(Tall Girl). An artist couldn't ask for a more beautifully wrought and moving memorial than Marshall Chapman delivers here for her fellow roots-rocker Tim Krekel, who died in 2009. Poignant originals and perfectly chosen covers ("Going Away Party," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") are capped by a rousing live take of Chapman and Krekel performing their cowritten "I Love Everybody."
Bobby Charles, Timeless (Rice 'N Gravy). The south Louisiana songwriting great was as good as he'd ever been with the New Orleans- and bayou-steeped numbers on this posthumous release - he died in January at 71. The insanely catchy and infectiously joyous "Happy Birthday, Fats Domino" captures the essence of Charles' down-home simplicity and soulfulness.
Mary Gauthier, The Foundling (Razor & Tie). The veteran singer and songwriter outdoes herself with an utterly gripping and unflinching autobiographical account of being an orphan and failing to connect with her birth mother. Producer Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies surrounds her Louisiana drawl with understated but richly evocative arrangements.
The Holmes Brothers, Feed My Soul (Alligator). These three graybeards return with another spirit-nourishing roots-music melting pot that blends juke-joint rambunctiousness with churchy uplift. Two other gospel-flavored entries from old-timers are worthy of a nod: Mavis Staples' You Are Not Alone (Anti-) and Tom Jones' Praise and Blame (Lost Highway).
Alan Jackson, Freight Train (Arista Nashville). What can you say? The country superstar just seems to be getting better with age. He keeps this up, he'll be up there with such legends as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who, with Country Music (Rounder) and I Am What I Am (Hag), respectively, also made superlative albums this year.
Jason & the Scorchers, Halcyon Times (Courageous Chicken/Nash Vegas Flash). Fourteen years after their last album together, front man Jason Ringenberg and guitarist Warner E. Hodges are back with a new rhythm section and the old fire, revisiting the blend of twang and rock they helped pioneer in the '80s. In a photo finish, they edge Welder (31 Tigers) by another firecracker, Elizabeth Cook.
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song (Mercury). The bearded and long-haired Alabama native may look like a '70s throwback, but this ambitious two-CD, 25-song set builds on the true legacy of the Waylon-and-Willie "Outlaw" movement, which was all about creative control and being yourself. It just gets the nod over Bullets in the Gun (Show Dog/Universal), Toby Keith's best effort in years.
Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez, The Deep End (Horizon Music Group). The guitarist and singer with the Saturday Night Live band features some notable musical friends here, including Ian Hunter, Dion DiMucci, and Marshall Crenshaw, but it doesn't obscure the fact that she is a dynamic rocker who draws on soul and blues in ways that give her music a classic feel even as it pulses with her own personality.
Marty Stuart, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions (Sugar Hill). The country traditionalist has been on a roll over the last decade, and it's capped by this spirited set of mostly originals that nods to Bakersfield, Johnny Cash, and Porter Wagoner. Stuart's Train comes in just ahead of Texas honky-tonker Dale Watson, who also continues to put his own stamp on vintage country with Carryin' On (E1), featuring pedal-steel master Lloyd Green.
Peter Wolf, Midnight Souvenirs (UMe/Verve). At 64, the former manic front man for the J. Geils Band continues to refine the often intimate, soul-baring style he has developed over his solo career, with songs informed by his passion for vintage R&B, rock-and-roll, country, and even Philly soul. Also operating at a peak is 66-year-old bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, who draws on his own life for the songs on The Well, and in doing so demonstrates the continuing vitality of the blues.