Album: Townes (New West)
In stores: Now
Why we care: A few years back, I met Steve Earle at the National Press Club in Washington. Triumphantly sober (and darn grumpy about it), the "hardcore troubador" was swigging from a 2-liter bottle of Diet Dr Pepper and spinning a drugged-out yarn about chasing William S. Burroughs. Earle worships the wild cards, and here he chases another outsider: Townes Van Zandt, the late Texas songwriter whose life was stranger than fiction.
Why we like it: Earle and Van Zandt are restless spirits, wanderers on the go, looking for a little peace. Earle's cracked-cowboy voice perfectly fits Van Zandt's prickly, pretty stories.
Reminds us of: If you dig this, try Earle's Transcendental Blues album, a masterpiece of grit.
Download this: Pancho and Lefty
The Crystal Method
Album: Divided by Night (Tiny e)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Las Vegas, 3 a.m., in one of those dark, dank dance clubs that changes names every other week. You've met a stranger who might be the Love of Your Life. Only problem is, every now and then they shout at you in a thick Bavarian accent. Bierwalzer! Yeah, that can't be good. But boy, are they hot. By the way, the relentless technotic grooves in this dark, dank dance club of doom are provided by the Crystal Method, whose new album is sexy, cinematic, ominous.
Why we like it: The electronicists have been pumping out the same chilly, thuddy beats since '93. But they have cooler special guests now, including Hasidic beat-boxer Matisyahu.
Reminds us of: Bavaria is nice this time of year.
Download this: Drown in the Now
Cage the Elephant
Album: Cage the Elephant (Jive)
In stores: Now
Why we care: This buzzy quintet from Bowling Green, Ky., has great quantities of attitude and Red Bull — if not a whole lot of originality. It's dirty white-boy funk-rock, a little Cake ('member them?), a bit of the Beastie Boys and some Red Hot Chili Peppers, too.
Why we like it: When the band's not trying too hard to be offbeat, its solid musicianship shines through, especially on Back Against the Wall, which is a mid-tempo cooker with a sneaky chorus and killer guitar solo. Again, not the most memorable outfit, but there are worse ways to spend an hour than Cage the Elephant.
Reminds us of: C'mon, you remember Cake? Mid '90s? Dude had a trumpet? "He's going the distance, he's going for speed"?
Download this: Back Against the Wall
SONG OF THE WEEK
Song: It's Alright, It's OK
Album: Guilty Pleasure (Warner Bros.)
In stores: On iTunes
Why we care: As regular readers of Listen to This are fully aware, I have issues. And one of those issues is a curious appreciation for Ashley Tisdale, the High School Musical star with genuine charisma and enduring likability. Unlike the Polly Pocket scrum of tweenage automatons, Tisdale embraces her flaws: an elongated face (even with the schnoz job), a whiny voice, a body like a diving board.
Why we like it: Tisdale's future is in TV; as she proved as HSM's Sharpay, she's a comedian. But give producers credit for letting her warble this girl-scorned song without much pitch-tuning. She's screechy, but adorably natural.
Reminds us of: I also have Ruth Buzzi issues.