2011 has been quite a year for country music. We’ve seen touching, real-life singles like “Cost Of Livin’” to new party anthems like “Red Solo Cup.” There’s been albums that have broken records, and albums that have surprised fans. We’ve had all-girl groups form, and some groups losing members this year. One thing is for sure… 2011 has been a big one for country music.
We’ve put together our top eleven list of the eleven best albums released this year. Some of our picks may surprise you, so make sure to take a look and let us know on Twitter, Facebook, or right here in the comments about what you think, how you feel, and if you think we missed someone we shouldn’t have.
Keepin’ it Country’s Top 11 Albums of 2011:
11. Lauren Alaina – Wildflower
The debut album from the runner-up from this year’s American Idol season was a surprisingly strong record. The hardest thing to do coming from a reality show is to prove to fans that you’re not just a one-hit wonder; that you’re here to stay and that you mean business. Lauren did just that with “Wildflower” spawning hits “Like My Mother Does” and current rising single “Georgia Peaches.” Her record was originally released on October 24th, 2011 and debuted at number five on the Billboard 200. It’s a strong first effort from the young singer, who’s vocals are surprisingly mature and controlled. There’s a reason why Martina McBride chose her to come on-stage to sing with at CMA Fest earlier this year.
10. Montgomery Gentry – Rebels On The Run
The seventh studio album from the all-male duo was one of the more anticipated releases this year. “Rebels On The Run” was the first work they’ve done at their new home on Average Joe’s Entertainment, after splitting from their former home at Columbia Nashville over creative differences. Eddie and Troy put out one of their best records in years, and the split was definitely for the best for the duo, even if the first single “Where I Come From” wasn’t a trailblazing hit. Released on October 18th, the album produced by Michael Knox of Jason Aldean fame, is a throwback to what Montgomery Gentry did best several albums ago – and will be sure to bring them back into the spotlight in the new year with the next single. For a genre that is surprisingly lacking strong male duos, Montgomery Gentry is on a mission to change that once again. Fans can, and should, expect great things from the pair in 2012.
9. Martina McBride – Eleven
Martina McBride’s eleventh studio album is once again one of country music’s best of the year which isn’t much of a surprise – Martina has one of the best voices in all genres, period. The album, released on October 11th, which also has eleven tracks, is a brand new step for the singer who found a new home and a new producer. While some fans were worried that she might take a pop direction on the album, it’s still very much country with story tracks like “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” and the funny take on raising kids with “Teenage Daughters.” Martina is one of the brightest stars in country music, and “Eleven” once again reminded fans why she’s one of the top talents in the industry: even if she has been somewhat forgotten the last few years with the many talented women coming out of Nashville. You can always rely on Martina to deliver, and she does so yet again.
8. Lady Antebellum – Own The Night
Lady Antebellum are the biggest group in country music right now. With their new cross-over success, many fans were worried that the group would try to cater too much to their pop fans and forget about their country roots. With “Own The Night,” the superstar trio made sure that both sides of their fans would be happy without taking away too much from either genre’s expectations of them. The group have recorded some of the catchiest, and biggest, hits in country music the last few years and this album is full of more potential crossover singles. They’ve built upon their success and they’ve proven that they won’t be going away for a while, that they’re here to stay. Lady Antebellum have found a way to connect with the average listener and that gift is what makes this album as huge as it will continue to be in 2012.
7. Luke Bryan – Tailgates & Tanlines
When you’re hot, you’re hot. Luke Bryan has had the most breakout success this year of all country acts, and his new record “Tailgates & Tanlines” might just be the one to finally keep him in the spotlight he’s earned. His country-dance single “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” was a surprising hit for the Georgia native, who somehow found a way to mix pop-star style dancers in his CMA award show performance earlier this year without losing credibility. Luke discovered a new confidence in the record, and his career is about to explode. It will be interesting to see how he follows up this effort, but for now, “Tailgates & Tanlines” is one of the best of 2011.
6. Miranda Lambert – Four The Record
Miranda Lambert’s fourth studio record was the most anticipated release of 2011. Fans were wondering if she would be able to handle releasing two albums, (one with the Pistol Annies), so close together in the second half of the year. Another big question was would she be able to handle the pressure of following up the huge “Revolution.” The Texas native did just that, with an album that could comfortably be considered the sister album to her third disc. She learned to still push the boundaries with an autotuned track “Fine Tune,” and be extremely personal on her co-write with husband Blake Shelton on “Over You.” Miranda is still a force to be reckoned with, even if “Four The Record” displays a softer side to the singer-songwriter than “Revolution” did.
