Hey Folks,

In addition to this fine site, I also occasionally write (but mostly comment) for a couple of other sites, one being my friend JayVee’s site, The Round Table. You can find it at theround-table.blogspot.com. This column was originally written for them. Enjoy!!

Believe it or not, 2008 has not been a bad year for music-unless you happen to be a superstar. Particularly a superstar diva. Janet Jackson, Madonna and Mariah Carey have all released fairly underwhelming albums over the first half of the year-with Janet’s the best of a very weak bunch. Hip-hop has also taken a bit of a leave of absence-unless you’re one of those folks who thinks “The Carter III” is a classic, there wasn’t much to gloat about if you were a rap fan for the first part of this year.

However, there have been some bright spots. Soul singers on the other side of the Atlantic continued their renaissance after Amy Winehouse set one hell of a standard (and you have to admit that “Back To Black” is a work of genius, no matter what you think of her personally) last year. In addition to the new Brit divas, a couple of vets returned after short absences with albums that rank among the best of their careers. And there’s still half a year to go.

Here’s a list of the albums that rank among my favorites so far this year:

The cover of Adele\'s debut album, \"19\".

Adele “19”- The best new British soul singer not named Amy Winehouse. She’s less hip-hop identified, more mellow and jazzy, but she’s really quite good. Give her a listen.

Here’s a live version of the song:

Al Green “Lay it Down”-The voice that’s been responsible for thousands if not millions of pregnancies has not lost a step in almost forty years. While he’s never gone away, the presence of producers James Poyser and The Roots’ Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson as well as appearances by John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and the sorely underappreciated Anthony Hamilton come the closest to putting this album in the same league Green’s early Seventies classics.

Estelle “Shine”- Singing, rapping and keeping in step with the likes of Cee-Lo and John Legend, here’s yet another British soul singer you need to check out. The best vocalist/MC combo since “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”.

Gnarls Barkley “The Odd Couple”- Yeah, it’s pretty much a retread of “St. Elsewhere”, their left-field hit debut, but Cee-Lo can sing just about anything and make it sound interesting. His vocals on “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” are astoundingly haunting, and “Run” and “Going On” are bouncy and hooky while also being lyrically substantial.

Liam Finn “I’ll Be Lightning”- His dad and uncle are still making great music, but a 2nd generation of New Zealand’s Finn family is staking his claim as a singer/songwriter to be reckoned with. A bit more whimsical than his relatives’ solo work or Crowded House, “I’ll Be Lightning” is an exciting and interesting debut.

Mike Doughty “Golden Delicious”-The former Soul Coughing frontman creates a fun, loosey-goosey set that successfully merges borderline absurdist pop (“More Bacon Than The Pan Can Handle”) with tinges of seriousness (“Fort Hood”) and melancholy (“Wednesday (Contra La Puerta)”.

Raheem DeVaughn “Love Behind The Melody”- This soul singer lives up to the promise set with his intriguing debut. Stronger songs, less gimmickry, and the year’s hottest lurve-makin’song with the dreamy “Mo’ Betta’”. He’ll do while we wait for D’Angelo and Maxwell to come back.

The Roots “Rising Down”-How many folks out there can release their least interesting album in a decade and still have it be tops in their genre for the year so far?

Shelby Lynne “Just a Little Lovin’”- Shelby’s been a personal favorite of mine ever since she walked away with the Best New Artist Grammy in 2001. This tribute to Dusty Springfield is almost painfully intimate-and was good enough to have me heading out looking for a copy of “Dusty in Memphis” a week later. Absolutely one of the more underrated artists of recent times.

Vampire Weekend “Vampire Weekend”-Afrobeat meats indie pop with a cultured Upper West Side twist. These guys don’t take themselves too seriously, and neither should you.

There are also a handful of albums that I’ve enjoyed but haven’t been able to fully commit to: Death Cab for Cutie’s “Narrow Stairs”, N.E.R.D’s “Seeing Sounds”, Santogold’s self-titled album, Portishead’s “Third”, Van Hunt’s “Popular”, Cold play’s “Viva La Vida”, Duffy’s”Rockferry” and Beck’s “Modern Guilt” (which has been out for all of 24 hours), among several others. ..and I’d love to know how I can get my hands on that Girl Talk album.

…and there’s plenty of stuff coming in the next six months that could make this list completely irrelevant by year’s end. I’m excited about new albums from artists as diverse as The Hold Steady, Ray LaMontagne, Raphael Saadiq, Nas and Ne-Yo. If long-promised albums by Maxwell and Anthony Hamilton see the light of day in 2008 (or the loooong in gestation Michael Jackson album shows up), I’ll be a happy man. Hell, I’m down with guilty pleasures! That New Kids album might actually be good!!

What are some of your favorites so far this year? And what records are you anticipating