Our music writers pick the yearís national bests.

J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton, The Road to Escondido (Reprise). Slowhand reunites with J.J. Cale for a slinky session that harks back to the duo's cross-Atlantic partnership. Summoning second-generation ax work from John Mayer and Derek Trucks, the pair also enlists Albert Lee, Taj Mahal and the key work of the late, great Billy Preston, to whom the disc is dedicated. -- Nick Hutchinson

Ray Charles & the Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Sings Basie Swings (Concord). While this dream pairing never actually occurred, a digitally enhanced mash-up brings to life stone classics. Genius Loves Company producer John Burk has put together a swinging collection by lifting Charles's vocals from a trove of never-released recordings and adding tight arrangements by the current Basie band. -- Hutchinson

Jarvis Cocker, Jarvis (Rough Trade). Longtime Pulp fans might not appreciate the second solo record from its witty and charismatic frontman; many of the songs lack the group's seething passion, immediacy and grandeur. Cocker, however, can always be counted on for expert turns of phrase and supremely tuneful, ambitious songwriting across the board, and he doesn't disappoint here. -- Murphy

Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse (Verve Forecast). After Katrina, famed New Orleans balladeer Allen Toussaint relocated to New York, where he reconnected with longtime musical chum Elvis Costello. They put together this soulful compilation, which sees the Imposters and Toussaint's horn section polishing several Toussaint gems and introducing new collaborations by both tunesmiths. Costello's take on "Tears, Tears and More Tears" alone is worth the price of admission. -- Hutchinson

J.D. Crowe & the New South, Lefty's Old Guitar (Rounder Records). With more than fifty years under his belt, banjoist J.D. Crowe has inspired countless players -- including Tony Furtado -- who carry on in his tradition using discs like this one as a guide. Lefty's finds Crowe and company rambling from honky-tonk gamblin' numbers to old-time bluegrass and church-worthy gospel. -- Hutchinson

The Dears, Gang of Losers (Arts and Crafts). Stripped down, but still swooning theatrically, Toronto's best Brit-poppers unleash an intense record about growing old and settling down. Murray Lightburn and his gang of winners take Serge Gainsbourg, the Smiths and early Talking Heads for a moonlit cruise through the heavens, hells and purgatories of earthly existence -- and still manage to rock. -- Eyl

Johnny Dowd, Cruel Words (Bongo Beat). On disc, if not in life, Dowd is one twisted bastard. On songs such as "House of Pain," he delivers skewed tales of violence and/or malice over left-field rock that's as rudimentary as it is visceral. He even manages to turn "Johnny B. Goode" into a cry from the id. Nastiness never felt so nice. -- Roberts

Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Columbia). Thirty years after his only other number-one release, Dylan's latest briefly topped the charts, proving there's still some juice in the old tank. A well-conceived outing, Times melds upbeat shuffles with contemplative ballads and features trademark gravelly vocals, poetic songwriting and a colorful sense of history. -- Hutchinson

Envy, Insomniac Doze (Sonzai/Rock Action). Tokyo-based Envy returns to the forefront of emotional hardcore with this densely textured and rapturous release. The decade-old act blossoms on Doze, which is sown with vehement Japanese vocals that elegantly falter with each jubilant breakdown. The CD may only count seven tracks, but it's positively in full bloom. -- Nguyen

Erase Errata, Nightlife (Kill Rock Stars). After the departure of guitarist Sara Jaffe, the fate of this experimental noise-rock outfit from San Francisco was uncertain. But Nightlife furthers the band's rhythm-driven forays into dark moods and razor-sharp social critique. Inevitably compared to Gang of Four, this Errata incarnation has more in common with No Wave's sonic fearlessness. -- Murphy

Lupe Fiasco, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor (Atlantic). Hip-hop lovers frustrated by the formulaic and unimaginative nature of so many current mainstream releases will be heartened by this thrilling debut. Chicago-bred Fiasco is a protegé of both Jay-Z and Kanye West, but he's very much his own man -- lyrically incisive, musically ambitious and creatively distinctive, yet immediately accessible, too. Liquor is 100-proof. -- Roberts

The Flaming Lips, At War With the Mystics (Warner Brothers). With Mystics, the Lips bring their eccentric humor and warmth to bear on the excesses of the Bush administration. Mixing protest music with freaky art rock could have resulted in an awkward and unsatisfying affair. Instead, Oklahoma City's best sons produced another gorgeously lush and deeply affecting full-length. -- Murphy

Ghostface Killah, Fishscale (Def Jam). Besides the RZA, Ghostface is the only Wu-Tang member who consistently upholds Wu standards with every release. Some may find it difficult to decipher his lyrics, but Ghost is one of the few MCs who put thought into their rhymes. And on Fishscale, backed by RZA, Just Blaze and his Wu-Tang brethren, Ghost does it again. -- Quibian Salazar-Moreno

Girl Talk, Night Ripper (Illegal Art). Gregg Gillis takes the oh-so-2004 mash-up approach to a riot-inducing, dance-floor-pleasing extreme. Smashing Pumpkins, Ludacris and Boston get equal ADD treatment from the Pittsburgh plunderer. Ripper is as arch and winking as you'd expect, but also full of moments of clarity in which the glorious mountain of samples overshadows its petty parts. -- Eyl

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