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Daybreak's highlights of 2011: releases on CD

Published December 25. 2011 4:00AM

"BIOPHILIA"

Björk

Björk is now 46 years old, and she keeps getting better. Her CD "Biophilia" is both refined and experimental, a cycle of songs full of imagery of planet formation and biological evolution, carried by her most innovative instrumental ensembles. The sound world is spare, layered instrumental figures and a choir of voices, music more akin to a Philip Glass opera than anything on the charts. There is a hypnotic pulse that arcs across the 11 tracks, and it is Björk's startingly ardent voice, her total vocal commitment to her lyrics, that is both arresting and convincing. Those lyrics are, well, unique. Take "Virus," her oddly affectionate take on love as co-dependence and symbiosis: "Like a mushroom on a tree trunk as a protein transmutates / I knock on your skin and I am in..." The CD features several instruments of Björk's own design, such as a gamelesta (a cross between a gamelan and a celeste) for ancient sounds familiar, yet unknown. This is a haunting group of songs, a concept album often operatic, always grippingly intimate, a work of art that will absorb you if you give it space. Forget about the swan dress, people. Björk is not a celebrity - she is a musical genius.

- Milton Moore

"TOMBOY"

Panda Bear

Even though this album came out way back in April, "Tomboy" hasn't let go of me yet. An echoey wash of sound reminiscent of the Beach Boys crossed with Gregorian chant, the music carries you forward on the back of its wave. Highlights include the title song, "Surfer's Hymn," "Last Night at the Jetty" and the driving "Afterburner." It's difficult to describe how this music suffuses you with a sort of sublime serenity, but it does. "Tomboy" is, simply, beautiful.

- Kenton Robinson

"EL CAMINO"

The Black Keys

For those who have followed them from their beginnings, The Black Keys have evolved from a drums-and-guitar Junior Kimbrough blues homage to a full-blown blues-tinged rock 'n' roll blast. And while you may miss the raw early sound of "Thickfreakness," it's impossible to resist the hooks and driving force of such tunes as "Lonely Boy" and "Gold on the Ceiling," not to mention shake them out of your head. Wonderful, happy music, perfect for cranking up loud on the highway.

- Kenton Robinson

"THE KING OF LIMBS"

Radiohead

In some ways, this album reaches back to Thom Yorke's "The Eraser" of 2006, its complex soundworld built of loops upon loops upon loops and the marriage of live instruments to electronics. But it's a leap forward for the band, a haunting, evocative dream music that is a departure from even their previous album, "In Rainbows." If you want a taste of its magic, check out the mesmerizing YouTube video of Yorke dancing to "Lotus Flower." Only Radiohead could sound like this.

- Kenton Robinson

"BORN THIS WAY"

Lady Gaga

Sometimes, in the midst of all the meat dresses and other sartorial kookiness, it's easy to forget that Lady Gaga has real, significant musical talent. But listening to her belt out the anthemic "Edge of Glory" or power her way through the ballad "You and I" are potent reminders that she is a force. She's constructed an album here heavy on a 1980s-throwback, arena-ready sound, and it's all ridiculously catchy. Not only is it a worthy follow-up to "The Fame" and "Fame Monster," but it's fun. Just plain fun.

- Kristina Dorsey

"PLAYS SGT. PEPPER"

Andy Timmons Band

On the surface, the concept of a power trio doing an instrumental version of the Beatles' entire "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album seems ripe for skepticism - if not downright parody. If, though, you're familiar with Timmons' tremendous playing and songwriting - and his boyish enthusiasm for All Things Beatle - you realize this a labor of love and respect. And, boy, along with his wonderful band, bassist Mike Daane and drummer Mitch Marine, does he pull it off.

FRIEND ALERT: It's true Timmons is one of my closest pals. We've spent dozens if not hundreds of hours talking about the Beatles and Beach Boys, so I know how important and excited this project was to him. It was all recorded live, and Andy's arrangements were created from memory; he relished the idea of his own age-old memories of the album as source material - rather than poring over the disc with manuscript paper like a research scientist. How the ATB manages to capture the essence and nuance of every song, with spirited virtuosity, affection and creativity, will amaze and delight.

- Rick Koster

"UNDUN"

The RootsDef Jam

Every time I get ready to pronounce hip-hop dead - well, clearly, it'll never die, but it certainly can get boorish and lazy - something happens to blow my mind. In this case, it's a concept album by the Roots. And if "concept albums" seem to be the purview of progressive rock acts, it can be said that there are certainly elements of prog on "Undun." The wise, reflective rhymes of Black Thought and a variety of empathetic vocal guests tell the futile, fictional story - in reverse, from the grave to the cradle - of street hustla Redford Stevens, and the tragic choices he makes and his reflections thereof. The band is, as always, superb, mixing old school, haunting, "Rainy Night in Georgia" R&B choruses, Fishbonean, math-happy guitar loops, and space orchestrations that reflect the soundtracks of James Horner. Too, there's a heartbreaking, set-ending suite that uses Sufjan Steven's "Redford" that evokes the loss of Terence Blanchard's "Tale of God's Will - Requiem for Katrina." From start to finish, "Undun" is a masterpiece of brittle beauty and melancholy regret.

- Rick Koster

"HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO

The Beastie Boys

I'm a Beasties fan from way back. I remember when "Fight For Your Right" was the #1 video on the MTV video countdown, and I remember when the Beasties grew up and produced great, acclaimed, socially conscious work on "Ill Communication" (1994) and later on with "Hello Nasty" (1998). This year they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But the boys Beastie left a big lag between studio albums, and 2004's "To the 5 Boroughs" wasn't the triumphant return I'd been hoping for.

I had to wait until this year for that, with the release of "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two." You know all is well when album opener "Make Some Noise" begins, with its wah-wah synch effects and these pearls from Ad Rock: "Yes, here we go again, give you more, nothing lesser/Back on the mic is the anti-depressor."

Um, yes, yes it is.

Paired with clever videos well-marketed through social media, "Hot Sauce," is just that, only in audio form-a refreshing zap to the senses that is most welcome in a crazy world. With its fresh beats, smart lyrics, and rockin' rhythms, the Beasties reiterate what Mike D. said years ago on "Check Your Head: "I've been through many times/In which I thought I might lose it/The only thing that saved me/Has always been music."

-Marisa Nadolny

"LONDON"

GazpachoK-Scope

For years, Norwegian band Gazpacho quietly established its own identity - working day jobs, playing gigs when they could, and writing and releasing their own albums. On the rare occasion when someone reviewed them, the touchstone comparisons were always Coldplay, Sigur Ros, Marillion and Radiohead. The thing is, Gazpacho has been making records for 15 years, and their gorgeous, glacial sound is very distinct and deserves more than to be simply filed under Art-Pop Copycats. They reached major label status with two terrific studio albums. "London" is a double-disc live set capturing the set lists from the "Missa Atropis" tour, and it generously includes musical highpoints from the band's entire career. Jan-Henrik "O" Ohme has one of the coolest, distinctive voices in rock.

- Rick Koster

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