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D'Angelo, Charli XCX, and She & Him 

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click to enlarge D'Angelo and The Vanguard

D'Angelo and The Vanguard

Black Messiah

RCA

File next to: Shabazz Palaces, Maxwell, Flying Lotus

Critics have been quick to sanctify Black Messiah, both because it ends a 14-year recording hiatus by D'Angelo, and because its political stance is explicit and arguably righteous. D'Angelo links protesters in Ferguson, Occupy, and Tahrir Square, and insists that no black messiah of a Malcolm X or MLK nature is necessary, that every person can be a leader and messiah of sorts. It's refreshing to hear a message this clear and positive in the 21st century. The album's arrangements, meanwhile, have a Prince-like undercurrent that's mixed with electronic and jazz-fusion textures. Black Messiah's one downside is that the message can get lost in the meandering sounds. We can't expect a sound akin to Kanye West's Yeezus, but lyrics that emphasize the importance of protest would likely benefit from a stronger beat. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Charli XCX

Charli XCX

Sucker

Atlantic

File next to: Sleigh Bells, Sky Ferreira, Katy Perry

Since the British diva Charli XCX rode Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" coattails to fame, it'd be natural to expect an overproduced hip-hop sound-alike, even though Charli XCX's last album sounded more like Grimes. Instead, Sucker has an overdriven guitar beat that might best be called heavy-metal pop. As befits the candy artwork on the album cover, the songs within are sugar-coated with little nutritional value, but they sure are fun. Charli XCX shows a lot of wry humor and self-spoofing in songs like "London Queen" and "Boom Clap," and includes enough in the arrangements and rhythm to make their appreciation guilt-free. Recent appearances on Saturday Night Live and Top of the Pops suggest she'll be the next expert at physical overexposure, which might mean everyone will despise her by 2016. For now, turn up the music and dance. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge She & Him

She & Him

Classics

Columbia

File next to: Honeyhoney, Angus & Julia Stone

The duo of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel has stepped a decade or two back in time from their '60s-rooted pop for this album of standards, most of which hail from the '40s and '50s. Songs like "Stars Fell on Alabama," "We'll Meet Again" and Sammy Cahn's "Time After Time" (not to be confused with the Cyndi Lauper tune) have all been recorded, sorry, time after time, which means Classics unavoidably fades into background music. But it's engaging background music, with Deschanel's quirky, warm vocals engaging with Ward's instruments and an orchestra — all recorded live. They dial back "Unchained Melody," add some big beat and speed to Dusty Springfield's "Stay Awhile," and even give Ward a vocal turn on the softly emotional "She." The album itself may not be a classic, but it's worth a listen. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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