1 Dixie Chicks
Taking the Long Way Open Wide/Columbia
Whatever you think of their best-defense-is-a-good-offense PR front, you'll find tenderness, doubt, even vulnerability in this portrait of love amid adversity... along with, yeah, some self-righteous bravado. Even if it's for the wrong political-statement reasons, the Grammys just might get it right this year.
2 Lily Allen
Alright, Still Regal
We didn't mind paying hefty import prices to get a jump on the most exhilarating pop debut in years. Recalling mouthy Blighty lasses from Kirsty MacColl to Neneh Cherry, Allen arrives armed with a brilliant arsenal of ska- and hip-hop-influenced hooks...including the verbal left ones she delivers to exes and unworthy nightclub suitors.
3 The Beatles
If you really stopped to think about how vastly the Fabs' body of work outshines anything being created today, you'd cry. Fortunately, the Martins' fresh pastiches keep you laughing with gleeful surprise.
4 Drive-By Truckers
A Blessing and a Curse New West
Somehow, the DBTs manage to be America's greatest live rock & roll band while also being major tragedians. ''It's gonna be a world of hurt,'' goes the mantra-like closing refrain which doesn't stop 'em from also asserting that ''it's great to be alive,'' and proving it with rowdy joie de vivre.
5 Vince Gill
These Days MCA Nashville
It seemed like folly, a four-CD boxed set of all-new material. But whether Gill's applying his pure tenor to pop balladry, peeling off blues licks, lifting up bluegrass praises, or burning down the honky-tonks, his quartet of genre-specific discs proves he's one of the most talented guys in music, period.
6 Ray Davies
Other People's Lives V2
You expect and get hummable drolleries. But the surprise on the Kinks leader's solo debut is how much more the oft-guarded Davies allows us into his inner emotional life, that sly red herring of a title notwithstanding.
7 The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America Vagrant
You don't listen to a CD from emo-centric Vagrant and expect to hear echoes of Thin Lizzy and the E Street Band. But that's what you get with these guys, who riff on classic rock, reeling through literate tales of characters undone by drug and/or dating disasters.
8 Lupe Fiasco
Food & Liquor 1st & 15th/Atlantic
Fiasco nearly beats mentor Kanye by deftly fusing orchestrated old-soul touches to a subversively upbeat flow. He's even made a ''positive hip-hop'' album that isn't just about how positively wonderful he is.
9 Alan Jackson
Like Red on a Rose Arista Nashville
Producer Alison Krauss has Jackson suddenly sounding more like Gordon Lightfoot than George Jones, which is perfect casting for this superior set of lonely-hearted road ballads.
10 Jerry Lee Lewis
Last Man Standing Artists First
If you've struggled through Ray Charles' and Tony Bennett's duets albums, you might groan at another, except here the selection of partners, almost all next-generation rockers, makes sense. But Jerry's the real attraction: They still haven't built a better rock star.