One of the rewarding things about pausing to salute some of the most distinguished records from the first half of the year is that it helps us remember that there still are distinguished albums.
That's a point that can easily get lost during a time when the national sales charts and radio airwaves are dominated by sludge.
In 1999, the year of the Backstreet Boys, there were outstanding albums at the midyear point from Tom Waits, Moby and Randy Newman, among others. The encouraging thing is that Moby's electronica-based "Play" eventually got enough exposure to sell more than 800,000 copies in the U.S.
And there are several exceptional albums in the year of 'N Sync, led by collections from D'Angelo and Shelby Lynne.
The encouraging thing this year is that one of those albums--D'Angelo's challenging R&B; exercise, "Voodoo"--has sold more than 1.3 million copies, giving it a strong presence in today's fragmented pop scene.
Lynne's deeply introspective "I Am Shelby Lynne," however, has had a hard time getting a hearing on radio. And despite glowing reviews, it is a commercial underachiever, with only about 80,000 sold, according to SoundScan. But Lynne, like Moby, strikes such a strong emotional nerve with the album that word-of-mouth support may yet help it find a wider audience.
Though the two albums contrast greatly in style, they share an individuality and craft that make them the front-runners in the race for album of the year honors.
D'Angelo's "Voodoo" (Virgin). Soul music has been waiting for a new king since Al Green turned to gospel two decades ago, and he has finally arrived in 26-year-old Michael D'Angelo Archer II. In a recent House of Blues concert, the singer showed signs of reaching for Green's ambition and charisma as a live performer.
Like many albums these days, this 79-minute collection would have benefited from editing. D'Angelo, who co-wrote and produced most of the tracks, seems too intent on luring listeners with leisurely (though often hypnotic) grooves rather than more compact hooks. But he's an extraordinary singer, and his music has inviting range and satisfying depth as he shifts between tales of romantic obsession and spiritual quest.
Shelby Lynne's "I Am Shelby Lynne" (Island). After years of fighting in vain to express her own musical ideas in the conservative setting of Nashville, this 31-year-old singer-songwriter circled home to Alabama a couple of years ago, determined to make a record she was proud of--and she came up with it. This is one of the most inspired examples of Southern-accented pop-soul since Dusty Springfield's "Dusty in Memphis" album three decades ago.
There's an intimacy to the songs that is seductive and heartfelt, as Lynne, who wrote or co-wrote most of the material, takes us on a journey through her troubled relationships that enables us to share her pain and hard-won lessons. For all the moments of despair, "I Am Shelby Lynne" conveys a liberating strength and hope. The diverse styles--from full-force rock to country to wistful country blues--seem unwieldy at first, but they weave together to reflect the wide emotional range of the album itself.
Here are other albums of special merit from the last six months:
Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" (Aftermath/Interscope). Though marred by the misogyny and homophobia that run through hard-core rap, this is a powerful work that leaves signposts that the crude, X-rated tales of rebellion and rage are fiction, not recommended codes of conduct. "Stan," the most striking track, addresses the issue directly. Writing to a crazed fan who is taking everything in Eminem's music literally, Eminem advises the fan to rethink his behavior and even get some counseling.
Grandaddy's "The Sophtware Slump" (V2). This Modesto rock band explores human vanity and limitations against an acoustic backdrop that is part Neil Young, part Radiohead. The technological wonders of the age are simply multiplying the chances for and speed of misadventures, suggests Grandaddy leader Jason Lytle.
Travis' "The Man Who" (Independiente/Epic). The anxious, alluring soundscapes of Radiohead surface in this British rock group, which also draws on the melancholy sensibilities of the defunct Verve. Travis plays the El Rey Theatre on July 20.
"Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (Razor Sharp/Epic). Producer RZA is joined by several Wu-Tang Clan cohorts in a soundtrack that deftly mixes R&B; and hip-hop.
Steve Earle's "Transcendental Blues" (E-Squared/Artemis). If Woody Guthrie were still with us, this folk 'n' country blues album is what he'd be playing as he crossed the country.
And there's Groove Armada's fun-packed, dance-happy "Vertigo" (Jive Electro), Toni Braxton's stylish R&B-pop; synthesis in "The Heat" (LaFace), Jeff Buckley's mystical, forceful "Mystery White Boy" (Columbia), Eels' wistful, uplifting "Daisies of the Galaxy" (DreamWorks), Aimee Mann's gorgeously sculptured "Bachelor No. 2" (SuperEgo), Common's questioning "Like Water for Chocolate" (MCA), Neil Young's modest but warm "Silver & Gold" (Reprise), Sleater-Kinney's smart, punk-driven "All Hands on the Bad One" (Kill Rock Stars), the Handsome Family's curious, retro-country exercise "In the Air" (Carrot Top) and Elliott Smith's resilient, tuneful "Figure 8" (DreamWorks).
Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at email@example.com.