6. Slobberbone, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today (New West) From his earliest efforts as an East Texas punk rocker to his Denton garage band days, through the various mutations of Slobberbone's twang-core, singer-songwriter Brent Best has been in constant pursuit of a particular sound; this record is the product of an artist finally finding what he's been looking for. From the opening 12-string/fiddle salvo of "Meltdown" to the pop songcraft of "Bright Eyes Darkened," the love-haunts-eternal ballad "Josephine" to the chugging banjo wail of "Pinball Song," Slobberbone has created a sprawling and varied effort that belies its reputation as the AC/DC of alt-country. Whether joking around on "Lazy Guy, "a banjo-fueled paean to perennial shiftlessness (on which Best duets with the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood) or paying homage to the Replacements with the searing "Placemat Blues," Slobberbone hits a creative high watermark, fashioning an almost flawless 14-song disc rich with power, passion and pathos.
7. Speedbuggy USA, Cowboys and Aliens (Headhunter/Cargo) An uncommonly well-crafted and tuneful cowpunk effort that actually captures the vibe the Supersuckers fell short of finding on their "gone country" album Must've Been High. The inherent authenticity of singer Timbo's guttural growl carries along twang-filled laments like "Somewhere in America" and "Live Through This Pain" as well as three-chord scorchers like "GTO" and "On Top of the World." Cowboys and Aliens is unfailingly droll and a thing of wretched, drunken splendor. A Southern accent here, pedal steel hook there, melody everywhere.
8. Radio 4, The New Song and Dance (Gernblandsten) This New York trio made the year's best and most unexpected punk record by creating a pastiche of its main influences: Gang of Four, Clash, Jam, Magazine. Prickly guitars, dubby bass 'n' drum dropouts and massive Strummer/Jones-style choruses merge to form a handful of terse, tight and memorable tracks, making The New Song and Dance a perfect snapshot of the oft-neglected subgenre of art-punk.
9. The Mooney Suzuki, People Get Ready (Estrus) Though not quite as good as last year's top trash rock offering -- The Go's Watcha Doin' -- NYC's the Mooney Suzuki shines on its debut long-player with a sound that pilfers from all the usual suspects: the Stones, Detroit proto-punkers MC5 and the Stooges, Nuggets- and Pebbles-style garage rock, etc. The band rises above its competition (most notably the Delta 72's 000) with a strong batch of songs and the added advantage of a bowery swagger worthy of the New York Dolls.
10. Beachwood Sparks, Beachwood Sparks (Sub Pop) The cosmic American muse of Gram Parsons (coupled with elements of the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield) gets a reworking through the harmony-filled psychedelic country of this L.A. outfit. While Parsons' trail has been tread and retread over the years, the Beachwood Sparks' self-titled debut (featuring the standout cuts "Something I Don't Recognize" and "Old Sea Miner") incorporates enough postmodern flourishes to make it into the top 10.
Best Reissue: This is an especially hard category to pick this year, with so many titles being reissued, remastered and expanded. Capitol Records earns points for a much-needed digital update of The Band's first four albums, as well as its efforts with the Beach Boys' '70s and '80s catalogue. But the top honor goes to a late entry from New York's Sundazed Records, which released Buck Owens and the Buckaroos' 1966 Carnegie Hall Concert album, as well as compiled Country Pickin', a long-overdue anthology of the work of Owens' sideman Don Rich, one of the most overlooked and unsung heroes in country music history.
1. Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American Recordings) Cash states in Solitary Man's liner notes that he began this album intending it to be his last. I hope to God not, but if Cash were consciously going to cap his career -- that is, if he chose to do so -- this album comes whisper-close to realizing all that's powerful and committed about his life's work. For my money, nothing else released this year even breaches the walls of this record, which is dark and fine and forgiving and all the things the mystery of faith is supposed to be.