Pop

Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack

(The Null Corporation ***1/2)

nolead ends Where their Academy Award-winning score to The Social Network was warmly minimalist and subtly nicked by droning guitars and video-game blips, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' coldly vigorous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as isolated and aggressive as the film itself. Epic too, at nearly three hours (3 CDs) of macabre but beautiful music. Girl features songs such as a ghoulish Karen O-led take on Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and a hypnotic Reznor/Ross cover of Bryan Ferry's "Is Your Love Strong Enough?"

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Jónsi
nolead ends nolead begins We Bought a Zoo soundtrack
nolead ends nolead begins (Columbia ***1/2)

nolead ends We Bought A Zoo might contain previously released songs from Iceland's grandly misty Sigur Rós and its entrancingly pixieish vocalist/composer Jónsi. Yet you'll come to this stirring soundtrack for the melancholy elegance of its brief, boisterous thematic tracks ("Sun"), hymnlike Jónsi originals ("AEvin Endar"), and unique collaborations that embrace the cinematic tale of a family struggling for unity. While orchestrator Nico Mulhy provides complex and icily arranged layers of brass and strings, Jónsi collaborates with Cameron Crowe, director of Zoo, on the sweeping "Gathering Stories," one of the most linear performances of the Sigur singer's career.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Robin Thicke
nolead ends nolead begins Love After War
nolead ends nolead begins (Star Trak/Geffen ***)

nolead ends Like his previous releases, Robin Thicke's Love After War is steeped heavily in nu-soul and R&B and focuses on love, sex and the emotions in between. While 2009's Sex Therapy was more carnal in content and sexual in rhythm, Love After War tones down the language and relies less on the tried-and-true R&B beats, as the '70s funk of "An Angel on Each Arm" and the rowdy, anthemic, and slightly corny "I'm an Animal" demonstrate. "New Generation," meanwhile, seems an homage to the music and spirit of Gil Scott-Heron.

Love After War isn't as engaging or memorable as some of Thicke's earlier work, but it's a fun listen and possibly an indication of where Thicke is headed next - focusing more on music than on lust.

- Katherine Silkaitis

nolead begins Young Jeezy
nolead ends nolead begins Thug Motivation 103:
Hustlerz Ambition
nolead ends nolead begins (Corporate Thugz/Def Jam **1/2)

nolead ends Hopelessly out of step with woozy swag rap and Auto-Tune, the usually monotonous and overpraised Jeezy sounds surprisingly sturdy on his fourth album. Thug Motivation 103 delivers the reliable bawdiness and mildly exciting beats of a good, boilerplate rap album. But Jeezy is nowhere near arresting enough as a rapper to justify the 80-minute running time. Don't need most of the second half (what's Jill Scott doing here?) or the disappointing singles (why did Plies get on a better beat than Jay-Z, Andre 3000, or T.I.?). Freddie Gibbs and Lil Wayne almost save this hustler's overambition, but what he really needs is an editor.

- Dan Weiss

nolead begins Elliott Murphy
nolead ends nolead begins Elliott Murphy
nolead ends nolead begins (GB Music ***1/2)

nolead ends "This man keeps struggling to sing his own song," Elliott Murphy confesses on "Train Kept a Rolling," the reflective number that closes his latest album. Well, struggling is not exactly correct. The onetime "new Dylan" seems to be doing quite well. Earlier this month at the Tin Angel, the Long Island native and longtime resident of France put on a great rock-and-roll show with his band, the Normandy All Stars. It's easy to see why Bruce Springsteen has been such a loyal friend and fan. And this album (his "183d," as he joked at the show), reveals his muse to be as sharp as ever.

You can still hear where some of the Dylan comparisons come from - there's some resemblance in the voice and phrasing, and the wordiness of the folk-rock opener, "Poise 'N Grace." But after that Murphy presents a set of songs that are among his most moving and emotionally direct, without sacrificing depth or nuance. It also helps that they are framed by rich and varied arrangements, from the string-kissed gentility of "With This Ring" to the wild abandon of "Rock 'n Roll 'n Rock 'n Roll." "Makes me feel alive," Murphy sings of the latter. As with just about everything else here, he gets you feeling the same way.

- Nick Cristiano

Country/Roots

Craig Bickhardt

Live at Sellersville Theater

(Stone Barn ***1/2)

nolead ends One of the 12 numbers Craig Bickhardt performs on this live set, recorded in June at this wonderful Bucks County venue, is his lively little gem "The Real Game." In it the Haverford High graduate compares the pros playing baseball for big money to kids playing in a sandlot for the sheer joy of it.

Metaphorically speaking, you could say Bickhardt has been on both sides. Once a top songwriter in Nashville - in the '80s he penned four No. 1 country hits and nine top 10s - he turned back to his own performing career when money started trumping creativity on Music Row post-Garth Brooks. He returned to the Philly area five years ago.

Here you can hear the singer and songwriter reveling in his freedom as he gets as close as possible to recapturing that sandlot purity. The accompaniment is minimal - percussion, cello, mandolin, lap steel, a little baritone guitar accompanying his own fluid fingerpicking on acoustic - but it mirrors the literate grace of Bickhardt's songs. Even in Music City he was never strictly country - folk and pop are also big elements of a sound that is more adult album alternative.

Presenting selections from his two solo albums as well as two new numbers and a Richard Thompson cover, Bickhardt displays an unerringly exquisite touch as he makes you cry, makes you laugh, and makes you think. And shows why he had to get back into "The Real Game."

- Nick Cristiano

Jazz

Ellis Marsalis

A New Orleans Christmas Card

(ELM Records ***1/2)

nolead ends Just when you think there's no more to be squeezed from standard Christmas tunes, pianist Ellis Marsalis comes along to find the fat, soulful parts. The father of the marvelous Marsalis clan proves sweeter than Hawaiian bread and a better source of fiber. He gives the tunes respect, but manages to throw some fairy dust on these often slinky interpretations.

Working with his drummer son Jason, bassist Bill Huntington, vibraphonist Roman Skakun, and singers Cynthia Thomas and Johnaye Kendrick, Ellis Marsalis makes these ditties consistently compelling with no show or bombast. Some pleasant glow arises from these straight-ahead proceedings, and the funky, New Orleans rhythms that animate "The Little Drummer Boy" are a bonus.

- Karl Stark

Classical

Tarik O'Regan
Acallam na Senórach: an Irish Colloquy

National Chamber Choir of Ireland, Paul Hillier conducting. Stewart French, guitar.

(Harmonia Mundi ***1/2)

nolead ends Tarik O'Regan leads a generation of new choral composers whose music shows that originality need not be radical - nor upend the medium being inhabited. His recently premiered opera Heart of Darkness aside, O'Regan is heard in his most ambitious project yet, a musicalization of the medieval Irish epic Acallam na Senórach, a series of dialogues between St. Patrick (yes, the St. Patrick) and the surviving elders from a race of warriors. The piece is in the form of 20 movements, some texts in the original Middle Irish, others being modern paraphrases. Interspersed are solo guitar movements and an improvised percussion dialogue.

Although somewhat uneven overall, O'Regan writes some of his best music here, walking a fine line among traditional chant, popular ballad, and a kind of 21st-century imagination that comes from a millennia-long overview of what has come before. At its best, the music is highly visceral. At its very best, the piece enters previously unheard sound worlds, with astonishing effect. In many ways, the piece is an Irish version of the sophisticated primitivism coming out of the Baltic composers such as Eriks Esenvalds. The choir is authoritative and committed.

- David Patrick Stearns