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The Independent Culture
Nitin Sawhney `Beyond Skin' (Outcaste)

Sawhney's magnificent combination of Asian, flamenco, funky and chillout sounds makes a multi-faceted, engrossing and accessible record, from the ambient "Homelands" to the angry "Beyond Skin". The sort of album that fulfils all the previous potential. One of the year's very best. HHHHH

astrid `Strange Weather Lately' (Fantastic Plastic)

This Edwyn Collins-produced Scottish quartet bring images of the Undertones covering the Byrds. "High in the Morning" and the other dozen songs are also hugely exuberant, tune-led pop with debts to both those bands. A great debut leaving you wanting more and more. HHH

Instrumental `Acoustek' (Big Chill)

The idea of a string sextet doing techno classics could be dodgy, but this album is not just a testimony to Instrumental's arrangement skills but a superb example of just how good these tunes by Orbital, Brian Eno and others are, particularly the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds". HHHH

Quannum `Spectrum' (Mo' Wax/ Quannum Projects)

Quannum, the Cali supercrew of Black- alicious, Latryx and DJ Shadow, also bring in guests such as Jurassic 5, the Souls of Mischief and El-P for a wonder- fully diverse album that travels from hardcore to soulful hip-hop, going off on inventive tangents on the way. HHHH

Snakefarm `Songs from My Funeral' (RCA)

This US/Belgian duo set traditional folk and murder ballads ("Rising Sun", "The Banks of the Ohio", "John Henry") to soft yet rich bayou beats for a thought-provoking trip into the heart of Pharmacountry. HHH