My Morning Jacket, Z (ATO): Sure, the lyrics are stupid (burning kittens and babies in blenders, anyone?), and the pub-rock/Hawaii 5-0/carnival-in-Hell middle stretch of the record sags a bit, but the seven majestic masterpieces that bookend Z more than make up for those shortcomings. It'll remind you of everything from the Celtic righteous-rock of U2 to the fretboards afire/full-tilt keyboard attack of the Allmans ("Lay Low") to the narcodelic wooze of midperiod Floyd. All that and occasional tinges of classical piano, soca, and West African highlife guitars.
M. Ward, Transistor Radio (Merge): Ward's Transistor Radio broadcasts from a stack of 78s that fell through a crack in time in Greil Marcus's "old, weird America" back when country was blues was jazz was pop; back when people drank legal cocaine in soda bottles and shot morphine before lunch. Ward has a ghostly tenor and is a deft acoustic fingerpicker of the John Fahey school, and with fellow West Coasters Two Gallants and Jolie Holland, he forms a whole new generation of blues-drenched folkies who will be heard by a wider audience in the next few years. Might as well get on the bandwagon now.
Otis Taylor, Below the Fold (Telarc): Imagine if Flatt and Scruggs made a tribute album to Mississippi Fred McDowell with new lyrics written by Chuck D. and sung by Ted Hawkins. That's the best way I can describe the eerie, cathartic postmodern trance blues of Chicago-born, Denver-bred Taylor, who sings and plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mandolin here. He is also one of the darkest and most compelling songwriters to have worked in the medium, a guy who says explicitly what earlier generations of bluesmen would say only in code. And come to think of it, Taylor is not a bluesman at all he's an artist who works in blues in much the same way Picasso did.
Freakwater, Freakwater Is Thinking of You ... (Thrill Jockey): Nobody in alt-country keeps it more real, rougher, and more plaintive than Freakwater, whose coarse female harmonies sound exactly like those on crackly AM gospel radio in backwoods Appalachia. Lots of artists pay lip service to the ramshackle charms of the Carter family, but only Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin carry it off masterfully. This is the kind of music that'll brighten your nights and darken your days. Together with fellow Kentuckians My Morning Jacket, Freakwater helped make this a great year for Louisville's hugely strange music scene.