Saint Etienne

Saint Etienne traffic in opposites: A product of dismal Thatcher-era England, the trio buried its late-'80s angst in candied dance-pop that conflated disco's feel-good throb with girl-group élan and '60s-pop melodies, only to go live-band for 1998's sparkling Good Humor, hooking 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 readymade club manna, and rejuvenated electro beats lace a handful of tracks--but as such it's just another clever Etienne mind game: What kind of moment is ours for music this radiant? And why does its sleeve feature a dilapidated housing project? They even flip the script on all those tough-MC/smooth-singer radio hits that clogged the radio this year on "Soft Like Me," a dazzling duet between front woman Sarah Cracknell and U.K. rapper Wildflower that big-ups sugar, spice and everything nice--each woman individually plays both Ja Rule and Ashanti with breathless politesse. Playful iconoclasts with hearts of fool's gold, Saint Etienne might be pop's smartest players.