• White Denim, 'D' (Downtown)

    White Denim, 'D' (Downtown)

    These Austin multihyphenates can't -- or won't -- decide what kind of music they want to play, which would be a huge problem if they weren't so damn capable. They show off prog chops and execute time-signature jumping jacks ("Anvil Everything"), explore the uncharted intersection of boogie-woogie and Radiohead's most outré moments ("Burnished"), then downshift into a sweet, simple ballad ("Street Joy"). Expect whiplash of the most intriguing, enjoyable kind, like your iPod jumping to a new album every other track.

  • Other Lives, 'Tamer Animals' (TBD/White Iris)

    Other Lives, 'Tamer Animals' (TBD/White Iris)

    Like their regional brethren Midlake, these Oklahomans seem fascinated by folky Englishmen of yore, though Other Lives lean more toward Fleet Foxes than Fleetwood Mac. There's even a dose of New Roman-ticism on their second album's title track, which could nestle nicely on a John Hughes soundtrack. Jesse Tabish's laid-back, borderline affectless voice can get tiresome, but layers of strings and piano (the droney "Old Statues") or ghostly backing voices (the haunting "As I Lay My Head Down") are usually enough to keep Tamer Animals from feeling too domesticated.

  • Explosions in the Sky, 'Take Care. Take Care. Take Care.' (Temporary Residence)

    Explosions in the Sky, 'Take Care. Take Care. Take Care.' (Temporary Residence)

    It's no slight to call these Austin instrumentalists "soundtrack-y" -- they did, after all, blow up after creating incidental music for the Friday Night Lights film and TV show. And though it's unusual that incremental, voiceless, hold-your-breath compositions -- played largely on guitars and drums -- can pack big venues, their fifth album's gorgeously towering moments ("Human Qualities") seem boundless. With subtle sonic shifts (such as chanting on the almost-poppy "Trembling Hands"), the songs are reliably dynamic, turning hushed beats and lightly scratched guitar into overwhelming drama.

  • The Unthanks, 'Last' (Rough Trade)

    The Unthanks, 'Last' (Rough Trade)

    It'd be difficult to place this spectral folk outfit's century of origin if not for the King Crimson and Tom Waits covers on their fourth album. Sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank -- real last name -- sing gorgeously doleful tales inspired by (and frequently taken from) Old English history, rendered in crisp, warm recordings. "Disappointment is everywhere," goes the refrain of "Give Away Your Heart," but somehow the group manages, with masterfully restrained piano and strings, to wring joy from bygone heartache.

  • The Head and the Heart, 'The Head and the Heart' (Sub Pop)

    The Head and the Heart, 'The Head and the Heart' (Sub Pop)

    The debut by this Seattle indie-folk group suffers slightly from an abundance of niceness: Even the ostensibly edgy moments, as in the regret-filled "Honey Come Home," resolve with jaunty piano and declarations of love. But the Head and the Heart sell their rootsy sincerity - file alongside the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, Low Anthem - with irresistibly hooky harmonies. Occasional dips into sappiness ("Sounds Like Hallelujah") are mitigated by unstoppable sing-alongs ("Ghosts"). You can practically smell the campfire.

  • Richard Ashcroft, 'The United Nations of Sound' (Razor & Tie)

    Richard Ashcroft, 'The United Nations of Sound' (Razor & Tie)

    Richard Ashcroft's biggest song -- the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" -- is built on a looped sample and a big drumbeat, so maybe it's not so strange that he hooked up with Common/Kanye/Jay-Z producer No I.D. to reboot his solo career. It's a surprisingly fruitful collaboration, at least when Ashcroft isn't sabotaging himself with dopey lyrics and wanky guitar solos. (Or inexplicably trying to channel John Lee Hooker on "How Deep Is Your Man.") Nations actually could use more hip-hop influence: The bold "This Thing Called Love," yet another Ashcroft paean to music itself, would really sing with a Jigga verse thrown in.

  • Wye Oak, 'Civilian' (Merge)

    Wye Oak, 'Civilian' (Merge)

    This Baltimore male-female duo's third album alternates gorgeous currents of dread, catharsis, assurance, and doubt. Singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner's voice and lyrics -- smoky, seductive, strange -- are perfectly framed by everything from chugging shoegaze ("Holy Holy") to subdued thrum ("Fish") to virtually nothing (the gutting closer "Doubt"). The title track brings it all together -- a spooky, pretty lament that builds, improbably, to a shivering climax of Neil Young-ish guitar squall. Though made by only two people, Civilian never feels less than fully realized.

  • R.E.M., 'Collapse Into Now' (Warner Bros.)

    R.E.M., 'Collapse Into Now' (Warner Bros.)

    The definitely-call-it-a-comeback Accelerate was the sound of R.E.M. gloriously shaking themselves awake from a mid-life slumber. The equally enticing Collapse Into Now -- album number 15! -- taps the brakes and sets the cruise control, unafraid to check the rearview for trusty old tricks. It sounds every molecule like R.E.M., which thankfully means no alarms and no detours. The desire to be more adventurous got us a 2005 duet with Q-Tip, and that ended badly. Here, instead, they discover the glow of middle age, warmly acknowledging the past -- hello again, Peter Buck's mandolin -- while realizing that the present can feel just as comforting. The sober, pretty "Uberlin" sounds like a happier cousin to "Drive." Twinkling ballad "Every Day Is Yours to Win" updates "Everybody Hurts" for the other side of despair, when optimism seeps back in.

  • Chain & the Gang, 'Music's Not for Everyone' (K)

    Chain & the Gang, 'Music's Not for Everyone' (K)

    Ian Svenonius -- spastically charismatic frontman for Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up -- loves shtick, though he prefers to call it "philosophy" or "manifesto." That's not a slight: His smash-the-state proselytizing and fervent audience instigation always make him an arresting figure. With Chain and the Gang, a sloppy, spare, garage-blues outfit, he dials back the energy, leaving the winking lyrics somewhat over-exposed. When the band's clattering, it's great fun ("Why Not"), but leave the tongue-in-cheek (or is it?) spoken-word title track at home and release the rock instead.

  • Mogwai, 'Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will' (Sub Pop)

    Mogwai, 'Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will' (Sub Pop)

    These builders of instrumental skyscrapers have evolved almost imperceptibly: Casual listeners won't find massive differences between the Scots' seventh album and 1997's classic debut Mogwai Young Team. But there's always room for another cleverly titled post-rock monolith as resounding as "How to Be a Werewolf" or an elegy as affecting as "Too Raging to Cheers." Sure, "San Pedro" jars slightly by skipping the usual build-and-release formula in favor of straightforward chug, but Hardcore is mostly content to refine the band's epic, frequently breathtaking constructions.

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