Eilen Jewell, Queen of the Minor Key (Signature Sounds). The Boston-based singer and songwriter conjures up another singularly entrancing, retro-tinged world that encompasses Billie Holiday sultriness, evocative noir, frantic rockabilly, and fiddle-and-steel honky-tonk.
John Paul Keith, The Man That Time Forgot (Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess). Backed by his lean and mean band, the One Four Fives, Memphis' Keith is like one fantastic jukebox. Garage-rock, Tex-Mex, hipster R&B, pop-soul, country - it all sounds both vintage and thrillingly of the moment.
Dan May, Dying Breed (www.danmaycd.com). The fourth album by the Drexel Hill singer-songwriter and former opera singer is another supremely well-crafted set of folk-pop brimming with literary grace and down-to-earth forthrightness. Similar qualities mark Nothing Is Wrong (ATO) by Dawes.
The McCrary Sisters, Our Journey (McC Records). The four daughters of one of the founders of the Fairfield Four offer a varied set of originals and covers that serve up glorious gospel transcendence.
Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels (Columbia). This tart trio featuring Miranda Lambert gets the nod over Lambert's solo effort, Four the Record, thanks to greater consistency and hard-country flavor. It's also a close call over another trio, Lady Antebellum. (Anyone who doesn't realize that last part is a joke hasn't been paying attention.)
Ashton Shepherd, Where Country Grows (MCA Nashville). The native Alabaman has lost none of the bite she displayed on her terrific 2008 debut. She convincingly displays both a Loretta Lynn-style feistiness and a more tender and vulnerable side.
Gina Sicilia, Can't Control Myself (VizzTone). The third album by this young singer and songwriter from Newtown, Bucks County, shows her continuing to transcend the boundaries of the blues and create her own voice with a striking blend of emotional maturity and youthful dynamism. Also deserving of a shout-out is veteran Tracy Nelson's Victim of the Blues (Delta Groove).
Connie Smith, Long Line of Heartaches (Sugar Hill). The former hit-maker returns with a bona-fide country classic, produced by her husband, Marty Stuart. The material and arrangements are terrific, and at 70, Smith is still in superb voice. Other country veterans who did exemplary work include Merle Haggard with Working in Tennessee (Vanguard), George Strait with Here for a Good Time (MCA Nashville), and Vince Gill with Guitar Slinger (MCA Nashville).
Contact staff writer Nick Cristiano at 215-854-4641, email@example.com, or @nickcristiano on Twitter.