Heartless Bastards, Animal Collective, And More Get Graded 

Heartless Bastards

The Mountain

(Fat Possum)

Garage-rock rarely evokes soulful and cosmic visions, incorporating so much of what makes American music a still-bright beacon. Witness the stirring, swampy vocals and guitar-handling of Heartless Bastards founder Erika Wennerstrom. After securing a slot alongside the Black Keys on the Fat Possum label in 2004, and then putting out a sophomore effort, All This Time, that proved a stellar debut, Stairs and Elevators, wasn't just an anomaly, the 28-year-old Wennerstrom moved from Cinci to indie hotbed Austin.

Rolling Stone's Smoking Section has already hailed the title track as the single of the year. The rest of the CD holds down the fort with wide-ranging power, the strongest element of which is Wennerstrom's liquor-soaked Lucinda Williams-y whine. Spilling into equal shares of old-timey rural ditties ("Be So Happy," "So Quiet," "Had to Go") and Janis Joplinesque barnstormers ("Early in the Morning," "Wide Awake," "Witchy Poo"), The Mountain builds like the Heartless Bastards' fast-budding reputation for rocking your ass right out of the chair. - Dan Harkins

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

(Domino)

If much of musicians' influences come from their environment, does Animal Collective practice in outer space? By the sound of their new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Baltimore natives look past earthly standards when writing and performing their eclectic music. It's probably a safe bet that most people won't be willing to spend enough time to adjust to Animal Collective's odd electronic flourishes, alien vocals and pulsating synths. Not that the four dudes of the experimental indie band care; if they go by the names Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist and Deakin, they can't be too interested in fitting in. Yet the band has carved itself a niche in the indie world, with this album further proving that four weird dudes can create artistic masterpieces. Highlight "My Girls" mixes the best trippy electro-bleeps since Kraftwerk with a simple message ("I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls"). Merriweather Post Pavilion may be an oddity, but it's the most accessible Animal Collective has ever been, so take this chance to venture with them on an exciting otherworldly journey. - Danielle Sills

Antony and the Johnsons

The Crying Light

(Secretly Canadian)

It doesn't really matter much what Antony Hegarty chooses to sing about. All his songs end up as vessels for his haunting voice, a heartbreakingly fragile and vulnerable instrument that's not quite male, not quite female. On Antony and the Johnsons' third album, he slips into 10 dark lullabies that barely resonate over his soothing croon. Even the orchestral set pieces that accompany each and every tune play it low, resting beneath Hegarty like a giant fluffy pillow. A saxophone whisper drifts through "One Dove," announcing last call at the most tranquil lounge on the planet. And on "Another World," a piano tiptoes alongside the singer until the final minute, when buzzing alien noises creep in. With Hegarty, it's all about expecting the unexpected (his best curveball was last year's outing with neo-disco rump-shakers Hercules and Love Affair). The Crying Light shines on "Daylight and the Sun," "Dust and Water" and other natural wonders. Add Hegarty's voice to that list. - Michael Gallucci

Let Me Run

Meet Me at the Bottom

(XOXO)

Two things come to mind when listening to Let Me Run's debut album. One is the emotionally charged music of the late '90s, a time when crunching guitars and post-hardcore rhythms spawned the emo scene. The other is the gravelly '50s nostalgia that's embraced by fellow Jersey boys the Gaslight Anthem. In other words, these dudes sound like they grew up blasting Saves the Day and Braid albums in their mom's car, and then, by the time they could get their own ride, they were already a part of the current Jersey basement scene, the one where a fondness for all things Springsteen is no longer taboo.

Meet Me at the Bottom is carefully crafted but lacks a unique voice. The moody, mid-tempo punch of songs like "The Count of Monte Fisto" and "Live Grenades" is too predictable to manage a knockout, while the tales of fatherly advice on "We Bring the Booze" and the acoustic and slide guitars on "Here's My Destroyer" are just too similar to their Cadillac-and-switchblade-loving contemporaries the Gaslight Anthem. The members of Let Me Run may have their hearts in the right place, but their influences are blatantly on their sleeves. - Matt Whelihan

Bon Iver

Blood Bank EP

(Jagjaguwar)

Bon Iver, the nom de plume of Justin Vernon, has a lot to live up to on this four-song EP. Dig around and you'll find the Wisconsin-based guitarist on countless Top 10 lists. The only thing that disappoints here is the brevity. Blood Bank plays like an added bonus to one of last year's greatest albums, with more of Vernon's clever craftsmanship that packs a punch with subtlety. Vernon uses the slightest bit of distortion and a few odd chord progressions, both of which emphasize his gut-stabbing emotion without grating listeners'.

The eerie title track would be haunting enough without the barrage of 10 dreamlike voices that Vernon layers together. The cascading piano sounds of "Babys" come off like a stampede of elephants with bells around their necks, growing more and more complex as the song builds. And "Woods" is the best use of voice-alteration technology since Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek." (Forget you, Kanye!) Every song is wildly different from the others on this uneven 20-minute EP, but each one sparkles and shines with thoughtful words and sweet melodies that bring Vernon home yet again. - Sills

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