• The Roots, 'undun' (Def Jam)

    The Roots, 'undun' (Def Jam)

    Does anyone still consider the Roots to be harbingers of a kinder, gentler, more approachable iteration of hip-hop? Because ever since 2004's The Tipping Point (their one consensus flop), each new album has been more dogged than the last in its determination to confront the unconverted, and undun is their most uncompromising work yet, 14 tracks clocking in at a blunt 38 minutes with nothing that feasibly could be considered a "single." It also continues the indie-folk all-stars summit begun on last year's How I Got Over with a concept album inspired by, no joke, Sufjan Stevens. No, the similarity to Greetings From Michigan has nothing to do with civic pride or xylophones: instead, the Philly crew clearly fixated on Stevens' vivid characters, crippled by an absence of real choices and manipulated by economic forces they neither can alter nor understand -- sound familiar?

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., 'It's a Corporate World' (Quite Scientific)

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., 'It's a Corporate World' (Quite Scientific)

    "It's a corporate world / I'm a corporation cutting back," sings Joshua Epstein on the zippy title track of this duo's debut, and it's not a bad business plan: With their wacky name, costumes, and synth-spiked pop rife for licensing, they have already caught the ear of major labels looking for a more cooperative MGMT. But when the hooks of their surprisingly humble songcraft dull, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are mostly a spanglier version of the Spoon-fed types that flooded the Internet with serviceable but risk-free indie rock in the mid-2000s. Call it a restocking of music-blog inventory.

  • Micachu & the Shapes and the London Sinfonietta, 'Chopped & Screwed' (Rough Trade)

    Micachu & the Shapes and the London Sinfonietta, 'Chopped & Screwed' (Rough Trade)

    Chopped & Screwed isn't Micachu & the Shapes' official follow-up to 2009's Jewellery, but it does feel like the next logical step. While their debut deconstructed pop songwriting, this one-off performance of clattering, unorthodox material (written for chamber orchestra the London Sinfonietta) builds it back from scratch. Ringleader Mica Levi tones down her voice to a nearly unrecognizable morphine drip and the hooks are more often percussive rather than melodic. Still, Chopped gives a thrilling, real-time glimpse into one of indie's true adventurers creating her legacy on the fly.

  • Fujiya & Miyagi, 'Ventriloquizzing' (Yep Roc)

    Fujiya & Miyagi, 'Ventriloquizzing' (Yep Roc)

    What's the difference between "conceptual" and "gimmicky"? On 2006's Transparent Things, this British group were cheeky assimilators, combining a Can-like percussive pulse and deadpan vocals with enough wit and melodic charm to land them in a beer commercial. Now on Ventriloquizzing, F&M retrench, showing the same tricks over and over, but with no songs like first-album standouts "Collarbone" or "Knickerbocker" to give the static grooves a jolt. What's more, the vocals are oddly mirthless and noncommittal -- it's the sound of too-clever body-movers merely going through the motions.

  • Tapes 'n Tapes, 'Outside' (Ibid)

    Tapes 'n Tapes, 'Outside' (Ibid)

    Tapes 'n Tapes' more polished yet underwhelming second album, 2008's Walk It Off, made the Minneapolis group a "live by the blog, die by the blog" cautionary tale. So here, they return to their humble roots on the self-released Outside, conjuring echoes of any number of '90s indie titans (Modest Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel). But there's far less whiz-bang joy in their sonic scrapbook these days, except for hard-charging opener "Badaboom." Elsewhere, there's a pervasive lack of hooks, not to mention an eerie sense of anonymity.

  • Women, 'Public Strain' (Jagjaguawr)

    Women, 'Public Strain' (Jagjaguawr)

    Women aren't a metal band; just one whose frigid, clattering lo-fi guitar racket sounds like it was composed on metal. The fidelity hasn't improved much from the Calgary foursome's basement-recorded debut, but Public Strain consolidates the clanging drones and subtly hooky flourishes that previously existed only as separate pieces. At times, intriguing alloys manifest -- the warped prom theme "Penal Colony," the mesmerizing lattice of post-punk riffage and Spector-ish soul adorning "Eyesore." But other stretches reflect the album's snow-blind cover photo, ambling toward the inscrutable without much to connect with.

  • Badly Drawn Boy, 'It's What I'm Thinking Pt.1 -- Photographing Snowflakes' (The End)

    Badly Drawn Boy, 'It's What I'm Thinking Pt.1 -- Photographing Snowflakes' (The End)

    Damon Gough's seventh album tacitly acknowledges the artistically lost decade that the English singer-songwriter has endured since his shambolic, charming debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeest (which won 2000's Mercury Prize). The simultaneously overblown and underwritten orchestral pomp of his past few records has been curbed in favor of fragile fingerpicked acoustics, tinny drum machines, and a cozy haze of reverb. Problem is, his return to more intimate recording can't conceal that there's nary a melody worth savoring amid the autumnal folkiness.

  • Twin Shadow, 'Forget' (Terrible)

    A pitch-perfect rendering of New Romanticism is probably not the sort of thing you'd expect from a vanity label run by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor. But Twin Shadow is no mere curiosity: Pompadoured George Taylor Jr. has more than enough melodic grace and pretty-boy swag to nail the sound. Forget transcends genre exercise by adding contemporary touches of hip-hop ("Castles in the Snow"), Balearic beach-cruising ("At My Heels"), and morbid lyrics just beneath the deceptively glossy surface. BUY: Amazon

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