We're one week into 2014, and I'll bet everyone reading this has a list of must-hear new releases. We're waiting for biggies like U2, Beck, Tori Amos and possibly Adele; zeitgeist-y visionaries from art queen St. Vincent to rapper-singer Future and punk iconoclasts Against Me!; beloved veterans, including the Drive-By Truckers, The Hold Steady and — be still my heart — the slowly re-emerging Neneh Cherry; and young buzz generators like singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, electronic experimentalist Actress and rap weirdo Riff Raff. (Not to be confused with Hurray For the Riff Raff, also due to drop a great album early this year.) All this sonic wealth is enough to make anyone edgy with anticipation. But there's a way to keep calm and carry on — legally! — downloading.
Here's my remedy to the new-year rush: Commit to an album a week that isn't necessarily setting Twitter on fire, but which will provide the kind of pleasure and enrichment that serious listening generates. My 2014 list of under-the-radar releases includes familiar names alongside left-fielders, and ranges widely in terms of genre, making for a balanced musical diet. By the time South By Southwest, spring's musical milestone, rolls around, your ears will be toned and you'll be feeling great.
Painted Palms, 'Forever' (January 14)
Here's a warm-up for the chilly months. Cousins Christopher Prudhomme and Reese Donohue craft a happily ethereal take on electronically-generated psychedelia that shows they've studied the blissed-out history of their adopted hometown, San Francisco. There's a Southern layer of humidity in this music that makes it lusher than the average super-brainy Animal Collective spinoff; a childhood spent in southern Louisiana seems to have relaxed these guys at the core. Go gently into 2014 with bedroom pop that's like morning light through a slightly dirty window.
Step Brothers, 'Lord Steppington' (January 21)
This collaboration between Eminem's DJ and sometime producer Alchemist and rapper Evidence (of Dilated Peoples fame) has been brewing for five years — or perhaps we should say slowly burning, as a certain increasingly legal weed clearly inspired its inventive and often goofy tracks. Not to be confused with the Southern Step Brothers, Starlito and Don Trip, this pair of California mainstays has its own rich circle of friends. Guests like Action Bronson, Domo Genesis and Styles P go with the woozy flow of two childhood pals who perfectly understand each other. "It never once felt like work," Evidence told a recent interviewer. That's delightfully obvious.
Leif Vollebekk, 'North Americana' (January 28)
If you couldn't get enough of the intimate folk music recreated within the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, try a contemporary, soul-kissed spin on that sound from this Montreal-based bard. Vollebekk also openly borrows from Jeff Buckley — always a daring move. With a grit-and-honey voice and a way of opening up his own confessions until they become universal, Vollebekk pulls it off. Released in Canada last year, this debut adds to a rush of outstanding releases from freewheeling singer-songwriters this season.
Toni Braxton & Babyface, 'Love, Marriage & Divorce' (February 4)
For fans of sophisticated songcraft, this reunion of two of contemporary soul's most enduring stars qualifies as a full-scale, suit-and-tie event. We haven't heard the sultry vocalist and the smoothest-of-the-smooth singer-songwriter-producer together for more than twenty years. Love, Marriage, Divorce glides along the terrain of the long-term relationship with the intimacy and elegance anyone would expect from two artists who've been central in defining high-end R&B. Grown folks of all ages will revel in its deep, plush layers.
Robert Ellis, 'The Lights From The Chemical Plant' (February 11)
It's always thrilling to see a promising young artist take a leap and land brilliantly. With his second release, this Nashville-based Texan goes from Americana upstart to major sonic storyteller in eleven sensitively rendered tracks. It sounds like country — Ellis's jazz-like but homey vocal stylings recall Willie Nelson — but this collection of vignettes about love, pain and self-deception will resonate with anyone who's run toward a dream, or crawled away from one. I dare country radio to make this man a star this year.
Candice Glover, 'Music Speaks' (February 18)
Life in the pop mainstream isn't fair; there's no greater evidence of this than the fact that American Idol's least-watched season produced one its most promising winners. Candice Glover, from South Carolina, has the power and range of a gospel queen combined with the nuance of a cabaret singer. Her whole album isn't available to hear yet, but judging from the devastatingly direct emotionality of the single "Cried," it could be a classic that transcends both the box of retro-soul and the trickery of overproduced pop. No need to sit around waiting for Adele with this powerhouse on the charts.
Sheela Bringi, 'Incantations' (February 25)
Indian music expands to accommodate the spirit and whatever human circumstances enclose it. This new take on classical mantras by a classically trained vocalist, harpist and virtuosi of the bamboo flute is deeply respectful of tradition, but open to all of the sounds of Bringi's native Western United States. Hip-hop, Balkan music and the blues all meld within grooves that only gain intensity from the reformulations Bringi and her collaborators explore. This music isn't just for your yoga practice.
David Nail, 'I'm A Fire' (March 4)
Mainstream country dudes have taken heat lately for an unhealthy obsession with drinking, girls in tight jeans, and trucks. The Missouri-born nail does sing about painted-on pants in his hit single "Whatever She's Got," but his third album shows a range that far exceeds that of the average tailgater. Blessed with a soaring tenor that allows him to do country melodrama right, Nail's also great with the genre's bread and butter — songs about the little complexities of every couple's domestic life.
Ambrose Akinmusire, 'the imagined savior is far easier to paint' (March 11)
This award-winning young trumpeter wowed jazz fans with the focused intelligence of his 2011 Blue Note Records debut. For this new effort, he goes wide, expanding his ensemble to include vocalists (including Al Spx of Cold Specks), a string quartet, and the adventurous guitarist Charles Altura. This music is not for chickens — it's heady, intense, and demanding. But it's also accessible in the most important ways, making room the listener to get lost in its byways.