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Spring Music Preview 2014: 27 Must-Hear Albums

The season’s hottest albums – from U2’s big return to Miranda Lambert’s country-pop blowout

The cold is slowly, gradually starting to subside, the leaves will soon be budding on the trees and the album release schedule is heating up. Yep, spring is on its way. The season is shaping up to be a good one, as it'll bring new albums by rock and R&B superstars, avant-garde favorites, Internet sensations and indie heroes. These are the 27 we're most excited to hear. 

Contributors: Mike Ayers, Patrick Doyle, Cady Drell, David Fricke, Andy Greene, Kory Grow, Brian Hiatt, David Marchese, Nick Murray, Matthew Trammell and Christopher R. Weingarten

Perfect Pussy

Drew Reynolds

Perfect Pussy, ‘Say Yes to Love’ (March 18th)

This Syracuse, New York, band set the underground punk scene ablaze last year with an intense four-song cassette demo. For their full-length debut, Perfect Pussy changed "almost nothing," says singer Meredith Graves. "We turned my vocals up a little." In fact, Graves, only an occasional drinker, downed a whole bottle of whiskey to boost her confidence in the studio. The results are relentless but more textural, as on the borderline-techno suite "Advance Upon the Real"/"VII," which the band devised after crowds complained that its 15-minute sets were too short. "I'm ready to puke by the time we're done playing," Graves says. "What more do you want?"

Hold Steady

Mark Seliger

The Hold Steady, ‘Teeth Dreams’ (March 25th)

The Hold Steady weren't thrilled with 2010's Heaven Is Whenever, the band's fifth record in seven years. "It felt like we were out of ideas," says singer Craig Finn. "We needed a break." After Finn made a solo LP, the group headed to Tennessee with Foo Fighters producer Nick Raskulinecz for its loudest, darkest record yet. Teeth Dreams – a reference to anxiety-ridden dreams about losing teeth – is full of big riffs and desperate characters, including a couple struggling with addiction in the nine-minute "Oaks." "I don't want everyone to feel terrible after listening to it," says Finn. 

Cloud Nothings

Pooneh Ghana

Cloud Nothings, ‘Here and Nowhere Else’ (April 1st)

"Just being angry all the time is a really depressing way to live and create music," says Dylan Baldi of indie-rock trio Cloud Nothings, who've opened up – and lightened up – their angsty indie-rock sound on their fourth album. Recorded in Hoboken, New Jersey with producer John Congleton (Modest Mouse, Joanna Newsom), it's not a radical departure from the Ohio band's noise-ridden 2012 breakthrough Attack On Memory but even the song called "Psychic Trauma" is surprisingly warm and melodic. "I didn't need to say I was happy by singing melodies, like a Disney movie," Baldi says. "The music just seemed to need a melodic thing going over it, rather than me just yelling about stuff." 

Avey Tare

Atiba Jefferson

Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks, ‘Enter the Slasher House’ (April 8th)

"It's different with Animal Collective because [in that band] everything becomes so 'other' and affected, going for idiosyncratic sounds," Animal Collective member Avey Tare says of his new project, Slasher Flicks. "This album is just different for me." Different is just what Tare wanted when he started creating Enter the Slasher House. Largely written while stricken with strep throat and laryngitis, the album was born from Tare's desire to strum guitar and record with "a live feel." The new music evolved the songs into lush, Eno-esque and notably un-AC rockers like "Little Fang." As for the projects macabre name, it was "inspired by old horror cartoons, like the [1929] Disney cartoon 'The Skeleton Dance,'" Tare says. "The way I saw the record being pieced out, the songs are all a little bit more campy. I wanted it to be this horror funhouse feeling."

Jessica Lea Mayfield

LeAnn Mueller

Jessica Lea Mayfield, ‘Make My Head Sing. . .’ (April 15th)

Alt-rock prodigy Jessica Lea Mayfield appreciates the two albums she recorded with producer and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, but it's her forthcoming Make My Head Sing that really defines her. "While my last two records have done well, I would be embarrassed to hear them," she says. "But if I was out and heard something off the new record, I'd be like, 'OK, people are hearing this.' I think it's like the first record I've ever made. I'm older and I don't want to hear the teenage me." Far from sounding adolescent, Make My Head Sing. . . shows just what Mayfield, 24, can do with an array of crunchy, gooey, shimmery guitar sounds and heart-on-sleeve lyrics, like the ones in the languorous "Party Drugs." "That song is about how nothing good comes from getting too fucked up," she says. "You think you've got your life together and you're married and you got your career and then you've got to be careful because if you get too fucked up, you can throw it all away."

Kelis

Laurent Levy

Kelis, ‘Food’ (April 22nd)

For Kelis' first album in four years, the "Milkshake" soulwoman made a bold choice for producer: indie-rock whiz David Sitek (of TV on the Radio), who added lush layers of live instrumentation. Food combines retro flavors with modern touches, from ballads with cooing background vocals ("Floyd") to giddy, hook-laden R&B jams ("Breakfast"). "I didn't want a period piece," says Kelis. "But I wanted something with the emotion of the things I fell in love with growing up."

Damon Albarn

Linda Brown Lee

Damon Albarn, ‘Everyday Robots’ (April 29th)

Albarn spent the past two decades making music with Blur, Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad and the Queen. "It's possible I was subconsciously avoiding a solo album," he says. But two years ago he produced Bobby Womack's comeback LP alongside XL Records owner Richard Russell. "Richard and I decided to keep exploring what we were doing," says Albarn. He gave Russell a cache of 60-plus songs and let him choose. Some were digital files, some were on cassettes, some on scraps of paper. Some were recorded on cellphones, including "Mr. Tembo," which Albarn wrote to sing to a baby elephant adopted by friends in Tanzania. 

Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger

Courtesy Chimera

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, ‘Midnight Sun’ (April 29th)

"We've finally developed a sound we're happy with," says Sean Lennon, describing The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, his spaced-out project with girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl. For their second LP, the duo spent months at their New York home studio, messing with odd instruments (a calliope dating from the 1890s) and recording techniques (running drums through a Leslie organ speaker). Highlights include "Poor Paul Getty," a Brit-pop ode to the grandson of oil tycoon Paul Getty, who was kidnapped for ransom by the Italian mob (they cut off his ear). "I related to the idea of having a famous last name that attracts attention from creepy people," says Lennon. "His story always gave me chills."

Old 97s

Paul Moore

Old 97’s, ‘Most Messed Up’ (April 29th)

"There's so much perfection in this fucking business now, I don't even like it anymore," says Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller. So the Dallas alt-country band headed to Austin, recording their latest LP live over two weeks last fall – a raucous set looking back on their 20-year run, from the rollicking mission statement "Longer Than You've Been Alive" ("Most of our shows were a triumph of rock / Although some nights I might have been checkin' the clock") to debauched rockers "Wasted" and "Nashville," about the struggle to break into the hyper-competitive scene. "All the songs are sort of a meditation on this fucked-up job I do," says Miller, who wouldn't have it any other way. "I've reached a place where I get to be really proud of this catalog of work I've made. It's a good feeling. It feels like my life's work has not been for naught, you know?"

Riff Raff

Courtesy Mad Decent

Riff Raff, ‘Neon Icon’ (April 29th)

Riff Raff, rap's favorite human meme, will finally release his long-awaited full-length debut, Neon Icon, after some last-minute legal issues pushed back a planned January. The Diplo-produced album has been two years in the making and features guest spots from Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller and the Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman – but most importantly for Riff Raff, it attempts to make the case that he's more than in Internet fad. "I'm not a comedy rapper," he says. "I do music based on vibe. I want people to feel something they've never felt with another artist." 

Jhene Aiko

milimoto

Jhené Aiko, ‘Souled Out’ (May)

Last year, rising soul star Aiko proved she was a great collaborator, singing the hook for Drake's "From Time" and calling in Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino for her own hit EP, Sail Out. But Aiko's full-length debut will set the spotlight squarely on her powerhouse voice. "People are used to me with rappers," she says. "I'm anxious to show people where I am as an artist." She can guarantee at least one guest verse, though, on the song "Promises": her four-year-old daughter, Namiko. "I practice my songs in the car, and she's usually in the back seat, so she knows them," says Aiko. "I brought her in the studio and said, 'Remember that song we've been singing?'"

Wye Oak

Courtesy Wye Oak

Wye Oak, ‘Shriek’ (April 29th)

Baltimore two-piece Wye Oak almost didn't release their newest effort, or anything at all. According to vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wasner, the exhausting record cycle for the 2011 release, Civilian, almost ended the project for good. "The year that record came out, we played 200 shows," she says. "And I pretty much melted down after that." The band took a break as Wasner stayed in Maryland to regain her creative strength and her musical partner Andy Stack moved to Oregon. Soon Wasner found herself abandoning the wailing guitar flourishes from previous efforts and writing more on the piano while Stack added parts from across the country. The result is by turns dream ("Schools of Eyes"), expansive ("I Know the Law") and, ultimately, triumphant ("Logic of Color"). "I was in a very strange place when I started this record," says Wasner. "In a lot of ways this record is kind of about what it took to write this record." 

