Ann Powers

An Under-The-Radar Albums Preview For 2013

Terri Walker (left) and Nicole Wray, whose album, Lady, will be out on March 11. i i

hide captionTerri Walker (left) and Nicole Wray, whose album, Lady, will be out on March 11.

Sesse Lind/Courtesy of the artist
Terri Walker (left) and Nicole Wray, whose album, Lady, will be out on March 11.

Terri Walker (left) and Nicole Wray, whose album, Lady, will be out on March 11.

Sesse Lind/Courtesy of the artist

Forget resolutions. January is all about the wait. In most places, the landscape has performed its annual sad disrobing and is as bare and immobile as a patient sitting through a diagnosis. And though this mostly gray, mostly quiet month is always punctuated with a few great new releases, the music world also rests a bit. Spring will bring festivals and blockbuster releases; for now, there's time to recover from holiday splurging and debate what might come of the year ahead.

We critics, already in list mode, pass the time picking new racehorses. However, too many lists of "ones to watch" simply point out the obvious. Who needs to be reminded about the imminent ubiquity of upcoming albums by Beyonce, U2, Eminem, and — okay, I'm really thrilled about this one! — David Bowie? Then there's the sound equivalent of bacon-flavored everything: young artists, buzzy at first, then rapidly over-saturating our taste buds. Hip-hop's super-hyped kid Earl Sweatshirt, chic cosmopolitans Rhye and L.A. sister act Haim in that category in 2013.

Don't mistake my blasé attitude for lack of interest in the actual music involved. I'm excited about every new release I just mentioned. Here I've focused here on lesser-lauded artists: voices just starting to be heard beyond small circles, or returning favorites whose fine new efforts could be overlooked amid the clamor and distraction of the pop scene. Release dates aren't solid for every one of these albums. A few are being recorded as I write. Will every one make my next year-end Top Ten? Doubtful. But this is a bunch of contenders.

Ten Under-The-Radar Albums For 2013

  • Wynter Gordon, 'Sanguine EP' (Jan. 15)

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    LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This video contains language that some viewers may find offensive.

    She started as a songcrafter, co-writing material for dance floor commandos like David Guetta and Flo Rida. Next, the New York-bred Gordon released her own beat-seeking missile, 2011's With the Music I Die. Now she's expanding her palette exponentially with a series of free EPs released on her website; the uplifting Sanguine follows last year's quieter sandstorm, Doleo, anchored by the Hugh Masakela-inspired stunner "Stimela." By year's end, two more EPs will offer a full portrait of this calmly audacious young woman. Offering more than could be contained on a traditional album, this slowly unfolding project is the ideal vehicle for Gordon, whose deep dance floor excursions map the point where Donna Summer and Tori Amos meet.

  • Gary Allan, 'Set You Free' (Jan. 22)

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    A great mainstream country vocalist knows how to balance ardor with grit. Gary Allan is a master at that blend. The 45-year-old's ninth studio album follows a curving road from shut-down despair to open-armed romantic joy; yet even at their most hyperbolic, these songs remain believable. Nashville pacesetter Jay Joyce, who's worked similar magic recently with Little Big Town and Eric Church, adds depth to a few tracks. Allan has described Set You Free as "coming up for air" after a rough few years, and that feeling of freedom intoxicates.

  • Lisa Germano, 'no elephants' (Feb. 16)

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    On her always fascinating albums, multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano uncovers hidden realms — of the psyche, of private life — and then shows how they're constantly being dismantled by interference from the bigger world. This very short, hushed, very intense song cycle confronts the death of the natural (embodied by animals, silence, and Germano's own thoughts) at the hands of an ever-busier wired society. It reminds me of The Crying Light by Antony and the Johnsons; like that exquisite work, this one employs enchantment to reveal harrowing truths.

  • Bobby Rush, 'Down in Louisiana' (Feb. 19)

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    Mississippi resident Rush is 77, and one of the last survivors of the era when the blues inspired classic rock. That's not why Down in Louisiana is worth loving, though. The 26th studio album in a career that's kept him a king on the Southern circuit as it shifted from juke joints to casinos, this one is Rush's bid for late-career authenticity. Though such gestures can be stilted, here it means he loses the fluff and gloss and horns and extraneous background noise. Instead, there's just great songwriting about sex and money and dancing; formidable guitar playing with a rhythm section that swings and most of all, Rush's voice, which still soars and then swoops in to make sure the little girls understand.

