The Mountain Goats (Transcendental Youth)
An album full of characters struggling against dead-end jobs, drug addiction and depression doesn't exactly sound inviting, but in the hands of John Darnielle, it's magic. Darnielle is a former psychiatric nurse; his catchy, gracefully appointed chamber-pop songs paint portraits of dread and paranoia with empathy and precision. "Harlem Roulette" – which jump-cuts from Frankie Lymon's final recording session, in 1968, to the 21st-century Pacific Northwest – is as close as a pop song gets to philosophy. The title track brings sumptuous horns and a glimpse of, yes, transcendence: "Clutch those broken headboards, ride the highest wave/Dusky diamonds shining in the far depths of the cave."