The Highwomen Are Here, and They’re Incredible

The Highwomen is a benchmark achievement in country music and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.

The Highwomen are a country/americana supergroup based in Nashville, Tennessee. Their formation has been rumored since around 2016 when Amanda Shires spoke out publicly about the lack of female representation on country radio and hinted at the idea of a group of talented female musicians. In April of 2019, the group was officially announced with a lineup of Shires, grammy award winning songstress, Brandi Carlile and up and coming pop-country super star, Maren Morris. The group originally intended to leave the fourth slot open for a rotating door of guest artists, but during their performance at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday, grammy nominated songwriter, Natalie Hemby was announced as the fourth member. The buzz for new music was deafening and, just a few months after their official formation, they’ve dropped their self-titled debut.

Before we even touch on the performances of members themselves, we simply have to touch on the incredible instrumentation across the album, from the warbling organ on “Redesigning Women,” to Jason Isbell’s roaring guitar work on tracks like “Don’t Call Me,” and “Old Soul.” The latter is especially impressive as the song’s longer runtime is carried proudly by the intricate and well performed instrumentals.

Additionally, I’m astounded by the group’s ability and willingness to recreate the old-school style of icons like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. Cuts like “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” and “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk,” feature the classic, walking bass and saloon piano of country music’s golden era, yet lyrically, the songs delve into modern, relatable storytelling in a beautiful way.

This, of course, brings us to the lyricism which is seriously breathtaking. The opening title track, which follows the narratives of women throughout history who were killed for being brave, empowered women against the wishes of their cultures.  “If She Ever Leaves Me,” is a powerful love ballad which co-writer Jason Isbell aptly called “a gay country song,” as it follows the story of a woman bragging to a man that the love of her wife is hers and hers alone. But perhaps best of all, is the heart wrenching, “Cocktail and a Song,” in which Amanda Shires recounts the last moments with her terminally ill father with such brilliance and bravery that it is genuinely hard to listen to at times.

The album’s best quality, though, comes in the excellent vocal performances of everyone involved. Brandi Carlile’s smooth alto is captivating on the closer, “Wheels of Laredo,” and Natalie Hemby’s belting leads on “My Only Child,” are especially exciting as she’s primarily known as a songwriter, while Amanda Shires’ bright soprano rings out over nearly every harmony. Maren Morris is particularly impressive for me as, going into the project, I was unsure how she’d be effected by having far less experience than the women around her. Despite this, she brings some of the best moments with a power and fearlessness that allows her to comfortably hold her own among the bonafide legends on this LP.

The women are at their best, above all, when they’re together. The harmonies on this album are some of the best I’ve heard in several years and easily the most thoughtful harmonies in mainstream music today. Tracks like “Loose Change,” and “Crowded Table,” feature full, four part harmonies in which each part carries a unique and creative melody. That just doesn’t exist in music anymore. There is so much power generated when the four of them come fully together on choruses that the results have me replaying tracks time and time again.

All in all, I have very little to complain about. The production from Dave Cobb, while perfectly competent, is a bit uninspired and not quite as crisp as it could be, and there are a handful of lyrics that come off as a bit cheesy, but the majority of the LP is nearly perfect.

The group’s tight harmonies, brilliant lyricism, and full grasp of every facet of the genre from old-school honky-tonk to modern Americana, makes for a spectacular listen. The pacing is perfect, as is the complex and talented musicianship behind them.

The Highwomen is a benchmark achievement in country music and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.

9/10

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A Perfect Circle, Lil Wayne, Death Grips, and More! 2018’s Honorable Mentions!

In no particular order, here are a few albums that got very close to making my top ten and why!

A Perfect CircleEat the Elephant

After nearly a decade and a half of radio silence from the Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel side project, APC is finally back in 2018 with a daring and unique project. While the album’s unexpected town and softness maybe have turned off a few longtime fans, I felt it was a welcome change and gave an opportunity for MJK to sing over more than a few unique instrumentals. Additionally, the lyricism was as thoughtful and the vocal melodies as singable as we’ve come to expect from the group, several tracks that land squarely in the top tier of their discography. The record certainly goes down a few dead ends and that likely kept it out of my top ten, but nothing feels better than hearing one of my favorite bands finally back in the studio.

Amanda ShiresTo the Sunset

With her third studio release, Shires brought back much of what has made her previous work enjoyable. Her thoughtful lyricism his here in spades, her husband and last year’s best album choice, Jason Isbell returns to lay down some excellent guitar work and her voice is, as always, a great mix of sweet and powerful. To the Sunset brings with it, however, a strong sense of concept and cohesion that makes all the difference. Every track feels like a chapter in a larger book, though each is still tight and well paced in it’s own right. Dave Cobb’s production is as wonderful and ever and the blend of glitzy, synth pop with more classical americana songwriting is perfectly balanced and forms something that I want to hear further developed on future outings.

Loretta LynnWouldn’t It Be Great

2018 was quite a year for comebacks and icons, and Loretta Lynn was no exception. Wouldn’t It Be Great does everything right from wonderful orchestration to excellent, tight songwriting. Lynn’s voice is still as radiant as ever and the production from John Carter Cash, who’s legacy as a producer is quite impressive beyond just his lineage, is vibrant and dynamic. The only complaint levied against this album is its lack of original material, with many of the tracks having appeared on earlier Loretta Lynn records, but aside from “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” most of the updates felt interesting and necessary. Above all, it’s an album that genuinely stacks up against any project from her time on the top, an excellent listen for new and old fans alike.

Lil’ WayneTha Carter V

The wait is finally over, after legal battles, lean addictions, legal battles, and more, Tha Carter V arrived to massive fanfare and definitely didn’t disappoint. The very long gestation period shows as this album dances through the popular influences of last decade, from bling to trap to emo rap. A feature list that included Kendrick Lamar, XXXTentacion, and Travis Scott while mercifully lacking a Drake feature is a veritable who’s who of modern rap. While the album lacks the prescience and modernity of earlier Carter entries, it makes that up in its tour through the last several years of rap music. Best of all, Wayne’s flow is as hard hitting as it’s ever been.

The 1975A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

This album surprised me more than any other in 2018 as The 1975’s work had been rather unimpressive up to this point.However, it’s clear from the first few tracks the Brief Inquiry has fixed nearly every issue that had plagued the previous two outings. The instrumentation is glitzy, well produced, and even abrasively bright at times. Matty Healy’s lyricism is heavily matured and is, in fact, the overwhelming highlight of the record. The soup of cynicism, sarcasm, apathy, and drug references that he cooks up on this project is truly fantastic and it elevates an already good album to a great one, and by far the band’s best work to date. 

Death GripsThe Year of the Snitch

One of the strangest and most divisive bands of all time, Death Grips keep up their relatively prolific pace with maybe their most despondent and chaotic release yet. The Year of the Snitch is easily their least hip-hop influenced work yet, pulling instead from elements of noise and industrial rock, EDM, avant guarde, and hardcore punk. It’s really quite the experience, and it’ll need to be heard a few times before it can be processed Attempting to track the influences and ideas through out is a challenge for even the most avid music fan, especially as the complex mis of elements that exists is warped in the end stage by the group’s powerful absurdist tendencies. Nevertheless,  The Year of the Snitch is a must listen for fans of underground and extreme music.