ALBUM: LOVE 2
Few bands live up to their names as well as Air. The French electronic duo makes gravity-defying disco-pop that can be as foreboding as it is frothy (see the 2000 soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides). Air's fifth studio album, Love 2, hinges on Joey Waronker, a percussionist who toured with the band on its last outing. His delicate playing helps bring all of those potentially spacey piano arpeggios back down to earth, resulting in a sound that resembles the lo-fi pop for which Air first became known, more than the cosmic symphony of recent efforts. Ditties like Sing Sang Sung include a vibraphone, wind chimes and tambourine, while African Velvet has horns and light-handed syncopation from Waronker. It's not always immediately clear if the group is being tongue-in-cheek (Tropical Disease is so lounge-y and psychedelic that it could be retrofitted into a Roger Moore-era James Bond flick), but one thing is certain: Style trumps substance in this particular breath of Air.
ARTIST: DEVENDRA BANHART
ALBUM: WHAT WILL WE BE (Reprise Records)
Devendra Banhart's major-label debut, What Will We Be, was recorded with the same collaborators who graced his 2007 Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. This time the quintet holed up for two months in a Northern California cabin, and the resulting collection from the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter is intimate, experimental and ultimately accessible. The first single, Baby, is a breezy yet bass-heavy love song about learning to let in all the laughter, while Chin Chin & Muck Muck is something of a vanguard mini-review, changing acts between swinging jazz, cabaret torch and a twinkling chant. Banhart's Venezuelan childhood peeks through with Spanish lyrics on Angelika and Brindo, and Rats is a full-fledged psychedelic-rock jam. Throughout the set, Banhart's expressive vocals are the real pleasure point; the artist may be known for his self-supported aura of knowing peculiarity, but his voice carries a frankness that -- save some well-applied reverb -- is gratifyingly free of modern affectation.
ARTIST: MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO
ALBUM: DEVIL'S HALO (Downtown Music)
Though not as sprawlingly ambitious or experimental as the 2007 The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, Meshell Ndegeocello's eighth release, Devil's Halo, neatly straddles a line between challenging and accessible, with some of the tightest and catchiest compositions she's yet brought forth. Listeners might not get that from the opening song, Slaughter, which moves from liquid-like verses to crash-bang choruses with a Radiohead-style prog vibe, but tracks like Mass Transit and Blood on the Curb channel melodic, if slightly subversive, New Wave influences -- and the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde would pay large for the leathery attitude of Lola. Ndegeocello lays jazz overtones atop of White Girl, employs old-school synthesizers through Die Young and brings out front-porch Americana for Crying in Your Beer. She also uses a big beat and subtle dissonance to turn Melvin Riley's Love You Down into a Joni Mitchell-flavored tone poem. I transform myself for maximum attraction, Ndegeocello sings in Mass Transit. It works.
ARTIST: JOE NICHOLS
ALBUM: OLD THINGS NEW (Universal South)
It's no stretch to say that Joe Nichols is country music's finest vocalist in at least a generation. That's not to diminish the often stunning vocal work of his immediate predecessors -- what puts Nichols above his peers in terms of vocal chops is that he's a natural singer. This was evident on his 1996 debut, and it's fully realized on his sixth album, Old Things New. The set's title track evokes the primal pain and loneliness of George Jones during his Billy Sherrill-produced '70s heyday, while Merle Haggard's influence is displayed on the bone-chilling This Bed's Too Big. Playful moments emerge on Gimmie That Girl and Cheaper Than a Shrink, the latter extolling the painkilling virtues of good whiskey (though Nichols has successfully battled his own demons recently). The haunting An Old Friend of Mine finds the 32-year-old Nichols reciting words of sober resolution while communicating tortured forbearance. It looks like his honky-tonk forefathers -- Haggard, Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Gene Watson, to name a few -- were effective tutors.
ARTIST: LOU BARLOW
ALBUM: GOODNIGHT UNKNOWN (Merge Records)
Lou Barlow's latest release, Goodnight Unknown, incorporates the aggressive guitar, angst-ridden lyrics and low-fi sensibilities of his other bands (Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh) while maintaining the sweet sophistication of his 2005 solo release, Emoh. Recorded last year between tours with the two aforementioned acts, Goodnight Unknown is layered with subtle distortion and commanding percussion, combined with Barlow's confident, sometimes contemplative vocals. The set opens with the gritty Sharing, and takes a lighter turn with the playful acoustic cut Take Advantage, on which Barlow charmingly sings, Love me like a pancake. But the album is strongest when he combines elements of folk and noise-rock, as on the title track and the stomping One Machine, One Long Fight, where heavy percussion builds energy behind his determined vocals.
ARTIST: KINGS OF CONVENIENCE
ALBUM: DECLARATION OF DEPENDENCE (Astralwerks Records)
On their first album in five years, the Norwegian duo Eirik Boe and Erlend Oye -- who record under the name Kings of Convenience -- have returned with more atmospheric folk-pop to soothe the soul. Percussion is nowhere to be found on the group's latest release, Declaration of Dependence, and the pair's Simon & Garfunkel-esque harmonies are less dynamic than they once were. But there are still plenty of bright spots. Kings of Convenience's melodies range from the brisk and abstruse -- as heard on the angular My Ship Isn't Pretty and the brooding Renegade -- to the disarmingly catchy. On the standout track, Mrs. Cold, Boe and Oye lace their beloved bossa nova rhythms with R&B lyrics aimed at an ice queen.
ARTIST: SHAFIQ HUSAYN
ALBUM: SHAFIQ EN' A-FREE-KA (Plug Research)
Most hip-hop artists shout out major U.S. cities on their albums, but Shafiq Husayn covers far more extensive territory. Senegal, Portugal, let's go! Mexico and Japan, Kosovo and Sudan, U.S. and Pakistan!, he sings on the song U.N. Plan. As one-third of the progressive hip-hop outfit Sa-Ra and a collaborator on Erykah Badu's album New Amerykah: Part One, Husayn has long cultivated an ear for the bold and experimental. On his latest release, Shafiq En' A-Free-Ka, he continues the sonic innovation, culling from influences as diverse as Afrobeat and drum 'n' bass and bearing traces of Timbaland (the reggae-tinged track Nirvana) and Andre 3000 (the psychedelic Major Heavy). When French lyrics and an accordion appear on the smooth Le'star and then dissolve into a cacophony of synths, it's not jarring at all -- it's just another trip into Husayn's wonderfully open musical mind.
ALBUM: MUSIC FOR MEN (Columbia Records)
The androgynous face of Gossip drummer Hannah Blilie cops an intense stare on the cover of this electro-punk outfit's newest album, Music for Men. With a quaffed confidence a la Morrissey, the photo personifies the cool poise that Gossip has maintained with its elegant glam-synth sounds and powerful beats, despite a raucous reputation. It may have been harder for the mainstream audience to swallow the image of Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto, whose onstage nudity and outsize persona have earned her respect among the gay and lesbian community. But on Music for Men, the band's devotion to being itself has finally found it a place in the mainstream. The dark single Heavy Cross features ragged guitars accompanied by Ditto's sharp velvety voice, while the feminist-leaning Love Long Distance is supported by a swaggering bassline. On Dimestore Diamond, Ditto employs all of her hard-edged sexiness and manages to charm with an appealingly intimidating allure.