• Caitlin Rose / Photo Credit: Melissa Madison Fuller

    Caitlin Rose, 'The Stand-In' (ATO)

    It's not even 30 seconds into The Stand-In when Nashville singer Caitlin Rose registers a complaint that resounds through every corner of her radiant sophomore record: "Now the songs I wanna hear they never play."It's that "they" who Rose so artfully admonishes for the next 40 minutes: the hackneyed gatekeepers of contemporary country radio, the ones who keep her changing the dial every few miles. With its spinning whirl of Hammond, frosted backup vocals, and driving acoustic guitar, "No One to Call" is the first of a dozen tunes that represent the kinds of songs she wants to hear. Warmed by the old Nashville sound, she channels Music Row architects from the '50s and '60s like Owen Bradley, Bob Ferguson, and Chet Atkins, redolent of the torchy, carefully crafted brilliance of country's glory days.

  • Gary Clark Jr.

    Gary Clark Jr., 'Blak and Blu'

    Make no mistake: Gary Clark Jr.'s major-label debut aims to introduce the Austin-based blues luminary to the widest possible audience. But which Gary Clark Jr. do you want to meet? The forceful stylist, sent to enrapture long-suffering blues fetishists? The cunning neo-soul charmer who's played sidekick to Alicia Keys? How about the "New Hendrix" that rock critics spent the past year stammering over? Or perhaps the heir apparent to garage-rock breakouts like the Black Keys or White Stripes? Depending on where exactly you sink into Blak and Blu, you might encounter any or all of the above; the collection places Clark among the most promising and unpredictable artists to break out of Austin's fertile scene in years.But it's naïve to think of this wildly eclectic maiden voyage for Warner Bros. as a debut in the first place.

  • Thirty is the new 40: Band of Horses

    Band of Horses, 'Mirage Rock' (Columbia)

    The charm in Band of Horses' early records was derived from an unapologetic naiveté. They were a bunch of twentysomethings healing the wounds from the demise of their first real band, Carissa’s Weird, by burrowing deeper into their record collections. Cribbing from Built To Spill, My Morning Jacket, and Hüsker Dü, Band of Horses hit a strangely resonant emotional mark, singer and songwriter Ben Bridwell using his goosebump-inducing tenor and dreamy guitar washes to endow typical slacker fodder (weed parties, hangovers, mid-20s melodrama) with crushing poignancy.But six years on from the Seattle band's celebrated debut, fourth album Mirage Rock seems like an awkward document of a mid-career crisis.

  • Norah Jones

    Norah Jones, '...Little Broken Hearts' (Blue Note/EMI)

    The lesson to glean from ...Little Broken Hearts — what may well endure as the second essential record of Norah Jones' career — is that hate can be transformational. And not the mild emotion triggered by a neighbor's yapping dog or a cubicle-mate's constant gum-snapping. We're talking the gush of crude that rose unstoppably from the Deepwater Horizon to humiliate experts on deep- sea tectonics. We're talking the destructive power of Vesuvius smothering the innocents of Pompeii in blankets of burning ash. This is douse-the-motherfucker-in-gasoline-and-light-a-match stuff. Murderous hate. Hateful hate. This might come as a surprise for the 23 million or so who bought 2002's Come Away With Me and have given Norah Jones only their cursory attention since. In fact, that debut became the most listenable blockbuster of the decade for precisely the opposite reason.

  • Shelby Lynne, 'Revelation Road' (Everso/Fontana)

    Shelby Lynne, 'Revelation Road' (Everso/Fontana)

    What to do with Shelby Lynne? With her sunset alto, bullish career independence, and soulful country songs, Lynne sometimes seems like a roguish loner from the traveling cast of Coyote Ugly. Revelation Road, her third self-produced, self-released record in less than two years, is checkered with sweet-and-salty Americana, despite Lynne's tendency to wander precariously close to Jordache-commercial territory. But it's easy to forgive her occasional soft-serve clichés (bad valentines, crystal balls, fallen angels) when she delivers a murderous narrative like "Heaven's Only Days Down the Road."

