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10 Albums Worth Looking Forward to In Early 2015

The Decemberiststs / Rhiannon Giddens / Ryan Bingham
Bryan Bedder / Vivien Killilea / Angela Weiss, Getty Images

The presents have been unwrapped, the tinsel’s been swept, and (hopefully most of) your post-holiday hangover has subsided. Looking out over those bleak January weeks on the calendar, it’s easy to feel a little down in the dumps, but don’t fret: While we dream away the hours pining for that annual spring thaw, there’s plenty of pop culture on the horizon to keep us warm — and to prove it, here’s a list of 10 albums worth looking forward to between now and the end of April.

Guster, ‘Evermotion’ (Jan. 13)

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Guster‘s most recent effort, 2010’s ‘Easy Wonderful,’ peaked just outside Billboard’s Top 20 — not bad for a band that’s been bubbling under the mainstream for the majority of its 20-year recording career. But don’t go thinking the road to their seventh LP, ‘Evermotion,’ was necessarily easy: Outside projects, lack of a label to foot the bill, personal responsibilities, and band turnover (longtime utility player Joe Pisapia left the lineup after ‘Wonderful’) have all hit the Boston-bred pop vets in recent years, but constant touring has helped solidify the passionate fanbase that fueled a successful PledgeMusic campaign for the new album (I opted for the signed vinyl). Fingers crossed that this set of songs features more vocals from co-founder Adam Gardner than we’ve heard on recent releases.

Mark Ronson, ‘Uptown Special’ (Jan. 13)

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Few producers these days have enough clout to put their name above the title on an album, and although Mark Ronson is an exception to that rule, he’s also far less of an obvious presence on his own recordings than one might expect, with a production aesthetic that shifts to suit the occasion and the artist — and a sharp ear for songs and clients that’s helped him build a list of credits that includes everyone from Foreigner and Paul McCartney to Duran Duran and Bruno Mars. That’s Mars’ voice you hear on ‘Uptown Funk,’ the leadoff single from Ronson’s new joint, ‘Uptown Special,’ and he was far from the only famous name enlisted for the sessions: The record also boasts appearances from Stevie Wonder, Mystikal, and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, to name but a few, as well as lyrics by Pulitzer-winning author Michael Chabon. It all adds up to what Ronson described to USA Today as “songs rooted in soul, R&B, blues and funk,” but with “more unusual lyrics and stories.” Pre-order ‘Uptown Special’ here.

The Decemberists, ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ (Jan. 20)

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The Decemberists have been away from the studio since 2011’s ‘The King Is Dead’ — a four-year hiatus that, as frontman Colin Meloy put it to Rolling Stone, allowed the band members time to “work on other pursuits to keep the juices flowing, to not stagnate or anything.” That’s putting it mildly; Meloy released a pair of doorstop-sized young adult novels and an EP of Kinks covers, while the rest of the band reconstituted itself as Black Prairie and released a trio of bluegrass records. Thus refreshed, they’ve recorded 14 new songs for their seventh studio LP, the intriguingly titled ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ (as the band’s website puts it, the title “pretty much sums up the state of things since last we graced your record player, wouldn’t you say?”). Check out first single ‘Make You Better’ above, and pre-order ‘World’ right here.

Ryan Bingham, ‘Fear and Saturday Night’ (Jan. 20)

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Bingham’s debut, ‘Mescalito,’ arrived in 2007 but sounded like something that might have rolled out of a whiskey tumbler shared by Steve Earle and Tom Waits at some point in the late ’70s — and unlike a lot of guys who sling on an acoustic guitar and affect a gravelly drawl, he had the history and experience to back up his tuneful tales of rambling and woe, even though he was all of 26 when the album came out. He’s only gotten sharper and more confident (not to mention won an Oscar and a Grammy) since then, with his most recent release, 2012’s ‘Tomorrowland,’ shining as the smoky crown jewel in a burgeoning discography that promises to deliver heaps of rock riches before he’s through — starting with ‘Fear and Saturday Night,’ which found Bingham writing while holed up in a secluded trailer, then hunkering down in the studio with Wilco producer Jim Scott. Check out the album cut ‘Radio’ above; pre-order ‘Fear and Saturday Night’ here.

Punch Brothers, ‘The Phosphorescent Blues’ (Jan. 27)

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Between writing, recording, and touring with the newly reunited Nickel Creek, Chris Thile somehow found time to make his way back to the studio with the Punch Brothers — and the result, titled ‘The Phosphorescent Blues‘ and due Jan. 27, sounds like it might be the band’s most melody-rich effort yet. Produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring drum and percussion work from studio ace Jay Bellerose, the record finds the Brothers focusing on a loosely organized central theme; as Thile put it in the press release announcing the album, “The five of us have been thinking a lot about the importance of connection, particularly in a world where it’s pretty easy to take being connected for granted.” Whatever the inspiration, it seems to have drawn the band into rich creative territory; where previous Punch Brothers efforts have occasionally been guilty of showcasing instrumental prowess at the expense of hummable songs, leadoff single ‘I Blew It Off’ proves that chops and hooks aren’t mutually exclusive.

