Nashville insiders vs. Nashville "outsiders." Curtain calls for all-time legends vs. exhilarating breakthroughs from possible new ones. Alt-country louts seeking contentment vs. rehabilitated alt-country louts finding contentment. Vivid homages to everyone from Hank Williams to Loretta Lynn to Alabama to Steve Earle to Tom Petty. A bizarre year for whatever you think country is, or isn't. And a great one too. Here are some of the album-length highlights.
SPIN's Best of 2011:
• One Fucked Up Year: SPIN's Best of 2011 Issue
• SPIN's 50 Best Albums of 2011
• SPIN's 20 Best Songs of 2011
• SPIN's 40 Best Rap Albums of 2011
• SPIN's 20 Best Metal Albums of 2011
• SPIN's 10 Best Reissues of 2011
• SPIN's 25 Best Live Photos of 2011
• Endless Bummer: 30 Ways 2011 Was a Drag
- 20. Amy Lavere
- Stranger Me (Archer)
Killer ambient roots-rock breakup anthems mixing tears of rage with just, y'know, tears. Opening line: "Right now / I'll do it right now / Here's your damn love song."
- 19. The Dirt Drifters
- This Is My Blood (Warner Bros.)
Jon Bon Jovi dreams of making a country-rock album this gritty and raucous, bursting with drinking anthems for dudes who wear gas-station shirts because they actually work at the gas station.
- 18. Glen Campbell
- Ghost on the Canvas (Surfdog)
The countrypolitan legend faces down Alzheimer's with grace, warmth, and help from songs by Paul Westerberg, Jakob Dylan, and others — his sweet, wistful cover of Guided by Voices' "Hold on Hope" will get you on the phone with grandpa in a hurry.
- 17. Robert Ellis
- Photographs (New West)
Home: Houston. Age: barely legal. MO: coffeehouse folk mixed with adept trad country (the waltzes!). Likes: watching his girl unpack the Nintendo. Dislikes: cheaters. You'll be friends forever, but don't sass him when he comes home drunk.
- 16. Caitlin Rose
- Own Side Now (ATO)
Everything we love (admit it) about Zooey Deschanel, relocated to Nashville, toughened and tarted-up, the pedal steel both sanguine and quietly acidic. The Fleetwood Mac cover and the one about getting lost on the Lower East Side both kill.
- 15. Lucinda Williams
- Blessed (Lost Highway)
The Alt-Country Godmother perfectly balances consistency and inconsistency, waxing tempestuous on aching ballads and driving rockers alike, enunciating like she's got a softball-size chunk of tobacco in her mouth, though maybe it's just the scenery.
- 14. Drive-By Truckers
- Go-Go Boots (ATO)
More gripping, small-town crime yarns and wearied strip-club-strut jams, all worthy of Faulkner and Skynyrd. "Everybody Needs Love" is the sweetest; "I Used to Be a Cop" the hardest. The one that's probably about their old label is called "Assholes."
- 13. Jessica Lea Mayfield
- Tell Me (Nonesuch)
First track: "I'll Be the One You Want Someday." Softly moaned sentiment from final track: "I think I've been left alone long enough to do something insane." Throughout: woozy art-folk, as though suffering from the romantic equivalent of a concussion.
- 12. Richard Buckner
- Our Blood (Merge)
His voice will never not destroy you, weathered and withering, always bending, never breaking. The bracing intimacy you'll recognize; the eerie electronics, maybe not. It ain't chillwave, but it'd be funny to see the look on his face if you said so.
- 11. Miranda Lambert
- Four the Record (RCA Nashville)
America's Surliest Sweetheart tries out terrible puns, weird vocal filters, Gillian Welch. Her new hubby cameos, but soaring melancholia reigns. And when you long for a song that begins, "You got the bullets / I got the gun," there it is.
- 10. Ryan Adams
- Ashes and Fire (Capitol) (Southern Lord)
In which Mr. Tough Guy gets mellow, humble, philosophical ("Am I really who I was?" "What am I doing here?"), and finally gets out of his own way, gently crooning "Somebody save me" with the sublime soft-rock contentment of someone already saved.
