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Underworld

Barking

Cooking Vinyl

Buy if you like: Moby, Michael Mann movies

Underworld takes club sonics — strobe effects, hypnotic percussion, keyboard anthems — and forges intimately antiseptic pop that can make Pet Shop Boys sound like the Allman Brothers by comparison. On "Bird 1," two syllables are yanked ceremoniously, tweaked within microtones of intelligibility, and set on repeat while Underworld's Karl Hyde alternates between cut-and-paste chatter and John Cale-esque singing. The retro synthpop "Moon in Water," propelled by a prom-ready arterial bass line, wouldn't be out of place in a Valley Girl remake, while the electro beat of "Between Stars" and "Diamond Jigsaw" serve as production calling cards to Madonna and Yoko Ono. Still, Underworld hasn't lost sight of the sonic explorations that made such songs as "Born Slippy" rave-culture totems, and a bevy of third-party producers lends Barking a welcome mix-tape vibrancy. — Marc Weidenbaum

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Michael Franti & Spearhead

The Sound of Sunshine

Capitol

Buy if you like: Bob Marley, Ben Harper

Positive though his outlook has always been, Michael Franti wasn't necessarily the first person you'd look to for the feel-good album of the year. But even before his near death from a ruptured appendix, Franti had a knack for conveying love-your-brother-and-sister messages. Now he's even more committed to that outlook. He can beautifully evoke the warmth of sunshine as it rises and sets, as evidenced by the inclusion of two versions of the title song. Couching his social critique in optimism, he sings about the joy of being alive without inducing groans, and makes you want to dance in the process. The album is an infectious mix of reggae ("Shake It") and folk/pop ("Gloria") with elements of funk ("Love Don't Wait"), hip-hop, gospel, rock 'n roll and a whole lotta soul. Though far removed from his Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy days, this is, indeed, the sound of sunshine. — Lynne Margolis

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Neil Young

Le Noise

Reprise

Buy if you like: Sonic Youth, Daniel Lanois

Sometimes Neil Young makes masterpieces. Sometimes not. One can't be expected to hit homers with every at-bat. That said, it's not as if Le Noise doesn't have its transcendent moments. It's just that it is, more than anything, an exploration of noise — with a couple of gorgeous songs thrown in. Among the latter are the powerful, elegiac "Love and War" and the haunting "Peaceful Valley Boulevard," on which his acoustic plucking harks back to Buffalo Springfield. With producer Daniel Lanois, Young travels some interesting sonic territory, à la the trippy, grunge- and feedback-filled love song "Walk With Me." He's got an amazing ability to make much of this sound compelling, even if the album as a whole offers nothing new, reprising well-worn themes of love, mortality and social corrosion. But the fact Young still creates ear-worthy material, shortcomings included, is always worth celebrating. — Lynne Margolis

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