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Listening Ahead: 15 Albums for Early 2015

Get an early glimpse of the best and most eagerly anticipated albums of the new year, including new efforts from Sleater-Kinney, Father John Misty, Belle and Sebastian, and Viet Cong.

2015 starts out with a bigger batch of highly anticipated albums in the early part of the calendar than most years. It’s a record release schedule highlighted by the returns of indie’s most acclaimed and beloved bands, especially Sleater-Kinney and Belle and Sebastian. Just as eagerly awaited is new work from acts who are continuing to build up impressive profiles, like Father John Misty, Jessica Pratt, and Matthew E. White, not to mention standout debuts by Viet Cong and Natalie Prass. Below are 15 albums that should keep you entertained through the first few months of 2015, if not the whole year.

 

January 20

Artist: Belle and Sebastian

Album: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Label: Matador

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Belle and Sebastian
Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

You get the sense that Belle and Sebastian are living out their daydreams of what it must be like to be pop stars on their new album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. While there are more than enough of the lovable quirks that still classify Belle and Sebastian as cult favorites instead of chart-toppers, Girls in Peacetime veers in a bold new direction for a band whose identity has already been so well defined. Although the Scottish collective has continually expanded its folk-tinged indie-pop palette over almost two decades, Girls in Peacetime is the most drastic shift in their sound yet, and we’re not just talking about the unabashed disco-pop numbers, either. Whether it’s due to a more willing sense of showmanship or a helping hand from Gnarls Barkley-associated producer Ben Allen, Stuart Murdoch and company come off more confident and open than before on Girls in Peacetime, boasting more vibrant tones and a crisper feel. Even quintessentially B&S pop symphonies like “Nobody’s Empire” and “The Cat with the Cream” have an added zip and richness that make Murdoch’s introspection feel more vivid, even dramatic. Perhaps more telling is how longtime unsung hero Sarah Martin comes through as a not-so-secret weapon on the album’s dancefloor rave-ups, singing like she’s Saint Etienne diva Sarah Cracknell’s little sister grown up. Maybe these dimensions are ingrained in what Belle and Sebastian have been doing for a while now, but Girls in Peacetime brings them front and center like never before. rating_circle_fullArnold Pan

 

Artist: Erase Errata

Album: Lost Weekend

Label: Under the Sun

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Erase Errata
Lost Weekend

Erase Errata has three albums full of angular songs, songs with angles so sharp they can slide right between your ribs just to make the rhythms pulse deep in your chest. But the post-punk band’s new record following a four-year hiatus, Lost Weekend, shifts the formula in brilliant ways. The album is only seven songs and 22 minutes, but it feels much bigger than its run time. “Don’t Sit/Lie” splits open and melts, stretching tightrope hooks and sweet vocal melodies out into expansive power-pop atmosphere. The growling low-end of “Galveston (Dark Tides)” rumbles confidently along like some bizarro ’70s funk jam. “In Death, I Suffer” starts in the band’s edgy wheelhouse, only to stretch out in jangling textures. Lost Weekend is, in short, an excellent return, one that reminds us of Erase Errata’s strengths by showing their versatility. The album luxuriates in the previously terse danceable grooves and muscles up the layers of sound. And yet in all this newfound space, there’s no slackening of the trio’s immediate and smoldering energy. Lost Weekend suggests that maybe Erase Errata wasn’t on hiatus at all — the band was just evolving behind closed doors. rating_circle_fullMatthew Fiander

 

Artist: The Go Betweens

Album: G Stands for Go Betweens

Label: Domino

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The Go Betweens
G Stands for Go Betweens

Even though it consists of 4 CDs and 4 LPs, the vault-clearing boxset G Stands for Go Betweens isn’t so much about yielding new surprises as it is about deepening your knowledge and appreciation of the revered Australian act. The key here is the context that collecting the Go Betweens’ first three albums, early singles, and unreleased recordings in one place can provide, both in tracing the band’s development as well as how the duo of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan was plugged into what was happening in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The earliest material here bears out their obvious touchstones, particularly the Lennon-McCartney dynamic of the Forster-McLennan partnership, but it also begs to retrace their connections to their contemporaries, like when you hear an angular riff that brings to mind Talking Heads or a precocious melody as twee as the Television Personalities or an underground pop ramble that’s more often associated with what was starting in New Zealand around that time. But even as you make mental note of these fleeting resemblances, what comes through ever more clearly is how distinctive the Go Betweens’ approach was, as you notice their raw material beginning to be molded with the contours of the baroque-pop they’d be known for, coming into form with the defining singles “Cattle and Cane” and “Bachelor Kisses”. Even more, it says something about the Go Betweens that something as monumental as G Stands for Go Betweens is only the beginning of their story. rating_circle_fullArnold Pan

