Blake Shelton outdid his wife Miranda Lambert on Billboard's 2011 charts. He enjoyed three No. 1 country singles ("Who Are You When I'm Not Looking," "God Gave Me You" and "Honey Bee") and a No. 1 album on the pop charts (Red River Blue). She managed just one No. 1 single ("Heart Like Mine") and a No. 3 ("Baggage Claim"). Her solo album, Four the Record, was No. 1 on the country charts but only No. 3 pop. The Pistol Annies single "Hell on Heels" didn't place on the country charts at all, and the album only went to No. 5 pop. But Lambert out-polled her husband with the critics. In contrast to her category-topping victories, Shelton could only manage the No. 28 album, the No. 22 Single, the No. 4 Best Vocalist and the No. 9 Artist of the Year. On the other hand, Shelton had a songwriting credit and/or lead vocal on three of the poll's top seven albums: those by Lambert, Pistol Annies and Brad Paisley.
Lambert wasn't the only one to combine commercial and critical success. Several other artists who finished in the top 15 of Billboard's Top [Selling] Country Artists also finished in the top 15 of the poll's Artist of the Year category: Taylor Swift (No. 1 Billboard/No. 2 Poll), Jason Aldean (No. 2/No. 7), Brad Paisley (No. 9/No. 4), Zac Brown (No. 4/No. 10), Blake Shelton (No. 5/No. 9), Eric Church (No. 14/No. 6), Kenny Chesney (No. 8/No. 13) and Keith Urban (No. 11/No. 11).
Some artists sold a lot of records without impressing the critics. Rascal Flatts (No. 7 on the Billboard list), Luke Bryan (No. 10), Scotty McCreery (No. 15), Thompson Square (No. 17), Chris Young (No. 18), Billy Currington (No. 18), Tim McGraw (No. 20), Sara Evans (No. 21), Darius Rucker (No. 22), Carrie Underwood (No. 24) and Jerrod Niemann (No. 25) did not receive a single vote between them for the poll's Artist of the Year.
On the other hand, some artists impressed the critics without selling many records. Several of the top 15 finishers in the poll's Artist of the Year category failed to show up in Billboard's top 50: Pistol Annies (No. 3 in the poll), Hayes Carll (No. 5), The Civil Wars (No. 8), Gillian Welch (No. 13), Matraca Berg (No. 14) and Steve Earle (No. 15).
The poll's top single was "You and Tequila," the duet between Kenny Chesney (Jimmy Buffett as a hat act) and Grace Potter (Bette Midler as a jam-bander). This surprisingly understated version came from Chesney's 2010 album, Hemingway's Whiskey, but the original version, written by Deana Carter and Matraca Berg, appeared on Carter's 2003 album, I'm Just a Girl. This comparison of the intoxicating/debilitating effects of love and alcohol is so cleverly constructed that you can't tell if the lover is being compared to the bottle or the other way around. Berg, the construction expert, included the song on her first solo album in a dozen years, Dreaming the Field, which was voted the No. 10 album despite being released by the tiny Dualtone label.
Country music critics are becoming as amnesiac as country radio. Jamey Johnson, who dominated this poll in 2010 almost as thoroughly as Miranda Lambert did this year, virtually disappeared from the voting. True, Johnson didn't release an album in 2011, but he did release a single and continued to tour. Yet he fell from No. 1 to No. 38 in the artist-of-the-year category, from No. 1 to No. 16 in the male-vocalist category, from No. 1 to No. 46 in the songwriting category, from No. 3 to No. 15 in the live-act category, and from No. 6 to No. 105 in the singles category.
Taylor Swift didn't release a studio album in 2011 either, but she didn't fade from the voters' consciousness as Johnson did. The 22-year-old blonde was voted the No. 2 Artist of the Year, No. 2 Live Act, No. 4 Female Vocalist, No. 5 and No. 18 Single and No. 6 Songwriter.
The New York Times cited Lady Antebellum's Own the Night as the country album of the year, but the 77 critics voting in this poll disagreed, naming it the 38th best country album of the year.
Lydia Loveless garnered more votes as female vocalist of the year than Patty Loveless.
The only act to appear in both the poll's top 30 best new albums and top 30 best reissues was the Drive-By Truckers, whose Go-Go Boots was the No. 26 album and whose Ugly Buildings, Whores, and Politicians: Greatest Hits 1998-2009 was the No. 8 reissue. They were also voted the No. 9 live act. One suspects they might have done better in all these categories if so many critics weren't ambivalent about their status as true country artists.
Gillian Welch was represented as a singer and/or songwriter not only on her own album, The Harrow and the Harvest (No. 6 in the poll) but also on Miranda Lambert's Four the Record (No. 2), The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (No. 23) and The Decemberists' The King Is Dead (No. 49).
Pistol Annies were voted the poll's top New Act, but that was misleading, inasmuch as Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, two-thirds of the group, had both released major-label albums before 2008. If we set the Annies aside, the top New Act was The Civil Wars, the Nashville indie duo that was also voted the No. 5 Album, No. 8 Artist of the Year and No. 8 Single.
The poll's top six string-band albums were: Gillian Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest (No. 6), Alison Krauss' Paper Airplane (No. 13), Sarah Jarosz's Follow Me Down (No. 27), Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers' Rare Bird Alert. (No. 32), Suzy Bogguss' American Folk Songbook (No. 35) and Chris Thile and Michael Daves' Sleep With One Eye Open (No. 40).
The top eight albums from artists older than 50: Lucinda Williams' Blessed (No. 9), Vince Gill's Guitar Slinger (No. 11), Steve Earle's I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (No. 14), Merle Haggard's Working in Tennessee (No. 16), George Strait's Here for a Good Time (No. 17), Connie Smith's Long Line of Heartaches (No. 19), Emmylou Harris' Hard Bargain (No. 21) and Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings (No. 24).
The top-ranked album by an African-American artist in this year's poll was The Blind Boys of Alabama's No. 45 Take the High Road. That's much lower than The Carolina Chocolate Drops' No. 7 Genuine Negro Jig in the 2010 poll or Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis' No. 24 Two Men With the Blues in the 2008 poll, but better than the Darius Rucker's No. 78 Learn To Live in the 2009 poll. For every step forward, one step backward.
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