Year in Review: 2009's Best Alt-Country Proves that Yes, Willie Nelson is Still a Badass

We spent 2009 sorting through piles of folk and Americana releases, revising this list in our heads till the bitter end and failing repeatedly to understand the hype behind the Avett Brothers in the process. While a year of listening brought no shortage of pleasant surprises, our hands-down favorite release of the year was still an album of classic Willie Nelson tunes. Go figure.

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Phosphorescent
To Willie
(Dead Oceans)
It's rare that a tribute album approaches the quality of the source material, rarer still when the source is Willie Nelson. Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck proves himself a master stylist on To Willie, however, probing the depths of the Red Headed Stranger's catalogue and breathing new life into classic songs like "Walkin'" and "The Party's Over." In the case of "Reasons to Quit" and Houck's beautiful space-gospel treatment of "Can I Sleep in Your Arms," it's safe to say he even one-upped the originals. No wonder Willie himself invited the band to play Farm Aid and join him for a little puff-puff-pass on the Honeysuckle Rose.

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Alela Diane
To Be Still
(Rough Trade)
Singer-songwriter Alela Diane may share a lot of history with her fellow freak-folk brethren (she and Joanna Newsom attended the same Nevada City, California, high school), but she's far more of a classicist than most of her peers, preferring to wrap her gorgeous mountain alto around simple, tightly written Appalachian folk tunes rather than dabble in proggy and more pretentious British variations. The mournful "White as Diamonds" may well be the prettiest song of the year, and it says a lot that the other ten tracks here aren't far behind.

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The Low Anthem
Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
(Nonesuch)
The Low Anthem casts a wide net on the reissued Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, incorporating singing bowl, pump organ and some lovely clarinet on songs that split the difference between Tom Waits-style barkers ("The Horizon Is a Beltway"), Leonard Cohen-esque ballads ("Ticket Taker") and quiet, falsetto hymns ("Charlie Darwin"). With a voice that can go from a gravelly bark to a dove-like coo in the space of a few songs, lead singer Ben Knox Miller has us looking forward to whatever he and his talented comrades do in the future.

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