- 9. Ashton Shepherd
- Where Country Grows (MCA Nashville)
A tart Alabama mother of two with a twang sharp enough to cut steel and a Kelly Clarkson-esque kiss-off ("Look It Up") hot enough to melt it. Respite comes via "Beer on a Boat"; she sings, "Buddy's gonna get you with a belly flop," with conviction.
- 8. Pistol Annies
- Hell on Heels (Columbia Nashville)
Miranda's even better in this legit femme power trio that's as trad-pure as pop country gets, full of popped pills, burning trailers, ruined men, and brides who wear beige. Thesis: "Somebody had to set a bad example." The title track is unbelievable.
- 7. Brad Paisley
- This Is Country Music (Sony Nashville)
He's pandering to the base after a blue-state overreach, so now it's just funny ones, poignant ones, romantic ones, beach ones. But so funny, so poignant, so romantic, so... beach-y, the melodies ripe and the guitars ribald throughout. "Camouflage"!
- 6. Laura Marling
- A Creature I Don't Know (Ribbon)
We veer briefly into lithe, lethal Brit-folk, because holy Christ. "My love is driven by rage," Marling gently seethes, sighing eternally in a Leonard Cohen afterworld, like Joni Mitchell recast as Joan of Arc, as Catwoman, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "The Beast" has two backs and razor-sharp fangs. Meanwhile, the Mumford & Sons guy quietly cleans out his pants.
- 5. Sunny Sweeney
- Concrete (Republic Nashville)
The Other Woman has no more articulate, heartbreaking advocate: The relentlessly melancholy "From a Table Away" is your all-time classic, but "Amy," a "Jolene" rewrite from Jolene's POV, generates the same sort of pathos and sympathy, all delivered with an infectious cheeriness worthy of Sunny's name. Should things get too emotionally complicated, retreat to "Drink Myself Single."
- 4. Lydia Loveless
- Indestructible Machine (Bloodshot)
Just astounding — a young, rough, heroically soused Ohio cowpunk brawler so raw and cocaine-addled Steve Earle starts stalking her. Excellent question: "How many women does a man need?" Excellent point: "Jesus was a wino, too." Essential.
- 3. Hayes Carll
- KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (Lost Highway)
A "lovable fuckup"country-rock barn-burner par excellence, with politics on the brain and a tough but elegantly bleeding heart. The unhinged talking-blues title track (an anagram for "Kiss My Ass Guys, You're on Your Own") depicts the war in Afghanistan as the farcical Benny Hill routine it turned out to be; the sloshed, quasi-romantic duet "Another Like You"is a hilarious meet-ugly. Self-description: "I'm like James Brown / Only white and taller / And all I wanna do is stomp and holler."
- 2. Gillian Welch
- The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony)
"The Way It Will Be," slow and eerie and mesmerizing in the extreme, is your master class in why people worship Gillian Welch and white-hot guitarist cohort David Rawlings even after an eight-year wait: Their voices viciously intertwine as though they're buried in the same grave, singing Appalachian folk hymns of murder-ballad gravity, whether anybody gets killed or not. Harrow is harder than black metal, but is filled with subtle wit and unsubtle defiance: "Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind," goes the most emphatic chorus, and they don't, even when they do.
- 1. Eric Church
- Chief (EMI Nashville)
The bombastic, controversial single "Homeboy" explicitly sassed delinquent hip-hop fans, and Chief supplies a vibrant sonic alternative: expert Nashville glitz, delightfully overemphatic outlaw aspirations, snarling power chords heralding the imminent arrival of "Country Music Jesus," awesome bumper-sticker possibilities ("She got a rock / And I'm gettin' stoned"), tender odes to both "Jack Daniels" and "Springsteen," and the utterly fantastic "Drink in My Hand," the most inspiring and undeniable quitting-time anthem in decades. As gentle ballad "Like Jesus Does" insists, he's hard to love and absolutely worth the effort.