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DJ Shadow

The Less You Know, the Better

Verve/Island/A&M

Buy if you like: Tricky, Massive Attack

DJ Shadow largely invented instrumental hip-hop on his 1996 album entitled Endtroducing, a record so groundbreaking that he's had trouble emerging from its — pardon the pun — shadow. That should change with The Less You Know, the Better, his fourth studio album and the best effort since his debut. DJ Shadow, real name Josh Davis, gets some help from rapper Talib Kweli on the funky "Stay the Course," and multi-instrumentalist Tom Vek wails on the '80s-guitar-drenched "Warning Call." The record spins off in all kinds of different directions, from stripped-down rap and the dark, moody "Circular Logic" and "Enemy Lines," to the lush, near-orchestral closer "Sad and Lonely." That diversity means The Less You Know, the Better isn't necessarily cohesive. But that's made up for by this Californian's obvious inventiveness and drive. — L. Kent Wolgamott

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Ghost Knife

Kill Shelter, Yes!

End Sounds

Buy if you like: Frank Black, Sleater-Kinney

Mike "Tekko Buller" Wiebe isn't new to modern rock fans. He's the singer of the Riverboat Gamblers, a gig he's held since 1997, and also has a side band called High Tension Wires. Now, in Ghost Knife, he brings a good deal of the punkish energy of the Riverboat Gamblers to the songs on Kill Shelter, Yes!, especially the frenetic "Bahamas Breeze" and "Soft Bullets" and the riff-filled "Frustrated Maths." But on "Lightning Test," the group leavens the song's driving feel with some R.E.M.-ish, jangly guitar leads. The same tones spar nicely with the potent riffage powering "The Very Idea!!!!" Meanwhile, "... And That's How We Get Nitrogen" gets a nice touch of melancholy with its hearty riffs and winsome guitar solo. Call Ghost Knife a side project, if you will. But plenty of musicians will wish their main band could crank out something as strong as Kill Shelter, Yes!. — Alan Sculley

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Jason Boland and the Stragglers

Rancho Alto

Apex Nashville

Buy if you like: Waylon Jennings, David Allan Coe

Jason Boland has made himself a fine legitimate country record with Rancho Alto, a disc that is full of fiddle and steel, twang and drive, all wrapped into songs about prison, loving and leaving, country music and the ongoing decline of rural America. As if those themes and sounds weren't enough connection to tradition, Boland shows his songwriting prowess and country knowledge with "False Accuser's Lament," a haunting song that ties directly into the classic "Long Black Veil." Boland actually sounds a lot like Merle Haggard when he sings, especially on ballads like "Every Moment I'm Gone," "Obsessed" and "Between 11 and 2." The Stragglers and other guest artists can really play. Throw in Lloyd Maines' production, and Rancho Alto is Boland's best record yet and one of the top pure country discs of 2011. — L. Kent Wolgamott

  • DJ Shadow, Ghost Knife, Jason Boland and the Stragglers

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