Late Registration; $13.98
West's second great album in 18 months has nothing so shocking as his Katrina-inspired "George Bush doesn't care about black people" moment during a TV fund raiser for hurricane victims or so original as the self-love/self-hate tightrope walk of his debut The College Dropout. But if you think you're invulnerable to an atmospheric ballad with Maroon 5's chirpy Adam Levine (Heard 'Em Say) or a song called Roses about a sick grandma, you will be shocked at the stealthy power of West's storytelling. As for the music, one listen to Gone, built around an Otis Redding sample and some ecstatic string arrangements, and you might be persuaded that West is as good as he thinks he is.
Best Tracks: Heard 'Em Say, Drive Slow, Gone
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Demon Days; $13.49
Very few good albums make as bad a first impression as Demon Days. The cartoon characters on the front cover, the irritatingly meaningless track names (Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head) and the menacing prefatory oboes (oboes!) make it seem like a concept album about global warming for kids. Since the lyrics remain a bafflement, it might well be. But give the songs a fraction of the attention that went into making them, and you will begin to catch bits of good stuff from rock, rap, dance and dub. Then, magically, it all comes together in your head and forms something like a unified theory of modern music.
Best Tracks: O Green World, Dirty Harry, Feel Good Inc.
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Gimme Fiction; $15.98
For almost a decade Spoon has been indie rock's reigning "if there were any justice ..." band, as in, "If there were any justice, Spoon would wake up with Nickelback's money." A lack of good Karma hasn't stopped lead singer-songwriter Britt Daniel from soldiering on and producing yet another album of tense, cliché-avoiding, minimalist rock songs, capped by I Summon You, which has to be the most perfect 3 min. 55 sec. of music this year.
Best Tracks: Sister Jack, I Turn My Camera On, I Summon You
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The geopolitical importance of this Sri Lankan-born, London-raised rapper has been heavily overstated by people who would rather she were a symbol than a star. Her manic energy and supremely confident delivery on such songs as Galang (now the sound track to a Honda commercial) matches her ear for those small production details that turn songs into bustling streets in foreign capitals. That's the combination, instead of her blend of ethnicities, that makes this the most compelling debut of the year.
Best Tracks: Galang, Bucky Done Gun
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The Woods; $14.98
After six admirable but unadorable records, this trio of very earnest, very intense women from the Northwest decided to let loose their inner Led Zeppelin. The guitar playing is heavy, dexterous and hook laden, but the polish of the melodies never obscures their calling cardthe raw, intermingled wails of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein.
Best Tracks: The Fox, Jumpers, Rollercoaster
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Lee Ann Womack
There's More Where That Came From; $13.98
Unlike most country singers, Womack knows that ballad singing isn't an Olympian test of lung capacity. She hush-sings her way through Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago and a delicate cover of Sonny Throckmorton's Waiting for the Sun to Shine, providing a much needed reminder that country, more than any other musical genre, still has the potential to offer instant intimacy. Best Tracks: Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago, Happiness, Waiting for the Sun to Shine
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Amadou & Mariam
Dimanche A Bamako; $18.98
World music doesn't have a reputation for fun, and Amadou & Mariam, the self-proclaimed Blind Couple of Mali, might not seem the likeliest candidates to rock the boat. But a) they wear the coolest shades in the history of sightlessness, and b) they have partnered with Spanish-French producer Manu Chao, whose interest in multiculturalism stops at every country's best pop hooks. Listening to the fusion of Amadou & Mariam's polyrhythmic blues with Chao's exuberant rip-offs is like watching another nation's most hysterically bad TV; you feel as if you're learning something, even though you're enjoying yourself.
Best Tracks: Senegal Fast Food, Taxi Bamako
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Prairie Wind; $18.98
These spare, mostly acoustic songs about death, loss and life's rearview mirror make for a draining listen. But they're not a drag because Young knows exactly how an album this thematically grimhe wrote and recorded it between being diagnosed with and treated for a brain aneurysmneeds to sound. At his most frightened (Falling Off the Face of the Earth), there's an easy melody and notes of assurance from the impeccably played instruments. And when he contemplates all his choices (The Painter) and wonders if he has got lost, the voices that rise behind in the chorus are so unmistakably warm that you feel certain they will guide him back.
Best Tracks: The Painter, When God Made Me
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You Could Have It So Much Better; $13.49
These disco-loving Scottish art-school punks spend much of their second album boasting of their badness. Singer Alex Kapranos is blessed with Mick Jaggeresque persuasivenessEvil and a Heathen and I'm Your Villain would be musts on any syllabus of "Songwriting for Cads"but he's also growing in ways that suggest depth. The fast songs have more than one musical thought (some even scoot past the 3-min. mark), while the slow ones have the courage to be pretty (Fade Together) and vulnerable (Eleanor Put Your Boots On).
Best Tracks: This Boy, Do You Want To, Eleanor Put Your Boots On
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I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning; $12.98
At 25, Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, is expert at turning his disenchantment into fuel. He's not wild about himself or his country at the moment. But instead of sounding desperate or polemical, the best of these quiet, well-observed songs do something far toughercreate a mood. Lua, about seduction and loneliness, feels like a shameful walk home on a winter morning, while Landlocked Blues starts as a breakup song and meanders its way into an antiwar ballad. The link, at least by Oberst's reckoning, is futility, and whether you agree with his politics or not, his emotions are believable.
Best Tracks: Lua, Landlocked Blues, Road to Joy