1. Sugarland: "Love on the Inside"
If there's a science to creating the perfect country album, Sugarland applied it heavily here, engineering a track list rousing enough for a Friday night out and tender enough for a Sunday morning in. Every lyric is a gift. Jennifer Nettles' power twang shines throughout, as does Kristian Bush's bright mandolin playing.
2. Ashton Shepherd: "Sounds So Good"
With a Southern drawl so thick you have to strain to decipher the lyrics, Shepherd's debut exposed the colorful underbelly of true country life. Nothing twangy gets buried in the mixes. The steel guitar is way upfront. The fiddle gets a solo on most tracks. And her young-mother vibe filled an emptiness on the radio.
3. Darius Rucker: "Learn To Live"
Country music has seen pop star after pop star trying to unlock the secret powers of Nashville. But the year goes to Rucker, former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman, for his convincing ability to write songs that fuse his raspy growl with a shuffle beat and wrap it all up with hooks that are catchy without ever getting corny.
4. Keith Anderson: "C'Mon!"
More muscle in his voice and more poetry in his lyrics are what distinguish this album. He comes across wistful but a little bitter, restless yet always ready. And that hyper-emotional streak sounds good on him, just like the uncomplicated Southern rock feel to most of the album's guitar-heavy tracks.
5. Lady Antebellum: "Lady Antebellum"
Hillary Scott can sound like a '70s folkie. Charles Kelley can channel a silky R&B balladeer. And together with guitar man Dave Haywood they can bring country a vital new sound—one that continues to reveal itself with every playful single the trio releases, and even the smoky ones that stay tucked away on the album.