Sturgill Simpson

“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”

Nashville agitator Sturgill Simpson had lofty expectations on his shoulders following the success of his cosmic country breakout “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.” With this year’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” he responded by veering in a different sonic direction that still suits his Waylon-Jennings-redux of a voice. Simpson fills the album, largely a letter to his young son, with horn blasts and dusty soul grooves. That appraoch is most effective in the funk romp “Keep It Between the Lines,” a drawl-heavy finger-pointer about staying on the straight and narrow, and another gem, the haunting, roadhouse ballad treatment of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”   

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Angel Olsen

“My Woman”

In “My Woman” Angel Olsen, known as a solitary indie folk singer, stretches out with an eclectic array of rock arrangements. The record’s centerpiece is Olsen’s flexible, dramatic voice, which has undeniably powerful range. It sounds wallflower sweet in the vintage-girl-group pop of “Never Be Mine” and urgently desperate in the garage rock scorcher “Shut Up Kiss Me.” In the seven-minute, slowly drifting “Sister,” Olsen croons about a break-up through a Mellotron haze before the song peaks with distorted, theatrical intensity. It’s one of many tracks filled with heartfelt fury that add up to give the album its unique, authentic atmosphere.

Bon Iver

“22, A Million”

In “00000 Million,” a spacey piano ballad and the closing track on Bon Iver’s “22, A Million,” Justin Vernon soulfully sings: “Must have been forces that took me on them wild courses.” Indeed, Vernon seems a full dimension away from his 2007 trend-setting indie folk breakout “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Throughout his new album, Bon Iver’s first in five years, he wanders through a digital wilderness full of samples, synths, beats and vocal effects. It’s a dense, aural journey with a lot packed into 10 tracks that run just over 30 minutes. But it’s ultimately one worth taking, full of captivating payoffs. Glitchy tension in tracks like the jarring “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ” and the Auto-Tune a cappella of “715 – CR∑∑KS” (yes, all of the song titles are this strange), is ultimately relieved in the soothing futuristic R&B of “8 (circle)” and the airy “29 #Strafford APTS.” Lingering in every adventurous song are Vernon’s tuneful core and cryptically evocative poetry—quite comforting when things get weird.    

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Whitney

“Light Upon the Lake”

This delightful surprise of a debut comes from a new band formed by guitarist Max Kakacek, formerly of the Smith Westerns and drummer/singer Julien Ehrlich, who did time in Unknown Mortal Orchestra. While holed up during a rough Chicago winter, the new musical partners—both dealing with recent break-ups—crafted a batch of organic indie rock songs that sound much sunnier than the circumstances that birthed them.

Bob Weir

“Blue Mountain”

Bob Weir normally rides the legacy of his lengthy tenure with the Grateful Dead, so the singer/guitarist’s first album of new solo material in a decade was a welcome surprise. Weir, now 69, wanted to capture the spirit of a long-ago teenage journey to the mountains of Wyoming. Helping him get there was a cast of indie rock all-stars, including producers Josh Kaufmann, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National and singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, who co-wrote much of the lyrics. The result is an engaging set of traditional songcraft imbued with rock edge, as Weir reflects intensely through old cowboy imagery and landscapes of yesteryear.

Drive-By Truckers

“American Band”

The Southern rock outfit’s best album since the band’s early aughts hey-day, “American Band” is a political record for our time, taking a poignant dive into the country’s current social ills. Songwriting foils and co-band leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are both at the top of their games, still ever-searching for the human details within big picture issues—tackling, racial divides, gun violence and immigration, among others. Cooley engages those resisting removal of the Confederate Flag in the swampy punk stomper “Surrender Under Protest.” Hood tugs at heartstrings in the soulful “Guns of Umpqua,” written about last year’s mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. It’s a song that’s simultaneously beautiful and terrifying—clearly capable of making people on both sides of the aisle feel something.

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Car Seat Headrest

“Teens of Denial”

On this raw album, Will Toledo, who records as Car Seat Headrest, sings, “Here’s that voice in your head/Giving you shit again/But you know he loves you/And he doesn’t mean to cause you pain.” Toledo’s brain is a ball of emotional confusion, but he processes his thoughts into some seriously great rock and roll. After 12 self-released bedroom albums, “Teens of Denial” is his true coming out party with a full backing band. It seethes with some of the best elements  of Pavement, Guided by Voices and Weezer—witty angst turned into distorted glory.

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