While many might get caught up in Billy Currington’s smoldering love songs, he’s really the most charming when he loosens up and has a little fun. While “Love Done Gone” is technically about lost love, Currington’s breezy performance along with the festive horns makes it seem more freeing than heartbreaking. As a result, the song turns out to be his most compelling since “Good Directions.” – Leeann Ward
A 90′s-throwback gem, “Amen” shimmers in a different way than most of the songs on this list. There’s no striking life lesson or clever turn of phrase – just a fresh hook and an earnest, slightly unconventional love story between a preacher’s son and a farmer’s daughter. But there’s magic in its recipe: from the charmingly organic arrangement to the endearingly spirited performance to the adorably written story line – “whooped and hollered” tops my favorite phrases of 2011 – “Amen” is the sweetest package sent to country radio in years. – Tara Seetharam
Of all of the many, many things “Sparks Fly” proves that Taylor Swift understands, perhaps the most important is this: If you’re going to order someone to, “Drop everything now,” you’d better make sure they have reasons to want to. – Jonathan Keefe
Can anyone be this strong when facing down their rapidly approaching death? Perhaps only in song. For those who can pull this off in real life, their faith blows away those who can merely move mountains. – Kevin John Coyne
“Barton Hollow” may be a song about a dead man walking, but, with its stomping percussion line and force-of-nature vocal performances, it plays more like a determined march right to the front-line of a war zone. If the Devil’s going to follow the Civil Wars wherever they go, they sound more than ready to throw down. – Jonathan Keefe
A piano, a wanderer’s tale and killer vocals are the bones of this song– none of which are unique to country music. And yet, “Colder Weather” pleads like the best country songs, hurts like the loneliest of country stories. It serves as an elegant reminder that while country music is sometimes marked by a fiddly sparkle, it can also turn up in the form of pure emotion – and how Brown emotes. His performance is both soulful and skillful, embodying the rambler’s spectrum of emotions with chilling accuracy – longing, regret, defeat, hunger – right down to the final line that rings hauntingly hollow: “It’s a shame about the weather / But I know soon we’ll be together / And I can’t wait til then.” – Tara Seetharam
You and Tequila
Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter
“You and Tequila” is a great reminder of just how good Kenny Chesney can be when he’s not releasing the same song over and over again. In classic Matraca Berg fashion, “You and Tequila” is a deftly constructed lyric that displays intelligence and self-awareness, while the beautiful acoustic arrangement makes “Tequila” easily one of the year’s finest and most memorable singles. Grace Potter’s sweet harmony adds a delicious icing to the cake.- Ben Foster
For those of us who think that Miranda Lambert is one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak mainstream country landscape these days, could there have been much more exciting news than that she would be hooking up with Ashley Monroe, somebody that we at Country Universe have previously lamented going under the radar, to form a trio with songwriter Angaleena Presley? Happily, the prospect of such an exciting trio did not disappoint, as the Pistol Annies turned out to be the most refreshing act of the year with any chance of mainstream success.
Their debut single, “Hell on Heels,” signaled that the group were a force to be reckoned with, both in attitude and artistry. From the beginning swampy guitar riffs, it’s obvious that the characters in this song are going to live up to the fiery title. Furthermore, the Annies turn in a performance that is so eerily calm that it effectively creates the intended aggression of the story. As a result, “Hell on Heels” is one of the most unique and refreshing singles to get anywhere near a radio playlist in 2011. – Leeann Ward
The toll of a corrupt, abusive economy, encapsulated in one man’s fractured personal account. If that sounds a bit like an “I am the 99%” speech, it’s a testament to how well “Cost of Livin’” – begun in 2008, long before mass havoc finally led to mass protest – found the pulse of present-day America. The brilliant choice to frame the song as a job interview allows it to explore both why Dunn’s character deserves the work he and his family needs, and why he likely won’t get it.
In short, the most frighteningly real song of 2011. – Dan Milliken
You know what I love about Taylor Swift? She has a real knack for tapping into emotions and experiences that are personal to her, but conveying them in such a way that any listener can see it as his or her own story set to music. The deeper and more personal she gets, the more we feel it as listeners.
Some might write off “Mean” as a cheap comeback to the oft-heard criticism that “Taylor Swift can’t sing,” but to do so is to miss the full scope of feelings that the song addresses. It speaks to anyone who’s been insulted or disrespected by those who cross the line between constructive criticism and plain cruelty, doing so with some of Swift’s most raw and honest lyrics to date.
