Though it may be hard to believe, 2011 is already drawing to a close. And being that this is the final month of the year, music reviewers are busy formulating their various “Top 10” lists of what they believe were the year’s best projects.
It’s been a great year for country music, and the music industry in general, as CD sales are actually up for the first time in a very long time. Part of this, I believe, is that there really was an abundance of terrific music released.
Below, I offer my opinion on what were the 10 best albums of the year in no particular order. It’s always a tough task to come up with only 10, as some very worthy albums can’t be included by the very nature of a “Top 10” list. So please, if your favorite album isn’t on here, let us know what you loved and what got you singing along all year long. And don’t forget to check out our album review section for reviews of these CDs and more, HERE!
Pistol Annies: Hell On Heels
Born out of a midnight conversation between singer/songwriters Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, the album Hell On Heels had the initial feel of a one-off side project. Peel back the layers, though, on this tough-as-nails collection, and it’s immediately evident that these three kindred spirits were channeling something worth a whole lot of attention. Reminiscent of classic outlaw women like Loretta Lynn, Hell On Heels stares weighty subject matter straight in the face while taking on issues like class struggle, teen pregnancy and looking out for number one. Stripped down to a foundation of acoustic and reverb-tinged guitars, the textured harmonies are bright as each of these immensely talented women add their unique voice. Hell On Heels debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and No. 5 on the Top 200 all-genre album chart upon its release. Key tracks – “Hell On Heels,” “Housewife’s Prayer,” “Beige,” “Boys from the South”
Vince Gill: Guitar Slinger
On the follow-up to his epic, Grammy-award winning set These Days, Vince Gill opts for an introspective approach both in his songwriting and guitar playing. Thoughtful guitar lines weave in between philosophical meditations on life and death, human nature and love. Grammy-nominated single “Threaten Me With Heaven” ponders the hereafter with a bittersweet sentiment while the thumping outlaw number “Billy Paul” questions how a seemingly sane person can go crazy so suddenly. Vince’s guitar work is exceptional as he showcases bluesy, instinctive leads at every turn. And he even packs a little of that R&B soul into his voice on songs like “When The Lady Sings the Blues.” Guitar Slinger debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and No. 14 on the Top 200 all-genre album chart when it was released. Key tracks – “Threaten Me With Heaven,” “Guitar Slinger,” “Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You,” “The Old Lucky Diamond Motel”
Eric Church: Chief
Eric Church’s third album, Chief, is a defining work for the 34-year old North Carolina singer/songwriter. Sure, his first two records elicited some pretty solid acclaim and commercial success, but this time around Eric sounds more comfortable and confident than ever, while seemingly finding his “sound.” The result is a hard country adventure through songs full of temptation, love, nostalgia and a few good times with a couple iced-down cold ones. On Chief, Eric pushes himself harder than ever, both lyrically and musically. He’s not afraid to blend Southern Gospel with crunchy rock guitar (“Country Music Jesus”), or R&B roots with atmospheric grooves (“Hungover & Hard Up”). It’s the hugely successful combination of these different elements and willingness to push the envelope that provides support for Eric’s soulful voice and intelligent approach. Chief landed at the top of the Billboard Top 200 all-genre chart upon its release, has already been certified Gold and is also nominated for the GRAMMY Country Album of the Year award. Key tracks – “Creepin’,” “Hungover & Hard Up,” “Springsteen,” “I’m Getting Stoned”
David Nail: The Sound of a Million Dreams
Bluesy piano, raw slide guitar and a voice that bears the complexities of its subjects, The Sound of a Million Dreams comes alive with stirring southern soul. On his sophomore album, David Nail dives deeper into the R&B-infused country that earned him a Grammy nomination last year. The shake of “Grandpa’s Farm,” packed with country nostalgia and gospel back-up singers, or the hard charging “She Rides Away,” demonstrates David’s vocal depth while always conveying the song’s true emotional undertones. While his blue-eyed soul and dapper look in some ways break from current Nashville trends, the stories and characters of songs like “That’s How I’ll Remember You” connect deeply with a downhome and authentic feel. The Sound of a Million Dreams debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. Key tracks – “She Rides Away,” “Catherine,” “Catch You While I Can,” “Let It Rain”
Brad Paisley: This is Country Music
On This is Country Music, Brad Paisley takes on the challenge of representing an entire musical genre on one, 15-song collection. There’s acoustic-based traditional country (“Toothbrush” with singing fiddle and pedal steel), Southern rock power (“Old Alabama” featuring icons Alabama) and bluegrass (“Be the Lake” showcasing some fancy banjo pickin’), as well as other influences ranging from the Nashville Sound to Southern Gospel. Joined by guests including Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton and Clint Eastwood, Brad ties the expansive project together with his twanged-out virtuoso guitar playing and unique sense of humor; i.e. the revved-up “Camoflague” uses country-fried guitar licks while telling the story of the high school kid who painted his Chevy Cavalier 100% camo. This is Country Music debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, No. 2 on the Top 200 all-genre album chart and was nominated for CMA Album of the Year. It has also been certified Gold. Key tracks – “This Is Country Music,” “New Favorite Memory,” “Working on a Tan,” “Eastwood”
