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Kylie Minogue, 'Aphrodite'

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(Astralwerks) 2<br />
and a half stars

kylie.jpgMy guess is, you're American and you've heard Kylie Minogue referenced here and there on a sitcom or in a movie or maybe even another song (try the Pretenders' "Popstar"), often to reinforce gay character traits. But you have no idea who she is or what her music sounds like. Get this: In Britain and her native Australia, she's bigger than Madonna, with strings of No. 1 singles that would make a Beatle blush. She's just never been able to entice us Yanks. This album, however, wouldn't be a bad time to give her try.

Cowboy Junkies, 'Renmin Park'

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(Latent/Razor & Tie) 3 and a half stars

junkies.jpgOver the years, we've heard more and more from Michael Timmins. When the Cowboy Junkies sighed onto the scene with the surprise success of "The Trinity Session" (1988), we all fixated on the opiate voice of Margo Timmins, Michael's sister. On the 10 albums since, Margo has consistently haunted the band's soft, sluggish roots music. But chief songwriter and guitarist Michael has seeped slowly to the fore, musically and vocally. It's been a welcome intrusion.

"Renmin Park," the first in a four-part run of albums they're calling the Nomad Series, is art directed by Michael, inspired by three months he spent in China in 2008. Two decades have given him time and space to practice shaping the vast atmosphere created by Margo's airy voice. He's tried a lot of moody guitar effects, but here he uses samples and, more than in the past, his own voice as a spectral counterpoint to Margo's low, breathy singing.

Christina Aguilera, 'Bionic'

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2 stars

060710bionic.jpgWill we ever see or hear Xtina outside the prism of other high-profile female artists? She hit big once fellow Mouseketeer Britney Spears opened the door for singers just like her at the turn of the century. Next, she decided to go raunchy, retreading Madonna's blazed trail with cheaper, inferior product. By 2006's "Back to Basics," she of the brassy voice at least tried to show it off in a wide gamut running from swing to techno. Ambitious, yes -- and clearly a vocal talent that could put most of the others to shame -- but a chameleon. Will she ever be unique?

The answer on "Bionic," at first, is a triumphant no. She has the technology, but she can't rebuild a respectable sound. Even Aguilera herself sounds bored with the overproduced dreck she has to sing on the title track, vowing to "get you with my electronic supersonic rocket, ah-ah!" Hearing her powerful, flawless voice made to jabber through the dancefloor mush of "Not Myself Tonight" is positively infuriating. "I'll go back to the girl I used to be," she promises, "but, baby, not tonight" -- and the electronics splice up her last syllable. Cuz that's all edgy and stuff. Whatever.

The Fall, 'Your Future Our Clutter'

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3 stars

It's called a riff -- that chord progression or melodic twist that repeats and repeats, giving a rock song a chugging foundation. In classical music, this device is called an ostinato, derived from the Italian word for stubborn. The Fall, in every one of its myriad incarnations around the central snarling demon that is Mark E. Smith, are masters of the riff. Fall songs start the riff early, jumping them like a motorcycle crank. As the riff rumbles -- stubbornly, so stubbornly -- Smith is then free to mutter and mumble and bellow and bark until the riff is shredded and spent and the engineer finally just shuts off Smith's saliva-covered mic.

3 and a half stars

canasta.jpgChicago loves its sweet, sprawling pop bands. From transplants Poi Dog Pondering to the natives of the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, or even Michigan visitors the Great Lakes Myth Society, somehow we make these big bands feel at home on often tiny stages. This summer, the cheerful half-dozen souls in Canasta return with a sophomore set that cements the sunny ambition that shone on its debut EP ("Find the Time," 2004) and album ("We Were Set Up," 2005).

Take the title however you want. Maybe the EP was the fakeout, the first album was the tease and this finely honed, controlled but still somehow breezy album is the breather. Those words also accurately describe the self-contained trilogy of the opening track, "Becoming You" -- an organ-buoyed opening switches to a piano-based ballad swirled with singer Matt Priest's quivery Neil Tennant-at-the-cabaret voice, before exhaling through a positively Sufjanriffic breakdown, complete with spunky piano and languid violins. The tone is set for an album of open-air chamber pop that sounds like it wants to go haywire (and become a mess) but has been expertly subdued and shaped and is thus sublime.

