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POP MUSIC | The $50 Guide

November 27, 2005|Robert Hilburn

Robert Hilburn's guide to keeping up with the best in pop music on an album budget of $50 per month.

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October

Kanye West's "Late Registration" (Roc-A-Fella)

With the help of co-producer Jon Brion, West tops last year's "The College Dropout" album thanks to dazzling breakthroughs both sonically and thematically. "Gold Digger" shows he can make playful music so irresistible that he can top the singles chart for 10 weeks in a row, and "Crack Music" makes it clear he can produce cultural commentary as compelling as Curtis Mayfield's and Stevie Wonder's. This should be the odds-on favorite to win the album of the year Grammy.

Amadou & Mariam's "Dimanche a Bamako" (Nonesuch)

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are from West Africa, not the South Africa that was the spiritual home of Paul Simon's "Graceland." Still, there is something in the pure, liberating spirit of this CD that recalls the earlier, landmark work. The vocals are wonderful, but it's the instrumental exchanges that are most memorable, especially the bright, joyful guitar licks of Amadou and Manu Chao, the European auteur who co-produced the CD.

Franz Ferdinand's "You Could Have It So Much Better" (Domino/Epic)

"Do You Want To" is one of the great pop singles in years, a work with the undeniable exuberance and hooks of such works as OutKast's "Hey Ya!," Kanye West's "Gold Digger," U2's "Vertigo" and Ferdinand's own "Take Me Out." It's the story of a guy trying to compensate for his insecurities by boasting he's "going to make someone love me" tonight -- a mix of sweet and bittersweet images and sounds that runs through this Scottish band's sometimes witty, sometimes ironic brand of relentlessly catchy pop.

November

Gretchen Wilson's "All Jacked Up" (Epic)

When Wilson burst on the country music scene last year with the novelty "Redneck Woman," she seemed as pre-packaged as an "American Idol" winner. But there are moments in her second album so compelling that they suggest this former bartender may just be the most rewarding female country arrival since Alison Krauss. Wilson has instincts and vocal range to do songs as playful as "One Bud Wiser" (a tale about how drinking a beer helps you get a better perspective on a bad relationship) and as awesomely poignant as "I Don't Feel Like Loving You Today."

Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine" (Epic/Clean Slate)

As a teenager in the '90s, Apple shook up the pop world by writing songs as nakedly emotional as PJ Harvey's and Sinead O'Connor's. After years on the sideline, she returns with music that seems calmer on the surface. But the songs about relationships are no less tense and traumatic. Apple, 28, has simply traded the exclamations of youth for the complexities of adulthood.

My Morning Jacket's "Z" (ATO/RCA)

Jim James' lyrics are sometimes a little vague, which means you need to surrender to the sweet, ethereal quality of his tenor vocals and the frequently gorgeous instrumental soundscapes of the album to fully appreciate the life-affirming, optimistic nature of his message. If you do give in to the music, "Z" speaks with a richness, beauty and originality that would make him the ideal partner if Thom Yorke ever wanted to put together a rootsy version of Radiohead.

Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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