Last week we shared with you our picks for the other half of the Top 20 albums of 2011 and this week we share with you our 10 favorite albums (11 really as one place is a tie). These albums will run the gamut from mainstream country success to major chart (SoundScan Top 200 Albums) success to records that are somewhere in between. No requirements were made of these albums except that our editorial staff deemed them to be of the country music variety.
10. (tie) Eric Church – Chief (EMI Nashville)
Eric Church has been building his career to the point of superstardom for two albums and it came to a head with the release of Chief. There isn’t a better artist in country music that mixes the traditional songwriting approach with the modern rock touches than Eric does on this Jay Joyce-record. It’s obviously a country record but it’s louder, rockier and edgier than most country artists were allowed to be a decade ago. And all of this has happened without Eric compromising himself to get mainstream country hits. Much like female counterpart Miranda Lambert, the mainstream has come around to him and “Drink Im My Hand” from this record is his biggest hit yet (until “Springsteen” becomes a hit).
10. (tie) Chris Young - Neon (RCA Nashville)
Chris Young's first album wasn't the commercial success he or RCA hoped he'd get when he won Nashville Star but after scoring a gold record with The Man I Want To Be, Chris Young's career is on a fast-track to stardom with the strong-selling Neon. The album, which features a mixture of romantic uptempo tunes like "I Can Take It From There," and hit ballads like "Tomorrow" and just plain earworms like the title track "Neon," second single "You" and "Flashlight." It's an album of growth and one that positions Chris Young as not only one of the best 'neo-traditionalists' but also one of the best damn vocalists in commercial country music.
9. Will Hoge – Number Seven (Rykodisc)
Some would balk at this album being considered a ‘country’ album but that’s the type of person who has a narrow view of what country music is (either that it only be mainstream or super traditional or both). Nashville’s native son has made one of the best records of 2011 in my view, complete with more lap steel guitar than many of the mainstream artists. It’s considered ‘Americana’ by some and I'm sure he could have a country record deal if he wanted one (the same could be said for his equally gifted brother Josh Hoge). Number Seven's top songs include "Fool's Gonna Fly," "American Dream," "Too Old To Die Young" and "When I Get My Wings," a song bursting with passion. Also, I dare anyone to argue with me that "Trying To Be A Man" isn't a country song. Sidenote: Will Hoge co-wrote the Eli Young Band single "Even if It Breaks Your Heart" with Eric Paslay.
8. Eli Young Band – Life at Best (Republic Nashville/Universal Republic)
Eli Young Band made a strong record with Jet Black and Jealous in 2008 but this record far exceeded my expectations for their sophomore major label follow-up. Not only does the album feature Billboard’s #1 radio single of 2011 in “Crazy Girl,” but it also features sure to be hits in follow-up “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” and “Every Other Memory.” I also feel strongly about “The Fight,” “I Love You,” “Recover” and “War On A Desperate Man.” It’s an expertly crafted album with the best album art work and design of the yerar as well.
7. Hunter Hayes – Hunter Hayes (Atlantic Records)
This 20 year old talent is a living definition of the word Prodigy. He wrote every song on the record, he co-produced with Dann Huff and played 30 different instruments on this eponymous debut. He also sang every note and while people like to compare him to Rascal Flatts (who are an influence), Hunter Hayes certainly is much more than just a guy who sings like that band. He is a musicial tour-de-force and there are going to be more hits than Top 15 hit “Storm Warning.” Just wait until you hear “Somebody’s Heartbreak,” “Rainy Season” or surefire smash “Wanted.” You heard it here first.
6. Vince Gill – Guitar Slinger (MCA Nashville)
The Grammy and CMA-icon returns with a brilliant album that mixes the four distinct sounds which made These Days a success. While radio may not be that interested in playing great tunes like “Threaten Me With Heaven,” “The Old Lucky Diamond Motel” or “Tell Me Lover,” Vince Gill remains one of the strongest songwriters in country music or any genre, to say nothing of his guitar playing ability.
5. Coldwater Jane – Marionette (Mercury Nashville)
This album was quietly released digitally in 2011 and it stands out for its depth of material, much like the Pistol Annies. Hopefully the sisters of Brandon Jane and Leah Crutchfield will get a chance to share their brilliant songwriting with a larger audience with a physical album release in 2012. Standout tracks on the album include "Bring On The Love," "Marionette," "Old Black Ford," "Mississippi Mud," and the clear knockout of the album: "Devil Train."
4. Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels (RCA Nashville)
Many were surprised when Miranda Lambert spent the better part of 2011 promoting her new trio with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe. Then they heard more than the brilliant title track and were stunned with the brilliance of the songs on the record and were perhaps like me when openly wondering where have Pistol Annies been my whole life? “Lemon Drop” is brilliant and perhaps the best non-single on any country album this year.
3. Levi Lowrey – I Confess I Was A Fool (Southern Ground Records)
One of the co-writers of the Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather,” Levi Lowrey is also a gifted vocalist/fiddle player in his own right. What this man can do with just a fiddle, and a guitar player on tour is simply amazing and that pliable voice of his is pure gold. I Confess I Was A Fool is but one release from Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Records label and like the #1 and #2 albums, there isn’t a bad track on the disc.
2. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow (Sensibility Records)
The Civil Wars album Barton Hollow is a masterpiece and hopefully 2012 will help bring us more fantastic music from one of the most exciting new acts to emerge in years. I predict that mainstream country acts will cover “Poison & Wine” and “I’ve Got This Friend” among the other fantastic tunes on this well-crafted masterpiece. Standout tracks on this recrod include the two mentioned and also "To Whom It May Concern," the title track and "Girl With The Red Balloon."
1. The Dirt Drifters – This Is My Blood (Warner Brothers Records)
This record stuck with me the most this year. From the opening Dwight Yoakam-like California Country rocker "Something Better," also the band's first single, to the closing thoughtful title track, This Is My Blood is the kind of album that just screams to be heard from beginning to end. In an era where physical AND digital albums aren't released until at the very least Top 40 success, Warner Brothers Nashville believed in The Dirt Drifters enough to release This Is My Blood to both digital and brick and mortar retailers. Hopefully a single will sneak into the collective consiousness of America and abroad in 2012 as the band's clearly talented (we'd choose "Name On My Shirt" as the song likely to do that). There's isn't a bad track on This is My Blood and my clear favories from it are those songs mentioned along with "There She Goes," the cool sounding "I'll Shut Up Now", the pointed "Married Men and Motel Rooms," and "Sun Goes Down."
There you have it folks, our editor's 11 most-favorite country music albums of 2011. As stated in the introduction, these records run the gamut from mainstream to indie and from platinum selling to gold selling to plywood selling. It is our hope that this list, coupled with lists from some other writers of Roughstock, will help you find some more great music that you may have missed. As always, feel free to share with us your own favorite albums or whether you think we got it wrong here. We must add that we did miss placing Ronnie Dunn from Ronnie Dunn on our 20-11 list or this list but we do think it's clearly one of the next five best albums of the year and we'll add that album to another list in the coming days. Oh, by the way, Every album mentioned here was released in 2011 (the only qualifications were to be released from December 2010-November 2011 and that it be 'related to country music in some way').