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The $50 Guide

January

Bright Eyes’ “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” (Saddle Creek)

If the guide were limited to one album a month, this mostly acoustic, folk-accented collection would be it. In fact, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst brings such a stylish literary touch to his insightful tales of youthful awakening and his social commentary that this album ranks with the greatest singer-songwriter collections ever. If the guide were limited to one album a year, I’d be tempted to declare this one it.

Bright Eyes’ “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” (Saddle Creek)

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Oberst is a master wordsmith, but he wants so much to keep the focus on the music in this experimental, electronica-leaning rock collection that he’s made it almost impossible to read the lyrics on the album booklet. More songs about finding honor and heart in a sometimes heartless age. Not essential, like “I’m Wide Awake,” but still noteworthy.

And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s “Worlds Apart” (Interscope)

It’s hard for rock radio to know quite what to make of an art-metal band, which means this outstanding Austin, Texas, group may run into trouble getting airplay. But the music is smart and stirring, moving from a Replacements-like rowdiness to ponder the future of rock ‘n’ roll (the title track) to a melody as sweet as Lennon-McCartney to reflect on youthful innocence in “The Summer of ’91.” A bold, thoroughly satisfying work.

February

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John Legend’s “Get Lifted” (Getting Out Our Dreams)

When Usher called producer-rapper Kanye West the new Berry Gordy Jr. recently, he was only half-kidding. Legend is the first dividend from West’s new Sony-affiliated label, and West helped Legend shape the silky, sensual R&B; touches that make this album such a stylish exercise.

Sage Francis’ “A Healthy Distrust” (Epitaph)

This Rhode Island emo rapper (which means he’s more closely aligned to the DIY indie rock movement than hard-core hip-hop) looks at life in the USA in an album that is as edgy and aggressive as “American Idiot.” He uses wit as well as anger in looking at the world around him.

LCD Soundsystem’s “LCD Soundsystem” (Capitol)

The opening track, “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House,” rocks awfully hard for something from a duo identified with the dance world, but you soon learn to expect anything stylistically from James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy. The pair’s approach is wide enough to draw from Giorgio Moroder (the producer behind those sizzling hits by Donna Summer), New Order, the Prodigy and Gang of Four. A second disc includes past singles, including the wry “Losing My Edge.”

Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com


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