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Madonna: Rebel Heart

album cover“Rebel Heart was introduced to the world with an indiscipline uncharacteristic of Madonna. Blame it on hackers who rushed out a clutch of unfinished tracks at the end of 2014, a few months before the record’s scheduled spring release. Madonna countered by putting six full tracks up on a digital service, a move that likely inflated the final Deluxe Edition of Rebel Heart up to a whopping 19 tracks weighing in at 75 minutes, but even that unveiling wasn’t performed without a hitch: during an ornate performance of ‘Living for Love,’ she stumbled on-stage at the BRIT Awards. Such cracks in Madge’s armor happily play into the humanity coursing through Rebel Heart (maybe the hiccups were intentional after all?), a record that ultimately benefits from its daunting mess.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“Dwight Yoakam recalibrated his career with 2012′s 3 Pears, returning to his former home of Warner and reconnecting to the nerviness of his first albums. With Second Hand Heart, Yoakam continues this unfussy revival, sharpening his attack so the record breezes by at a crisp, crackling clip. Once again, he’s reviving himself through reconnecting the past but what gives Second Hand Heart life is specificity, both in its songs and sound.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“A local example of that oxymoron, the ‘sideman supergroup,’ Barnstar! — Zachariah Hickman, Charlie Rose, Mark Erelli, and Taylor and Jake Amerding — has released a sophomore record that reveals a continuing fondness for the exclamation point, and for bluegrass-based, genre-bending music filled with jawdropping harmonizing, emotive ensemble playing, and a raucous immediacy.” -Stuart Munro/TheBostonGlobe.com

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Passion Pit: Kindred

album cover“Married after his group’s previous album, Gossamer, having split from prior bandmates, and appearing in a PSA about the importance of his having sought professional help for his bipolar disorder, frontman Michael Angelakos presents a gratitude-imbued, relatively ballad-heavy, but still sparkling third Passion Pit LP in Kindred. In no great shift from the distinctive sound of previous records, it is, if anything, even more sugary in the synth palette and high end, as on the lullaby-leaning tones and melody of the candy-lacquered, ultra-falsettoed ‘Dancing on the Grave.’” -allmusic.com

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album cover“On 2012′s Fear Fun, Josh Tillman introduced audiences to Father John Misty, a jaded and erudite, faux-bohemian retro-pop confectioner with a strong surrealist bent and an aptitude for capturing the American zeitgeist via wry couplets concerning the culturally and morally ambiguous wasteland of southern California. That penchant for gutter-highbrow confessionalism still looms large on his second long player, the lyrically and musically bold, and often quite beautiful, I Love You, Honeybear, but the drug-addled, disaffected Laurel Canyon drifter who served as the cruise director on Fear Fun has been replaced by a man trying to come to terms with the discombobulating effects of love, especially as it applies to his nihilistic alter-ego, which is mercilessly stripped of that ego throughout the 11-song set.” -allmusic.com

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Mark Knopfler: Tracker

album cover“Scaled smaller than 2012′s double-album Privateering, Tracker also feels suitably subtle, easing its way into being instead of announcing itself with a thunder. Such understatement is typical of Mark Knopfler, particularly in the third act of his career. When he left Dire Straits behind, he also left behind any semblance of playing for the cheap seats in an arena, but Tracker feels quieter than his new millennial norm.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“On their 2012 debut Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes never hid that they were creatures of the New South — a band with old-fashioned blues, soul, gospel, and country in their blood but raised on modern rock. On their 2015 follow-up, Sound & Color, they free themselves from the vestiges of the past, let loose, and push themselves further in either direction. This could’ve resulted in a disjointed record pulling itself in two opposing directions, but the mess of Sound & Color is invigorating, likely because the album uses its title as a creed.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“This recording of Agostino Steffani’s opera Niobe, Regina di Tebe (Niobe, Queen of Thebes) comes mostly from a live performance at the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival; some music cut from the live production was added back in later. The performance was lavish, and the production, unlike most renderings of Baroque opera, made an effort to duplicate the scale and luxury that Steffani’s audiences would have experienced in Munich in 1688. The opera isn’t a great piece of drama; the libretto, loosely based on an episode from Ovid’s Metmorphoses, is filled with ill-differentiated extraneous characters, poorly integrated comic episodes, and a hodgepodge of musical styles. But it has a gleeful exuberance that makes it easy to see why it succeeded.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“While Netrebko’s name recognition is the chief reason most western listeners will notice this recording, her singing provides the best reason to hear it. Netrebko’s commitment to making this opera better known — indeed, making it her own — is reflected in her passionate performance, which is immediate and thrilling, and she imbues the music with intense emotion that is moving and memorable. The audio is exceptional, even by Deutsche Grammophon’s high standards, so the orchestra’s sonorities, dominated by woodwinds, are reproduced with vibrant sound. But above all, the audio gives Netrebko presence and warmth, so this is required listening for all of her fans and curious newcomers.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“These cuts, along with the title track, manage to strike the right balance of Kelly’s indomitable character and fresh electronic beats but overall Piece by Piece sounds a shade too desperate, which means it winds up having the opposite effect than intended: instead of sounding like a new start, Clarkson sounds a little bit behind the times.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“Here, Giddens expands upon the neo-string band of the Carolina Chocolate Drops by crafting an abbreviated and fluid history of 20th century roots music — along with the older forms that informed it — concentrating on songs either written or popularized by female musicians. As a torchbearer, not a revivalist, Giddins isn’t concerned with replicating either the sound or feel of the past, so she comfortably slips a subdued hip-hop drum loop into ‘Black Is the Color,’ a standard here credited to Nina Simone, and blurs country and soul boundaries on Patsy Cline’s ‘She’s Got You.’” -allmusic.com

