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Pop Eye | The $50 Guide

August 29, 2004|Robert Hilburn

Franz Ferdinand and Wilco haven't had much competition in the 2004 rock album of the year race -- until now. Three CDs in our latest guide to keeping up with what's interesting in pop music challenge them for that title: the Libertines, Snow Patrol and Mark Lanegan.

July

Snow Patrol's "Final Straw" (A&M)

Lots of bands from across the Atlantic arrive with stacks of reviews suggesting a Coldplay connection these days, but this veteran outfit is the one most worth noting. The similarity is in the areas of melodic sweetness and craft (echoes of U2 in both cases), but Snow Patrol's music is harder and more varied. Gary Lightbody sings in a conversational style that makes all the more endearing the songs about losing your way (especially in relationships) without losing your hope. "Run" is the centerpiece, a work that is based sonically in disorienting shadows but eventually explodes with a wonderfully self-affirming cry.

The Streets' "A Grand Don't Come for Free" (Vice/Atlantic)

Mike Skinner, the young man who helped bring credibility to British hip-hop with his "Original Pirate Material" album, isn't as dynamic as you'd like live, which helps explain why the Streets aren't getting the kind of attention in this country that they should. He's still talking about the street/pub life, but the images are sharper, the storytelling has more of a gritty, cinematic feel, and the beats are cooler and more confident. If Ray Davies or Pete Townshend were just starting out in music, they might be hanging out with Skinner. A mini-classic.

Martina Topley-Bird's "Anything" (Palm Pictures)

If you're in an especially mellow or melancholy mood, you could get so caught up in the smoldering title track of this solo debut that you might put the CD player on "repeat" and listen for days to the enchanting tale of sacrificing everything for love. This Englishwoman was the magical female voice on trip-hop pioneer Tricky's best recordings in the '90s, and she applies that same spell to these mostly slow, hazy, sometimes bluesy, trance-like numbers.

August

Steve Earle's "The Revolution Starts ... Now" (Artemis)

In his fifth $50 Guide appearance since his creative rebound a decade ago, this Nashville-based singer-songwriter offers his state of the union message, its themes ranging from the Iraq war to the outsourcing of American jobs. Blending folk, blues, country and rock into his warm Americana sound, Earle feels unusually comfortable in his probing Woody Guthrie role.

The Libertines' "The Libertines" (Rough Trade)

This marvelous British band is so trouble-plagued that it was only fitting that its highly anticipated performance at Coachella last year was cut short by curfew. Nothing comes easy for these guys, whose biggest hurdle is coleader Pete Doherty's drug problems, which have forced the rest of the band to put him in the penalty box for a while. The only place where things go right is apparently in the studio, where they work with Clash cofounder Mick Jones. The songs carry the passion, swagger and heart of the best British rock, from the Who and the Clash through the Stone Roses and Oasis. "Can't Stand Me Now" looks at the band's internal problems with a convincing sense of ache, while other tracks move from the bluegrass-punk of "Narcissist" to the garage-pop brightness of "Don't Be Shy." A must.

Mark Lanegan's "Bubblegum" (Beggars Banquet)

If you played just the opening track of this album for Leonard Cohen, chances are he would take the CD home, listen to it through the night and be haunted for days about what it might have been like had he ever fronted a rock band. Lanegan's voice is as deep and gruff as Cohen's, and his songs often capture the same unusual mix of fatalism and faith. The former Screaming Trees leader is joined by guest artists such as PJ Harvey and members of Queens of the Stone Age.

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