• Amadou & Mariam / Benoit Peverelli

    Amadou & Mariam, 'Folila' (Nonesuch)

    For all we know, there's a guitarist on every Bamako street corner who can outplay Amadou Bagayoko. Over the past decade, caravan-loads of superior shredders, trained by Hendrix and Qaddafi, have emerged from the Sahara and Sahel to expand our notion of African desert blues. Likewise, plenty of robust Wassalou divas handily out-belt Mariam Doumbia, a flickering candle up against the full-blast supernova that is Malian soul queen Oumou Sangare; vocally, Amadou hasn't exactly got Salif Keita's pipes himself. The self-dubbed "blind couple of Mali" can sing and play, but neither their technical proficiency nor their natural talent dazzles enough to have alone catapulted this husband-and-wife duo past multitudes of striving West Africans hungry for international success.

  • Bonnie Raitt, 'Slipstream' (Redwing)

    One reggaefied AM gem ("Right Down the Line)," two bluesed-out '90s Dylan cuts, and many, many great guitars.

  • Andrew Bird, 'Break It Yourself' (Bella Union)

    Genteel aesthete inches near the borders of his tastefully manicured comfort zone, but never past them.

  • Meat Loaf, 'Hell in a Handbasket' (Legacy)

    Even in the '70s, the decade that rendered the phrase "wretched excess" a critical cliché, Bat Out of Hell distinguished itself as the apotheosis of theatrical hard-rock overkill. With production handled by Todd Rundgren, touring-company rejects Marvin "Meat Loaf " Aday and producer/impresario Jim Steinman didn't so much synthesize Jesus Christ Superstar and Born to Run as they imagined the Venn diagram where the Wagnerian kitsch elements of each overlapped. Though mostly remembered for "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," a go-to jam for shameless DJs at weddings and college bars who think the crowd won't find the stylized gender rivalry of "You're the One That I Want" risqué enough, the 14-times-platinum Hell, like so much of that decade's dreck, wasn't just a crass cash-in.

  • Jennifer Castle, 'Castlemusic' (No Quarter)

    Nature-attuned Torontonian belts with demure confidence, like a long-lost McGarrigle out to stay that way.

  • Fanfarlo, 'Rooms Filled With Light' (Canvasback/Atlantic)

    Indie team sings what they know ("Shiny Things," "Deconstruction"); frilly, punchy orch-pop trifle.

  • Terry Malts, 'Killing Time' (Slumberland)

    Neurotic, nauseous, non-Christian, weekend-awaiting San Fran Ramonesmaniacs commit 14 toons in 33.5 minutes.

  • Sinead O'Connor, 'How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?' (One Little Indian)

    Someday will "not be so serious," today enjoys mystic visions of Christ's blood.

  • Beth Jeans Houghton, 'Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose' (Mute)

    Brit thrush swoops from murmur to keen. Ramshackle band charms. Noteworthy lyrics TK?

  • Of Montreal, 'Paralytic Stalks' (Polyvinyl)

    Of Montreal, 'Paralytic Stalks' (Polyvinyl)

    Of all the psychedelic psychos who have professed membership in the Athens, Georgia-based indie-pop collective Elephant 6, none have written songs as maddeningly diffuse as Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes. His band's '90s recordings weren't artfully disjointed (like Olivia Tremor Control), or expressively messianic (like Neutral Milk Hotel), or playfully tweaked classic-rock (like Apples in Stereo). They were just the melodic doodles of a dude unwilling or unable to follow any but the most roundabout route from one note to the next, a series of incorrectly completed connect-the-dots puzzles that were borderline catchy enough to be mistaken for pop music. Eventually, and unexpectedly, Barnes' hooks started falling into place.

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