That girl who almost became a Kennedy may be the new face of country music, but our picks for the best country albums of the year are more the down-home type.
Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof
American Idol also-ran Pickler is an unlikely trad-country heroine. But 100 Proof may be the best traditionalist album of the year. Pickler wraps her big, lustrous voice around old-fashioned honky tonk, rollicking road stories and big ballads, all produced with a perfect balance of throwback twang and contemporary sheen.
Jamey Johnson, Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Old-soul Johnson convenes stars like Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello to cover songs by the late Hank Cochran – bruising badass tales like "The Eagle" and the he-said/she-said pissing match "This Ain't My First Rodeo." It's the year's finest hootenanny.
Lionel Richie, Tuskegee
This surprise smash paired the Eighties balladeer with country stars, taking on Richie's hit-packed catalog: Blake Shelton, twangfully stomping through "You Are," Little Big Town gracing "Deep River Woman" with down-home harmonies. At 63, Richie outsings everyone here – including, amazingly, Willie Nelson.
JB and the Moonshine Band, Beer for Breakfast
These East Texas country rockers are like a thousand other bar bands, with a crucial difference: Frontman JB Patterson can really write songs – balancing sentiment with low-key Music Row wit and driven home with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-like chime and crunch.
Easton Corbin, All Over the Road
Corbin doesn't fit the usual Nashville niches for young male stars – he's neither gruffrocker nor frat dude. His second album displays a modern sound but a genteel manner, a voice that's a dead ringer for George Strait's, and loads of fine songs, from lovey-dovey stuff ("A Thing for You") to clever kiss-offs ("Tulsa Texas").