We're only halfway through the year, but here are my early nominees:
Sufjan Stevens -- Come on, Feel the Illinoise -- It's a dumb title. And it's a dubious idea -- writing a concept album about the state of Illinois. To his credit, though, Stevens pulls it off brilliantly, scoring complex orchestral arrangements, offering disarmingly gentle, lovely folk songs that hide a barbed sting, mixing almost every style of music imaginable, and plumbing the depths of the mysteries of God. Round of applause for the most musically creative, thoughtful album I've heard this year.
Van Morrison -- Magic Time -- Van will be 60 in another month, and by all rights he has no business creating masterpieces at this advanced stage of his career. But he's quietly released three great albums in a row. Magic Time surveys all of the many styles he's incorporated into his music, and more than half these original songs sound like old standards you'd swear you've heard before, but have not. Van's voice no longer has the uncontained wildness of his early work. "The Lion This Time" intentionally hearkens back to his early '70s classic "Listen to the Lion," and this time Van claims that the lion is in a circus in a cage. Don't believe it. Van may have mellowed, but he's far from tamed, and this album is an almost impossibly great rejection of those who would have him go gently into that good night.
The Mars Volta -- Frances the Mute -- Overblown. Disjointed. Incomprehensible. All of those charges have been leveled against this album, and they're all correct. So what? It's also relentlessly eclectic, mixing heavy metal, blues, salsa, free jazz, and progressive rock, features the most furious guitar riffing you'll hear this year, and unleashes a vocalist who sounds like the second coming of Robert Plant. All of that, and the ridiculously fun over-the-top story line, are more than enough to warrant its inclusion on the Good to Great side of the ledger.
Mary Gauthier -- Mercy Now -- Mary Gauthier sounds like a female version of Bob Dylan. Mary Gauthier writes like a female version of Bob Dylan. "Prayer Without Words" is the best Bob Dylan song not written by Bob Dylan. What more recommendation do you need?
Amos Lee -- Amos Lee -- It's just slightly too slick and subdued, but Amos Lee is the real deal -- a fine songwriter, a supple, soulful singer who has mastered the pleading ballad style of Otis Redding and the masterful phrasing of Dylan, and who has tapped into the jazz/folk/soul/blues hybrid that made Norah Jones such a revelation a couple years back. I can't wait to hear more.
These albums are by no means terrible, but they still resulted in a severe letdown when I heard them.
Coldplay -- X&Y -- Zzzzzzzzzz. With its unrelenting eighth notes, this album verges on the insufferably dull. It never reaches that point because the album always sounds professionallly pleasant, and Chris Martin occasionally sounds engaged. But too much of the music on X&Y strikes me as perfunctory and safe. A big letdown after A Rush of Blood to the Head.
Bruce Springsteen -- Devils and Dust -- Eh. The latest in Springsteen's batch of predominantly folkie albums, this one has more musical variety than the mediocre The Ghost of Tom Joad, but less lyrical nuance than that album. Too much of this album sounds like Springsteen the Evangelist. He can still convince me to hop in the car and go for a ride, but he can't convince me that John Kerry was the solution to all our problems.
Willie Nelson -- Countryman -- The image of the marijuana leaf on the cover pretty much says it all. Only someone with a strong attraction to the locoweed could think that mixing Willie's nasal whine, dobros and pedal steel guitars, and dub beats might work. This is Willie attempting reggae music, mon, and the results sound about as bad as you would imagine. Red eyes cryin' in the rain.
The Dissociatives -- The Dissociatives -- The Dissociatives "feature" Daniel Johns, the lead singer/songwriter from Silverchair, a band that never deserved a second incarnation. Shedding the grunge-lite reputation of his former band, Johns returns as a tuneless Radiohead-lite, and warbles such stirring sentiments as "All of this time on my hands/So far has gone/To feeding my animals/Na Na Na" on "Horror With Eyeballs," an apt description of the singer and his songwriting abilities. One listen was enough for me to dissociate myself from further barnyard mayhem.
Skye Moore -- I'm Flyin'-- We'll ignore the soap opera name for a moment. But Skye looks like Fabio, and that can't be ignored, or excused. And he sings power ballads like a preening Jon Bon Jovi imitator on karaoke night at the local bar. The end result is a sort of Sensitive Soft Metal/Chippendale's Hard Body dynamic that is sure to please middle-aged housewives from Peoria who are visiting Las Vegas. And not many other people. It's not for the faint of heart, although it's quite funny in its unintentional way.