THANKS TO THE INTERNET, it's now easier than ever to spend way too much money on the most obscure music, because you can actually find it without trying too hard. Of course there's a price, but what's money when you can actually acquire This Heat's Peel session, that Prince bootleg, an early Gorgoroth demo, Lithops 12-inch, or that Bear Family collection you crave, whether you've been looking for it since junior high school or just read about it on some Finnish Web site? It's awful. Lately I've come under the spell of musicians who don't even live in America.
I am now horribly familiar with the Web sites for Dusty Grooves, Rough Trade, Other Music, Amazon.co.uk (disclosure: I work for Amazon.com), and have even gone direct, buying from labels based in Germany, New Zealand, and Iceland. The shipping can add up with foreign sites, but when you factor in the strong dollar and absence of VAT taxes, you often "save" money buying this way. Of course, it is always excellent to support one's hip local stores, and any shop worth a damn will kindly place an order for you.
SIGUR ROS, Agaetis Byrjun (Fat Cat, UK)
It's impossible to write about Sigur R�ithout sounding unbearably precious, so I won't even try to hold back. This Icelandic quartet make seriously beautiful "post-rock" by mixing together the most interesting aspects of U2 (the anthem), Low (the maximalist slow-mo thing), Radiohead (the resuscitation of the lengthy prog-anthem in a nonironic and functional yet not lame way), and My Bloody Valentine (guitar as texture), but they don't actually sound like anyone else. Ten-minute songs slap moaning amp feedback and spatters of low-end keyboards up against rocky percussion with these alien-high, male- female vocals. Notes held for ages, the words sung in a foreign tongue, you can project away as to what the songs are about. (www.fat-cat.co.uk)
BERTRAND BURGALAT, The Genius Of (Bungalow, Germany)
If you go in for the whole jet-set, Moog-heavy, decadent downtempo thing, then you know about Germany's Bungalow label. The globetrotting aesthetes at Bungalow have rolled out recordings by Euro-trashy garage pop artistes Stereo Total; Momus collaborator Laila France; Peter Thomas, Germany's answer to Esquivel; and the sunny cocktail techno of Japan's Yoshinori Sunahara. This sweet collection of sugary mood pop fits snugly in with those releases. Bertrand Burgalat runs the Tricatel label and he's an in-demand producer/arranger among hipsters. It's very easy to see why. Like fellow countrymen Air circa "Casanova 70," Burgalat weds his smooth, savvy, lighter than marshmallow retro spacey sounds to supple melodies. This record features solo instrumental tunes as well as collaborations with famous people like Nick Cave, Air, Mick Harvey, and Kahimi Karie. Close your eyes and it's easy to picture Barbarella descending a circular steel staircase to melt into the shag rug and you. (www.bungalow.de/index3.html)
TRAD GRAS OCH STENAR, Gardet 12.6.1970 (Silence, Sweden)
This is a live recording of brutal acid rock made with a handheld recorder at Sweden's first major outdoor hippie music festival. The sound is unexpectedly clear, the music a sometimes fumbling fusion of Western rock music, Terry Riley-ish repetition, and Swedish folk sounds. But even the experiments that don't work are fascinating, and the songs that are good—notably their languid, crude, 10-minute versions of "Satisfaction" and "All Along The Watchtower"—are a total contact high, even 30 years later. It's like Blue Cheer jamming with Popol Vuh. Only one other album by Trad Gras och Stenar (Trees Grass and Stones in English) has been issued on CD, but more are on the way, as well as releases by two of their earlier incarnations, International Harvester and Parsson Sound. If you like Can, Third Ear Band, Amon Duul 1, Hawkwind, and the first Quicksilver record, this stuff is really worth hunting down. (www.silence.se —click on the British flag for English content)
KATHRYN WILLIAMS, Little Black Numbers (Caw, UK)
Looking for an earnest contemporary singer-songwriter folkie chick who's not about to sell out to the Man and who releases records on her own little label? Meet Kathryn Williams, a young singer who's silky-voiced in a strong way (very Beth Orton), whose lyrics are an unpretentious surprise ("Is your life so exciting you have to tell everyone you meet?"), and whose delicate, slowly developing music goes down smooth as warm milk on a cold night. Her sophomore album has acoustic bass and guitar and some cello, not much else, and it's pretty essential for those who've already mined the catalogs of Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, and Leonard Cohen. Short-listed for the prestigious Mercury Prize, this curly-locked chanteuse deserves a US deal. (10 plus shipping at www.amazon.co.uk)
JOE PERNICE, Big Tobacco (Glitterhouse, Germany)
His best record in years, and it's on a German label? Sub Pop has dropped the ball; this record should be available everywhere—on Starbucks countertops and cut up into cassingles sold on greasy truck-stop tabletops. (It's hard to fault a label for passing on the fourth name change from an artist who probably doesn't sell a lot, but this sure beats cookie-cutter wallet chain rock.) Musically, "Tobacco" is perfectly in between the country pop, Bread-y balladry of the Scud Mountain Boys' emotionally scarred '96 album Massachusetts and the orchestral, Percodan pop sheen of the Pernice Brothers' '98 debut Overcome by Happiness. This man is one of our finest songwriters, plain and simple. Favorite line in a pile of them: "I got this scar above my eye from the dirty little shit who tried to love me underneath the bridge." (www.glitterhouse.com)
THE CLINIC, Internal Wrangler (Domino)
The Clinic are a great Liverpool rock band whose music is slightly off-kilter, uptempo, keyboard-heavy, garage r-o-c-k, with nonsense syllables sung in falsetto that's a tad affected—but hey, they're British. They steal from your indie rock Top 10 with a pure panache and lack of grace that's thrilling— Velvet Underground, Can, Devo, Wire, Stereolab—classic rock, basically. This is violent adrenaline pop. Buy all their singles and the CD collecting their first three EPs; I dare you not to play them all the time. (www.dominorecordco.com)