While it's tough to argue with the fact that 2011 was a great year for country music, it's easier (and more fun) to debate just what country music is and which artists can truly be considered country. This year's crop of outstanding country albums includes a wide cross-section of mainstream, radio-ready acts as well as artists influenced by folk, rock and pop music. Although some of your favorites may not be included here, we think you'll find something to love about the 11 albums we've chosen as the year's best. And why 11? Well, of course, not only because it's 2011, but as 'This Is Spinal Tap' reminds us, it's one more than 10!


11. David Nail, 'The Sound of a Million Dreams'

His 2009 debut album declared 'I'm About to Come Alive' and that's just what the Missouri native did when he finally delivered his sophomore album last month. Opening with the rockin' 'Grandpa's Farm,' and highlighted by the Top 10 'Let It Rain' and the gorgeous 'She Rides Away,' this was a 'Dream' worth waiting for.

Standout Song: 'She Rides Away'


10. Sunny Sweeney, 'Concrete'

Her hard-charging vocals have earned favorable comparisons to both the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines and Miranda Lambert, but more than the strong Texas tradition that envelops her songs is her knack for killer hooks and smart, effective lyrics. Forget the comparisons, this gutsy gal is a real original and the aptly-titled 'Concrete' is one solid block of neo-traditional country.

Standout Song: 'From a Table Away'


9. Hunter Hayes, 'Hunter Hayes'

We'd love to despise Hunter Hayes for being young, good-looking and multi-talented (and, OK, so we kinda do), but where would that get us? Instead, we're glad someone has taken their best cues from Vince Gill (whose own 'Guitar Slinger' was also a standout this year) and come charging out of the gate with a stellar major-label debut.

Standout Song: 'Wanted'


8. Levi Lowrey, 'I Confess I Was a Fool'

Signed to the Zac Brown Band's Southern Ground label, this Georgia boy definitely covers a lot of southern ground here. Set to an acoustic background, the tunes are delivered with a voice that's both weary and sweet. Start with 'Space Between' and if you make it through without getting a little choked up, you're probably too hard-hearted for the rest of these confessions.

Standout Song: 'All-American'


7. Sherrié Austin, 'Circus Girl'

After an eight-year gap between albums, this saucy Aussie returned with a bold new reality show and a self-released CD that's rife with humor, sensuality and a whole lot of heart. Neglected and under-appreciated as a major-label artist, Sherrié is nevertheless a terrific vocalist and a top-notch songwriter and 'Circus Girl' is her best work yet.

Standout Song: 'That Kind of Happy'


6. Brad Paisley, 'This Is Country Music'

Even if Brad Paisley didn't routinely load his albums with more than a dozen tunes and also have a tendency to spotlight unusual guest performers (can we reunite Alabama? Wanna hear Clint Eastwood whistle? Sure, why not?), we'd still admire the gusto with which he approaches each new record. There's always something reassuring and comfortable about Brad's best work, whether he's making us laugh, cry or ponder life's big (and not-so-big) questions.

Standout Song: 'Working on a Tan'


5. Eric Church, 'Chief'

Nothing bugs us more than country artists who proclaim their outlaw status and who then proceed in song to prove they don't really know what the hell they're talking about. Rather than point out the worst offenders (you know who you are), let's raise a glass of our favorite adult beverage and toast to a guy who deftly straddles the fence between contemporary country and rock 'n' roll. It's risky business but this thrill-a-minute album is a nice blueprint for future genre-busters.

Standout Song: 'Country Music Jesus'


4. Miranda Lambert, ' Four the Record'

Even before country fans paid closer attention to Miranda Lambert and helped her reach the top of the charts, critics were falling all over themselves trying to come up with superlatives to use while heaping praise upon the young Texan. Admittedly, after the Pistol Annies' side project released earlier in the year (more about that later), there was trepidation that her own fourth solo disc might suffer in the process. Who, after all, can release that many albums without a clunker in the bunch? Miranda, that's who. Brash, consistently entertaining and dotted with more than a few goosebump-inducing moments, this 'Record' is her best yet.

Standout Song: 'Dear Diamond'


3. Glen Campbell, 'Ghost on the Canvas'

Although he's battling the early onset of Alzheimer's disease, the legendary singer-guitarist has taken to the road to thank fans for their decades of devotion to his craft. He's also created an album that beautifully sums up his extraordinary career and offers honest, searing reflections on his life and loves without coming off as self-indulgent or revisionist (as projects at this stage in an artist's life so often do). A reminder of how he so effortlessly crossed the pop and country genres in his work, 'Ghost on the Canvas' would have been a masterpiece at any point in Glen Campbell's career. It's just more poignant and essential now.

Standout Song: 'In My Arms'


2. The Civil Wars, 'Barton Hollow'

Glistening with superb duo harmonies and (the roaring title track notwithstanding) delicate folk melodies, the Grammy-nominated 'Barton Hollow' is the kind of beautifully-rendered collection that finds you forever leaning in for a closer listen. Why Joy Williams and John Paul White were robbed of a Best New Artist Grammy nod is a frustrating mystery. But why they've captured the hearts and minds of anyone who has heard this intensely gorgeous album is clear.

Standout Song: 'Barton Hollow'


1. Pistol Annies, 'Hell on Heels'

Miranda Lambert managed to create two entirely different and equally enthralling albums in the space of one year but because this one spices things up by adding Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe to the already potent mix, it stands out even more. Rife with bouncy melodies and grin-inducing lyrics throughout, the pure country quotient is so high here it's hardly surprising (but still pretty damn stupid) that radio hasn't fully embraced it. But years from now, when the flavors of the month are filling up bargain bins, this remarkable disc will continue to serve as an fresh reminder of what makes country music great.

Standout Song: 'Lemon Drop'

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