• Prince, '3121' (Universal)

    By: Will Hermes What should the greatest pop musician of his generation do when a new generation has the reins? Compete, or become a museum attraction? Prince wants to do both. The medium-hot Musicology (2004) was mostly anthropology, praising James Brown, dissing hip-hop "if it ain't Chuck D or Jam Master Jay," and issuing a challenge: "Take your pick -- turntable or a band?" In Kanye's world, however, that equation ain't so simple. Prince's old-school funk remains superlative: He can still outplay and outperform most any pop act, hip-hop or otherwise.

  • The Flaming Lips, 'At War With the Mystics' (Warner Bros.)

    At 45, Lips frontman Wayne Coyne has seen as much ugliness as anybody of his generation. Yet alt rock's Captain Kangaroo keeps it cheerily surreal, a feat more impressive for how his musical positivity seems -- like some sci-fi monster -- to feed off of horror. The lushly affirmational The Soft Bulletin was inspired by watching his now-clean bandmate Steven Drozd disappear into heroin addiction. And as Coyne suggests in the notes to the retrospective Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, he owes his aesthetic worldview in part to an LSD freak-out at a fast-food drive-through window. So you'd expect that, at this fucked-up moment in history, he'd have plenty of fuel. He does, and while At War With the Mystics is billed as a political record, it's more concerned with what happens in the head than in the streets.

  • Neko Case, 'Fox Confessor Brings the Flood' (Anti-)

    Besides having the sexiest snaggletooth in indie rock, Neko Case may be the scene's hardest-working gal. She records and tours with Canuck ultrapoppers the New Pornographers; writes, records, and tours as a solo artist; and also finds time for the occasional side project (like her currently dormant duo with Carolyn Mark, the Corn Sisters). And she's no one-trick pony; her majestically outsize voice, one of pop music's best, blows up the Pornos' '80s-rock fantasies, her own country songs, or a cover by the Shangri-Las with equal power. But her fourth proper studio solo disc shows that for all her versatility, she has a singular vision when it comes to her own music. And Lordy, it is dark. One glimpsed it on her 1997 debut, The Virginian (back when the red-maned Case rocked a spit curl), a record that dropped ethereal, death-haunted love songs between more familiar honky-tonk exercises.

  • Various Artists, 'Run the Road, Volume 2' (Vice)

    By: Will Hermes Watching a genre invent itself is one of pop's great thrills: With rules ill-defined at best, even artistic duds become compelling for how they complete the cultural picture. So it is with U.K. grime, which has been a train-spotter's fairground for the past year. That's not to say it's been easy to track, so the Run the Road series remains useful for those who don't (yet) spend their days banging Rinse FM webcasts and trawling MP3 blogs for ripped white labels. More so than the first set, Run the Road Volume 2 shows a scene speedily mutating, with artists like Kano, Sway, and Crazy Titch inviting the question of what grime exactly is. Dirty post-jungle beats with rappers? Hip-hop with weird accents? East London dancehall reggae? One trademark continues to be humor, which hip-hop can always use more of, and which perhaps anticipates U.S.

  • Cat Power, 'The Greatest' (Matador)

    In the performance film Speaking for Trees, Chan Marshall walks barefoot into a sun-spangled field, jacks in her electric guitar, and for the next two hours makes like she's digging a hole in her brain's backyard. Songs begin tentatively, then drift off mid-verse; lyrics are forgotten and fudged; numbers are inexplicably repeated; sometimes the volume drops so low the cicadas and the breeze threaten to drown her out. It's classic Cat Power: fragile, unsettled, riveting. Amid the recent fuss over indie rock's New Weird Americana, it's easy to forget that this odd Southern girl has been releasing dreamily primitive electric folk-blues records for more than ten years now -- wobbly art brut affairs held together with hair and saliva, her voice mostly a murmuring drone that wafts from the speakers like sadnessscented room freshener. But something happened on 2003's You Are Free.

