Tag Archives: The Decemberists

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

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.

Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part One: #40-#31

#40
The Road
Emmylou Harris

Individual Rankings: #18 – Kevin; #18 – Ben; #20 – Jonathan

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

#39
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

#38
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

#37
Ours
Taylor Swift

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

#36
Shanghai Cigarettes
Caitlin Rose

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

#35
You
Chris Young

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

#34
Fixin’ to Die
G. Love

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

#33
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

#32
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Jake Owen

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

#31
Down by the Water
The Decemberists

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

Next:  Top 40 Singles of 2011, Part Two: #30-#21

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Top Twenty Albums of 2011, Part One: #20-#11

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
Noam Pikelny

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 Decemberists

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”

#18
Concrete
Sunny Sweeney

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

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
Glen Campbell

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”

#13
Chief
Eric Church

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
Connie Smith

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”

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