The New Year brings with it promises of great new music, and so far, it's delivering.

I begin every new year with the excitement of a puppy. The slate is wiped clean and the new music that filters in carries with it much promise for the coming months.

Romantic? Possibly. A bit too pie-eyed? Probably. But nonetheless, there it is...

With just one month down, 2006 is shaping up to be quite a good one. From the dozens of discs already piling up, more than a few have joined the pool from which my year's personal favorites will emerge. And here's a warning: Most would fall in the category of "critical favorites," that is great music that will likely reach a smaller audience, but fill that crowd's musical heart with abounding love.

To put it another way, I've found that my favorite music rarely tops the pop charts. So what of it? What I'm already enjoying punches a hole squarely through an often heard declaration: "There's no good music these days." That's bulls***, I counter. Maybe you should scratch below the surface a bit.

One of the first to drag my ear this year has been the Elected's just released (Jan. 24) "Sun, Sun, Sun" (Sub Pop), the second album from the side project of Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett. With feet soaking in 1970s AM pop and classic rock, the album is ripe with examination of self and heart, laced with irony yet comforting and warm. Lush and buoyant, it's hard to believe that much of it was recorded in hotel rooms and vans while Sennett was on tour with RK.

Then there's a stack of things all due to emerge Feb. 7 -- why Feb. 7? I have no idea. It just seems to be a date that will be remembered for some awfully strong contenders, all of them from female artists.

Take Sarah Harmer's fourth album, "I'm a Mountain" (Cold Snap/Zoe/Rounder). Utterly charming, not quite back porch, but not far from the living room, the album sounds like a family album. It evokes feelings of belonging somewhere, to something bigger but cozy in your place. Unforced and unfettered, you can hear the smile on Harmer's face through much, which brings a smile to mine.

Then there's Beth Orton's "Comfort of Strangers" (Astralwerks). Generally, when you hear that an album was recorded in just two weeks, it leads one to think of less than fully conceived material. And that's so far off base from what this album delivers that I've come to see it as a ridiculous notion. While long associated with the electronic nature of her early work, Orton has been slipping further into the realm where Joni Mitchell has previously reigned supreme, that of the fearless singer/songwriter. Blending acoustic textures with a beautiful voice that runs from ardently cool to dripping with emotion, she strikes a chord that resonates.

And there's Hem's "No Word From Tom" (Nettwerk). Though the nice-piece group features but two women, it is Sally Ellyson's husky, sensual instrument that gives Hem its voice. A collection of covers and other odds and ends, the set soars on hushed elegance, not unlike their past work. But here songs as evocative as Tony Joe White's "Rainy Night in Georgia" or R.E.M.'s "South Central Rain" simply soar. A reworking of Fountains Of Wayne's "Radiation Vibe" takes on a new life, as do evolving gems from the band's catalog.

On Feb. 28, the world will have access to "My Flame Burns Blue" (Deutsche Grammophon), a live recording of Elvis Costello with the Metropole Orkest. This is a stunning document of a great idea. Not just symphony backing for an aging artist slapping out his hits, this is an inspiring exploration. Big jazz band arrangements of songs familiar and not are exciting and take unexpected turns... As Costello is an artist that seemingly never stands still, the capture of this moment in time is a blessing.

With these, plus already out and upcoming stuff from We Are Scientists, Teddy Thompson, Towers Of London, Garrison Starr, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness and People In Planes, I find myself eager, even giddy, for the coming months and that which I do not yet know is to come.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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