Plenty of bands blow their first major-label advance on cars, Jacuzzis, and cars with Jacuzzis in them; Rilo Kiley blew theirs hiring Dr. Dre and Fiona Apple knob-twiddler Mike Elizondo, who helped trick out their relentlessly crafty tunes with tasty traces of sleek mid-'80s R&B, big-band Nashville blues, and dreamy Fleetwood Mac-style coke rock. A storyteller with a diarist's penchant for self-incrimination, frontwoman Jenny Lewis uses the sonic flash to flesh out her songs, which zoom in on the classic Hollywood three-way between money, power, and sex. MIKAEL WOOD
It takes a smart band to do metal this gloriously dumb; the flamboyant Norwegian cult heroes who answer the musical question "What Is Rock?" with the lyric "Rock is the possibility of choking on your own vomit in the back of a rapist's van" surely deserve a MacArthur grant. Now in their third decade of inflicting the ear-bleeding, self-aware, Alice Cooperish riff rock that Art Brut merely winks at from a safe, ironic distance, Turbonegro are wise enough to know the dick jokes ("Stroke the Shaft") and the groaner puns ("Hell Toupee") are funnier when the songs can be taken seriously. STEVE KANDELL
U.K. grime's early-2000s sound –– a flurry of bass grrrr, scuttling death-drums, chintzy synths, and pirate-radio jabber –– never felt like a trend with Dizzee Rascal. And on his pointed third album, the MC/producer is still bristling with off-kilter beats and moods. "There's a world outside of the ghetto / And I want you to see it," he muses on the ethereal opener. He tangles council-estate police panic with noise-guitar gnarl on "Sirens," while "Pussyole (Old Skool)" boasts a nimble dance-floor skip. Angry, hopeful, and playful, Maths contains dizzying multitudes. CHARLES AARON
Confronted with a world spinning off its axis, Fugazi's most articulate heirs deliver their London Calling, experimenting with everything from anthemic calls to resistance ("The Sons of Cain") to jaunty Celtic storytelling ("A Bottle of Buckie") to sweetly swinging pop ("Colleen") to frantic art punk that shouts down military cowardice ("Bomb.Repeat.Bomb"). Leo can be verbose, but he's never less than wholehearted, balancing topical specificity with raw emotion. And the Pharmacists tear into complicated melodies with the verve of true believers. JOE GROSS
Mixing last-century guitar riffs with trashy beats, anachronistic samples, and filthy lyrics, this Brazilian baile-funk trio are about as pretentious as Punky Brewster (both dig neon stretch pants). Why fuss with obscure tracks when the beat from Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing" still sounds dope? Tastemaking DJ Diplo discovered the group via their MySpace page in 2005, and his production on their debut LP is chirpy and cheap, full of half-raps and schoolyard chants. It's high-fun low art, guaranteed to make even your cheesiest dance moves look awesome. AMANDA PETRUSICH
Don't let the title fool you –– Say Anything frontman Max Bemis doesn't just spend 27 (!) tracks justifying the existence of the E-word. Rather, he channels his manic-depressive spirit to build up, knock down, praise, and light ablaze the predominant rock sound of the moment. In Defense of the Genre also acts as a state-of-the-union manifesto for arrested-development twentysomethings trying to come to grips with complicated relationships ("Shiksa [Girlfriend]") and the struggle against cynicism ("Plea"). Self-important? Sure. But smart, nonetheless. KYLE ANDERSON
Not content to be merely a Björk manqué or a weirdo hippie chick, Natasha Khan channels her England-via-Narnia sensibilities through guitars, violins, and enough found percussion to give Tom Waits some ideas. Using fairy-tale imagery (magical horses, wizards) to talk about her own personal hang-ups (patriarchy, commitment), she never comes across as dishonest or cowardly. Rather, this is the sound of a young woman taking control of her own mythology, one zither riff at a time. K.A.
