• Sufjan Stevens, 'The BQE' (Asthmatic Kitty)

    It's been four years since the breathtaking Illinois, a fact that makes The BQE -- an instrumental orchestral homage to the troubled New York roadway, composed for the Brooklyn Art Museum -- all the more frustrating to navigate. There's nothing inherently wrong with 40 minutes of cresting and receding strings and woodwinds (or the accompanying Stevens-directed travelscape DVD), but it's not what we want from a guy so achingly good at wispy orchestral pop. He's admirably ambitious, but another installment of his "50 states" project (or at least an album he sings on) would be welcome. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Doveman, 'The Conformist' (Brassland)

    Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam have shown that singing softly can carry an emotional wallop, and Doveman's Thomas Bartlett takes that approach to a whispery extreme on his fourth album. At times his voice is barely there, yet it's always mixed above the instrumentation, much of it tastefully provided by members of the National. Guest singers (Norah Jones, Beth Orton, Glen Hansard) join in -- quietly -- as the music drifts from shoegaze to country rock to burbling indie pop, but Bartlett navigates his tender terrain with sneaky authority. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Alec Ounsworth, 'Mo Beauty' (Anti-)

    There's no mistaking Alec Ounsworth's voice: Even with backup from New Orleans ringers -- drummer Stanton Moore and keyboardist Robert Walter, among others -- the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman can't escape his nervous yelp. But that's fine when it's paired with the sharpest arrangements and best songwriting of his short career: Almost every tune on Mo Beauty equals or betters those on CYHSY's lauded 2005 debut, mixing spooky folk ("What Fun") with frantic fun (the towering, sax-assisted "Modern Girl [...with Scissors]"). Ounsworth's regular band may have a shaky future, but he doesn't. BUY: iTunes Amazon

  • Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard, 'One Fast Move or I'm Gone' (F-Stop/Atlantic)

    The Son Volt and Death Cab for Cutie frontmen (respectively) go spare on this tribute to Jack Kerouac's 1962 novel Big Sur, wedding text from the chronicle of a writer's alcoholic breakdown to simple melodies and instrumentation. Gibbard, who already wrote a terrific song inspired by Kerouac on Death Cab's Narrow Stairs, delivers a fey yin to Farrar's more downcast baritone twang, which means his contributions -- including the best of this bunch, "Willamine" -- feel lighter, even when the words aren't. A dark lark, but worth a listen. BUY: Amazon

  • Electric Six, 'Kill' (Metropolis)

    This Detroit band has yet to match the goofy disco-metal glory of 2003's Fire (you'll recall "Danger! High Voltage," featuring Jack White, and "Gay Bar"). But their sixth album's opener, "Body Shots," nails it joyously, with frontman Dick Valentine mixing his two voices -- über-confident growl and sex-crazed falsetto -- on a cowbell-assisted jam that crams Tenacious D, Prince, and '80s metal into the same sweaty club. Again, E6 can't quite keep it up throughout, though they still sound delighted to mess with sounds both full-throttle ("You're Bored") and loungey ("My Idea of Fun"). WATCH: Electric Six, "Body Shot" BUY: iTunes Amazon

  • Bad Lieutenant, 'Never Cry Another Tear' (Triple Echo)

    Bernard Sumner throws one curveball with his new band, letting unknown Mancunian Jake Evans take a few turns on the mic. Those tracks -- particularly "These Changes" -- heavily echo Doves' forceful melancholy, while the others echo, well, New Order. Sumner still has a knack for making dopey lyrics ("Hey, bad man, where are you gonna go?") sound profound atop guileless Brit-rock jangle and electronic moodiness. There's no "Blue Monday" or "True Faith" here, but a record that sounds like a cross between Doves and New Order? Not worth complaining about at all. READ MORE: Q&A with Bernard Sumner LISTEN/WATCH: New music from Bad Lieutenant

  • Islands, 'Vapours' (Anti-)

    Call it Nick Diamonds Gets His Groove Back. Former Unicorn Nick Thorburn went a bit dark and dreary on 2008's Arm's Way, but with Vapours, the transplanted New Yorker relearns his playfulness: "Heartbeat" gleefully busts out Auto-Tune, so if you've ever wondered what Kanye imagines when he listens to Vampire Weekend, here you go. The title track tickles a cruise-ship vibe, then flat out asks you to love it: "Hope I entertain, hopin' you get dancin' feet." It's not all sunshine -- "Disarming the Car Bomb" needs more grit, and "Shining" sounds pulled from bleaker times -- but Vapours is a welcome righting of the ship. BUY: iTunesAmazon

  • Pearl Jam

    Pearl Jam, 'Backspacer' (Monkeywrench)

    Conventional wisdom marks 2006's Pearl Jam as the grunge outfit's reignition point after years without a spark. If that's true, then the first three songs on their ninth full-length are the explosion at the end of an extremely long fuse. The band hasn't put together a trifecta this energized and from-the-gut in a decade, and though the rest of Backspacer doesn't match that opening salvo, it has a terrific time trying. "Gonna See My Friend," "Got Some," and "The Fixer" nearly upend each other rushing out the gate, exploiting Pearl Jam's leanest, punkest tendencies. And those traits carry through the album's 36 minutes.

  • Lou Barlow, 'Goodnight Unknown' (Merge)

    Is Lou Barlow leading a three-pronged early-'90s indie-rock resurgence? He's back (and kicking ass) with the classic Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh lineups, but as was the case back then, his muse needs constant attention. Give him points for meticulously crafting his second "official" solo album: It feels much more cohesive and clean than anything the impetuous, release-everything Barlow of yore would've done, with sweet simplicity (the Nick Drake–like "The One I Call") rubbing shoulders with slightly slinkier, more rocking tracks like "The Right," which recalls yet another Barlow band, Folk Implosion. Maybe that reunion's next. BUY: Amazon

  • Danko Jones, 'Never Too Loud' (Bad Taste)

    This Canadian power trio started life garage-y and sex-crazed, and on their fourth album, the latter fully takes precedence, as frontman-namesake Jones proclaims he's a "leg and ass man" on "Still in High School." Moments of Never Too Loud -- particularly the slick, Kid Rock–ish "Take Me Home" -- could jar longtime fans, but Jones knows how to throw down odes to rockin' and screwin' better than most, nodding to Sabbath ("Forest for the Trees"), Foo Fighters ("Something Better"), and Rocket From the Crypt ("R.I.P. RFTC"). If you like the title, try the record. BUY:Amazon

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