10. Micachu and the Shapes — Jewellery
Though this trio’s acoustic guitar noise has spooked a few timid souls, its tuneful clamor should put off no one passing familiar with basic indie dissonance, nearly as trad a musical element by now as the 12-bar structure or the flatted fifth. Producer Matthew Herbert steadies the band’s inspired amateurism; at times — when “Lips” stumbles inadvertently onto bhangra, for instance — it’s like hearing No Wave accidentally (maybe unknowingly) inventing pop music. And humanizing (if not normalizing) it all is Mica Levi’s boyish-not-mannish voice.
9. Nellie McKay — Normal As Blueberry Pie–A Tribute to Doris Day
Like her spiritual peer Rufus Wainwright, McKay seemed doomed to never progress much beyond a flawed debut that might have aged better had she (or he) outgrown its youthful excesses. But even more so than Rufus’s, McKay’s brilliance has always felt inextricable from a non-rock sensibility, and her acting chops allow her misinterpretation of the first American virgin to handily trump his Judy Garland tribute. By uncovering a distinctively Middle American sensuality rooted in Day’s exaggerated normalcy, McKay also finds a novel approach to the musty old American Songbook. And she was smart enough to leave “Que Sera Sera” to Sly Stone.
8. tUnE-yArDs — BiRd-BrAiNs
On paper, Merill Garbus sounds like the kind of “free spirit” you’d carefully avoid at parties, protests, and grad seminars: a former puppeteer with a ukulele who studied African singing styles and expresses herself with an outsized voice and eccentric typography. Oh, and did I mention she loops her own drums? And yet it’s her free-spiritedness that sells an avant-clatter that appealed to but didn’t quite gel for me till I caught her live, where she proved to be the best imaginable version of the kind of person she can’t help but be–for starters, the kind of person whose willingness to differentiate between self-pity and self-scrutiny allows a lyric like “What if my own skin makes my own skin crawl” to hit home.
7. K’naan — Troubadour
Not sure what makes K’naan’s NPR-ready backstory any cornier than your favorite goon’s made-for-Hot-97 bildung — maybe that he’d like to play culture hero to his fellow Somali refugees rather than just snap his upwardly mobile claws at those below him in the barrel. As on The Dusty Foot Philosopher, the first single-artist African rap record worth recommending, his flow bears the influence of Eminem’s (rarer than you’d think) and his beats suggest Africa without necessarily adapting its music. “What’s Hardcore?” one-ups his competitors while belittling the competition itself, “Waving Flag” is a bona fide anthem, and “If Rap Gets Jealous” gets a re-recorded manhandling from Kirk Hammett. Plus, Chubb Rock. I love Chubb Rock.
6. Amadou and Mariam — Welcome to Mali
There are more gifted West Africans offering themselves up for Western consumption, but few with this savvy duo’s knack for crafting albums. Damon Albarn jolts them into his inaccurate idea of the present on “Sabali,” while K’naan chimes in from another desert on “Africa,” but unlike Dimanche à Bamako – which was often like a Manu Chao record featuring Amadou and Mariam — this isn’t about the guests. Marc Antoine Moreau, who produced the duo’s earlier music, helps them expand the bluesy, somewhat touristy core of their sound without sacrificing intimacy. I just wonder if they sound as cute to French speakers when they pledge their love on “Compagnon de la Vie” as they do in English on “I Follow You (Nia Na Fin).”