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Sharon Van Etten, Guided by Voices, and Coldplay 

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Sharon Van Etten

Are We There

JagjaguwarFile next to: Angel Olsen, Lower Dens, Cat Power

Experiencing Sharon Van Etten's evolution is like watching a singular lily blossom from a beautiful bud. After two albums of waifish folk, she delivered a riff-packed rocker in 2012, Tramp, that surprised fans with its strength. Some of those fans may be put off by the quieter nature of Are We There, but this CD has the majestic resonance of a 1970s Laura Nyro album. The vinyl version even comes in heavy gatefold cardboard evocative of mid-'70s joint-rolling. Keyboards dominate here, with horns and subtle strings and help from members of Shearwater and Lower Dens. It would be easy to overproduce an album like this, but Are We There is finely crafted with a careful touch. It's a challenge not to cry when listening to a song like "Afraid of Nothing," and that's a sure sign of a masterpiece. — Loring Wirbel

Guided by Voices

Cool Planet

GbV Inc.

File next to: The Who, Sebadoh, The Replacements

Since Guided by Voices' recent Denver appearance heavily referenced the 20th anniversary of the seminal Bee Thousand album, it's easy to forget how hyper-prolific the band has been since reuniting. It's released six albums in 30 months, along with EPs and solo albums by founder Robert Pollard. Is there a method in such overachieving? Yes, in subtle ways. Many diehard fans love the recent Motivational Jumpsuit's signature riffs and fragmented rhythms. But Cool Planet has a stick-to-the-ribs chunkiness, with fascinating songs like "Authoritarian Zoo," and plenty of vocal participation from guitarist Tobin Sprout. It's easy to wish Pollard would opt for more editing while halving his release schedule. But then, that wouldn't be Guided by Voices. — Loring Wirbel

Coldplay

Ghost Stories

Atlantic

File next to: Keane, Muse, Tired Pony

When a band becomes such an institution that its new album release warrants an NBC special, it's an easy target for ridicule. But in all fairness, Chris Martin can sometimes lead Coldplay into a spontaneous space. Unfortunately, few of those tendencies are present in Ghost Stories. Martin deserves credit for confronting his "conscious uncoupling" from Gwyneth Paltrow, but the arrangements and production tricks here mask thin lyrics and music. The closest we get to a riff is the deep organ growl in "Ink." When Eno produced 2011's Mylo Xyloto, the flat result made some wonder if he'd lost his touch. But Martin and Coldplay are the real problem, one that might be solved with a single-take unplugged and unpolished album that could keep some fun in the foreground. — Loring Wirbel

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