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Pop After the painfully dumb but multi-platinum Monkey Business in 2005, the Black Eyed Peas got it right with last year's winningly dumb and even more multi-platinum The E.N.D., perhaps the most successful hip-hop album ever to hit the bar mitzvah circui


The Beginning

(Interscope **)

nolead ends After the painfully dumb but multi-platinum Monkey Business in 2005, the Black Eyed Peas got it right with last year's winningly dumb and even more multi-platinum The E.N.D., perhaps the most successful hip-hop album ever to hit the bar mitzvah circuit. What made The E.N.D. work was the way took his concise and inherently optimistic raps straight to the dance floor, making the Peas over as an Auto-Tuned electro-dance-pop band that went "Boom Boom Pow," both figuratively and literally.

Not surprisingly, The Beginning follows The E.N.D. with the same formula, this time being even more brazen with the crassness of the MC Hammer-worthy samples. Yep, that's Dirty Dancing's "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" that powers "The Time (Dirty Bit)." But can be pretty creative when he puts his mind to it, and The Beginning is well-enough made to get the job done. But too often the Peas mastermind is content to borrow lazily from U2 here and Blondie there, as he augments obvious hooks with lyrics frequently so awful that even a perfect beat couldn't save them. Next time: More Fergie, please.

- Dan DeLuca

nolead begins Daft Punk
nolead ends nolead begins Tron: Legacy Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
nolead ends nolead begins (Walt Disney **)

nolead ends Daft Punk hasn't released a new album in more than five years, and as witnesses to the French duo's laser-guided live show can attest, there's really no need to. So don't look at this soundtrack to the long-awaited Tron sequel as a next chapter; it's simply another way to explore tension and drama. The emphasis here is on classical orchestration rather than digital manipulation. Leaving its keyboard beats at home, the duo worked with arranger Joseph Trapanese and an 85-piece orchestra. The old Daft Punk is alive and well on "End of Line" and "Derezzed," and an exciting new version seems to be in evidence on "Outlands" and "Solar Sailer," but aside from these moments, Legacy lacks payoff. Strings build and dance, but they're quickly gone and feel like half-finished thoughts. By the end, this isn't a stand-alone experience. Context is required, making it more for fans of Tron than fans of Daft Punk.

- Michael Pollock

nolead begins Ke$ha
nolead ends nolead begins Cannibal
nolead ends nolead begins (RCA ***)

nolead ends Where Lady Gaga goes, Ke$ha follows - a less glamorous, more amorous, skankier version, but that's Ke$ha's shtick. So here's Cannibal, the companion to January's chart-topping Animal (as Gaga did with The Fame, then The Fame Monster). Like its predecessor, Cannibal's got manic sass, unapologetic sleaze, and wildly contagious production/songwriting help from electro-pop's go-to hitmaker, Dr. Luke. Yet his hyperkinetic rhythms and Auto-Tune sheen - along with Ke$ha's usual salaciousness - never blankets her chops or progression.

Ke$ha freestyles like a champ and makes herself small on intimate ballads such as the childish but impassioned "C U Next Tuesday" - a quiet tune proving she can sing in stripped-down fashion. While the jittery "Grow a Pear" takes men down a peg or three, her dance anthem "We R Who We R" poignantly discusses the bullying that plagues gay youth. Ke$ha's not as grand or eloquent as Gaga. But if Gaga is our generation's glam-period Bowie, Ke$ha is our KISS - ruder, simpler, but with an occasional point to make.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Nightlands
nolead ends nolead begins Forget the Mantra
nolead ends nolead begins (Secretly Canadian ***)

nolead ends Usually, it's an album's title that hints at its contents, but in the case of the debut from Nightlands, it's the artist moniker that's most revealing. Forget the Mantra is a nocturnal journey, swathed in gauzy textures, dense with voices that rise and fall in the mix as if bubbling through layers of consciousness. It's the topography of a dream.

Nightlands is the bedroom project of Dave Hartley, bassist in Philly's excellent the War on Drugs. Although occasionally the chugging rhythms and crystalline acoustic guitar picking recall his day gig, Hartley's Nightlands has more in common with current indie-rock Beach Boys obsessives like Panda Bear, Grizzly Bear, and Fleet Foxes. Rich harmony vocals dominate the album, especially in its buoyant first half. As it progresses, found-sound conversations take over, and the dream turns eerier but no less entrancing.

- Steve Klinge


Master Sessions

(Red Beet ***1/2)

nolead ends nolead begins Peter Cooper
nolead ends nolead begins The Lloyd Green Album
nolead ends nolead begins (Red Beet ***1/2)

nolead ends Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, two of the leading denizens of the fertile East Nashville music scene, teamed up last year for the exquisite You Don't Have to Like Them Both, bringing to mind great duos from the Delmores to the Everlys to the O'Kanes. The harmonizing folk-country singer-guitarists - Brace also leads the band Last Train Home - work here again with pedal-steel master Lloyd Green, but also with another virtuoso, Mike Auldridge on Dobro. The instrumentalists' interplay adds a new layer of grace and expressiveness to another strong collection of Brace and Cooper originals, spiced with numbers from Herb Pedersen, Tom T. Hall, John Hartford, and fellow East Nashvillian Jon Byrd.

Cooper also worked with Green on his 2008 album Mission Door, and for this follow-up the steel player gets his name in the title of the album. That's fitting, considering what a big role Green plays in coloring the material here. It's a wide emotional range, from the shambling, folk-bluesy philosophizing of Cooper's "The Last Laugh" (cowritten with Todd Snider) to portraits poignant ("Elmer the Dancer") and humorous ("What Dub Does"), and an aching version of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell's "Tulsa Queen."

- Nick Cristiano


Zen Food

(Mack Avenue ***1/2)

nolead ends It may take a while to shake the persona that guitarist Kevin Eubanks projected for nearly 18 years as musical director of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. But this CD nicely changes the channel.

Eubanks, who grew up in Philadelphia and played in the early 1980s with drummer Art Blakey, among many others, is a serious player, and this quintet recording finds him sounding very assured working alongside some L.A. pals: tenor and soprano saxophonist Bill Pierce, drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, keyboardist Gerry Etkins, and bassist Rene Camacho.

Intelligent fusion is the general theme here. Eubanks doesn't project his own sound so much as exhibit proficiency and ease at many guises. It's as if he's drawing from Leno's long line of musical guests. "Dirty Monk" has a dark, stomping feel and some vicious solos along with a pretty coda, while "Adoration" is folky and prettier still. "The Dancing Sea" hints at a Pat Metheny vibe, which resonates occasionally through these 10 originals.

- Karl Stark


The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, Bill Ives, director

(Harmonia Mundi ***1/2)

nolead ends A good disc of Christmas carols is surprisingly hard to find: Either they're excessively gussied-up or drowning in sentimentality. This disc is relatively spartan, a restrained all-male choir with boy sopranos (English tradition at its best), occasionally accompanied by organ and recorded with an atmospheric church acoustic that feels candlelit (even if it isn't). The selection of music, whether adapted or newly composed, is full of credible names such as Palestrina, Byrd, Vaughan Williams, Reger, and J.S. Bach, as well as lesser-known but even more welcome composers such as Francisco Guerrero. It's so consistently beautiful as to be somewhat sedate after a while, but that's what you want amid the holiday frenzy elsewhere - in a disc that has the depth to last for several Christmases.

- David Patrick Stearns