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Four of our favorite (overlooked) 2016 albums

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Josh Bell, Geoff Carter, Spencer Patterson & Annie Zaleski
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      Four stars

      Elizabeth Cook Exodus of Venus

      On her first full-length album in six years, alt-country singer-songwriter Elizabeth Cook sounds fiery and determined, emerging from personal difficulties with her darkest and heaviest music to date. It might lack some of the lighthearted fun of her early material, but June’s Exodus of Venus is more powerful and more musically focused than any of Cook’s past albums, combining rock intensity with Cook’s twangy vocals. On the catchy “Orange Blossom Trail” and “Straightjacket Love” (featuring backing vocals from Patty Loveless), Cook mixes upbeat country with loud rock guitars and stark lyrics. She talks frankly about drug addiction on “Methadone Blues” and failed relationships on “Slow Pain” and “Cutting Diamonds,” all against the backdrop of swampy, bluesy rock.

      The lyrical darkness is matched by anthemic hooks throughout, especially on songs like “Evacuation” and the standout “Broke Down in London on the M25,” a defiant cry against hardship and adversity. “You can fall to pieces on some other day,” Cook sings on the stellar title track, and the album finds her ready to face anything that life can throw at her. –Josh Bell

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      Four stars

      Kristin Hersh Wyatt at the Coyote Palace

      As the singer and primary songwriter for Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh constructed ’90s college-rock touchstones like The Real Ramona and University upon swirling instrumental layers and haunting vocal harmonies. Her latest project, November’s Wyatt at the Coyote Palace, suggests she’s capable of delivering just as much force without quite so much fuss. The double-disc set, which accompanies a hardbound memoir-of-sorts, finds its creator unleashing a 24-track barrage that could be mistaken for a late-night demo session, were it not so effectively infectious

      Playing every note on every single instrument, Hersh builds around her essential elements: a penetrating voice that staggers between anguished and celebratory, and lyrical pile-ups that range from direct (“We’re gonna die, so what the f*ck/We’re only here through sheer dumb luck”) to murky (“You step outside and hydrogen pops again on the white hot sidewalk”), sometimes within the very same song. Muses fans might yearn for a full-bore, full-band version of these melodically rich tunes, but even scaled-back like this, Wyatt ranks among the most captivating side trips of Hersh’s career. –Spencer Patterson.

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      Three and a half stars

      Nots Cosmetic

      In collecting circles, Goner Records is renowned for releasing dozens of seminal garage-punk albums by acts like Guitar Wolf, the Oblivians and the late Jay Reatard. Yet one of the label’s most exciting current bands, the Memphis quartet Nots, is far more partial to scabrous post-punk and no wave than anything else. The band’s excellent second album, September’s Cosmetic, features an urgent rhythmic backbone—courtesy of Meredith Lones’ gouging basslines and pummeling drums from Charlotte Watson—and razor-burned melodic edges, thanks to Natalie Hoffmann’s poison-tipped guitars and bratty sneer.

      Cosmetic’s secret weapon, however, is Alexandra Eastburn’s analog synth anarchy. She adds disorienting textures to the churning, doom-driven title track and a roiling minor-key foundation to “Cold Line,” while on the brisk punk highlight “No Novelty,” her chirping, frayed keyboards provide snarling friction. The record ends with the seven-minute “Entertain Me,” a garage/synth-punk wind tunnel roaring with dissonance and distortion. Nots thrives when challenging the comfortable status quo, which makes Cosmetic an empowering, crucial spin. –Annie Zaleski

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      Four stars

      Ulrich Schnauss No Further Ahead Than Today

      There are several excellent reasons why the fifth solo album by Ulrich Schnauss might have escaped your notice: He keeps a low profile, he sometimes goes up to five years between releases and his name is “Ulrich Schnauss.” But this London-based maker of dreamy, shoegaze-infused synth-pop has a singular gift for assembling hypnotic and intensely tuneful compositions from woozy-sounding constituent parts, and November’s No Further Ahead Than Today could win over M83 fans impatient with the latter artist’s hard right turn into schmoopy 1980s nostalgia. Schnauss borrows several rhythmic and melodic motifs in the course of No Further Ahead and returns them enhanced and changed, as if remixing the ideas of certain genres rather than the songs themselves. There’s some Washed Out-like dream-pop flourishes in the head-nodder “Melts Into Air” and the quietly insistent title track. “The Magic in You” adopts the breezy gallop of ’80s synth-pop without slavishly imitating it. All told, the album is a near-perfect introduction to Schnauss’ catalog—both the compelling work that preceded it, and the new solo stuff he’ll drop two to five years from now. –Geoff Carter

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