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Best Americana Albums of 2012 (So Far)

James Minchin

With the first half of 2012 now in the history books, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at some of the best Americana music you might have missed in the past six months. Americana music, for the uninitiated, encompasses everything from folk, bluegrass and blues to traditional country, western swing and even rootsy rock and pop. In other words, this isn’t the mainstream stuff you’ll hear on country radio, but there’s something for everyone and we think you’ll find plenty here to enjoy.

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10. Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

Two extraordinary Texas-born storytellers — one a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter (Crowell) and the other a best-selling author (Karr) — combine their talents for creating memorable characters and unforgettable scenarios. Breathing even more life into these vivid tales are Rodney and guest vocalists Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones.

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9. Leftover Salmon, Aquatic Hitchhiker

Fans of the Band, Phish and the Grateful Dead will find plenty to love in the eclectic sound of this rip-roaring jam band first formed in Denver in 1989. And the group’s first new album in eight years — and first of all-original material — was well worth the wait, as they bust out Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass and blues and deliver it all with enviable gusto. Nothing “leftover” about this tasty dish.

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8. Carper Family, Back When

It’s tough to feel down when you’re listening to such a sweet, peppy mix of Western swing and bluegrass from this Austin-based trio. Although they aren’t actually family, their harmonies are as close any any blood relations’ would be. Add some expressive fiddle and playful lyrics and even the mournful ballads are likely to cheer you up.

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7. Lisa Marie Presley, Storm and Grace

One of the best tracks on this, just the third album in the recording career of Elvis Presley‘s only child, is titled “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” If ever a statement could be proven true, we’d hope for that one to to signal that there is plenty more to come, especially if it would reunite her with über-producer T Bone Burnett. Raw, moody and etched with pain, Lisa Marie’s is a voice that should be committed to record far more than it has at this point.

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6. Jerry Douglas, Traveler

Although Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Mumford & Sons and Alison Krauss are among the stellar guests on his latest solo album, they never overshadow the superb talents of the man whose work as a Dobro master, and lately as a member of Alison’s band Union Station, has punctuated literally hundreds of recordings over the past 30-plus years. This is one of the year’s most thrilling, entertaining discs of any genre.

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5. Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Melding modern bluegrass, classical music and contemporary rock is tricky business. When a band makes it looks this effortless and this exciting, it’s hard to argue with their masterful approach. Lead singer Chris Thile has gone from young mandolin prodigy to country success with Nickel Creek to this group with that same effortlessness but the entire band shines throughout.

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4. Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden

While this group earned new fans with their contribution to the “Hunger Games” soundtrack, the band’s fresh, fierce approach to old-time string band tunes is likely to leave more than a few listeners thinking they’ve tuned into something recorded in the early 20th century. Grammy winners for 2010′s Genuine Negro Jig, it’s a matter of time before the group becomes a household name in the 21st century.

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3. The Vespers, The Fourth Wall

Two brothers and two sisters have created the sweetest — and most haunting — record of the year thus far. A spiritual odyssey that’s refreshingly organic and strikingly beautiful at every turn, there are also some lighthearted tunes that prove the most memorable. The best of those, the reggae-tinged “Flower Flower” and the bouncy “Jolly Robber,” are delightful earworms of the highest order, making the Vespers the band to watch.

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2. Sara Watkins, Sun Midnight Sun

Like her former Nickel Creek bandmate Chris Thile, fiddle player Sara Watkins has expanded her musical horizons and found great strength in her own voice and in her songwriting. But the handful of covers here are also well-chosen. The best of the bunch is the swirling “You’re the One I Love,” an Everly Brothers tune that calls to mind an old spaghetti Western and features some fine harmony from Fiona Apple. Every track is a revelation, whether you’re spellbound by her delicate voice or the dazzling instrumentation. And you will be.

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1. Marty Stuart, Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down

There is absolutely no reason on earth that this spectacular album should not be playing on every country radio station 24 hours a day. But times (and mindsets) being what they are, fans of Marty and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, should just be thankful they’re brightening the musical landscape with an album that gleefully reminds us all what a treasure traditional country is and just how beautiful, clean and essential an album can sound.

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For more about the latest albums, artists and news in the world of Americana music, visit the official website of the Americana Music Association.

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