As the year draws to a close, I've gathered 10 of my personal favorite albums of 2010. These aren't necessarily the "best" or the "top" albums of year. Instead, they're projects that I've kept nearby because their distinctive sounds caught my attention, whether it's country, bluegrass, roots rock or even Spanish guitar music. No matter the categorization, I'd recommend them to country fans eager to discover something new, with a few suggested key tracks as guidance.
The Blue Shadows, On the Floor of Heaven (reissue)
This alt-country gem arrived in the band's native Canada in 1993 but was never released in the U.S. until this year. As an Americana fan, it reminds me of the Jayhawks and Blue Rodeo, while country listeners might draw comparisons to the Everly Brothers and Dwight Yoakam. Heavy on honky-tonk harmony, nearly all of the songs are inspired by classic country. Thus, lots of regrets.
Key tracks: "Coming On Strong," "Deliver Me"
J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams, Old Friends Get Together
If you love Jesus and Jimmy Martin, track down this bluegrass gospel album that unites three bluegrass stalwarts for a harmonious tribute to their late boss. The praise-singing is marvelous, and with Ron Stewart on fiddle and Cia Cherryholmes and Sonya Isaacs on high harmony, I just want to shout "Amen!" I believe Martin's on the sunny side of the mountain, smiling down.
Key tracks: "Prayer Bells of Heaven," "The Little White Church"
Depedro, Nubes de Papel
With the seductive Spanish guitar woven throughout the album, this indie-folk band brings an exotic, enchanting approach to acoustic music. The band's leader, Jairo Zavila, grew up in Madrid listening to music from all over the world, yet this diverse album offers a seamless listening experience. Whether the songs are sung in English or Spanish, they still speak to me.
Key tracks: "Tu Mediodia," "Tramuntana"
Griffin House, The Learner
In a city filled with young musicians, this Nashville-based songwriter continues to stand out. He doesn't use a dozen words to convey what just a handful can say, and his steady, emotive vocals give the songs extra weight. He leads the album by offering straight-shooter advice on how to let yourself be loved. It's a common theme -- figuring it all out -- so the album title fits perfectly.
Key tracks: "If You Want To," "Just Another Guy"
Alan Jackson, Freight Train
The aggressive title track chugs along with a breakneck tempo that's about twice as fast as what Jackson usually offers, but like his 21-year-career, he keeps up just fine. Of course, he's still the master of mid-tempo tunes about his family. I also dig the stone-country duet with Lee Ann Womack on "Till the End." If you've been missing traditional country music, you'll want to get on board.
Key tracks: "I Could Get Used to This Lovin' Thing," "Taillights Blue"
George Jones, The Great Lost Hits (reissue)
Because of the sparse production, these Musicor recordings from the late '60s and early '70s don't feel dated. Instead, it's sort of like discovering a stash of sterling demo tapes. The topics here are certainly timeless -- cheating, drinking, dying, lying and (occasionally) loving. Jones proves himself as one of most expressive vocalists Nashville has ever known.
Key tracks: "Walk Through This World With Me," "A Good Year for the Roses"
Jennifer Knapp, Letting Go
After dropping out of Christian music a decade ago, this Nashville-based songwriter returns with a bold album about desiring love, facing fears and forging ahead. You can interpret her lyrics in a lot of ways -- spirituality, empowerment, coming out -- but it was her commanding voice and potent melodies that grabbed me first, making me want to hold on to Letting Go.
Key tracks: "Fallen," "Want for Nothing"
Dolly Parton, The Fairest of Them All/My Favorite Songwriter, Porter Wagoner (reissue)
Famous for her vivacious personality, it's slightly shocking to hear Dolly singing so earnestly about dead babies and mental institutions. Recorded in the late '60s, the first album on this CD tells vivid stories about unrequited love, jealousy and adultery, all from Parton's own pen. For the second album, from 1972, she infuses her mentor's original tunes with her own unmistakable spirit.
Key tracks: "Down From Dover," "What Ain't to Be Just Might Happen"
Elvis Presley, On Stage (reissue)
Recorded in mid-1969 and early 1970, this double-disc set captures the King in Las Vegas at a critical point in his career. After a decade in movies, the famed '68 Comeback Special brought him an enormous TV audience. Nervously returning to live performances, he clearly gave this engagement his best shot. I can visualize the dazzling "Vegas Elvis" whenever I hear it.
Key tracks: "The Wonder of You," "Walk a Mile in My Shoes"
Truth & Salvage Co., Self-Titled
After catching their songs at the Stagecoach Festival, the self-titled release from this six-piece band became my favorite album over the summer because of the sunny melodies, laid-back vibe and devil-may-care lyrics. (Opening line: "Hail, hail, the gang's all here with their heads full of reefer and their bellies full of beer.") Without a designated lead singer, I imagine it's like a top-notch guitar pull from the Outlaw days.
Key tracks: "Call Back," "Welcome to L.A."
And just in case you missed the story earlier this year, here are 10 indie albums worth a listen.