Pet Shop Boys, "Electric" (Kobalt)

A dozen records into a 30-plus-year career and the British synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys sound as vital, catchy and frustrated as ever.

Modern without feeling forced and filled with the melodic bounce that typifies their best work, "Electric," in a word, bangs, and sees the Pet Shop Boys at their most celebratory and wittiest. "Love Is a Bourgeois Construct" giddily denounces love with a thumping dance beat while a men's choir offers majestic harmony. "Shouting in the Evening" builds to a climax while Neil Tennant sings of a simple pleasure: "What a feeling, shouting in the evening."

Most impressive is the album's freshness, no doubt ferried along by producer Stuart Price, best known for his work with Madonna, the Killers and Scissor Sisters. In fact, were this exact record released by two handsome 21-year-olds with a hot label, the young dance freaks would go crazy. But two young dudes couldn't make a synth-pop record so polished and seamless, one with a maturity matched only by the constant quest for surprise. Only the Pet Shop Boys can do that.

Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times

Van Dyke Parks, "Song Cycled" (Bella Union)

Parks has carved a rich, if largely underappreciated, seam in pop culture the past five decades. A lyricist with a bent for poetic wordplay (best known for the Beach Boys' aborted "Smile" album sessions); a composer steeped in classical music, Tin Pan Alley and various strands of pre-rock Americana; and a gifted arranger and producer who has worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to Joanna Newsom, Parks is revered by a devoted following of in-the-know musicians and fans.

"Songs Cycled," his first studio album since 1995, collects a series of singles from the past few years. The album title nods toward Parks' audacious 1968 debut, "Song Cycle," which weaved together centuries of music while resolutely avoiding flower-power era cliches. It was acclaimed by critics but stiffed commercially. Ever since, Parks has pursued a singular path on the margins of the mainstream.

"Songs Cycled" impresses as a sonic statement, a swirl of beautiful snapshots from around the world: the folk song "Wedding in Madagascar" lustrously rearranged for string band and horns, the accordion-driven balladry of "Dreaming of Paris," the Caribbean steel-drum jangle of "Aquarium," the spiritual-as-waltz reinvention of "Amazing Graces." Parks knows how to layer sound, favoring acoustic instruments and an orchestral sweep that resists the small-combo warfare of rock 'n' roll, electronic texture, hip-hop rhythm, or just about any musical form that has come into existence the past 50 years.

But there's nothing musty about his arrangements, a sharp melding of pop melody and new-classical harmonics. Parks also brings a wry and pointed flair for political and social commentary. He's a genial singer, even as he describes a tragic oil spill in "Black Gold," turns into a street reporter amid the carnage of 9 /11 in "Wall Street," and gazes at both sides of the economic chasm on "Money Is King." At 70, Parks remains a feisty iconoclast.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune