Rock

Uptown Special (CD)

Uptown Special picks up where the funk and soul of the (now seemingly long) past left off: fuzzy guitar, crunchy keyboards, punchy horns, and funky bass make an album that is jamming, and I mean jamming like roller skating in a tracksuit while rocking a gold chain on a neon lit city street.

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Rebel Heart (CD)

Faithful Madonna followers, rejoice. Rebel Heart is the return to form we were hoping for. It’s a classic Madonna album that keeps up with modern trends without chasing them in the way MDNA did, calling to mind Like a Prayer-era Madonna in the way it commands the dance floor. “Living For Love” is her best single in years, as Madonna delivers a confident lead vocal over a gospel-infused Diplo house production. On powerhouse “Iconic,” Madonna steps into the ring with a Mike Tyson intro and delivers some inspiring lines that move into a huge chorus of pounding beats and funhouse synths. She still courts controversy, of course. “Devil Pray” sees Madonna reciting a laundry list of intoxicants. “Illuminati” has her turning a favorite hip-hop subject into a nasty club banger that calls out everyone from Lady Gaga to Oprah. “Unapologetic Bitch” takes its vocal cues from Beyonce and M.I.A. and sees her delivering kiss-off lyrics over swaying dubstep that can’t help but read as missives to ex-husband Guy Ritchie (“You never knew how much you loved me ‘til you lost me, did you?”). It doesn’t always work—Nicki Minaj barely saves the jarring “Bitch I’m Madonna”—and there are some throwaways here and there that could’ve been trimmed for length. But it’s great to hear her being a firebrand once again, experimenting and trying different things out. With Rebel Heart, Madonna proves that musically speaking, she’ll never go gentle into that good night—she’d rather flip us off, have a good laugh and entertain us all the while.

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Escape From Evil (CD)

These indie rockers drew comparisons to their Baltimore brethren Beach House with 2012’s excellent Nootropics, but they get synthier and catchier with this follow-up.

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Cry Is For The Flies (CD)

I caught Le Butcherettes as the opening act for Melvins last fall, and I was completely blown away. I can’t get enough of Teri Gender Bender’s vocals. Her voice mixed with punk-tinged mangled circus organs make for a driving, yet dark, record.

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Short Movie (CD)

At only 25, Laura Marling is releasing her fifth album, following 2013’s excellent, Mercury Prize-nominated Once I Was an Eagle. Like that album, Marling expertly details relationships and breakups on Short Movie, only there’s more variety here—sometimes she’s playing wistful acoustic dreamscapes a la Joni Mitchell, other times she lets loose with snarling attitude like a young Chrissie Hynde. She delivers medieval kiss-offs to a caustic relationship over majestic guitar playing and ambient guitar noise on “Warrior” (“I can’t be your horse anymore/You’re not the warrior I’ve been looking for”); immediately following, the rockier “False Hope” describes urban loneliness in detail. Tracks like “Walk Alone” explore the nuance in Marling’s exquisite voice, while “I Feel Your Love” and “Strange” approach bluegrass and spoken-word delivery from a unique standpoint. “Do I look like I’m fucking around?” she asks on the alluring yet slightly menacing “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down.” The answer’s no—whatever Marling tackles on her remarkable fifth album, she does so capably, transforming her demons into songs that cut to the heart.

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Vestiges & Claws (CD)

