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Chris Stapleton -  Higher

On album number five (or four, depending on how you choose to classify the two-volume From a Room), Chris Stapleton has settled into a comfort zone predicated not on burly outlaw machismo but country-soul. Not that Higher doesn't have moments where Stapleton indulges in a bit of bluesy swagger: "White Horse," a lead single co-written with Dan Wilson, is an anthem designed for dusty backroads, while the swampy grind of "South Dakota" seems designed for the dead of night. Still, the heart of Higher resides in stark, intimate ballads and, especially, simmering soul numbers that rely as much on a supple groove as they do on Stapleton's gruff testifying. . Once again working with co-producer Dave Cobb, Stapleton also has his wife Morgane behind the boards in addition to singing harmony and playing keyboards, a tight, familial group of collaborators that gives Higher a relaxed, familiar feel that keeps things buoyant even in its darkest moments. . ~  Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Earl Sweatshirt -- Sick!

A lot happened in the time between Earl Sweatshirt's dizzying and beautiful 2018 album Some Rap Songs and its proper follow-up Sick!. Earl's lyrics have grown more dense and layered with meaning since his teenage days in Odd Future, and Sick! is a new tier of the kind of intricate wordcraft that's been evolving throughout his solo albums. With these ten tracks, Earl's poetic, spiritual, and surreally detailed rhymes distill huge concepts into single bars, saying so much with so little that the lyrics can seem scattershot until they're more closely examined.  Much like the projects that immediately preceded it, the production here is just as big a factor in what makes Sick! so powerful. Navy Blue's murky, lumbering beat drives the title track, the Alchemist chops up scratchy jazz samples for "Lye" and "Old Friend," and Black Noi$e delivers instrumentals that explore futuristic synths and tense atmospheres on some songs and shift to the weary guitar loop and sentimental piano figures that make up closing track "Fire in the Hole."  Sharp, direct, and fluid in a way that's almost supernatural, Sick! perfectly conveys the duality of frustration and drive to persevere that arises from living through exceptionally difficult times.  Fred Thomas,


Michael Nau - Accompany

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Nau is known for a dreamy, reflective take on indie rock tinged with country, folk, psychedelic, and vintage pop influences.  His latest, Accompany, settles into a consistently blurry, midtempo bearing that's particularly lost in thought and memory. Helping this perception along are impressionistic lyrics that capture feelings and experiences without necessarily naming them. A song like the Carole King-evoking "Shiftshaping" epitomizes this effect with its sometimes indistinguishable wash of strings, synthesizers, guitar noodling, and ghostly backing vocals adding dense atmosphere to more in-focus piano and vocals whose lyrics are concerned with emerging from a period of sleep and forgetfulness. Other songs, like the jaunty highlight "Painting a Wall," regretful opener (or does it just sound regretful?) "Sharp Diamonds," and the nostalgic "Relearn to Boogie," lean heavily into floaty steel guitars or, in the case of the latter, vibraphone. Even relatively lucid entries like "And So On" and the organ-centric "Comes to Pour," with their relatively crisp rhythm sections, are set against a backdrop of reverb and sustain. It's an especially dreamy -- and seductive -- album and one that seems to find comfort in collaboration.   Marcy Donelson,

Sampha -- Lahai

London artist Sampha has remixed for and collaborated with Jessie Ware, Drake, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Florence + The Machine, Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar to name a few. Sampha’s artful mix of R&B, pop and electronic is hard to categorize, and his newest Lahai comes from a new perspective, one informed by the birth of his daughter and a fascination with both Kodwo Eshun's genius More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction and physicist Brian Cox's theories on time travel. While this album is far less downcast than his first solo album Process, the joy, wonderment, and fond reminiscences in the songs are complicated by worry, uncertainty, and longing. Lahai ends appropriately enough with a scene of communal unity, if on the occasion of a homecoming after a long absence: "Everybody speaking loud, everybody in one house."  Andy Kellman,


Ratboys - The Window

Ratboys have been recording and releasing music for over a decade, but their newest album, The Window, marks the first time they’d ever traveled outside their home base of Chicago to make a record, journeying to the Hall of Justice Recording Studio in Seattle to work with producer Chris Walla. The sessions with Walla (Death Cab for Cutie, Tegan and Sara, Foxing) struck the perfect balance between preparation and experimentation, injecting new life into the band’s style of soft-hearted Midwestern indie rock with an ever so subtle Americana twist. The solidified Ratboys lineup stretched and expanded their vision in the studio, adding unexpected elements and instruments like rototoms, talkboxes, and fiddles. The result is Ratboys’ most sonically diverse record, shifting wildly from track to track. It flexes everything from fuzzy power pop choruses on “Crossed That Line” and “It’s Alive!” to a warm country twang on “Morning Zoo” to mournful folk on the titular track. After more than ten years and four studio albums, The Window finally captures Ratboys as they were always meant to be heard—expansive while still intimate, audacious while still tender—the sound of four friends operating as a single, cohesive unit.

Butcher Brown - Solar Music

The Richmond, VA band Butcher Brown's album Solar Music explores a blend of genres, including Jazz, Hip-Hop and R&B/Soul. Following the release of Butcher Brown Presents Triple Trey and #KingButch, this forward-thinking band shares 17-tracks and includes featured guests: Pink Siifu, Braxton Cook, Jay Prince, Nappy Nina, Keyon Harrold, Michael Millions, Charlie Hunter and more. “Despite its considerable musical achievement -- or perhaps because of it -- Solar Music is easily the most well-rounded offering from Butcher Brown yet. The band offers an aesthetically pleasing collection of songs with exceptional atmospheric vibes in a wide variety of sophisticated musical settings that showcase growth in composition and arrangement with an inspired performance. Groove is the central focus of everything here.”  ~Thom Jurek,

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