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The $50 Guide

January

Various artists, “Lost in Translation” soundtrack (Emperor Norton)

With its haunting mixture of guitar assault and lovely pop strains, the Jesus & Mary Chain was a London-based band with a sound every bit as radical and, possibly, influential as the Sex Pistols. One of the Mary Chain’s greatest tracks, “Just Like Honey,” is the perfect closer for this CD (and the splendid film) because it offers a soaring touch of emotional relief that we need after the moody dislocation that runs through the rest of the album. Kudos to executive producer Brian Reitzell.

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Norah Jones’ “Feels Like Home” (Blue Note)

This is one of the heartwarming pop stories of the young year on two levels. First, the low-key pop singer Jones shut out the distractions of critical acclaim and massive sales and followed up her blockbuster debut with a CD of equal restraint and taste. Second, her fans had enough faith in her talent and integrity to buy 1 million copies of it in the U.S. alone during its first week in the stores -- which goes counter to the notoriously fickle attitude of most pop fans these days. “What Am I to You” is the track you may be hearing as much on the radio as last year’s “Don’t Know Why.”

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Alicia Keys’ “The Diary of Alicia Keys” (J)

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Jones’ pop approach is so distinctive that it’s hard, in retrospect, to imagine her succumbing to the temptation of beefing up her sound in hopes of even greater sales. But Keys works close to the R&B;/pop mainstream, so you could picture her taking a wrong turn in following up her massive debut. Instead, she narrows her focus by updating the classic sensibilities of ‘60s and ‘70s soul. The move works well, and her fans too have remained true. The CD has sold nearly 2.3 million copies since its release late last year.

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February

The Fiery Furnaces’ “Gallowsbird’s Bark”

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(Rough Trade)

Because this is another brother-sister duo that mixes classic blues influences with contemporary rock sensibilities, the comparisons to the White Stripes are inevitable. There’s even a playful nod to Jack and Meg White in one song when Eleanor Friedberger mentions a “red-whited striped” bag. But she and Matthew Friedberger aren’t just riding a bandwagon. They bring a convincing individuality and intensity to the music, with Eleanor’s vocals often conveying the nervous, earthy urgency of Polly Jean Harvey. In “Rub-Alcohol Blues,” she sings, “The only thing I surely own /is a worried and troubled mind.”

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Dizzee Rascal’s “Boy in Da Corner” (Matador)

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On the heels of all the critical enthusiasm here last year for the Streets’ Mike Skinner and Ms. Dynamite, it is hard to believe that a third young British rapper is also giving us tracks fresher and more imaginative than almost anyone else in U.S. hip-hop. But here he is. This 19-year-old (real name Dylan Mills) offers jungle and techno beats so dynamic and attitudes so striking that it’s tempting to think of him as Britain’s answer to OutKast. There are hard-core elements, but the female vocal touches on “Fix Up, Look Sharp” supply a zesty pop charm much like that of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!”

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Mindy Smith’s “One Moment More” (Vanguard)

Smith is a country-laced singer-songwriter who keeps far enough from the Nashville norm in this debut that you know she has no interest in following in Shania or Faith’s bland footsteps. There is a character and conviction in her songs about salvation and resilience that reminds you more of the richness and heart of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Shelby Lynne.

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Hilburn can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.


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