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POP MUSIC | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Sure bets in uncertain times

Download-only guitar rock. Mix tapes. Bleary-eyed soul. These artists were tonic for a year of turmoil.

October 28, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

We all know the music industry is a mess. The album format may be going the way of the woolly mammoth, possibly taking the major labels with it. Concert tickets cost too much, and with the Web encouraging a million little niche markets, no one soundtrack is inspiring a generation. We've come so far, only to arrive at "High School Musical."

Yet as anarchy descends, something remarkable keeps happening -- artists from across the playing field are hitting peaks and causing major excitement. With two months to go before the debate about what defined the soundtrack of 2007 crests, a group of much-noticed groundbreakers sits comfortably atop the zeitgeist. Why wait until December? The year's Top 10, at least in terms of importance, is clear right now.

This isn't always true -- just last year, the winners were less obvious and more divisive. Sure, Dylan released another late-career masterpiece (yawn!), but other than that, year-end lists praised esoteric art projects, cult-level hip-hop and decent indie rock by bands that, for all their craft, aren't doing much that's new.

But this year something happened. Groundswells of interest kept surfacing about certain releases -- and lasting beyond the life span of hype. Buzz-building leaks, fan tributes, gossip and discussion that lasted much longer than the attention span of critics extended interest in these albums, rather than diffusing it. Key festival appearances and triumphal tours made more news.

These albums are making real impact in uncertain times. Crucially, none are debuts: Today's complex pop landscape seems better navigated by those with established identities and the courage to take risks. Not all are my own favorites; none received uniformly good reviews. But their success proves that pop is doing just fine in this period of transition.

1. Radiohead

"In Rainbows" (no label)

These intelligent rockers released their long-anticipated new set as a pay-as-you-will download, inspiring shouts of "Revolution!" But they could get away with that dare only because "In Rainbows" pleases so many kinds of ears. Tuneful, deep, even groovy, it challenges without being off-putting, and proves that the weariest genre on the planet -- guitar-based rock -- can still accommodate a few new tricks.

2. Kanye West

"Graduation" (Roc-A-Fella)

West is the consummate post-millennial music star. He's hit-oriented but adventurous, rooted in hip-hop but compulsively eclectic, with an ego that makes him purposefully outrageous. His third album, flavored by electro beats and internationalist pop, got a boost from a manufactured feud with rapper 50 Cent. West treated the hype like a good joke, and came out swinging with a brain-infecting single, "Stronger."

3. M.I.A.

"Kala" (Interscope)

The geopolitical playground rhymes of Sri Lankan-British artiste Maya Arulpragasam captured the hearts of the au courant in 2005. Her second album proves she's more than a passing fancy. Recorded all over the globe, it's a big and bouncy blast of fun that communicates ideas as serious as a pocket bomb. You know an album's great when the worst track is the one produced by Timbaland.

4. Bruce Springsteen

"Magic" (Columbia)

What could be more predictable than the Boss' latest hookup with his stalwart E Street Band? Yet by infusing old song structures and themes with a newfound sense of ambiguity, Springsteen made this music relevant rather than nostalgic. The band's reunion tour was a lock to be an extraordinary moneymaker; the new treasures of "Magic" make it a real event.

5. Arcade Fire

"Neon Bible" (Merge)

Unfettered joy distinguishes these Canadian pomp-rockers from others who are using sweeping gestures to break open indie rock's cage. Win Butler's songs wallow in heartbreak and apocalypse on this second album, but the ruckus raised by his half-dozen bandmates catapults them aloft. Their live shows seal the deal, inspiring a passion in fans that makes you think they really could be the voice of a generation.

6. Feist

"The Reminder" (Arts & Crafts/Interscope)

Songwriter-chanteuse Leslie Feist first made waves in 2004 with the sweetly sleepy hit "Mushaboom." That bit of punk bossa nova only hinted at the self-realization of this album. It's the indie-cool equivalent to Carole King's "Tapestry," a crafty, subtle girl's breakthrough into full womanhood. Now the video for the jaunty single "1234," attached to an iPod commercial, is making Feist a sensation all over again.

7. Rihanna

"Good Girl Gone Bad" (Def Jam)

Born in Barbados, this 21-year-old powerhouse ingenue is a force behind the current Caribbeanization of R&B, and the strongest young rival for Beyonce's crown. Rihanna's third album is mostly known for "Umbrella," a wistful, sneakily affecting hit that ruled the charts all summer. But as her curtain-ripping turns at this year's MTV Video Music Awards proved, there's much more to this singer than one sexy hook. More hits are bound to extend this album's shelf life.

8. LCD Soundsystem

"Sound of Silver" (DFA)

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