Album: Stronger (RCA)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Over the past few years, the incandescent Evans became more famous for her tabloid imbroglios (back-and-forth cheating accusations with a politico ex-hubby) and Dancing With the Stars drama (she ditched the show when the personal dirt went down) than her music. That's too bad, because the 40-year-old has always been more than a Nashville confection. There's a natural curl to her vocal, not unlike Dolly's yodel or Reba's burn. It's a standout asset in a sea of pop-country blahs.
Why we like it: This "comeback" album, her first LP in six years, isn't her best work; that would be 2000's Born to Fly. But there are enough sweet moments to trigger memories of why we crushed on Miss Mizzou in the first place. Evans has a hand in the new songs, as do high-powered pens Kara DioGuardi (on Wildfire) and Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott (on A Little Bit Stronger, which repeats "Better off without you, baby" enough times until we get the point). Evans is playing it safe, happy to vault back into radioland and redefine her chops. It'd be nice to have more, but having her back at all feels swell, too.
Reminds us of: Remember the smash single Born to Fly? It gets a zippy bonus "bluegrass" treatment here that, at the very least, will have you iTunes-ing the life-affirming original.
Download these: Alone and a cover of Rod Stewart's My Heart Can't Tell You No
Album: Build a Rocket Boys! (Polydor)
In stores: Now
Why we care: The sad thing is, Americans don't "care" enough about this smart, moving British band, whose newest record is about connecting your past (say, childhood) to your present (say, the horrid slog of being an adult). It's a bittersweet photo album stained with Guinness and tears. "Looking back is for the birds," burly lead singer Guy Garvey croons on the opening track, which starts prickly but, as his mind wanders to a simpler time, turns into an orchestral cocoon of gauze and memory. It's a stunner, folks.
Why we like it: Garvey is our kind of genius, a restless musicmaker who isn't afraid to mix tribal thump with baroque piano, full choral sing-alongs (With Love) and spare vocal laments (Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl). But unlike Radiohead's Thom Yorke, whose mission often seems to be losing the listener down a head-spinning rabbit hole, Garvey is a much more literal storyteller who wants you to follow the bouncing ball. Elbow's last effort, The Seldom Seen Kid, one of the most critically beloved of 2008, was an incredibly lonely endeavor. Build a Rocket Boys! reveals itself to be more sweet than bitter, and when album closer Dear Friends, with that blinking satellite of a guitar, wraps things up, don't be surprised if you're both singing and sniffling along.
Reminds us of: Coldplay with a brutal hangover (or a Cliffs Notes version of Radiohead)
Download these: The Birds and Dear Friends
Album: Blood Pressures (Domino)
In stores: Now
Why we care: Fresh off a two-album killing rampage with fellow black-haired neo-blues misfit Jack White, femme fatale Alison Mosshart returns to her first love: Jamie Hince and the Kills. She's an American, he's a Brit, and together they form an attitudinal tandem of her brashness, his stand-offishness and a mutual love of '50s and '60s leather-jacket rock. Whereas Mosshart and White were into angular, aimless tunes that often imploded (although awesomely), the Kills are driven by far more accessible beats and groovier hooks. (Their big breakout hit, 2008's Cheap and Cheerful, was featured in everything from House to an NHL video game.) The Kills can throw a party for sure, but rest assured the punch is spiked.
Why we like it: The Kills do almost everything big, an ideal group to be featured on Rock Band, where everybody playing gets a monster part to mimic. Case in point: the street-strut over-the-topness of Nail in My Coffin, with its stuttery "oh-oh-oh"s and a snare drum seemingly being played via an electric eel. Damned If She Do has a '70s-ish Stonesian vibe, and for all Mosshart's influences — Garbage's Shirley Manson, Belly's Tanya Donelly, the entirety of Jesus and Mary Chain — you realize she wouldn't mind trying on Mick Jagger's tiny trousers, either.
Reminds us of: Bonnie and Clyde with guitars instead of tommy guns (although they probably have some of those stashed in the trunk, too)
Download these: Future Starts Slow and Nail in My Coffin
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.