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Bjork, The Decemberists, and The Dodos 

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Björk

Vulnicura

One Little Indian

File next to: Massive Attack, Mike Patton

There is often a perceived schism between musical adventurousness and emotional directness. Music with harmonic or rhythmic complexity — or discordance — is regarded as strange and inaccessible, so pop music often relies on recycling the familiar in the hopes of reaching the widest audience. Many may consider fearless Icelandic musician Björk's eighth LP, Vulnicura, "avant-garde," but it deftly expands on a time-honored tradition: the breakup album. Björk draws from her personal heartbreak and insecurities, and Vulnicura is a wintry album of heartache that finds her vocals at their most dramatic. She pours her grief into every swooping line, while claustrophobic electronics and string arrangements swirl from gauzy old-Hollywood shimmers to atonality not far removed from Elliott Carter's string quartets. Strange, beautiful, dark and brilliantly universal. — Collin Estes

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The Decemberists

What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World

Capitol

File next to: Belle & Sebastian, Left Banke

The Decemberists stand out from their indie-pop contemporaries thanks to the baroque wordplay and keen literary sensibilities of Colin Meloy, who populates their songs with infantas, odalisques and Myla Goldberg, herself. After detours into mythology-heavy prog and album-length narratives, What a Terrible World marks Meloy's triumphant return to the short-story approach that got him started. Chris Funk's sunny, guitar-jangle hooks nestle comfortably next to gospel-like harmonies and strings on the Spector-esque "Philomena." There's also fuzzy power-pop ("Make You Better'), a wry meditation on fame ("The Singer Addresses his Audience"), and the bluesy folk that dominates the album's second half. For fans of the band's early work — and smart, vibrant chamber-pop in general — this may not be such a terrible world after all. — Collin Estes

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The Dodos

Individ

Polyvinyl

File next to: Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors

The Dodos, consisting of Meric Long and Logan Kroeber, had faced a period of spent energy after releasing a handful of albums. This was accentuated by the death of occasional member Christopher Reimer, who also served as lead guitarist for Women. The 2011 album No Color featured vocals by Neko Case, who carried the band through that era of dissipating energy. The succeeding album, 2013's Carrier, was pulled down by references to Reimer's death. Luckily, Individ does not merely move past sadness, it's focused, driven, and loaded with energy. Long and Kroeber provide tenor harmonies similar to those of Animal Collective, and offer up nine lengthy pieces bookended by "Precipitation" and "Pattern/Shadow," exploring strange rhythmic worlds with a sense of fun. The Dodos have lived with darkness too long, Individ allows them to step into the light. — Loring Wirbel

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