The Well Pennies, ‘Endlings’ (Jan. 27)

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An “endling,” according to the Well Pennies, is a creature that dies as the last of its kind — and although this album focuses on the theme of “extinction and how it relates to all aspects of life,” don’t go thinking it’s some sort of morose rumination on death. “Our goal is always to write songs that inspire something — however simple — to smile, to love, to go out and experience life,” says the band, and their mission has definitely been accomplished with the record’s leadoff single, ‘Drive’ (above), which showcases the duo’s bright harmonies and warm melodies alongside sun-dappled lyrics like “When you’re feeling empty / When the skies are grey / I will be your honey / And chase the blues away.” If you’re impatiently waiting for a new record from the Well Pennies — or just in need of a sweet folky fix — pre-order ‘Endlings’ here.

Rhiannon Giddens, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ (Feb. 10)

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Rock fans tend to put a premium on artists who write their own material, but interpreting others’ songs is a skill worth celebrating in its own right — and ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn,’ the debut full-length effort from Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens, serves as an emphatic reminder. Working with producer T Bone Burnett, Giddens picked songs associated with female singers throughout American history, forming what she refers to as “sort of a survey” that begins with her take on ‘Last Kind Words,’ an obscure song cut in 1930 by a long-forgotten singer named Geeshie Wiley. “It kind of represents every woman from her time, every unknown black woman toiling away,” observes Giddens. “Who knows how many more were making incredible music, and writing incredible songs like that, living these lives?” Blending Celtic, gospel, jazz, and folk just as adroitly as — yet more intensely personally than — the patchwork Americana quilt of the Chocolate Drops’ sound, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ serves as an affirmation, a coming-out party, and a step forward all in one. Check out Giddens’ taken on ‘Shake Sugaree’ above, and pre-order the album here.

Martin Sexton, ‘Mixtape of the Open Road’ (Feb. 10)

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A new album from the elastic-throated Martin Sexton is always something to celebrate, and aside from 2012’s ‘Fall Like Rain’ EP, he’s been silent for far too long: His upcoming eighth studio LP, ‘Mixtape of the Open Road,’ breaks a five-year stretch between full-length collections of new material. You can get a small taste of the new album above (and pre-order it here) — and you can hear one complete cut, ‘Remember That Ride,’ at the Wall Street Journal, where Sexton also offers a hint of what fans can expect from the new material: “I’ve taken comfort and inspiration from mixtapes friends made for me. You know, like that soundtrack that you crossed the country to after graduation or that music that got you through a broken heart.”

Brandi Carlile, ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’ (March 3)

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Brandi Carlile‘s first four albums cut an upward swath through the Billboard charts, and her most recent, 2012’s ‘Bear Creek,’ peaked at an impressive No. 10. It’s somewhat surprising, then, to see her jumping from Columbia to the Dave Matthews-founded ATO for her fifth effort, the upcoming ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’ — but the change in label environs has only sharpened the sting of her whip-smart brand of country-tinged folk rock, at least judging from the set’s first single, ‘The Eye’ (above). The new songs ramble easily across the spectrum established on her earlier LPs, and roll a little deeper into the sonic brambles by design; unlike those major-funded earlier efforts, there’s a purposeful looseness to ‘Daughter’ that allows the songs to breathe even deeper. “We didn’t make any demos. To me rock and roll isn’t really a genre but more of recklessness or a risk,” Carlile told NPR. “The more something gets ironed out and sure of itself, the less it begins to rock somehow.” Pre-order ‘The Firewatcher’s Daughter’ here.

The Damnwells, TBA (April 14)

The Damnwells singer-songwriter Alex Dezen has steadily made a name for himself in the songwriting community over the last decade, picking up co-writes and song placements with a long and impressive list of acts; unfortunately, his band has taken more than its share of lumps along the way, suffering label woes and lineup changes when they should have been lighting up the world stage. But as star-crossed as the Damnwells’ past has been, their future looks bright: The group’s upcoming fifth LP — title yet to be announced — reunites the original lineup after a six-year hiatus, and while neither received the attention they deserved, the last two Damnwells records (2009’s ‘One Last Century’ and 2011’s ‘No One Listens to the Band Anymore’) offered a truly compelling, darkly melodic argument for Dezen as one of the major songwriting voices for his generation. This new record has some big shoes to fill, in other words, but after everything these guys have been through, they’ve faced — and tunefully triumphed over — far worse than the weight of expectations. Various pre-order goodies are available here, along with exclusive peeks at the work in progress, and you can hear one track, ‘Money and Shiny Things,’ courtesy of NoiseTrade.

Next: The Top 10 Albums of 2014

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