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album cover“With stellar collaborators including Margaret Glaspy, Tim O’Brien and his sister Mollie, and Bruce Molsky, Stone revisits the people and places that (Alan) Lomax and his field recorder encountered, from Kentucky to Scotland to the Dutch Antilles, from Lead Belly to Robert Graves to Growling Tiger. They emerge with treatments that variously incorporate modern stringband and newgrass, fiddle-band and old-time playing, hand-clapped singing and gospel harmonizing, and, when Glaspy’s breathy sibilance is leading the way, a captivating, hushed, and resonating sound. What results is a marvelous expression of Stone’s collaboratory distillation of the folk process.” -Stuart Munro/TheBostonGlobe.com

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album cover“While they (Lightning Bolt) stick closer to the traditionally heavy, sometimes ham-fisted hard rock compositions they began investigating almost a decade earlier on Hypermagic Mountain, the songs ring especially weird and unstoppable in their new clarity. Album closer ‘Snow White (& the 7 Dwarves Fans)’ brings all of Fantasy Empire’s best elements together, with manipulated vocal loops, dynamic riffing, and unhinged near-free drumming exploding in a metered, hypnotic assault that never loses power for any of its more than 11-minute running time.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“Break Stuff is modern jazz on the bleeding edge, a music that not only asks musical questions but answers them, and it does so accessibly and immediately, no matter the form or concept it chooses to express. This trio aims at an interior center, finds it, and pushes out, projecting Iyer & Co.’s discoveries.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“As always, she’s (Carlile) grounded in Americana, often straying into a burnished folky melancholy but finding space for urgent country stomps and such full-throttle rock & roll as ‘Blood Muscle Skin & Bone,’ whose hook places it in a netherworld between arena rock and power pop. None of the stylistic shifts amount to showboating: it feels as if Carlile is following her fascinations wherever they lead. She takes a few detours, including indulging in a bit of big-footed stomp on ‘The Things I Regret’ and the fingerpicked electric guitars of ‘Heroes and Songs,’ every one of which keeps The Firewatcher’s Daughter from being as cohesive as 2012′s Bear Creek, but that laissez-faire sprawl is often more appealing than its predecessor’s tidiness: this is music that’s lived in and deeply felt, so it resonates long after the album finishes.” -allmusic.com

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Bettye LaVette: Worthy

album cover“Worthy is another impressive release from an outstanding singer, and if it follows the pattern of some of her recent albums, nothing here sounds rote; this is the sound of an artist doing what she does best, and she is far more than worthy of this great music.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“While Dengue Fever could almost have qualified as a novelty act when they first started out (Los Angeles hipsters playing decades-old Cambodian pop tunes? Talk about high concept!), they’ve matured into a richly satisfying band, blending several different cultures and styles into an indie rock melting pot, and 2015′s The Deepest Lake, their sixth studio album, is another striking and pleasurable example of East meeting West. Though the exotica accents and semi-psychedelic drift of their earlier work are still clearly visible on The Deepest Lake (most notably on the lovely ‘Golden Flute’), African percussive accents and hip-hop elements play a larger role in this music, while ‘Rom Say Sok’ is steeped in American R&B, ‘Cardboard Castles’ lays distorted guitars and graceful guitars over quietly churning percussion, and ‘Still Waters Run Deep’ sounds like the main theme of a spy movie set in Phnom Penh with its punchy horns and dramatic twists and turns.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“Irony abounds in the title of Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, the ninth album by the Scottish collective Belle & Sebastian. It goes unstated that the record was released in an atmosphere not quite synonymous with peace, but the group unquestionably want to dance, spending nearly half of this lengthy record grooving to a neo-disco beat. To approximate the pulse of a mirror ball, Belle & Sebastian hired Ben H Allen, a producer best known for his work with the modern psychedelic troupes Animal Collective and Washed Out, a decided shift away from the exquisitely sculpted miniatures that populated B&S’ two records with Tony Hoffer, particularly Write About Love.” -allmusic.com

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“The trick is, he [Isaac Brock] now has thalbum covere skill of a consummate craftsman, so the raggedness here comes across as deliberate, probably because the moments that are less consciously quirky — i.e., the bulk of the album — are so skillfully constructed. So, Strangers to Ourselves is an album where the trees matter more than the forest: song for song, it demonstrates the exacting nature of Brock but put it all together, it sprawls.” -allmusic.com

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album cover“As a tribute, The Earls of Leicester is nearly flawless, and this may encourage some younger bluegrass fans to dig into the Flatt & Scruggs catalog, but as far as having a mind and a character of its own, these sessions leave a certain amount to be desired.” -allmusic.com

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