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Blackalicious 'NIA' (Mo'Wax)

On what is probably the most outstanding hip-hop album of the year, this Cali duo use all 20 skit-free tracks to full effect, mixing a musical palette of B-boy dub, jazz-laden Afrocentricity and rare groove with upfront storytelling, conventional song-based numbers and witty lyricism such as the excellently-titled "Smitzonian Institute of Rhyme". HHHHH

Beck 'Midnight Vultures' (Geffen)

With delightfully skittish and sleazy lyrics, Beck embarks on a journey through down'n'dirty R&B, super-sexy vintage Prince sounds and hard-nosed funk as well as the staples of chemical country and streetwise beats. Beck blurs the genres ever more successfully on his finest album yet. HHHHH

Low 'Christmas' (Tugboat)

The Minnesota trio continue to conjure up a desolate sound with a warm underbelly on this seasonal mini-album. As well as four of their own songs, there are beautifully understated covers of "Little Drummer Boy" and "Blue Christmas" that come over as less-syrupy Cowboy Junkies. HHHH

Rakim 'The Master' (Universal)

The first full-length album in five years from the legendary MC sees him team up with a series of producers, including DJ Clark Kent and DJ Premier, who keep the beats to an acceptable standard. But, once again, it's his hypnotic lyricism and choice of words that make the album title true to its claim. HHHH

Fun Lovin' Criminals 'Mimosa' (Chrysalis)

Although this collection of B-sides, loungey remixes and covers settles into an acceptably smooth groove, there is nowhere near the level of ideas at work here as compared to, say, Beck's latest album. One for fans only. HH


Kneehigh 'Introducing Elvis' (Clear)

This new band from Liverpool on a new Manchester indie label, bear echoes of Joy Division with a measure of early Nineties Chapel Hill slacker cool (Small-23 to be precise). While the A-side is packed with memorable riffs and lyrics, the B-side sounds like a louder, abrasive version of Wheat. HHH