• The Dears, 'Degeneration Street' (Dangerbird)

    The Dears, 'Degeneration Street' (Dangerbird)

    A corrective after 2008's overreaching downer Missiles, this Canadian band's fifth album heads back to the big, Brit-inspired sounds of 2003's No Cities Left. Singer-guitarist Murray Lightburn still shoots for Smiths-like profundity and emotional resonance -- there's talk of God and bearing crosses -- but this time he's got the hooks to back it up: "Thrones" brims with passion, as Lightburn alternates between a bold vocal melody and an angry shout. He also luxuriates in a slow jam ("Lamentation") and fondly looks back even further than the '80s ("Yesteryear").

  • Iron and Wine, 'Kiss Each Other Clean' (Warner Bros.)

    Iron and Wine, 'Kiss Each Other Clean' (Warner Bros.)

    Iron and Wine's last album, 2007's The Shepherd's Dog, seemed to complete singer-guitarist Sam Beam's journey from spare, black-and-white acoustic sketch artist to full-color aural panoramist. But Kiss Each Other Clean explodes his palette even further. Just look at that cover art -- Beam rendered in neon-psychedelic lines, surrounded by peacocks -- it's advance visual notice of a sonic sea change. And Kiss delivers plenty of unexpected layers, employed judiciously in service of Beam's usual ruminative ideas about good and evil, love and death: "Me and Lazarus" dribbles squeaky synths atop his increasingly sure voice before dropping in a tasteful sax. That sax gets decidedly more skronky on "Big Burned Hand," which rides a '70s groove into...a DJ scratching?

  • Charles Bradley, 'No Time for Dreaming' (Dunham)

    Charles Bradley, 'No Time for Dreaming' (Dunham)

    It'd be easy to mistake Charles Bradley's debutalbum for a lost soul classic, from the throwback cover art to the Otis Redding- and James Brown-inspired songs. But this 62-year-old Brooklynite isn't making a comeback; he's just touching down. Discovered and backed by the Daptone crew -- specifically note-perfect stylists the Menahan Street Band -- Bradley re-creates the sound of his youth, with a gorgeously weathered voice. No Time for Dreaming wails in a world of "Heartaches and Pain" (see the memorable closing track), but Bradley's despair is never less than stirring.

  • Cold War Kids, 'Mine Is Yours' (Downtown)

    Cold War Kids, 'Mine Is Yours' (Downtown)

    Having expunged their skittish, dark energy and fully embraced studio slickness, Cold War Kids are left stranded, sounding like a band aiming for the charts of both 1994 and 2011. (Think Toad the Wet Sprocket nuzzling Kings of Leon, whose producer Jacquire King is on hand.) Nathan Willett's voice, alternately soulful and overeager, rests far above everything, which suits the aspirations here except when he gets too funky and lands with a thud ("Sensitive Kid"). A couple of songs succeed on their own terms, like "Finally Begin" -- destined for a rom-com trailer -- but most float unmemorably down the highway of not-quite-modern rock.

  • The Greenhornes, 'Four Stars' (Third Man)

    The Greenhornes, 'Four Stars' (Third Man)

    The two less-famous Raconteurs also play in this bluesy garage-rock trio, which has been making a retro noise since the mid-'90s. They haven't rocked together like it's 1965 since 2002, but singer-guitarist Craig Fox hasn't lost any love for the Kinks ("Better Off Without It") or the Rolling Stones ("Song 13"). Apparently, he's been stockpiling solid songs: From the slinky "Go Tell Henry" to the stinging snarl of "Underestimator," everything here is taut and lively. The lone drawback: It all sounds terribly familiar.

  • Cloud Nothings, 'Turning On' (Carpark)

    Cloud Nothings, 'Turning On' (Carpark)

    Cynical ears might find Cloud Nothings too raw or half-baked, but hidden beneath their home-recorded cacophony is a melodic knack that approaches Guided by Voices at their prime. Credit one guy -- 19-year-old Dylan Baldi -- for the fuzzy nuggets: puckish indie earwig "Hey Cool Kid," garage gurgler "My Little Raygun," the power-popping "Can't Stay Awake." Scrub these songs a bit and you'll find love and acceptance across genres. But please, don't scrub too much -- the dirt makes Turning On gleam in just the right way.

  • Belle and Sebastian, 'Write About Love' (Matador)

    Belle and Sebastian, 'Write About Love' (Matador)

    Belle and Sebastian's name-making early records put shyness on wax, but the fame they achieved brought transformative confidence to the Scottish septet. The evolution from Smiths-loving bedroom dwellers to wry, orchestral-pop machine was awkward, but it fully took root on their last album, 2006's The Life Pursuit, by combining soulful '60s sonics with the smart, sardonic lyrics of frontman Stuart Murdoch. Write About Love--B&S' eighth album--picks up precisely where Life leftoff. Once again produced by Tony Hoffer, who loves to bathe British bandsin L.A. sunshine, it's playful, bouncy, witty, classic, and classy.

  • Clinic, 'Bubblegum' (Domino)

    Clinic, 'Bubblegum' (Domino)

    The title of Clinic's sixth album cheekily nods to the surgical-masked Brits' current, revamped sound--a softer spin on indie pop with their usual gritty agitation almost completely scrubbed away. Songs such as the gorgeous "Freemason Waltz" and keening, melancholic "Another Way of Giving" imagine an alternate-universe sock hop, led by a stripped-down and Anglicized Sigur Rós. Only "Lion Tamer" and "Orangutan" recall the more desperate density of Clinic's high point, 2000 debut full-length Internal Wrangler. But since the band's major fault has been sonic stasis, it's nice to see them change the pace, even if it means easing back.

  • The Black Angels, 'Phosphene Dream' (Blue Horizon)

    These leading (black) lights of the Austin psych-rock scene clean up their murky production for album three, and cast their dilated gaze even further back in time. There's still plenty of Velvet Underground and Jesus and Mary Chain influence, but "Sunday Afternoon" feels like bad-trip Monkees, and the jaunty "Telephone Blues" would fit comfortably at the Cavern Club circa 1961. Sorta silly lyrics like "Rollin' fast down I-35 / Supersonic overdrive" indicate the road that Phosphene Dream navigates: It's all blacktop stretching through reverberating vistas -- ultracool if a little predictable. BUY:iTunesAmazon

  • Junip, 'Fields' (Mute)

    José González's usual mode -- hushed, pretty, acoustic, melancholy -- gets goosed by krautrock ghosts in this side-project trio. Fleshed out with sinister synths and laid-back drums, the Swedish folkie's songs breathe and groove like never before. That's not always a good thing. "Sweet & Bitter" loses its focus in dusky slink, and "Tide" builds toward nothing much at all. But when the band's fluid undercurrents mesh with González's acoustic guitar and half-whispered words -- the Sea & Cake–like "Always," the sexily insistent "Howl" -- it's just as exhilarating as his gorgeous solo work. BUY:iTunesAmazon

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