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Laura Marling, Kendrick Lamar, and Aaron Watson 

Sound Advice

click to enlarge Laura Marling

Laura Marling

Short Movie

Virgin/Ribbon Music

File next to: Marika Hackman, Smoke Fairies, First Aid Kit

Laura Marling faced a problem shared by few: Her 2013 album, Once I Was an Eagle, was such an unabashed masterpiece, encores seemed impossible. She initially risked repetition by going back with long-time collaborator Ethan Johns to attempt another song-cycle recording. Instead, Marling dropped that idea and left England for the U.S. to wander for a year, which inspired the musings on loss and regret that became Short Movie. But don't expect a lo-fi hotel-room opera. The album launches with ethereal sounds similar to Joni Mitchell's Hejira, but can suddenly veer into angry rock numbers like "Don't Let Me Bring You Down," where Marling sounds like a mix of PJ Harvey and Chrissie Hynde. Marling is 25, with five albums already under her belt, vastly dissimilar and all superb — a canon that will be remembered for decades. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar

To Pimp a Butterfly

Interscope

File next to: J. Cole, Schoolboy Q, Chance the Rapper

Kendrick Lamar is pulling out all the stops to be considered a primary force in hip-hop, if often a complex and cryptic one. He fulfilled the admonition to "go big or go home" by offering the world the 78-minute opus To Pimp a Butterfly, which includes the 12-minute closer "Mortal Man." The album mixes humor, profundity, sober reflections on race, and rampant psychedelia in such an odd fashion that it takes multiple listens to absorb. In the space of a minute, Lamar can leap from the druggy silliness favored by Kid Cudi to the sincerity of J. Cole. The keyboards and wild sax riffs add a collage-like quality that sometimes suggests a hip-hop version of Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, A True Star. Still, the hardest hits can come from the simplest tunes, like "How Much a Dollar Cost." A genuine magnum opus. — Loring Wirbel

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Aaron Watson

The Underdog

Big Label/Thirty Tigers

File next to: Sturgill Simpson, Mark Chesnutt

Aaron Watson's The Underdog hit No. 1 on the country charts and — here's the shocker — it's a real country record. Paying homage to George Strait, George Jones and Johnny Cash, the Texas country stalwart fills this independently released album with plenty of fiddle and twang, recounting his rejection by Nashville and giving Music City the same treatment in "Fence Post," the album's closer. Tapping into classic country themes, The Underdog's got lots of love songs — "Blame It on Those Baby Blues," "One of Your Nights" and "Getaway Truck" — as well as odes to cowboys in "That's Why God Loves Cowboys" (which includes cowgirls as well, by the way) and in the funny "Rodeo Queen." Watson's a solid singer who sometimes tries to cram too many words into a phrase. But the music, co-produced by Keith Stegall, is first-rate and pure country. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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