1. Over the Rhine…..Ohio

Over the Rhine celebrate their tenth album by making it a double. What we get is one of the most powerful discs they’ve ever recorded, the soulful gospel/folk/rock that they do best. That disc is followed by another, more adventurous and experimental effort. Karin Bergquist sings like her life depends on it. She and her husband, songwriter/ keyboardist/ guitarist Linford Detweiler, have penned some of their most poetic and inspiring lyrics, taking us on a tour of heartbreak and struggling faith. Call it a heart attack in the heartland.

Essential tracks: Changes Come, Lifelong Fling, B.P.D., Ohio, Jesus in New Orleans

2. Joe Henry…..Tiny Voices

On the map of contemporary music, it is located at the crossroads between Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, and Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs. Henry tells abstract stories of life in a fractured world, where we live with suspicions of the sublime, but often settle for far less. The jazzy rock combo he has assembled for this record is brilliantly improvisational, making each song like a small miracle of spontaneity. “Loves You Madly” is as a punch-drunk pop number that’s as memorably sing-able as anything you’re likely to hear this year. A giant leap forward from his last release, the memorable Scar, Tiny Voices is a must-listen for any adventurous musical explorer.

Essential tracks: Loves You Madly, Tiny Voices, Your Side of My World, Animal Skin

3. Emmylou Harris…..Stumble Into Grace

A breathtakingly gorgeous piece of work, and the finest record Malcolm Burn has ever produced. Emmylou really pushes herself as a vocalist here, finding new textures, lighter touches, and a newfound enthusiasm for her ethereal falsetto. Her backing musicians couldn’t be a more talented bunch: Buddy Miller, Daniel Lanois, Malcolm Burn, Darryl Johnson, Brady Blade, with Julie Miller, Jane Siberry, Colin Linden, Kate McGarrigle. The songs include laments from the Almighty for the loss of his beloved creation and the creation’s laments for the loss of Eden and God. And smack in the middle of it all is a hymn-like tribute to Johnny and June Carter Cash. The album feels like the sequel to Wrecking Ball, but the true marvel is that she wrote all of these songs, where Wrecking Ball was a collection of great songs by other songwriters.

4. Daniel Lanois…..Shine

Another gorgeous, meditative work from a contemporary psalmist. Lanois has matured most of all as a vocalist. His sound remains familiar, sonorous, haunting and hushed. And his lyrics remain focused on a rather monastic call to freedom from the problems of possessions and temptations. This album, like Acadie, sounds one part travel journal, one part prayer journal: the diary of a pilgrim making progress.

5. Radiohead…..Hail to the Thief

On Hail to the Thief, Radiohead brings along a lot of the new sounds they invented and assembled on the journeys of their last few albums and returns to the land of verse/ chorus/ guitar-solo rock-and-roll. Thief is an angrier, edgier, darker cousin to OK Computer. And, unfortunately, it finds Thom Yorke still seeing gloom and doom everywhere he looks.

6. People You Meet…..People You Meet

Imagine if Pavement or Pedro the Lion went into a Sgt. Pepper mode… add touches of Beach Boys, U2, and Elliott Smith. Nathan Partain’s lyrics reflect heavy spiritual questions, and he voices them through intriguing, cryptic lyrics and storytelling that is striking and raw. His voice reminds me at times of Elliott Smith and Joseph Arthur, but he’s got more guts as a vocalist than either of them. (The second track “110” features some truly freaked-out “singing”.) It is hard to describe this experimental, energetic, reckless record. The music is the brainchild… more like brainstorm … of Partain and his guitarist/engineer Joel Garies. With help from Rick Jensen, they have mixed an album full of surprises. The mastering was done by Richard Dodd, who has mixed, mastered, produced, and played alongside such artists as Johnny Cash, Ashley Cleveland, Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Maria McKee, Wilco, and many others. Put simply, the record rocks. It’s one of the strongest things I’ve heard all year.

The band is just getting their operation up and running, but you can order the album via their website: http://www.peopleyoumeet.net. (The album’s only $13.50, and that includes shipping.) You can be one of the first “in the know” on these guys.

7. Lucinda Williams…..World Without Tears

Combining the in-studio immediacy of Essence with a stronger focus and some of her most bold and poetic lyrics, Williams has here forged what sounds to me like the sharpest and strongest album of her career.

8. The Innocence Mission….Befriended

Befriended is a fleeting beauty, like a beautiful long poem. Don Peris’s pristine production here achieves the finest mix the band has ever enjoyed, giving Karen’s voice unprecedented clarity, sparsely arranging creatively choreographed guitars.

9. Joseph Arthur…..Redemption’s Son
(technically a 2002 album, but wasn’t available here until this year)

An album full of ambitious, inventive, ponderous songs that range from Nine Inch Nails-style rage rock to U2 anthems of the power of love. Joseph Arthur is a one-man show par excellence, with heavy spiritual questions on his mind that sometimes threaten to swamp the songs in angst. While he could use an editor, his big ideas are truly impressive. Here’s hoping we hear a lot more from this guy.

10. Various Artists…..Crossing Jordan

Lousy t.v. show. GREAT collection.

I doubt there has been a better Various Artists album since O Brother, Where Art Thou. This one also happens to be produced by T-Bone Burnett as well, and features Sam Phillips, Richard Thompson, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams.

Others that never strayed far from my stereo this year:

Damien Jurado…..Where Shall You Take Me?
Sinead O’Connor…..She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High
Maria McKee…..High Dive
Gillian Welch…..Soul Journey
Elvis Costello…..North
Ryan Adams…..lloRnkcoR
Cat Power…..You are Free
Edie Brickell…..Volcano
Sting…..Sacred Love (except for that annoying single “Send Your Love”)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy…..Master and Everyone
Nathan Ryan…..Vincible
The Postal Service…..Give Up
Lost Dogs…..Nazarene Crying Towel
Steve Malkmus and the Jicks…..Pig Lib
Minus 5…..Down with Wilco