The seventh studio album from these British pop-metal lifers is their most contentious yet, best exemplified by "The Sweetest Song," a foul-mouthed kiss-off that starts out as a hardcore anthem before revealing a disarmingly angelic na-na-na-na chorus. Much of The Wildhearts is an equally unexpected mix of hopeless romanticism and relationship-weary nihilism, with nearly every song either a death threat, a love letter, or both: It's like a Fountains of Wayne album ghostwritten by GG Allin –– though at least that record would've had a shot at a Stateside release. BRIAN RAFTERY
A lucky 13 tracks and not a single dud among them –– this may well be the year's best bargain. Initially dubbed a Jesus and Mary Chain knockoff, the Los Angeles-based trio have finally found their druggy groove, four albums into a clove-smoke-choked career. On their most sophisticated set yet, the bloozegaze anthems are coated in an insidiously infectious pop veneer. From the mesmeric "Berlin" to the levee-breaking "666 Conducer," it's time to raise a glass (drop a tab?) to the new classic rock. DOUG BROD
While his Wolf Parade coleader, Spencer Krug, floods the market with side projects, Dan Boeckner only needs the one –– a homegrown affair that finds his wife Alexei backing his rich, vaguely Elvisy vocals and fuzzed-out guitars with sequencers and drum loops. But lest that description evoke cold, tossed-off self-indulgence, songs like "Cannot Get, Started" and "Sing! Captain" are every bit as earthy and exultant as the ones Boeckner churns out in his day job, if not more so. He doesn't just invite you into his basement, he hands you a pillow and a big mug of tea. S.K.
Minneapolis' Brother Ali is everything an underground rapper oughta be: A high-spirited, pitilessly honest, socially aware civilian who can ether out fools with a flick of his wit, who can flow with as much brio as any tipsy Top 40 thug, who's got funk and soul beats (via Atmosphere producer Ant) that bounce rather than brood, who spends more time worrying about his family than tossing bills at a pole, and who says up front: "I ain't gotta prove to any of you / That anything I ever said is the truth / But I'm ready to do it." C.A.
You need only look at the liner notes to understand the level at which Panda Bear (né Noah Lennox) is operating: His third solo outing samples Cat Stevens, Scott Walker, and Kraftwerk, each bleeding in and out of the Animal Collective member's dense pop dreamscapes. Yet the most otherworldly instrument on Person Pitch is Lennox's own voice, which he inflates and contorts in the most Wilsonian ways. "Do you know what coolness really is?" he asks on "Comfy in Nautica." It's a taunt: Lennox knows, and you have to listen close for the answer. K.A.
Reports of Sam Beam's transformation from bedroom-folk ghost whisperer to full-blown '70s rocker were somewhat exaggerated, but it's easy to be taken aback by the fullness of The Shepherd's Dog. Still, at the core of each dressed-up song sits the small, beautiful stillness he's always nurtured. Whether just amping up the velocity (as on the trippy "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car") or indulging in some deft boogie-woogie ("The Devil Never Sleeps"), Beam still evokes the air of mystery that's always defined him. JOSH MODELL
This powerful 35-minute dose of dreamlike Americana is stocked with choruses that make you want to holler along with Ben Bridwell's flashlight-through-the-fog vocals –– the "I could slee-ee-eep" wail of opener "Is There a Ghost" is especially hard to resist. With their mix of dreamy melancholy, Appalachian warmth, and taut guitar revving, the South Carolina-via-Seattle trio have crafted the rare album that attracts typically fractious fans from all sides of the balkanized indie universe. It's big-tent rock, tailor-made for campfires. MICHAEL ENDELMAN
Turns out that Conor Oberst is a traditionalist; it just took him a decade to work through his shambling sketchiness and embrace the clean sounds that he's always skirted –– check the driving "Hot Knives" for proof. Cassadaga finally gives some credence to those hoary Dylan comparisons, too: Big ideas –– politics, fate, existence –– are delivered with full-bore sonic polish: Strings swell, words fly, and the kid, now 27, turns in his "bright young thing" card for a steadier gig in the classic songwriters' club. J.M.
Josh Homme is everything you could ask for in a rock star: charismatic and cocky, the friendly crossing guard at the intersection of Black Sabbath and Black Flag. But that wouldn't mean a thing if he didn't have the songs to back up the swagger, and his fifth full-length under the Queens aegis delivers plenty: The Guitar Hero-approved "3's & 7's" and the vocoder-assisted "Misfit Love" are characteristic slabs of '70s-tinged boogie metal left out in the sun to bake like a clay bong. S.K.
