When considering inclusion on this list, I weighed the album’s positioning on my annual lists, how frequently I continue to listen to the recording, its impact on me—has it influenced me down a path of listening— and how enjoyable I continue to find the music. The final element is most important: can I listen to the album today and enjoy it as much (even more?) as I did years ago?
Given the constraints of 50 titles, I limited myself to one album per artist; listing multiple albums by personal favourites would have pushed me to 100 without effort.
As always, these are my favourite roots albums based on what I encountered, not a list of the best released this decade. Anyone who claims they can name the best of anything is too arrogant for roots music. Previous portions of this list are accessible here.
20. The Earls of Leicester- Rattle & Roar (2016) Jerry Douglas is the bandleader and his Dobro© is prominent within the arrangements, many of which are ‘note-perfect’ to the Flatt & Scruggs’ originals. As example, “Buck Creek Gal,” compared with a television appearance featuring Scruggs and Paul Warren, is near duplicated at the tail-end of Rattle & Roar. Still, this isn’t mimicry: The Earls of Leicester have taken the time to deconstruct the songs, challenging themselves to reassemble the arrangements with mindful awareness that a judicious balance between the original, timeless approach and modern innovation is essential. While one may not ‘hear’ that the album was largely cut live with the musicians playing simultaneously within the same room, you can certainly ‘feel’ the intimacy of the experience. Everything is precise and note-perfect of course, but listening to “Why Did You Wonder?” one can also envision Douglas nodding to Warren to take a fiddle break after a chorus, Camp encouraging Cushman to step-up to deliver a memorable fill, and White grinning to Bales as the song is brought home. Top-shelf, modern bluegrass. Also recommended: The Earls of Leicester, Live at the CMA Theater in the Country Music Hall of Fame
19. Neil Young & Crazy Horse- Psychedelic Pill (2012) Much maligned, this is possibly my favourite Neil Young recording. Ever. And I can’t get enough of it. At turns breezy and hypnotic, the vocals are strong, the harmonies mind-altering, and the extended jams—and it is almost entirely extended jams—are staggering. Also recommended: Live at the Cellar Door, A Treasure- Neil Young & the International Harvesters, Bluenote Café
18. Chris Jones & the Night Drivers- Run Away Tonight (2015) With an immediately identifiable sound and a burgeoning catalog of stellar albums, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are possibly bluegrass music’s most underrated band. Reminding listeners of no one as much as the legendary Country Gentlemen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers perform bluegrass music with heart and drive. The heart comes from the depth of intensity revealed in every phrase and note sung by Jones, the drive begins with Jones’ strong rhythm and lead work, nicely featured in the mix here, and continues through (the since departed) Jon Weisberger’s propulsive bass rhythm playing off (also moved on) Ned Luberecki’s classic 5-string approach and Mark Stoffel’s exquisite mandolin touch. Run Away Tonight is a ideally constructed bluegrass album, reverent to the foundations and traditions of the music but continually moving toward its bright and invigorating future. Also recommended: Made to Move, The Choosing Road, Lonely Comes Easy
17. The Steeldrivers- Reckless (2010) The Allmans and Stanleys battle it out somewhere near Walton’s Mountain. Allmans prevail. Mary Ellen’s virtue is the true victim. Not a weak cut on the album, Chris Stapleton’s swan song with the band. But there is so much more here than just Stapleton, although he is a big part of what makes Reckless a near-perfect modern bluegrass creation. I flipped and flopped between Reckless and The Muscle Shoals Sessions, but what pushed this one ahead was the throat-bleeding approach Stapleton takes on songs such as “Angel of the Night” balanced by the nuance of “Midnight on the Mountain” and “Where Rainbows Never Die.” The overall quality of the songwriting is exceptional. Truly, the albums are neck and neck, and if I could find a way to cheat and include both, I would. Also recommended: The Muscle Shoals Sessions, Hammer Down
