Aimee Mann "@#%&(ASTERISK)! Smilers" ★★★
The cartoon figure on the cover of "@#%&(ASTERISK)! Smilers" is wearing an upside-down grin, with his tongue out to boot. Not surprising, because Aimee Mann has never been one to make excessively happy music. Sometimes, her tendency toward the dark side can make Mann too much of a bitter pill to swallow. Here though, the adult-alternative crush object lets enough light in on a loosely linked set of songs about emotional desperadoes that are built on old analog keyboard sounds and strummed acoustic guitars. Stronger than its boxing-themed 2005 predecessor "The Forgotten Arm," Smilers doesn't sugarcoat a thing - "So you roll on, with the best you can/Getting loaded, watching CNN," she sings in "31 Today." But its sharp-eyed and hard-earned short stories in song arrive with inviting melodies decorated with subtle strings and deftly employed horns, balancing out the melancholy with the hint of a not entirely cynical smile.
George Stanford "Big Drop" ★★★
This Philly pop minstrel is old-school. He puts the song first, ahead of the arrangement and the attitude. The result is somehow dreamy and visceral, like a cross between Thunderclap Newman and Citizen Cope. Stanford brings an artful but organic touch to his debut. Songs like the touching piano ballad "My Own Worst Enemy," the delicate breakup song "Nikole," and the plaintive "Heartbeat" are unvarnished and fetchingly vulnerable. Once in a while a trombone drifts into the mix. You can't blame Stanford for that. It was the first instrument he learned to play. See? Old-school.
The Futureheads "This Is Not the World" ★★★
If the Futureheads' self-titled 2004 debut was a manic dance-punk racket, 2006's follow-up, "News and Tributes," was a thundering post-punk colossus that earned comparisons to Fugazi and Mission of Burma instead of XTC and the Buzzcocks. Freed from its former record label, the band lands smack in the middle of those two sounds on its third outing. World is fierce and expansive but also agile and propulsive, kick-starting with the strong single "The Beginning of the Twist" and never letting up. Barry Hyde's confident, lilting shout still leads the trio's punchy delivery, even if his lyrics have gotten cheesier ("Because you've had too much to think tonight") and the songs more formulaic. Still, it's hard not to cheer for such sturdy, swooping anthems.