Hole, "Nobody's Daughter" (Mercury) 1 star

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Love her or hate her, the one thing everyone could agree on about Courtney Love through the first third of her career was that she was never boring. Personally, I can defend the Babes in Toyland/Sonic Youth-like noise-rock of "Pretty on the Inside," the 1991 debut by her band Hole, as invigorating chaos (though the songs were best appreciated live), while "Live Through This" (1994), the album released just as the world was mourning the loss of her husband Kurt Cobain, remains hands-down one of the most powerful discs of the alternative-rock era.

But Courtney hasn't really been Courtney on record since. She experimented with lame California lite-rock fluff on "Celebrity Skin" (1998), slept-walk (or strolled while under the influence of Lord knows what) through "America's Sweetheart" (2004) and then spent the rest of the decade distracted by a never-ending series of controversies, lawsuits, stints in rehab and custody battles. As a result, there now exists an entire generation of rock fans who know her only as a train wreck and a punch line--rock's answer to Carol Burnett's gin-addled Miss Hannigan in "Annie."

Hosed down with a thoroughly generic hard-rock sheen and meticulously crafted with the help of hack songwriter for hire Linda Perry (a slightly hipper Kara Dioguardi) and former beau Billy Corgan, the 11 songs on her attempted comeback "Nobody's Daughter" not only lack the memorable melodies and potent drive of "Live Through This," but show little evidence of what was once a highly nuanced and strongly symbolic lyrical wit. (Cobain often has been credit for giving Love some of the best melodies on her classic album, but it's often glossed over that he himself said that his wife helped him hone and improve his own lyric writing.)

No, I am not expecting the now 45-year-old singer to crowd-surf or otherwise court death nightly on stage the way she once did. But certainly she could have mined the pain and drama of recent years to prompt something more than the depressing yawns and vitriol-laced but ultimately hollow bursts of bombast such as "Skinny Little Bitch," "Someone Else's Bed" and "How Dirty Gets Clean." Rather than reasserting herself as a force to be reckoned with, Love now just makes me yearn to hit eject and listen instead to the latest from the Vivian Girls or the Screaming Females, both of whom could eat this latest version of Hole for breakfast.

Roky Erickson, "True Love Cast Out All Evil" (Anti-) 3 stars

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For those familiar with Roky Erickson as the inimitable voice of psychedelic-rock pioneers the 13th Floor Elevators and a fantastically weird but wonderful solo artist through the '70s and into the early '80s, the initial impulse is to be overjoyed that this album even exists--it's his real attempt at new music since "All That May Do My Rhyme" in 1995, though some would say he really stopped creating in the mid-'80s. Second in infamy only to Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett as one of rock's saddest examples of a mental breakdown, Erickson spent nearly 20 years living in seclusion and poverty, battling schizophrenia and numerous other problems even as countless musicians continued to cite him as a towering inspiration.

Lovingly nursed back to health by his younger brother Sumner, Roky returned to live performance early in the new millennium, tentative at first, but gaining confidence with every show he did. Now comes his return to the recording studio, overseen with obvious devotion by Will Sheff of the Texas roots-rock band Okkervil River.

The emphasis here is on the more quiet and introspective Erickson--a strain of pretty if sometimes strange balladry that's run throughout his career--with the focus on his acoustic guitar and a voice that remains impressively vibrant, still evoking a mix of Buddy Holly and James Brown, as has often been said. In songs such as "Please Judge," "Bring Back the Past" and "Be and Bring Me Home," some actually years old, the artist longs for peace, but you can still sense the demons scratching at his door.

It's disappointing the monsters don't get to growl a bit more: Sheff hardly is Erickson's ideal collaborator; a much better choice would have been Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who'd talked about wanting to repay a lifelong inspiration. Still, there are more than enough moments of gentle beauty to reward fans, even if new initiates would be much better off starting with one of several strong career retrospectives.

Usher, "Raymond v Raymond" (LaFace) 1 star

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When the R&B world last heard from Usher Raymond IV, on "Here I Stand" in 2008, the former teen prodigy from Atlanta finally had become a man. Leaving behind the solipsistic and ungentlemanly kiss-and-tell aspects of "Confessions" (2004), which chronicled his split with Rozonda "Chili" Thomas of TLC, he moved on to sing about the much more mature topics of struggling to be a good father and a faithful husband. But "Here I Stand" was a commercial disaster compared to "Confessions," and the 31-year-old singer has since divorced the spouse so lovingly portrayed on the last disc, his former stylist Tameka Foster. For studio album number six, he revels more than ever in hollow player posing and empty sexual braggadocio, and delivers the sleepiest and least inspired album of his career.

