1) (tie) Spiritualized, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space The Perfect Prescription, Spacemen 3's finest record, actualized the peaks and comedowns of an LSD trip; in his spin-out band Spiritualized, Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) has tried to approximate the sound of heroin over two records. This third Spiritualized full-length is as unpredictable as a pharmaceutical cocktail. (C'mon -- Dr. John and Spanish horns?!) In Pierce's fucked-up-inside head, drug use and love are so intertwined that each becomes a metaphor for the other: "I don't even feel it but Lord how I need it/ When I'm not with her I'm not all myself." And the sound of a man trying to empty the swirling noises in his head onto multitrack is sublime.
1) (tie) Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One Yo La Tengo's had it since 1993's Painful -- coincidentally when Ira Kaplan and company stopped pretending to be a noise band -- but they never got it this right. After making records for more than a decade, the New Jersey trio take chances that a younger band wouldn't dare -- starting the record with a quiet, wind-down instrumental, for instance -- and are still a band of fans, this time uncovering the Beach Boys and a song Anita Bryant made famous. One gripe: The riff in "Autumn Sweater" sounds suspiciously like it was lifted from U2's "The Fly." It almost ruins the song. Almost.
3) Portishead, Portishead There are three rogues in all of singer Beth Gibbons' tales: You, I, and We. The insular despair that results infuses her alien keening with frightening aches and moans, making for a voice so bizarre that it's difficult to figure out when she's using effects to help her along. In her songs, she's either devastated by sorrow or screeching with nastiness -- when she sings, "Render your heart to me," you can be forgiven for thinking she's talking about a meat grinder. And over it all, sound auteur Geoff Barrow layers crackling vinyl and samples of his own band. But the production here isn't as dense as everyone seems to thinks. Instead, Barrow allows each sound to breath or resonate, using repetition, forced silences, and pregnant pauses to create a tension that matches Gibbons' skewed emotionality.
4) Built to Spill, Perfect From Now On Doug Martsch's self-indulgent major-label opus challenges both the indie rockers who expect a logical continuance of the twee There's Nothing Wrong With Love and, one assumes, Warner Bros., which would have liked at least one song to clock in at a radio-friendly three minutes. Suckers. Perfect begins with a story about a boy using feather swipes to wear down a "metal sphere 10,000 times the size of Jupiter" to the size of a pea. That image dominates an album about fluctuating space, introductions, transitions, and codas. Listen quietly for the message uttered by Martsch's pentatonic workouts: "Hooks are easy; let's try a three-movement suite."
5) Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out It's almost spring and you're waiting. You scour the music-magazine release schedules like an old man scrutinizing his weather page. The squares on your calendar become a series of strikes on a score card. You finally hit the 10th frame and you march to the record store. There's a sign on the door: "Yes! We have the new Sleater-Kinney." You pay the man with dogeared dollar bills. You stare at the sidewalk on the way home and secretly brace yourself for a letdown. Finally -- finally -- you press play: Corin Tucker's vibrato wail wavers between catharsis and imperative; Carrie Brownstein barks back at Tucker; two competing, no complementing, guitar riffs echo the relationship between the two voices. For the next 35 minutes the force of songs about love and making rock 'n' roll is incidental. You feel like a blushing teen-ager, thankful for anticipation, thankful that someone cares enough to make rock fun.
6) Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister This eight-piece-plus group of lazy Scots crafts exquisite folk songs spiked with arsenic. Imagine Donovan on a mean streak, or Simon & Garfunkel embittered by waiting for the dole. The title track, evidenced by the line "She was into S/M and Bible studies/ Not everyone's cup of tea she would admit to me," is "Walk on the Wild Side" set in pastoral Great Britain.
7) Cut Chemist vs. Shortkut, Live at the Future Primitive Soundsession Volume One If 1996 was the year of the DJ, then 1997 was the year of the turntablist. On this tape, recorded live at a booming San Francisco hip-hop party, DJ Shortkut's marksmanship makes the needle wheeze, moan, and hiss with the lyrical personality of Hendrix's guitar licks -- really. Meanwhile Cut Chemist, the beatmeister behind Los Angeles hip-hoppers Jurassic 5, improvs like a jazzman, juggling the beats and samples with equal parts dexterity and soul. This isn't appropriation -- it's creativity served up steaming on a steel wheel. Cameo appearance by the explosive crowd, applauding so loud that the stylus picks up the cheers.
8) Old 97's, Too Far to Care The Most Likely to Succeed of the No Depression freshman class make a sophomore album with enough punk energy to appease the kids, and enough pain and drinking to speak to the adults. A-plus for lyrics: "I went through the motions with her on top and me on liquor."
9) Apples in Stereo, Tone Soul Revolution Apples frontman and Elephant 6 recording-genius-in-residence Robert Schneider takes his little band of adorable popsters where bedroom indie rockers fear to tread: the 24-track studio. The quartet emerge with an irony-free record best heard on headphones.
10) Beulah, Handsome Western States A California boy slacks through a summer in the Midwest, then comes back to San Francisco, where he meets an overtalented multi-instrumentalist in a Financial District mail room. The pair spend two years recording shitty guitars on a four-track in a tiny rehearsal space. Out pop 12 songs about thrift-store losers, being drunk, and leaving your heart in Kansas. Ooh ooh oohs? Yep. Catchy choruses? You betcha. Hooks? Galore. Don't be fooled by the lyrical non sequiturs; this is as smart as indie pop gets.