Mariah Carey

Courtesy Island Def Jam

Mariah Carey, Title TBD, (May 6th)

Most recently titled The Art of Letting Go, Mariah Carey's once again unnamed new LP has been rumored to be "coming soon" since at least 2011 but never felt imminent until the breezy, Miguel-featuring "#Beautiful" was only stopped by two Pharrell-aided tracks from becoming last year's song of the summer. Now as spring 2014 approaches, expect Mimi's new "You're Mine (Eternal)" to make a similar seasonal push. The rest of record, meanwhile, is expected to feature tracks from producers Jermaine Dupri, Rodney Jerkins, and even Hit-Boy. "He is a favorite of mine," Carey told MTV News about the latter. "We really got to together and had philosophical conversations about music in general." Those conversations solidified that Mariah knows what she does best. When asked if there'd be any EDM-influenced tracks, she said: "I'd rather stay off the bandwagon."

Josh Olins

Lykke Li, ‘I Never Learn’ (May 6th)

Swedish indie-pop singer Lykke Li calls the tracks on I Never Learn, her third record, "power ballads for the broken." "I want to be my generation's guilty pleasure," she tells Rolling Stone. "I want to be the last song that plays at the disco for the outcasts." If the soundtrack to the preview video she released for the album is any indication, the record won't be so much a guilty pleasure as a proudly bittersweet chronicle of heartbreak. According to Li, austerity was her secret weapon this time around. "I've been really inspired by the great classics, the way one simple sentence can transcend generations," she says. "Songs like [Ben E. King and the Drifters'] 'Save the Last Dance for Me' or even Foreigner's 'I Want to Know What Love Is.' The whole record is me trying to live up to those types of songs; feelings and themes that we have all been through and can recognize." In the process of making songs meant to be timeless, Li says she obsessed over details and "almost lost [her] mind." 

Ray Lamontagne

Courtesy RCA Records

Ray LaMontagne, ‘Supernova’ (May 6th)

Ray LaMontagne played his biggest shows ever supporting 2010's funky, Grammy-winning God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, but the singer was so depressed he considered quitting music. "I was in a bad place," he says. "I only knew how to use one form of fuel, which is, 'Nobody likes me." Coming to that realization led to a songwriting breakthrough, which in turn emboldended LaMontagne to send the demos that would become Supernova to Dan Auerbach, who wound up producing the album. The latter's stamp is on plenty of the expansive, jam-ready arrangements. There are spooky backup choruses, organs and swampy riffs on "Drive in Movies," which features a Sixties Brit-pop melody. But Supernova's highlight is "Pick Up a Gun," a psychedelic acoustic heartbreak waltz with four key changes. "The melody just kept shifting," LaMontagne explains. "I hope it stirs something up. There was a playfulness to the songs, they were just really fun to write. That's different for me."

Little Dragon

Courtesy Peacefrog

Little Dragon, ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ (May 13th)

Three unexpected influences on Nabuma Rubberband, the fourth album from the Swedish trip-hop quartet Little Dragon: Janet Jackson slow jams, the surprisingly great sound of a hundred-dollar children's drum kit and the way building a new studio forced the group to reinvent their working methods. (The band did the physical labor themselves, including installing soundproofing – part of why the sessions took eighteen months.) And the title, which marries a common Ugandan girls' first name with everyone's favorite office supply? "It means a lot of things," says drummer Erik Boden. "It feels free and hypermodern, and it's feminine and weird." Just like the album.

Swans

Courtesy Young God Records

Swans, ‘To Be Kind’ (May 13th)

Long-running avant-rock bludgeoneers Swans completed their 13th studio album, To Be Kind, by working 12 to 14-hour days in a studio just outside El Paso, Texas. "The music, it just has to be right, so I don't give up," frontman Michael Gira says about his grueling schedule. "It's fear of failure." Like the group's Homeric last album, 2012's The Seer, To Be Kind will punish and reward listeners for more than two hours. But Gira says there will be the occasional respite. "Some songs are quite melodic," Gira says, "and the emotions are not so severe." To help lighten the load and the mood, Gira enlisted some guest singers for the album, including St. Vincent's Annie Clark ("a very nice person, I might add") and cabaret singer Little Annie. The latter sings on a lighter track called "Some Things We Do," which sports orchestral strings. Gira says the aforementioned song is literally "a list of things that human beings do" but stops short when asked what his mood was when writing it. In typical Gira fashion, he only admits to having, "wild and unpredictable mood shifts."

Anton Corbijn

Coldplay, ‘Ghost Stories’ (May 19th)

After their high-concept work on 2011's Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay appear to going back to swooning basics on the upcoming Ghost Stories. Drummer Will Champion told the BBC that "there's only so far you can go without becoming pompous and a bit overblown, so we’ll tread that line very carefully. Reset. Recalibrate." Accordingly, the single "Magic" harks back to the keening and straightforward grandeur of past hits like "Clocks," while "Midnight" has a sparse, almost Bon Iver-esque feel. 