 

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Album: No Cities to Love

Label: Sub Pop

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Sleater-Kinney
No Cities to Love

With the world going to pot in 2014 and needing someone to stand up for something, the return of Sleater-Kinney feels more timely and galvanizing than ever. Sneak-peeking the single “Bury Our Friends” as a no-one-saw-it-coming treat tucked into last year’s career-spanning vinyl boxset Start Together, Sleater-Kinney made it clear that it wasn’t getting back together for a victory lap as the trio took aim at “our own gilded age”. So, no, No Cities to Love isn’t your typical just-for-the-heck-of-it reunion, because Sleater-Kinney wouldn’t be making new music that couldn’t live up to its legacy. And that No Cities certainly does, hearkening back to Sleater-Kinney’s most charged and engaged albums, like 1999’s The Hot Rock and 2002’s post-9/11 meditation One Beat. Now as before, no ensemble of players is able to make you appreciate how the personal is political like Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss can, training their righteous indignation on consumerism and our increasingly alienated lives. And while the buzzsawing guitars, gut-punching beats, and the uncanny interplay between all the parts make you think that the three couldn’t ever have been apart — much less for eight or so years — they may have actually sharpened their edge in the interim, sounding heftier at points on No Cities, but also more melodic at others. The best way to appreciate No Cities to Love, then, is to understand that Sleater-Kinney has changed with the times, while staying constant to what’s truest about the band, the essence of what it is. rating_circle_fullArnold Pan

 

Artist: Viet Cong

Album: Viet Cong

Label: Jagjaguwar

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Viet Cong
Viet Cong

If you heard Viet Cong’s excellent debut EP in 2014, then it should come as no surprise that the band’s eponymous Jagjaguwar debut is, well, full of surprises. The combination of tight turns, tense angles, and complicated textures are still there, but the band pushes them in new and fascinating directions. “March of Progress”, with its dynamic move from percussive, droning sound experiment to shimmering, off-kilter pop gem, is the clearest example of the album’s unpredictability. “Bunker Buster” turns the same alien approach on blues-rock and post-punk to great effect. Somewhere in the mesmerizing squall of “Continental Shelf”, and on other excellent moments in this record, Viet Cong sounds simultaneously otherworldly and earthen. Rarely does music feel both this strange and this approachable at the same time. These are clear-cut songs, but together they become a musical world to get lost in, one with textures that can feel so visceral it’s almost as if they coat your skin while you listen. There’s plenty of dark corners in these songs, plenty of gems to uncover, and that is the process that will keep you coming back, listen after listen, to this impressive, singular record. rating_circle_fullMatthew Fiander

Natalie Prass, Jessica Pratt, and more

January 27

Artist: Natalie Prass

Album: Natalie Prass

Label: Spacebomb

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Natalie Prass
Natalie Prass

Natalie Prass’s eponymous debut record is pure and shimmering pop from top to bottom. The album feels, from the first notes, like it is lit up in neon, glowing bright even as Prass digs into some of the darker hues of heartbreak. Considering the album comes via Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb label, it should be no surprise these songs soar and glide, full of horns and strings. But if there’s a nostalgic, late ’70s or ’80s feel to some of these songs, there’s something more varied and timeless to them as a collection. The soulful bloom of “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” feels fresh with Prass’s subtle expanding vocals. “Christy”, which fills up with wandering harp and pulsing strings, gives us a turn of stately chamber pop, while “Why Don’t You Believe in Me” dips its toes into the muddy waters of blues rock, if only for a moment. Meanwhile, “Bird of Prey” takes all the best parts of Hall and Oates, but gives them a new, edgier bite. This is all to say that it’s easy to get swept up in moments that sound like pop’s past, but lined up next to one another, these songs present a more complicated path, one that leads to the desire and heartache tangled together in the center of this record. “I just want to love you violently,” Prass declares at one point, but she doesn’t sound desperate. She sounds like a voice in search of something, that’s been let down but will not let up. For all the hurt that swirls around Natalie Prass’s debut album, it’s the resilience underneath — in the music, in her words, in her voice — that makes this album so stunning. rating_circle_full-1Matthew Fiander

 

Artist: Jessica Pratt

Album: On Your Own Love Again

Label: Drag City

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Jessica Pratt
On Your Own Love Again

Jessica Pratt found success with her self-titled debut album, a folk record that felt like a throwback without sacrificing a very modern vitality. Her new record On Your Own Love Again expands on the palette of the first album in lots of interesting ways. The production is a touch crisper, and, removed from some of the haze, the album feels more intimate. So the simple guitar and vocal harmony approaches of “Moon Dude” and “Back, Baby” slice sharply through the silence around them. Elsewhere, the gauze of Jessica Pratt gives way to new pastoral hues, as on the drifting opener “Wrong Hand” or the brilliant “Jacquelyn in the Background”. The faint light of those songs contrast nicely with a song like “Strange Melody”, which recalls Leonard Cohen in its intricate finger picking and shadowy tones. Pratt isn’t out for reinvention on this record, but rather delves further into the influences and songwriting strengths that made her debut so excellent. The result is a more carefully wrought, more focused, yet more exploratory collection, one that finds Pratt honoring folk traditions while finding with more clarity her own spot on that genre’s map. If she keeps growing at this rate, that spot could become a capital. rating_circle_full-1Matthew Fiander

 

Artist: Twerps

Album: Range Anxiety

Label: Merge

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Twerps
Range Anxiety

There’s something unassuming about Melbourne’s Twerps. They signed to Merge Records in 2014, and introduced themselves stateside with a digital EP titled Underlay. It came out quietly, but the set was excellent, a perfect way to set up the band’s new album, Range Anxiety. Considering their ringing guitars and bittersweet melodies, not to mention their geographical proximity to those New Zealand acts on Flying Nun, it’s easy to place them in line with other bands that have released records through Merge in the U.S., acts like the Clean, David Kilgour, and the 3Ds. But while Twerps have a clear respect for that tradition, they also pave their own way on their new album. “I Don’t Mind” builds slowly and deliberately, setting up the contrasting shadows and faint light that frame the songs on the album. “Back to You” brightens up and quickens the pace, but it also hangs on to some of its predecessor’s shadow. “New Moves” piles up the layers of guitar and vocal harmonies to stirring effect. “Shoulders” blurs the guitar tones and gives the keys center stage to lean on the band’s dreamy side. As uniform as the approach is — Range Anxiety feels both wandering and lost throughout, both bittersweet and warm — these subtle shifts in instrumentation, in pace, and in structure suggest something striking and unique at work on this record. Twerps, despite their name, sound awfully grown up on Range Anxiety. rating_circle_full-1Matthew Fiander

 

Artist: Zs

Album: Xe

Label: Northern Spy

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Zs
Xe

Sam Hillman is the constant player at the center of unclassifiable outfit Zs. For Xe, he got together with percussionist Greg Fox and guitarist and composer Patrick Higgins to create new music. The trio recorded the 43 minutes that comprise Xe in a single live take. As if that attempt isn’t noteworthy enough, the results are nothing short of stunning. Opener “The Future of Royalty” immediately challenges the listener, squeaking and scuffing along with twisting knobs, treated instruments, and clanging percussion. It leads us into what seems like aural chaos on “Wolf Government”. But as we see the impressive dynamic between the players take shape, and as free-jazz and other influences start to etch themselves into these tracks, Xe takes on a new power. “Corps” and the closing title track show the fascination with rhythms at the heart of the record. Everything here — every note plucked, every knob turned, every tom hit — feels like a kind of drum. Everything here is hit with power and conviction. And yet, despite the constant shifts and rough squalls, the overall impression of Xe is surprisingly nuanced. It’s a master class in how to borrow structures and sounds — from jazz, from rock, from Afro-beat, from everywhere — and use them as the jumping off point for deep exploration. Xe is an amazing feat, and sets the bar awfully high for experimental albums in 2015. rating_circle_full-1Matthew Fiander

 

February 3

Artist: Mount Eerie

Album: Sauna

Label: P.W. Elverum & Sun

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Mount Eerie
Sauna

Mount Eerie mastermind Phil Elverum is an enigma in the very best sense of the word, the kind of artist who remains surprising and captivatingly mysterious no matter how much more work he reveals to the world. That’s readily apparent on Mount Eerie’s latest album Sauna, which seamlessly segues between Elverum’s impressionistic tinkerings and some of his most fully-formed pieces. It might be hard for anyone not residing in Elverum’s headspace to suss out how Sauna is inspired, as he puts it, by “Vikings and zen and real life”, but it’s easy to go along with the album’s free-associating trip, as it skips from pinging chamber-pop syncopation to sepia-toned, Neutral Milk Hotel-like busking to billowing, stormy feedback. On the one hand, you hear minimalist explorations and ambient introspection scattered throughout Sauna. On the other, you have weighty noise-rock compositions, like the shoegaze behemoth “Boat” and the Bedhead-y slowcore of “Planets”. In other words, Sauna is an album about contrasts and how to resolve those contradictions, a work of menace and sublime beauty, of jaw-dropping vastness and touching immediacy. It takes a big imagination to find a place for so many aspects, but Phil Elverum’s is certainly large enough for all that and then some. rating_circle_full-1Arnold Pan

Father John Misty, Matthew E. White, and more

February 10

Artist: Father John Misty

Album: I Love You, Honeybear

Label: Sub Pop

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Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear

I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman’s second record as Father John Misty, feels more like a performance than an album. The persona here and Tillman’s full-throated vocals make this seem much bigger than songs coming out of speakers. The follow-up to Fear Fun has its predecessor’s sense of dark humor and clever turns of phrase. Tillman sounds yet again like he’s making a singer-songwriter record that sends up singer-songwriter records. But there’s something bigger at play this time around. The compositions are bigger, the shifts into different textures and genres more fully formed and overt. And in the end, the expansiveness of the record, from the lush strings of the opening title track to electronic layers of “True Affection” to the bellowing vocals of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow” or the piano-ballad theatrics of “Bored in the USA”, acts as its greatest tension. The blowhard narrators of this record, most of them seemingly male, celebrate their own debauchery and surround themselves with women they can brag about. When they’re not puffing up their chests over sexual conquests, they are filling their mouths with drinks and drugs. Of course, the virtuoso performances these voices put on, as performed by Tillman, accentuate their desperation rather than blot it out. But Tillman’s real success here, beyond the clever humor of the record, is the way he earns the quieter moments that close the record, the way he earns the possibility of redemption or, at least, of something new. I Love You, Honeybear cements Tillman as one of the finest singers and most surprising songwriters working. rating_circle_full-2Matthew Fiander

 

February 17

Artist: Six Organs of Admittance

Album: Hexadic

Label: Drag City

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Six Organs of Admittance
Hexadic

Ben Chasny is nothing if not unpredictable. Ascent, his last album under the Six Organs of Admittance name, took his guitar explorations back towards rock traditions and the sorts of noise discovery he dabbled in as part of Comets on Fire. Hexadic doesn’t continue that trend so much as it blows it out of the water. This new album is Chasny’s presentation of a new compositional system — the Hexadic system — that forced him to break from traditional song structures and approaches to composition. The idea is to break from order and dive headlong into moments of musical uncertainty and possibility. Chasny’s work has always sounded, to one degree or another, more felt than thought. Hexadic, however, is Chasny at his most cut-free and instinctual. It’s also him at his loudest. The guitars here, from the blistering feedback of “Maximum Hexadic” to the low, earthquake-rumble of “Hollow River” to the brittle rise and fall of “Guild”, are saturated in distortion. They grind and burn, sometimes with tight hooks and others off into shapeless space. Behind those guitars, the rhythm section does its own wandering, sometimes filling up the meager bits of space not taken by Chasny’s guitar, other times stretching out the atmosphere. The approach is revolutionary and the songs that result from it on Hexadic dynamic. They feel astral in their reach, but really Chasny’s work here is telescopic. It doesn’t stretch out to celestial bodies, but rather it feels as if it pulls them in, as if it brings into focus concepts too big to imagine, too abstract to feel in your palm. For all the thinking that went into this album, it’s liable to rumble in your chest long before it rattles in your brain. rating_circle_full-2Matthew Fiander

