(Alligator). The Bay Area soul-bluesman delivers his strongest effort, a muscular, full-bodied set that ranges from intense, Stax-like balladry to hell-bent roadhouse rocking.
James Hand, Shadow on the Ground (Rounder). The 57-year-old Texan and country traditionalist pours a lifetime of experience into his songs, creating a perfectly realized honky-tonk world, whiskey-stained and neon-lit.
Eilen Jewell, Sea of Tears (Signature Sounds). The singer with the sultry soprano expands her palette from classic country and hillbilly jazz to '50s- and '60s-style rock, but the results are just as mesmerizing as she explores the downside of love in devastating fashion.
Kieran Kane, Beyond the Roses (Compass). The Americana veteran conjures a seductive new sound, built on his banjo and the baritone sax of Lambchop's Deanna Varagona, to frame a typically unflinching batch of songs.
Miranda Lambert, Revolution (Columbia Nashville). With her third album, the 25-year-old Texas native embellishes her image as a country firebrand who can give as good as she gets from any guy, while also showing a senstive side.
Maria Muldaur, Maria Muldaur and Her Garden of Joy (Stony Plain). The "Midnight at the Oasis" singer returns to her jug-band roots of the '60s to create "Good Time Music for Hard Times," which shows just how much this old-time music can speak to the here and now. It edges Texas Sheiks (Tradition & Moderne), the new jug-band album by her ex-husband, Geoff Muldaur.
Tom Russell, Blood and Candle Smoke (Shout! Factory). The great Americana storyteller produces one of his deepest and most moving works, a 12-song cycle that's intimate and grand and, with the support of members of Calexico, his richest musically. This gets the nod in a photo finish over Todd Snider's ragged but righteous The Excitement Plan (Yep Roc).
George Strait, Twang (MCA Nashville). Nearly three decades into a career of remarkable artistic consistency and commercial clout, the smooth Texan manages to sound rejuvenated on this lively collection that even includes three originals - his first songwriting credits since his 1981 debut.
Various Artists, Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to the Songs of Chris Gaffney (Yep Roc). Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Dan Penn, and Dave Alvin, the set's organizer, are among the stellar artists who celebrate the late Chris Gaffney, bringing attention to an absolutely amazing, and unjustly obscure, songwriter. (He was also quite a singer - seek out his work with his band the Cold Hard Facts and as part of the Hacienda Brothers).