  • Ashley Monroe, 'Like A Rose' (March 5)

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    In 2011, the annual prize for "country album by people who say they hate country" went Hell on Heels by the Pistol Annies. Miranda Lambert was the famous one in that trio of girlfriends, but Ashley Monroe took the lead on one of the album's best songs — "Beige," a melancholy waltz sung in the voice of a pregnant bride. With titles like "Used," "Two Weeks Late" and "Weed Instead of Roses," Monroe's second solo effort further reveals the realistic hopes and survivable heartaches of angels drinking Bud Light in today's karaoke honky-tonks. Vince Gill's productions gives the album a classic sheen, and the skills Monroe has developed backing the likes of Wanda Jackson and The Raconteurs make her storytelling come alive.

  • Lady, 'Lady' (March 11)

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    Nicole Wray and Terri Walker began their careers in very different places, but the harmony they find on this retro-soul outing is plain delightful. Wray started out making steam-bath R&B under Missy Elliott's tutelage, including the 1998 hit "Make It Hot." Walker got her start in the British garage scene and was once nominated for a Mercury Prize. The pair's combined resume includes work with Mos Def, Kid Cudi, Fergie, Cam'ron and The Black Keys. All that baggage could have made for a muddled sound on this collaboration, but Wray and Walker throw it all off in favor of a classic approach, paying homage to the soul greats in songs reminiscent of Ann Peebles, Gladys Knight and the Emotions. Most of all, this sounds like two soulmates having the time of their lives.

  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, 'Specter At The Feast' (March 19)

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    Some bands change rock and roll history, but many others shore it up and shape it, just as waves remake a shoreline: chord by shifting chord. San Francisco's Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is a band like that, playing an ongoing role in the survival of post-punk psychedelic music and making consistently strong work slightly under the radar. On its sixth studio album, the trio takes a leap inspired by loss — the fatal 2010 heart attack that claimed Michael Been, father of frontman Robert Levon Been and sound engineer and mentor to the band. The reality of death, which for the mourner centers on the sudden and permanent inability to communicate with a loved one, has made BRMC's music more direct, more heartfelt and more honestly beautiful.

  • St. Paul and the Broken Bones, 'TBA' (March or April)

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    Indie-minded music fans in the Deep South have relished the rise of the Alabama Shakes; the Huntsville band's success has shown the world that Alabama and its neighbor states can still produce truly inspiring music that goes beyond the truck and the trunk. The Shakes also may be inspiring a nascent roots revival. The best evidence is this young band, fronted by Paul Janeway, who looks like (and is!) an accounting student but embodies the soul man persona so fiercely that he overcomes its cliches. The band's been working with the great Spooner Oldham up in Muscle Shoals; inheritance is a big deal in the South and St. Paul and the Broken Bones seems determined to earn the legacy it covets.

  • Valerie June, 'Pushin' Against A Stone' (TBA)

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    This is a heavy comparison to lay on a relative unknown, but in many ways, Valerie June reminds me of Lucinda Williams. Partly it's her biography: like Williams, the Memphis-based June made a couple of good records few people heard before finding the right groove. Then there's the way this unique artist holds tradition close, rubbing it into her skin and changing its texture. This is Southern music, embracing the blues but going beyond that box. June made some memorable guest appearances last year on Luther Dickinson's project The Wandering and Meshell Ndgeocello's Nina Simone tribute Pour Une Âme Souveraine. 2013 is her year, though. She's going to stand under her own sun.

  • Greta Spray Keating, 'Self-Esteem For Girls' (TBA)

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    This is the wild card. Keating is fifteen years old and has no official releases yet. The daughter of singer-songwriters Matt Keating and Emily Spray, Greta is a typical kid, uploading cover songs to YouTube, eventually daring a few originals. But those originals are at once so direct and so well-considered that they stand as a kind of kid manifesto, confronting the deathless issues of body image, awkward young love and the necessity of making mistakes. Her dad says they're preparing an official release for this year, hot on the heels of her one live solo show so far. I hope no corporate producer gets hold of her and turns her into the next Carly Rae Jepsen. On second thought, I hope that does happen — as long as Greta also stays so wonderfully herself.

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