It all makes for a most delicious slice of musical catharsis. In addition to being one of the flat-out best lyrics Swift has written, the song features a Shania Twain-esque singalong melody, not to mention one of the coolest and countriest productions of any mainstream release this year. In multiple aspects, “Mean” is clearly the work of an artist who was willing to step outside the box, making it a standout achievement for Swift, and a definite standout moment on radio playlists.
I can see a few jaws dropping at this somewhat divisive selection, but we make no apologies for it. A case could be made for a number of other worthy songs taking this top spot, but for me there’s just no getting round the fact that “Mean” is the one 2011 single release that I will be replaying the most in years to come. Thus, it’s a great pleasure to name “Mean” our top single of 2011. – Ben Foster
Joey Feek is not a woman to be trifled with. Blow off a day with her to go fishing with your buddies, and be prepared for a holdout that would make the recent NBA lockout look like a bathroom break. Along with a steel guitar-centric, pure country sound, the song’s humor doesn’t wear thin after repeated listenings. (Are you paying attention, Brad “Camouflage” Paisley?) – Sam Gazdziak
Sweeney showed her vulnerable side with “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but here she reminds us that she still knows how to cut loose and have a good time. With “Drink Myself Single” Sweeney delivers an up-tempo track that’s rowdy and fun, with a jaunty electric-guitar-meets-steel-guitar arrangement.
Better yet, she does it without sacrificing lyrical intelligence, and even gets through the whole thing without having to resort to the crutch of citing ‘Ol’ Hank.’ With a seething undercurrent of hurt and anger echoing George Jones’ “Why Baby Why,” “Single” shows an artist with one foot grounded in country music’s storied past, but also with an eye toward the future. – Ben Foster
Mary Was the Marrying Kind
Individual Rankings: #4 – Kevin; #9 – Dan
A song that manages to characterize eight different girls more believably than a lot of songs characterize one. As the narrator runs through his rocky dating history, you get why he wasn’t conditioned to appreciate Mary when they met, and you mourn with him now that he’s learned to too late. – Dan Milliken
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Individual Rankings: #2 – Dan; #10 – Ben
The quiet melancholy of Krauss and Robert Lee Castleman’s previous collaborations seems to come to a crescendo. “Here all alone and still wondering why,” Krauss sings in the soaring chorus, with yet another relationship crumbling around her. She’s resigned to a cycle of build-up and letdown, as lovers’ feelings and her own toss senselessly about. – Dan Milliken
The sassy “Teenage Daughters” was a refreshing departure from the inspirational songs and rangy vocal performances that we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Martina McBride by now. Instead, with restrained vocals rife with personality, McBride slyly offers a realistic take on the frustrations of raising teenage daughters with honesty and without sap. More of that please, Martina! – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: #2 – Sam; #5 – Leeann
“Home” sounds like a pretty love song. And it is. it’s an emotional love song to America from a respectful Dierks Bentley. As the best love songs tend to go, it realistically acknowledges ups and downs while ultimately declaring the strength of the ties that bind. Best of all, not only is it a love song to America, it manages to be patriotic without the jingoism or chest thumping that has all too often pervades patriotic songs in the last decade. – Leeann Ward
Another Like You
Hayes Carll with Bonnie Whitmore
Individual Rankings: #1- Sam; #6 – Leeann
A heated political discussion between a diehard conservative and a bleeding-heart liberal turns into a drunken makeout session in an elevator. If more political discussions in this country ended that way, there would be a heck of a lot more being accomplished in Washington. – Sam Gazdziak
Sunny Sweeney just gets the economy of the best country songwriting: There’s nothing flashy about the opening lines of “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” but the weariness in her delivery of a simple aside (“Trust me, it’s really bad”) tells her character’s back-story in just a scant few words and gives her on-the-verge narrative real emotional heft. – Jonathan Keefe
As a portrait of the post-breakup healing process, Evans’ surprise comeback hit is striking in its simplicity, but nonetheless disarmingly effective. Simple vignettes of going through your daily routines with a smile on your face, changing the station when a song reminds you of your ex, coupled with the refrain of “I got a little bit stronger… just a little bit stronger” beautifully capture the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing journey.
Fittingly, Evans’ vocal begins on a hushed, tired-sounding note, building to a dramatic crescendo as the song progresses – a dynamic, layered performance from one of the finest interpretive singers of her generation. – Ben Foster
She’s heard through the grapevine what she needs to do to get her man back, a laundry list of every compromise under the sun. No wonder she reaches the conclusion that she just doesn’t need him that bad. – Kevin John Coyne
The countdown continues. Scroll down to the bottom to hear samples of each song and to share your comments!
Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21
Individual Rankings: #5 – Jonathan
It’s not for nothing that Tammy Wynette once claimed that Shelby Lynne had the best voice in country music, but, as Lynne has become increasingly subdued in the latter half of her career, she’s rarely explored the full range of her vocal talent. So when she unleashes that voice for the first time in a decade during the coda of “Revelation Road,” it may not be revelatory, but it sure is a most welcome return. – Jonathan Keefe
My Name is Money
Individual Rankings: Ben – #4
A clever lyrical personification of the Almighty Dollar. Sonia Leigh tears into the song with her gritty, powerful vocals while the snappy, genre-blending arrangement gives the single added spunk and sass. “My Name Is Money” is a delicious sonic confection from one of the 2011’s most dynamic and promising new talents. – Ben Foster
God Only Knows
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #11; Tara – #14
Why? Because she can sing, and she nails a song that’s great to begin with. It’s not quite Lorrie Morgan singing “Don’t Worry Baby”, but it’s close. – Kevin John Coyne
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Individual Rankings: #3 – Sam
One of the unlikeliest catchy songs of the year came from Jason Isbell. Sure, the content of the song is heartbreaking, but try listening to it and not singing along with “One of my friends is taking her in and giving her codeine.”- Sam Gazdziak
Ghost on the Canvas
Individual Rankings: #10 – Kevin; #12 – Dan
Staring down his mortality, Campbell imparts a final message: Find me again in what I’ve left behind. In Campbell’s case – or Van Gogh’s, whose Wheatfield with Crows is referenced here – the remnants may be works of art. Others will have different sorts of canvases. One thing is universal: though most of the world will never see them, the ghosts will emerge for those who need them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #5 – Kevin; #17 – Dan
Why? Because he can sing, and he sounds rejuvenated to be doing it as a solo artist. It’s a great song, but in lesser hands, it would’ve been sappy. – Kevin John Coyne
Mumford & Sons
Individual Rankings: #5- Sam; #16 – Leeann
Pop radio has managed to incorporate Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift singles, to give just a couple examples. So would it kill country radio to add Mumford & Sons to the airwaves? Between Marcus Mumford’s hopeful lyrics (“But I will hold on hope/And I won’t let you choke/On the noose around your neck”) and Country Winston’s banjo, this song begged to be a crossover hit. – Sam Gazdziak
Very few artists could turn a borderline-trite hook into an invigorating anthem fit for the dance hall. Even fewer could do it so accessibly yet commandingly that you want to drop what you’re doing and have a Moonshine in his honor. Bottoms up, King George. – Tara Seetharam
When Wanda Jackson sings, “I’m wonderin’ where in the world could Jerry Lee be,” on her fantastic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” Jack White’s on-point rockabilly arrangement makes it sound like Jerry Lee Lewis himself is playing in Jackson’s ace backing band. Though her voice may have lost some of its punch, Jackson’s delivery on “Thunder on the Mountain” finds the Queen of Rockabilly as feisty as ever. – Jonathan Keefe
You Gonna Fly
Individual Rankings: #8 – Tara; #9 – Jonathan
Urban strips the title phrase of all its pomposity but retains its punch with an assured, coolly confident performance. The song’s kicker, though, is the way it handles love’s ability to “fly us” to another plane, spiritually and emotionally, with matter-of-fact breeziness. “One, two, three / Baby don’t think twice / Just like that you got a brand new life” – how refreshingly uncomplicated. – Tara Seetharam
For nine decades and counting, country music has been defined by the single, with only the format and definition changing over time.
Today, a single could be any one of the following: a CD sent to radio for airplay; a digital download released in advance of an album; a music video released to online websites and dwindling television outlets; and in a lovely throwback, a seven inch vinyl single sold in the indie record stores that have managed to outlast the chain stores that once threatened their existence.
Seven Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted their twenty favorite singles of the year. 59 different singles made the cut, and over the next four days, we’ll share with you the top forty. You can listen to a sample from each song by scrolling down to the bottom of the post.
A musical expression of gratitude from the incomparable Emmylou Harris to her late musical mentor Gram Parsons. Through her lyric and vocal, Harris conveys a wide array of emotions – obviously sadness, along with nostalgia for times past, wonderment and uncertainty, as well as determination to persevere in spite of heartache, while also highlighting the invaluable role of music in coping with a devastating loss.
