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Sleater-Kinney, Wilco, and Justin Townes Earle 

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click to enlarge Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney

No Cities to Love

Sub Pop

File next to: Throwing Muses, Ex Hex, Bikini Kill

Worries about over-hyping Sleater-Kinney's reunion began long before this month's New York Times photo shoot featuring the Pacific Northwest riot grrrls as lipsticked executives. After all, Carrie Brownstein is the centerpiece of the cable hit Portlandia; Corin Tucker has been belting out acoustic blues with her own band; and Janet Weiss served as manic drummer for Wild Flag, Quasi, and Stephen Malkmus. Happily, No Cities to Love may in fact be the band's best album. From the opening bars of "Price Tag," the guitars have an angular, slashing quality recalling Gang of Four. Tucker's signature yowl rarely slows down or employs a major key, as one two-minute stunner follows another. Sleater-Kinney have done more than revive a legend; they're frantically blazing a new trail. — Loring Wirbel

click to enlarge Wilco

Wilco

Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014

Nonesuch

File next to: Spoon, Modest Mouse

To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Wilco has released this four-disc set of unreleased music, much of which deserved to find a home before now. Unearthed original gems include the lovely piano ballad "Blasting Fonda," the country honky-tonk "Tried and True," and the winsome ballad "Cars Can't Escape," written by late guitarist Jay Bennett. Covers include a thumping, Stones-like take on Gram Parsons' "One Hundred Years From Now" and a rough and rollicking version of the Neil Young nugget "Burned." As for alternate versions of previous tracks, "Camera" shows up heavily psychedelicized, while "Hummingbird" gets an edgier, more dissonant treatment. And then there are live tracks that demonstrate the band's energy and onstage alchemy. Overall, this collection from Wilco's back pages is better than most bands' A-list material. — Alan Sculley

click to enlarge Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle

Absent Fathers

Vagrant

File next to: Jason Isbell, Joe Pug, Son Volt

It must be tough to be the son of Steve Earle, not only being stuck in dad's shadow, but also having to measure up to Aunt Stacey, Cousin Emily, and the rest of the Earle dynasty. Justin Townes Earle definitely puts on a fine live show and has developed a distinctive Delta blues style, but his songwriting still falls short of memorable. Absent Fathers is a companion album to Earle's late 2014 release, Single Mothers, which only has a few songs that rose above pleasantry. Absent Fathers tries a little harder for unique delivery, which is realized in songs like "Day and Night" and "Looking for a Place to Land." Justin's songwriting also shows improvement this time out, but if he wants to live up to his legacy, he'll need to dial back the lyrical abstraction and ground his storytelling in something more real. — Loring Wirbel

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