POP/ROCK: The Big Pink, "Future This" (4AD)
London's the Big Pink debuted in 2009 with "A Brief History of Love" and its irresistibly catchy single, "Dominos." Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell favored the densely distorted guitars of shoegaze bands such as My Bloody Valentine, but their hearts were in the hooks and the big beats rather than in the dreamy feedback. On "Future This," Furze and Cordell lay bare their grandiose aspirations. It's an album of stadium-size sing-alongs full of optimism, skyward-swirling synths and stomping beats.
It's stuff the Brits do well, and "Future This" has its triumphant tracks: the Laurie Anderson-sampling "Hit the Ground (Superman)" and the "Dominos"-esque "Stay Gold," in particular. But "Rubbernecking" and "Jump Music" sound overblown and relentless rather than irresistible.
- STEVE KLINGE, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
POP/ROCK: Matthew Dear, "Headcage" (EP) (Ghostly International)
"Headcage," the latest release by DJ and solo artist Matthew Dear, is a testament to the often-overlooked power of EPs. Only four songs long, it is creative and engaging for its 15-minute duration -- all killer, no filler. It's also a new direction for Dear, whose last release, 2010's "Black City," was a dark, atmospheric, Philip K. Dick-esque affair. Though in line with 2007's "Asa Breed" and its indie-rock influences, "Headcage" is still a departure from Dear's previous work. It's poppier and more rooted in DJ and electronic culture. Songs are lively, instantly accessible, with an emphasis on definitive beats. Yet there is still an eerie undercurrent of temptation and danger, as Dear's David Bowie-inspired vocals slide and tumble around alluring melodies and rhythms.
- KATHERINE SILKAITIS, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
WORLD: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, "And Friends" (Razor and Tie)
Ever since Paul Simon brought this South African choir to world attention by writing songs on the 1986 "Graceland" album with its leader, Joseph Shabalala, the group has welcomed other partnerships. "And Friends" collects 30 of them on two CDs, including two tracks from "Graceland." They're united by good intentions. Ladysmith always stands ready to join a hymn -- "People Get Ready" with Phoebe Snow -- and to promote uplifting sentiments. But the resulting anthology spans an entire spectrum from sublime to tacky.
The wiser collaborators move toward the choir's turf of a cappella vocals and South African rhythms: Natalie Merchant on "Rain Rain Beautiful Rain" and Taj Mahal's bluesy rasp on "Mbube" (the South African song that became the Weavers' "Wimoweh"). But when Ladysmith Black Mambazo is placed alongside operatic singer Josh Groban -- who earnestly revives a South African protest song, "Weeping" -- things turn precious. When the choir is used as a gimmick -- singing, "Hoo! Hah!" in "Chain Gang" with Lou Rawls -- it's a wasted opportunity. And when Ladysmith joins an overblown would-be anthem -- "Bread of Heaven (Wales Forever)" -- it's just hokey.
- JON PARELES, NEW YORK TIMES