Since their debut album, Still Crooked, Crooked Still has been one of the finest, most innovative and creative bands in contemporary stringband music. Though they're often auto-classified as a bluegrass band (due to the standard bluegrass instrumental lineup), they're hardly a traditional bluegrass band. Their 2010 release Some Strange Country is their most creative assertion yet - dragging stringband music well into the 21st century. The instrumentation is imaginative and surprising, and front woman Aoife O'Donovan's vocals top it all off with dynamic aplomb.
Justin Townes Earle has now released three full-length albums, displaying each time an increased proficiency in storytelling folk-and-country-infused songs. Harlem River Blues is another step forward in his musical progression, with songs that are at once emotionally indulgent and full of artistic restraint. Though Harlem River Blues could be considered Earle's "New York album," it presents much more than just a tribute to the City That Never Sleeps. From old school honky tonk to progressive contemporary folk music, this album is an excellent portrait of one of the next great songwriters.
Anais Mitchell may be a relatively unknown singer-songwriter to most folks, although she's been working her way up the proverbial food chain for a few years. Her last full-length album, The Brightness dropped on Righteous Babe in 2007, followed by a brief EP the following year. Neither could possibly compare, however, to Hadestown - a folk opera modeled after the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
5. Bob Dylan - 'The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: Witmark Demos 1962-64'
It's been three years since the Carolina Chocolate Drops made their unforgettable debut with Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind. Where that record was more solidly traditional, its follow-up, Genuine Negro Jig, pulls together elements of traditional Americana with Eastern European melodies and even a mainstream R&B cover tune. On Genuine Negro Jig, the trio doesn't stick entirely to traditional fare, either. They throw in a Justin Robinson original ("Kissin' and Cussin'") and bring the old timey minor key vibe to tunes by Blu Cantrell (an incredibly notable turn on "Hit 'Em Up Style").
Laura Veirs has, across each of her releases, proven to be an artistic songwriter. Whether dabbling in indie pop, alt-country, or straight-up traditional-style folk music, Veirs is one of the best songwriters at work these days. July Flame sees Veirs returning to her folk roots. The disc is heavy on acoustic guitar and banjo (at which she is quite proficient) and delivers a certain darkness, despite the disc's title.
Though he's released albums more recently, it's been since 1998 that Dylan burst on the scene with his band the Wallflowers. Since that mainstream darling release, he's gone back to his roots as a folky Americana singer-songwriter. This latest album, Women + Country, includes a collaboration with Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, which is more than notable. The songs are well-imagined and emotionally stirring, making this disc easily one of the best singer-songwriter albums of 2010.
Patty Griffin has long been asked to make a gospel album, but she finally gave in this year and released one of the finest folk gospel albums of recent memory. Produced by Buddy Miller, the disc is a raw and creative collection of songs based on the tradition of gospel music. It's a remarkable feat, recorded entirely in a church in downtown Nashville, and making gospel music palatable to even those not inclined toward the style.
Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore have, separately, been two very talented and dynamic young singer-songwriters. Sollee plays cello like a fiddle and sings over imaginative arrangements, while Moore's work is more demure singer-songwriter-style folk music. They joined together this year for this album to raise awareness about mountaintop removal. The songs are from and inspired by the people whose lives are affected by mountaintop removal and, as a result, it's a rather thoughtful, moving collection.