLAYER BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • The Dears, 'Gang of Losers' (Arts & Crafts)

    It's true: Montreal's the Dears are fronted by a black man who sounds exactly like Blur/Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn crooning the Smiths' songbook -- an ear-turning reversal of the usual white appropriation of African American and Jamaican styles. And Murray Lightburn doesn't flinch from the race issue that comes with his band's particularly pasty shade of rock. "We ain't here to steal your women / Or at least that wasn't planned," he sneers on "Whites Only Party," cheekily acknowledging his recent marriage to Dears keyboardist Natalia Yanchak. Throughout the sextet's third album, Lightburn acknowledges that indie rock both soothes his soul and inflames his alienation.

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