M.I.A. Arular (XL/Beggars, 2005)
Click here to listen to "Fire, Fire," and here to listen to "Galang.""This is the thread where we anticipate and then flip out over how great M.I.A.'s Arular is." So reads an entry on the I Love Music message boards, and for the past several months music geeks have been doing just that: going nuts over the early singles and bootleg releases by M.I.A. (née Maya Arulpragasam), a 27-year-old producer-performer whose debut CD will be released in late February. In songs like "Fire, Fire" we meet an icon of the shrinking musical world: a Sri Lankan-bred Londoner delivering lyrics about American rappers in a singsong Jamaican dancehall style over a clattering computerized beat. The sound is low-fi and muddy, and the lyrics toggle furiously between political provocation and gibberish; no one quite knows what M.I.A. is talking about in her breakout single, "Galang": "Ta na ta na ta na/ Ta na ta na ta/ Blaze a blaze, galang a lang a lang lang." But the songs radiate charisma. Anyone who doubts that M.I.A. is a natural star need only consult the homemade video on her Web site (click on "EPK" in the "Music" dropdown menu), which captures her dancing manically to "Galang" in a crummy-looking rehearsal space.
T.I. Urban Legend (Atlantic, 2004)
Click here to listen to "Bring 'Em Out," and here to listen to "Tha King."It's no accident that "Bring 'Em Out," the current Top 20 single by Atlanta rapper T.I., features a prominent sample from Jay-Z's "What More Can I Say." T.I. fancies himself Dixie's answer to Jay-Z—hip-hop's reigning poet-genius—and he makes this point repeatedly on "The Greatest," "Tha King," and other immodestly titled songs on his new album, Urban Legend. While T.I. doesn't yet approach Jay-Z's level, he's a far more meticulous lyricist than most party-hearty southern MCs; he's a Georgian even a New York rap traditionalist could love. Indeed, on "Tha King," T.I. brazenly plays to the New York crowd, hitching his rap to a sample from Run-D.M.C.'s "King of Rock," and dropping in yet another Jay-Z allusion, this one a clever variation on lyrics from the master's "Encore." T.I. raps: "I came, I saw, I conquered/ With no big names, no fame, no celebrity sponsors/ Just the game and a flow that was bonkers."
Antony and the Johnsons I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian, 2005)
Click here to listen to "Hope There's Someone," and here to listen to "For Today I Am a Boy.""Hope There's Someone," the opening track on the second album by Antony and the Johnsons, begins with a startling sound: A singer's voice, trembling with vibrato, climbs over some plaintive piano chords into an eerie falsetto. The singer is Antony, a pudgy New Yorker with shaved eyebrows and a songwriting gift to match his remarkable voice. On I Am a Bird Now, Antony has gathered several arty downtown friends (including Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed) and created 10 songs of disarming intimacy; it's a shock to hear pop music that strives for beauty and pathos without resorting to a single distancing wink. "For Today I Am a Boy" is a portrait of the drag queen as a young man that builds to a magnificent gospel-like crescendo of rolling piano chords; "Hope There's Someone" proves that the right singer can make banalities ("Hope there's someone who'll take care of me/ When I die") sound profound.
Brazilian Girls Brazilian Girls (Verve Forecast, 2005)
Click here to listen to "Die Gedanken Sind Frei (Thoughts Are Free)."New York's Brazilian Girls, whose debut album will arrive in stores Feb. 1, aren't shy about their cosmopolitanism. Italian front-woman Sabina Sciubba sings in five languages, and the songs ricochet among styles, genres, eras: French chanson collides with a house beat, there's a dub-style setting of a Pablo Neruda poem, ska horn fanfares segue into a skittering drum-and-bass rhythm and a bout of scat singing. In lesser hands, it could all get a bit cluttered, not to mention pretentious; but Brazilian Girls are expert song-crafters, their production is crisp, and the band stays focused on a very unpretentious goal: moving bodies onto the dance floor. "Die Gedaken Sind Frei (Thoughts Are Free)" is typical. Sciubba rap-sings a bit of found German verse over a rattling snare drum while a violin sample and dozens of percussive noises shoot up through the mix.
Annie Anniemal (679, 2004)
Click here to listen to "Chewing Gum," and here to listen to "Heartbeat.""Chewing Gum," a song by the exceedingly blond Norwegian dance-pop chirper Annie Berge-Strand, is already a big European hit—as well it should be. It's three minutes and 48 seconds of pop bliss, with a bubbly beat by the British producer Richard X and a deliciously sly vocal by Annie, who, like any sensible would-be radio queen, records sans last name. Despite its sugary name, "Chewing Gum" isn't all sweetness and light; the lyrics advocate toying with men's affections: "I'm just a girl that's only chewing for fun/ You spit it out when all the flavor has gone/ Wrap him round your finger like you're playing with gum." Other singers have made whole careers out of singles less winning than "Chewing Gum," but Annie's debut CD, Anniemal, includes several other superb songs, notably "Heartbeat," which has a chorus that edges toward rock and a melody durable enough to withstand countless repeated listenings—and whatever the inevitable remixers throw its way.