Checking in with the year's best albums so far

Quarterly Buzz Report 

Checking in with the year's best albums so far

It's never too early to start making Top 10 lists. That's what being a music critic is all about. So as we say goodbye to the first quarter of 2009, we look back on five albums that rocked our January, February and March.

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE

Merriweather Post Pavilion

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? The members have names like Panda Bear and Avey Tare. They make songs designed for daylong freak-outs. And they couldn't give a damn about song structures. Yep, hipsters love 'em.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? Pavilion frolics in the clouds, skimming the surface of Beach Boys-style harmonies and contemporary psychedelia. It's a total mindfuck enamored with the sounds it makes — from long, drawn-out tribal jams to Philip Glass-like bursts of repetitive minimalism.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 95 percent. Even before our New Year's Eve buzz wore off, critics were calling this the year's best album. The only reason we're not going 100 percent on this one is because there's a small chance 10 other hipster-lauded groups no one else cares about will release even better records by the end of 2009.

KELLY CLARKSON

All I Ever Wanted

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? After pissing off her record company and alienating fans with 2007's gloomy but underrated My December, Clarkson's new album is a return to crunchy, sugar-coated pop.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? Clarkson balances independence with vulnerability, pop with rock, compromise with integrity — making it the 26-year-old singer's most Kelly-like album. She's also a great singer who's shed the American Idol tag. Remember? She won the first season.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 20 percent. Everybody loved "Since U Been Gone," but the album it came from — Breakaway — didn't get nearly as much love. Same thing here. "My Life Would Suck Without You" and "I Do Not Hook Up" are great songs, but come December, nobody will remember any other cuts.

THE-DREAM

Love vs. Money

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? He's the dude who wrote Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies." He's also penned some great songs for himself about booties and strippers.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? The-Dream (real name: Terius Nash) is kinda like R. Kelly, without the whole peeing-on-underage-girls thing. He makes bedroom music for people who like smart pop hooks and space-age beats. And unlike most R&B singers, his songs stick with you.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 35 percent. Right now, Love vs. Money is the best R&B album of the year. But even if it holds on to that title for the next nine months (and it has a very good chance of doing so), R&B albums typically don't fare too well on year-end lists. Unless you're Kanye.

FRANZ FERDINAND

Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? The first record was a hit, but nobody cared about Album Two. This third outing is sexy, snotty and filled with the sort of dance-punk grooves that got these guys noticed in the first place.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? The album basically plays like a night in the life of a club-hopping, girl-macking a-hole ("Kiss me where your eye won't meet me," singer Alex Kapranos tells one conquest). It's got all the ups and downs and crushing disappointments of a typical night out.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 40 percent. The group's jagged rhythms and indifference toward everybody and everything connects with jaded music critics. But these dapper Scots come off like the coolest guys in the room. In other words, they're not at all like most music critics. So they lose points there.

U2

No Line on the Horizon

WHAT'S THE BUZZ? U2's last album, 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was forgettable, despite all of the classic band elements that were plugged into it. It's more inspired this time around.

BELIEVE THE HYPE? Horizon reaches back to 1984's moody The Unforgettable Fire for motivation, with longtime producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite layering tons of atmospheric texture over and under the songs.

CHANCES IT'LL MAKE IT ON YEAR-END TOP 10 LISTS: 65 percent. U2 are the planet's last big rock stars and perennial faves when it comes to handing out end-of-the-year honors. But for all its familiarity, No Line on the Horizon doesn't have a "With or Without You" or "One" or even a "Pride (In the Name of Love)" to anchor it.

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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