15 for ’15: Albums to “Watch” in the New Year

Features, Lists — By on January 12, 2015 12:04 am

Twenty-fifteen will be an interesting year for music and, for many musicians, a year of transition. We will see some old masters moving in new directions: Steve Earle trying his hand at blues, Robert Earl Keene at bluegrass and Fat Mike at a punk rock opera. Some intriguing cover albums loom on the horizon, from the unexpected Dylan covering Sinatra to the familiar but always welcome Asleep at the Wheel covering Bob Wills. There will be new albums from legends such as Loretta Lynn and Ringo Starr as well as sophomore and even freshman efforts from exciting newcomers such as Alabama Shakes and The Suffers.

It deserves to be said that these are not the only 15 albums we are excited about this year, perhaps not even the top 15—after all, in such a large field, picking out the most exciting 15 is a very tall order (for that very reason, we have listed the albums alphabetically by artist rather than making any attempt to rank them). But each of these albums, for one reason or another, is one that we are very much anticipating and that deserves consideration by any serious music fan.

Alabama Shakes (photo: Joshua Black-Wilkins)

Alabama Shakes (photo: Joshua Black-Wilkins)

#1) Alabama Shakes, title & date of release to be announced

Since roaring out of Athens, Alabama in 2009, roots-rock outfit Alabama Shakes has led a charmed life. Their debut album, Boys & Girls, was showered with critical praise and wrapped-up with three Grammy nominations while also enjoying an almost unprecedented level of commercial success for a young roots-rock band. Anchored by the commanding vocals of Brittany Howard and supported by inspired roots-rock instrumentation unafraid to toss out some catchy hooks, if Alabama Shakes is living a Cinderella story—it’s a well-earned one. The band has indicated that their sophomore release may be “weirder” and go in some directions which their debut did not. Hints that the upcoming album may also be more elaborately produced could (not with out reason) make some fans nervous. Based on the strength on their previous work, however, it seems wise to give Alabama Shakes the benefit of the doubt.
 
#2) Asleep At The Wheel, Still The King: The Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, March 3rd
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As Waylon Jennings sung, “It don’t matter who’s in Austin, Bob Wills is still the King.” Asleep at the Wheel may hold the mantle of the current superstars of Western Swing, but they know at whose alter they pay homage. It is always a delight to hear Alseep at the Wheel playing Wills, no living act does it better. Their two previous Wills’ tribute albums, Tribute to Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and A Ride With Bob were both phenomenal and there is every reason to expect Still the King to follow suit.
 

#3) Norman Blake,, Wood, Wire and Words, January 20th
Norman BlakeYou would expect the name of a man whose guitar has backed Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan as well as lending a rootsy authenticity to the soundtracks of Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line to come immediately to mind. Instead, Norman Blake has spent his career quietly building a sterling reputation among the cognoscenti of roots music. With his first studio album in more than three decades, Blake will be serving up a dozen acoustic guitar & vocal story songs in a style so traditional that old-school would call it old-school.
 

#4) Bob Dylan,Shadows in the Night, February 3rd

Whenever one icon of American music releases an album covering another (and album of Bob Dylan covers of Frank Sinatra pop standards certainly fits that description) there is always an element of expectant uncertainty. There results of such projects seldom occupy the middle ground, cleaving either to the magnificent or mediocre. But Dylan has spoken with confidence about transposing The Chairman’s big band sound and arrangements into his own distinctive idiom, backed only by a five-piece band. If it all sounds a bit counterintuitive, well, it would hardly be the first such project he’s undertaken. And, if history is any guide, it’s not prudent to make a bet against Bob Dylan.

The broader context of Shadows in the Night also makes it an interesting album. At the time of Dylan’s first blush of fame in the 1960s, he and Sinatra embodied two very distinct, and often antithetical, musical scenes and segments of American society. Half a century later, a Dylan album of Sinatra songs makes a statement, not only about how much the times really were a-changing but also, perhaps, about the unifying power of music.


 
#5) Justin Townes Earle, Absent Fathers, January 13th
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Being part of the only father/son pairing on this list lends an ironic (or, perhaps, not so ironic) twist to the title of folk-rocking singer-songwriter Earle’s upcoming album. Originally intended as a thematically-related companion release with 2014’s Single Mothers, Earle found the two albums evolving in different directions and felt that each deserved its own release. If Absent Fathers is true to form, expect it to be full of well-crafted, occasionally humorous but always emotional songwriting as well as instrumentation that showcases his fluency with a range of musical styles.
 
#6) Steve Earle, Terraplane, February 17th

The second part of our father/son pairing, Steve Earle is a true roots music virtuoso who casts especially long shadows in country and folk. With Terraplane, Earle’s storied career breaks new musical ground, offering an entire album of blues music—the album title itself is a reference to “Terraplane Blues” by iconic bluesman Robert Johnson. Blues seems a perfect medium for Earle, a message-oriented populist troubadour, and with a sample track already released, Terraplane promises a deep and felicitous exploration of the primal Delta Blues sound by one of America’s master roots musicians.

