By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
2. Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings (Almo). Call it Welch's anti-Lilith Fair album, or call it Deis Irae. A feminist edge without fashion or sanctimony, songs that strip away self-obsessions to find a collective nightmare outside of time. A knife through history, a quiet damnation of the violence and isolation of our present day.
3. Mike Ireland and Holler, Learning How to Live (Sub Pop). A document of almost unbearable heartbreak, replete with some of the year's most soaring melodies and sung with a ripe, old-school country tenor that's lived the lies, loves, and fears the songs recount.
4. Chris Whitley, Dirt Floor (Messenger). The singer/songwriter's finest work, sheer and unfiltered. Dirt Floor affirms the power of song and voice, in a day when musical force has become confused with complexity of arrangements and amusing accoutrements.
5. David Murray, Creole (Justin Time). This hard-to-find import by a restless genius has shocking elegance and passion. Murray took his band -- flutist James Newton, pianist D.D. Jackson, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Hart -- to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and returned with an album unlike anything he's recorded. Bubbling with Latin, Afro-Caribbean and New Orleans strains, Creole weds Murray's mad, gorgeous solos with sexy, swinging arrangements, "world music" completely rewritten.
6. Sandy Denny, Gold Dust: Live at the Royalty (Island). Recorded five months before her death, this concert indicates all the power Denny's voice and vision promised. Although her final studio albums for Island possessed exceptional songs, the production was fuzzy. On this night in London, those songs come into focus. Denny's vocals are fantastically expressive, veering into jazz intricacy; the band, including Dave Mattacks on drums, Pete Wilsher on pedal steel and Trevor Lucas and Jerry Donahue on guitars, is sympathetic and rocks on demand. Nearly as thrilling a live set as Dylan's Albert Hall gig.
7. Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue (Elektra). Ponder, for a moment, what a failure this collaboration might have been. Take a prole-folk-rocker, a pop roots band and a shoebox of unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, step back, wait ... and the disaster never comes. Instead, the resulting rock & roll is ecstatic, spontaneous and in tune with Guthrie's radical political vision.
8. Matthew Ryan, May Day (A&M). My favorite rock & roll record of the year and, along with Ireland's, the most promising debut. Riding a guitar-smashing band, Ryan sings like a strung-out Springsteen and writes as if he's been listening to too much Bob Dylan. Good thing.
9. Ralph Stanley, Clinch Mountain Country (Rebel). Artist of the century? Consider Ralph Sr., one of bluegrass' founders and still the music's deepest, wisest voice. Two discs of duets with the likes of George Jones, Gillian Welch, Porter Wagoner and Bob Dylan, the whole is cemented by dead-eye bluegrass picking and Stanley's gentle, guiding hand. Another high point in his storied five-decade-long career.
10. Hazel Dickens, Carol Elizabeth Jones, Ginny Hawker, Heart of a Singer (Rounder). A woefully overlooked album, as beautiful as the Trio project by Parton, Harris and Ronstadt but with subtler material and even sweeter vocal ache. Fans of Iris Dement and Gillian Welch need to hear this.
Top five reissues:
1. Miles Davis, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia)
2. Bob Dylan and the Hawks, Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (Columbia).
3. John Coltrane, The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings (Impulse!)
4. Thelonious Monk, Monk Alone: The Complete Solo Studio Recordings 1962-1968 (Sony)
5. Ray Charles The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986 (Atlantic)
St. Etienne, Good Humour (Sub Pop). I have been a St. Etienne fan for years, and Good Humour is by far their most accomplished album, both musically and lyrically. Smooth beats, jazzy rhythms and Sarah Cracknell's sweet-and-sexy voice come together without a hitch on each and every song. This is a perfect pop album, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.
Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, It Takes One to Know One (Fat Possum). The very first album from 60-year-old buddies Early and Williams is a rocker and should keep all the "punk" kids on their toes. It Takes One summons the devil with a guitar, harmonica, drums and a big bucket of moonshine.
Godspeed You Black Emperor ° (Kranky Records). Like shadows stealing the day, Godspeed's atmospheric music can swipe away hope with songs that elicit devastatingly dark, edgy feelings. Awash in droning guitars, Morricone-influenced soundscapes and evocative strains of violin, the Godspeed orchestra surrounds the mind and forces the senses to reel.
Nine Pound Hammer, Live at the Vera (Scooch Pooch Records). Before there was Nashville Pussy there was Nine Pound Hammer. The neo-metal, all-shtick, no-substance rock of Nashville Pussy stinks, but Nine Pound Hammer spun fun, goofy, Southern-styled rock & roll. And they put on a hell of a live show in which music, not stage antics, mattered. Trailer-park-inspired tunes like "Headbangin' Stockboy," "Hayseed Timebomb" and "Redneck Romance" are silly but not insipid. Despite the unnecessarily long version of "Train Kept a Rollin'," the Hammer pound their way through 25 hook-laden tunes on this live CD.
Redd Volkaert, Telewacker (HMG/ Hightone Records). Canadian native Volkaert is Merle Haggard's lead guitarist, and his fancy pickin' and fast fretwork will appeal to the guitar nerd in everybody. Telewacker, his first effort, is filled with fiery blues and hot country licks.