Under-the-radar pop albums to watch for this year

Gretchen Peters examines mortality and love on her striking "Blackbirds," with the aid of a variety of artists. The Nashville singer's album is due out Feb. 10.
(Gina R. Binkley)
Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

The marketing plans are likely being discussed as you read this: brainstorming sessions focused on delivering glistening, big-ticket records from Kanye West, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar and Adele — 2015 albums so brightly anticipated that they threaten to blind us to the pearls beneath.

Guessing when these records will arrive is a fool’s errand. It’ll happen based on timing, trending and bang-for-the-buck exposure. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps another December surprise.

As we bide our time — or brace ourselves — for those platinum few, dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of artists are preparing to unveil work in the coming months that will wrestle for attention, offering quality less fueled by sparkle than a warm glow. Said sounds won’t arrive via carrier pigeon or horse-drawn carriage, of course. They will vie for our attention among YouTube, Soundcloud, iTunes, Spotify, Rdio, vinyl shops, Amazon, Vine and whatever inevitable “innovation” arrives next.

It’s an unpredictable landscape — we’re living in the kind of crazy world, for example, in which Bob Dylan can release an album of standard ballads (“Shadows in the Night,” Feb. 3) better suited for a Sinatra impersonator than Dylan’s current raw-throated Howlin’ Wolf-ish delivery.


What follows are a few upcoming highlights to toss on the sound system. Selections below stretch across genre, gender and agenda.

Fans of roots music will find much to anticipate throughout the winter months, most notably work from songwriters who have been honing their craft for decades.

Nashville singer Gretchen Peters’ striking “Blackbirds” (Feb. 10) is a deep examination of mortality and love, and it features contributions by artists who include Jason Isbell, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss, Will Kimbrough and Jerry Douglas. Another Nashville rebel, Steve Earle, has reconvened his band the Dukes to record a Texas blues-inspired record called “Terraplane,” due Feb. 17.

The solo debut album from Rhiannon Giddens, best known as a founding member of the remarkable Carolina Chocolate Drops, was produced by T Bone Burnett, which bodes well. Called “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” it features songs originally written by the likes of Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Hank Cochran, Elizabeth Cotten and Geeshie Wiley. It’s far from a throwback record, though, with Giddens and a fantastic band breathing new life into the work, all while adding a few choice originals. Nonesuch will release the album Feb. 10.


Giddens’ label mates the Punch Brothers, meanwhile, will issue their long-awaited Burnett-produced album “The Phosphorescent Blues” on Jan. 27.

Fans of hip-hop are drooling at the coming year, when two masters of the genre, West and Lamar, are expected to release new albums. But chasing their star power are a couple of lyricists dropping vital winter work.

The oft-remarkable Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco will release “Tetsuo & Youth,” his long delayed fifth studio album, on Jan. 20. Fiasco’s mesmerizing way around a rhyme is on full display on the first single, “Deliver,” a track that hints at success for “Tetsuo” after a series of hit-and-miss one-off tunes.

The season’s most notable rap debut will arrive from Joey Badass, whose jittery, bass-heavy new songs are more well-crafted than the album’s unwieldy title, “B4. DA. $$.” The thrilling jam “No. 99" sounds futuristic and old school, with turntable scratches and refrains that recall classic New York collective Native Tongues, a positive portent if there ever was one. The album is due Jan. 20.


Those gunning for electric guitar and left-field rock can look forward to new work by the great riot grrl punk band Sleater-Kinney, whose extended hiatus will end with the arrival of “No Cities to Love” on Jan. 20. The band — Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss — took eight years off, and it returns to a landscape more fragmented than ever. Though it’s unlikely the band will be a unifying force, the work commands attention, and it will arrive via indie powerhouse Sub Pop.

That label’s other hot record in the first quarter lands via Father John Misty, the pseudonym of former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman. The artist is a cheekily accomplished composer, and his 2012 record, “Fear Fun,” is already an underground classic. That status has fueled anticipation for “I Love You, Honeybear,” which will come out Feb. 10.

The coming records that best cut through genre, however, are by a Swede and French Cuban twins. Swedish-born singer and songwriter Jose Gonzalez will offer “Vestiges and Claws” (Feb. 17), which moves through folk rock and soul tones with ease and grace. It’s gentle without being soft. It’s his first solo album in seven years, one that builds on his work in the interim as a member of the band Junip.

The twins’ names are Naomi and Lisa-Kainde Diaz, and they will release their self-titled debut as Ibeyi on Feb. 17 through taste making label XL. The pair’s work is strikingly minimal, and just as strikingly memorable.


While Ibeyi and the rest of the above will likely be eclipsed by whatever Adele decides to release, the musical twins offers further evidence of a potentially fertile year for the art and craft of making music.

Twitter: @LilEdit