Our annual list concludes with a look at our ten favorite albums of 2011.
Check out Part One to see #11-#20, and look for our countdown of the year’s best singles tomorrow.
Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #10-#1
Lady & Gentlemen
On the surface, Lady & Gentleman is a concept album, flying in the face of a genre whose gender bias sometimes feels like the elephant in the room. But as with the best concept albums, it’s not the concept that carries it. With her most thoughtful, vocally mature performances to date, Rimes herself is the heartbeat of the set, deftly navigating the songs with a blend of reverence and fearlessness.
And she has plenty of room to shine: rather than trying to rebirth a collection of classics, Rimes and her team tastefully reinvigorate the songs with production risks (“Swingin’”), lyrical twists (“Good Hearted Women”) and the occasional overhaul (“When I Call Your Name”). The result is an album that stands neither as a tribute nor as a statement, but as a unique body of work that earns its merits all on its own. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: Tara – #2; Ben – #8; Leeann – #9; Kevin – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Blue,” “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Texas has a long track record of producing talented, innovative songwriters, and The Woodlands native Carll is one of the best of his generation. With an eye for detail and a wry sense of humor, Carll proves to be a sympathetic narrator as he bemoans his fate in dealing with politics, the economy and relationships. And just when you think he’s pure smartass, he breaks out his sincerity with a song like “Grateful for Christmas.” – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #1; Dan – #2
Recommended Tracks: “Stomp and Holler”, “Another Like You”, “Bottle in My Hand”
American Folk Songbook
Over the last two decades, Suzy Bogguss has ably covered a lot of musical ground, including classic country, western swing, pop country, adult contemporary and jazz. With the unplugged American Folk Songbook, she is able to add folk to the list. This expansive 17-track set of traditional folk songs is the most stunning of her genre specific projects.
Without a misstep on the album, it finds Bogguss firmly in her element as both an effortless singer and adept song interpreter. What’s more, Suzy’s crystal clear voice blends perfectly with her own crisp, engaging productions. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #1 – Leeann; #1 – Ben
Recommended Tracks: “Shenandoah”, “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”
A somber coffeehouse album, which admittedly makes for a bit of a plodding listen-through. Hang around, though; McKenna is chronicling the experience of the working-class family woman with the kind of depth and character we usually associate with people named Dolly and Merle. And like those forebears, she transcends her persona by finding the universal in it: “My life is pieces of paper that I’ll get back to later,” the key line of “The Most,” could be the lament of anyone trying to manage in the real world. - Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #1 – Kevin; #1 – Dan; #7 – Ben
Recommended Tracks: “The Luxury of Knowing”, “The Most”, “Still Down Here”
The Civil Wars
It’s almost scary how this duo just seems to get everything right. The level of emotional connectivity in their performances, not to mention their ethereal harmonies and stellar songwriting, is absolutely spellbinding. Just listen to the way they can repeat the refrain “I don’t love you, but I always will” in “Poison & Wine” such that each repetition successively rises in passion and urgency.
While they will most likely never be mainstream country stars, one would certainly hope that the excellent Barton Hollow is not the last we will hear from The Civil Wars. – Ben Foster
Individual Rankings:#4 – Kevin; #4 – Ben; #7 – Tara; #8 – Leeann; #8 – Dan
Recommended Tracks: “Poison & Wine,” “Barton Hollow,” “Forget Me Not”
Here For a Good Time
The best artistic choice that George Strait has ever made is taking more time between albums. Here For a Good Time is yet another high point in his ongoing 21st century renaissance. He’s tackling, even sometimes co-writing, compelling material that reflects the wisdom and life experience of the most distinguished voice that remains on country radio. – Kevin John Coyne
Individual Rankings: #2 – Kevin; #5 – Leeann; #5 – Tara; #9 – Jonathan; #10 – Sam
Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’ Man”, “House Across the Bay”, “I’ll Always Remember You”
Four the Record
If Revolution was Lambert’s commercial crowning moment, Four the Record is her earned hissy fit – a foot stomp and a “my turn, folks.” That’s not to say her previous albums weren’t authentic; it’s just that Four the Record seems to be the most transparent reflection of Lambert the artist to date, flaws and all.
And that’s why it soars. Wonderfully weird, the collection of songs is best described as a tapestry of personalities, punctuated by some of the oddest –but coolest– production choices of the year. Where the album lacks in depth of songwriting, it makes up for in fiercely committed, layered performances.
