Athlete - Vehicles & Animals (Astralwerks): Not since '70s soul/funk group War sang "Why Can't We Be Friends?" has a band sounded so at odds with its moniker. The name Athlete evokes muscular rock, thundering drums, and earsplitting guitar solos. Nothing could be further from the feel-good, hook-laden pop that emanates from this irresistible CD. Hailing from East London, Cockney-stylin' frontman Joel Pott and his bandmates deliver sweet-natured lyrics about modern English life, floating above melodies and choruses so catchy they compel singing along. Who cares if it's uncool these days for a rock band to have such a sunny outlook? By John Kehe
Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand (Domino Recording Co.): Just two tracks into this Swedish foursome's debut and you'll be guessing primary influences. Blur? Interpol? The Talking Heads? Chances are you won't guess wrong. The dynamic, silk-suited gents - named, without explanation, after the archduke whose assassination touched off The Great War - borrows from other big names so shamelessly that they come out sounding original. Call it post-pop/punk, the ultimate mash-up album that doesn't really mash, with crashing guitar riffs perched atop high-pitched harmonies. "Jacqueline," "This Fire," and "Come on Home" drip with irony, and the rest will have you grooving in an inscrutable postmodern rhythmic delight. By Elizabeth Armstrong
Jamie Cullum - Twentysomething (Verve): How can a young man with the swagger of Bobby Darin, the phrasing of Sinatra, and the piano-man stylings of Billy Joel manage to sound fresh? Somehow Jamie Cullum does, as the double platinum sales of this precocious Brit's CD attests. It boasts an eclectic batch of 15 songs, among them standards commandeered to heretofore uncharted territory, a Radiohead song, a Jimi Hendrix classic, and several originals by Cullum himself. He reminds us of some of yesterday's greats, but this 20-something's time is now. By J.K.