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
Melvins, The Crybaby (Ipecac). The Melvins play backup for a host of all-stars, finishing their triptych of albums with style. "We make music for stupid people, too," King Buzzo once confided. Yeah, well, at their stupidest, the Melvins still are smarter than everyone else. David Yow and Hank Williams III on the same album confirm it.
Mondo Generator, Cocaine Rodeo(Southern Lord). The secret identities of various Queens of the Stone Age rock out with tongues in cheeks and straws in their noses. The musical equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson arguing with a bored-out Chevy 350, Mondo Generator is no-frills gonzo rock & roll.
Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island). A scorched soul's secrets, that vast inner history of beauty and terror that, without music, without the kind of imagination and voice Lynne brings to her stories, might never be believed: I Am Shelby Lynne makes you believe and won't let you forget.
Dolly Varden, The Dumbest Magnets(Evil Teen). Chicago's Dolly Varden steps off the precipice of rootsy indie rock -- and soars. They can still rock madly but now handle emotional enigmas more delicately. An absolutely glowing album.
Johnny Cash, Solitary Man(American). Without ever trying, Cash's latest addition lays waste to our hunger for all things new and revolutionary. Such individual statements aren't hard for Cash, not when fate is dragging every syllable from his throat, not when he knows what's at stake: the unabridged story of one man's life, all our lives.
Marah, Kids in Philly (E-Squared). As Springsteen did with New Jersey, so Marah has done with Philadelphia. Through rock & roll that looks neither backward nor forward but all around and into every corner, no matter how dangerous or troubled, they create a dense, enduring mythology of urban America.
Larry Sparks, Special Delivery (Rebel). Sparks is one of the great bluegrass tenors, whose ripe, vital voice taps a mainline to the spirit. The songs he has now chosen are stories rooted in haunting images: devastated farms, a lonesome timberline, a Civil War letter, a snow-covered grave. Truth rings from every line.
Susana Baca, Eco de Sombras (Luaka Bop). Peruvian chanteuse Baca sings like Sarah Vaughan lost in luxuriant dreams of Amazonian rivers and unbearably rhythmic seas. "Like dawn, I drink awakenings," Baca sings, her voice a rivulet of fire, "I don't believe in the material." Everything disappears in Baca's voice; nothing seems real anymore.
Arthur Blythe Trio, Spirits in the Field(Savant). Sometimes it seems that the alto-saxophonist's time has come and gone. No, not yet, argues this live disc. Corresponding with Bob Stewart's pumping tuba and Cecil Brooks III's battering drums, Blythe sounds rejuvenated, almost religiously inspired.
Nadine, Lit Up from the Inside (Undertow). The car stereo is a good litmus test for great rock & roll. How many times can you play and rewind, play and rewind a cassette, never once taking it out? I stopped counting after replay 234.
Matthew Ryan, East Autumn Grin (A&M). Ryan's second album is an ambitious maelstrom of scathing, Dylanesque lyrics and gorgeous guitar rock that recalls the strung-out passion and rebellion of early U2 and the sonic mysteries of Daniel Lanois.
Justin Treviño, Loud Music and Strong Wine (Neon Nightmare). The best country album this year comes from a young, blind Texas honky-tonker. The sound is as majestic and subtle as anything Lefty Frizzell recorded, and the songs are unearthed from the least obvious country corners. Treviño isn't just well-suited to honky-tonk music: He embodies it.
AC/DC, Stiff Upper Lip (Elektra). It's the same old song, but how can you get tired of righteous riffing rock & roll, with more and different ways of celebrating the joys of down-and-dirty sex? This is music for the whole body, head to crotch.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night (Rounder). Gilmore sings the hell out of a crop of great songs from a crop of great writers, from Walter Hyatt to John Hiatt, from Butch Hancock to Jerry Garcia. The Garcia song can make your hair stand on end.
Madonna, Music (Maverick). Truth in labeling: This is music (of course), not near as good as Ray of Light but more consistently tuneful than most dance-oriented artists.
Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego). She's become so damn consistent, you'd hardly notice this is her career best, both lyrically and melodically. Her faith in beauty is absolutely intertwined with her bleak worldview.
Outkast, Stankonia (LaFace). It is no blight on the thousands of funk records to come out in between to say this is the hardest and catchiest set of booty-shakin' rhythms since Parliament-Funkadelic was on the Mothership.
Rockhouse Ramblers, Bar Time (Hayden's Ferry). Three great singers, all of them great songwriters, and two incredible guitar players: Five musicians matching the timeless verities of honky-tonk country to the freshness of a modern worldview.
Steely Dan, Two Against Nature (Warner Bros.). Two old reprobates get together and sing wonderfully intricate melodies with words about the delights of much younger women. Inspiration comes back after 20 years.
Teddy Thompson, Teddy Thompson (Virgin). His dad picks some delicate counterpoint and Emmylou Harris turns in a gorgeous guest spot, but the real treat is the songs, yearning, searching and as clear as an intelligent, educated, old-fashioned sensitive college kid can be.