Alejandro Escovedo has a pedigree longer than your arms: In the '70s, he was a punk with The Nuns, then a cowpunk with Rank & File, then a hard-edged roots rocker with True Believers. His solo catalog during the last decade has been pretty much peerless. (And that was after No Depression
magazine named him Artist of the Decade at the end of the '90s.) He's a deft songwriter with keen emotional intelligence and a gift for the telling line or perfect detail. His sense of theater culminated with 2002's powerful By the Hand of the Father
, a song cycle and stage production detailing the Mexican-American experience. Befitting a skilled artisan from a family of musicians, Escovedo's music isn't easily circumscribed, as it combines elements of roots, Latin and rock styles with invention and verve. As such, his last two albums, written with Chuck Prophet, are catchy stuff that will steal your heart.
Jolie Holland's quavering Billie Holiday-esque vocal croon retains its willowy grace, but she's moved on from her jazz-folk beginnings into a country-folk vein not far removed from Neko Case. Her songcraft has grown considerably over the years, and the dark-hued The Living and the Dead is her finest top-to-bottom collection. Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio opens with eclectic, arty pop. —Chris Parker