 
#7)Fat Mike,Home Street Home, February 10th
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Few musical projects are more fraught with peril than rock operas and concept albums. For every Tommy or Aqualung, there are ten Phantoms of Paradise and Kilroy Was Heres. Still, when the creative force behind such a project is Fat Mike, frontman for the seminal West Coast punk outfit NOFX, we have to sit up, take notice and extend the benefit of the doubt. And Fat Mike has doubled-down, Home Street Home is both is both a musical and a concept album. Chronicling the struggles, tragedies and triumphs of life on the streets for young members of the punk subculture, in the best case scenario Home Street Home has the potential to be Tommy meets Annie, with a little bit of Beyond Thunderdome thrown in for good measure.
 
#8) Robert Earl Keen, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, February 10th

The Albert Camus of outlaw country, Robert Earl Keen is best known for the gritty, existentialist objectivity of story-songs such as “The Road Goes on Forever,” “Corpus Christi Bay” and “Merry Christmas from the Family.” With Happy Prisoner, however, Keen takes a roots music two-step sideways—into an album covering the work of seminal bluegrass musicians such as Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers. While Keen has long been an avid fan of bluegrass, this represents the first time he has seriously stepped into the genre as a performer. There is no doubt, however, that he has the vocal and instrumental chops to successfully pull off one of roots music’s most technically demanding genres.


 
#9) The Lone Bellow, Then Came the Morning, January 27th

Whether you call their signature sound alt-country, indie-folk or something else entirely, the release of a new album by Southern-born/Brooklyn-based The Lone Bellow will surely be a cause for celebration among roots hipsters everywhere. With two singles already released, the title track “Then Came the Morning” and “Fake Roses,” the album promises another round of well-crafted and well-produced songs tossing out hooks from every corner of roots music and beyond—all anchored around the trio’s haunting vocals.


 
#10) Loretta Lynn, title & release date to be announced

(photo: Scott Schram)

(photo: Scott Schram)

It may have been ten years since the last studio album by Loretta Lynn, but the original Queen of Country has never really slowed down. Her 2015 album promises to be a journey through Lynn’s musical influences and her own career: from the Appalachian folk music and gospel songs that shaped her as a child to new recordings of classic Lynn songs and other country hits as well as some new material. The production team for the album also comes with an impeccable country pedigree, being co-produced by Lynn’s daughter, Patsy Russell, and John Carter Cash.

 

 

#11) James McMurtry, Complicated Game, February 24th

Americana and country singer-songwriter James McMurtry is a master of the darkly descriptive. His songs paint eloquent and vivid pictures of hardship, struggle and frustration without ever losing sight of the humanity of his subjects—all served it up with a knack for clever turns of phrase and a penchant for gallows humor. Complicated Game may be McMurtry’s strongest album to date, having yet further refined his already stellar songwriting and executed it in a variety of roots styles.

 
#12) Marilyn Manson, The Pale Emperor, January 20th
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It’s hard not to have a soft spot for Marilyn Manson. In age when its damn near impossible for a musician to shock anybody with anything, Manson keeps trying—keeping alive a tradition stretching back through Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper all the way to Scremin’ Jay Hawkins and beyond.

Nor will The Pale Emperor be devoid of some legitimate roots credibility. In an interview with Kerrang! Magazine, Manson indicated that, while not abandoning his Goth and metal sound, the album would incorporate some old blues influences and a lot of “redneck” in his vocals. Additionally, Manson’s longstanding guitarists, Twiggy Ramirez and Tyler Bates, will be joined by none other than Shooter Jennings on some of the album’s tracks and The Pale Emperor features a track which was co-written by Jennings and Sons on Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter for Manson.
 
#13) Elvis Perkins, I Aubade, February 24th
Elvis Perkins
It’s difficult to believe that Elvis Perkins isn’t a stage name. After all, what stronger moniker could there be for a gifted young folk-rocker? But Elvis Perkins he was born and Elvis Perkins he remains. With I Audbade, Perkins returns with his bewitching and distinctive voice as well as intricate folk-soaked guitar and harmonica. Purists will be pleased to hear that the album also marks a return to the performance and recording aesthetics of Perkins’ early career: a stripped-down, minimalist four-track DIY mentality, with recording sessions conducted at his house or hotel rooms around the country rather than some fancy studio.
 
#14) Ringo Starr, title & release date to be announced
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Ringo was always the fun Beatle and a new album from him will always find a place in my music collection because I know it will be precisely that—fun. While little of his post-Beatles discography could be called musically significant, he has (to his enormous credit) always preserved the lively sense of fun and refusal to take himself too seriously which he brought to the Beatles (and which, let’s face it, the Fab Four needed). Starr has been relatively tight-lipped about the album, revealing only that it promises to be an eclectic walk through musical genres and that, in addition to Starr, we should look for some other very interesting appearances, including ex-Eagle (and, arguably, Starr’s karmic soul-brother) Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, Peter Frampton, ex-Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, Glen Ballard, Richard Marx and Dave Stewart.
 
#15) The Suffers, Make Some Room, January 20th

I admit that we’re cheating a little bit with this one. Make Some Room is an EP and perhaps, technically, should not qualify for this list. But we’re so excited about the release that we just couldn’t help ourselves. This Houston-based ten-piece combo, with a full horn section and amazing vocals courtesy of frontwoman Kam Franklin, delivers a unique brand of “feel good” pan-roots music that is both sincere and energetic. The band has already rapidly begun to break beyond its southeast Texas stronghold and, while we’d love a full LP, even a four song EP is going to help even more people discover The Suffers.

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