I’ll admit, I’ve been a little burnt out on lists ever since the Great Year-End Listicle Explosion of 2012, so it took me a few weeks to work up the gumption to compile another bullet pointed collection of highlights. But 2013 is already off to such bang (Bowie! Timberlake! That weird Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover art!) that I wanted to take a moment to survey the Minnesota music landscape and pull out some of my most anticipated new albums.
This list only extends into March for the time being, since many albums due out later in the year are waiting to be assigned release dates, but if the first three months are any indication 2013 is going to be another strong year for recorded output from the North Country.
Here are my top picks in vaguely chronological order, with release dates where available.
Felix, The Slow Cold (January 11)
This one totally snuck up on me, and I still haven’t gotten a hold of the full EP to sample all of the tracks. But I dig the slow-burning, introspective tone of his first single, “Away From Here,” and the fact that it features underutilized guest vocalist Ashley Gold, and I also dig the fact that it’s the first of several releases the Heiruspecs MC is planning to unleash this year. The Slow Cold EP will be followed up by a full-length, Something Different, this summer, and a new Heiruspecs album is expected to be released by year’s end.
Free Energy, Love Sign (January 15)
Is Free Energy local? I still haven’t figured out the answer to that question, but now that they’ve inducted fifth member Sheridan Fox into the group, the band is made up of mostly Minnesotans. They also teased recently on Twitter that they might be planning to return to the Twin Cities permanently. Regardless, the band has just released a punchy, fun summertime album on their own Free Energy Records, and it’s melting some of my wintry blues away. Pitchfork slammed the record, writing it off as “slick, subcompact power-pop,” but that’s precisely why I like it. What’s so wrong about having a little careless fun?
Free Energy are touring in support of the new album now, and will stop at the Turf Club on Saturday, January 26.
The Ericksons, The Wild (January 17)
Hey, that’s today! I’ve already written at length about this folkie duo-turned-smoldering and expansive roots band and their new release, The Wild, but I will add that “Gone Blind” has already become one of my most-spun tracks of 2013. Gorgeous stuff.
Retribution Gospel Choir, 3 (January 22)
I’d post a video from this album, but 1) it doesn’t exist and 2) it’d be over 20 minutes long. Retribution Gospel Choir’s 3 flips the concept of a full-length album on its head, offering up two lengthy, spacey rock jams that were recorded in a single take at Duluth’s Sacred Heart Studio. They’ll play an album-release show at the Turf on February 1.
The Ashtray Hearts, The Strangest Light (January 22)
The new release from the Ashtray Hearts—which has reportedly been in the works for the past eight years—signals the welcome return of one of the Twin Cities’ most under-appreciated alt-country bands. Songs on The Strangest Light were assembled piece-by-piece via email, as members of the group suddenly found themselves living in far-flung areas of the world, and the album sounds like it was influenced the most by lead singer Dan Richmond’s time in the Balkans and Oregon. This is warm, lush, harmonic Americana, an album that the band says is “both the end of a long trip and the signal of a new start.”
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Mother Banjo, The Devil Hasn’t Won (January 25)
I’ve been a Mother Banjo fan for years now, but this is easily the folk singer-songwriter’s most realized effort to date. Her voice is clear, her songs well-composed, and her sound has been fleshed with the help of an array of backing singers, piano, electric guitar, bass and mandolin. She may call herself Mother Banjo, but this ain’t your mother’s banjo music. Ms. Banjo (known off stage as Red House Records’ and KFAI’s Ellen Stanley) plays a dual CD-release show with Vicky Emerson at the Dakota on Friday, January 25.
Southwire, Southwire (February)
Have you heard about Southwire yet? They are easily one of my favorite live acts right now, and after seeing them last year at the Duluth Homegrown Festival and just last month at Amsterdam in St. Paul, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of their debut full-length via Chaperone Records. Part gospel, part folk, the group evokes basement revivals and post-church, front porch jams. Frontwoman Jerree Small’s vocal abilities are incomparable, and her deep, hearty crooning is bolstered by smoldering spoken word passages from Ben Larson (a.k.a. Crew Jones MC Burly Burlesque). Southwire just might fill the gaping hole that Roma di Luna left when they dissolved in 2011.
Various Artists, The Best Love is Free, Vol. 4 (February 9)
The track listing for this annual compilation won’t be revealed until it’s release show (which will feature live performances by Cecil Otter, Later Babes, I, Colossus, and Sophia Eris), but I got a little sneak peek of what’s to come and can guarantee that it features some of the best up-and-coming hip-hop and soul artists in the area. They’ve also been releasing a cool series of videos from some of the artists involved in the release show and compilation, including the one below from Sophia Eris of the Chalice.
STNNNG, Empire Inward (February 23)
In the past, I’d always found myself gravitating more toward STNNNG’s live show than their recorded material, for obvious reasons—the post-rock band is a powerhouse live, and frontman Chris Besinger is just plain fun to watch live as he prowls around the floor and screams into his mic. But with this new release, Empire Inward, STNNNG have managed to capture the breakneck energy of their live shows and record some of their best-written songs to date, and I’ve found myself returning to this lead single “Brain-Dumb” again and again.
STNNNG have an absolutely insane release show planned for February 23 at the Turf, including reunion sets by Signal to Trust and Vampire Hands and sets by Gay Witch Aobrtion, Buildings, Tight Phantomz, Weakwick, and Animal Lover.
Van Stee, We Are (March 2)
It feels like I’ve been waiting for this Van Stee album to come out for ages, despite the fact that I only first discovered the band last year. But that probably says more about my attention span in this digital age than Van Stee’s recording pace, because the months they spent recording We Are with producers Jake Hanson and Lance Conrad have resulted in an impressive debut. The record takes its name from and kicks off with the layered, Sgt. Pepper’s-invoking single “We Are” and proceeds to take the listener on a hypnotic journey through frontman Charlie Van Stee’s creative mind. Van Stee will play a release show at Icehouse on March 2 with John Mark Nelson.
Cloud Cult, Love (March 5)
I have to admit, Cloud Cult were starting to lose me with their last few releases, with hits like “Running with the Wolves” coming few and far between more hippie-dippie, touchy-feely pop psychedelia. Love is a return to Cloud Cult’s earlier days in many ways, especially on lead single “1 x 1 x 1,” which hearkens back to albums like Advice From the Happy Hippopotamus. There are still plenty of orchestral flourishes on this new release, but the approach feels more understated, refined, and modern this time around, while shout-along tracks like “Complicated Creation” sound less cheesy and more like just plain fun. I’m looking forward to hearing the new material live at this weekend’s Current birthday party.
Low, The Invisible Way (March 19)
There is a lot of excellent music coming out of Duluth this winter, between the new Retribution Gospel Choir, Southwire, and Low. The latter band is celebrating a whopping 20 years of making music together with a big show at the Fitzgerald Theater on March 23 and the release of their 10th studio album, The Invisible Way, which was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. What I’ve heard of the album so far is incredibly promising, especially their first single “Plastic Cup.”
The list of tentative 2013 releases stretches on and on, but here are a few more than I’m keeping an eye out for this year: Dessa, Mike Mictlan, Har Mar Superstar, the 4onthefloor, Lucy Michelle (solo), Haley Bonar, Pert Near Sandstone, Chris Morrissey, Actual Wolf, Martin Devaney, Niki Becker, Dan Israel, Teague Alexy, Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank.