Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst (Merge Records). A phone left dangling off the hook. The singe of tequila as it’s washed down with salt. The smell of bonfire smoke as it’s carried away into the night sky. These are the everyday snapshots Conor Oberst conjures on his self-titled fourth solo album, a return to one-man showmanship after 13 years. As he trembles and wavers through drifting laments, his voice defying tone, the Bright Eyes frontman reveals a heart in shards, sparring with Ryan Adams to become the Bob Dylan of our generation. — Nick Haramis
The Faint, Fasciinatiion (blank.wav). Once the sonic embodiment of the Apocalypse itself, these vitriolic gents have decidedly refined their approach. Yet Fasciinatiion still sees them surfing the edges of social decay, as on “Machine In The Ghost,” where they sneer at our dangerous attachment to superstition (“History’s been crucified/ Humans supernaturalized”). The music, sort of Gary Numan tech with a Gang of Four attack, is appropriately futuristic and unsettling — but distinctly infectious. Briilliiant. — Ken Scrudato
Ron Sexsmith, Exit Strategy For The Soul (Yep Roc). On his irresistible ninth album, Canadian singersongwriter Ron Sexsmith doesn’t so much craft a song as he does bring it to life. Fluid, melodic and shimmering with Cuban horns, songs like “This is How I know” and “One Last Round” invite the listener to come early and stay late. Don’t miss his charmed version of “Brandy Alexander,” the track he co-wrote with countrywoman Feist. — Alison Powell
Laura Marling, Alas, I Cannot Swim (Caroline). On her debut album, this British folk prodigy carries the torch of Sandy Denny and Beth Orton — and does them proud. A natural storyteller, Marling uses her clear lilt to sing of an elusive unnamed “he.” The guy may have gotten away, but she has a firm hand on the weft of guitars, strings, tiny bells and a gently brushed drum. With songs titled “Crawl Out of the Sea” and “Captain and the Hour Glass,” the 18-year-old native of Berkshire, England conjures the 1800s in a briny nostalgia. But make no mistake, these shanties were born for the rough seas of the present. — A.P.
Ratatat, LP3 (XL). Ratatat’s third album is far more imaginative than its title. The Brooklyn instrumental duo’s previous releases proved sonically idiosyncratic yet strangely beguiling, percolating with heavy metal soloing, symphonic flourishes, experimental clang and hip-hop beats. LP3 largely replaces Ratatat’s trademark wall of guitars with keyboards and varied instruments to add more nuance and atmosphere. It ultimately proves more Morricone than Iron maiden — a soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist. — Matt Diehl
Lady GaGa, The Fame (Cherrytree/Interscope). “I wanna take a ride on your disco stick,” declares 22-year-old Lady GaGa on her sequined debut album. A roughshod Kylie, she oscillates between power wails and falsetto, not unlike, say, Gwen Stefani. “Poker Face” features spoken word that solicits obvious — but apt — comparisons to Peaches. — N.H.
Stereolab, Chemical Chords (4AD). The poster children for post-rock, Stereolab get playful on their first full album in four years. In the ’90s, the London collective pioneered bringing Krautrock “motorik” rhythms and Velvet Underground drones back into musical fashion. Chemical Chords, however, rewires vintage pop hooks into something new. Songs like “Falcon Jab” mutate happy Motown girl-group sounds with tinny drum machines, while “Mi Viejo” sounds like Wu-Tang scoring a Godard film. Odd, but gleeful.— M.D.
Juliana Hatfield, How To Walk Away (Ye Olde Records). Juliana Hatfield has shucked the trappings of alt-rock for her latest. Without the requisite snarl and angst, the set is simply a milquetoast assortment of AC radio friendly fillers. Though consistent, Hatfield’s cooing on songs like “So Alone” and “Shining on” sounds undifferentiated and bland — excusable for a novice, but not this indie vet. — Rohin Guha