1. A GHOST IS BORN -- Wilco
Weeks on chart: 6
Style: World-weary rock, alternative folk division.
Objectionable material: "Company in My Back" (obscenities).
Worldview: "Theologians, they don't know nothing / about my soul. / . . . They thin my heart with little things / and my life with change / in so many ways. / I find more missing every day."
Overall quality: An inchoate hybrid of the luminous lethargy of Big Star's Third and the harrowing grimness of Neil Young's Tonight's the Night.
2. UH HUH HER -- PJ Harvey
Weeks on chart: 7
Style: Raw, jagged-edged angst rock (Patti Smith meets Sonic Youth).
Objectionable material: "Who the [expletive deleted]?" ; "Pocket Knife" (profanities).
Worldview: Hell hath no fury, pain, or confusion like a woman scorned, hurt, or misunderstood.
Overall quality: From her abrasive eloquence to her whisper-to-a-scream tonal shifts, Polly Jean Harvey makes the dark place from which she creates her music seem disturbingly real.
3. TO THE 5 BOROUGHS -- Beastie Boys
Weeks on chart: 5
Style: A return to the brash, late-'80s rap style that the Beastie Boys themselves pioneered, brought up to date with cruder language and Michael Moore politics.
Objectionable material: Most of the 15 tracks (profanity, obscenity, vulgarity, blasphemy).
Worldview: "Got to spread love before the world goes pop. Never again should we use the A-bomb. . . . All W.O.M.D.'s gone. We need a multilateral disarm."
Overall quality: 50 percent man, 50 percent boy, 100 percent beastie.
4. THE CURE -- The Cure
Weeks on chart: 4
Style: Maelstrom-like alternative rock.
Objectionable material: "Before Three," "Us or Them" (obscenity).
Worldview: "Death is with us all. / We suck him down with our first breath / and spit him out as we fall. / There is no terror in my heart, / no dread of the unknown, / desire for paradise to be."
Overall quality: A spoonful of hooks would help Robert Smith's prolixity and pained yelping go down.
5. TOGETHER WE'RE HEAVY -- Polyphonic Spree
Weeks on chart: 5
Style: Godspell meets Up with People.
Objectionable material: Several muted profanities on the bonus DVD.
Worldview: "If you come to a . . . Polyphonic Spree show . . . , I think you're going to experience . . . a kind of a celebration. . . . I don't know what the hell we're celebrating, but that's what it feels like to me" (bandleader Tim DeLaughter in the DVD interview).
Overall quality: Unselfconscious silliness for our politically overheated times.
In the spotlight
By the mid-'90s, as the evaporation of their original context caused them to flail about ever more unconvincingly for a new one, it became easy to ignore the Beastie Boys. With To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol), though, they demonstrate the ongoing vitality of their roots by returning to them as if 9/11 were the only significant event to have transpired since 1989's Paul's Boutique. Trading witty lines and rhymes, referencing and sampling amusingly disparate pop-cultural artifacts, they're saying it loud: They're back and proud.
There are, alas, signs that time does in fact march on-namely, their rote liberalism (which is annoying enough coming from Linda Ronstadt let alone from guys who started off as equal-opportunity offenders) and their profanity (which, given their undeniable verbal skills, feels contrived to earn that most dubious of authenticity badges, the parental-warning sticker). Proof that time sometimes stands still: not changing their name to "Beastie Men" or anything else falsely indicative of maturity.