Best of 2011: Albums of the Year

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With 2011 officially over, it’s time to close the books on the year by completing our last two Best of 2011 lists. The year saw plenty of album releases from every facet of the genre like mainstream, bluegrass,Americana and folk. Here are the best eleven albums of 2011, once again according to my humble opinion.

11. Stronger – Sara Evans
Sara Evans’ 2011 release was once again a fantastic set ofsongs delivered by one of the genre’s finest vocalists. Stronger is filled with the sounds that have made Evans a staple incountry music. From pop dittys like “Desperately” and “My Heart Can’t Tell YouNo” to ballads like “A Little Big Stronger” and “Alone” and there’s even alittle bluegrass thrown it with a re-recording of her hit, “Born to Fly.” Thiswas one of the year’s earliest gems.
10. Roots & Wings – Terri Clark
Terri Clark has an impressive catalogue of albums to hercredit, but it’s difficult to find one that outshines her 2011 list. Thesinger’s signature blend of mainstream and traditional country serves as thefoundation for this album filled with songs about breaking up and falling inlove. The album’s standout songs include the somber “Flowers in the Snow” andthe seemingly autobiographical “Northern Girl.” Here’s to hoping we’ll see moremusic from this Canadian born songstress.
9. Neon – Chris Young
Chris Young’s first two albums were a great introduction tocountry’s newest mainstream-traditionalist. But it’s this set of songs thattakes the artist from the “newcomer” level to a bona fide country music star. Neon includes nearly every themerequired for a country album: songs about drinking (“Save Water, Drink Beer”),songs about love (“When She’s On,” “She’s Got This Thing About Her”), and ofcourse songs about heartache (“Tomorrow”). The album includes loads of steel guitar, fiddle, and an overallunderstated production that makes it one of the most enjoyable albums of theyear.
8. The Sound of a Million Dreams – DavidNail
It seems like every year there’s at least one artist whosurprises the country music industry by releasing some of the most compellingand fascinating music. This year’s surprise artist could arguably be DavidNail. After scoring a Grammy nomination earlier this year for his beautifulsong “Turning Home,” Nail released an album that outshines his debut. The albumis filled with plenty, and I mean plenty, of Nail’s signature soul thatbreathes life into songs like the funky “Grandpa’s Town” to the Keith Urbanpenned song, “Desiree.” The album’s highlights include the lead single “Let itRain,” and the brilliant “Half Mile Hill.” Nail’s first two album releases haveboth been homeruns, here’s to hoping we’ll be able to hear more fantastic musicfrom this talented newcomer.
7. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney
It’s been increasingly difficult for traditionalists to makeany sort of splash in the country music world. However, this year Sunny Sweeneymanaged to make quite the impression with the release of Concrete. The album possesses a production that manages to beclearly traditional country yet has a hint of mainstream appeal designed tomake the set of songs more “radio friendly.” Throw in a few clever and humoroussongs and you got yourself one of the year’s best albums from a solo femaleartist. The album is highlighted by songs like “From A Table Away,” “Staying’sWorse Than Leaving,” and “Amy.” Let’s hope that with a new year will also comemore music from one of country’s brightest hidden stars.
6. Here For A Good Time – George Strait
It is often said that wisdom comes with age and judging byrecent album releases from country legend George Strait, that phrase provestrue. Here for a Good Time is one ofthe star’s most fascinating set of songs he’s delivered in his illustriouscareer. The songs presented deal with various real-life themes like alcoholism(“Drinkin’ Man”), living life to the fullest (“Here for a Good Time”), and addiction(“Poison”). The album’s highlights include the brilliant “A Showman’s Life”which features beautiful harmony vocals by Faith Hill and the fantastic “HouseAcross the Bay.” The album’s superb production sticks the troubadour’ssignature style of traditional country that is just mainstream enough to beplayed on radio. The vocal performances delivered on each song showcase thesinger’s aged yet familiar voice to near perfection.
5. Chief – Eric Church
Eric Church, though to my disagreement, has often been calleda modern day outlaw in country music. To say he walks against the grain oftoday’s mainstream country would be a bit inappropriate since his previousalbums are filled with the same pop-filled country sounds we hear from hisfellow cohorts like Luke Bryan and Jake Owen. However, on Chief, the singer provides material to support his label as anoutlaw. Exceptional and edgy productions are blended with clever lyrics, fantasticvocal performances, and an overall stellar sound makes this album not only thesinger’s finest, but one of the year’s best releases. Highlights include thealbum’s opener the funky opener “Creepin’” as well as the unique-sounding “Hungoverand Hard Up.” In case you are judging an album by its singles, this is a primeexample of an album being stronger than its singles.
