About this time every year I start to get a feel for the year in music, and 2008 so far seems to be about contents under pressure, emotions trapped in a bottle and then shaken furiously, agitated to the point of breaking the glass, so here are the albums that have me all shook up so far this year.
Drive-By Truckers, Brighter than Creation's Dark: A divorce, lineup changes, an acoustic tour and an ambitious 19-song album finds these southern rock revisionists in perhaps their finest form yet.
Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War: It can be argued that Badu's neo-soul routine needed some tightening up over the past couple of years, but New Amerikah channels the lysergic unraveling of the early Funkadelic records with whip-smart currency.
Shearwater, Rook: Jonathan Meiburg almost single-handedly rectifies that indie rock singers can't sing, careening over his hi-tension melodrama as effortlessly as the long-winged seabird from which he took his band's name.
The Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride: John Darnielle has been a busy boy, penning a great book about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality and putting out one of the best records of his very prolific career, dropping horror writers, heavy metal and naked, quivering love into the autoclave of his heart.
Imaad Wasif with Two-Part Beast, Strange Hexes: This wondrous album from the Yeah Yeah Yeah's guitarist is the sleeper hit of the summer -- half Jeff Buckley, half MC5, all awesome. Wasif fills every morsel of this record with brilliantly dramatic lyrics and dazzling guitar work. He also happens to be appearing at the Spanish Moon this Tuesday.
Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III: Mainstream hip-hop has nearly collapsed into self parody, leaving little else but good ad copy. And then there's Lil Wayne: nervous, erratic, raw and often hilarious, Lil Wayne keeps things loose enough to still feel urgent while throwing out lines that stop you in your tracks to see if you just heard what you think you heard.
My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges: This is a case of an album bugging me so much that I can't quite let it go. I was a true-believer in MMJ around the time of At Dawn and It Bites, but as their sound expanded, my infatuation fell through the gaps between brilliance and folly. This one stands out as being the first of their albums where I actually hate some of the songs, but their encyclopedic approach to arena rock is pretty spectacular, even when it's not to my taste.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!: Nick Cave has seemed to have made it out of his balladeer phase intact with renewed, soul-injected vigor. The title track and "We Call Upon the Author" is the kind of beatnik-meets-Rolling Thunder swagger that has been sorely missed.
Jamie Lidell, Jim: Jamie Lidell offers a more succinct, intelligent take on navigating modern love than all seven hours of the Sex in the City movie, stripping his former dancefloor maximalism down to handclaps, a Motown groove and an open, willing heart. It's the rare feel-good album that doesn't make you feel stupid at the same time.
Silver Jews, Lookout Mountain. Lookout Sea: David Berman is one of the best-kept secrets in American songwriting, and Lookout redefines the "cleaned up my act" album, injecting his positive future with humor and trepidation.