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The Grand Budapest Hotel [OST] (CD)

Alexandre Desplat

What would a Wes Anderson movie be without a soundtrack as bright and detailed as its imagery? Desplat, who has worked with Anderson on his last two films ( Fantastic Mr. Fox  and  Moonrise Kingdom ) provides a constantly moving soundtrack that is both tense and playful, offering a sort of mocking sleuthy erudition that can only come by way of real appreciation for the lilt of the music it imitates.

Awake (CD)

Tycho

Instrumental music from San Francisco-based designer and musician Scott Hansen centering around his dreamy, palm-muted guitar-lace. While Tycho has previously been Hansen's solo outfit, for Awake  he worked with guitarist/bassist Zac Brown and drummer Rory O'Connor. Whiffs of Durutti Column filter down through a tropical cloud cover and hit the beach as something more akin to Vampire Weekend's guitar ideas, all wrapped in a filling stew of ambient synth swirls and whooshes, and usually anchored by some propulsive, simple, danceable-if-you're-interested drums of a variety more indie rock than club. Exceedingly pleasant music.

No Cities To Love (CD)

Sleater-Kinney

It’s tough to come back after a nearly decade-long hiatus, especially after your band’s best album (the combustible  The Woods ). But Sleater-Kinney succeed with aplomb on  No Cities to Love , which scales back on  Woods ’ volume without dialing down the ferocity.  Cities  roars right out of the gate on “Price Tag,” as Corin Tucker gives a scathing indictment of American greed over Carrie Brownstein’s tuff gnarled riffs. Janet Weiss also gives a typically dynamic performance, switching between off-kilter punk-funk and straightforward rawk on “Fangless” and giving “No Anthems” and “Gimme Love” their pounding swagger. There’s a sense that Tucker, Brownstein and Weiss are growing comfortable with one another again, and appropriately,  No Cities to Love  is curt at 10 songs (thankfully trimmed of any fat whatsoever, really). When the trio fits together perfectly, as on “Surface Envy,” it’s a marvel to behold, its acidic riffs swaying and bursting at the seams while Tucker gives her band a worthy rallying call (“We win, we lose, only together do we make the rules”). Decidedly,  No Cities to Love  is yet another win for the returning rock titans known as Sleater-Kinney. 

Underneath The Rainbow (CD)

Black Lips

Black Lips have never made a bad record—actually, they’ve all been great—but they’d definitely cleaned up a bit on their last couple of albums. Thankfully, that hasn’t meant they’ve gone soft—their songwriting chops have just become more apparent, and  Underneath the Rainbow  continues that trend, a worthy successor to 2011’s excellent  Arabia Mountain . Whereas Mark Ronson lent a sprinkle of pop sheen to that album, The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney is at the helm here, giving the hippieish Lips a leather-and-denim feel that suits them a little better, on songs like the glammy “Funny,” bluesy “Boys in the Wood” and 007-riffing “Do the Vibrate.” Given that general feel, their dabbles in cowpunk make the most sense on this album, resulting in some of its best songs, like “Drive by Buddy,” a whiskey-soaked jangler that nods to bands who’ve followed in the Lips’ wake like FIDLAR. That same feel informs the delightfully tasteless “Dorner Party,” a catchy outlaw song that seems to be written from the point of view of killer and cop foe Christopher Dorner. Even with the fuck-all sneer here of songs like “Dorner Party,”  Underneath the Rainbow  has some of the band’s prettiest melodies—not something the Black Lips are typically known for. “Waiting” is, dare I say, gorgeous, with an acoustic jangle and desert melody, and album closer “Dog Years” is crustily romantic—“you blew smoke into my twinkling eyes” they sing-speak over a Velvets-style riff, continuing “my pulsating retinas staring back at you like some cutting edge piece of technological equipment, I knew you were the one.” Sweet. If you’re a fan, the album is a great reassertion of their sound and aesthetic, and if you weren’t in love before,  Underneath the Rainbow  could be the album to change that.

Atlas (CD)

Real Estate

It should be no surprise that Real Estate’s third album is another impeccably crafted piece of beautiful guitar music. The New Jersey band has only made the necessary updates to their sound over the past few years, like polishing a statue into perfection. The album’s first few tracks offer everything we’ve come to love about this band, with sunny jangle-pop songs (opener “Had to Hear” and single “Talking Backwards”) butting next to nostalgic, minor-key songs about suburban splendor and decay—like being depressed about seeing a high school friend that never moved on, Matt Mondanile sings “I walk past these houses where we once stood/I see past lives, but somehow you’re still here,” with perfect precision on “Past Lives.” Real Estate’s lyrics have often taken a back seat to their shimmering guitarwork, but here they’re a bit more prominent, shining a light on Mondanile’s minimalist approach—despite how lovely the music is, songs like “Crime” are pretty depressing when you get down to it, with lyrics like “I wanna die/lonely and uptight.” Musically things have expanded a bit, as the band throws in more overt nudges toward easy listening and ’70s singer-songwriters in “The Bend” and country tinges in the gauzy, pretty “How I Might Live.” Instrumentally, these guys are just top notch, as they make instrumental “April’s Song” an album highlight, even without Mondanile’s soothing vocals, allowing his tremoloed, romantic guitar lines to do the singing for him. Atlas is simply a stunningly beautiful piece of guitar pop.