16. Peter Cooper and Eric Brace- The Comeback Album (2013) As I appreciate thoughtful, melodic interpretations of country and roots music that owes as much to Tom T. Hall (the subject of their previous tribute album I Love…) and Jerry Jeff Walker (who gets name-checked within the album’s lead track “Ancient History”) as it does the likes of Todd Snider and Kieran Kane, I found The Comeback Album a wonderful collection of music that has provided me with hours of enjoyment. The collective musicianship contained within The Comeback Album is staggering, continually engaging, and the composition of the songs- the ebbs and flows, the changes in tempo and mood, as often as not indicated by subtle shades of acoustic and electric guitar- sometimes attributed, as in the playing of Thomm Jutz on the lead track, elsewhere not- is profound. The album comes in at forty minutes, and during that time the duo examine or at least consider subjects both significant and light. From a Tennessee jail cell to the remnants of a life spent searching for ambition in a dead-end job and a never-ending bottle, and no few opportunities to examine matters of lust, love, and loss, Brace and Cooper write and perform songs that are as memorable and substantial as they are even-handed and self-aware. Apparently unflappable, Brace and Cooper bring in the unlikely trio of Mac Wiseman, Duane Eddy, and Marty Stuart to perform one of Tom T. Hall’s earliest songwriting hits, “Mad.” Also recommended: C & O Canal, Master Sessions, Peter Cooper- The Lloyd Green Album, Cooper, Brace, & Thomm Jutz- Profiles in Courage, Frailty, and Discomfort, Riverland, Brace & Karl Straub- Hangtown Dancehall
15. Carlene Carter- Carter Girl (2014) While I have enjoyed all of her music, Carter Girl is the record I had been waiting for Carlene Carter to record since I heard her for the first time in ’83. The album includes ten songs selected from the immense Carter catalogue. To her credit, Carter hasn’t selected only the most familiar songs. She’s dug deep, searching out, connecting with and revitalizing timeless songs. Carter’s voice is huskier, more robust than in her video play days, but this works wonderfully with this material. She still sings like a dream. The album is more than a tribute album to the various branches of the Carter family. It is the testament of a granddaughter, daughter, and niece committing herself fully to the legacy she has always embraced, a promise long ago made that the circle would remain unbroken. Also recommended: Sad Clowns & Hillbillies- John Mellencamp
14. The Travelin’ McCourys- The Travelin’ McCourys (2018) An incredible album. Featuring three capable (and better) lead vocalists and five earth-shattering musicians, The Travelin’ McCourys deliver a set of complex bluegrass that remains firmly rooted while extending branches toward the light. Wonderful stuff: powerful, masterful, and most importantly, memorable. Also recommended: The Del McCoury Band- The Streets of Baltimore
13. Maria Dunn- Gathering (2016) One of Alberta’s foremost folk musicians presented us with her sixth collection of lyrically-rich gems. An artist who places her convictions and heart on display in complementary proportions, Dunn has found balance between sharing the inspirational and compelling within songs that are insightful, artfully constructed, and just plain enjoyable.
Like the finest troubadours, Dunn communicates: she is the vessel through which others exist. She reveals the innermost, personal, and captivatingly universal perspectives and insights of devoted parents, the down-trodden challenged by circumstance, those connected to the land by more than choice, and the youthful who rise above. Also recommended: Piece By Piece
12. John Wort Hannam- Love Lives On (2015) Still Alberta’s finest contemporary, male troubadour, John Wort Hannam continues to meet the rising expectations that come from a decade of exceptional folk-based releases. I enjoy the textures of his rhymes and the subtleties of his insights more with each listen. Singing of universal pleasures as adeptly as he does of specific moments in time and place, Wort Hannam has become a master of storytelling and songwriting. This sixth album is highlighted by the devastating “Man of God,” the song that will follow the songwriter to the end of his time. A beautifully conceived and recorded album, Love Lives On is a masterpiece. Also recommended: Acres of Elbow Room, Brambles and Thorns, “Let It Shine On”
11. The Long Ryders- Psychedelic Country Soul (2019) Thirty years on, The Long Ryders return. As vigorous as they ever were, the reformed group appear at the top of their game, with youthful aggression replaced by measured maturity. Confidence runs through the album, giving it Heartbreakers’ precision well before a dramatic rendering of Tom Petty’s “Walls.” The album doesn’t let down with three lead vocalists bringing songs of power and meticulousness, with Greg Sowders beatin’ the hell out of his drums. Also recommended: “Bear in the Woods”, the triple-disc reissues of State of Our Union and Two Fisted Tales