1. Andrew BirdBreak It Yourself (CD) (Mom & Pop Music)
    The hard-to-pigeonhole Bird has been flitting around the edge of my personal playlist for years, but with this wonderful album, he finally got my complete attention. Drop-dead neo-old-timey gorgeous Danse Caribe and plucky trans-Atlantic fiddle confab Orpheo Looks Back are among the tasty morsels on this sonic buffet.
  2. Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden (CD ) (Nonesuch); Live April 6 UCLA Royce Hall
    Rhiannon Giddens’ beguiling force o’ nature vocals would have been enough to satisfy this happy camper, but the ensemble playing and individual virtuosity begat fuller enjoyment, in a concert both entertaining and educational. Their 21st-century rendering of the African-American string-band tradition lives strong on stage and on their latest—and now Grammy-nominated—album.
  3. I See Hawks in L.A. - New Kind of Lonely (CD)(Western Seeds)
    L.A. hometown heroes knock one out of the park on group’s first full-length foray into (im)pure American acousticism. Their eccentric-smart songwriting chops (sense of place, yo!), comradely harmonies, and mind-meld chops flow in full effect throughout, with Bohemian Highway,Your Love Is Going to Kill Me, and Highland Park Serenade among the storytelling gems. (Full disclosure: I’m sort of an assistant executive producer on this, as I contributed to the group’s Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign.)
  4. James McMurtry – Live June 6 Continental Club, Austin, TX.
    Like his literary father Larry, son James can spin a yarn, though he couches his compact tales in the context of ragged-but-right roots music. In the Texas capital for a technical conference, I caught the younger McMurtry at one of his regular Continental Club gigs, where the bourbon flowed and he turned up the heat as one of America’s sharpest troubadours of conscience.
  5. Niyaz – Live August 14 Grand Performances
    Talk about the musical spirit moving a crowd. The massive turnout for Niyaz at GP spoke multicultural volumes, as did the response to the group’s luminous Middle Eastern retrofuturism and Azam Ali’s heartfelt calls for peaceful reconciliation among the fractious tribes on this volatile planet of ours.
  6. Charlie Peacock - No Man’s Land (CD)(101 Distribution)
    A new discovery, Peacock concocts a Nashville session set far removed from the mainstream country scene, an intelligent, soulful slice of trippy twanginess and open-minded, wide-ranging rootsiness chock full of memorable turns. Shuffle-funky album opener Death Trap pops up on my iTunes shuffle with eerie regularity, spiraling into my mind’s ear tune-catching mechanism.
  7. The Rough Guide series - (CD)(World Music Network)
    Rather than single out one of the compilations or featured artists among the year’s batch of Rough Guide releases, I’d rather give a collective shout-out for consistently creative curational chops. Highlights include the broad-brushed Undiscovered World and door-opening Caribbean Café while Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis’s Greekadelia (on affiliate label Riverboat) turns Hellenic roots upside down and inside out.
  8. Staff Benda Bilili - Bouger Le Monde (CD)(Crammed); Live Oct. 24 El Rey
    My Congolese homeboys have overcome harsh poverty and daunting physical limitations to become the freshest musical act from Kinshasa in a long time. To quote my review of their show: “This was, despite the ‘light’ house, one helluva show, a hip-shaking dance party that started with the first joyfully desperate beat and never let up.” And did I mention the harmonies? Sweet!
  9. “Treme” season 3 – (TV) HBO
    There’s never been anything like “Treme” on TV before, with its organic real-life fictional intertwining of New Orleans and Louisiana music and musicians, actors playing musicians and musicians playing themselves, the sounds and storylines of the post-Katrina reality writ, shot, and performed masterfully.
  10. Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Americana (CD)(Reprise)
    Turn this shit up loud, as Neil and his equine running mates take chestnuts from the American folk canon and roast them over a crackling fire. Oh Susannah somehow gets twisted up with the melody of ‘60s hit Venus, as the full-throated chorus spells out “a b-a-n-j-o on my knee,” while Gallows Pole channels the requisite nastiness befitting a tale of rough justice.