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“Don’t Stop” (Smalltown Supersound) -- 4 STARS

By Daniel K. Lakhdhir, Contributing Writer

There are a number of flannel-wearing, facial-hair-sporting folk who took a cursory glance at the album cover of “Don’t Stop,” its subject replete with neon lettering and flawlessly coiffed ’80s hair, and dismissed it without a second thought. But while the music the album contains has a lot in common with the 1980s-throwback synthpop those people believed they were tossing aside, it also does not deserve such a careless dismissal.

Norwegian electropopper Annie released her debut album, “Anniemal,” to a wave of critical adoration back in 2004, and 5 years later it still garners praise. That album’s second single—a giddy, entrancing pop anthemcalled “Heartbeat”—celebrates the carefree joy of the dancefloor as effectively as any of the endless parade of disco songs on the subject. The rest of “Anniemal” almost lived up to that track: the angular, percussive “Chewing Gum” and funk-tinged “No Easy Love” proved highlights for an album that provided pop hooks from beginning to end and easily outclassed an entire year’s worth of material from American divas.

Five years later, Annie returns with “Don’t Stop,” an album that’s been plagued by repeated delays and tracklist changes. “I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me,” which was originally in the running to be the first single of the album, has since been relegated to a bonus disc (not such a tragedy, since it features a throbbing bassline and perfectly breathy vocals and still manages to be vaguely annoying). More inexplicably discarded is “Anthonio,” a trance-y, absorbing elegy to lost love.

What remains are 12 songs which range in topic from love to... well, love. This is a pop album, after all. And though the themes are less than original, the music is very much Annie’s own. Annie dubbed her debut album “pop with strange edges,” a description that quickly caught on in the press. While her influences have changed slightly on “Don’t Stop,” that moniker still applies.

“Hey Annie,” the opener, does not begin promisingly. With bass-heavy, Timbaland-esque beats, the first 60 seconds of the once-idiosyncratic Annie’s sophomore effort threaten to descend into Top 40 monotony. The track redeems itself, though, by quickly leaving the beats behind in favor of a dreamily beautiful electronic vibe.

Once again, Annie turns to her universal metaphor: dancing. In “Heartbeat,” the movements were nostalgic even as they happened—a perfect moment, never to be experienced again. Here, dancing’s role is the more traditional one of a courtship ritual: “If we put our hands together / Yeah, we’re all here for the better / In the music you might discover / And your pulse and your beat and your laugh.” The second track, “My Love is Better,” steps up the pace and the attitude; a catty putdown to a romantic competitor set to powerful, pulsating synths. “My kiss is wetter (Than your kiss) / My lips are better (Than your tricks) / You know you never (Had my hips) / I’m so much better (So eat this),” she sneers—and you can’t help but lap it up.

Annie does slip up occasionally. “The Breakfast Song” is a gimmicky track with lyrics as ridiculous as they are irrelevant (“What do you want… what do you want for breakfast?”). Annie’s ghostly natural tone, elsewhere used to brilliant effect, is discarded in favor of a punkish yowling that doesn’t suit her in the slightest.

“Heaven and Hell” also disappoints. A bouncy, whimsical number that recalls the lighter edges of 1990s indie pop, it also brandishes that genre’s worst impulses: childishness and condescension. The result is more than a little irritating, and closes the album on a distinctly sour note.

But aside from these exceptions, “Don’t Stop” provides pitch-perfect tunes that never feel formulaic, though album highlight “Songs Remind Me of You” is the only song on “Don’t Stop” that approaches the sheer euphoria of “Heartbeat.” Despite the melancholy lyrical theme—“Every song I hear reminds me of you / Doesn’t make me feel the same as I do”—the beguiling, compulsively danceable chorus brushes tantalizingly near to pop perfection.

The echoing synth lines and breathy vocals throughout prove that Annie isn’t ashamed of her distinctly ’80s-throwback sound. Instead, she triumphantly embraces it—from hairstyle ondown. And with music this striking and a vocalist this endearing, the kitsch is nearly irresistible. Among a slew of recent ’80s pop revivalists, Annie simply does it better than the rest.

“Don’t Stop” is lacking a signature single. There’s no “Heartbeat” here; there’s barely even a “Chewing Gum.” But it makes up for the absence of immediate standouts by consistently delivering the goods: there are more hooks on this album than some pop artists deliver in a lifetime. From the disco minimalism of the title track to the spaced-out lustfulness of “Take You Home,” this is electropop as it should be—and rarely ever is.

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