Sufjan Stevens, "Carrie & Lowell" (Asthmatic Kitty)

A hushed, intent Stevens contemplates death, grief, family and memory on his quietly moving new album in songs that entwine autobiography and archetype. The music is restrained and meticulous, all graceful melodies, plucked strings and shimmery keyboard tones. But ungovernable circumstances and emotions course through the lyrics.

The album is named after Stevens' mother, Carrie, who died in 2012, and his stepfather, Lowell, who was married to her for five years and now works at Stevens' label, Asthmatic Kitty. In a Pitchfork interview, Stevens said Carrie struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, and that when he was a year old, she left her children with their father, Rasjid Stevens. Sufjan saw her only occasionally through the years, though he was with her at the end.

As a child in the early 1980s, he spent three summers in Oregon with Carrie and Lowell. Images from those visits, not all of them idyllic, are sprinkled through the songs; "When I was 3, 3 maybe 4/She left us at that video store," he sings in "Should Have Known Better." Another Oregon spirit suffuses the music: the sound of Elliott Smith, a songwriter long associated with Portland, who placed his own sorrows and uncertainties in similarly fragile settings.

While the details may come from Stevens' personal life, the songs face up to universals: grief, guilt, anger, questions of faith, self-destructive impulses, the sense of absence, the sense of finality. "I forgive you mother, I can hear you," Stevens sings in the album's opening song, "Death With Dignity." In "Fourth of July," he sings a deathbed conversation that ends with a stoic refrain: "We're all gonna die."

Most of Stevens' albums have flaunted orchestral reinforcements and electronics. "Carrie & Lowell" is more subdued but it is by no means plain. The foreground may be folky guitar or simple, steady chords from a piano, but Stevens places them in a ghostly realm, his own voice overdubbed into a hovering choir, subtle auras of reverb.

JON PARELES, New York Times

Death Cab for Cutie, "Kintsugi" (Atlantic)

"Kintsugi" may very well go down as one of the most depressing rock albums of all time. No, not because of any sort of notable catharsis it achieves, but because it actually captures the sound of a rock band giving up completely. This isn't "indie rock" anymore, nor is it "dad rock," as some notable naysayers may want to peg it. No, this is "obligation rock": a forced brand of music that exists just because it has to. You'd think a band like Death Cab for Cutie would be above such pablum, but no, they soldier on, sounding like they don't even want to be doing this anymore.

Evan Sawdey, popmatters.com