Rosanne Cash, Mogwai, and Against Me! 

Sound Advice

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Against Me!

Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Xtra Mile Recordings

File next to: Manic Street Preachers, Rise Against

Transgender Dysphoria Blues likely will be inextricably linked to frontwoman Laura Jane Grace's 2012 coming out as a transsexual woman and admission of lifelong struggles with gender dysphoria. But the album was originally conceived as a conceptual narrative following a transsexual prostitute, and the lyrics retain a great deal of stark, bleak rage and confusion that calls to mind the poetry of Richey Edwards on the Manic Street Preachers' chilling The Holy Bible. This is a more focused attack, however, spreading light on the internal struggles of a still-marginalized and misunderstood community. That aspect is enough to make Transgender Dysphoria Blues something of a landmark release, but the music is every bit as stripped-down and powerful as the subject matter. Ferocious guitars, thundering drums and Grace's sonorous voice demand a much-deserved universal emotional response to this extraordinary, brave album. — Collin Estes

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Rosanne Cash

The River and The Thread

Blue Note Records

File next to: Shawn Colvin, Iris DeMent, Mary Chapin Carpenter

The high side of middle age has been kind to Rosanne Cash, much more so than to many of her country and folk cohorts. Though many fans will continue to dwell on her 1980s rebel years, the daughter of Johnny Cash by his first wife has reached a lyrical maturity that is more than evident in "A Feather's Not a Bird" and "World of Strange Design." Cash's husband, John Leventhal, provides exquisite arrangements while recruiting a cast of high-caliber guests, including John Prine and John Paul White. After surviving brain surgery and several personal tragedies, Cash is happy now, but nevertheless makes this album sound like a lush, fully produced version of her stark 1990 acoustic album, Interiors. While the hype suggesting that The River and The Thread deserves automatic billing as 2014's best album may be overblown, this certainly ranks as one of Cash's finest. — Loring Wirbel

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Rave Tapes

Sub Pop Records

File next to: Boards of Canada, Explosions in the Sky

Instrumental rock music has the potential for so much variety and emotional breadth that it's curious when predominantly instrumental bands seem to paint themselves into corners. Renowned Scottish "post-rockers" Mogwai had seemed to corner themselves into an extended, quiet-to-very-loud formula, but Rave Tapes finds them largely eschewing their feedback-laden explosions for shorter, eerie tracks. Synthesizers find equal billing with guitars here, pushing songs such as "Simon Ferocious," "Remurdered" and vocoder-led closer "The Lord Is Out of Control" into the bewitching electronic territory of Boards of Canada or Cliff Martinez's soundtracks. The band's colorful guitar work and tight rhythm section still have plenty of showcases, though, especially on the angular "Master Card" and spectral "Blues Hour." It's not necessarily a mellowing-out of their sound, but Mogwai is pushing their intensity into new avenues, which is refreshing and exciting. — Collin Estes


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