The best country and jazz albums of the year -- Lucinda Williams and Tom Harrell top the lists

The Best Country Albums — Alanna Nash

1 Car Wheels on a Gravel Road Lucinda Williams (Mercury)
Few country-folkies use the notion of small-town restlessness and the panacea of the road as well as Williams, who writes about Southern themes (liquor, lies, betrayal, snake handling) with a truth that suggests she’s never heard a formula country song. Her raw soprano, all exposed nerves and ganglia, is so full of yearning and desperation it sets the center of hell smack in the middle of Dixie.

2 The Key Vince Gill (MCA)
As mainstream country moves increasingly to the middle of the road, Gill pulls over to the traditional right with a hard-hitting collection of original bluegrass and barroom songs, drawn from the death of his father and his recent divorce. In setting aside his usual, amiable dance numbers for reflective meditations on loss and healing, the always graceful Gill comes close to greatness.

3 Alabama Song Allison Moorer (MCA)
In Nashville’s most stunning debut, Moorer proves herself a singer of deep resonance and a writer whose elegant style comes from a soulful integration of the late-’60s rock of Dylan/The Band and the early-’70s country of Haggard/Wynette. Alternately tough and vulnerable, Moorer sings from the very core of emotion, capturing, on those songs about the madness of heartache, the exact moment the world emptied by half.

The Best Jazz Albums — David Hajdu

1 The Art of Rhythm Tom Harrell (RCA Victo)
Think hip-hop has all the best beats? The jazz world reclaimed a territorial right over rhythm this year. Break-out percussionist Leon Parker had the jazz clubs pounding, and Randy Weston released another majestic exploration of Africana, Khepera (Verve). But this suite of Latin-influenced pieces (featuring Parker, Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, Dewey Redman, and others) is the jazz record of the year thanks to Harrell’s arrival as a composer and as the premier trumpeter of his generation. (Sorry, Wynton.)

2 Sky Piece The Thomas Chapin Trio (Knitting Factory)
Released shortly after saxophonist-composer Chapin’s death at 40, this dizzyingly imaginative set of originals is, ironically, one of the most vital, forward-looking jazz albums in years. Of a piece with the sky, indeed: cool, deep, and beautifully shaded with blues.

3 Shades of Bey Andy Bey (Evidence)
You don’t have to sound like Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra to be a jazz singer today. You can be utterly unique like the soulful pianist-singer Andy Bey and make a voice-and-small-band album as serious as the most ambitious orchestral jazz project. Singers of the future will surely be imitating Bey.