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Neko Case, Belle and Sebastian, Richard Buckner 

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Neko Case

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Anti-

File next to: Lydia Loveless, Cate Le Bon

Calling The Worse Things Get a "typical Neko Case album" should not be considered faint praise. With six solo albums under her belt, as well as five studio forays with the New Pornographers, Case simply makes everything a near masterpiece. As a rule, her solo outings are breezier and more countrified than the NP's collective work. The new tunes are rarely as deeply arranged as those in 2009's Middle Cyclone. Instead, Case gives us stark lyrics and a capella treatments, as well as duos with Eric Bachmann in the extended version of the album. (Case stalwarts Paul Rigby and Kelly Hogan are present here, while New Pornographer AC Newman also makes a guest appearance.) There are only a few straight-ahead rockers like "Bracing for Sunday," but the mysterious track "Ragtime" should make a Neko Case believer out of anyone. — Loring Wirbel

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Belle and Sebastian

The Third Eye Centre

Matador Records

File next to: Nilsson, Decemberists

Sunny, breezy, and even a bit cute, Scottish chamber pop group Belle and Sebastian collect their B-sides and non-album tracks, spanning from 2003 to the present, on The Third Eye Centre. The three albums released this past decade were all tightly constructed and clean, so these "leftover" songs possess a free spirit and eclecticism that wouldn't necessarily have fit on their respective records, but there's still a lot to like here. The fuzzy synth flourishes on "Suicide Girl"; the mock-tropical lounge atmosphere of "Love on the March," and the Clavinet-propelled country rock of "Stop, Look and Listen" serve as rich backgrounds for Stuart Murdoch's wry lyrics; and their more typical arrangements (baroque yet folksy pop) remain ever-enjoyable listening. The only weak spots are perhaps the rather odd remixed tracks, but as a whole, this release is nearly as rewarding as Belle and Sebastian's previous LPs. — Collin Estes

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Richard Buckner

Surrounded

Merge Records

File next to: Neil Young, Badly Drawn Boy

Richard Buckner was a country crooner back in the '90s, but moved into cryptic poetry and electronic manipulation in the 2000s. His work has been honed to a sound that's heartbreaking in its mystery, mixed to perfection by the legendary Tucker Martine (R.E.M., Decemberists). Surrounded is a classic in Buckner's weird-pop style, aligning with earlier albums like Impasse and Meadow. The nine songs on this 30-minute compact album are as puzzling as the prose-poem poster included with the CD — but you can still weep to a song like "Beautiful Question" even as you wonder what the hell Buckner is talking about. His layered, multitracked voice melds with synth-treated acoustic guitars to provide surprising emotional sucker-punches. Buckner makes inscrutability work for him; this is the man, after all, who can make us cry inconsolably because a semi truck has backed up to the wrong loading dock. — Loring Wirbel

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