Above all else, however, “The Road” is a song of thankfulness for having had such a friend in the first place, even if for only a brief time. – Ben Foster
Shut Up Train
Little Big Town
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #13
Far from the first country song to build a train metaphor around a heartache, this one is distinguished by a strong vocal performance and the creative approach of having the protagonist talk directly to the train. – Kevin John Coyne
Let it Rain
David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton
Individual Rankings: Sam – #15; Dan – #19
Nail’s moody streak continues, this time with a ringing cheater’s lament. He’s so appalled at himself that he calls on the heavens to rain down judgment. But it’s Buxton who strikes the gavel in the end, as her voice shreds with the pain of a woman whose world will never be the same. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: #12 – Sam
The pop-country version of Taylor Swift is a bona fide superstar. However, when she strips down the production and shows off her quieter, folksy side like she does on “Ours,” she really shines. Based on the quality of her past singles “Ours” and “Mine,” she’ll have a real winner if she ever gets around to writing “Yours.” – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: #12 – Jonathan
It’s often hard to separate Caitlin Rose’s music from her Manic Pixie Dream Girl persona– that she sings like Zooey Deschanel with a far better sense of pitch doesn’t help, either– but “Shanghai Cigarettes” makes it clear that she learned a lot about songcraft from her mother, frequent Taylor Swift collaborator Liz Rose. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: #11 – Tara
Two parts neo-traditional charm, one part that voice and a dash of breezy sensuality. Goes down smoother than anything since James Otto rode the airwaves. More, please. – Tara Seetharam
Fixin’ to Die
Individual Rankings: #14 – Jonathan; #19 – Dan
One of the elements that distinguishes contemporary country from traditional genre forms is a heavy use of percussion, and G. Love ups the ante in that regard on “Fixin’ to Die.” By marrying a straightforward acoustic blues arrangement to a rhythm section lifted almost entirely from J-Kwon’s “Tipsy,” G. Love effectively thumbs his nose at the idea of a rural vs urban divide. – Jonathan Keefe
Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise
The Avett Brothers
Individual Rankings: #10 – Sam
The Avetts’ I and Love and You was one of the best albums of 2010, and this song was one of its highlights. For a band that can deliver some raucus punk-bluegrass tunes, they can also put together hauntingly pretty songs too.- Sam Gazdziak
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Individual Rankings: #7 – Dan
Contrived, utopian visions of Southern partying are practically an entire country sub-genre now. “Barefoot” checks all the formulaic boxes, but for once the formula’s impossible details (“the girls are always hot and the beer is ice cold!”) are matched to an equally dreamlike, shimmering production, exposing what a fantasy the whole thing is. You can’t buy the premise, but you grant the underlying escapism.- Dan Milliken
Down by the Water
Individual Rankings: #11 – Sam; #17 – Leeann
As has been noted, “Down by the Water” seems influenced by an R.E.M. sound. However, the brightly placed harmonica and accordion, along with aggressive background vocals by Gillian Welch, make the melodic composition a memorable song on its own merits. – Leeann Ward
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
#10 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”
#9 KMAG YOYO
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”
#8 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
Recommended Tracks: “The Luxury of Knowing”, “The Most”, “Still Down Here”
#6 Barton Hollow
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
Recommended Tracks: “Poison & Wine,” “Barton Hollow,” “Forget Me Not”
#5 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
Recommended Tracks: “Drinkin’ Man”, “House Across the Bay”, “I’ll Always Remember You”
#4 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
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
Recommended Tracks: “The Lucky Diamond Hotel”, “Who Wouldn’t Fall in Love with You”, “Buttermilk John”
#2 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
Recommended Tracks: “If I Had Wings,” “Racing the Angels,” “The Dreaming Fields,” “Oh, Cumberland”
#1 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
The country music umbrella stretched wider than ever this year, regardless of the fact that radio playlists seem shorter than ever.
Of course, it’s not just the Americana acts that can’t get radio play these days. Even top-selling albums by Scotty McCreery and Alison Krauss & Union Station weren’t embraced.
Country Universe editors and contributors each submitted a list of their ten favorite albums of 2011. 31 different albums were included on our lists, and over the next two days, we’ll share with you our collective top twenty.
Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #20-#11
#20 Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
His tenure with the Punch Brothers and his winning of the first annual “Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass” in 2010 both earned Noam Pikelny the clout to release Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, his second solo album and first since 2004. Joined by an all-star roster of fellow pickers, Pikelny’s mostly instrumental set is a showcase both for its lead artist’s extraordinary technical skills and for the banjo’s wide-ranging potential. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Fish and Bird” featuring Aoife O’Donovan, “Boathouse on the Lullwater,” “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer”
#19 The King is Dead
The indie favorites take their hyper-literate brand of folk-rock for a rustic spin, achieving new concision in the process. Colin Meloy’s wild narratives and wilder lexical choices sound right at home in these short-and-sweet song designs, and the Americana field is richer for having them. – Dan Milliken
Individual Rankings: Dan – #4
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Carry It All,” “June Hymn”
That solo women disappeared from country radio was one of 2011′s major talking points within the genre, but Sunny Sweeney’s Concrete provided some of the most compelling evidence that it wasn’t a lack of strong material that kept female artists off radio playlists. Balancing a keen traditionalist bent with a thoroughly modern point-of-view, Sweeney’s fully-drawn characters and clever spins on familiar country tropes proved that an album that sounds “radio friendly” doesn’t have to be light on actual substance or craft. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Ben – #3
Recommended Tracks: “Amy,” “From a Table Away,” “Fall for Me”
#17 It’s Already Tomorrow
Foster and Lloyd
Their first time around, Foster and Lloyd were one of the coolest country acts going, blending in a love of traditional country music with some ’60s post-British Invasion rock vibes. It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album in 20 years, shows an impressive return to form. Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd have released some terrific solo albums, but there is a definite magic that happens when they record as a duo. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #2
Recommended Tracks: “Picasso’s Mandolin,” “That’s What She Said,” “Can’t Make Love Make Sense”
#16 This is My Blood
The Dirt Drifters
As mainstream country music becomes increasingly slick and polished, it’s a refreshing change to hear something gritty and rough around the edges. The Dirt Drifters’ debut on Warner Bros. certainly qualifies. If you’re looking for country-rock that takes its cue from run-down country roadhouses instead of ’80s arena rock, this album is for you. – Sam Gazdziak
Individual Rankings: Sam – #3; Dan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Always a Reason,” “Married Men and Motel Rooms,” “Hurt Somebody”
#15 Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town
Hank III’s entire artistic persona is built on indulging in every type of excess he can think of, so it was hardly a shock when, for his first recordings after a less-than-amicable departure from Curb Records, he dropped four full-length albums of new material on the same day. While not all of his ideas are good ones– the less said about Cattle Callin’, the better– the double-album Ghost to a Ghost / Gutter Town proves that Hank III is driven to his spectacular highs not just by the various recreational drugs circulating through his bloodstream but also by a real fearlessness and creativity and a sense of respect for his bloodline. – Jonathan Keefe
Individual Rankings: Jonathan – #1
Recommended Tracks: “Don’t Ya Wanna,” “Musha’s,” “Dyin’ Day”
#14 Ghost on the Canvas
A late-in-life swan song by an icon acutely aware of their own mortality. That’s a fitting description of so many of the best country albums in recent years. This is the best of that subgenre since Porter Wagoner’s Wagonmaster. – Kevin John Coyne
Individual Rankings: Kevin – #5; Dan – #6
Recommended Tracks: “There’s No Me…Without You”, “Ghost on the Canvas”
On the heels of an album that was largely a hit or miss affair, Church delivers a surprisingly electric third album, marked by its edgy sonic splash. But while its spin on country rock is undeniably enticing –a funky mix of swampy, trippy and punchy—the album’s soul is Church himself, a more believable artist this time around than most of his contemporaries. Because for all its hard ass sentiment, Chief actually walks the walk, as authentic as it is audacious. Outlaw in the making? Probably, but don’t tell Church I said so. – Tara Seetharam
Individual Rankings: Tara – #4; Sam – #6; Leeann – #10; Jonathan – #10
Recommended Tracks: “Hungover & Hard Up,” “Keep On,” “Creepin’”
#12 Long Line of Heartaches
What more can you ask for? Purely straightforward and unadulterated country songs delivered by the finest vocalist the genre has ever been privileged to call its own. Smith’s own co-writes with husband and producer Marty Stuart (The title track, “I’m Not Blue,” “Pain of a Broken Heart”) sit comfortably alongside top-notch cover material penned by Harlan Howard, Johnny Russell, and Dallas Frazier, all backed by the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel aplenty. Long Line of Heartaches is a beautiful reminder of what country music once was, and could be again. – Ben Foster
Individual Rankings: Ben – #2; Jonathan – #5
Recommended Tracks: “Long Line of Heartaches,” “I’m Not Blue,” “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry”
#11 Your Money and My Good Looks
Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent
There was no chance that this collaboration of straight up country songs between Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent was going to garner any attention from mainstream country music outlets. However, thanks to memorable songs, pure country production and Watson and Vincent reverently following the spirit of classic country duet albums of the past, this project was surely one of the stand out albums of the year. – Leeann Ward
Individual Rankings: Leeann – #2; Ben – #5
Recommended Tracks: “You Could Know as Much from a Stranger,” “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”