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”
Countless albums were released in 2010, in mainstream country music, Americana, bluegrass, and all the other loosely associated sub-genres that make up the country universe. Of those albums, our writers particularly enjoyed the following twenty. All four writers submitted top ten lists for the year, and amazingly enough, there were exactly twenty different albums among them. So if you’re wondering if your favorite album just missed the list…it didn’t. But we’d love to hear why we were wrong in the comments.
Enjoy part one now, and look for the top ten on Friday.
#20 A Crooked Road Darrell Scott
Tomorrow’s hits today, should the current crop of hitmakers want something as good on the radio as “Long Time Gone” or “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” or just want to have an album cut for the ages like “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Scott’s a singer’s songwriter, delivering his songs with enough personality to elevate them above demos but leaving enough room for improvisation, so that any singer can put their own spin on it.
This twenty-track collection is stunningly strong, with his observations about politics and religion and history intriguing, but his take on human relationships being downright enlightening. – Kevin Coyne (more…)
As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?
Speculation aside, Bentley has taken a break from the routine of his last four albums to create an album that is far removed from what is popular on mainstream country radio and somewhat different than what he’s put on his own previous albums. However, he is still marketing to radio, as his first single, the title track, has been treated like any other Bentley single release. The album is not as adventurous, or as strong, as the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetically acoustic album, but it may be as close to the concept as we have gotten since their targeted mainstream acoustic project, Home.
It has been appropriately publicized that this album is not a pure bluegrass project. Instead, it is close in style to the bluegrass influenced tracks that Bentley has consistently included on each of his studio albums. Yes, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle are ever present, but Bentley is not shy about using drums, exploring subversive melodies (“Up on the Ridge”, “Fallin’ for You”), or deviating from traditional bluegrass rules of engagement along the way. Moreover, Bentley does not possess the high lonesome tenor that is typically associated with bluegrass. He, however, proves himself to be a capable vocalist within the parameters of his unique style of it.
A handful of covers, songs by well respected songwriters, and some of Bentley’s own compositions makes this rootsy album a well rounded set. The best of the covers is bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) and Kris Kristofferson’s Bottle to the Bottom”. While the otherwise solid “Bottle to the Bottom” features a somewhat pointless cameo by Kristofferson, the addition of the Punch Brothers on “Senor” is inspired art. A less successful cover is U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).” While Del McCoury’s distinctive tenor does well to do the heavy lifting, the over all recording still lacks the etherealness of the original. Ironically, as they are most closely associated with Americana, the Buddy Miller cover is the most mainstream friendly sounding song on the album. Unfortunately, it is also inferior to Miller’s version.
Among the strongest of Bentley’s songs is “Rovin’ Gambler” (once again, with the Punch Brothers), “Draw Me a Map” (featuring Alison Krauss on background vocals), “You’re Dead to Me” (co-written by and featuring Tim O’Brien”, and “Down in the Mine.”
Bentley wisely enlists the help of some of his creative friends such as the Punch Brothers (with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame), Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Tim O’Brien, and Kris Kristofferson. Complimented by Jon Randall’s organic production sensibilities, this impeccable support adds a welcome texture to the project. However, the collaborations work best when they are more subtle. For instance, while the prospect of Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson collaborating is, indeed, an appealing concept, the result does not rise to the occasion in practice. Both Lambert and Johnson deliver excellent performances with Bentley on “Bad Angel”, with Lambert’s voice being huskier than usual, but the parts together translate as more disjointed than natural. Likewise, the results of Del McCoury’s and Kris Kristofferson’s contributions were not as successful as one would hope for from such revered artists. On the other hand, the Punch Brothers (who played on several tracks), Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Jon Randall, and Vince Gill (“Fiddlin’ Around”) were used less overtly to greater effect.
With expert musicianship by the best in the business, solid songs, and impressive vocal support, Up on the Ridge is a refreshing album from an artist who is taking a chance with this musical detour while still in the throes of a considerably lucrative career. Not only is taking such a chance commendable, Bentley has created a solid album to justify the diversion.
On her first major-label album, Lambert reveals herself as a fiery, spirited artist with a lot to say, and a clever voice with which to speak. Her sharp songwriting skills, though a work in progress as we’d later learn, take her naturally from aggression to desolation and back again. But most notably, through Kerosene, Lambert got the traditionalists to pay a little more attention to mainstream country music and its more promising artists. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Kerosene”, “I Can’t Be Bothered”
Kris Kristofferson, This Old Road This Old Road has not have received as much mainstream attention as Kristofferson’s recent appearance in Ethan Hawke’s Rolling Stone article; an unfortunate fact, given it was the legendary writer’s first album of new material in 11 years. With This Old Road, Kristofferson shines a spotlight on the world much in the same his earlier writing shined a spotlight on himself. The result is an overtly political album with more depth than most modern attempts have been able to produce. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing to Go”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”
Guy Clark, Workbench Songs
The recordings of the songs that Guy Clark, one of country music’s most respected modern songwriters, has written for the most popular artists in country music are typically polished by the best Nashville musicians and slick producers. But Clark’s own albums tend to be more organic, with spare instrumentation that somehow manages to avoid sounding anemic as a result. His well worn voice sings these eleven melodically and lyrically strong songs with warmth and the kind of emotion that easily captures the listener. It’s one of the best albums of his deep catalog that spans over thirty years. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Walkin’ Man”, “Expose”
Wynonna, What the World Needs Now is Love
It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Wynonna’s last proper studio album. This collection is easily one of her best, with effective covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Flies On the Butter”, along with socially conscious material that provokes thought instead of pandering to already held beliefs (“It All Comes Down to Love”). – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”, “Rescue Me”
Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance
The massively successful title track powered this album to triple platinum, but it also overshadowed the excellent songs surrounding it. For those who explored the album beyond track two, there were some of Womack’s finest moments on record, as she had the good taste to plunder the catalogs of Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”), Bobbie Cryner (“Stronger Than I Am”), Julie Miller (“I Know Why the River Runs”), and Rodney Crowell (“Ashes By Now”). – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Lonely Too”, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”
Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground
This is the first album from the band that would eventually become Punch Brothers. Garnering a Grammy Award Nomination in 2006, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is a solid bluegrass album with classical sensibilities and extraordinary instrumentation. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wayside (Back in Time)”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
Ralph Stanley II, This One Is Two
Hyperbole alert, but it’s hard to think of a more beautiful-sounding traditional country album from this decade, or one which more comfortably merges old school aesthetics with modern production polish. Stanley corralled a number of meaty story songs here, but it’s the combination of his warm baritone and the lush instrumentation that gives this gem its quiet strength. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Cold Shoulder”, “They Say I’ll Never Go Home”
Various Artists, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers
Tribute albums too often feel redundant, as well-meaning artists deliver nice but forgettable imitations of classic records. Not so with the Louvins’, which sticks veteran and current artists alike on the Bros’ close harmonies and sees each intriguing combination (Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash? Why not!) triumph. I daresay it’s as good an introduction to the duo’s work as any compilation of their own recordings. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “How’s the World Treating You?”, “Are You Teasing Me”
Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan
Snider mostly avoids both political themes and complex arrangements on his latest record, emphasizing his greatest strength as a writer instead: his uncanny ability to make the most specifically personal have universal resonance. Listen out for a wonderful cameo from Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Barefoot Champagne”, “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)”
Mark O’Connor, Thirty-Year Retrospective (Live)
Mark O’Connor’s Thirty Year Retrospective is a double instrumental album of his live performance with Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton and Byron House. The album covers a wide range of Mark O’Connor’s career, presenting a range of instrumental country, bluegrass, new grass and jazz with the detail and care often only applied to classical music. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Caprice No. 4 in D Major”, “Macedonia”