- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

Want to know how desperate things are for the music biz these days? Coldplay was accused not once, but twice, of plagiarizing the melody of its mediocre song “Viva la Vida.” Perhaps it’s an inevitability of shrinking commercial pies: If there aren’t enough slices to go around, sue for one - or set up shop in Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Happily, these acts are still baking their own.

1. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive — From the jewelry-hocking lows of drug addiction to the jubilant highs of drinking atop water towers, the Brookyln-based indie rockers have notched another brilliant chronicle of the American suburban underground, plus those near-fatal trips to Tampa, Fla. The band has streamlined its arrangements, and singer Craig Finn has softened his growl - but the riffs are still ferocious; the overall package peerless.

2. Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It — Ransacking classic American soul music has become big business for the likes of Amy Winehouse. Mr. Saadiq, formerly of the neo-R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! is doing the same for Motown. On this bravura, note-perfect set, the singer even enlists the help of a real-live Funk Brother - vibes and percussion man Jack Ashford.

3. The Pretenders, Break Up the Concrete — The great Chrissie Hynde took a reggae-informed detour with 2002’s “Loose Screw.” On this effort, she takes a simpler, more direct approach, and the result is a marvelous, swift kick of rockabilly and rough-hewn country. Its title is a sort of go-green command that harks back to Miss Hynde’s “My City Was Gone”-era bewilderment at a changing, clutter-amassing environment.

4. Fleet Foxes — It’s a rare thing these days for a debut album to cut such an immediate, distinct figure. Though based in Seattle, the band and its self-titled album have a sensibility more attuned to Appalachia - or perhaps the rural Wales evoked on Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin III.” Whatever the origin of their earthy, ethereal folk, the Foxes’ harmony vocals were the best hypertension medicine of 2008.

5. Paul Weller, 22 Dreams — Dude turns 50, makes a stunning double album. So much for Mr. Weller, he of Jam and Style Council prestige, resting on his laurels. “22” is everything a long-long player should be: experimental, invigorating, kaleidoscopic. Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Graham Coxon of Blur - rivals of the 1990s Brit-rock scene - both turn up here. Thank your Godfather, boys.

6. Old Crow Medicine Show, Tennessee Pusher — A switch in producer - from old-time revivalist David Rawlings to mainstream magic-maker Don Was - did nothing to dilute the grain strength of these mountain-music traditionalists. The Nashville quintet is anything but stiffly reverent, however; they write about contemporary life with an energy that’s informed by the present. They just happen to sing it with a joy that’s infused by the past.

7. The Constantines, Kensington Heights — Falling somewhere between sludge and Springsteen, the Canadian combo, led by superbly raspy vocalist Bryan Webb, also delivers a few down-tempo, country-tinged sweetmeats that suit them well on their fourth studio full-length.

8. Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid — Elbow scales the same sonic heights as its British compatriots in Coldplay, only far less obnoxiously. The band crafts spacious, cinematic dream-pop, occasionally fortified by a string section, but makes it all sound as natural and effortless as taking afternoon tea.

9. Erykah Badu, New America Part One (4th World War) — The album - Miss Badu’s fifth - is, like its title, a mouthful of musical idioms. Equal parts hip-hop and Sly Stone-style funk-soul, it’s a magnificently eclectic mash-up of organic jams and sampled snippets, all tied together by a meditative Miss Badu. Social-problem records aren’t usually this much fun.

10. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Cardinology — Here’s the album the erratic, compulsively prolific singer-songwriter always threatened to make: one that’s as emotionally honest as it is musically cohesive. Mr. Adams’ most recent musical collaborators get a shout-out in the title, and they more than earn it here. It’s darn hard to back a mongrel like Mr. Adams (both a Deadhead and a Morrissey fanatic) without getting musical motion sickness.

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