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The Roots

undun

Island/Def Jam

Buy if you like: Lauryn Hill, Mos Def

Captivating and moving, sad and somehow uplifting, this concept album from the Roots is one of the best albums of 2011. undun tells the tale of Redford Stephens, a young New York City hustler who is murdered early on — as in the second song. From there, his story is retraced over the course of the album's 38 minutes. (While his name is never mentioned on the record, it's all over the iPad/iPhone app "documentary" that the Roots created to accompany the record.) Lyrics are delivered by Black Thought, who raps with a sincere seriousness — this ain't no party or joke — talking about wanting "To catch a thief / Who stole the soul I prayed to keep." Musically, Questlove has crafted beats and melodies that are innovative and direct. And in the end everything ties together to deliver a tale of urban loss whose themes are all too timeless. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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Tegan and Sara

Get Along

Warner Bros.

Buy if you like: Eisley, Throwing Muses

The twin Quin sisters are back with Get Along, a live set that strips their female power-pop repertoire down to its acoustic roots. The CD version of this multi-level release is essentially a Tegan and Sara greatest-hits record, except for the fact that the duo's biggest song, "Walking With a Ghost" — the one that the White Stripes famously covered— is conspicuously absent. The sister act continues to cut back and forth with the vocals, delivering smartly crafted stories of heartbreak and lust, romance and relief — the stuff of pop forever. Even stripped down to the basics, these songs sound plenty close to the studio versions. The deluxe package, meanwhile, throws in a pair of mini-documentaries, including one that traces the duo's early career, and a concert DVD of the show from which the CD's music is drawn. That one is probably best suited for the hardcore fans. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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The Beach Boys

The Smile Sessions Box Set

Capitol/EMI

Buy if you like: The Beatles, R.E.M.

In 1966, Brian Wilson holed up in a Los Angeles studio with lyricist Van Dyke Parks and a host of musicians intent on creating a pop masterpiece to follow up the brilliant Pet Sounds. That record, Smile, was never finished. Bits and pieces of the sessions have emerged over the years and in 2004, Wilson released a newly recorded, finished version to strong reviews. But it wasn't the real thing. Now Capitol has released a box set that contains the oft-bootlegged sessions along with a disc that takes completed tracks from other Beach Boys recordings and turns them into Smile as originally intended. While it's not the finished record that Wilson envisioned, it's as close as we're going to get. The other four discs in the set are full of outtakes, alternate versions and studio conversations. While too much for the casual listener, they'll fascinate Beach Boys fans and anyone who recognizes Wilson a pop music genius. — L. Kent Wolgamott

  • The Roots, Tegan and Sara, the Beach Boys

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