  • Tori Amos, 'Night of Hunters' (Deutsche Grammophon)

    Tori Amos, 'Night of Hunters' (Deutsche Grammophon)

    Here's the deal: A shape-shifting fox, Anabelle, guides our protagonist, Tori, on a time-traveling song cycle through a forest of glass, the Nine Underworlds, and a seaside cottage splashed with blood. They're looking for Mr. Right, but the more intriguing characters include Liquid Mistress, Seven Lords of Time, "Flying Thing," and a talking grain of corn. A touch batty? Certainly, but Amos' classical-label debut is a wildly imaginative ride full of orchestral fireworks and fairy-tale melodrama, though anyone with a Ren Faire aversion should stick to more straight-ahead songs like "Edge of the Moon" and "Job's Coffin."

  • The Jayhawks, 'Mockingbird Time' (Rounder)

    The Jayhawks, 'Mockingbird Time' (Rounder)

    The Jayhawks' best ?moments depend on their two songwriters' bipolarity -- when Gary Louris' sunny, '70s-pop sheen gets scuffed up by Mark Olson's disheveled folk rock. That tension made them critical darlings until the partnership dissolved after 1995's near-breakthrough Tomorrow the Green Grass. Louris and Olson reunited as a duo in 2008, but here they rekindle the band's singular dynamic: a sugared pop strut ("She Walks in So Many Ways"), tempered by the heart-wrenching harmonies and sinister vibe of "Tiny Arrows." Ignore the mouth-breathing rock bangers, and Mockingbird is as comfortable as well-worn denim.

  • Nick Lowe, 'The Old Magic' (Yep Roc)

    Nick Lowe, 'The Old Magic' (Yep Roc)

    It's gratifying to see Nick Lowe, a critical darling who stood gawkily in the margins of '80s pop trends, striding effortlessly through his inimitable late career. These lightly swinging throwback grooves and torchy ballads brim with ruminations ?about love from a sly, sure-handed codger who's been around the block more than twice. Whether crystallized in dead-simple one-liners ("Checkout Time" opens by confessing, "I'm 61 years ?old now / Lord, I never thought that I'd see 30") ?or finely tooled metaphors ("I Read a Lot"), Lowe's sexagenarian years have real sparkle.

  • Jeff Bridges, 'Jeff Bridges' (Blue Note/EMI)

    Jeff Bridges, 'Jeff Bridges' (Blue Note/EMI)

    It's wholly understandable that most people would dismiss Jeff Bridges as an actor on a misguided vanity trip (lookin' at you, Paltrow), writing a clutch of songs on his sophomore release and enlisting a brainy cast (guitarist Marc Ribot and producer T Bone Burnett, who was also musical supervisor for, yes, The Big Lebowski). Bridges' country-fried drawl gets wonky (see the shuffling "Blue Car"), but when the pieces come together -- as on laid-back, folksy charmers like "Everything but Love" and "Maybe I Missed the Point" -- the result is as comfortable and unpretentious as the Dude's bathrobe.

  • Speck Mountain

    Who? Marie-Claire Balabanian's dreamy, downhearted vocals echo over tape delay and shimmering sonics from guitarist Karl Briedrick, pianist Kate Walsh, and percussionist Ben Borowiak. Their debut album, the breezy tones of Summer Above dropped via the band's own Burnt Brown Sounds last week. Playing CMJ Thursday (Oct. 18) at New York's Knitting Factory with St. Vincent, His Name Is Alive, Papercuts, Le Loup and Bowerbirds. What's the Deal? The member's roots are disparate -- New York, Portland and Detroit -- but the sum of the parts make the soundtrack for a dreamy, Valium-shaded redeye between the coasts. Imagine a particularly brokenhearted Nico or a particularly sanguine Mazzy Star and you're in the ballpark of their debut, Summer Above, which was guided by celebrated Chicago producer John Bryant.

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