Top 5 Country Albums of 2011

To be a country music fan these days is to be part of a quarrelsome bunch. The consensus seems to be that “real country” is the only kind worth listening to–yet no one can seem to agree on what “real country” is.

This was aptly if unwittingly demonstrated in the 2010 movie “Country Strong” in which traditionalist Garrett Hedlund mocked country-pop princess Leighton Meester’s songs, then went onstage and sang songs that sounded just like them.

The gist of the argument usually seems to be: “‘Real country’ is what I like; ‘fake country’ is what you like.”

George Strait

So, while any sort of a “top albums” list is going to be highly subjective, to make a list of one’s favorite country albums may be downright dangerous. Nevertheless, I’ve taken the plunge. Here’s my list of what I see as the best of 2011. And all of it–from the 39th studio album by a 59-year-old veteran, to the first album by the new teenager on the block–is real, honest-to-goodness country. Because I said so.

5. “Here for a Good Time,” George Strait

They don’t call him “King George” for nothing. At 59, Strait is going stronger than ever with this Grammy-nominated album, a perfect showcase for both his well-seasoned voice and his new found songwriting skills (only recently has he begun co-writing many of his own tunes). While the title song is all about having fun with the brief time we’re given, other songs on the album offer a poignant look back at a fruitful life and career. Strait and his wife, Norma, just celebrated their 40th anniversary, but the most memorable song here, “I’ll Always Remember You,” describes a different kind of romance. It paints a picture of a decades-long affair between a singer and his audience and promises that they’ll always be together in spirit. Don’t listen without a tissue.

4. “Hell on Heels,” Pistol Annies

Miranda Lambert jokes that she did things backwards. Some singers start in a band and then go solo; Lambert achieved stardom by herself, then launched a trio with fellow singer/songwriters Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, leading to the release of this critically acclaimed, chart-topping album. With a sound that’s both earthy and ethereal, the group brings a wry feminine twist to some of country music’s favorite tropes. Their songs include “The Hunter’s Wife” (“It’s like I’m married to a shotgun-carryin’, tobacco-chewin’, no good blue tick hound”), and the title track, in which they portray sassy, determined gold-diggers. Though Lambert will continue to devote the bulk of her time to her solo career, she’s promised that Pistol Annies are here to stay. That’s great news for country fans.

3. “Hunter Hayes,” Hunter Hayes

When Hunter Hayes was four years old, he was playing the accordion onstage with Hank Williams, Jr. When he was six, he was appearing in “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall. So perhaps it’s not so remarkable that he released his debut album at 19 — or that he co-produced it, co-wrote all the songs and plays every instrument on it. What is remarkable is that Hayes, despite his youthful voice and appearance, is making music that appeals to more than just the preteen set. His album is full of catchy tunes and strong lyrics (with his first single, “Storm Warning,” the English major in me delights in how he keeps the weather metaphor going without making it seem hokey or overdone). This kid, who sings about things like the joys of listening to Johnny Cash–on vinyl, yet!–shows glimmers of taste and maturity well beyond his years.

2. “Edens Edge,” Edens Edge

I’m cheating a bit with this one–it’s actually an EP, not a full-length album. But it’s simply too good to leave off the list, especially as it features my favorite single of the year, “Amen.” Arkansas natives Hannah Blaylock, Cherrill Green and Dean Berner combine elements of bluegrass, country, and folk to create a uniquely gorgeous sound. Blaylock can’t be much more than five feet tall in her high heels, but to see her leading the group in concert, as I recently did in Silver Spring, Md., is to be bowled over by the titanic force of her personality, not to mention what has to be one of the loveliest voices in music today. And Green and Berner provide plenty of star quality as well, playing multiple instruments each and supplying some striking vocals of their own. I’ve been compulsively listening to their EP since it was released, and can hardly wait for their debut full-length album that’s due out in 2012.

1. “Neon,” Chris Young

Chris Young has had a banner year. Coming off four number one hits in a row and a Grammy nomination, he released his third album, which has been widely hailed as a breakthrough. Young’s soulful baritone and warm, traditional sound have ensured that he’s had plenty of fans from the beginning, but now he’s breaking into the ranks of the big stars, and for good reason. From playful love songs to anguished ballads to heartfelt tributes to family, there’s not a dud on this album. The video for his current single, “You,” has some fun with his good looks and effect on the ladies, but don’t think he’s just another lady-killing musician: Young recently made news when he threw a man out of one of his concerts for hitting a woman. “Sorry for swearing and kicking someone out, but a dude pushing a girl in the face is not cool,” he later apologized on Twitter. As several fans (including Lambert) quickly assured him, no apology necessary.

In the final analysis, “real country” isn’t just a sound or a demographic, it’s an attitude. And though these five acts may all be very different from each other, it’s pretty clear that they’ve all got it.

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