Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.
10. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney
Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.
9. Long Line of Heartaches – Connie Smith
Hurt never felt or sounded so good as it does from one of country’s best female vocalists ever. Smith wraps her otherworldly voice around this collection of songs and allows you to feel every note. She’s being billed as stuck in the 60s but I don’t hear it. From “That Makes Two of Us” to “Anymore,” this is modern honky-tonk music at its finest. Lets hope the wait for another album isn’t too far away.
8. Lady and Gentleman – LeAnn Rimes
Released in the aftermath of her personal scandals, Rimes has disappointed too many to be taken seriously anymore. It’s a shame as she’s making the finest music of her career. I wish this had been all-new material, but that looks to be coming next summer. For me, her jazzy take on “When I Call Your Name” is worth the price of admission but she also takes Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself” to new heights. Special thanks to Vince Gill, ever the class act, for the tasteful production. I respect him even more after listening to this.
7. Your Money and My Good Looks – Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent
Easily the most overlooked country album of 2011. Watson and Vincent are a perfect pairing cut from the George/Tammy and Conway/Loretta lore. Their voices mix brilliantly and they bring an effortless charm to every track. But the real surprise for me is Vincent. I always knew she could sing, but never knew she could sing like that. With albums like this, traditional country music is long from being dead.
6. The Dreaming Fields – Matraca Berg
The attention to detail Berg put into The Dreaming Fields rivals anything being released on major labels, and the quiet production help to elevate this album above your standard indie-country release. What could’ve been lifeless and boring is instantly brought to life by her confidence in what she’s singing. Instead of merely going through the motions, she puts her heart and soul into each of the 11 songs. Berg grabs you with her emotional delivery and never lets go. She was inspired by the sparse singer/songwriter she grew up with in the 1970s and she does the genre proud.
5. Lorraine – Lori McKenna
On these 13 tracks, McKenna proves she is leaps and bounds ahead of her peers by actually having something substantive to deliver to her audience. By staying clear of the cliche machine that is Nashville, she never once succumbs to the trickery of the business. Making her mark by taking complete creative control and forging her own path, McKenna puts quality first – something sorely missing from 99 percent of the recordings emerging from Music City. Lorraine showcases a woman free to do what she pleases and deliver spectacular results.
If you do nothing else, check out “Still Right Here,” the haunting number closing the album. It’s a brilliant testament to the power of both her singing and writing abilities. Plus, it’s the prime example of why, upon its release, it became my favorite country album since Miranda Lambert’s Revolution two years prior.
4. Four The Record – Miranda Lambert
While it isn’t as lyrically genius as Revolution, Lambert scores with the outstanding outside material she covers here. Gems like “Same Old You” and “Look Out Miss Ohio” show her exceptional ability to record some bold and daring songs most artists at their commercial peak wouldn’t dare touch.
3. Here For A Good Time – George Strait
Strait has undergone an artistic resurgence in past five years but on the whole Here For A Good Time is the best album he’s released since his 90s hot-streak. He’s found and written some exceptional material here far eclipsing the two singles. In turning introspective, Strait’s showing pieces of himself he’s never show before. On an album ripe with highlights, “I’ll Always Remember You” may be the best yet. He shows how a private performer can easily open up in song and tell his fans exactly what’s on his mind.
2. Hell On Heels – Pistol Annies
A come from nowhere collaboration, Hell on Heels proves that musical experiments can often turn into something great. What makes this album a masterpiece is Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angelina Presley understand how to make an album for music lovers and not just for commercial profit. Every one of these ten songs is a winner, but the driving honky-tonk thumper “Taking Pills” is easily among my favorites of the year. Hell On Heels will be near impossible to top, but I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
1. Guitar Slinger – Vince Gill
When Vince gill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame his reaction wasn’t to coast but rather to “go earn it.” He also says his ears haven’t failed him – Gill feels he’s now singing and playing better than ever before. With Guitar Slinger he proves the power of following your intuition.
While not the ambitious cross-genre opus that made These Days a stroke of musical genius, Guitar Slinger is back to business as usual for Gill – an expertly crafted grouping of real country music from a man who makes the impossible seem ever so easy.
But what sets this fifteen song collection apart from all other country albums released this year is the diversity in subject. Gill writes and sings it all from tales of love (“Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You,” “True Love”), to tomes of mortality (“If I Die,” “Threaten Me With Heaven”) to songs in remembrance of those who’ve passed on (“Buttermilk John,” “Billy Paul”). He even finds room to resurrect the old standard of bringing a slice of Americana to listeners with the brilliant “Old Lucky Diamond Motel.”
If any singer embodies the essence of this scared music in 2011 it’s Gill. Sticking to his motto of finding ways to say the most by saying the least he’s crafted a record for the ages. Like a visit from that long-lost friend you’re so happy to have reconnected with, Guitar Slinger transports you back to when tradition still mattered and artistic credibility outweighed commercial viability. And for that alone, there hasn’t been a better country album released during the past twelve months.
Also – Here are the links my favorite and least favorite songs of 2011 lists (expanding on my post from two weeks ago):
Top 45 Favorite Country songs of 2011
Top 40 least favorite country songs of 2011