Overlooked in ’08

As we head into the second half of the year, with plenty of big-name new releases; as we continue to talk about important or noteworthy new works released during the summer months; and as we get closer to that magical season of list-making, where we celebrate the very finest music of 2008… it’s good to step back for a moment and shine the light on a few great, overlooked, and underappreciated albums from the first half of the year. Don’t let these fall through the cracks.

Ray Davies– Working Man’s Cafe
Davies’ latest record was inspired by a brush with death– he was shot and severely wounded in New Orleans a few years ago– and indeed, the shadow of mortality looms over these new songs, but make no mistake: These aren’t the self-consciously morbid, spooky sensibilities of latter-day Johnny Cash, or even Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Actually, this album has more in common with Memory Almost Full, last year’s very good Paul McCartney album, as the Kinks frontman takes stock of his life and makes peace with the past amid a flurry of devilishly funny, cheerfully witty pop songs that are ablaze with passion, energy, and craft. This is the kind of album that could only be made by an aging veteran who knows his time is limited, but there’s still work to be done. Here’s my full review.

White Hinterland– Phylactery Factory
Don’t be fooled by the voice of Casey Dienel, as innocent and girlish as any you could name; beyond those whispers and coos lies a startlingly sophisticated musician, one who blurs the lines between folk, jazz, and pop on her first album as the frontwoman of White Hinterland. And it’s not just that her compositions are mature and complex– there are also some surprisingly complicated emotions in her lyrics, as Dienel deals with love and death and war with a level of darkness that stands in stark contrast to the cheery, sprightly music. Here’s my full review.

The Dodos– Visiter
Since when did indie pop become so darn exclusive? Blame it on the Pitchfork set if you want to, but, really, indie music was always supposed to be about little, everyday moments and DIY aesthetics set to the sounds of classic rock and pop– in other words, indie is supposed to be all about inclusion. The Dodos, one of the most talked-about indie groups of the year, sound like they’re on a mission to redeem indie music from the hipsters and the elitists, with this delightful batch of cheerfully melodic, energetic pop songs, played only with acoustic guitar and drums. With such a limited instrumental palette, this surely qualifies as lo-fi in some regard, but the production itself is clear and pristine, and the Dodos themselves are able to invoke a surprising array of styles– from pop and folk to worldbeat and even metal!– through the sheer sophistication of their compositions. It’s a bit too long, but it’s a wonderful and memorable album nevertheless, and a delight to listen to.

Tift Merritt– Another Country
Ms. Merritt has been “arriving” for some time now, but her latest is her first true triumph, an album that seamlessly blends her inclinations toward pop, country, rock, and soul with her emphasis on songcraft and her lyrics, which are individual and universal at the same time. This is an album that recalls the glory days of folky singer-songwriter types in the 1970s, and it’s one of the most egoless and eloquent albums of the year. Here’s my full review.

Drive-by Truckers– Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
America’s best hard rock band spreads out and digs in for an album that shows us what they’re really made of, blazing through a marathon nineteen tracks that touch on everything from acoustic country, guitar pop, and soul to blistering, beer-soaked rock and roll. It’s an astonishing feat of songwriting and performance that never lags in energy or zeal, even when they turn the amps down, and it’s a testament not just to the Truckers’ craft, but also their vision and their creativity. Here’s my full review.

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