4. Hell on Heels – Pistol Annies
Who would have thought a trio of friends could produce oneof the year’s most revolutionary albums? Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley,and Ashley Monroe make up this year’s most talented trio, Pistol Annies, andits debut album could possibly be country music at its finest. The album isfilled with songs that revolve around some heavy life experiences and someclever twists on humorous themes. “Housewive’s Prayer” is an all-too-realreflection of the impact the economic downturn has made on a struggling family.Meanwhile, “Trailer for Rent” includes some clever, tongue-in-cheek lyricsabout a woman gaining revenge on her husband by simply moving out and puttingtheir trailer up for rent. The trio utilizes some traditional, down homecountry productions to bring to life these painful and somewhat giddy storiesto life. I’ve said before that if there’s a trio of women who have enough goodsto pick up where the Dixie Chicks left off, these are the girls we need to lookto. Let’s hope Miranda Lambert doesn’t forget about this “side project” in thecoming years because country music desperately needs a group like the PistolAnnies .
3. Four the Record – Miranda Lambert
How does one follow up an incredible, award-winning albumlike Revolution? If we were to askMiranda Lambert that question, she’d simply say, “Four the Record.” The fourth major release from the formerNashville Star contestant is nearly just as brilliant as her previous albumrelease. This go-around finds Lambert somehow reinventing her sound to createyet another layer of artistry we have never seen from the superstar. Here, weare introduced to a softer, gentler Miranda Lambert which is most likely areflection of her marriage to fellow superstar, Blake Shelton. It’s that softerside that provides the album’s most interesting and superb tracks. “Dear Diamond”is a stellar co-write that tells the story of an adulterous wife who confidesher heartbreaking story to her wedding ring. Meanwhile “Oklahoma Sky” is a beautifulode to the new life she and Shelton have created for themselves in their homestate. Although we find a more subdued Miranda in some of the songs, there’salso plenty of attitude and sass that have made the singer one of the morefeared women in country. Rowdy songs like “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “FastestGirl in Town” satisfy her fans’ need for the “girl power” anthems they’ve beenaccustomed to receiving from the singer in the past. Whether you enjoy thetender, gentler side of Miranda or the fiery, explosive side, this albumbrilliantly showcases both sides for enjoyment.
2. Lady and Gentlemen – Leann Rimes
Never before have we seen an artist pay homage to countrymusic’s past like the way this covers album has. Rather than simply choosingsongs previously performed by some of the genre’s finest female artists, Leann Rimesinstead chose to reinvent country classics that were performed by men. In orderto pull off such a feat, some of country’s most beloved classics had to betweaked to support a woman’s point of view. The Waylon Jennings’ hit “OnlyDaddy That’ll Walk the Line” was turned into “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line”and the object of affection in the John Anderson smash “Swingin’” was changedfrom Charlotte Johnson to Charlie Johnson. In addition to the lyrical twistsand tweaks, each song’s production was stylishly changed to support Leann’sartistic views. From the risky tempo change in “Swingin’” to the revamping ofthe singer’s breakout hit “Blue,” Rimes and producer Vince Gill managed toreinvigorate the classics and turn them into recordings that could besuccessful in today’s mainstream country. The production and lyricalreinvention of the songs are nothing without the beautiful, soulful vocalperformances turned in by the singer. From the sweet, tender side shown on “WastedDays and Wasted Nights” to the somber, heartbreaking performance delivered on “HeStopped Loving Her Today” (the album’s highlight), Rimes has never soundedbetter and more mature. When all the above elements are blended together, theend result is one of the most brilliant albums.
1.  Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars
Magical, brilliant, superb, outstanding: there aren’t enoughadjectives to describe just how spectacular this album is. It’s so good that Idon’t even know how to express its brilliance in words. The duo’s phenomenalsongwriting and stellar harmonies are some of the best to come from a duosince, well, maybe ever. The singers manage to deliver emotive and stunninglybeautiful vocal performances on every single track on this album that it begsone to ask if there’s anything this duo can’t do. Meanwhile the songwritingturned in by the duo deliver by far and away the most brilliant lyrics we heardin 2011. The stellar “20 Years,” the superbly written “Poison & Wine,” andthe amazing title track are all examples of the depth and creative genius thealbum offers. To add to the album’s uniqueness and genius, there’s a stunninglybeautiful instrumental included among the brilliant vocal performances. Meanwhilethe production of the album could be classified under a plethora of genres fromcountry to bluegrass to folk which makes for an incredibly diverse soundingrecord. Barton Hollow is by far andaway 2011’s most stellar and fantastic albums as well as one of the year’s mosthidden treasures.
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