We spent 2009 sorting through piles of folk and Americana releases, revising this list in our heads till the bitter end and failing repeatedly to understand the hype behind the Avett Brothers in the process. While a year of listening brought no shortage of pleasant surprises, our hands-down favorite release of the year was still an album of classic Willie Nelson tunes. Go figure. 10. M. Ward, Hold Time, (Merge) M. Ward doesn't really break any new ground on Hold Time, but when you're one of the most distinctive singer-songwriters of your generation, additional innovation isn't really necessary. Everything you'd expect from Ward is here, from an expertly reimagined cover tune (Buddy Holly's "Rave On") to a classic Sun Records-worthy rave-up ("Never Had Nobody Like You") to the requisite slow-burning piano ballad (the title track). Considering that his uniformly excellent tunes also pretty much saved the Monsters of Folk record, it's safe to say that Ward had a good year.
9. Guy Clark, Somedays the Song Writes You (Dualtone) Is there a 68-year-old alive who sounds as effortlessly cool as Guy Clark? He's been remarkably consistent over the course of his career, never making a truly bad album (even in the '80s, when everyone else he knew was making them). With the arrival of Somedays the Song Writes You, it's becoming more and more apparent that he'll keep writing gorgeous, economically constructed country-folk songs like "Hemingway's Whiskey" ("Hemingway's whiskey/Warm and smooth and mean/Even when it burns, it'll always finish clean") till they lay him in his grave. 8. Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine (Secretly Canadian) Josephine isn't quite another masterpiece equal to What Comes After the Blues or Magnolia Electric Co. Singer-songwriter Jason Molina, after all, is best digested in chunks of ten tracks or less, while Josephine checks in with 14. But the new album nevertheless features some of the best songs of Molina's career, in part because the tragic 2007 death of bandmate Evan Farrell lends an extra gravity to lonesome, teary-eyed country tunes like "Shenandoah" and "Whip-Poor-Will."
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7. Son Volt, American Central Dust (Rounder) After spending years frustrating fans who longed for another Trace with droning, Eastern-tinged solo excursions and two bloated, unfocused Son Volt "comeback" albums, Jay Farrar finally delivers the goods on American Central Dust, one of the year's most pleasant surprises. "Dust of Daylight" is a pure country shuffle nearly on par with fan favorites like "Windfall" and "Tear Stained Eye" while the sad-eyed Keith Richards tribute "Cocaine and Ashes" is easily the best song he's written in a decade. 6. Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend of a Friend (Acony) Longtime Gillian Welch collaborator David Rawlings steps out in front on this late-year contender, which sounds more like a long-lost '70s folk album (complete with the requisite freewheeling cover songs) than anything released in 2009. "Ruby" wouldn't sound out of place next to Jim Croce's "Operator" on your FM dial, while fans of Rawlings's distinctive, snaking acoustic guitar lines will drool over his ten-minute medley of Bright Eyes' "Method Acting" and Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer." See our picks for Nos. 5-1 tomorrow.