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Amy Winehouse "Back to Black" (Universal Island Records)

Known in the U.K. for her alcohol addiction and antics as much as her music, singer Amy Winehouse makes her stateside debut with a throwback to '60s girl groups. The soulful retro sound is a departure from the jazz stylings of her first release and is executed to near perfection (with help from members of the Dap-Kings). She updates the classic formula with hip-hop beats, vulgar lyrics and mature subject matter, effectively bringing The Ronettes into the Wu-Tang era. Taking a cue from Angie Stone, Winehouse borrows from old soul songs but leaves her own mark. "Tears Dry on Their Own" replays the intro to the Motown hit, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," while a blues-flavored track, "Me & Mr. Jones," finds Amy proclaiming her love for rapper Nas while expertly using a melodic variation on a four-letter expletive. But a profound despair lies beneath the hand-claps and tambourines that accompany Winehouse's plaintive wails, hinted at on the album's title track. With a string of missed tour dates, concerts cut short and mounting evidence of serious personal problems, Winehouse is struggling to hold it all together. Still, suffering never sounded so good. *** — Craig Belcher

LCD Soundsystem "Sound of Silver" (Capitol/DFA)

You can bet the new album from LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy will make a lot of "best of" lists at the end of year — and rightfully so. The dance punk icon has dropped one of the most enjoyable hybrids of electronic music, '80s new wave and rock in a while. It's a hyperkinetic album, the various synths, glockenspiels and programmed beats pulsating with raw feeling, the consistently funky rhythms equally fun on the dance floor or through headphones. Originally part of the DFA production team, which launched a trend when it infused indie rock with disco rhythms, Murphy knows how to mine the finest elements from acid house, krautrock and other hipster subgenres. But his genius seems to be in the layering of disparate rhythms and textures (he's clearly an analog fetishist and Brian Eno disciple) without sacrificing melody. One of the year's best new tracks, "Someone Great," was originally a fragment of a Nike tune, but here it manages to be a hypnotically catchy, new-wavish number about grieving. As the song bubbles to a climax, Murphy skirts dark emotions with lyrics sheathed in ambiguity: "I wish that we could talk about it/But there, that's the problem." The album concludes with a witty rock ballad about his love/hate relationship with gentrified New York ("New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down"). **** —Brent Baldwin

Panda Bear "Person Pitch" (Paw Tracks)

The third solo record from Animal Collective member Panda Bear, aka Noah Lennox, is a beautiful psych-pop affair, as inviting as a series of descending waterfall pools. Influenced by the laid-back pace of living in Lisbon, Lennox has assembled a thoroughly modern-sounding throwback to the sunny melodies and harmonies of Brian Wilson at his Smiley-Smiliest. Lennox even sounds like Wilson, though he drenches his high vocals in clouds of nostalgic reverb and other studio effects. But the album itself, flowing like a Big Sur campfire sing-along, never sounds too mindlessly retro, because Lennox enhances his circling swells of percussion, hand-claps and glimmering guitar with intriguing samples. The repetitious effect is more modern collage — dragging the '60s pop of The Free Design through Lee "Scratch" Perry dub and other electronica influences. The result is mesmerizing, and somehow uplifting as well. What lyrics one can make out seem to be mostly warm admonishments to live well, although one song manages to be a psychedelic warning against taking pills. At heart, this feels like a majestic summer album, great for letting time dissolve as the Swiss musical movements of ice cream trucks chime in the distance. ***** — Brent Baldwin

The Animal Collective performs May 30 at the Satellite Ballroom in Charlottesville with Sir Richard Bishop.

Gang Starr "Mass Appeal: The Best of Gang Starr" (Virgin)

Committed to core old-school hip-hop values such as hard work, competition and integrity, Gang Starr never made any concessions to the pop marketplace and, despite modest success, has remained a revered cult act. The rapper Guru and his partner, DJ Premier, have both found success on their own (beyond most producers' wildest dreams in Premier's case, a hired-gun hit-maker in the same tax bracket as The Neptunes and Timbaland), but together they focus on uncompromising, no-nonsense hip-hop. "Mass Appeal," the group's second best-of album and first one condensed to a single disc, demonstrates nicely why a few of its 12-inches are found in every serious hip-hop DJ's crate. Guru's confident, even approach to the microphone was evident even on the early 1989 single "Manifest," as he raps about his verbal dexterity while demonstrating the same. Premier's jazzy production, inserting snippets from be-bop era recordings of "Cherokee" next to carefully placed scratches, lacks the radio-ready flavor of his current work but is always lean and forceful. Most of their highlights are included, from the thumping and propulsive early track "Check the Technique" to the 2003 single "Skills." As is evident from these titles, there's not much thematic progression in the almost 15 years that separates these two cuts. But then, Gang Starr was never about variety. **** — Mark Richardson



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