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Saint Etienne 

Finisterre (Mantra/Beggars Banquet)

Saint Etienne traffics in opposites: A product of dismal Thatcher-era England, the trio buried its late-'80s angst in candied dance-pop that merged disco's feel-good throb with girl-group élan and '60s-pop melodies. On 1998's sparkling Good Humor, the group hooked up with Cardigans producer Tore Johansson at the exact moment when dance music faced a fair shake in America. Its follow-up, 2000's Sound of Water, ditched the ebullience altogether, countering the dot-com boom with a hunk of brainy, micromanaged German electronica. Finisterre, the band's new disc, is an ostensible return to form -- lead single "Action" is ready-made club manna, and rejuvenated electro beats lace a handful of tracks. On "Soft Like Me," a dazzling duet between frontwoman Sarah Cracknell and U.K. rapper Wildflower, Saint Etienne even flips the script on all those tough-MC/smooth-singer radio hits that clogged the radio this year. Playful iconoclasts with hearts of fool's gold, Saint Etienne might be pop's smartest players.

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