Top 10 Albums of 2011
Five of the 10 artists on our list of the Top 10 Albums of 2011 didn't even have an album in stores five years ago. 2011 has brought about a seismic shift in who the superstars of country music are. This has been reflected at recent award show ceremonies and in annual recaps. While the Pistol Annies have the only true debut album on this list, other releases from mainstream country newcomers like Brantley Gilbert and Sunny Sweeney feel like they seemingly came out of nowhere. There are a few familiar names, like George Strait and Toby Keith, but if a country music fan had just woken up from a half-decade long coma, he'd certainly be scratching his head.
The trio has sold more albums than any other artist on this list of the Top 10 Albums of 2011. However, they were criticized for polishing their pop sound even more on 'Own the Night.' But there's plenty of raw emotion on songs like 'Cold as Stone,' and the group pushes itself into previously unexplored territories during songs like the No. 1 single 'We Owned the Night.'
Like a good pair of cowboy boots, Luke Bryan's third album takes a few wears to break in. The songwriting isn't sharp from start to finish, but there are more than enough highlights ('You Don't Know Jack' and 'Faded Away,' in addition to the singles) to distract one from the few, lonely flat spots. 'Tailgates and Tanlines' is -- despite its celebratory title -- somewhat of a melancholy project, but for the first time one believes Bryan has lived through the songs he's singing.
Ashton Shepherd continues to quietly put out albums that critics love. Now if she could only find some room on radio station playlists. 'Where Country Grows' is a collection of 10 sharply written songs that every mom, dad and child in the country will feel personally attached to. There isn't a more genuine artist in country music these days.
Somehow, George Strait continues to surprise fans. He did it again in 2011, releasing his darkest album in years. Many of the songs on 'Here for a Good Time' feel almost voyeuristic. Who is the inspiration behind 'Drinkin' Man'? Is Strait really considering retirement like he says in 'I'll Always Remember You'? The famously private singer likely won't be answering these questions soon, but the questions are enough to make this one of the most interesting albums of 2011.
It's happy times these days for Sunny Sweeney. The recently married singer is a few years removed from the pain and heartache that inspired the 10 songs on 'Concrete,' but she wore those heavy emotions like a rain soaked sweater. Listeners hear a woman who's begging to be relieved of that discomfort but is unsure how to begin peeling back the fabric of deceit and betrayal. Fans of traditional country music will love this 2011 album.
There was plenty of girl power in 2011, led by the Miranda Lambert-fronted trio Pistol Annies. Along with her best friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, she carved an album worth of songs from the politically incorrect subconscious of women across America. Sonic terror was complimented by sweet, ladylike costuming. Somehow one knows the girls singing the title track will have no trouble finding new victims even after fessing up to their evil. 'Hell on Heels' debuted at No. 1 despite being released only as a digital album.
Toby Keith hasn't pandered to modern trends in years, but for the first time in a decade he's blazed a trail others will be tempted to follow. 'Clancy's Tavern' is an original from start to finish. Keith blends international styles with modern country musicianship and sings lyrics that feel both humble and genuine. Much like George Strait, who appears earlier on this list of the Top 10 Albums of 2011, he's found a way to surprise fans and critics after age 50.
There were a lot of eyes on Blake Shelton when he released this album in July 2011. He'd just finished 'The Voice' and gotten married to Miranda Lambert. His face was on every magazine or television show, and he was ramping up for one of the summer's hottest tours. When someone gets that big, there are inevitably critics looking to bust your balloon, but Shelton didn't offer a single balloon to be busted. The goofiest moment is 'Honey Bee,' and that turned into his biggest hit of all time. Aside from a few tweets, there was very little to dislike from Shelton this year.
Eric Church has refined his do-it-my-way attitude to a point that radio stations will feel less nervous playing his music. This will attract more fans -- 'Chief' will soon be his best selling album -- but more importantly raise the bar on those songs that were misses to some. 'Springsteen' might be one of the best songs recorded in 2011.
Miranda Lambert says she was able to forget about the pressures of trying to follow up 'Revolution' and focus on the art while recording 'Four the Record.' The result is a wide variety of cuts that at first feel uncomfortable but quickly turn into masterpieces you can't turn away from. Highlights on this release, which is our No. 1 2011 album, include 'Over You' and 'Mama's Broken Heart' -- but there are a half dozen others that could make a personal Top 10 list.