Best Albums of 2011: #20-11
It’s been such a good year for country and roots music that we had a tough time narrowing down our list to 20 albums. Records from Buddy Miller, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, and George Strait barely missed the cut during our voting process. Here is the first half of our list.
Rimes was mostly in the news this year for her personal life, which is unfortunate, because this is a fine covers album. LeAnn took some of her favorite country songs with male leads from decades gone by and reinterpreted them with substantial liberties. Vince Gill’s careful hand helmed the project as co-producer and original cuts by Jennings, Jones and Haggard were given a fascinating fresh coat of paint. The only shame was that three outstanding singles, “Swingin’,” “Give” and “Crazy Women,” were released to radio and made barely a blip on the radar.
It had been 15 years since Connie Smith had released an album of original material; Long Line of Heartaches, recorded in Smith’s former home-base, RCA’s Studio B, sounds like an extension of her hit records in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As she said in her interview with Engine 145, “My musical tastes are still the same as they were in the ’60s. I just like a really good song, and it usually turns out to be a country one. I love all kinds of music, but when it comes to singing, the country ones are just so comfortable for me to do.”
Serby, whose previous releases are chockfull of the Bakersfield Sound, went folk with this understated, largely acoustic album of historically-influenced songs. The characters featured on this ten-song album (which is dedicated to the American working man) are a compelling collection of have-nots: disabled veterans, displaced Sioux Indians, and laborers straight out of a Steinbeck novel. Poor Man’s Poem is the feel-bad album of 2011, but, this year, feeling bad has rarely sounded so good.
The second album from the Tracy Lawrence soundalike boasts a smartly-written originals like single “All My Best Friends (Are Behind Bars)” that sound straight from a Merle Haggard record, several well-chosen songs written by Mary Gauthier, Bobby Pinson, and others, and a cover of “Rose in Paradise” that proves Haigh has one foot firmly in country music’s past. He’s one neotraditionalist that we’ll be keeping our eyes–and our ears–on.
If “New Moon Over Nashville” is any indication, this Austin-based fivesome is ready to go after some mainstream success. Good Luck and True Love, their most accessible album to date, might be the way they’ll get it. The music covers the usual topics of highways, heartaches, and, uh, the saints (“I Never Liked St. Valentine,” co-written with Todd Snider), and the rockin’ Red Dirt sound the guys are known for is present for much of the album, but with “I Stayed Up All Night Again” (featuring sweet harmonies from Dani Flowers), Willy Braun proves he can write a mighty fine country ballad too.
The Massachusetts singer-songwriter has had material recorded by Faith Hill and Keith Urban, but her words have never sounded better than they do on this deeply personal album, which is named after her late mother. Whether she is vividly describing the blue-collar neighborhood of “Buy This Town,” portraying an abused wife in “American Revolver” (co-written with Barry Dean), or singing about her mother on the poignant title track, McKenna has the ability to move us and twist our hearts like few others.
We’d been waiting over 20 years for a new album from Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd, and it didn’t disappoint. The duo delivered a baker’s dozen of killer country songs from the deliciously twangy Americana rocker “That’s What She Said” to closer “When I Finally Let You Go,” a ballad with Everly Brothers-ish harmony singing. Read Sam Gazdziak’s review of a recent Foster & Lloyd show here.
25-year old Shepherd’s most recent album might not be as quality as her debut Sounds So Good, but thanks to her great voice and thick twang, it’s still one of the year’s better mainstream releases, thanks in large part to Top 20 single “Look It Up:” penned by Angaleena Presley, it’s a piece of Loretta-worthy sass that finds Shepherd sneering putdowns like “The word is ‘easy,’ look it up/And you’ll see a picture of that piece of trash ridin’ around in your pickup truck.” Here is CM Wilcox’s review.
This was Eric Church’s year, as he ends 2011 with a gold record and a Grammy nomination. On Chief, country radio’s resident bad boy swaggers through songs like “Drink in My Hand,” and gets nostalgic about the soundtrack to a first love with the excellent “Springsteen.” He may not be the country music savior he sings about, but there’s little doubt that he’ll be filling arenas through 2012. Read Karlie Justus’ review.
Co-produced by Jamey Johnson, this stellar gospel record features a number of collaborations with country guests including Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, and The Oak Ridge Boys. The Blind Boys take listeners on a spiritual journey that ranges from the pew-rattling “I Saw the Light” with Hank Williams, Jr. to the contemplative “I Was a Burden,” which features a soulful vocal turn from Lee Ann Womack. Here is Karlie Justus’ review published on The 9513.
- Leeann Ward: Thanks, NM. I like a good pop hook, to be honest. So, maybe I need to try it again.
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
- Jim Z: to call the Dirty River Boys an "Austin area band" is still incorrect. They are based in El Paso.
- nm: Leeann, you and I often have similar tastes in more-traditional country. And, to my ears, Sam Hunt's voice and lyrics …
- Barry Mazor: Matter of fact, as always--I did. The notes say the album was recorded & mixed by and at "The …
- Roger: Looking forward to picking up the Jamey Johnson Christmas EP - love all of those songs and can't wait for …
- Jim Z: that record was recorded in El Paso. (you could look it up) and other than appearing in Austin once in …
- Leeann Ward: Yes, I can always use more dobro in my life! Thanks for the Phil Leadbetter tip! I haven't been able to …
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...
- Jim Z: Dirty River Boys are from El Paso, Texas.