She sneers old school style in “Fastest Girl In Town,” brilliantly spits in her mother’s face in “Mama’s Broken Heart” and eccentrically celebrates diversity in “All Kinds of Kinds.” But the album’s shining moments come in the form of palpable vulnerability: the trio of “Dear Diamond,” “Look at Miss Ohio,” and “Oklahoma Sky” is nakedly honest – the highest country music compliment. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: #1 – Tara; #3 – Leeann; #4 – Sam
Recommended Tracks: “All Kinds of Kinds,” “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Dear Diamond”
At age 54, Vince Gill’s voice shows absolutely no signs of deterioration. Moreover, his artistry continues to be as strong as it has ever been even after almost three-and-a-half decades in the business. Following his critically acclaimed and ambitious project, These Days, a box set of all original songs, Guitar Slinger somehow manages to stand up to Gill’s self-imposed high benchmark of excellence.
In fact, in a way, while this album is fresh, the sound of Guitar Slinger could also be a continuation of These Days, since many of its songs follow the genre variances of its predecessor, including rockers, easy listening and traditional country songs. As evidenced by this album, Gill is still at the top of his game both in musical talent and ability to capture a range of emotions with diverse themes and expert storytelling. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #4 – Leeann; #6 – Kevin; #6 – Tara; #6- Jonathan; #9 – Dan; #9 – Ben
Recommended Tracks: “The Lucky Diamond Hotel”, “Who Wouldn’t Fall in Love with You”, “Buttermilk John”
The Dreaming Fields
Matraca Berg has given us a good portion of country music’s most memorable compositions of the past twenty years, and her first new album since 1997 shows a pen still full of tricks. With a tight set of tracks that includes her own versions of songs recorded by Trisha Yearwood (“The Dreaming Fields”) and Kenny Chesney (“You and Tequila”), Berg displays the same subtle cleverness, instantly relatable emotional conflicts, and insightful perspective that have long been the hallmarks of her work.
She tenderly addresses such themes as spousal abuse (“If I Had Wings”) and the death of a loved one (“Racing the Angels”), but arguably the finest moment comes with the title track’s wistful meditation on the loss of a family farm that has remained for generations. Matraca Berg is nothing short of a musical treasure, and The Dreaming Fields reaffirms her status as the most talented singer-songwriter of her generation. – Ben Foster
Individual Rankings: #3 – Kevin; #3 – Dan; #3 – Ben; #7 – Jonathan; #8 – Tara
Recommended Tracks: “If I Had Wings,” “Racing the Angels,” “The Dreaming Fields,” “Oh, Cumberland”
Hell on Heels
For all of the lip-service that contemporary country acts give to the idea that country music tells real stories about real people, precious little country music in 2011 seemed to be about anything at all. Whether jockeying for some kind of authenticity cred that their music just didn’t support or rattling off list after pointless list of rural signifiers without an actual narrative or a greater point to make, many of the biggest country stars of the past year seemed completely divorced from the experiences of the real world around them.
Enter Pistol Annies– ostensibly a one-off side project for Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley– and their debut album, Hell on Heels. Not only is it the finest and most detailed chronicle of the current recession, the album stands as a much-needed reminder of both the depth of insight that country music offers in its best moments and the expertly-crafted escapism country music provides when things get a little too real.
Sure, there’s an element of playing dress-up to what the Pistol Annies are doing, but that fits perfectly with the album’s focus on finding ways to escape from day-to-day drudgery. Songs like “Bad Example” and the tongue-in-cheek, gold-digging title track make it clear that Lambert, Monroe, and Presley are in full control of their charades: The way Presley drawls, “Whistle it, ‘Randy,” at the bridge of “Lemon Drop” should erase any doubt that they’re in on the joke. That sense of fun is reflected in the album’s light-handed production and in the Annies’ winning performances.
That said, a devastating gut-check of a line like, “I’ve been thinking about all these pills I’m taking/I wash ‘em down with an ice cold beer/And the love I ain’t been making,” from “Housewife’s Prayer,” doesn’t happen by accident. What elevates Hell on Heels into an album of real depth is that the Annies realize that escapism only has value when you know exactly what it is you’re trying to escape from.
The color of the bride’s dress in a shotgun wedding, the thrift-store curtains hanging in a house that the landlord owns, the dings and dents in the side of a trailer: Pistol Annies get all of these details right, and they employ them with both a swagger they can actually back up and a sense of purpose that speaks to something greater than simply proving their country bona fides. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings:#2 – Jonathan; #3 – Tara; #6 – Ben; #7 – Kevin; #7 – Leeann; #7 – Dan; #9 – Sam
Recommended Tracks: “Lemon Drop,” “Beige,” “Housewife’s Prayer,” “Takin’ Pills”