Style: Zippy, catchy, electronica-swathed pop.
Worldview: "There exists a melody / that just might change your mind. / If only I knew the key / to sing to make you mine" ("I Saw It on Your Keyboard").
Overall quality: Best appreciated by those who can listen past the shallow-if-clever lyrics about puppy love and concentrate on Jesse Kurvink's wizard-like way with keyboards both old school and new.
Style: Road-tested rock 'n' roll.
Worldview: "And it's hard to say / who you are these days. / But you . . . keep running for / another place / to find that saving grace" ("Saving Grace").
Overall quality: Two tunefully overt recycling jobs (Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" as "Saving Grace," Sheryl Crow's "A Change" as "Jack"), nine almost-as-tuneful subtle ones (Petty's own 30-year history of Byrds-Dylan synthesis), and the excellent "Flirting with Time."
Cautions: Frequent profanity.
Worldview: "You'll never touch God's hand. / You'll never taste God's breath / because you'll never see the Second Coming. . . . / I've seen the ways of God. / I'll take the devil any day. / Hail Satan" ("Skeleton Christ"); "Is war and greed the master plan? / The Bible's where it all began. / His propaganda sells despair / and spreads the virus everywhere" ("Cult").
Overall quality: Well, at least Slayer's not ambiguous.
Style: Folk-rock/pop with country roots.
Cautions: "Not Ready to Make Nice" (cursing).
Worldview: "How . . . can the words that I said / send somebody so over the edge / that they'd write me a letter / sayin' that I'd better shut up and sing . . . ?"
Overall quality: Realizing she's in a Culture War has brought out the best in Natalie Maines; even at her most cluelessly defensive she sounds endearingly vulnerable.
Style: An innovative funk, soul, pop, rock, electronica blend.
Cautions: "Necromancer" (necrophilia), "Transformer" (cursing).
Worldview: "'Why is this my life?' / is almost everybody's question. / And I've tried everything but suicide, / but it's crossed my mind. / I prefer peace."
Overall quality: Producer Danger Mouse intertwines the best in current black pop and the best in current white rock so tightly it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
With Bob Dylan's Modern Times hogging the headlines, Leave the Light On (Signature Sounds), the latest album by the 61-year-old folk-bluesman Chris Smither, may fly beneath the radar of the average folk-blues aficionado. Dylan fans, however, should track it down if only for Smither's recasting of Dylan's 1966 classic "Visions of Johanna" as a waltz, a recasting that simultaneously confirms the quality of the song and of Smither as a gifted interpreter of other people's music.
Other treats abound. In "Father's Day" Smither honors his father (to whom the album is officially dedicated) with an eloquent mixture of fondness and regret that will strike a chord with anyone whose own father is getting on in years. And the cleverly humorous "Origin of Species" will bring a smile to anyone who's ever gotten a headache pondering the convolutions of the creationism-vs.-evolution debate. The biggest treats, however, are Smither's acoustic-guitar playing and his voice, a bittersweet baritone that perfectly complements the lyrics, whether his own or others'.