Empress Of (Photo: Us album art), Elvis Costello (Photo: Stephen Done), Usher (Photo: Kurt Iswarienko), Dorthia Cottrell of Windhand (Photo: Joey Wharton ), and Farao (Photo: Maxime Imbert)

There’s a lot of music out there. To help you cut through all the noise, every week The A.V. Club is rounding up A-Sides, five recent releases we think are worth your time.


Empress Of, Us

[Terrible, October 19]

Empress Of’s 2015 effort, Me, was a fine debut—10 characterful and tightly composed avant-R&B cuts, with a diaristic focus on a relationship’s dissolution—but the new Us is better in pretty much every capacity, a quantum step forward that still does a lot of the same things, just much better. There are, yes, 10 new three-minute songs, from the slinky, Dev Hynes-kissed opener “Everything To Me” to aquatic outro “Again,” but the production is cleaner, the hooks sharper, the lyrics more keening and wry and wise. Empress Of—born Lorely Rodriguez—couches ardent romance and panicked social interactions with bright comic flourishes (“Lace up your Timberlands / Step on my heart again”) and sonic elements that alternately recall Björk, Sampha, and Rihanna. It’s pop music at its best: a natural singer-songwriter who just happens to think in dance-floor-packing anthems. [Clayton Purdom]

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Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Look Now

[Concord, October 12]

Sixty-four-year-old Elvis Costello has sailed past his recent cancer scare, is touring, and has just released a kickass album with the Imposters, his first with them in 10 years: Look Now. At this point in his career, Costello has so much to draw on, so many genres to embrace and influences to honor, that the appearance of Burt Bacharach playing piano on the delicate “Don’t Look Now” comes as no surprise, nor does the R&B swagger of “Unwanted Number” or a Carole King co-writing credit on “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter.” Costello emulates Bacharach on Look Now, with his singular and stronger-than-ever vocals demanding crooning time on ballads like “Stripping Paper” and “Suspect My Tears.” But this ambitious, sprawling release also offers Sgt. Pepper’s-esque flourishes in the epic kickoff “Under Lime” and the captivating story-song of the man who lost the British Empire in “I Let The Sun Go Down,” where Costello rails, “Delay the night / I’m too young for twilight.” [Gwen Ihnat]

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Usher x Zaytoven, A

[RCA, October 12]

Over the course of almost 25 years, Usher has proven himself to be a relentlessly innovative pop musician, capable of wrenching massive pop hits out of off-kilter and up-and-coming sounds. On the surprise release A, he links up with trap mainstay Zaytoven (think: every old Gucci Mane beat) for a taut and irredeemably louche eight-track glimpse into Atlanta’s most mahogany penthouse. You can practically smell the massage oil on tracks like “Peace Sign” and “Birthday,” Zaytoven’s preset keyboards and economical drums etching out a big, sweltering space for the star to work. But the pairing works just as well when Usher eases into a pained falsetto on “Say What U Want,” or belts arena-sized come-ons on “ATA.” It’s far from the best album of his career, but it’s probably the most consistent, suggesting a more cohesive late-career mold for an artist who has never stopped working—or delivering. [Clayton Purdom]

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Windhand, Eternal Return

[Relapse, October 5]

Windhand hails from Richmond, Virginia, but there are clearly dollops of Seattle in the band’s blood. On fourth LP Eternal Return, the four-piece embraces the grungier side of its equation, burying some plainly early ’90s melodies under a typically titanic doom-metal rumble. Chalk it up partially to the involvement of regular producer Jack Endino, the veteran engineer who helped shape the early, quintessential alt-rock sound working the boards for Nirvana, Soundgarden, et al. But the Sub Pop legacy is also right there in frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell’s bewitching, radio-séance croon, on full display in lurching earworms like “Grey Garden.” Like gloomy kindred spirits Pallbearer, Windhand has lured plenty of rock fans to the doom side. The tuneful Eternal Return should lure plenty more. [A.A. Dowd]

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Farao, Pure-O

[Western Vinyl, October 19]

There are two songs at the center of Pure-O, Kari Jahnsen’s sophomore effort as Farao, whose titles sum up the album’s shimmering, cinematic allure—“Luster Of The Eyes” and “Cluster Of Delights”—and whose playful near-rhyme hints at how, for all its serious musical accomplishment and emotional excavation, Pure-O is just pure fun. The inherent sense of curiosity and restlessness in the Norwegian artist’s rhythm-forward prog pop has only grown stronger since her 2015 debut, Till It’s All Forgotten, while Jahnsen’s lyrics have caught up to match the complexity of her arrangements. A newfound love of Soviet disco and rediscovery of ’90s R&B collide in a transcendent new aesthetic for Jahnsen, and she’s crafted 10 songs here that expertly ride the line between romantic rapture and ruin, between the organic and inorganic. In the chorus of “Cluster Of Delights,” Jahnsen sings of a “Desire to… communicate / To aviate / Illuminate (reach another level),” and on Pure-O she’s done exactly that. [Kelsey J. Waite]

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