• Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, 'House Arrest' (Paw Tracks)

    Remember in The Wall when no matter how high poor Pink got, he couldn't break free from the bricks, and the worms ate into his brain? Well, imagine those were the kind of worms that sang Beach Boys harmonies. That's probably what's burrowed into the head of Ariel Pink, a 27-year-old California dreamer whose nom de tape suggests the wiggy offspring of Syd Barrett and Shakespeare's shape-shifting Tempest sprite. He's a human aerial, too, making eight-track pop that snags '70s AM radio fragments from the ether of collective memory. These concoctions get drug-smudged with off-time lyrics and happy-hippy percussion that periodically kicks in with a smoked-out Concert for Bangladesh propulsion. As to whether Ariel Pink is as outsider-art crazy as he sounds, does it matter if his music is a schizoid jumble or just the genius hum of a crammed cranium?

  • Talib Kweli, 'Right About Now...' (Blacksmith/Koch)

    Just before his second solo album came out in 2004 Talib Kweli got onstage at a tiny New York club and previewed a few jams. The Brooklyn rapper slayed. In fact, it seemed crazy that he was still a small enough star to perform there. But then The Beautiful Struggle dropped, and there were no hits to rival 2002's Kanye-graced "Get By." Despite shout-outs from Jay-Z, another Kweli project fell into the cracks between commercial and indie rap. On Right About Now, the brainy one delivers more stylistic stew, but his agile attack still lacks Jigga's precision, 50's swagger, or Kanye's cocky confessionalism. The thump and plinked arpeggios on "Who Got It" won't have you "automatically pressin' rewind," as Kweli promises.

  • Atmosphere, 'You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having' (Rhymesayers)

    Calling something "emo" is usually just a way of talking about guys who ain't too proud to beg or, y'know, cry. But there's a lot of ambivalence out there fronting as sensitivity. Scratch that velveteen surface and you might find a megalomaniac. That's not the case with Atmosphere's Slug -- except when it is. Anointed a phenom after getting cleverly candid on 1997's Overcast and wickedly enshrining an ex on 2001's Lucy Ford EPs, the charismatic indie rapper refused major-label cheddar, frustrating fans who longed to hear his rhymes over radio-size tracks. But it's hard to imagine him going that route -- 2003's Seven's Travels showed a deep love for his unflashy hometown of Minneapolis.

  • Liz Phair, 'Somebody's Miracle' (Capitol)

    Liz Phair may never make another smart-sexy classic like Exile in Guyville. But two years ago, when the former indie vixen took a shot at teen pop, lots of old-time devotees, especially those of the graying male variety, were apoplectic about her new direction. Feigning offense at her jag into radio cheesecake, they were mostly stung by the idea of her drooling over a young hottie with better Xbox skills. She still wanted to be somebody's blowjob queen, but not theirs. Phair has mostly dropped the cradle-robbing MILF shtick on her new record, but it's no return to exile. This album is closer to 1998's whitechocolatespaceegg: mature and complicated. Working with the producers behind John Mayer and Michelle Branch, she flirts with a sound that wouldn't be out of place on CMT. The honky-tonkish "Got My Own Thing" even has a Shania-style breakdown rap.

  • Peaches, 'Fatherfucker' (Kitty-Yo/XL Recordings/Beggars Group)

    She's got the magic shtick. There may have been no real electroclash "movement," but there certainly was a Peaches--a thirtysomething, self-producing, omni-horny, androgynous Canadian breathing heavy over the skittle-diddling beats of her trusty fuzzbox. The single "Fuck the Pain Away," an ode to erotic ennui from her debut album, blasted hipsters for checking out her "Chrissy behind" and solidified her rep as a do-you feminist. Aside from that track, what else was in The Teaches of Peaches? Sadly, not too much. So her new joint smartly takes the groove machine to the garage for an oil change, replacing Williamsburg pomade with Detroit crude.

  • Tori Amos, 'Scarlet's Walk' (Epic)

    Let's go, USA! Shortly after September 11, Tori Amos embarked on a cross-country tour. She came back with material for Scarlet's Walk, an impressionistic travelogue that turns the American landscape into an extension of Amos' own freaky head space. On her 2001 covers album, Strange Little Girls, Amos Photoshopped herself into Eminem's nightmares and Neil Young's dreams; here, she projects herself into places, not faces, blurring her persona into the scenery to highlight deeper truths about both. Amos may still be best known for confessing deep secrets while bumping and grinding her Bösendorfer. But her real ax is empathy, and on Scarlet's Walk, she internalizes everything from porn culture to the legacy of westward expansion. As usual, her melodies stubbornly refuse to turn into hooks, preferring to twirl into new territory.

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