Syro (CD)

Aphex Twin

In a rare double-blessing, the last two years have given us not only a new album by My Bloody Valentine but another artist iconic of the ’90s, Aphex Twin.  Syro  plays as a collection of just about everything Richard Davis James does best, fusing jungle beats to gorgeous ambient tapestries on stunning opener “Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix],” taking us through dense synth explorations on tracks like the 10-minute “Xmas_Evet10 [120][Thanaton3 Mix]” and vibing off hip-hop and synth funk on “Produk 29 [101].” Vocals appear now and then (from James and his family), offering skewed, incomprehensible chatter that adds to the liveliness of “Produk 29 [101]” and giving “Minipops 67 [120.2][Source Field Mix]” its grabbing human element, pulling you into the rest of the album. Though he used some 138 pieces of equipment and shifted his set up every few minutes while recording  Syro,  that seems to have had an energizing effect on James, and the result is a sharp, if varied piece of work that hangs together beautifully, flowing from scenic but heady pieces like “4 Bit 9d Api+E+6 [126.26]” to hard-hitting bass tracks such as “180db_ [130].” There aren’t many shocking moments on  Syro  like, say, “Come to Daddy’s” shrieking wail, nor does it push listeners to their extreme limit like the challenging  Drukqs  did, but accessibility doesn’t mar  Syro . Rather, even despite their straight-off-the-hard-drive titles, tracks like “Papat4 [155][Pineal Mix]” are really breathtaking pieces of music, designed for immersion rather than to filter listeners out. Just like  m b v , we had no right to expect  Syro  would be this good, much less that it would be released at all, which makes it all the better. Simply put, it’s one of the most instantly enjoyable collections of music James has ever released.

Are We There (CD)

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten's new release takes the sound she's been carefully crafting over four albums and injects it with a dose of drama, billowing out her songs until they threaten to overwhelm you with emotion. Ambition looks good on her—and the songs on Are We There even seem to address this change. Opener "Afraid of Nothing" gives her voice enough room to belt, shedding some of the modesty of her previous work. "Even I'm taking my chances" she sings knowingly over an electronic beat on "Taking Chances," that foray into electronica carrying over to songs like the delicate, Beach House-ish "Our Love." On showstopper "Your Love Is Killing Me," Van Etten gives it her all, imbuing the chorus with such emotion in her low vibratto, it's impossible not to get goosebumps. Yet even as she's clearly reaching for the brass ring on Are We There , Van Etten still sounds tastefully restrained when need be, never losing her cool. It's a win-win—new listeners will undoubtedly be taken with Van Etten's powerful voice and immaculately crafted songs, while longtime fans are bestowed her best album yet.

In The Mood (CD)

Herb Alpert

After his 2013 GRAMMY winning  Steppin Out , Herb Alpert, at 79 years old is still at it and making surprising innovative music in 2014.  In The Mood  is a spirited re-imagining of classic jazz tunes, as well as a few originals. Opening with the familiar Glenn Miller tune "Chattanooga Choo Choo," Herb's more modern arrangement is built on loops provided by his nephew Randy Badazz Alpert. "It's a little bit electronic, with some jazz floating over the top of it at times," Herb says. The album features inspired versions of "Begin The Beguine," the Everly Brothers tribute "Let It Be Me," as well as several tunes featuring the vocals of Lani Hall, the former singer of Sergio Mendes' Brasil '66 and Alpert's wife of 40 years.  In The Mood  proves it is always exciting to see a true artist forging a new way to approach his sound.

Sky City (CD)

Amason

Amason, the side project formed in 2012 by various members of the Swedish musical elite, has proven yet again that the Swedes know pop music inside and out. A musical powerhouse of genre splitting talent Gustav Ejstes (from Dungen), Amanda Bergman (Idiot Wind), Petter Winnberg and Nils Törnqvist (Little Majorette), and Pontus Winnberg (Miike Snow) all bring their unique styles to an extremely well written and dynamically performed debut album. "Algen," the opening track to  Sky City ,   presents itself as a blueprint for what all of these artists jumbled together might sound like. Electro-ish beats polished with psychedelic drone over a standard call and response pop tune. The rest of the album opts to showcase each of the individual artists’ talents without veering too far from the original blueprint. The only notable difference on the record is Ejstes and Bergman vocals. The mix however is perfect. “Elefanten” rings like a b-side from the  Ta det lugnt  sessions, whereas “Went To War” and “Velodrome” carry Amanda Bergman’s unmistakable voice to new heights. The highlight of  Sky City  is the nuance of the whole piece remaining listenable and cohesive. Each track maintains just slightly different production. Techniques which may seem too retro or forced had they not been exacted with the expert skill of a proper Swede's knowledge of pop. ABBA would be proud.