Incredible art can be made from the soul-wrenching tragedy of divorce--witness Marvin Gaye's "Here, My Dear"--but the Usher songs that most directly address his recent drama, the vapid "Papers," "Foolin' Around" and "Guilty," don't even rise to the level of reality TV melodrama. Even worse are the songs where he attempts to reassert how irresistibly desirable he remains, including the annoyingly inane "So Many Girls" and the obnoxious "Lil Freak," an account of attempting to arrange a ménage a trois with two lesbians that would embarrass R. Kelly, if only for the fact that it unjustifiably lifts the synthesizer hook from Stevie Wonder's immortal social critique, "Living for the City."

Add to these sins the usual pointless cameos (from a sleep-rapping Ludacris to the ubiquitous Will.I.Am), a complete waste of production talent (including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Polow da Don) and most of all a thorough lack of dancefloor-worthy grooves, and you have a dud that leaves you struggling to remember why Usher ever appealed, to say nothing of once appearing to be the post-Kelly R&B savior that R&B still desperately needs.

Broken Bells, "Broken Bells" (Columbia) 3 and a half stars

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As an unexpected, left-field, typecast-busting side project similar to Gorillaz, the new collaboration between producer Brian Burton (better known as Danger Mouse, the auteur behind "The Grey Album," Gnarls Barkley and Beck's "Modern Guilt," among other worthy undertakings) and James Mercer (leader of the heartstring-tugging jangle-pop band the Shins) seems on the surface less likely to produce a pure pop gem. But the self-titled debut by this underground supergroup not only finds both artists stretching outside their comfort zones, it boasts some of the most striking songwriting that either talent has given us.

Veering from his usual working methods in the studio, Burton relies much less on samples and more on a large array of live instrumentation, including wheezing old-school keyboards and ambient synthesizers that could have been used on Brian Eno's "Another Green World." Meanwhile, the notoriously introspective Mercer sounds positively jaunty at some points (the gleeful waltz, "Sailing to Nowhere") and downright funky at others ("The Ghost Inside"), and he bravely stretches out as a vocalist to a deeper register at one extreme and a flittering falsetto at the other.

As already noted, however, the strength of the melodies carry the day, and they're strong enough to appeal to folks who've never heard anything else these new partners have done (and couldn't care less). In addition to the tracks mentioned above, other standouts include the indelible opener "The High Road," the '60s pop-inflected "Your Head Is On Fire" and the toy piano-driven "October."

Gorillaz, "Plastic Beach" (Virgin) 3 and a half stars

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Since the long silence on record from Britpop heroes Blur--their last album was "Think Tank" in 2003--singer and bandleader Damon Albarn has hardly been absent from the music scene. His many other endeavors include numerous worldbeat projects ("Mali Music," "Monkey: Journey to the West" and producing Amadou and Mariam among them), the awkwardly titled The Good, the Bad and the Queen and of course those post-modern Banana Splits (or "virtual hip-hop group," as he prefers), Gorillaz. With all of this musical activity, plus a seemingly short-lived Blur reunion last year, fans are forgiven for suspecting that Albarn was distracted while crafting Gorillaz' newest. Yet while the animated genre-blenders' third effort is much more laidback and low-key than its predecessors, it is no less rewarding.

Following the prevailing trend of too much big-name hip-hop product circa 2010, "Plastic Beach" is lousy with cameo appearances, from the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg to De La Soul, soul legend Bobby Womack to punk godfather Lou Reed, and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash to the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. Yet the focus never strays far from Albarn's prevailing sonic vision of one ever-shifting, globe-spanning groove adorned with dark yet captivating melodies, paired here with conceptual partner Jamie "Tank Girl" Hewlett's latest alternate-universe concept of a floating island of trash alienating humanity from the natural world, though nevertheless full of hidden and unexpected treasures.

More dense and downbeat the self-titled 2001 debut or "Demon Days" (2005) and lacking a jump-out hit like "Clint Eastwood" or "Feel Good Inc.," the cartoon simians' latest offering actually feels more of a piece than the other albums, and it provides a beginning-to-end journey of an entrancing if slightly sinister world that exists only in the space between your ear buds.

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