Arcade Fire, "Reflektor" (Merge)

If a record can sound simultaneously lighter and more disturbing than anything the band has done before, "Reflektor" qualifies. It's a tale of two albums: one bold and propulsive, the second slower, less focused and more problematic.

Produced by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire pushes away the more linear rock approach of its earlier albums for something weirder and more rhythmic. The double album pumps up the groove, flirts with the shadows and lets the songs zig, zag and run on and on, not always for the better. Eight of the first 12 tracks clock in at more than 5 minutes, and an 11-minute electronic bubble bath of sound finishes things off.

Frontman Win Butler asks no small questions on the title track (with a cameo from David Bowie), and lays out one of the themes here: What is real? "It's just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection," he mutters, while the beat swirls around him.

Drums hurtle and bass lines belch like foghorns amid the distorted vocals and brittle guitars of "Here Comes the Night Time." A crude, rock 'n' roll swagger animates "Normal Person." The band fights back on "You Already Know," with its skipping Motown beat, and the punky "Joan of Arc."

The hooks arrive more reluctantly on Disc 2. It's built around two tracks tracing the travails of that ancient Greek power couple Orpheus and Eurydice. In "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)," a slow, woozy sing-along is shattered by the sound of a jet screaming toward a crash. But mostly the slower, more contemplative songs fail to shake off their ghosts. "Porno" echoes the Gothic electro-pop of Depeche Mode and "Afterlife" conjures New Order's proto dance-rock, but neither track boasts the melodic flair of the earlier bands. And the snoozy "Supersymmetry" is an epic downer.

– which by itself ranks with Arcade Fire's best work. The textural experiments of Part 2 can't keep pace.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune


Brandy Clark, "12 Stories" (Slate Creek)

This has been a great year for women's voices in contemporary country music, starting with the auspicious debut album from Kacey Musgraves and ramping up now with an even bolder new arrival, Clark. She offers dazzlingly witty and insightful takes on the struggles of the working class ("Pray to Jesus"), neglected and/or mistreated women ("Crazy Women," "The Day She Got Divorced"), the battle between right and wrong ("What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven") and the pros and cons of chemical mood enhancers ("Hungover," "Get High").

Clark wrote or co-wrote all 12 of these songs with the feistiness of Loretta Lynn and the songwriting gift of Dolly Parton. Just listen to "Stripes," in which she catches her philandering partner in her bed with someone else, but decides against squeezing the trigger of the loaded pistol in her hand because "I don't look good in orange, and I hate stripes." Boys, now that's a great country song. This is the country debut of the year.

Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times