It feels like years since the Shins' third album arrived on an avalanche of post-Garden State hype, and some critical distance serves the record well. Divorced from any discussion of what it portends for the band or its label or indie rock writ large, Wincing is exactly what singer/songwriter James Mercer wanted it to be: the perfect third album, working just enough sonic experimentation and willful obscurity into their agreeable, lyrically opaque pop to push the band forward rather than to the margins, without turning anybody off. S.K.
Record-store clerks (if there are any left) probably got their fill of being asked, "Do you have that whistling song?" in 2007, and yes, the irresistible earwig "Young Folks" is the highlight of PB&J's U.S. breakthrough. But not by much. Writer's Block deserves credit for far more than 15 seconds of air blown through pursed lips –– moodier and more complex than its gateway song, the album pulls distinctive little pop tarts from morose melodies, shuffling along to '80s synths one minute and casting longing glances at '90s American indie rock the next. J.M.
At first, these 24 largely acoustic cast-offs, recorded between 1994 and 1997, felt like the welcome reappearance of a lost friend, new and familiar at the same time. Hardly a cash-grab made up of half-baked curiosities, there isn't a track here that would've felt out of place on Roman Candle or Either/Or, before Smith's sound –– and his problems –– got bigger. That he could throw away songs as fully realized as "All Cleaned Out" or "New Monkey" serves to remind us how much talent he squandered. As comforts go, New Moon is a cold but essential one. S.K.
The title of Modest Mouse's sixth full-length seemed designed to squelch suspicions that the mainstream embrace of "Float On" had brightened frontman Isaac Brock's famously gloomy outlook. Yet, enlisting Johnny Marr of the Smiths to recharge the band's sound with his muscular guitar jangle, Modest Mouse have never seemed more stoked on perpetual disappointment than they are here: In "Dashboard," We Were Dead's pumping disco-grunge lead single, Brock's boys make it to the radio just in time for the car to go up in flames. M.W.
Kevin Barnes combines joy and misery into such pleasing confusion that it's hard to know whether he's going to shake his ass or collapse in a heap after each song. The bristling, buzzy "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse," blends new-wave bounce with lyrics detailing his battle with depression –– he begs his mind not to fail him by serenading it with chipper chirps and hip-swiveling slink. Psychological complexity and libertine flamboyance rarely complement each other so well in the either-or world of pop music. J.M.
Proof that youth is not, in fact, always wasted on the young: Arctic Monkeys' fantastically agitated sophomore album ups the velocity, craftsmanship, and fuck-it-all Britishness of their acclaimed debut. Frontman Alex Turner, still within spitting distance of his teens, wrangles caustic barbs from both his guitar and his lyrics, the two coming together particularly well on "Brianstorm" and "Fluorescent Adolescent" (the latter rhymes "fishnets" and "nightdress" with sneering glee). Snot-nosed punk –– and we mean that as the highest compliment. J.M.
The cool older sister in the sprawling Toronto indie-rock family, Leslie Feist beat a path out of the underground in 2007, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of her third solo album to folks whose idea of a broken social scene is a bar without bottle service. But this was far beyond music to brunch by –– The Reminder boasts more than its share of arty eccentricities, such as the field-recording rustle in "The Water" or the now-omnipresent Broadway-chorus vocals in "1234." Slyly subversive, challenging even as it soothes. M.W.
Matt Berninger is blessed with the type of beaten-down baritone that can't help but evoke melancholy –– when he sings the line "Half-awake in a fake empire," you're inclined to believe him. But this Brooklyn-based quintet's gift lies in their ability to maximize the drama inside that space, transforming songs about staying indoors ("Apartment Story") into darkly romantic epics as sonically soaring as their lyrics are agoraphobic. The margin between shout-from-the-rooftops hope and head-on-the-bar despair is a narrow one in the National's purview, but, hey –– in ours, too. S.K.
In a pop world filled with airbrushed, pitch-corrected fembots, Lily Allen comes across like a flesh-and-blood human –– one who drinks too much, dates dopey dudes, and overshares on MySpace about her personal life. Her debut album of reggae-dusted, rap-influenced sing-alongs feels like a weekend romp through London with a mouthy young chavette as your guide. Though the melodies are breezy and her voice a cool, limpid tool, the songs are full of acidic opinions about cheating boyfriends ("Smile"), crappy shags ("Not Big"), and cocaine-hoovering frenemies ("Friend of Mine"). Shit talk rarely sounds so sweet. M.E.
