• Braids / Photo by Cory Schwartz/Getty Images

    Braids' 'Flourish // Perish' Is the Ethereal Yoga Soundtrack You Didn't Know You Needed

    Calgary art-rock trio Braids reach back to sounds considered passé, revitalizing them through selective editing and a ratio of reverence to irreverence that's hard to pin down. It's a proud tradition: Soundgarden made '70s arena sludge seem mysterious and sexy. LCD Soundsystem made disco seem like the only form a self-respecting literate storyteller should work in. Sufjan Stevens made the glockenspiel seem acceptable. And let us now welcome this trio whose sophomore album often feels like a lushly layered argument for the artistic importance of Enya and her fellow spa-rock brethren.There is, of course, nothing wrong with this approach in these post-genre-snobbery times, as we can all use a little more help finding our chi.

  •  Cullen Omori of Smith Westerns, moments before being devoured by giant snail / Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

    Smith Westerns, 'Soft Will' (Mom + Pop)

    In 2011, the young quartet Smith Westerns shambled out of Chicago with their second album, Dye It Blonde. It wasn't the most original take on post-teenhood garage rock, but packed with enough charm and easy hooks to make a convincing argument that if you were already going to a weekend music festival, you should consider cutting brunch short in order to catch their set.To their credit, the scruffy crew clearly knew it was time to step it up for Soft Will, their first effort for Mom + Pop (home to Sleigh Bells, Metric, Wavves, and FIDLAR). Again working with Dye It Blonde producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear, TV on the Radio), they reveal a newfound sense of scope and ambition.

  • Josh Homme / Kevin Winter/Getty Images

    Queens of the Stone Age, '...Like Clockwork' (Matador)

    Here are two things to get out of the way regarding Queens of the Stone Age's sixth record, ...Like Clockwork. First: Prodigal renegade bassist and facial-hair terrorist Nick Oliveri sings backup on one song here. That's it. So this is hardly a reunion of the QOTSA lineup that made 2002's Songs for the Deaf, which, if not the best "rock" album of the past ten years, is most certainly the best RAWK! record of the past ten years. Second: Yes, there are a number of guests on this thing, including Trent Reznor, Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, and Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears. They sing back-up vocals too, and honestly reside so low in the mix that you wouldn't even know (or care) except that their presence became a key component in the marketing buildup.

  • Laura Marling

    Laura Marling, 'Once I Was an Eagle' (Ribbon)

    Oh, wunderkinds. They grow up so fast. British folk singer Laura Marling debuted at the age of 18 with 2008's Alas, I Cannot Swim, the sort of self-assured debut that tends to make people old enough to rent a car feel bad about themselves. She followed it up with 2010's even more poised I Speak Because I Can, which made it rain Brit Awards and critical raves.Though her live shows were notoriously shambling affairs — she had a tendency to introduce a song, go off on a tangent, then apologize for her stage banter) — on record, she had a poise and control of her craft that made her stand out, even against neo-folkies a decade her senior. Her lyrics were knowing looks at young love and coming of age, buoyed by sweet melodies and deceptively skillful arrangements.

  • The fearless freaks in the Flaming LIps

    The Flaming Lips, 'The Terror' (Warner Bros.)

    The Flaming Lips have never been shy about indulging themselves, but lately they've been on the kind of tear normally reserved for 13-year-old boys whose divorced parents have unlimited credit and unlimited guilt. Limited-edition EPs and bonus tracks thrown out into the wilderness of the Internet? Check. Guinness Record-breaking misadventures, just 'cause?  Check. Separately deployed six- and 24-hour songs? Check and check. Stunt collaborations? Absolutely. Nudity-filled videos? You know it.Now, some of those tossed-off songs and collaborations were pretty great, and no doubt the gummy fetus tasted delicious. But all this unpredictable behavior was starting to get... predictable.

  • Jim James / Photo by Loren Wohl

    Soul Man: Jim James Sees the Light at New York's McKittrick Hotel

  • Nataly Dawn, 'How I Knew Her' (Nonesuch)

    Nataly Dawn, 'How I Knew Her' (Nonesuch)

    Employing social networking and cheap audio-visual editing software to bum rush the music industry, the California YouTube sensation Pomplamoose have become so widely adored and passionately hated that they're basically the soft-rock analogue to Odd Future.

  • Frightened Rabbit

    Frightened Rabbit, 'Pedestrian Verse' (Canvasback/Atlantic)

    Scotland routinely breeds some of the most pure-at-heart songwriters around. It also routinely breeds some of the most self-conscious songwriters around. They are often the same songwriter. Why this is the case is unclear: Chalk it up to a quirk of the national character, or perhaps all the nice whiskey. Regardless, the isle's more famous alumni supply undeniable evidence of a long, proud tradition of artists filtering their bleeding hearts through a distancing filter, from the exactingly arch storytelling of Belle and Sebastian to the dramatic boredom of the Jesus and Mary Chain to Teenage Fanclub's exquisite dioramas of emotion. Even Mogwai's instrumental epics imply a sadness and rage too deep to be adequately conveyed by mere words, compiled on albums with names like Happy Songs for Happy People.Frightened Rabbit fit snuggly into this national tradition.

  • The Joy Formidable / Photo by James Minchin

    The Joy Formidable, 'Wolf's Law' (Atlantic)

    Joy Formidable singer-guitarist Ritzy Bryan often seems like a pitiless and superhuman assassin from a comic book, laying waste to your pleasure centers with one fatal swoosh. After work-shopping their way through a few EPs, Bryan's band released their debut album, The Big Roar, in 2011, the product of classic-rock nerds imagining the result if Jimmy Page had swapped his beloved J.R.R. Tolkien and Joni Mitchell for Neil Gaiman and the Sundays. But they were hard-working nerds: The outro to "Whirring" unleashed enough multidimensional energy to satiate Galactus.What's impressive about Bryan is not that she's mastered the quiet-to-loud, pretty-to-brutal binary. Plenty of people do that.

  • Japandroids

    Japandroids, 'Celebration Rock' (Polyvinyl)

    Vancouver drum-and-strum duo Japandroids confront the passage of time on their sophomore album, Celebration Rock. Specifically, they slap that bastard in the face and burn wheelies on his lawn before heading out for the best bender ever, secure in the knowledge that you can stave off the complacency of adult life if you just believe hard enough in the power of bro-hugs, oh-oh-oh backing vocals, and fist-pump-inducing fuzz riffs. As an old Pavement seven-inch sleeve put it, They Are Made of Blue Sky and Hard Rock and They Will Live This Way Forever. It's a total fantasy, of course — one more modest than Rick Ross's King Don boasts or heavy metal's epochal conflagrations, but just as elusive and appealing.

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