10. The Pistol Annies--Hell On Heels (RCA/Nashville)
Redneck has become something of an insulting joke as of late, and most of the country singers who adopt the persona do nothing to change that. It helps that singers Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley actually grew up in their chosen demographic. This brings their songs down on the side of larger than life, as opposed to over the top trashy. Songs like “Housewife’s Prayer” burn with a seething rage born of frustration and hard times, while others like the title track glitter with hard mercenary humor. This is an unabashedly two fisted album full of the kind of darkly humorous ballads others can only aspire to. “No filter on her mouth or her cigarette,” they warn at one point, “baby what you’re looking at is what you get.”
9. The Waifs--Temptation (Compass)
In 2007 The Waifs appeared on the verge of break up, with the split of two of its band mates and a rather bitter and uneven album chronicling that break up. The trio separated to four corners of North America and rejoined for Temptation in 2011. They picked up two new band members, Ben Franz on Bass and Dobro and David Ross MacDonald on percussion. The result is their most ambitious album to date, fusing gospel traditions from their new homeland with searing honesty about addiction, religion and fears of settling down. It’s a good, old fashioned slice of what used to be called roots music.
8. Allison Krauss--Paper Airplane (Rounder)
Allison Krauss continued her traditional of strong, hauntingly beautiful albums with Paper Airplane. This album was filled to the brim with the sort of sleepy, sad songs that are so perfect for her ethereal voice. Union Station adds a note of working class angst with such ballads as “Dust Bowl Children.” But, as always, it is Krauss who shines with her lush vocals and impeccably arranged bluegrass-pop.
9. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings--The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony)
On the other side of the Bluegrass spectrum lies Gillian Welch. There is nothing pretty or pop about the harrow and the Harvest, nor are there any lush arrangements to blunt its harshest edges. They are another band who staged a minor comeback after not releasing an album in four years. The pair’s writer’s block gave way to some stark and stirring ballads that cut to the very bone of loss and life.
6. Gurf Morlix--Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream (Texas Ghostwriters)
Four years, however, seems like a short time to wait for an album in comparison to Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream. It took Morlix over 20 years to release this tribute to one of his best friends. Foley, a musical icon in Texas and largely unknown outside the state, left a long trail of talent behind him when he was shot defending his friend in 1989. Morlix decently follows that trail, covering the songs with reverence and passion. It is the album of a true artist paying his dues to the artist who inspired him.
5. Sarah Jarosz--Follow Me Down (Sugar Hill)
Follow Me Down is the second studio album from prodigy Sarah Jarosz. This Austin/Wimberley native worked recording, playing and producing the album around her schedule at the New England Conservatory of Music. The result found her pulling songs by everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Radiohead. She pulled all of these diverse sounds into a single bluegrass form, often twisting both the genre and the songs to fit each other perfectly.
4. Matraca Berg--The Dreaming Fields (Dualtone)
“Seems the only way a man can live of the land these days is to buy and sell,” Berg mourns on the title track of her 2001 album. Her first album in more than a decade was a showcase for her stellar writing and remarkable vocals. “You and Tequila” put her husky voice to good use as she infused the song with a smoky ache. Conversely, it was all snarl and sass on the vengeance fueled “Your Husband’s Cheating On Us.” Matraca Berg is a singer/songwriter with few equals and it was a gift for her fans to have a new album of her material.
3. Ryan Adams--Ashes and Fire (Capitol)
Ryan Adams was once the most prolific singer/songwriter in the industry, easily racking up two or three albums per year. Then he was sidelined by an inner ear condition and had to reach himself how to make music all over again. The resulting Ashes and Fire reveals a man, not only more comfortable with his gift, but also more contented with his life. Ballads like “Lucky Now” and “Save Me” find s man looking back at his life, discomfited by what he sees and reaching towards a better present and future. Many people have wondered what would happen if Ryan Adams got sober and happy. This album answers both and might well be the album of his career.
2. Lucinda Williams--Blessed (Lost Highway)
Blessed deserves a place in any top ten albums of 2011 list for its cover art alone. The album featuring a rotating combination of people from all walks of life holding up the title card. The cover and the album are reminders of what make us uniquely human. Her songs strike a chord into the deepest parts of our spirits, allowing us to see the beauty at their heart. Whether singing about the beginning of a new marriage or the suicide of an old friend, Williams makes the universal personal again and again. It is a striking album and a simple reminder why, if Americana has a Queen, it is Lucinda Williams.
1. Lori McKenna--Lorraine (Signature Sounds)
Lori McKenna has been compared to both Williams and Springsteen for her writing ability. However, she is deals with smaller, more intimately embroidered moments than both. “My life is pieces of paper, that I’ll get back to later,” she explains on “The Most.” At heart, she is a personal writer, telling only the story of a simple, everyday housewife. Her gift and her genius, however, is to find the nuances in that housewife and all the people around her, that create a compelling story that lasts for decades. Nowhere is that gift more in evidence than on Lorraine, and album that is simply the best of 2011.