This Parisian duo emerged as the brightest lights in the Euro nü-rave scene that's also been dubbed blog-house, an apt name because the duo's bowel-loosening riffs are gargantuan enough to sound cool on even the crappiest computer speakers. Like mentors Daft Punk, Justice create populist dance music –– their Sabbath-meets-Nile Rodgers tunes are jacques-your-body jams for indie kids. With references drawn from '70s hesher rock –– quasi-Christian iconography, stomp-box bass lines, crunchy prog-synth riffs — Justice made electronic music filthy, funky, and fun again. M.E.
Despite its vintage tunes and acoustic arrangements, Springsteen's 2006 album with the Seeger Sessions ensemble, We Shall Overcome, rocked plenty hard. So the beauty of Magic isn't that the Boss is back to his arena-rousing ways; it's that for the first time since the mid-'80s, he's made a record that can't be reduced to a slogan or a concept. Filled with optimism and dread, cynicism and sincerity, ballads and anthems, Magic sounds like life lived on the ground. M.W.
Having spent the better part of a decade exploring and exploding the possibilities of no-frills garage rock, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist and his dapper Swedes are now, gleefully and mischievously, all about the frills. Much has been made of the two Motown-meets-Motörhead tracks produced by Pharrell Williams, but no matter how many bells, whistles, or kitchen sinks are thrown into the mix of overdriven Nuggets riffs and shout-along choruses –– "Try It Again" epitomizes this recipe at its best –– the Hives still sound like the Hives. And like no one else. S.K.
Eschewing the it's-all-about-the-art platitudes that bog down so many of his fellow prestige acts, Prince announced his return to immediately pleasurable songwriting on Planet Earth's buzzing lead single: "I love you, baby / Just not like I love my guitar." From the jangle pop of "The One U Wanna C" to a clutch of slow jams, the whole album bursts with a directness Prince hasn't shown in years — which doesn't mean there aren't loads of idiosyncratic details. In "Mr. Goodnight," his idea of foreplay is watching Chocolat on the big screen. M.W.
Even the worst Jay-Z songs have one lyric that makes you wonder, "How does he do it?" On Da Drought 3 (the best of one trillion comps Weezy put out this year), that's virtually every rhyme. He gets high, eats Gummi Bears, free-associates hustler fantasies and sports metaphors. And when he interrupts a lament about dying in the streets to interject, "When I was five, my favorite movie was the Gremlins / Ain't got shit to do with this, but I thought I should mention," the only appropriate response is stunned amazement. K.A.
After more than ten years as romantic and/or musical partners, Jack and Meg White behave like anything but an old married couple on their frisky sixth album. With the title track's brash synth/guitar squeal, the mariachi wig-out "Conquest," and the 280-Z prison-break "Bone Broke," they convulse in a rhythmic flourish like first-drink soulmates whose chemistry is so dead-on it's almost comical. And on "Rag and Bone," Jack nails the band's gleeful, junk-shop aesthetic, purring: "If ya ain't gonna use it, just give it to us / We'll give it a home." C.A.
The loosest, funkiest album yet from a band that once wrote a song about a fitted shirt, Ga⁵ proved that Britt Daniel is capable of more than killer blue-eyed soul grooves and enigmatic descriptions of household objects –– check out the ambient dub-blues of "The Ghost of You Lingers" or the brass-blast pop of "The Underdog." Of course, it's also got killer blue-eyed soul grooves and enigmatic descriptions of household objects, the finest of which, "My Little Japanese Cigarette Case," is just as elegant as the item it extols. M.W.
To demand that we sit still for a classic album experience in 2007 (no Gangster songs are available on iTunes) is the height of hubris. But Jay-Z's lushly crafted tenth album –– inspired by the dubious, dealer-glorifying biopic –– justifies its 58-plus minutes with an intricate mix of ghettonomics morality tales, yayo mise-en-scène, and ego twinkle. It's rare to hear a sword-sharp superstar –– Sinatra circa In the Wee Small Hours? –– throw himself into a project like he's got everything to prove. Jay needed this one more than we did, but we're grateful nonetheless. C.A.
Try, somehow, to put tabloid blinders on and ignore the depressing, druggy mess that Winehouse has become. Instead, focus on what made this singer worth our time in the first place: heart-shredding breakup laments, the filthiest mouth in R&B, and a slurry swing that her North London roots and Jewish genes don't quite explain. With coproducer Mark Ronson and backup band the Daptones providing impeccably modern Motown-via-Brooklyn horns and strings, Back to Black was the rare case where critical and commercial success dovetailed into a perfect pop moment. M.E.
