1. John Mellencamp – No Better Than This [Rounder]
Not that he needed it, but this may well be John’s Nebraska moment, where he finally wins over his detractors. By making an album he wanted to make instead of one a record company wanted him to make, he charts a course for the rest of his career.
2. Ray Wylie Hubbard – A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C) [Bordello]
There’s more to this Okie turned Texas legend than “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother.” Featuring bottleneck blues and lyrical detail to make a poet blush, this may be his crowning achievement.
3. Jason & The Scorchers – Halcyon Times [Blue Rose]
After their third and longest break up (nearly 15 years), Jason Ringenberg and Warner Hodges, the Mick and Keith of cowpunk, put aside their differences (Are we AC/DC or are we Johnny Cash?) and hit the sweet spot that made them so fresh in the mid-80s. The question is, can they do it again?
4. Yarn – Come On In [United For Opportunity]
A California sounding country rock band from Brooklyn? You betcha. Reviewers cite Steve Earle, John Prine, Ryan Adams, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. They’re not right, but they’re not wrong, and that list makes you want to listen, doesn’t it? Well worth it. After all, Brooklyn is south New York.
5. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do [ATO]
In a stride most thought they’d never reach again after the departure of Jason Isbell, the Truckers hit it out of the park with “Daddy Learned To Fly,” probably my favorite song of the year. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have a knack for revealing wild characters and wilder situations when they peek behind closed doors. Plus, they know how to rock. Americana needs more rock.
6. Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three – Riverboat Soul [Free Dirt]
Let’s be honest, I never expected a ragtime blues swing album to light me on fire in 2010. But St. Louis singer Pokey LaFarge channels Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, so how can you go wrong? This is an album Old Crow Medicine Show wishes they had made.
7. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am [Hag/Vanguard]
When so many stars of country’s heyday have become caricatures of themselves, Merle stands tall, quietly oozing integrity and genius. Blowing off hipster producers left and right, Merle keeps hitting the sweet, simple spots that Hank Williams mined regularly. God love him.
8. Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore – Dear Companion [Sub Pop]
With Jim James producing, this is a love letter of three Kentucky boys for their home state. Central Appalachia may be the focus, but all of Kentucky benefits from this gorgeous album. They sing “this is only a song, it can’t change the world.” Let’s hope they’re wrong.
9. Tom Jones – Praise & Blame [Island/Lost Highway]
How could the Welsh Elvis get any cooler? By dropping a slab of kickass gospel on an unsuspecting world like a pound of bacon on a hot skillet. Believe.
10. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone [Anti-]
One might be tempted to say Mavis Staples benefits from being the singer on a new Wilco gospel album. I’m more tempted to say there would be no Wilco without the Staples Singers in the first place. A marriage made in heaven.
11. Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Cairo Gang – The Wonder Show Of The World [Palace/Drag City]
For a guy that supposedly can’t sing, Will Oldham, delivers one tender chestnut after another. Either he’s serially interesting or I have a bromance. Can’t it be both?
12. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy [Dead Oceans]
Matthew Houck is from Athens, Georgia. He is the only permanent member of Phosphorescent. His last release was an album of Willie Nelson covers. The new album’s subtitle is “Tho The Jaws Of This World Wish Only To Grab Hold Of Your Sweet Ass.” What else do you need to know?
13. Johnny Berry & The Outliers – Bourbon Spearmint & Ice [self-released]
Louisville’s King of Country Music delivers his most consistent recording yet. Yes, the honkytonk hardwood floor stompers are here, but so are tender love songs and an ode to Kentucky that reveal a new songwriting maturity. It helps to have the best guitarist in the state, Steve Cooley, playing in your band. Star quality waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
14. Mary Gauthier – The Foundling [Razor & Tie]
Mary Gauthier (say go-shay, y’all) is a truth teller. On this album, which documents her life as an orphan wondering who she is, she concludes, “There’s freedom in knowing you don’t have to know it all.” Kris Kristofferson couldn’t have said it better.
15. Patty Griffin – Downtown Church [Credential]
The third gospel record on this year’s list is from Americana’s new Emmylou Harris. Produced by everyone’s buddy, Buddy Miller, it’s a T-Bone Burnett affair without the T-Bone. Any album with the McCrary Sisters singing has an unfair advantage right off the bat.
16. Thomas A. Minor & The Picket Line – Thomas A. Minor & The Picket Line [In Room One]
A really good reason to be excited about the roots music scene in Louisville. Oscar Parsons & company are the real deal. I can’t wait for the next one.
17. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song [Mercury]
This Alabama native and ex-Marine is single-handedly saving country music from itself. File between Jennings and Jones.
18. Blue Rodeo – The Things We Left Behind [TeleSoul]
In Canada, they are a veritable institution. Formed in 1987, Canada’s Beatles sell more like Canada’s Jayhawks in the states. Never mind, just go buy this double album and enjoy the stellar songwriting of Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor.
19. Jim Lauderdale – Patchwork River [Thirty Tigers]
Something about working with Robert Hunter brings out the best in Jim Lauderdale, which makes no sense to me. But you can’t argue with the results. Check out “Jawbone” and “Louisville Roll” for proof.
20. Doug Paisley – Constant Companion [No Quarter]
I don’t know Mike Wolf of No Quarter records, but he said this: “Constant Companion isn’t a sad album. It’s just kind of about sad things, and how we carry them around. And anyway, once you look at them in Paisley light, you realize that there’s less sad to it. Stuff just is. Things fade out and others always fade in. I admit that at first I thought it was for sad things, but like most great albums, Constant Companion is really about love.” I don’t have anything to add to that.