1. Patti Smith, Gung Ho (Arista). It's more polished than her '90s work, but inspiring still. Who else could pull off the fury and audacity of the first-person slave narrative in "Strange Messenger" (RealAudioexcerpt)? Better still is the promo single of this album's "New Party" (RealAudio excerpt),
which includes a live reading of the "Declaration of Independence" that's pure rebellion and patriotism.
2. Mekons, Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick). And what a long, lonely journey it is. Britain's famed art-punks gave us a poignant document, full of texture and detail. Exactly the kind of work to withstand repeated plays through the many dark hours till morning.
3. Sonic Youth, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen). The Sonics smartly continue their search for new sounds without venturing out of their own back yard. A welcome return to focus and cohesion.
4. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra). The boys' adventures with Woody Guthrie's words get weirder. The romance of "Remember the Mountain Bed" (RealAudio excerpt) is the centerpiece, but I prefer "Blood of the Lamb," a song rare for professing faith while walking through the scary aspects of everyday Christian imagery.
5. Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot). If country radio sounded like this, I'd hardly ever turn on NPR. An excellent blend of heartbreak, anger, joy and strength, painted with rich vocals and crisp arrangements.
6. North Mississippi Allstars, Shake Hands With Shorty (Tone-Cool). "Shake 'Em on Down" (RealAudio excerpt) is the No-Miss Allstars' best amalgam of country blues, fat rock and hip-hop, but this album is sharp through and through, and no novelty blend. If they can make this punk guy appreciate Allmans-style dual guitar jams, they're doing something right.
7. Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). This is a career summary album, full of superlatives: S-K's best lyrics, best git licks, best harmonies, best drumming, best sense of self-awareness, best critique of the rock today and best rededication to their own ideals.
8. The White Stripes, "Jolene" and De Stijl (Sympathy for the Record Industry). Jack White, half of this brother-sister duo, is a sharp guitarist and songwriter, but his threadbare vocals really put their second album across. Even better is their cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" on the B-side to their "Hello Operator" single. The band renders Parton's plea of jealousy in a metallic piece of painfully desperate gay pining.
9. The Need, The Need Is Dead (Chainsaw). I don't know exactly what's going on in this story album, but I can guarantee you won't hear another disc that welds punk, electronic, metal and show tunes in quite the same way. The Need also turn up on the self-titled EP by Two Ton Boa, a two-bass-and-drums outfit with a refreshingly inventive and vulnerable take on metal.
10. Merle Haggard, If I Could Only Fly (Anti). The first nine of a top 10 always line up pretty easily for me, but sealing that final slot is tough, particularly when I think back on how many albums I didn't spend enough time with. Oh well. I'm gonna toss the Hag in here, because I can see myself listening to this family man disc for years to come, and because "Wishing All the Old Things Were New" (RealAudio excerpt) is the most honest addiction song I've heard.
(Chris Nelson has written about music for MTVi, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rolling Stone, and is writing a book on the history of the riot grrrl scene.)
(Click here to see all of Sonicnet's critics' picks, in rock/pop, hip-hop/R&B, dance/electronic, country, blues/folk, world, jazz and classical.)