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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,


The Armed - Perfect Saviors

2021's Ultrapop made a lot of year-end best-of lists ands aw the deliberately inexplicable Detroit art-punk collective exploring the remote outskirts of the mainstream. That bit of sonic reconnaissance yielded some fascinating yet impenetrable results, as the band tried to have their cake and eat it by spending equal capital on obfuscation and catharsis. The aptly named Perfect Saviors remedies those ills with gusto, administering a near-perfect distillation of the group's metallic maximalist pop that swaps discord for fist-pumping arena rock. To be fair, the Armed -- Fight Club-leaning gym rats with the anarcho-punk soul and self-importance of the Clash -- have always been a band for the people. Over the years, their perceived exclusiveness has helped shape their cult status, but Perfect Saviors aims to widen the net with songs that are both adrenalizing and accessible. Julien Baker, former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, Illuminati Hotties' Sarah Tudzin, and Jane's Addiction's Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins all add spice to the proceedings, but it's the Armed themselves -- still defiantly cultish yet no longer faceless entities -- that bear the weight. James Christopher Monger,

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.

Murlocs - Calm Ya Farm

Murlocs have settled into their most pleasing incarnation yet on this album, mixing classic and country rock into a strutting, swaggering sound that preens like classic Faces. The one-two punch of "Initiative" and "Common Sense Civilian" kicks off the set with a rollicking, woozy feel that Rod and the lads would certainly understand. The lyrical concerns and insistent vocals of Ambrose Kenny-Smith might give them pause, though, as he doesn't sing about booze and broads, instead tackling subjects like gun violence, paranoia, and the uneasy state of the world. This dichotomy of good-time sounds and anxiety can be jarring, but ultimately songs like "Russian Roulette" and "Undone and Unashamed" cut a little deeper because of it. Alongside the low-key, feel-good rockers that make up the bulk of the record, there are a handful of songs that conjure up the spirit of Rod Stewart's less glitzy sidekick in the Faces, the inimitable Ronnie Lane. Kenny-Smith's yearning, tremulous vocals are a near cousin to Lane's, and when the Murlocs drop the swagger down a notch and boost the rambling, they capture some of the ragged tenderness of Lane at his best. Who knows where they might go next, but right here and right now in the year 2023, one would be hard-pressed to find a better rock & roll album on the shelves. ~Tim Sendra

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