M.A.S.S."Live a Little" (Mandita) Click here to listen. It is both wonderful and weird that the White Stripe's Elephant has gone platinum in the midst of all the hype about the return of guitar rock (which had never gone anywhere), but it is almost as weird that M.A.S.S., one of the best new rock bands from England, is still unknown. The UK quintet debuted in 2002 with the single "Hey Gravity," which sounded a bit like the Strokes had hit the gym and hired a female singer. You could hear cell phones jingling, gigs being booked. But since 2002, M.A.S.S. has released only one other single, "Live a Little." They've recorded an album called Revolution, but the album still isn't out and the world has not become their oyster. Singer Justine Berry's voice sells the whole band: A blend of almost every rock singer you've ever heard filtered through cigarettes and a sense of belonging that many singers need years to achieve. Write to Tony Blair, visit Justine's tour diary —just find a way to help these guys help YOU with your rock needs.
"National Holiday" (Arista) Spymob.com
M.A.S.S. aren't the only band waiting for their album to appear. Spymob's long-delayed Sitting Around Keeping Score was completed more than a year ago, though Star Trak promises to release the album by next year. The Minneapolis quartet was discovered several years ago by Pharrell Williams, who signed them to the Neptunes' Star Trak label; their métier is narrative piano pop that falls somewhere between Squeeze's "Up the Junction" and Ben Folds Five's more serious moments. Over a whole album, singer John Ostby's nerdy humor wears thin, but Ostby's true strength isn't making jokes about German cars: It's living-room drama. "National Holiday" is a restrained, devastating song told in the voice of a divorced dad struggling to see his daughter. He sneaks in to watch her soccer games and maps out his approved visit on his calendar: "You get to wake her every day/ and we divide up national holidays/ this month is highlighted yellow with one box of blue." The song bounces optimistically through piercing details about the mundane hell of divided loyalties.
The Streets"Give Me Back My Lighter" (Vice) Click here to listen. Doing business out of London as the Streets, Mike Skinner has made a quick career in pop by ignoring it. Pop music favors big melodies, strong voices, and colorful, vivid narratives. Not Mike Skinner. His plainspoken stories of pubs and girls are more like diary entries than songs. His verses rhyme, but calling Skinner's music hip-hop would be a stretch. He favors loud, crisp keyboard and drum-machine backdrops that never get particularly busy, enabling Skinner to bear down on the words and hold your attention. His 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, gave a decidedly un-American voice some fairly wide exposure stateside. "Give Me Back My Lighter" is from All Got Our Runnins, a mini-album of material from the OPM sessions fleshed out with remixes. (It is available only at online vendors like Apple iTunes and liquid.com.) "Give Me Back My Lighter" expands on a truism that holds true around the world: Pay for the drinks once in a while and don't steal your mate's lighter.
Soundmurderer Wired for Sound (Violent Turd) Click here to listen. Don't let the name or label put you off—this isn't some South Park- style prank. Soundmurder is the alias of Todd Osborn, head of Detroit's independent dance label Rewind, acting here as DJ and selector. Wired for Sound collects three long mixes, done between 1999 and 2003, of mid-'90s drum and bass, or jungle. The kinetic UK dance blend enjoyed a moment of mainstream exposure in the '90s but has existed mostly on 12-inches played in clubs, changing beat patterns and sounds every few months. Wired for Sound captures a moment in and around 1995 when Jamaican bass lines collided with chopped-up samples of a song called "Amen, Brother" by '60s soul group the Winstons. Unlike hip-hop, where finding new samples is part of the game, the game in jungle was to use this one sample more creatively than the next guy. "Amen," as it's known, runs through '90s drum and bass like a silver thread in a pound note. In Osborn's mixes, the "Amen" breaks hit the wall like glasses in a John Woo fight sequence, and musical information flashes by like text messages on a cell phone. All the jubilation, strength, and fierce beauty of early jungle has been squeezed into one phenomenal CD.
Mya"Free Fallin' " (A&M/Interscope) Click here to listen. Beyoncé's mighty "Crazy in Love" is the R & B single nobody will top this year, Ashanti's cushiony Chapter II has already gone platinum. But the most consistent R & B album of the year is Mya's Moodring. Mya lives in an odd pop-culture pocket—she's technically famous but rarely seems to come up in conversation. This is her second strong album, so this invisibility must be bad timing: She shows up simultaneously with slightly larger celebrities. Her breathy voice suggests smallness, but Mya easily accommodates up-to-date melisma, unadorned legato, and quiet crooning. Moodring changes up the viewfinder at just the right moments and tips its hat several times to the influence of the moment, Prince, without seeming slavish or stuck for ideas. The catholic production squad helps explain the easy sense of variety: Old school Minneapolis pioneers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; mid-school genius Missy Elliott; and nu school producers Damon Elliott and Mya Harrison herself. The smooth funk cover of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin' " is itself the most Prince-like move here. Mya doesn't deconstruct or rethink the song, choosing instead to walk through it comfortably and slowly, as much listener as performer.
McLusky"Undress for Success" (TooPure) Click here to listen. Did you like the Pixies? Good. You'll like McLusky. That's a reductive way to describe a band that will overwhelm comparisons in due time, but it's hard not to be distracted by the parallels between America's seminal loud/soft band and England's McLusky. Both bands have used the same engineer, Steve Albini, and both push the traditional guitar, bass, and drums sound toward pockets of menace and surprise. More than anything, though, Pixies songwriter Black Francis and McLusky singer and guitarist Andy Falkous avoid linear sense whenever possible. McLusky's new EP, Undress for Success, is typical of their unsentimental abstractions. Falkous loves being disgusted, but he loves words even more: "I was dreaming of a puppet (undress for success)/ When they moved a mountain on it (undress for success)." This could be annoying art wank, but their gusto and crankiness animate their non sequiturs.
DJ Flexx"Ride Out" (Baldhead) Click here to listen. It's been a good year for shiny party anthems, like Lil Jon's hit "Get Low" ("To the window/ to the wall!") and Nelly and P. Diddy's propulsive "Shake Ya Tailfeather." Extract the elastic rhymes from one of these songs, put them over a marching band, and you'll approximate DJ Flexx's go-go anthem "Ride Out." Go-go, a type of live dance music (despite its name, unrelated to stripclub dancing), has been going strong in Washington, D.C., for almost 30 years. Its big moment of national visibility was E.U.'s single, "Da' Butt," from Spike Lee's 1988 movie School Daze. Bands like Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers established the percussion-heavy swing of go-go, but the music has been kept alive by younger bands and, increasingly, DJs. DJ Flexx's recent mix CD, features tracks by stalwarts like Brown as well as his own songs. "Ride Out" is a thundering, friendly chunk of locomotion. When the chorus kicks in, the sound is so thick it seems the party might just overwhelm the physical boundaries of the CD and appear in your house.
The terrible thing about the digital world is that all music becomes data. The great thing about the digital world is that all music becomes data.