It’s tough to pin down just what makes Jose Gonzalez’s music so special. On one hand, the Swedish troubadour writes simple songs that don’t stray far from a template, drawing inspiration from Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkle and Latin folk. On the other hand, the songs on Vestiges & Claws, his third solo album, possess a paralyzing beauty, their lyrics a clarity that is all too rare in a time when folk music seems to be more about looking like you were born in 1918 and festival-style chanting. Lyrically, Gonzalez deals in existential themes and inward thoughts. “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell” seems to be about a fight, but his line “sitting in silence, wondering what to do” sums up the feeling, capturing a rare in-between state while some snarling acoustic solos untie a homespun groove. Musically, Gonzalez still can pack hidden hooks into these songs the same way he did on a song like “Heartbeats,” but he’s boosted them ever-so-slightly, adding swelling choral harmonies to the curative “Let It Carry You,” for instance, or tracing private heartache with a beatific flute while he sings “Why didn’t I see the forest on fire behind the trees?” on the stunning track “The Forest.” Vestiges & Claws may deal with heartbreak, but Gonzalez has the uncommon gift to turn it outward and craft relatable songs about dealing with loss and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, especially on the album’s core tracks, the rousing “Leaf Off / The Cave” and “Every Age,” a universal ballad about knowing oneself, being good to one another and “making the best of this short-lived stay”—that may sound cheesy, but Gonzalez makes you believe. In the end, Gonzalez’s music communicates hard-won optimism, and as such, Vestiges & Claws feels restorative, passing through you and filling in the empty spaces.

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Moonlight (CD)

Hanni El Khatib’s throwback rock ‘n’ roll grows longer fangs on third album Moonlight. The sinister title track sees El Khatib engaging in some swampy blues with chords that hover too closely together, like kissing cousins. “Melt Me” adds some much-appreciated full-and-dirty fuzz to the mix. El Khatib largely supplants ambiance and swagger for melody, but you won’t mind when the results are as pulsating with life as songs like stomping blues-rocker “The Teeth.” While his last album, Head in the Dirt was strong, Moonlight sees El Khatib finding his voice more and dedicating himself to it, coming up with a deliciously whiskey-soaked album that suggests grimy, dimly lit dive bars and the things that happen after closing time.

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Evermotion (CD)

Guster’s most vibrant album yet bulldozes inhibitions, propelling the band to a harder-charging, more freewheeling. Packed with tight hooks, muscular guitar riffs, clanging percussion, and surprisingly dark lyrics.

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Harvest Of Gold (CD)

Australia's Gossling (aka Helen Croome) presents a debut LP with lush textures and vocal hooks that deftly weaves complex emotional themes throughout. The gorgeous pop songcraft has already garnered much notice.

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I Love You, Honeybear (CD)

Father John Misty’s fearless second record builds on his folk-rock sound with orchestral touches, genre diversions and direct, conversational lyrics that cut through singer/songwriter clichés. The title track introduces Beatlesesque melodies and weeping steel guitar to prepare you for the scope of the record. J. Tillman starts going into crooner mode with the spectacular “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” his crushed-velvet vocals singing over a sweeping, country-symphonic arrangement, but his lyrics nicely keep the romanticism from getting too gooey (“I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”). “True Affection” takes a sharp turn into MIDI-electro-dream-pop, with some Fleet Foxes-style harmonies keeping things grounded in Tillman’s wheelhouse. “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” takes another turn, this time into Velvets-third-album twinkling indie pop, while Tillman calls out an airheaded groupie (“She says like, literally, music is the air she breathes,” he sings hilariously). Tillman’s lyrics work so well because of their specificity—you feel like you’re watching him break hearts at a local bar when he sings “Why the long face? Blondie, I’m already taken,” over a sultry Southern sway on “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow.” Such subject matter could read as self-serving, if not for the album’s more self-effacing tracks, like “The Ideal Husband,” in which Tillman admits various wrongdoings, petty or otherwise, over nervy rock ‘n’ roll; or “Bored in the USA,” a piano ballad that seems to mock Tillman’s own first-world problems of alienation and dullness (“Save me, white Jesus!” is an awesomely cutting exclamation). Tillman’s refusal to do anything in a typical way while still keeping the music highly polished helps I Love You, Honeybear to never feel indulgent. Rather, it’s an extraordinarily giving album, as Tillman’s honesty and strength as a songwriter and performer has grown immeasurably. It’s easily one of the best albums of the year thus far.

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