We spent 2009 sorting through piles of folk and Americana releases, revising this list in our heads till the bitter end, and failing repeatedly to understand the hype behind the Avett Brothers in the process. While a year of listening brought no shortage of pleasant surprises, our hands-down favorite release of the year was still an album of classic Willie Nelson tunes. Go figure.
To Willie (Dead Oceans)
It's rare that a tribute album approaches the quality of the source material, rarer still when the source is Willie Nelson. Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck proves himself a master stylist on To Willie, however, probing the depths of the Red Headed Stranger's catalog and breathing new life into classic songs like "Walkin' " and "The Party's Over." In the case of "Reasons to Quit" and Houck's beautiful space-gospel treatment of "Can I Sleep in Your Arms," it's safe to say he even one-upped the originals. No wonder Willie himself invited the band to play Farm Aid and join him for a little puff-puff-pass on the Honeysuckle Rose.
To Be Still (Rough Trade)
Singer/songwriter Alela Diane may share a lot of history with her fellow freak-folk brethren (she and Joanna Newsom attended the same Nevada City, California, high school), but she's far more of a classicist than most of her peers. She prefers to wrap her gorgeous mountain alto around simple, tightly written Appalachian folk tunes rather than dabble in proggy and more pretentious British variations. The mournful "White as Diamonds" may well be the prettiest song of the year, and it says a lot that the other ten tracks here aren't far behind.
The Low Anthem
Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch)
The Low Anthem casts a wide net on the reissued Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, incorporating singing bowl, pump organ, and some lovely clarinet on songs that split the difference between Tom Waits-style barkers ("The Horizon Is a Beltway"), Leonard Cohenesque ballads ("Ticket Taker"), and quiet, falsetto hymns ("Charlie Darwin"). With a voice that can go from a gravelly bark to a dove-like coo, lead singer Ben Knox Miller has us looking forward to whatever he and his talented comrades do in the future.
Justin Townes Earle
Midnight at the Movies (Bloodshot)
It's hard to believe, but Justin Townes Earle may have shown up his famous dad this year, outdoing Steve's somewhat predictable Townes Van Zandt tribute with this subtle gem of a country record, which owes more to the ghosts of the Grand Ole Opry than anything on Copperhead Road. Songs like "Poor Fool" and the devastating "Mama's Eyes" ("I am my father's son/I've never known when to shut up") sound classic enough to be cribbed from the Hank Williams songbook while maintaining the contemporary sophistication of songwriters like Guy Clark. The fact that he finds the honky-tonk in a Replacements tune ("Can't Hardly Wait") is just icing on the cake.
Great Lake Swimmers
Lost Channels (Nettwerk)
Great Lake Swimmers frontman Tony Dekker has written his fair share of heartbreaking, reverb-soaked ballads in the past, but Lost Channels finds him and his band also dabbling in Waterboys-style folk rock. What results is the Swimmers' most varied and accessible recording to date, with "Palmistry" and "She Comes to Me in Dreams" upping the tempos ever so slightly between obligatory Dekker tearjerkers like "Concrete Heart."
Dave Rawlings Machine
A Friend of a Friend (Acony)
Longtime Gillian Welch collaborator David Rawlings steps out in front on this late-year contender, which sounds more like a long-lost '70s folk album (complete with the requisite freewheeling cover songs) than anything released in 2009. "Ruby" wouldn't sound out of place next to Jim Croce's "Operator" on your FM dial, while fans of Rawlings' distinctive, snaking acoustic guitar lines will drool over his ten-minute medley of Bright Eyes' "Method Acting" and Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer."
American Central Dust (Rounder)
After spending years frustrating fans who longed for another Trace with droning, Eastern-tinged solo excursions and two bloated, unfocused Son Volt "comeback" albums, Jay Farrar finally delivers the goods on American Central Dust, one of the year's most pleasant surprises. "Dust of Daylight" is a pure country shuffle nearly on par with fan favorites like "Windfall" and "St. Genevieve," while the sad-eyed Keith Richards tribute "Cocaine and Ashes" is easily the best song he's written in a decade.
Magnolia Electric Co.
Josephine (Secretly Canadian)
Josephine isn't quite another masterpiece equal to What Comes After the Blues or Magnolia Electric Co. Singer/songwriter Jason Molina, after all, is best digested in chunks of ten tracks or fewer, while Josephine checks in with 14. But the new album still features some of the best songs of Molina's career, in part because the tragic 2007 death of bandmate Evan Farrell lends an extra gravity to lonesome, teary-eyed country tunes like "Shenandoah" and "Whip-Poor-Will."
Somedays the Song Writes You (Dualtone)
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Is there a 68-year-old alive who sounds as effortlessly cool as Guy Clark? He's been remarkably consistent over the course of his career, never making a truly bad album (even in the '80s, when everyone else he knew was making them). With the arrival of Somedays the Song Writes You, it's becoming more and more apparent that he'll keep writing gorgeous, economically constructed country-folk songs like "Hemingway's Whiskey" ("Hemingway's whiskey/Warm and smooth and mean/Even when it burns, it'll always finish clean") till they lay him in his grave.
Hold Time (Merge)
M. Ward doesn't really break any new ground on Hold Time, but when you're one of the most distinctive singer/songwriters of your generation, additional innovation isn't really necessary. Everything you'd expect from Ward is here, from an expertly reimagined cover tune (Buddy Holly's "Rave On") to a classic Sun Records-worthy rave-up ("Never Had Nobody Like You") to the requisite slow-burning piano ballad (the title track). Considering that his uniformly excellent tunes also pretty much saved the Monsters of Folk record, it's safe to say that Ward had a good year.