• Cloud Nothings, 'Cloud Nothings' (Carpark)

    Cloud Nothings, 'Cloud Nothings' (Carpark)

    The first proper album from Cleveland one-man band Dylan Baldi doesn't match the irresistible energy of last year's odds-and-ends compilation Turning On. But despite trading innocent charm for grown-up polish, Baldi's buzzy lo-fi pop still feels nicely rickety, with his reedy voice adding emotional force to sagas ofunrequited or imploded love. He's especiallyeffective on the impulsive tantrum "Not Important," sneering breathlessly, "You're too stupid"; and "Nothing's Wrong," a perceptive study of self-involvement which argues strongly that he may yet evolve into a killer songwriter.

  • Social Distortion, 'Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes' (Epitaph)

    Social Distortion, 'Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes' (Epitaph)

    When southern California's Social Distortion were getting started, Jimmy Carter occupied the Oval Office and the Sex Pistols were hot news, so merely showing up today would constitute a triumph. But these guys don't wheeze or wobble for a second on their first album since 2004, roaring like pushy kids determined to make a mark. Leader Mike Ness, the only constant over the years, still howls with a raspy, exhilarating fury like Joe Strummer's American cousin, sounding every bit the noble, road-tempered electric troubadour. Social D's trademark brew of punk, country, and Stonesy blues raunch feels weirdly, surprisingly fresh on Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes.

  • Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, 'Teenage and Torture' (Knitting Factory)

    Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, 'Teenage and Torture' (Knitting Factory)

    Is Shilpa Ray crazy? You may wonder after the spine-tingling Teenage and Torture, in which she shrieks and sneers stream-of-consciousness lyrics while playing harmonium. Her deranged aura aside, the second full-length from this New York group is a brainy and brawny hybrid, unleashing barbed commentary on consumer culture ("Stick It to the Woman") and female beauty ("Venus Shaver") with storming, bare-bones rock'n'roll powered by John Adamski's brutal drumming. Check out "Liquidation Sale" for a satisfying blast of primal-scream therapy.

  • Robert Pollard, 'Space City Kicks' (Guided by Voices Inc.)

    Robert Pollard, 'Space City Kicks' (Guided by Voices Inc.)

    Defying logic, the famously productive Robert Pollard is getting even more prolific with age. One of five Pollard-related releases slated over a ten-month stretch (plus a Guided by Voices reunion tour), Space City Kicks offers a hodgepodge of brilliant guitar pop and annoying, unfinished throwaways, but this time the former ("I Wanna Be Your Man in the Moon") easily overshadows the latter ("Children Ships"). Now, it would only be fair if Pollard revealed the location of the fountain of youth he's been frequenting.

  • Faun Fables, 'Light of a Vaster Dark' (Drag City)

    Faun Fables, 'Light of a Vaster Dark' (Drag City)

    Outlandish and proud of it, Dawn "The Faun" McCarthy could pass for a nutcase on her duo's first album in four years, but don't be fooled. Assisted by longtime sidekick Nils Frykdahl, she deftly melds violin, flute, harmonica, and other acoustic elements into lovely soundscapes that showcase her solemn voice dramatically. For all her grandiosity, though, McCarthy's meditations on domestic toil ("Housekeeper") and seasonal change ("Hibernation Tales") feel intimately heartfelt, while the wailing "O Mary" blends natural imagery and Christian allusions in stirring fashion.

  • Cheap Time, 'Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations)' (In the Red)

    Cheap Time, 'Fantastic Explanations (and Similar Situations)' (In the Red)

    Singer-guitarist Jeffrey Novak pulls off a neat stunt on the second Cheap Time album, bringing fresh life to the most timeworn garage-band conventions. Compared to the Tennessee trio's punky, disheveled debut, Fantastic Explanations almost seems civilized -- think a scuzzier version of the Strokes -- with Novak unleashing a nonstop barrage of vigorous put-downs, curtly dismissing strivers ("Waiting Too Long"), poseurs ("Everyone Knows"), and plain old bores ("When Tomorrow Comes") in his wonderful sneering drawl. If that sounds overly juvenile, don't tell Novak; he'd probably just sock you in the jaw.

  • The 1900s, 'Return of the Century' (Parasol)

    The 1900s, 'Return of the Century' (Parasol)

    This Chicago band's remarkable second album mixes sweet and sour, employing graceful chamber pop to illuminate twisted relationships. A melodic improvement on their 2007 debut, Return of the Century could pass for breezy escapism, thanks to mellow vocalists Edward Anderson, Caroline Donovan, and Jeanine O'Toole; but the songs' unreliable narrators invariably exhibit dismissive, selfish attitudes toward friends and lovers. From "Lay a Ghost" ("You said you'd go / I said be my guest") to "Bmore" ("Are you tired of hiding too much emotion?"), gnawing unease has rarely sounded so appealing.

  • The Extra Lens, 'Undercard' (Merge)

    Nearly a decade after their debut album as the Extra Glenns, John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) and Franklin Bruno (Nothing Painted Blue) reunite for a collaboration that sounds like it was recorded on a whim. But the spontaneous vibe seems fitting, with Darnielle's ordinary-guy vocals, embellished by Bruno's subtle guitars and keyboards, giving their observant tales of sexual misconduct ("How I Left the Ministry") and weary struggle ("Cruiserweights") the punch of vivid short stories. For bleaker beauty, catch the haunting take on Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War." BUY: Amazon

  • Working for a Nuclear Free City, 'Jojo Burger Tempest' (Melodic)

    Slippery and mischievous, England's Working for a Nuclear Free City give short attention spans a good name on their second consecutive double album, hopscotching through styles with fidgety glee. Enjoy jaunty, Yes-like prog flourishes? They've got 'em ("Do a Stunt"). Prefer wistful shoegazing? Here you go ("Autoblue"). Partial to sweetly bubbling electronica? Look no further ("The King and June"). Disc two works better in theory than fact, compiling disparate song fragments into a single 33-minute mixtape-inspired track, but the group's radiant delight in pure sound is undimmed.

  • KT Tunstall, 'Tiger Suit' (Virgin)

    KT Tunstall, 'Tiger Suit' (Virgin)

    Thanks to KT Tunstall's compelling whiskey-and-cigarettes voice, everything she tackles demands to be heard--though not everything here absolutely needs to be. An identity crisis looms on her third album, featuring fine bluesy folk echoing her early days ("Golden Frames"), a crass power ballad ("Lost"), and beguiling dance grooves ("Glamour Puss"). The standout is "(Still a) Weirdo," the only track produced by the Bird and the Bee's Greg Kurstin, a genius at crafting shiny yet idiosyncratic pop (see Lily Allen's last album). Tunstall should book him for her next record, pronto.

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