Praise the new distribution paradigm all you like, but save some enthusiasm for Radiohead's most emotionally resonant songs in a decade: "All I Need" and "House of Cards" embrace the claustrophobic loneliness of modern life rather than railing against it, and "15 Step" lends more palatable tones to the band's penchant for experimental click-clacks. Though it still possesses the contrarian impulse of the Amnesiac years, In Rainbows offers a tremendous exhale after four albums of knotty sonic exploration. It's the calm after the storm, a perfect time for licking wounds. J.M.
Maya Arulpragasam intended to make her second album with Timbaland, but was forced to improvise when visa issues left her unable to enter the United States. That the record she created (mostly) on her own is far weirder and more ambitious than what Tim probably would've cooked up is as clear a measure of M.I.A.'s ingenuity as her future-shock fashion sense. A true world-music experiment, Kala throbs with beats and melodies and textures inspired by this former refugee's journey around the planet. If globalization is inevitable, can this at least be the soundtrack? M.W.
The guy's ego needs no further bloating, but we can't help it: Was there a more entertaining and creative hip-hop act in 2007? In a year when many blue-chip rappers stumbled (50 Cent, T.I., et al.), Mr. West returned with an album every bit as ambitious as his previous two. He's a maximalist, pouring endless hooks ("Good Life"), stadium-rocking samples ("Stronger"), and dizzying trains of thought into each track. Whenever the rampant narcissism and materialism threaten to overwhelm the music, he spits a line like "I'm like the fly Malcolm X / Buy any jeans necessary." M.E.
On LCD Soundsystem's self-titled 2005 debut, James Murphy proved he was disco punk's reigning master of nod-and-wink Moog curlicues and cowbell ruckus. With this follow-up, however, the Brooklyn party-starter stakes out more ambitious territory. Sure, he's still a snarky imp ––"North American Scum" hides its patriotism inside biting sarcasm –– but the existential new wave of "All My Friends" and the singsong elegy of "Someone Great" are more than just stupendous white-boy funk; they're touching. M.E.
On 2004's Funeral, Win Butler and his appealingly ragtag cohorts in Arcade Fire made the loss of several family members sound like the end of the world. For Neon Bible, the Canadian band's sophomore full-length, Butler turned things inside out, worrying over God and war in lushly appointed chamber-pop epics that make the end of the world resonate like a close-to-home calamity. That's not to suggest that Neon Bible, most of which was recorded in a converted church outside Montreal, forgoes the wide-angle grandeur that first endeared the band to the drama queens of Blogland. (For proof of Butler's theatrical streak, proceed directly to the organ-enriched "Intervention," which ought to earn a cease-and-desist from Andrew Lloyd Webber –– or Ian McCulloch –– any day now.) But in a year clogged with empty indie-scene bombast signifying little but the increasing affordability of high-end recording gear, Arcade Fire made their histrionics say something. Something scary and terrible and uplifting, all at once. M.W.
Antiestablishment anger is as crucial an element of rock'n'roll as cars and girls, but where do you turn when the escapism becomes as stultifying and stringent as the world you're seeking to escape? Where do you go to scream when punk rock is the establishment? No small thanks to producer Butch Vig, who knows a thing or two about helping scrappy, sneering underground acts craft big-sounding Big Statement albums, New Wave is a beacon: Come this way, and come as you are. Yet where Nirvana (publicly, anyway) retreated from and undermined Nevermind's poppier, crowd-pleasing tendencies, Against Me! revel in New Wave's –– the bop-bop-bop chorus of "Thrash Unreal" is more liberating than a thousand middle fingers, although punk purists may beg, loudly, to differ. From the title track's opening strums and chimes –– every bit the drop-what-you're-doing clarion call of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" –– Howitzer-throated Tom Gabel and his Gainesville rabble-rousers use every inch of space that Vig's Imax-size palette allows, even if the message within is as simple as it ever was: Question authority, question yourself. But it's got a massive beat, and you can (slam) dance to it. In a perfect world, New Wave would have been greeted with the adulation and success the similarly agitpop American Idiot received. But in a perfect world, Against Me! would have no reason to exist. S.K.