Lou Barlow Emoh (Merge, 2005) Click here to listen to "Holding Back the Year" and here to listen to "Round and Round."The scrawny singer/songwriter Lou Barlow spent the 1990s fronting various bands (Sebadoh, Sentridoh, Folk Implosion) that were variations on the same theme: Only love can break your heart. His reliance on low-fidelity sparseness ran its course, as did the idea of a sensitive guy defeated—nay, destroyed—by love and unafraid to warble about it. You could argue that Barlow's hyper-vivid confessionals were an early inspiration for Emo—Barlow himself certainly would. His cleverly titled solo debut finds him as mopey as ever, especially on the carpe diem sentimentality of "Holding Back the Year." His quivery, self-doubting voice has aged well, and he actually flashes a sense of humor—diving into a cheeky cover of Ratt's 1984 hair metal classic "Round and Round."
Low The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop, 2005) Click here to listen to "Monkey" and here to listen to "Step."Most artists start off with a bang and spend the rest of their careers trying to fizzle out with class. The Duluth, Minn., trio Low did the exact opposite. One of the most appropriately named bands ever, Low emerged 10 years ago as fully formed curmudgeons who trafficked in snail-paced songs filled with echoey effects. The crawl was an exceedingly pretty one, thanks to Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk's haunted, coiled duets. Their latest disc chips away at their reputation with brisk tempos and—gasp—amps turned up to 11. Parker and Sparhawk still sound gorgeous meeting atop the foamy din of "Monkey" or in the harsh jangle of "Just Stand Back." Their rowdiness is sure to upset fans of Low's austerity—if the cheerleading handclaps of "Step" don't lose them, the guitar solo surely will.
Archer Prewitt Wilderness (Thrill Jockey, 2005) Click here to listen to "Way of the Sun" and here to listen to "O, KY."At one point in the mid-1990s, Chicago morphed into an adjective. Spearheaded by the Sea and Cake (of which Prewitt was a member) and Tortoise, Chicago became shorthand for a heady style of rock that valued space and texture over pop's economy, raucous solos, and, well, fun. Unlike his collaborators, Prewitt always harbored a soft spot for conventional songwriting. His fourth solo album is a wonderful collection of his folksier moments, highlighted by the Nick Drake-inspired "Way of the Sun" and the hotel-bar bleakness of "Think Again." The song "O, KY," anchored by a brooding piano line and fierce strumming, presents Prewitt at his best—sentimental and sad, yet still a believer in bright pop harmonies.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Matt Sweeney Superwolf (Drag City, 2005) Click here to listen to "My Home Is the Sea" and here to listen to "Bed Is for Sleeping."Will Oldham's vision of America isn't about the other side of the tracks so much as the dark romance of the tracks themselves. The reclusive singer was the central figure in Palace Music, an amorphous clan of musicians rooted in the mythologies and mysticism of the American South. Now recording under the name Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Oldham's latest record marries his fragile, rustic voice to the delicate picking of the guitarist Matt Sweeney (Zwan, Chavez). As always, Oldham's lyrics aren't concerned with progress. He fixates on the minutiae and ruminations of a rural and sensual life: animals and the weather; death and salvation; and a sundress shredded in the throes of passion ("What Are You?"). The album is not as serious as Oldham's somber whispers would suggest—the beautiful, smoldering "My Home Is the Sea" contemplates being eaten by a shark, an in-joke for his fiercely loyal fans.
Graham Coxon Happiness in Magazines (Astralwerks, 2005) Click here to listen to "Bittersweet Bundle of Misery" and here to listen to "No Good Time."In the 1990s, Blur was always much smarter and quirkier than their peers in the U.K. pinup pages. The guitarist Graham Coxon—always the quiet, surly one—seemed to be the only band member who knew this, deserting his mates in 2002 after years of frustration with their increasingly trend-hopping sound. He returned to the modest solo recordings inspired by his true love: the jagged, un-spooled mayhem of American guitar idols like the Pixies and Sonic Youth. Coxon's fifth album strikes a perfect balance between the chunky riffs of his Yankee heroes and the perky, elastic, post-punk chug of his Blur days. "No Good Time" and "Don't Be a Stranger" mainline the poppy pogo of the Cars, while the strummed gallop and sweet melody of "Bittersweet Bundle of Misery" vividly evokes—OK, plagiarizes—Blur's "Coffee and TV," only with much sappier lyrics.