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Sound Advice

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Michael Jackson

Michael

Epic

Buy if you like: Michael Jackson

Dead people don't always make the best albums, especially when filling in the gaps gets left to the living. So Michael Jackson's first posthumous studio album could easily have been a mess. But it's not. Akon, 50 Cent and Lenny Kravitz all acquit themselves well on guest appearances that don't attempt to compete with the main attraction. Michael is packed with infectious hooks, and the arrangements are impressive. (The ever-ascending ooo-ooos on "The Way You Love Me" would make Brian Wilson proud.) Lyrically, the going gets a bit obsessive, from the Tinseltown disses in "Hollywood Tonight" and "Monster" to the persecution complex that permeates "Breaking News." Even so, there's plenty of heart and soul here as, even in death, Jackson continues to surprise, impress and, one suspects, command unconditional love from generations to come. — Bill Forman

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Hellogoodbye

Would It Kill You?

Wasted Summer Records/Rocket Science Ventures

Buy if you like: Motion City Soundtrack, Say Anything

Forrest Kline, aka Hellogoodbye, made his 2006 debut Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! using a laptop in his bedroom. Would It Kill You? shows what Kline can do with a proper studio, a full array of real instruments, and additional musicians at his disposal: "Finding Something to Do" and "When We First Kissed" are first-rate energetic power pop tunes. Horns and strings add ornate but appropriate textures to songs like "Getting Old," "Betrayed by Bones," "I Never Can Relax" and "Coppertone." In fact, the album's delay due to a previous label dispute may have worked in Kline's favor, providing more time for writing and refining. In any event, a case can be made for Would It Kill You? being one of the year's best pop albums, and Kline as one of its best emerging songwriters. — Alan Sculley

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Kanye West

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Roc-A-Fella

Buy if you like: Arcade Fire, Pink Floyd

Kanye West's fifth album is the best album of the year, and the reason is deceptively simple: It sounds really good, from the opening mournful chants that envelop a haunting narrative in which West describes a zombified mall full of drug-addled orphans ("Dark Fantasy") to the closing "See Me Now," a fog-has-lifted celebration of new-jack swagger. The Kubrickian clinks, orchestral refrains, lucid-dream cameos from Gil Scott-Heron, Elton John, Bon Iver, all of them are merely decorative swirls within auteur West's hip-hop wormhole. What emerges is a vision of the embattled producer's conflicted yet measureless imagination, ablaze with beautiful melodies ("Lost in the World"), gothic conspiracy theories ("All of the Lights") and a vulnerable soul. It makes for divisive behavior, sure, but also for some of the best American music being made today. — Justin Strout

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