Earlimart Treble & Tremble (Palm Pictures)
In case you aren't through lamenting the loss of Elliott Smith, Earlimart has returned with a second album that's a sad, glimmering shoegaze remembrance of the late singer-songwriter without apologies. The thing is, Treble & Tremble also happens to be one of the prettiest damn records of the year, with its Beatles-esque popcraft and casual nod to lo-fi production techniques. Songwriter Aaron Espinosa drives the music with gentle piano-based melodies, which he leaves to simmer in sheets of low-key distortion and string-induced ebbs and swells. And with his gentle whisper, he does more than justice to Smith's legacy and memory.
k.d. lang Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch)
Considering that her early career was largely based on revamping the songs of others—mostly country music greats—it's no big surprise to find k.d. lang making a return to that formula on Hymns. ... But now far removed from her kitschy Patsy Cline persona of the past, lang, herself of Canadian descent, has chosen to relish and reflect upon some well-known songs by Canadian artists, from Leonard Cohen and Neil Young to Joni Mitchell and Jane Siberry. Hymns ... is a bona-fide stunner. Lang's voice has matured alongside her instinctive sense for passionate delivery and considerable musicality, resulting in an absolute masterwork.
Sam Phillips A Boot and a Shoe (Nonesuch)
Legendarily difficult to pin down, Sam Phillips is the Angelica Huston of the recording artists' world: unpredictable, ultra-gifted and always surprisingly brilliant. A Boot ... in many ways sounds like the continuing saga Phillips established on her last album, 2001's Fan Dance, but it's more loosely-hewn and jovial, relying on occasional quirky guitar work by guitarist Mark Ribot (Tom Waits) and the plodding, off-the-beaten-path rhythms pounded out by percussionists Jim Keltner and Carla Azar for its textures, the album is yet another nearly carnivalesque effort by one of the most interesting songwriters working just under the radar today.