Peter S. Scholtes

  • Mary J. Blige, 'My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act I)' (Matriarch/Geffen)

    Mary J. Blige, 'My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act I)' (Matriarch/Geffen)

    For someone who heard her first hits played on the radio while still living in the projects, hip-hop soul's Queen of Pain has rarely repeated herself. Since taking more songwriting control with 1994's My Life, she has chased her wrenchingly emotional autobiography across every R&B style, cycling through producers like hairdos, often peaking on deep cuts. So forgive the clunky title, Dolly Parton-worthy schmaltz, and wack "Ain't Nobody" cover, and cherish such funky, mid-tempo beauties as "Irreversible," "Midnight Drive," and "Someone to Love Me (Naked)," where she gets name rappers to slow down like lovers.

  • Blondie, 'Panic of Girls' (noble id)

    Blondie, 'Panic of Girls' (noble id)

    Accept that the woman who taught the Muppets to love punk now has the hotly compressed vocal timbre of a Thai disco singer, and the latest reunion of this great New York band still holds many charms. With synths buzzing like neon, reggae barely winking at dancehall, and Debbie Harry intoning lyrics in French and Spanish, it sounds more '80s than the actual '80s. The tunes keep coming (from the power pop of "D-Day" to the lovely Beirut cover "Sunday Smile"), with enough irresponsible momentum and guitar grime to erase the feeling that it would all sound better live.

  • Jolie Holland, 'Pint of Blood' (Anti-)

    Jolie Holland, 'Pint of Blood' (Anti-)

    Part marble-mouth, part singing saw, Jolie Holland is such a casually sexy singer that she could lazily evoke a freak-folk Elvis by emphasizing just a bit more swagger. But the frightened pop jangle of "Mexico City," the lead track off 2008's The Living and the Dead, was a serious step forward in songwriting; and Pint of Blood, with returning multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, sneaks more hooks into her atmospheric smear. "All Those Girls" is slow-burn country grunge, "Wreckage" whispers Orbison, and "Little Birds" recasts a tune from her old band the Be Good Tanyas as an Afro-rumba for a nighttime forest.

  • Unknown Mortal Orchestra, 'Unknown Mortal Orchestra' (Fat Possum)

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra, 'Unknown Mortal Orchestra' (Fat Possum)

    Beneath its bubbles of reverb and bashful echoes, this homemade psych-pop breakout from Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban Nielson seems to aim for the spare modernist funk of the Meters — as well as some of their melancholy. The oddly upbeat "How Can U Luv Me" screams for a Prince remake, but Nielson gets a more original sound out of slower, guitar-centered riff-nosis, absorbing jazz and classical like Steely Dan trapped inside Kanye West's "Monster." If Nielson ever puts his scratchy, witchy voice front and center where it belongs, watch out.

  • Art Brut, 'Brilliant! Tragic!' (Cooking Vinyl/The End)

    Art Brut, 'Brilliant! Tragic!' (Cooking Vinyl/The End)

    Honoring a spoken-punk tradition closer to Flipper than the Fall, 2009's Art Brut vs. Satan was these Londoners' pop apotheosis, although only fans noticed. Now singer Eddie Argos yearns "to give the world the finger with the exception of my favorite lead singer" -- in this case, Axl Rose -- and even if he's acting, he commits with his voice, going for a whisper and a scream instead of his usual ebullient deadpan. The results vary: "Lost Weekend" is some kind of romantic peak, while the Lennon-esque "I Am the Psychic" is not.

  • Low, 'C'Mon' (Sub Pop)

    Low, 'C'Mon' (Sub Pop)

    The deal-breaker for Low - what keeps the Duluth, Minnesota trio a cult band after 18 years (despite the Robert Plant covers) - isn't their Ozu-paced minimalism, but the vocals of husband-and-wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Blankly drawn out, they are as unlike expressive human speech as anything in rock. But with coproduction by Matt Beckley (Katy Perry, Ke$ha), Low finally treat that strangeness as a thing of pop beauty, filtered through soulful melodies. Goth-folk slow jam "Especially Me" burns with private anger, while "Witches" sounds like Jimi Hendrix thawing in the sun.

  • Those Darlins, 'Screws Get Loose' (Oh Wow Dang)

    Those Darlins, 'Screws Get Loose' (Oh Wow Dang)

    The bad-gal routine of this Tennessee trio's debut was shtick, but the sound never was: punky vocals sung in twangy unison, lit up by bright harmonies. And here, Those Darlins open up their sound even more -- to '60s girl groups, surf-punk guitar, and song structures that imagine the Quarrymen wanting to be Patsy Cline instead of Buddy Holly. Jessi Darlin flexes her flat growl, and on "Be Your Bro," she asserts with a Jaggery edge, "I may have girlie parts / But I got a boyish heart."

  • Juliana Hatfield, 'Peace and Love' (Ye Olde)

    Applying her forlorn high notes and ruthless lyrics about relationships to Sheryl Crow-ish pop on 2008's How to Walk Away, Hatfield loosed a smokier voice, with songs as catchy as her Blake Babies and mid-'90s solo peaks. Here, awash in bedroom multitracking, she's more diffuse: "Evan," for the Lemonhead, practically floats away. Yet the title track, "What Is Wrong," and the insinuating "Why Can't We Love Each Other" are affirmations turned narratives that are sharpened rather than softened by their harmonies, while the lovely instrumental "Unsung" suggests she might be a lyrical guitarist yet. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • The Clean, 'Mister Pop' (Merge)

    The Clean's gift to indie punk was snappily drummed, gorgeously scuzzed krautrock pop scaled to human size by three male Moe Tuckers trading vocals like they just wandered in from the beach. But the band's first studio album in eight years takes the Farfisa-surf luminescence of 2003's must-own, career-spanning Anthology deeper into psychedelia, for good (the sublime Go-Betweens harmonies of "In the Dreamlife You Need a Rubber Soul") and ill (the sub-Bongwater satire of "Are You Really on Drugs?"). "Asleep in the Tunnel" recaptures the old magic -- exotic yet casual. BUY: iTunesAmazon

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