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NEW YORK (Billboard) - R.E.M.'s first album in four years shoehorns 11 tracks of jagged guitars, quick and dirty drums, and Michael Stipe's gruff keen into 34 minutes, rocking with a blacker, blunter edge than "Document," "Green" or "Monster." Armed with deadpan "wow's" and "T-Rex moves" honed from 1996's "Wake-Up Bomb," Stipe limns politics, the media and the velocity of modern life with gimlet eyes, from the strutting "don't turn your talking points on me" of "Living Well's the Best Revenge" to the candid "uncertainty is suffocating" of the title track. A '70s jukebox grit dominates "Mansized Wreath," while Peter Buck's cool riff for first single "Supernatural Superserious" strikes like a cartoon mallet. "Accelerate" may not stun on impact like some R.E.M. records, but it's still habit-forming.
ALBUM: SHINE A LIGHT (Soundtrack) (Interscope Records)
Moving from stadiums to ballrooms, the Rolling Stones performed two shows at New York's Beacon Theater in October 2006, filmed by Martin Scorsese for this documentary, which opens April 4. The accompanying live album captures the pure magic of a high-energy rock show performed in a small venue, offering a mix of crowd-pleasers ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Brown Sugar") and set-list oddities like the cheeky "Some Girls" or the feverish "She Was Hot," which sizzles with mean guitar licks. Mick Jagger and the boys throw a curveball and bring out Christina Aguilera, who rocks her vocal acrobatics on "Live With Me," and Jack White of the White Stripes guests on "Loving Cup," one of the best moments. Much more dazzling than the guest list: More than 40 years into their career, the Stones sound raw and dangerously alive.
ALBUM: TROUBADOUR (MCA Nashville)
George Strait is one of music's most consistent hitmakers for a reason -- he knows a hit song when he hears one, and he sings it only if it fits him. "Troubadour" is chock-full of classic Strait. "I Saw God Today" is a perfect example of a track that speaks to the country core, while the title cut finds the singer reconciling his age with how old he feels. "When You're in Love" cleverly equates romance with a vacation destination ("There's so much to see and do when you're in love"), and "River of Love" will have women swooning at King George's invitation to a "stream of kissin' about 10 miles long." "House of Cash," with Patty Loveless, is a powerful tribute to the Cash family home, lost to fire a year ago.
ALBUM: APRIL (Caldo Verde Records)
With a Modest Mouse covers collection out of his system, Mark Kozelek is back to sketching his signature tales of love poisoned by expectation on his second album as Sun Kil Moon. Evenly divided between the distorted guitar epics of the last two Red House Painters albums ("The Light") and spartan voice-and-acoustic confessionals ("Lucky Man"), "April" is the aural equivalent of that heartbreak that never heals. "Moorestown" and "Blue Orchids" set the bar high, with Kozelek's fixation on little details ("Her walls are Mediterranean blue/Her baby sister picked the hue") setting crystalline scenes. Kozelek never sugarcoats; the sting is almost tangible when he chronicles a failed romance on "Tonight in Bilbao," and the loss of a loved one is literally as haunting as a ghost on "Unlit Hallway," the first of two ace pairings with Will Oldham. Throughout, Kozelek connects memory to emotion with masterful strokes.
ALBUM: LAST NIGHT (Mute)
Madonna, Seal: Big pop stars who started as dance artists have circled back to the floor on their latest albums. But "Last Night," Moby's homage to/reconstruction of New York dance music over the course of his 42-year lifetime, is the only one that causes the desired effect: making you feel about the artist the way you did when you first heard him. The guy who sold millions of records by stretching gospel samples into lush sonic pastiches is still here -- just listen to "Live Tomorrow." But so is the one who created '92 rave anthem "Go" -- the frantic piano riff and snare rolls of "Stars" give him away. Then there's the best '80s-style radio-friendly house track since the '80s ("Disco Lies"), and Kudu vocalist Sylvia Gordon closing it down with an apocalyptic torch song. Forget "Play." This is the definitive Moby album.
ALBUM: KEEP IT SIMPLE (Lost Highway Records)
Forty years on, a new Van Morrison album is still welcome. "Keep It Simple" is his first collection of all-new material since 2005, and as the title hints, there's not a lot of embellishment, just a kind of basic, rhythmic and melodic flow. "That's Entrainment" is one of the better tunes, the title referring to Morrison's word for hitting the sweet spot in a situation or performance. "How Can a Poor Boy" shows his streetwise side, with what sounds like a Hammond B-3 providing the muscle. "Don't Go to Nightclubs Anymore," a declaration of domestication, is either a brazen rewrite or affectionate tribute to Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The album is front-loaded with these relatively energetic tracks. Much of the rest is resigned, reflective and spiritually attuned, but not always keenly focused.
ALBUM: ATTACK AND RELEASE (Nonesuch Records)
Throughout four proper albums, the Black Keys hewed to a no-nonsense formula: guitar, drums, vocals, period. It was so satisfyingly simple and raw, it's likely that the duo could successfully have deployed it again. But, to paraphrase the old saying, you can't know what you've been missing until you've had it, and on "Attack & Release," we have it. Danger Mouse, the first producer to work with the Keys, takes on a role akin to gardener: He nurtures the duo's innate musicality, allowing its elemental blues-rock to bloom into something far grander. Clever but tasteful arrangements and an impeccable shine make songs like "Same Old Thing" seem anything but. The heavy, dirge-like "Lies" and the playful, faux-spooky "Psychotic Girl," which melds whimsical keyboard with earthy banjo and slide guitar, are but two of many highlights.
ALBUM: LA NOVELA (Univision)
This sibling duo of brothers Sergio and Francisco Gmez broke ground nearly a decade ago by blending traditional banda beats with rap and hip-hop. Here, the brothers expand their sound by incorporating a broad variety of regional Mexican rhythms -- from norteno to cumbias adorned with rippling accordions -- as the basis for tales of growing up poor in the hood. This mix of grittiness and sophistication strikes just the right note, achieving cohesiveness despite a changing cast of guest acts that includes Fidel Rueda, Voces del Rancho, Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Jenni Rivera (on a clever English-language track). With its perpetual change of pace in music and lyrics, "La Novela" is riveting, and it works as a vehicle for singles and as a stand-alone piece of music. Equally important, it's an example of on-target evolution within a niche genre.