Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Mirror Traffic (Matador) 

Pairing Stephen Malkmus and Beck, who produced this album, seems inevitable in retrospect; both have based their careers on trickster personas. Case in point: One of Malkmus' songs on Mirror Traffic pivots on the lyric "I know what the Senator wants / What the Senator wants is a blowjob," while on another he admits "I cannot even do one sit-up," before declaring that "sit-ups are so bourgeoisie."

While Beck's jokes have always been more conceptual, Malkmus' come down to one-liners like those. One could argue Beck's got the heart of a mixed-media installation artist (see Damien Hirst), while Malkmus has the heart of a stand-up (see Dave Attell). But—thankfully—Beck's fingerprints are all but nonexistent on Mirror Traffic, which builds on Real Emotional Trash's trajectory straight into the heart of classic rock. Malkmus at this point in his career is jammy and loose, equal parts country-fried psychedelia and proggy poet laureate.

For example, take the space-fuzz denouement on "Long Hard Book," a front-porch song in which the slow ebb of competence ends at a dense literary text that demands to be read. Or "Forever 28," a song of raucous choruses that trickle away in white-hot guitar noodling before becoming an angelic marching song.

Malkmus has never really been replaced as a rock icon, and he isn't about to be (upstarts who come close, like Colin Meloy or Win Butler, are too self-serious). He's still the boy next door, the snide wiseass, the heartland philosopher, the feckless stoner.

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