Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros
I asked a British fellow last spring, “Why does Joe Strummer die of a heart attack while Dick Cheney survives multiple strokes?” The Brit, whose leather jacket, slicked-back hair and socialist politics reminded me of Strummer himself, replied, “Because you need a heart to have a heart attack.” This album is all heart, Strummer’s last effort with his band, The Mescaleros, before he died last December. There are Clash-like rockers and reggae-inflected churners, plus a spine-tingling acoustic version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

The Strokes
Room on Fire
Is this it? As the questioning title of their first album implied, The Strokes continue to produce music that seems so simple; one wonders why it’s so compelling. Even lead vocalist Julian Casablancas starts off the group’s new release by singing, “I want to be forgotten.” But all that happens is that you get his razor-bladed, scruffy cries lodged in your head, pounded in there for good by the band’s insistent, CBGB’s-circa-1977 bass-drums-guitar riffs.

The Decembrists
Her Majesty The Decembrists
Kill Rock Stars
What better band for this month than with Portland, Oregon’s The Decembrists? Lead singer Colin Meloy spins yarns that are off-kilter and weird, full of eccentric characters and puzzling wordplay, but the music is warm and alluring: Belle-and-Sebastian-like chanteys, ballads, and Beatleseque vaudeville hall rockers replete with breathy accordion, twelve-string guitar riffs, glockenspiel chimes, tambourine rustles, trumpet flourishes, and rickety barrelhouse piano.

The Books
The Lemon of Pink
Hushed, shape-shifting, bossa-nova-like collage of acoustic guitars, hand claps, flutes, violins, shuffled paper, gurglings, mutterings, chatter, sighs, melodies and other found sounds from the duo of Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong. It seems like it was put together with scissors and glue–humble, homemade, but opening up on a secret vastness in the upside-down imagination.

DJ Olive
The Agriculture
DJ Olive hangs with the downtown avant-jazz crowd a lot, but his first full-length release is more dub-inflected and spacey than full-on freak-out skronk. Bodega puts you on a New York City street as a lamp whirs electricity, the moon drips quiet light from above, snippets of voices echo down from open windows, the wind creaks the No Standing signs, and a souped-up speaker system thumps by in a beat-up Oldsmobile.

Kid Koala
My Best Friends Are DJs
Ninja Tune
I’m a scientist of sound,” a DJ voice declares at one point on Kid Koala’s jolly new album. But Koala’s as much a humanist, and a humorist, as a steely man of the steel-wheel laboratory. Funking up old blues and jazz records, emphasizing drum grooves, piano riffs and a host of turntablist hoodoo, Koala’s record is a fun, fast-moving affair. Don’t miss the Quicktime animated video, the cartoons and the cut-out portable chess set included with this full-on multimedia CD.

Innocence Mission

The sweetest little dream of a record; couple from Pennsylvania goes Yo La Tengo on us, cooing about love and domesticity among Nick Drakean fluttering guitars.

Elvis Costello
Deutsche Grammophon-Universal
Costello meditates on love and loss and redemption in his brooding, raspy, vibrato tenor as sweeps of strings, droning French horns, lonely saxophone solos, fluttering cymbals, brushed snare drums, and dense piano chords swell and fade. What’s interesting is that as Costello’s music grows increasingly lush, ornate and orchestral, the lyrics become more pared down. Gone is the twisted, punning Costello-ian wordplay; in its place are haiku-like ruminations. “All the leaves are turning yellow, red and brown / Soon they’ll be scattered as they tumble down / Although they may be swept up so invitingly.”

XL-Beggars Group
Despite its naughtiness, this album is more wholesome than most female pop. Instead of asking, baby, to hit her one more time, Peaches asserts the rights of women. At times, the obligatory howling of curse words on the album gets a bit boring, but ultimately, Peaches isn’t just into titillation. Singing and rapping over stripped-down electronic beats and choppy guitar power-chords, she’s fearless, willing to show her desires without yielding up her identity.

Branford Marsalis
Romare Beardon Revealed
Marsalis Music
Another multimedia affair as now-Durham resident Branford Marsalis takes the listeners through music inspired by an intense engagement with the paintings of Romare Beardon, the North Carolina-born, Harlem-based painter whose evocative collages chronicled African-American life in the twentieth century, and were often inspired by jazz. Most exciting is the Marsalis family romp “animule” instruments-style through Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jungle Blues.”

Guy Klucevsek & Phillip Johnston
Tales from the Cryptic
Winter & Winter
Avant-garde accordion may seem like a funny concept, but Klucevsek brings out the breath of life that powers this most unfairly lampooned instrument. On “Tales From the Cryptic,” the saxophonist Phillip Johnston joins Klucevsek on fifteen compositions that are, by turns, jazzy, Eastern-European-tinged, medieval sounding, languorously ballad-like, or downright dissonant. The music is full of a taut, guarded energy as the accordion and saxophone twist around each other, sometimes joining in partnership, sometimes fluttering away like lost helium balloons on little gusts of melody and rhythm.

Paula Frazier
A Place Where I Know: 4-Track Songs, 1992-1994
Arkansas transplant to San Francisco lets you into her bedroom jams. The seedbed for the songs is Appalachian balladry, but there are layers of Western dust on the music, and a desolate, end-of-the-continent feel overlaying most of them. Mostly acoustic skeletons, full of 4-track mud and blurred sonic production, the tunes are all the more evocative for their pared-down presentation. They’re weird too, full of Roy Orbison lonely falsetto, cowboy-twang electric guitars, and Victorian parlor echoes.

Mojave 3
Spoon & Rafter
4AD Records
Former Slowdivers were part of the shoe-gazers crowd in early-90s Britain, but here chase slide guitars and pedal steels through synthesized atmospherics; sometimes it verges on Pink Floyd, but at its best it’s gorgeous stuff.

The Instant O in the Universe
The music seems so instantly grooving that you forget how startlingly original the group’s combinations of off-kilter funk bathed in paradoxically warm electro wavelengths are; this EP helps you remember.

Death Cab For Cutie
Great title, but the album is a bit bland at times as it chronicles a love affair that goes wrong as it spans the seas. Still, a few of the songs communicate heartbreak brilliantly.

Metal Urbain
Anarchy in Paris!
Acute Records
The French group Metal Urbain made a big splash in early punk days (mid-70s), then disappeared except to the most nerdy of punk proteges (a big influence on Steve Albini and Big Black, for instance). Like the best punk, their fist-clenched music, combining electronic guitar, homemade synthesizer swoop, and French ranting on topics such as “Anarchie Au Palace” is angry and joyous all at once, imploding and exploding simultaneously, demanding freedom now, at all costs. Never before available on CD in the U.S., the music is as seethingly alive now as it was then.

British Sea Power
The Decline of British Sea Power
Rough Trade
But the return of British postpunk–full steam ahead!

Broken Social Scene
You Forgot It in People
Arts & Crafts
But you remember it in music, especially this collection of flowing, dreamy songs from the Toronto collective.

Hot Shit
Touch and Go
Bad title, but more wonderfully good, bitter, tortured songs on alienation, aging, self-doubt and rage from the formerly married duo of Sam Coomes (banging away at the organ and guitar) and Janet Weiss (she the drummer for Sleater-Kinney).