Kevin Gordon, Gloryland (Crowville). On his first album in seven years, the Nashville-based native Louisianan again blends literate yet elemental storytelling with a similarly rich amalgam of rock, country, blues, folk, and gospel. Not far behind is fellow Music City denizen Tommy Womack, who told more smart, funny, and perceptive aging-rocker tales on his Now What?
Wanda Jackson, Unfinished Business (Sugar Hill). At 75, the original "Queen of Rockabilly" can still rock like a "Fujiyama Mama," but this set also showcases her range, as she also kills with girl-group pop, uplifting gospel, and stone-country balladry. Another pioneering female rocker from the '50s, Janis Martin, also excelled with the posthumous The Blanco Sessions.
Jamey Johnson, Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran (Mercury). The current country star salutes one of country's all-time great songwriters with a perfectly realized, star-studded set that keeps the focus on those wonderful songs, such as "I Fall to Pieces" and "Make the World Go Away." Old reliable Alan Jackson also came through again with Thirty Miles West.
Janiva Magness, Stronger for It (Alligator). This R&B belter's album is fueled by loss and hurt, but it's much more than just a woman-scorned screed. Magness tells her own story of resilience and redemption mostly through cannily chosen songs by others.
JD McPherson, Signs & Signifiers (Rounder). This young Oklahoman can sound as if he stepped right out of the '50s, when R&B was morphing into rock-and-roll. But he pulls it off with too much skill and flair - and top-notch original material - to be dismissed as just a throwback. Same goes for Nick Waterhouse with Time's All Gone.
Iris DeMent, Sing the Delta (Flariella). Her first collection of original material in 16 years is a stunner that finds the Arkansas-born singer and songwriter cutting to the bone on songs about her parents and her native South, and grappling with her faith, all underpinned by country and gospel.
Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof (BNA). The former American Idol contestant really came into her own on her third album, a collection of 100-proof country that also shows she's a more than worthy writer.
Chris Smither, Hundred Dollar Valentine (Signature Sounds). Nobody philosophizes to the blues quite like Chris Smither, and his 12th album is another spellbinder, with his lyricism as fluid as his guitar-playing. This just gets the nod over Dion DiMucci's Tank Full of Blues.
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, Nashville Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down (Superlatone/Sugar Hill). Since he teamed up with the Fabulous Superlatives in 2001, Marty Stuart has been making the best music of his career. This is further evidence of that. Country to the bone.
Dwight Yoakam, 3 Pears (Warner Bros.). The Hollywood Hillbilly's first album in seven years is a spectacular return. Once again he stylishly synthesizes country, rock, and pop into an exceedingly rich vision that is thoroughly his own.