Ronnie Milsap: Country Again
On the title track “Country Again,” Grand Ole Opry member Ronnie Milsap breaks it down for all the young’uns. The ’70s outlaw-feeling tune tells the story of a Dodge truck – that just so happens to be a time machine. After returning from a trip to the future, the truck’s driver, Tommy, shocks his neighbors even more with tales of true blue, authentic country music on the radio. This anecdote alone should give heavy indication that Country Again leans uber-traditional, and no one can do it quite like Ronnie. Walking the line between aching honky tonk and polished Nashville Sound, Ronnie brings the twang on his first new set in five years while tracks like “Almost Mine” showcase his fine touch and feel behind the piano. Key tracks – “Country Again,” “You’re The Reason I’m Living,” “Oh Linda,” “If You Don’t Want Me To”
Toby Keith: Clancy’s Tavern
Like your favorite neighborhood pub, Clancy’s Tavern gathers an intriguing cast of characters with some very entertaining stories. There’s the lonely guy in the corner staring at his beer (the country blues shuffle “I Need To Hear A Country Song”). Over at the bar, two lost souls search for meaning that won’t be there in the morning (the slow, melancholy “Just Another Sundown”). Then there’s the dark, seedy figure in the back booth (the spooky “Club Zydeco Moon”) and the loud frat guys with all the laughs (the absurdly catchy “Red Solo Cup”). And while everyone carries on, Toby Keith tends the bar, pouring drinks and slipping in thoughtful lines about perception and love as he serves up his best album in years. Clancy’s Tavern debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and No. 5 on the Top 200 all-genre album chart. Key tracks – “Just Another Sundown,” “I Need To Hear A Country Song,” “Beers Ago,” “Red Solo Cup”
Alison Krauss & Union Station: Paper Airplane
On their first new studio album in seven years, Alison Krauss and Union Station return to the stirring bluegrass they helped bring to the mainstream. With an angelic voice that weaves effortlessly through the intricate arrangements provided by bandmates including Barry Bales (bass) and Ron Block (banjo), Alison leads evocative pieces like the haunting “Lie Awake” and tormented “My Love Follows You Where You Go.” The playing is impeccable with acoustic intonation that is vibrant and pure. Songs like “On The Outside Looking In,” sung with an authentic blue-collar rawness by guitarist Dan Tyminski, jump from the speakers while Jerry Douglas’ virtuoso dobro work remains captivating as ever. Paper Airplane debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, No. 3 on the Top 200 all-genre album chart and marked Alison’s most first week sales with 83k. Key tracks – “Lie Awake,” “On The Outside Looking In,” “Sinking Stone,” “My Opening Farewell”
Sunny Sweeney: Concrete
A bottle of red, a bottle of white/ Which one will it be?/ I can’t decide, Texan singer/songwriter Sunny Sweeney sings with a flippant kiss-off on the opening track “Drink Myself Single.” It’s the first glimpse of smoke from the fire spreading just below the surface of Concrete, and it certainly isn’t the last. Throughout the 10-song collection, Sunny confronts her cheating man’s wife a la Dolly Parton on the bluegrass-tinged “Amy,” strikes a no-nonsense pose that includes a few threats on “Helluva Heart,” and struggles with her inner rebel trying to break free on “The Old Me.” Sunny’s a complicated woman, and the closing track “Fall For Me” shows this best with a subtle daydream about the object of her affection. Produced with a modern edge and beautiful harmonies against classic honky tonk influences, Concrete is solid evidence that the fire is just getting started. Concrete debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard Country Albums chart when it was released. Key tracks – “From A Table Away,” “Mean As You,” “Hulluva Heart,” “Fall For Me”
Miranda Lambert: Four the Record
Even at her quietest, most introspective moments, singer/songwriter Miranda Lambert’s voice maintains its power. On her fourth album, Miranda trades in a few of the anthems, but not the intensity, that has brought her both critical and commercial success. Ballads like “Over You” showcase her strikingly emotional and melodic voice while “Better In the Long Run” (a duet with husband Blake Shelton) rolls along with expressive descriptions of making love work despite the struggles. Four the Record is packed with insightful moments that continue to highlight Miranda’s growth as an artist and her adventurous spirit. The sexy “Fine Tune” utilizes a talk box and R&B groove, and the beautiful, atmospheric “Oklahoma Sky” sprawls open and free to a methodical acoustic guitar. This isn’t to say that Miranda doesn’t let loose. The unhinged “Mama’s Broken Heart” is brilliant, and together with the rebellious “Fastest Girl In Town,” provides more than enough evidence that no one can channel the chaos quite like Miranda. Four the Record debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and No. 3 on the Top 200 all-genre album chart upon its release. Key tracks – “Mama’s Broken Heart,” “Fine Tune,” “Better In The Long Run,” “Look at Miss Ohio”