Butch Hogan

Conor Oberst, ‘Upside Down Mountain’ (May 20th)

After a prolific decade in which he wrote records everywhere from a Florida psychic colony to a Mexican village, Bright Eyes leader Oberst recently got married and settled in New York's East Village. Produced by Jonathan Wilson (Jackson Browne), this new solo LP is full of songs about growing up and staying off the road, with Oberst's sweeping folk-rock melodies augmented by Wilson's jammy lead guitar and harmonies from Swedish sisters First Aid Kit. "A lot of the words on this record are about getting older and being at peace, living the real shit," says Oberst, 33. "Eventually, the circus leaves town."

Sam Smith

Courtesy Capitol Records

Sam Smith, ‘In the Lonely Hour,’ (June 17th)

Smith, 21, has been having a breakout run. The Londoner sang on Disclosure's U.K. hit "Latch," topped the U.K. charts with "La La La" and even got Twitter love from Adele. Smith goes all in on somber elegance on his debut, mixing dance beats with elements of gospel, soul, classic pop and even country. Five songs were Adele-ishly inspired by Smith's unrequited love for one person. "But there's songs about other things – like one-night stands," he says. "I deal with all the different aspects of loneliness."

Bleachers

Courtesy Bleachers

Bleachers, Title TBD (Late Spring)

As fun. toured the world off 2012's hit Some Nights, guitarist Jack Antonoff spent his downtime recording music for his new project, Bleachers. "I wanted to bridge the gap between Disclosure and Arcade Fire," he says. "It's extremely over the top and extremely epic." Antonoff worked with producers John Hill (MIA, Jay Z) and Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yaz, Erasure) for bombastic synth-heavy singalongs, like "I Wanna Get Better," where he mines the scars of his past, from a damaging acid trip to losing his sister 10 years ago. "The record is all about finding a world where you can be kind to yourself."

Future

Courtesy Epic Records

Future, ‘Honest’ (Spring TBD)

"Everybody thought it was going to be pop," says hip-hop's reigning hook master Future, who has robo-crooned with everyone from Miley Cyrus to Justin Bieber. "But we're gonna go so hood and so underground on 'em." Indeed, Honest, possibly the year's most anticipated rap release, will have the hard-edged, tear-the-club-up feel of recent tracks like "Sh!t": "T-Shirt" is an impassioned shout over slow-mo EDM, and elsewhere, Wiz Khalifa raps over a collision of Wagner and Miami bass. "It's gonna shock the world," Future says. 

Miranda Lambert

Randee St Nicholas

Miranda Lambert, Title TBD (Late Spring)

"This is the most stressed I've been about any record," says Lambert. "Everyone's like, 'You're one of the queens, you got it made.' Yeah, but I want to stay here!" The country star went all out for her fifth LP. It's her most diverse album yet, bouncing from hook-packed, Taylor Swiftian pop (the blond-ambition anthem "Platinum") to heartfelt moments like "Priscilla" (as in Presley), a rollicking tune about having to share your husband with the world. "Insecurity and tabloids are all addressed in this album," says Lambert, who's married to The Voice star Blake Shelton. "I've never hidden anything. I'm just a little bit more high-profile now." She also made her rootsiest track ever with "All That's Left for You to Do Is Leave," a bluegrass song she first heard on SiriusXM while driving home from her fifth Beyoncé concert. "My husband had the idea to do the song Western- swing-style," she says. "I hate it when he's right."

Prince

NPG Records

Prince, ‘Plectrumelectrum,’ (Spring TBD)

"No one can play like this band," says Prince. "People are going to try, but they won't be able to." The band in question is 3rd Eye Girl, a chops-heavy, all-female hard-rock trio who've been holed up with Prince at Paisley Park, recording one of his rawest, heaviest albums. "All played live, no punch-ins," Prince says. "You do it till you get the take you like." It's a true collaboration, with the band writing songs and Bonham-esque drummer Hannah "Ford" Welton offering delicate vocals that Prince compares to Wendy and Lisa's. Styles range from fusion-y funk rock to the ballad "Whitecaps," a reminder of how Prince-ly TLC's "Waterfalls" was.

U2

Courtesy Mercury Records

U2, Title TBD (Spring TBD)

This is the current state of U2's new album, under construction with producer Danger Mouse since 2010: There are "about 30 songs we're really excited about, in various states of being finished," says guitarist the Edge. Of those tracks, "six or seven" are "mixed and ready to go." And there is a thematic connection. The first song issued from the sessions, the pneumatic electronica of "Invisible," started as a "Ramones-like" demo, the Edge says, adding that much of the album is rooted in the mid- and late-Seventies music that influenced U2 as they were starting in Ireland. "That's a rich period, one we've visited many times in the past," he notes. "But it's a very Dublin-centric record lyrically." U2 have not chosen an album title – "We have a few," the Edge says – and there is no release date yet. "But we're getting there," he promises. "We're not, as we say in Ireland, up our own arse. But we do not want to let go of anything if we are not 100 percent happy with it." 

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