1. Bruce Springsteen, "Working On A Dream," Columbia Records
It is ironic that I am naming Bruce Springsteen's "Working On A Dream" as Album of the Year because it was only 37 years ago that I passed on reviewing his "Greetings From Asbury Park." With all of the assumed arrogance and wishful wisdom of a crusty college kid critic, I let my underground newspaper editor know that both Bruce Springsteen and John Prine's albums were much too Dylan derivative to be taken seriously.
But as Dylan sang, "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now." I was completely wrong about both Springsteen and Prine's first albums. Like a picky eating kid who hastily rejects green beans and brussels sprouts, I almost missed out on two of the most essential building blocks of the modern-day American music diet. We all would have choked and croaked on the anemic and often arsenic-laced pablum of one-hit wonders if it hadn't been for Springsteen, Prine and a couple dozen other perennially productive and inspired artists.
Still struggling with the themes of life, death, loss and love, Springsteen squeezes sparks into embers that ignite full-flamed, floral fires from his imagination. The layered production is often as full and wide as the Americana landscape that he writes about. From the Paul Bunyan-tinged opening comical epic fable of "Outlaw Pete" to the closing soundtrack bonus of the Golden Globe-winning theme from "The Wrestler," Springsteen packs this album tighter than a tin of Vienna sausages.
2. Bob Dylan, "Together Through Time," Columbia Records
This album runs like a surprise first set of all-new songs at a Dylan concert. You don't recognize a single song, yet you know that they belong to Bob. And that includes Willie Dixon's "My Wife's Home Town," which now becomes a Bob Dylan song. Recorded with his touring band and David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, the music flows as smooth and snug as a Freightliner truck hugs the road. Lyrically, he has reunited after more than two decades with Jerry Garcia's wordsmith Robert Hunter, co-writing eight of the 10 songs. As the closing track boasts, "It's All Good."
3. Booker T, "Potato Hole," Anti-Epitaph
Yes, this is that Booker T and, no, none of the "Potato Hole" songs will probably be as timeless as his "Green Onions" mega hit. But you won't lose any time in putting this instrumental CD on repeat play. Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers weave a weighty web of unexpected funky rock with Booker T. Jones' Hammond B-3 organ. This is Booker T's first solo album in 20 years and definitely worth the wait.
4. Rosanne Cash, "The List," Manhattan Records
"The List" refers to the 100 songs that Roseanne Cash's father, Johnny, gave her when she was 18. Johnny was disappointed that his teenage daughter only knew songs that she had heard on the radio. He presented Rosanne with a list of what he considered to be the top 100 essential American songs. Roseanne has validated her father's choices by recording one of the classic and probably most enduring albums of her career.
5. Mark Knopfler, "Get Lucky," Reprise Records
The lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of Dire Straits continues to peel back the onion layers of stadium rock music to reveal even more melodic modern Celtic folk tunes. Knopfler may have traded stadium venues for parlors but he has never scaled back the quality or appeal of his compositions. The finger picking style of Knopfler's guitar will pull you in but his storytelling songs will seal the deal.
6. Tom Petty The Heartbreakers, "Live Anthology," Reprise Records
This affordable, four-disc, 48-song CD box set should have been marketed as the Swiss Army knife of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' career. Peppered between his own hit parade, Petty pays tribute to The Grateful Dead, Ray Charles and Booker T and digs deep into his rock-garden past to unearth his roots to the seminal Yardbirds and The Dave Clark Five. If you can't tote their complete tool box of tunes, these 48, sharp, shiny blades of steel will pioneer your Petty expedition.
7. Willie Nelson Asleep At The Wheel, "Willie and the Wheel," Bismeaux Records
The pairing of Willie and Ray Benson's Asleep At The Wheel is the best musical collaboration of the year. Together they swing the music of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and Milton Browne to the thirsty ears of a new generation.
8. Todd Snider, "Excitement Plan," Yep Rock
Mostly funny, folk-based songs that blow a mighty wind of fresh air into the Sargasso Sea of the stagnated state of today's folk scene. Think of Snider as a playfully snide youthful John Prine with unexpected streaks of dark humor.
9. Tom Russell, "Blood and Candle Smoke," Shout
Tom Russell seems like a mythical character from a Warren Zevon song. Hell, he just could be "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner." It's hard to separate his seemingly biographical songs from fiction. Russell only muddies the water, singing, "That's my story and I'm sticking to it," in "Criminology" on his experiences in Africa and Canada in the late 1960s. This is Russell's 20th album, and he just keeps getting better.
10. Steve Earle, "Towne," New West
It takes a songwriter to really appreciate the sizzle, steam and stick-to-your-ribs appeal of another songwriter. Steve Earle has packed up a perfect platter of Townes Van Zandt's songbook with a succulent stripped down stock of acoustic instruments and electric guitars. One whiff of Earle's "Townes" will not satisfy your aural appetite. If you can't get your fill, try the late Townes Van Zandt's original recipe.