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Mavis Staples, Kanye West, Sigur Rós 

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click to enlarge One True Vine

Mavis Staples

One True Vine

Anti-/Epitaph

File next to: The Band, Low

The Grammy-winning pairing of Mavis Staples and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy actually made a lot of sense, in retrospect. Tweedy is a sympathetic, nuanced producer and multi-instrumentalist, while Staples happens to be one of the most arresting singers on the planet — one who's successfully bridged gospel, blues and rock with a spiritual heft and sincerity. On One True Vine, the pair turns somewhat darker and more introspective, with a beautiful reading of Low's "Holy Ghost" setting the album's hushed tone. Other highlights include Tweedy originals "Every Step" and "Jesus Wept," revisited Staple Singers tune "I Like the Things About Me," and a rocking version of Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That." Earthy, reverent and deeply moving, anchored by Tweedy's smart Americana arrangements and punchy bass playing, Staples defies the adage that the devil has all the best tunes. — Collin Estes

click to enlarge Yeezus

Kanye West

Yeezus

Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam

File next to: Jay-Z, Ministry, acid house

Anyone suffering through Kanye West's early albums had to be relieved by even the bombastic moments of 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where West suddenly seemed aware of a world outside himself. His 2011 duo effort with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, was an even bigger surprise, an album chock full of politics, clues, found sounds, and sinister word games, which left skeptics wondering if all the album's brilliance came from Jay-Z. Now West is back with a loud, risky, stripped-down, ugly album that proves he's a top-notch idea generator. Who could have anticipated a bass-heavy, punk-cum-industrial album from Kanye, one designed to frighten the meek and alienate his fan base? Sure, Yeezus is loaded with narcissistic cuts like "I Am a God," but the sly and explicitly bitter politics show that Kanye is taking no prisoners. In fact, he's set the standard for Jay-Z to beat. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Kveikur

Sigur Rós

Kveikur

XL Recordings

File next to: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Pink Floyd, Explosions in the Sky

After 20 years of singing falsetto ambient songs in an imaginary language, it was obvious Sigur Rós was hitting a rut, despite the superb crafting of last year's album Valtari. Lead singer Jónsi Birgisson subsequently promised an "anti-Valtari" recording, and the result is an album that takes a page from Mogwai — fuzzy, heavy bass lines, faster rhythms, and vocal harmonies that seem better placed in traditional arena-rock. Is it a return to the vibrancy of 2005's Takk... , or something totally new? Some cuts, like "Blapradur," leverage a lot from '70s progressive rock, while other moments recall great '90s instrumental bands like Don Caballero. What's important is that Sigur Rós is making a special effort to avoid becoming a sleep-inducing band. What's not clear is whether Sigur Rós can continue to move forward while Jónsi clings to his beloved Vonlenska language. — Loring Wirbel

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