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Belle & Sebastian taunts its audience
Scottish smart alecks Belle & Sebastian probably won't ever alienate their entire cult of admirers, unless front man Stuart Murdoch starts rapping, or the whole band stops reading. But what's great about Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the first proper B&S album in three years, is how much it sounds like they're trying: sparkling production from chart-pop maven Trevor Horn, a Thin Lizzy name-drop to go with Thin Lizzy guitar trills, even weird electroclash about the moral repercussions of choking on a corn flake. Can a move to Brooklyn be far behind? -- M.W.

This band was a critical favorite?
You know critics are aging when they give props to new young bands because they just can't find any more synonyms for "these guys suck." But what was one to make of Jersey band and critical darling Thursday? The band's performance of "War All the Time" on Late Night With Conan O'Brien made me wish war could be declared on vocalist Geoff Rickly's tonsils. I've heard people who can't sing with something more to say. Lou Reed. Leonard Cohen. Tom Verlaine. Dylan in various stages of congestion. This guy, though, couldn't find a pitch if you nailed him to home plate. -- S.D.

Go Home Productions' mash-ups
Home computing is killing music. The return of the mash is being deviously planned at, where an enterprising unidentifiable has continued pasting together pop classics into culturally literate sound clashes that set dance floors off lickety-pronto. Among the Web site's 2003 high points: "Ray of Gob," where Madonna's vocal shares spit with a re-chopped "Anarchy in the U.K.," and "Jacko Under Pressure," on which MJ's "Rock With You" molests the Queen/Bowie classic. -- P.O.

Daniel Johnston's The Early Recordings Volume 1: Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain
A gold mine for Daniel Johnston fans and a great introduction for the curious, The Early Recordings Volume 1 gives Johnston material previously only available on cassette or download a proper remastered release -- not that remastering really does much for something recorded live on a mono tape deck mounted on top of a basement piano. This sampling of songs, especially the ones on Songs of Pain, presents a calmer, less unstable performer, writing songs for a girl who "would not accept my call." -- J.B.

Hangin' with Hitchcock at Club Congress
It was a treat to see iconic Soft Boys maestro Robyn Hitchcock play to a large, receptive audience at Club Congress in Tucson. His past few, criminally ignored solo passes through Phoenix have reminded me why under-the-radar artists often skip these parts. Hitchcock, with a grateful crowd before him now, told his stories and charmed everyone as always. Music wank bonus: I wound up at the after-party, hosted by Dave Slutes of Sidewinders and Sand Rubies fame. Robyn and his wife, Michelle, talked with a small group of us for hours about politics, the appearance of the moon in England and the beauty of the desert. -- J.B.

Jack Johnson celebrates his own liquid
Closing out a primo year for surf films -- highlighted by the wide release of Step Into Liquid, a documentary by Endless Summer heir Dana Brown -- flip-flop rocker Jack Johnson saw his 2000 indie travelogue Thicker Than Water released on DVD. The wet dream visuals, backed by a mellow soundtrack of beach-blanket crash-out tunes by artists ranging from '60s folk-rockers Harper's Bizarre to Johnson himself, made this an even more pacifying "virtual aquarium" than the looped fish tank animation on the Finding Nemo DVD. -- J.M.

Beth Gibbons' Out of Season
Beth Gibbons, known to trip-hop fans as the female lead from Portishead, stepped out on her own in astonishing fashion last year with Out of Season, an album of torch songs and fluttering confessionals. The album, which she recorded along with producer and multi-instrumentalist Paul "Rustin Man" Webb, received its proper U.S. release just this fall, which means folks less ambitious around the import bin than me will be feeling Gibbons' magic soon. When Gibbons croons like Billie Holiday on "Romance," her spell is powerful. Perfect for intimate dates, lonely nights and epiphanies. -- C.O.

The Rapture does albums pretty well, too
In retrospect, "House of Jealous Lovers," New York City dance-punk heartthrobs the Rapture's hit single from last year, was a no-brainer: Astroturf guitar fuzz, unintelligible yelps, a hilarious count-to-eight bit, and the most enthusiastic cowbell playing by a heartthrob in ages. Yet as inevitable as the tune now sounds, Echoes, the Rapture's major-label debut, still plays like a revelation -- sonically involved, emotionally captivating, totally songful. And if they're stuck in the '70s (or whenever), well, so are the White Stripes. -- M.W.

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