Whistler, Faith in the Morning (Wiiija): The more I listen to them, the more convinced I am that Whistler are making a concerted subversive statement. On their second album of neo-folk niceness, the London trio are all seaside strolls, afternoons in living rooms, and breezy summer eves curled up with a good book. Whistler manage to sound entirely "nice" without making it a twee gimmick. Velocity Girl once made the proclamation that they couldn't stop smiling; conversely, Whistler singer Kerry Shaw uses her sweet, polite, bright voice to deliver the most sour-mouthed words. Which brings thoughts back to subversion. With angry, confrontational music having been made comic fodder by the big-pants-clad nu-metal automatons, what could be more confronting, in the contemporary climate, than carefully thought, softly played, utterly ornate and entirely wet English folkie pop? — AC

VAST (Visual Audio Sensory Theatre), Music for People (Elektra): One of the reasons rock 'n' roll has ceded so much pop-cultural space to hip-hop and fluffy pop is its refusal to think big. It's seemingly rooted in the legacy of punk and the "indie" aesthetic, which still pervades too many rockers' mindsets. At one point such an outlook was a necessary antidote to the aging rock dinosaurs who roamed the land; today, its effect is merely to cripple and marginalize the music, music we wouldn't even be talking about if bands like The Beatles, The Stones and The Doors hadn't once "thought big." Which is where VAST's main man, Jon Crosby, comes in. As the title Music for People would suggest, Californian Crosby is a man on a mission, which is to bring back into vogue hooky, yet intelligent and stylistically ambitious rock 'n' roll, replete with strong vocals, hummable melodies and loud guitars. Combining Euro-flavored sophistication with a Yank's love of the big gesture, tracks like "The Last One Alive," the anthemic single "Free" and "The Gates of Rock and Roll" transcend their influences (which range from obscurities like 1980s rocker Simon F. to Depeche Mode and even metal) and stake out new stylistic turf of their own. Lyrically, rather than the usual neurotic whining we've come to expect from so many "alt-rockers," Crosby deals with both light and shade: universal themes, such as the exhilaration of personal freedom and the duplicity of false friends, predominate, again stressing VAST's common touch. If rock 'n' roll has a future, it's in the hands of people like Jon Crosby. — JW(B)

The Donnas, The Donnas Turn 21 (Lookout!): Forget about feminism; how about reverse sexism? It's the ultimate badass rock revenge on today's limp misogyny. The Donnas have the most excellent rock 'n' roll attitude: "I'm tired of hitting on you," goes a lyric to "Do You Wanna Hit It?" "It's about time to be getting on you/ All messed up and I don't care/ So c'mon take off your underwear." The Donnas Turn 21 is all about the parties, the booze and the boys (always plural, as in "40 Boys in 40 Nights"). With penetrating hard-rock riffs, attitude-heavy Joan Jett-style vocals and supreme use of the cowbell, the Bay Area punk-rockers mix early Ramones with '80s metal (note the Judas Priest cover, "Livin' After Midnight"). Their tough pose and sexual candor should make Britney and Christina (and all the little Backstreet Boys) squirm with fear. — JT

Sade, Lovers Rock (Epic): Her music has never been extremely varied, but this smooth operator is one of those artists who doesn't need to be eclectic in order to maintain a listener's interest. After an eight-year sabbatical, Sade has returned with her vocal powers intact, and without any embarrassing "updates" to her sound. On Lovers Rock she sings about sexy, sweet taboos, crooning lovelorn lyrics with a melancholy voice that will mellow out the most hyperactively happy, but which will also uplift the most suicidal. The album's first single, "By Your Side," is perhaps the most beautiful song I heard last year, a work of unassuming grace and soothing warmth sung for the loneliest of the lonely. "When you're lost and you can't get back again/ I will find you darling and I'll bring you home," she sings in a wavering, nearly broken voice over a slow, simmering groove. — KM

Eleni Mandell, Thrill (Space Baby): If David Mamet ever does a remake of Double Indemnity (or tackles Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon"), Eleni Mandell is the woman to write the theme song. Thrill has it's share of torch songs ("He Thinks He's in Love," "Closer To Him"), but it also rocks with the kind of nod to the '50s that Chris Isaak understands. Mandell can really sing, and she's got a voice that works whether she's rockin' or chillin'. "Pauline," the opener, is a fast ride with an even faster girl; "No Good, No More" is about succombing to one's untamed nature; "1970 Red Chevelle" is a rip-roaring rewrite of "Hot Rod Lincoln." Retro cafes, booths with red leather upholstery, and scenes from "Tender Is The Night." Noir, done right, never goes out of fashion. — MG

The Moldy Peaches, The Moldy Peaches (Rough Trade): The bedroom-tape intimacy of these lo-fi, anti-folk ditties places them squarely in the confessional singer/songwriter tradition. But there's nothing traditional (or square) about the mortal kombat between vocalists Kimya Dawson and Adam Green — no yin/yang perfect fit, no superego/id tension, no soulmate bullshit. Instead, they finish off each other's sentences with floating images (sample interplay: "Tropicana, canned foods/ Botulism, damaged goods") in an effort to process everything that hits their East Coast senses in a day. If they still tend to fuse into one being after several listens, it's certainly not for any spiritual payoff; it's because two selves are better than one in tackling this affliction of the information-overload era. Far from erasing the erotic, though, they skew "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" with heterogeneous carnal knowledge. Their aggressively unstylized singing makes them each sound equally approachable, equally available and overwhelmingly sexy. On second thought, maybe there is a spiritual payoff here. (Email:moldypeaches2000@hotmail.com.) — KJ

