Indie Bands Battle for Hype-Bloc Party, Stars, Oneida

Since, these days, even technophobes can get a sneak peek of new albums, release dates have become as irrelevant as the sticker price of a used car: a good place to start, but never set in stone. That said, the next three months appear to offer an eclectic melange of music, so get your peer-to-peer file-sharing queues ready.

No matter what the calendar says, spring begins with Beck. His last album, 2002’s Sea Change, was the apotheosis of an almost decade-long exploration into every musical genre. Perhaps tired, Beck seems to be returning to his Mellow Gold–Odelay roots with the retro-sounding Guero (March 29). That’s at least-ahem-what we hear.

There is plenty to nosh on before then. The hype machine is already churning for Bloc Party’s debut Silent Alarm (March 22). With the same British origins that made Franz Ferdinand and the Futureheads popular, the pop outfit promises tight, infectious rhythms and catchy hooks. Grab it before one of their singles appears on Madden ’06. The neo-blues duo the Kills look to build on their strong, gritty debut with No Wow (March 8)-a continuation of their campaign to avoid ill-advised White Stripes comparisons. Conversely, the Decemberists will push to fill the vacancy left by Neutral Milk Hotel with their third album in three years, Picaresque (March 22).

Set Yourself On Fire (March 8), the third album from indie pop quartet Stars, shares members with 2003’s critical darlings Broken Social Scene. (Meanwhile, B.S.S. is reportedly releasing the tentatively titled Windsurfing Nation in early April.) Succumb to temptation when New Order’s Waiting for the Sirens’ Call comes out on March 29. That week, Will Smith takes a break from moviemaking and returns to rap with Lost and Found, while Billy Idol attempts a comeback with Devil’s Playground, his first studio album since 1993’s ill-fated Cyberpunk (March 22).

April would be a slow month if not for the acoustic graces of both Bruce Springsteen’s Devils and Dust and the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree. Yes, the 55-year-old Boss has ditched the E Street Band once again to go unplugged. John Darnielle, the songwriter/guitarist behind the Mountain Goats, has risen to popularity on a string of lo-fi, Lou Barlowesque recordings featuring frenzied guitar strumming. The Sunset Tree, he promises, will be a devastatingly personal album.

If you turn on the radio in April, you’ll be more likely to hear singles from Mariah Carey’s most recent attempt at career resurrection, The Emancipation of Mimi (April 12), featuring Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and R. Kelly. The pop diva’s album will be battling the Black Eyed Peas’ Monkey Business (April 26) and Ben Folds’ Songs for Silverman (April 26) for airtime. The National’s silky smooth, Tindersticks-like delivery will provide the perfect antidote-on April 12, their newest album, Alligator, follows up a promising sophomore effort.

Meanwhile, four well-respected electronic/post-rock outfits will be flying under the radar, waiting for you to discover them for the first time: the Books with Lost and Safe (April 5); a collaboration between the Notwist and Themselves, 13+God (April 26); and Sam Prekop, the leader of Chicago’s Sea and Cake, with his second solo album, Who’s Your New Professor (March 8). On the outside looking in, the ever-proficient Prefuse 73, the front for hip-hop producer Scott Herren, breaks out with Surrounded by Silence (March 22), showcasing his experimental approach to insidious, butt-shaking beats.

May will be the time to celebrate some old hands still pushing the boundaries of rock. Spoon combined their sparse, rollicking indie-pop music with an electronic influence in 2002’s Kill the Moonlight-who knows what Britt Daniel and the crew have cooked up for Gimme Fiction (May 10)? Either way, it’s a can’t-miss. Ditto for Sleater Kinney’s The Woods (May 24). The dynamic female trio jammed in the New Year with the Flaming Lips and Wilco at Madison Square Garden, and with that performance, began another chapter in their frenetic, passionate brand of hard-nosed rock. Brooklyn indie outfit Oneida comes out with The Wedding on May 3. And Stephen Malkmus-and the Jicks?-forges on in the twilight of Pavement with his third solo album, Face the Truth. We can already hear the Carroll Gardensthirtysomethings praying for a reunion. Bringing up the rear, and trying to keep up with the kids, will be Nine Inch Nails’ White Teeth, Mercury Rev’s The Secret Migration (May 17) and Robert Plant’s Mighty Rearranger (May 17).

Also watch out (though definitive release dates haven’t been determined yet) for new albums from Sigur Ros, Kanye West and the Who. Yes, the Who-Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are currently working on their first studio album since 1982. Details are sketchy, but a spring release is possible.