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
Bill Frisell, Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, Bill Frisell With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones(Nonesuch). This compelling guitarist leads two jazz visionaries through a labyrinth of new, unpredictable songs, plus two standards: "Moon River" and "Hard Times." After 150 years, the latter finally tallies all the harrowing memories and incarnations of Stephen Foster's song -- and then cancels the count.
Blind Boys of Alabama, Spirit of the Century (EMD/Real World). Eight spirituals, two Tom Waits tunes, a Stones and Ben Harper song -- all testify that God is not dead. Four survivors of a seminal gospel group wail, scrape and soar to the heavy but spare grooves of slide man David Lindley, double bassist Danny Thompson and guitarist John Hammond. This is the gospel according to nothing but the truth.
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill). Five years after his last new record, Crowell gathers a dean's list of losers and bastards, lives poisoned by hate, deceit and dirt, and gives them the freedom and respect that society would deny. A white-trash fresco as honestly detailed as it is hopefully sung.
Césaria Evora, São Vicente (Windham Hill). Evora's music is called morna, but on this lavish, carnivalesque suite, sorrow gives way to succor, grief to ravishment. São Vicente is Evora's Black Orpheus. "Ah! Pain definitely exists," she sings in Portuguese, "but so does joy."
Ray Wylie Hubbard, Eternal and Lowdown (Rounder). The old master takes one step back from his weary troubadour role, jams a slide on his index finger, lets Gurf Morlix distill electricity like red-dirt hooch and winds up greasy, graced and defiled.
Cindy Bullens, Neverland (Artemis). Bullens fell off the radar screen after a solid rock effort in 1979. Now she's older, wiser, more aware of life's nagging inconsistencies and melodically richer than ever.
Continental Drifters, Better Day (Razor & Tie). You can easily hear the pain informing these songs. But America's best pop/rock band shines because of enough love and faith to overcome anything.
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid (Sugar Hill). His parents are dead, so everything Crowell held inside for fear of their questions comes tumbling out in a jumble of memoir, fiction, delight and fear.
Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia). After staring down death, Dylan comes out laughing, not to mention feeling generous. Producing the record himself, he achieves the loosest, grandest, most eloquent music he's made in 25 years. Consider this a love letter to the American musical forms that have nurtured him from the beginning -- and remember that love letters sometimes make you cry.
Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot). No rock & roll song kicked more butt this year than "Castanets." The rest of the record takes Escovedo's typical poignance and weds it to richly evocative production.
Buddy Guy, Sweet Tea (Silvertone). The Fat Possum artists (T-Model Ford, R.L. Burnside, et al.) use the blues as an exploration of the gaping maw inside life. But they never had a virtuoso guitarist shine such a powerful light inside that maw before. Guy hasn't had songs this good in 30 years.
Joe Henry, Scar (Mammoth). Dark, powerful, beautiful explorations of emotions at the center of events big and small, these songs are uniformly exquisite. "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," featuring a guest solo by Ornette Coleman, opens up all the possibilities of that title.
Dolly Parton, Little Sparrow (Sugar Hill). From bluegrass to Cole Porter to alternative-rock radio hits, the sources all fold into Parton's expansive worldview. Good times, bad times, entranced by life or hit in the face by it, Parton sings as if she's the one you trust to help.
Jill Scott, Experience: 826+ (Hidden Beach). One album to her name, and here comes a live follow-up. One disc is all songs from the last record, done freer and more jazzlike. The other disc is new material, almost as good. Scott examines moments and realizes there's more than one way to look at them.
Rufus Wainwright, Poses (Dreamworks). So he slurs his words into mush. That's because (a) he's so in love with the beautiful melodies he writes that he's in a hurry to get to the next note and (b) he knows you don't need to hear every word to get the romantic content of these songs.
White Stripes, White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry). They're as raw as you could want, but this brother/sister duo's bluesy punk is also surprisingly complex and artful. Jack White may sing like a young Robert Plant, but he's also a playful songwriter with a self-effacing wit.
I Am Kloot, Natural History (We Love You). Unlike most practioners of Brit pop's "new acoustic movement," Kloot writes songs that actually move. Thanks to a percussive guitar style, Natural History creates electricity without amps. Singer John Bramwell's snarky delivery mines lust out of dada lyrics where blood beats out "happily ever after" as a turn-on.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, BRMC (Virgin). This California trio came up with the year's most striking sound. BRMC throws the shimmery affectations of shoe-gazer pop into the grime of punk rock. They've mastered an atmosphere of doom more striking than most "plainclothes" Amerindie bands.