5. Jake Owen – Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Jake Owen has had one of the more interesting careers to follow in country music today. He has the talent to be a star, but he’s never had the right songs or image to get him to where he should have been. He took a chance on letting some of Nashville’s strongest songwriters help him out this time around, putting aside his own work, on “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.” It was a risk that turned out for the singer, whose effort this time around feels a lot more sincere and not forced. The album contains the infectious title track, which became the most successful single for Jake yet. Radio has learned to accept him, and even if the record isn’t filled to the brim with potential singles: it’s still quality and his third album is his best yet. It’s a sing-along-in-your-car kind of album.
4. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
The Civil Wars have been one of the most surprising success stories of 2011. The folk duo, who is mostly unknown to the mainstream country music fans, have found themselves nominated all year long for their effort. With a sound reminiscent of Alison Krauss, John Paul White and Joy Williams have one of the stand-out albums of the year. Not bad for a first full-length album. The duo show off their unique harmony through each track, and have their own identity: there’s nothing run-of-the-mill Nashville about “Barton Hollow” which makes it one of the year’s top five. They are one of the artists to follow over the next few years to see how big they could, and should, become. Their resistance to follow the rules of country mainstream makes them one of the best acts this year.
3. Blake Shelton – Red River Blue
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the whole country music world is aware of who Blake Shelton is. Thanks to “The Voice,” he’s probably the hottest country singer in America right now and his career is at an all-time high. After releasing two six-pack albums in 2010, all eyes were on Blake to see what he could come up with for a full-length album. He responded perfectly to the pressure and put together what is his best effort yet. “Red River Blue” is full of potential singles, showcasing both the serious and funny sides of the Oklahoma singer. He resisted the urge to go pop and try to make an album to appeal to the new fans he’s made while starring in NBC’s reality show, but his album is sure to please the new pop audience he’s gained. It’s catchy, but smart, and will keep Blake at the top of the charts as long as Warner Music can run with the album. Even though his album had to be rushed with his success from the show, it isn’t obvious and it’s a solid product put together by Blake and some of Nashville’s best. It’s why Blake should see more nominations in 2012, including additional “Entertainer Of The Year” nods.
2. Eric Church – Chief
Eric Church will never make any apologies for what he does, says, or releases. With “Chief” there’s no reason for him to: his pushing the boundaries of country music makes it the top album by a male artist this year in the genre. The rebel singer-songwriter is a standout at radio, and he’s one of the few artists who can actually pull off an attitude and sell it. While his third record is more radio friendly than his previous, he still tests the water and puts together songs that no one else might have had the guts to put on country radio today. He’s an innovator, and he finally found a way to capture the energy from his live shows and put it in the studio. No two songs on the record sound alike, and he’s sure to please just about every country music fan with the different sounds that he’s put together. Eric will never be forced into the Nashville mold, and we’re thankful for that: he’s good at what he does. He’s one of the true country-sounding artists left in the pop-country phenomenon taking over Nashville. He’s established himself as an artist not to be taken lightly.
1. Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels
For a group that no one was expecting much from, the Pistol Annies have become the story of 2011. When three friends (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley) decided to form an all-girls trio it surprised the Miranda fans. Would she be able to put together two quality albums in a year? Would Miranda forget about her solo career and instead focus on this new venture? The three girls proved everyone wrong. “Hell On Heels” is the strongest album of 2011, which started out as a digital-only release and debuted at number one. With only one single released, the title track, the girls still sold out their three House Of Blues headlining shows this month. With a sound that is a tribute to the days of Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris, the trio is the most country thing to come out of Nashville in recent years. Not only is their album good enough to be our pick for the best of 2011, it’s probably the best of the last two years. In a world of Taylor Swift and the pop-crossover craze, the Annies are a sweet return to what makes country music what it is. The album is full of songs written only by the trio, (with Blake Shelton becoming a Pistol Andy for his co-write on “Family Feud”), and should find the girls nominated for plenty of awards in 2012. They’re that good, and might even find themselves to one day replace the hole left by the Dixie Chicks on country radio.