 

March 3

Artist: Lady Lamb the Beekeeper

Album: After

Label: Mom + Pop

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Lady Lamb the Beekeeper
After

What stands out about Lady Lamb the Beekeeper — aka Aly Spaltro — is the exuberance of her music. While her sophomore full-length After, with its vintage tones and indie twang, may rightly put Lady Lamb the Beekeeper next in line to follow the success of singer-songwriters like Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen, there’s an intrepidness to Spaltro’s music that’s hers and hers alone. Despite some harrowing narratives (especially when Spaltro imagines being in a plane crash) and serious themes, After brims with a vibrant energy and an almost theatrical quality that gives it a rare sense of verve. Case in point: the pre-release track “Billions of Eyes” brings to mind a higher-fi and more ambitious version of Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener”, as Spaltro’s wistful vocals and everyday life stream-of-consciousness lyrics breathlessly chase after her shuffling guitar play as it rises and falls in pitch and pace. Going wherever her audacious imagination and zeal take her on After leads Spaltro to come up with novel arrangements and eccentric song structures that’ll keep you on your toes all the more, as she throws in off-kilter tempo changes, surreal imagery, and quirky instrumentation in intuitive and unexpected ways. After makes a strong case that Lady Lamb the Beekeeper isn’t so much about breaking molds, but about not conforming to them at all in the first place. rating_circle_full-2Arnold Pan

 

March 10

Artist: Matthew E. White

Album: Fresh Blood

Label: Domino

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Matthew E. White
Fresh Blood

These days, it’s not easy being an honest-to-goodness soul man, having to put up with suspicions of irony and authenticity to do what you do. But what makes Matthew E. White the real deal is that he’s reverent and original at the same time, respecting time-honored traditions, while also giving them a twist in his own individual way. Building on his 2012 breakthrough Big Inner, White’s new album Fresh Blood offers just what its title announces, capturing the eternal verities of love through imagery and metaphors too vivid and novel to be a rote recitation of anything else. While Fresh Blood sounds grand with its immaculate production and compositions bursting at the seams with resonant strings, ringing piano chords, and resourceful orchestration, it grabs at you because its sentiment feels so immediate, as if the expansive soundscapes were mining a deep, deep soul. What’s more, the way these explorations flourish can take unexpected turns, as White moves fluidly on Fresh Blood from R&B symphonics and gospel gregariousness to Bacharach-esque pop and even artsy play — just check out the moody undertones of “Tranquility” from the album teaser. Above all, you can feel how these combinations and permutations come from White’s heart, which is what makes Fresh Blood genuinely its own thing. rating_circle_full-2Arnold Pan

 

March 17

Artist: Stone Jack Jones

Album: Love & Torture

Label: Western Vinyl

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Stone Jack Jones
Love & Torture

Stone Jack Jones took eight years between his debut album, 2006’s Bluefolk, and last year’s excellent Ancestor. But, just a year later, he returns in March with Love & Torture. Once again he’s aided by Patty Griffin and members of Lambchop, and once again he’s produced by Roger Moutenot, but this album is hardly more of the same. Love & Torture kicks up a different sort of dust than the last album did. Ancestor dug deep into the past, but Love & Torture is an album about where all those yesterdays lead: today. Even as it explores past worry on “Thrill Thrill”, or how Kurt Wagner’s voice trails Jones like a tail he can’t shake on “Circumstance”, there’s still a bracing acceptance of and celebration of the now on this album. The bleary-eyed opener “Shine” seems gauzy with a nascent joy. “Song” grinds at the edges, but there’s something playful in its stomp. Closer “Amen” finds Jones emerging fully into the light he has only partly felt in his work to this point. Every moment, the bittersweet and the quietly triumphant, is hard-earned on Love & Torture, and Stone Jack Jones gives us a voice that feels weathered by time but not tired. In fact, he may just be getting started. rating_circle_full-2Matthew Fiander

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