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Shuffling through the albums of the year

On Hellbender, Bozeman band The Salamanders plays garage country spiked with surf guitar, dipped in Chuck Berry riffs and slathered in fiery punk. "Black Genie" is a rockabilly hurricane and "We Got the Twist" builds walls of guitar over a Dead Milkmen bassline. I dream of one day making an album like this one. (EF)

Forget his personal problems. Forget who his daddy is. Forget his namesake. Just remember that Justin Townes Earle released the best country-blues album of the year. Harlem River Blues extols the joys of suicide and the agony of modern life in the big city in a soft, sometimes pretty, and often grandly morose way. Sweet release, indeed. (JM)

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In Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus contemplates the ocean and intones, "Oomb, allwombing tomb." This is the phrase that keeps surfacing as I attempt to describe Ah Holly Fam'ly's generous, sonorous, sleepy, trippy Reservoir. I invite you to wrap yourself in an afghan and listen as I continue to quote Joyce: "Unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets..." Like Joyce's ocean, or like Belle and Sebastian on acid, this album is both deeply comforting and slightly uncanny. (AG)

Japanther serves up a sweeter style of punk on Rock 'n' Roll Ice Cream. Band members Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly find plenty about the modern world that pisses them off, sure, but this album is also surprisingly poignant—even a little nostalgic. The noisy, hook-filled punk is catchy, but it's the duo's skillful evocation of youthful aggression and exuberance that keep the album taut. (CR)

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On Li(f)e, rapper Sage Francis has thrown a wrench into hip hop's gears. Musically, it's a blend of indie rock/folk and punk, featuring guest songwriters from groups like Califone. That backbone creates a remarkably fresh fusion with Francis' colorful rhymes and sarcastic musings. He's always been ahead of his peers, but this album elevates Francis into a league of his own. (ISO)

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Every track on Russ Nasset and the Revelators' Blue Highway is a smart original, with tight production, beautiful pedal steel, Russ' perfect twang and ace guitar solos from Russ' son, Sam Nasset. "Needless to Say" could be a recovered Sam Cooke tune, but it's when the band sings, "Oh Montana! I'm comin' home" in the title track that this album truly soars. (EF)

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All year I've been telling the old dudes at Al's and Vic's the '90s are back. Majesty Shredding is full-on proof. Heads down, thumbs way up, this is the hookiest, catchiest, most sincere guitar-driven album of ought-ten. Superchunk is music for the adult-teen set who still attend shows, nod along, have one too many, and feel like reminiscin'. (JM)

Extra Wow is perfect for a lazy summer afternoon when you bask in the glow of the sun and drift off into a narcotic sleep filled with out-of-this-world dreams. Nice Nice, a Portland, Ore.-based two-piece, has churned out a record with shifting timbres and loose forms that mixes post-rock, noise, drone and Krautrock. It's one hell of a mind-altering trip. (ISO)

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Together, Dessa's laid-back flow and smooth singing voice provide the perfect vehicle for her silly sharp lit-nerd wit on A Badly Broken Code, an album that holds up listen after listen. The Minneapolis-based Doomtree Collective member and former poetry slammer may "keep Pope in the glove box, Plath on the dash," but she has the soul of a Midwestern Lauryn Hill. (AG)

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Legend Recognize Legend is an inventive indie pop record from Aaron Mader, also of the Doomtree Collective. The album's airy vocals mix with hip-hop rhythms, acoustic guitar, synths and strings to make it feel like a mini-orchestra, rather than a single dude on a computer. Each plucked, bowed, blown or sung note breathes like a well-executed piece of classical music. (ISO)

Sufjan Stevens freaks out, melts down and goes a little crazy against a twitchy electronic soundscape on The Age of Adz. More personal, unhinged and hectic, the album is a complete departure from his critically-acclaimed 2005 offering Illinois. It's also one of his best efforts yet. (CR)

Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino is one part Ronnie Spector and two parts Kim Shattuck, belting sunsick slacker love songs into a California summertime echo chamber and melting hearts. With backing percussion and sweet surf guitar by the enigmatic Bobb Bruno, Cosentino's slurred pop syrup turns pure gold on Crazy for You, an album that will have you singing, dancing and craving In-N-Out burgers on the beach. (AG)

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Prior to Iron Maiden's The Final Frontier, it had been nigh on five years since I paid heed to a Maiden track from beginning to end without a spot of giggling. But Frontier is a 77 minute heavy-as-a-galloping-Percheron return to form. Stories of talismans, Avalon, alchemy and El Dorado continue to rule-ass, people. (JM)

On My Piano Ate the Front Page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Antioquia's pack of very strange, very talented bandmates have penned a lamentation over the world's many injustices. They also manage to combine Afro-Colombian and psychedelic funk traditions into energetic dance hall fuel, which has to be the musical equivalent of a contortion act. (CR)

Tonight We Ride's In Hell evokes Stray Cats screams, Shooter Jennings' country cool and the opening credits to a Quentin Tarantino film. The Helena band spins seriously pretty vocals into rough-edged anthems and drawling punk ditties, making this album feel authentically badass. (EF)

It's merely a coincidence if you're in on Das Racist's jokes—unless you're a deconstructionist at a small liberal arts college. That's cool, though. Just getting to hang with the hyper-literati rappers on Sit Down, Man is rad enough. Who knows? I may have even learned something about race, socio-economics, Enigma or, most importantly, smoking weed. (JM)

Reviews by Erika Fredrickson, Ali Gadbow, Jason McMackin, Cameron Rasmusson and Ira Sather-Olson.

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