Mariah Carey, Death Cab for Cutie, and a few other buzzworthy CDs from 2008’s first half

July is the time of year when families get together for cookouts, kids stay up late to watch TV, and music critics compile their midyear Top 10 lists. Yes, we live for this kinda thing. Never mind that there are still six long months of records that will be released, reviewed, and forgotten by Christmas. While everyone else gathers around the grill with hamburger buns, we're inside with a stack of recent CDs, listening intently for albums we may or may not be writing about in December.

Mariah Carey
E=MC2
What's the buzz?
After Glitter, almost everyone figured the multi-octave singer's career was over. Then she rebounded with 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi, which hit number one and was nominated for 10 Grammy Awards. This similar-sounding follow-up stays on course.

Believe the hype?
Like Mimi, E=MC2 is loaded with sexy R&B cuts that fit Carey much better than all those sappy adult-contemporary songs she sang for all those years. It's her most consistent album and one of her best. Plus, it sounds like she's having fun — you can't say that about Charmbracelet.

Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists:
13 percent. We get all squishy inside when Carey sings "Let me wrap my thighs all around your waist/Just a little taste" in "Touch My Body," E=MC2's monster-size single. It's definitely one of the year's best songs. But Carey is a singles artist, not an album one.

Death Cab for Cutie
Narrow Stairs
What's the buzz?
Of all the sensitive indie rockers out there, Death Cab's guys are the most likely to apologize for something they didn't do. They prefaced their seventh album with one of the toughest tracks they ever recorded, "I Will Possess Your Heart' — a sprawling eight-minute noise workout about a very persistent stalker (aren't they all?). Singer Ben Gibbard doesn't even appear until the song is half over.

Believe the hype?
Narrow Stairs is by far the band's meatiest album. There are still plenty of lonely-guy musings, like "Your New Twin Sized Bed," in which the narrator throws away his mattress because it's too big for him (he's got no gal to share it with, you see). But the band has never rocked so hard — relatively speaking, of course.

Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists:
65 percent. There are some great songs here: "Cath . . ." and "Long Division." There are also some duds. How Death Cab checks in at the end of the year depends on whether any other sensitive indie-rockers decide to get tough in the next six months.

Santogold
Santogold
What's the buzz?
Santi White has done time behind the scenes as an A&R rep with Epic Records. She sang with ska-punk band Stiffed. And she penned songs for Lily Allen and Ashlee Simpson. Her debut album brings all of this experience to the mix.

Believe the hype?
White won't settle in one place long enough to be labeled. She's rightfully bitched about being called a hip-hop artist just because she's black. Sure, she raps, but she also squeals like a New Wave diva, stomps around like a disco mama, and makes a lot of guitar-based noise like an avant-pop weirdo.

Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists:
60 percent. Like M.I.A., Santogold fuses worldly rhythms to familiar pop structures. Critics like that. But there's so much going on here that it all gets a bit dizzying and taxing after a while. Critics don't like that.

Al Green
Lay It Down
What's the buzz?
The word comeback has been batted around several times since Green found God at the end of the '70s, right around the same time that his run of terrific hit singles stopped. But this is the first album to actually replicate the smooth, silky vibe of his classic recordings.

Believe the hype?
The Roots' ?uestlove, a connoisseur of old-school soul, produced — and got Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, and Corinne Bailey Rae to sing with the legend. Lay It Down is Green's best album since 1977's The Belle Album.

Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists:
40 percent. Lay It Down is a good album, not a great one. By December, critics will probably realize that, while it's nice to have the Reverend Al back, the record is no I'm Still in Love With You or Call Me. Or even The Belle Album.

My Morning Jacket
Evil Urges
What's the buzz?
These hairy Kentuckians' last two albums — 2003's It Still Moves and 2005's Z — restlessly hopped from one groove to another. Evil Urges is loaded with so many different sounds — space funk, indie pop, twang, R&B, Southern rock — it's like six CDs for the price of one.

Believe the hype?
The epic title tune starts off like a Prince-ly bedroom come-on, with frontman Jim James working his falsetto overtime. Halfway through, a freakout guitar jam is transported from another dimension. And that's just the first song.

Chance it'll make it on year-end Top 10 lists:
100 percent. The mind-blowing songs reveal new layers with every listen. Even the one about the sexy librarian will grow on you. Right now, it's the best album of the year.

 
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