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Shelby Lynne, Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket 

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Shelby Lynne

I Can't Imagine

Rounder

File next to: Neko Case, Bonnie Raitt

Southern soul chanteuse Shelby Lynne's 14th LP finds her returning to a major label after two albums on her own Everso label. Whether or not this means she's no longer fed up with "the music business," alt-country fans will find much to love on I Can't Imagine. The record surveys many of the styles she's dabbled in: "Paper Van Gogh" is a sun-scorched take on West-Coast folk, "Sold the Devil (Sunshine)" draws on classic Stax soul and showcases Lynne's powerful contralto voice, and "Love Is Strong" is a majestic, gospel-tinged slow-burner. The emotional core of the album, "Down Here," recalls Neil Young with both its spiky electric guitars and blistering moral message, an indictment of parents who keep LGBT children in a "dark Dixie closet." It's unlikely to crack mainstream country radio, but crystallizes Lynne's uncompromising vision and songwriting prowess. — Collin Estes

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Mumford & Sons

Wilder Mind

Glassnote Entertainment

File next to: Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, Frightened Rabbit

Hatred of all things Mumford has become such a cottage industry that its bluntness falls short of the nuanced dislike some express for Coldplay or Imagine Dragons. Marcus Mumford made a gutsy decision this year to trade in acoustic instruments for a sharp electric band, only to be chided as "plastic and anodyne" by critics. Unfortunately, the bashers have a point. The synchronized guitars on Wilder Mind owe more to REO Speedwagon than to Blue Oyster Cult. Granted, soaring tracks like "Believe" accomplish the same climactic build with a Gibson that Mumford & Sons used to achieve with mandolins, but few songs stick with the listener once they're over. The real issue is that Marcus Mumford needs to devote more time to crafting lyrics and arrangements that remain memorable. — Loring Wirbel

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My Morning Jacket

Waterfall

Capitol/ATO

File next to: Hall & Oates, Wilco, Dawes

My Morning Jacket's trajectory resembles the moves of a fly fisherman — the band casts itself into wild discordant psychedelic territory, only to reel itself back in to known pools of country and blue-eyed soul. Vocalist Jim James has played with avant-garde excess lately, though his first true solo album was surprisingly direct and unadorned. Waterfall might have been considered a return to form for the band, but for an unusual sense of majesty that permeates the entire work. James' singing brings The Righteous Brothers to mind, when he's not channeling a Smokey Robinson falsetto, or pulling in random effects like a piano riff sounding very much like Dave Brubeck. My Morning Jacket has often reached for the profound by turning up the bombast, but songs like "Thin Line" and "Big Decisions" achieve a state close to perfection through simplicity and plain speaking. — Loring Wirbel

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