Endless Soul
(Marina Records, 1998)

It's a travesty that this early '80s Scottish new wave band were never as critically acclaimed as their peers The Wedding Present or Orange Juice. Taking their name from Franz Kafka's The Trial, Josef K were the smoky mirrors of a constructivist, arty new sound. Though influenced by Television and the Voidods, they smoothed out those bands' slickly twitching guitar work and added a shadowy demeanor. In other words, if those bands were the Impressionists, Josef K were the darker abstract--they defined Bauhaus art even better than Bauhaus the band. This re-release/best-of compilation chronicles songs that should have been worldwide hits, like "Sorry for Laughing," "It's Kinda Funny," and "Endless Soul." Frankly, I think their deep, lethargic vocals, electrically melodic guitars, and snidely smart lyrics make them the coolest new wave band that ever existed, eclipsing even Joy Division in musicianship, delivery, and skinny tie-factor. JULIANNE SHEPHERD

(Emperor Norton Records, 1999)

You know when you put a marshmallow in the microwave, and it expands? Did you ever wonder what it sounds like in there, when the radioactive heat fondles the sugar molecules? If it sounds sweet and space-worldly, then Fun9 (pronounced "funk") is exactly that. Takako Minekawa, the ruler of all hip culture in Japan, uses her voice and unidentifiable samples to make smart dance music. From "Gently Waves," which turns Takako's layered vocal "aaahs" into the sounds of an ocean or a locomotive, to the Eastern-sounding "Tiger," which has the air of a sneaky, high-tech spy movie, the album is complex, puffy, and charming. Best of all, Minekawa (whose old band with Kahimi Karie was called Fancy Face Groovy Name) has an amazing grasp on phonetics and alliteration; just examine past song and album titles: Cloudy Cloud Calculator, "Kangaroo Pocket Calculator," "Milk Rock," Chat Chat, "Spin Spider Spin," etc. Takako is quirky, accomplished, and best of all, she's obsessed with cats! JULIANNE SHEPHERD

Save Everything
(Quarterstick, 1997)

OK, classic case of don't-judge-a-band-by-its-crappy name because yes, they're good enough to be my Holiday CD pick of the year. Shipping News, in a word, ROCKS. They have a hollow, metallic, slightly angry sound that is often powerful enough to rouse me from my haze of apathy and get me back on the path of fervent invention. Vocals are included, but they're used more as another instrument than as an outlet for the lyrics, which are entirely indistinguishable. It's like rock music for the Trans Am or Fucking Champs fans that would rather listen to the guitar and drums play off each other than some yokel yelping about how his girlfriend dumped his sorry ass. Not that that's always bad, I mean I like Dinosaur Jr., too. The only flaw I can point out is that the CD is only 40 minutes long, but it's a goddamn great 40 minutes, so don't let that deter you. Shipping News will be out here in April promoting their new CD, so think of this as an opportunity to study up. KATIE SHIMER

London Calling
(Epic Records, 1979)

What makes London Calling brilliant is that there is no single defining moment when the listener can say, "A-ha, that's the definitive glimpse into the soul of another culture, another time," in the same simple-minded way that an American tourist may look at Buckingham Palace and declare he has been to England. In fact, it is quite the opposite. For the hour-plus length of this album, the Clash hopscotches through half a dozen genres, from the meat-and-potato punk classic, "London Calling," to the snappy lounge song, "Jimmy Jazz." The Clash borrowed heavily from the very sounds around them--the clanging noises of an urban center; the slippery back beat of reggae parties in west London's housing projects; the shouting punk of the city's underground sweatbox clubs. What the Beastie Boys have done for the noises of modern-day New York, the Clash did for the chaos and disgruntlement of London two decades ago. But what makes London Calling such a remarkable album is that it is a study in the fragility of brilliance. Their prior album had been dull, cookie-cutter punk. Their subsequent album, Combat Rock, was equally wanting, over-simplifying the anger, boredom, and nihilism of a generation. To (mis)quote the wise Goldielocks: London Calling was--and still is--just right, capturing the complexity of anger in finger-snapping, foot-stomping madness. PHIL BUSSE

(London/Go! Discs, 1990)

Though radio stations actually played the songs "Obscurity Knocks" and "Only Tongue Can Tell" when Cake was released in 1990, Trash Can Sinatras fell right off the radar. Too bad, as Cake is a perfect album, full of lush guitar work before that phrase became hackneyed. Imagine Bunnyman Will Sergeant playing in The Smiths as your starter point, and go from there. Most striking, though, is the throaty voice of Frank Reader, and how easily he wraps himself around countless clever turns of phrase. It's the sort of record you'll attempt to learn every word of, and figuring out exactly what is being said is part of the fun. ("Is that 'vowel mouthed rogue'? 'Bottle scars'?") After a few listens, you'll find yourself humming the songs absent-mindedly at work, you'll hear their varied tones in your head while shopping. It sounds great on a rainy day, flowing between the raindrops; it can also match the spring-in-your-step of summer's bright sparkly days. Good for any mood, the melancholy joy of The Trash Can Sinatras will become a part of your life. Be sure to say "hi" and thank me when we meet up on the emailing list, OK? JAMIE S. RICH


Paper Chasin' (4Eva Hustlin')
(Jive Records, 1996)

It's unfortunate that famous lady rappers are so rare, because they're so fucking cool. There's nothing like the female voice to complement the steel-strong beats of rap. And I'm not talking about any of that R&B shit--I'm talking about Suga T, one the hardest, toughest, most delicious girl rappers of the '90s. Her one solo album really displays the range of her talent. She has a brash voice, but it rolls off smooth and mellow, hitting it quick but lasting awhile. She's fast, but not frantic--her rhymes are earnest and clear, so much that you'll notice her speed as an afterthought. She carries the distinct sound of The Click, her hometown crew from Vallejo. Together, they have produced five albums, and both she and her bad friend E-40 (one of his albums features a photo of him cooking crack, literally) have produced albums alone. Not to mention, Suga raps about cool stuff--i.e., not love. ("All the ladies over here do you got your daddy's back?") KATIA DUNN

(Metacom Music, 1999)

If you're like me, you'd rather wait till the last possible second before dashing into Walgreens to purchase your holiday presents. Walgreens is, of course, the ultimate gift shopping experience, because it has everything from those stoopid scooters to "Billy the Talking Bass." However! Did you know they also sell one of the greatest CDs in the world? It's called Hip Hop Party and as drugstore music compilations go, it's a virtual goldmine of hits.

While this compilation actually has very little to do with hip hop, it's a terrific showcase of early '90s R&B, and covers an amazing range of styles--from the G-funk of Warren G and Nate Dogg ("Funk on a whole new level, where the rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble"), to the Motownphilly sound of Boyz II Men, and the New Jack Swing of Tony!Toni!Toné! Also featured are Foxy Brown, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Blackstreet, and a host of other artists who set the stage for the current R&B explosion. But perhaps best of all, this compilation contains a true rarity--the rap gem, "I Got a Man" by Positive K, which is by turns hilarious, offensive, and most of all, wicked. So swallow that pride and head for Walgreens--because no matter where you bought it, your loved ones deserve the gift that will get their groove on. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY