Julien Baker, "Little Oblivions" (Matador)
Baker commands attention onstage with just the sound of her voice and guitar. She's expert at holding audiences rapt with unadorned, emotionally fraught songs that turn noisy concert halls into hushed, hallowed spaces. In some ways, the 25-year-old Memphis songwriter's third album, which is self-produced, feels like a departure from that approach.
The arrangements are fleshed out, with a grand, full-band sound she created playing most instruments herself. Her engineer, Calvin Lauber, also chipped in, and Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, Baker's bandmates in indie supergroup boygenius, contribute backup vocals.
The opening of the first song, "Hardline," makes plain there's extraordinary confessional music ahead in which the singer will not be going easy on herself for choices she's made. "Little Oblivions" explores themes of addiction, its consequences, and recovery. But Baker doesn't do easy moralizing here. Both life and the music — which draws on Baker's experience in punk bands — get messy. "Bloodshot" and "Relative Fiction" achieve a rare beauty. The songs are all the more harrowing because they confront demons once thought safely locked away.
Dan Deluca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Kings of Leon, "When You See Yourself" (RCA)
Although recorded pre-pandemic, this album feels remote, contained and lonely. The Followills (three brothers and a cousin) went from being the Southern Strokes to arena-rock stalwarts after the success of 2008's "Only by the Night." But their increasing love of texture and atmosphere rather than the rock riffs that they do so well dilutes this, their eighth album.
U2-lite rockers such as "Golden Restless Age" and "The Bandit" will probably sound great if heard in an arena. Only "Echoing" has some of the band's former swagger, but coming near the end of the often-plodding "When You See Yourself," it feels like an afterthought.
Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Nick Jonas, "Spaceman"
• Selena Gomez, "Revelacion"
• Lake Street Dive, "Obviously"
• Justin Pierre, "Anthropologist on Mars"
• Valerie June, "Moon & Stars"