This year, my favorite albums carried a certain gravity. I'm not an overly serious guy, yet there's something about a hard-luck lyric that pulls me in. As Willie Nelson once sang, "Sad songs and waltzes aren't selling this year." Lucky for us, these very gifted musicians are following their muse anyway. Here's my list of the 10 top albums listeners might have overlooked in 2011.
The Dirt Drifters, This Is My Blood
This is the one that got away. Rooted in road miles and countless clubs, this album digs into the way life really is. "Always a Reason" puts a positive spin on tough times, while "Name on My Shirt" and "This Is My Blood" acknowledge the persistence from the generations before ours.
Ronnie Dunn, Ronnie Dunn
The singles "Bleed Red" and "Cost of Livin'" might lead listeners to believe that Ronnie Dunn's solo debut is an ultra-serious record. Far from it. "Singer in a Cowboy Band" sets the rowdy pace, "How Far to Waco" kicks it up a notch and "Let the Cowboy Rock" burns up the joint.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Here We Rest
Jason Isbell beautifully casts his songs in a Southern backdrop as if it's a supporting character. "Alabama Pines" feels like a soundtrack to a long drive and "Stopping By" will ring true to anyone with awkward family bonds. And is it so wrong to cheerfully sing along with "Codeine"?
Alison Krauss & Union Station, Paper Airplane
The stellar ensemble return with exquisite singing, exceptional musicianship and moody songs. Robert Lee Castleman wrote the poignant title track at Krauss' request, and she nails it. Later, the melody of "My Love Follows You Where You Go" gives the whole band a chance to shine.
Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers, Starlight Hotel
This Seattle songwriter offers another cool album of straight-up country. Willie Nelson and John Prine get casually mentioned here, and you can hear their influence on her lyrics and phrasing. Can't argue with "If I Can't Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart)."
Joe Nichols, It's All Good
I'm tempted to praise Joe Nichols' subtlety as a singer, but it's hard to do with a single called "Take It Off." So I'll rephrase that. His warm voice conveys the message of a song without having to yell it. "Somebody's Mama" and "No Truck, No Boat, No Girl" are fine examples.
Caitlin Rose, Own Side Now
If all your romances tend to wither and die, pick up Caitlin Rose's debut album. Rather than whining, though, this young Nashville native infuses her memorable songs with punchy rhythms, pleasing vocals and train-wreck narratives. It almost makes me wish I was 21 again. (Almost)
Sunny Sweeney, Concrete
"From a Table Away" captures that awkward moment when you realize you've been fooled. The twist? Sunny Sweeney sings as "the other woman" who gets kicked to the curb. The compelling narrative proves she's a talented songwriter, and she sure does sing country on Concrete.
The Sweetback Sisters, Looking for a Fight
If you identify with rockabilly, roller derby or Rosie the Riveter, the saucy Sweetback Sisters are sure to satisfy. Zara Bode and Emily Miller tackle most of the vocals, and the astute backing band keeps things moving. I bet it's mere coincidence that so many of these tunes are set in a bar.
Lucinda Williams, Blessed
A pleasant surprise, Lucinda Williams shies away from too many love songs and gets back to being inspired by the down-and-out. "Buttercup" is a sassy kiss-off, while "I Don't Know How You're Living" and "Copenhagen" make me feel like I've stumbled upon her private letters.
Three giants of acoustic music received a tip of the hat in 2011. This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark is a lovely homage to the poetic songwriter who also builds his own guitars. Personal highlights include Willie Nelson's heartfelt rendition of "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" and Joe Ely's knowing take on "Dublin Blues."
Meanwhile, Rounder Records raided their vault for Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration: A Classic Bluegrass Tribute, an outstanding collection that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the bluegrass pioneer's birth. In addition, The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams pairs the country icon's unfinished lyrics with new melodies by the likes of Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson, Norah Jones and Patty Loveless. It's a fascinating listen.
For a more retro sound, try Elvis Presley's Young Man With a Big Beat: The Complete '56 Elvis Presley Masters and Roy Orbison's The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964). I'm also intrigued by Gene Clark's Two Sides to Every Story, a melancholy country-inspired album from 1977 that's back in circulation. A founding member of the Byrds, Clark wrote and sang with undeniable emotion. Emmylou Harris' harmony vocals make it even more special.
And if you like 1980s country, seek out The Essential Rosanne Cash and The Very Best of Dan Seals. These are the artists' most comprehensive career retrospectives yet.
Finally, the album I've listened to the most this fall is by the Cactus Blossoms, a close-harmony duo from Minneapolis. These young men won a duets competition at the Minnesota State Fair last year, and this self-titled debut project of mostly original tunes proves they deserved that blue ribbon. It's true and traditional country, folks.