Now more than ever we need topical songs, the ones that sing loud and long about the elephant in the room — the stuff Atomic Duo specializes in. Silas Lowe and Mark Rubin, mandolin and guitar respectively, write and sing in the old country style about broken hearts and empty wallets.
2. Guy Davis
The Adventures of Fishy Waters | (Smokey Doke)
An actor, a brilliant guitarist and the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Guy Davis was born and built to make The Adventures of Fishy Waters. This concept album — centered around a wily, fictional bluesman — explores Southern African-American life in the early 20th century and calls on Davis to expertly reproduce a number of early styles.
3. Eric Bibb
Deeper in the Well | (Stony Plain)
Carrying on in his father Leon’s footsteps, Eric Bibb writes songs that are by turns plaintive and encouraging, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and a diverse group of roots players hailing from Appalachia to Louisiana.
4. Susan Watts
Hartsklap | (self-released)
Fourth-generation klezmer musician Susan Watts carries on her family’s heritage with subtle virtuosity. Her Ella-style scatting in Yiddish (“Joseph, Joseph”) keeps the material fresh and alive, but still indisputably klez.
5. Los Texmaniacs
Texas Towns and Tex-Mex Sounds (Smithsonian/Folkways)
This is border music at its best, sung in Spanish and English just like it gets mixed up in the dance halls. “El Paso” gets that accordion bounce then segues into western swing with the all-star-studded “San Antonio Rose.” For pure conjunto, try “Viva Seguin,” with Max Baca’s bajo sexto chasing David Farias’ frisky squeezebox all over the fretboard.
6. The Time Jumpers
The Time Jumpers | (Rounder)
Beyond hot instrumentals by these legendary Nashville jammers, icons like Vince Gill, Ranger Doug and Dawn Sears add sweet vocals to a collection of tracks suitable for dancing, from cheek-to-cheek (“Faint of Heart”) to jitterbug (“Outskirts of Town”) to two-step (“Yodel Blues”).
7. David Olney
Body of Evidence | (Deadbeet)
What will it take for Olney to shake that “underrated story-spinner” status? He continues to write songs that must be savored; there are no wasted words or images. Olney rocks some of the tragedies hard, then switches to lighter and more softly accompanied stuff, making the stories all the sadder.
8. Bonnie Raitt
Slipstream | (Redwing)
When Bonnie Raitt scored a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association this year, there was a momentary pause. Was this the edge of retirement? Hardly. Raitt’s singing and guitar playing, both electric and acoustic, are as juicy as ever. She continues to rock without hesitation, and talk about soulful — she can turn Loudon Wainwright’s folky lyrics to R&B.
9. Peter Ostroushko
The Mando Chronicles | (Red House)
Peter Ostroushko’s most widespread fame has come via A Prairie Home Companion, but he’s been working all possible approaches to mandolin for decades. This set of three CDs celebrates a world of acoustic instrumentals, featuring Ostroushko and a phone book of stars tackling everything from Brazilian dance tunes to Bach sonatas to Paganini minuets to a tarantella, then back to the Ukrainian tunes of Ostroushko’s youth.
10. Nuala Kennedy
Noble Stranger | (Compass)
Celtic flute made Kennedy’s rep, but it shares the spotlight with her singing of contemporary originals in a voice as high and sweet as her chosen instrument. She’s setting the pattern for 21st-century Celtic music.