Willie Nelson The Troublemaker (Columbia Legacy)
I'm not prepared to say for sure whether or not Willie and Family blazed through a shopping bag full of high-grade during the recording of Nelson's first all-gospel album in 1973, but the record sounds so positively upbeat and freewheeling that it's difficult to imagine there was a strict air of sobriety in the studio. Reefer or not, The Troublemaker is one of Nelson's most overlooked treasures. In his hands, this batch of country-gospel songs doesn't sound at all preachy or top-heavy on the message end of things. Nelson's panache could convince Jesus Himself to two-step.
Charlie Robison Good Times (Dualtone)
Like Robert Earl Keen, that other feller from Bandera, Texas, Charlie Robison has a wry sense of humor that permeates all but his most shimmering of ballads. His songs contain two important ingredients found in all Americana music worth its salt: country humility and roadhouse swagger in equal measures. On his third studio album, Robison sounds relaxed and confident at the same time. He's now writing from a place that opens its expanses willingly, allowing Robison the gift of deep introspection, the comfort of memory and the pure joy that comes from transposing them perfectly into musical form.
The Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Walking with Giants (Hyena)
The line between improvised music and sonic nonsense is easily and regularly blurred. But while they remain dedicated body and soul to jazz as improvisation, the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey are immersed enough in the music's barest structure that they avoid playing themselves off the cliff. Still, it's not always pretty or easy music to listen to—at times, it's even a little absurd. But the chemistry and underlying musicality of the whole affair that is the latest JFJO disc—their first all-acoustic recording—is undeniable. The accompanying DVD may, however, bore you to death.