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Blur, Great Lake Swimmers, Dwight Yoakam 

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Blur

The Magic Whip

Parlophone/Warner

File next to: Kinks, Super Furry Animals

Blur's last full-length, 2003's Think Tank, disappointed many fans due to the absence of brilliant guitarist Graham Coxon. Without his artistic foil, frontman Damon Albarn was given the freedom to run completely amok with his eclectic sensibilities. To a degree, the experimental nature of Albarn's subsequent projects has cast Blur's erstwhile swan song in a new light, but as the Kinks-style power-pop of new tracks like "Lonesome Street" prove, there's no substitute for Blur's sublime chemistry. The Magic Whip is a moody, atmospheric art-rock record, which wouldn't be out of place in a neon Blade Runner dystopia. The subtle shadings of every synthesizer and sample are complemented by Coxon's alternately dirty and crystalline guitars, while the dynamic rhythm section of Alex James and Dave Rowntree flesh out Blur's joyfully paranoid hooks. — Collin Estes

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Great Lake Swimmers

A Forest of Arms

Nettwerk/Weewerk Records

File next to: Horse Feathers, The Low Anthem, Iron & Wine

Great Lake Swimmers is one of those folk-rock bands that's only as strong as its weakest link. In some cases, founder and lyricist Tony Dekker fulfills that role, his thin tenor voice calling out for the strong accompaniment featured on past anthems like "Pulling on a Line." You won't really find that on this sixth GLS album. In fact, it seems as if pianist Bret Higgins and violinist Miranda Mulholland are just going through the motions. There's musical layering, yes, but where is the tension and well-placed riffs that Great Lake Swimmers are famous for? At least A Forest of Arms tracks like "The Great Bear" and "One More Charge at the Red Cape" do show some real imagination. Where the innovation flags is within the band itself, which fails to give Dekker the support he needs. — Loring Wirbel

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Dwight Yoakam

Second Hand Heart

Warner Brothers/Reprise

File next to: Buck Owens, Radney Foster

With Second Hand Heart, Dwight Yoakam spins some rock 'n roll into his Bakersfield hillbilly sound, paying homage to the British Invasion, Elvis Presley and Sun Studios, all without betraying his country roots. The Sun Sound is echoed in the '50s electric guitar of "The Big Time" and can also be heard on "Liar" — but so can The Kinks. Meanwhile, The Beatles, The Hollies, and even a shade of The Rolling Stones find their way into "She" and the title cut, while Elvis is most clearly echoed by the "Suspicious Minds" guitar work on "Dreams of Clay." Yoakam hasn't abandoned honky tonk, as the track "Off Your Mind" demonstrates. Just don't expect the sounds of the hills on his rockabilly cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow." Through it all, his twangy vocals deliver as strongly as they did when he broke through nearly three decades ago. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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