Damon & Naomi, With Ghost (SubPop): For lovers of the weepiest reaches of musical melancholia, Damon & Naomi are like prized penmen, true troubadours expressing timeless (and timely) thoughts. Their musical vehicle embraces the concept of "beautiful" sound, nestling sweet sounds close to a collective artistic bosom. On their fourth longplaying outing, Krukowski & Yang up the ante on acoustic opulence by collaborating with the core trio from Japanese acid-folk hippies Ghost: guitarist Michio Kurihara, keyboardist Kazuo Ogino and iconoclastic icon Masaki Batoh. Literally titled, With Ghost is a shimmering set of utterly gorgeous songs, nine numbers shining with warmth like newly blown glass. — AC

Outkast, Stankonia (LaFace): Imagine if Sun Ra collaborated with 2 Live Crew or if Afrika Bambaataa and George Clinton had a threesome with Richard Simmons, and you might have a good idea what Outkast's Stankonia sounds like. Although this album probably doesn't live up to the chorus of critical praise that's been heaped upon it (it isn't the second coming of hip-hop), it nevertheless does a great job of translating left-of-center electronic dance music for the booty-shaking masses. The revved up electro-shocking b.p.m.'s and caffeine-dada lyrics of their first single, "B.O.B.," hit you over the head and keep it spinning like you're Linda Blair possessed by the demon spirit of Sir Mix-A-Lot. Also on the album are other gleaming gems including "Gasoline Dreams" and "?," Technicolor slam-dunks in the faces of cookie-cutter hip-hop pretenders. — KM

Self, Gizmodgery (Spongebath): We all loved Beck's Odelay, right? And many of us harbor a certain admiration for pure-pop craftsmen like Ben Folds Five and Matthew Sweet, correct? Self's Gizmodgery sounds a bit like Ben Folds Five played through an Odelay filter, so why isn't it a hit? Maybe it's because Gizmodgery is played by Matt Mahaffey entirely on toy instruments. If you've checked out toy instruments lately, you'll know that some are pretty sophisticated and fun — as is Gizmodgery. Sure, you can't escape the toy piano on the ballad "I Love To Love Your Love My Love," but you'll be amazed that the grunge-pop of "9 Lives" and "Dead Man," the white-boy funk of "Trunk Fulla Amps" and the Prince-like "Pattycake" were created on tools available at a Toys R Us or garage sale near you. And after you hear Self's cover of the Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes," you'll find it hard to believe that the original wasn't performed with toys. — RR

Various, Shanti Project Collection 2 (Badman): If you can get over the rather naff concept of its being "one for the girls," the second Shanti Project volume from Mark Kozelek-endorsed Badman records is a set of sterling songs from a superlative cast, all of whom contribute a couple of cuts: The Spinanes' Rebecca Gates, Julie Doiron, Edith Frost, Low's Mimi Parker, Kristin Hersh, Tarnation's Paula Frazer, and, surprisingly, Hole's Melissa Auf Der Maur. The quality control is high, with one fine tune after another, the whole kept to a consistently quiet air. If compelled to pick a "winner" I'd plump for Frost, with Parker a sentimental second. — AC

Roni Size/Reprazent, In the Mode (Talkin' Loud/Island): In my excellent (sorry, it was) review of Size's debut, New Forms, I wrote that it was "too Sgt. Pepper before there was even a drum & bass Meet the Beatles to 'improve upon'." Well, I'm absolutely stunned to report that this is indeed his Meet the Beatles. What that means today is an average track length of 4:48 and one disc instead of two, but for sure, it helps. So does the fact that each track comes in the door not just with bells on, but also whistles, car alarms, police sirens, howlin' tsunamis... Instead of pummeling the ears or clickety-clacketing into space, the huge rhythms rock the way Jam & Lewis (a.k.a. God) intended, while Size's vocal infantry (including guests Zack de la Rocha, Rahzel and Method Man) ride on top like Kyle MacLachlan bucking the spice worms in "Dune." It's a non-stop party without bothering with the pretense of throwing one (cf. Apollo 440, Lo-Fidelity All-Stars, even Fatboy Slim). But, though I hate to be persnickety about such a damn near miraculous development (or do I mean undevelopment?), I remain somewhat unmoved. New Forms forced you to take sides. Even though In the Mode is the better album, it rocks for 76 minutes, you bang your head, and then you forget about it. Nothing wrong with that, but I expect something a little more compelling out of a Meet the Beatles. My suggestion for next time: an expanded lyric bank and shameless samples. — KJ

Jesse Dayton, Tall Texas Tales, (Bullet Records): Each song on Tall Texas Tales,Jesse Dayton's sophomore solo album, is like the chapter of a book on country music (with the occasional foray into another genre). "Molasses Girl" takes the listener back to the 19th century with the antique, clunky sounds of a tuba matching wits with a banjo. "Arkansas Chrome (Duct Tape Song)" recall's country's earlier days, riding on a Johnny Cash guitar line, while "Blackjack" brings to mind a classic George Jones recording and "The Room Full of Blues" heads into Miles Davis territory. This predominantly old-school country collection also tells a bit of Road King singer Jesse Dayton's troubled ancestry. Check out this portrait from "Jumped Head First": "Second war put blood on his hands / He lost his mind and he lost his friends / Since then he ain't never been the same / And a single malt seems to ease the pain." — JT

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