CMA Awards Winners: PEOPLE Music Critic's Picks

We call the winners on Country Music Association's big awards – who are you rooting for?

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The 46th annual Country Music Association Awards will air from Nashville tonight at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CT) on ABC with some predictable hosts: Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, together for the fifth straight year.

Perhaps there will at least be a few surprises among the winners. Here’s my take on five major categories:

Entertainer of the year

Winner: Jason Aldean
Other nominees: Kenny Chesney, Paisley, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift

Chesney, Paisley and Swift have all captured the ultimate prize before. In fact, one of these stars has taken the trophy each of the last six years, with Swift the champ in 2011. But it doesn’t feel like 2012 has really been the year for any of those three. Still, Chesney, a five-time winner, is always a safe bet – although I really think this comes down to a two-cowboy race between Aldean and Shelton. The latter’s visibility on The Voice certainly boosts his chances, but the edge goes to Aldean for his string of hits, from My Kinda Party. He just kept on rolling with Night Train‘s “Take a Little Ride,” and now the dude is headlining stadiums. That’s hard to beat.

Female vocalist of the year

Winner: Miranda Lambert
Other nominees: Martina McBride, Swift, Underwood and Kelly Clarkson

You can remove Clarkson from the equation. One does not win this award simply for doing a country version of “Mr. Know It All.” You can also toss out McBride, who may have won this four times before, but her last victory was way back in 2004. But any of the three leading ladies of country today – Lambert, Swift and Underwood – could snag this. The deciding factor here may be artistic credibility, and in the genre Lambert has the most going for her coming off of the excellent Four the Record. And her Pistol Annies side project only helped her critical cachet. Sometimes being the best is what counts, and she’s the best female country singer right now.

Male vocalist of the year

Winner: Blake Shelton
Other nominees: Aldean, Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Keith Urban

Between the two previous winners here – Shelton and Urban – the former has the better chance of earning bragging rights again. Certainly, Miranda’s hubby won’t have to worry about any serious competition from Bryan, who should be happy just to be in this company. Church, leading the CMA nominations with five nods, is a real contender in this category. Having had a breakout season with the stellar Chief, he deserves this, but he probably has a better shot at Album and Single of the Year. That means this is another showdown between Aldean and Shelton. Since I’m predicting Aldean for entertainer of the year, I’ll take Shelton (barely) here.

Album of the year

Winner: Chief, Eric Church
Other nominees: Four the Record, Miranda Lambert; Home, Dierks Bentley; Own the Night, Lady Antebellum and Tailgates & Tanlines, Luke Bryan

Bryan feels like the weakest link in this category too, although Bentley doesn’t have the strongest candidate either. Any of the other three, though, could bring it home. With Own the Night having already picked up a Grammy for best country album, Lady A is maybe a slight favorite on paper. But Chief and Four the Record are superior works, either of which I’d be happy to see win. Since a tie is unlikely, I’m picking Church to rule here.

Single of the year

Winner: “Springsteen,” Eric Church
Other Nominees: “Dirt Road Anthem,” Jason Aldean; “God Gave Me You,” Blake Shelton; “Home,” Dierks Bentley and “Pontoon,” Little Big Town

From a commercial standpoint, “Dirt Road Anthem” is the biggest single in the bunch, even making the Top 10 of the pop charts. But that was way back in 2011, which doesn’t exactly make it feel fresh. “God Gave Me You” also feels a bit past its expiration date. Personally, I would have rather seen “5-1-5-0” nominated for Bentley. And as much summertime fun as “Pontoon” was, it doesn’t carry the emotional resonance of “Springsteen.”

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