  • Hot Chip, 'Coming on Strong' (Astralwerks)

    Timmy Thomas' 1972 beat-boxdriven hit "Why Can't We Live Together?" is a paradigm of how machine rhythms can make the human voice sound simultaneously stalwart and vulnerable. That quality has been milked by countless button-pushing acts, from New Order to the Neptunes. London's Hot Chip, the latest posse of bleepy R&B-boys, sound like Kraftwerk if the Germans were record-shop clerks in a High Fidelity update -- know-it-alls who love Nick Drake, DJ Screw, and Ashford & Simpson.

  • Diplo, 'FabricLive 24' (Fabric) Mylo, 'Destroy Rock and Roll' (Breastfed)

    Diplo, 'FabricLive 24' (Fabric) Mylo, 'Destroy Rock and Roll' (Breastfed)

    In the postboom electronica scene, there are two sorts of DJs: the purists who preach to the converted in a bleep-world bubble (German passports are often a tip-off); and the kind of people who, artistically speaking, want hos in every area code -- happy to wallow through all sorts of flotsam to find the groove, used or new, that'll blow the largest number of minds. Wesley Pentz, a.k.a. Diplo, and Myles MacInnes, a.k.a. Mylo, are in the latter camp. Given Diplo's relatively high profile as gray-market mix-tape priest and M.I.A.'s on-and-off beat-banger, it's surprising that the latest entry in the Fabric club's excellent CD series is one of Diplo's first aboveground DJ mixes.

  • System of a Down, 'Hypnotize' (American/Columbia)

    System of a Down toured arenas this year with Bad Acid Trip, a spaz-metal band whose moniker fits System pretty well -- although Half-Bad Acid Trip would be more fitting. System like to channel-surf between screaming death-metal freak-outs and dilated art-mosh celebration, with bits of Armenian folk music and cartoonish vocals thrown in for good measure. "Chop Suey!" -- their best-known single (from 2001's Toxicity) -- is in the running for the most uplifting song about suicidal tendencies that wasn't recorded by Suicidal Tendencies. Suffice to say, this is a profoundly bipolar band. Hypnotize is part two of the split opus they began earlier this year with Mezmerize, joining Conor Oberst and Kate Bush in the revival of that '70s art-rock archetype, the double LP. And it proves again that System's strength, and their weakness, lies in their 100-mph mood swings.

  • Sigur Ros, 'Takk...' (Geffen)

    On Vespertine, Björk built a perfect song ("Aurora") around the sound of feet crunching through snow. "Glósóli," the first full song on Takk..., by fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós, uses a similar groove, only wetter, and it's similarly perfect -- not just because slush-slogging seems as inborn a rhythm for them as a reggae lope for a Jamaican band, but because the gravitybound pulse makes the inevitable liftoff even more breathtaking. There is no more transportive band working in music. Dudes should really brand an airline. Other musicians are paying attention too: Thom Yorke has crowed about the group for years, and Chris Martin, whose swooping falsetto is almost as sublime as the seraphic coo of Sigur's Jónsi Birgisson, rates the band just behind Bob Marley and Radiohead in his personal pantheon.

  • Dandy Warhols, 'Odditorium or Warlords of Mars' (Capitol)

    In the 2004 documentary DIG!, Portland, Oregon's Dandy Warhols came off as cute honor-roll rockers -- a smart, practical band with pleasant demeanors and flattering haircuts -- slumming it with their scuzzy, detention-bound buddies in the Brian Jonestown Massacre. By the film's end, you know whom you'd rather be a groupie for. And shamefully, it is not the better of the bands. Sure, DIG!'s mythmaking was reductive: the self-destructive genius (Jonestown's Anton Newcombe) versus the less talented sellout (the Dandys' Courtney Taylor). But it made for a good story, and if the Dandys were painted as somewhat shallow careerists, well, a listen to their back catalog pretty much confirms that idea.

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