Pom Pom (CD)

Ariel Pink

Forget everything you’ve read about Ariel Pink. His public persona has nothing to do with his music, which has never been more remarkable than it is on  pom pom . “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” begins the album by approximating decades of children’s music, family VHS tapes and video game music into a multicolored parade of half-remembered sounds. On tracks like “White Freckles,” Pink taps into similar territory of outdated interstitial music and lyrics and sounds inspired by advertising, pouring his exaggerated lothario presence all over them and ending up with sticky-sweet concoctions that leave you feeling titillated and slightly nauseated. Nothing that could possibly be interesting gets thrown away in Pink’s world—“Lipstick” could be based on an adult contemporary jam you never learned the name of; “Nude Beat A Go-Go” is like a perved-up version of a Frankie & Annette movie theme song. This means there are a few tracks you’ll skip past, but it’s better to have the full Pink treatment, making  pom pom  feel more crucial than 2012’s somewhat cleaned-up  Mature Themes . And the singles are killer. “Put Your Number in My Phone” is a new cheese classic in silk pajamas. “Black Ballerina,” like its precursor,  Before Today ’s “Round and Round,” is a sick roller rink jam, with a disjointed narrative flowing through. And “Picture Me Gone” takes Pink’s simmering Beach Boys influence into a gossamer synth ballad. So he’s kind of a creep. But  pom pom  is proof that for all his off-putting proclivities, Ariel Pink still makes some of the most fascinating and entertaining pop music around.

HEAL (CD)

Strand of Oaks

Folk artist Strands of Oak (aka Timothy Showalter) makes a huge leap on his latest record,  HEAL . Facing marital woes after extensive touring, Showalter spins his emotional turmoil into rock gold, eschewing the more folk-based sound of his earlier material for a huge, all-embracing rock sound. You’d be forgiven for thinking those riffs on opener “Goshen ’97” sound like Dinosaur Jr.—that  is  Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis shredding away while Showalter unleashing his wavering croon in an ode to teenhood (“I was lonely, but I was having fun!” he cries). Showalter has made a pop record in the same way Bruce Sprinsteen does, pairing a huge drum sound and synthesizers with emotionally naked lyrics on songs like the title track (“I spent 10 long years feeling so fuckin bad/I know you cheated on me, but I cheated on myself” he sings through gritted teeth) or the hooky, Stevie Nicks-inspired “Same Emotions.” But even with Showalter’s newfound pop fixation, these are at their heart folk songs, confessional tunes that could be played on acoustic guitar and would still sound great. He pours his heart out in songs like “Shut In”—“I lose my faith in people, why even take the time?” he sings in relatable self-pity, despite the song’s huge sonic impact—and on “JM,” he crafts a sweeping tribute to the late Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and The Magnolia Electric Co. that manages to feel both intimate and epic. While  HEAL  is not a small-sounding record by any stretch of the imagination—in fact, Showalter is wholly dedicated to creating a massive sound here—these are still songs that cut to the core, reserving the noise until just the right moment. His fans should be able to see that, while he’ll be snapping up plenty of new ones with  HEAL  who will wonder what they’ve been missing all this time.

Viet Cong (CD)

Viet Cong

From the ashes of the band Women comes Viet Cong, including that band’s bassist and drummer. Like Women, Viet Cong trade in gleaming, clashing guitars and droning vocal harmonies that seem to hang in mid-air, on tracks like “Bunker Buster.” “Pointless Experience” whizzes around with rocketing guitar riffs that beg to be heard on headphones, while “Continental Shelf” surfs on a New Order-ish bassline and brown waves of grimy guitar noise and leaping vocals. Though Viet Cong can be plenty crowd-pleasing when they want to be, on the new wavey “Silhouettes,” for instance, they’re also unapologetically experimental, though usually with a purpose—if you make it through the punishing industrial pulse of the first half of “March of Progress,” you’re rewarded with a haunting multivocal séance and surprisingly upbeat ending. And on final track, “Death,” the band seems to pay tribute to fallen Women guitarist Chris Reimer, with the kind of expansive guitar exercise worthy of Reimer’s sorely missed talent. Like Women, Viet Cong prefer to say what they need to say and then get out, but it’s always better to leave listeners wanting more. And any post-punk fan will be left wanting a lot more Viet Cong after hearing their dynamic debut.

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A 1935 Vocalion 78 featuring renditions of two songs from then-recent movie musicals. On the A-side, they pep up a ballad originally sung by Bing Crosby...