Herb Albert, Korn, DaBaby, and More! September 2019 Lightning Round!!

DaBabyKIRK

This album would’ve slid completely under my radar had it not found its way to the trending section of Twitter upon its release, partly due to fans celebrating their favorite tracks and partly from casual rap fans mocking DaBaby’s flow. While the rapper made his major label debut earlier this year, his catalog includes a long list of self-released mixtapes. His career has recently been heating up as he was featured in the 2019 XXL Freshman Class and dropped guest verses with the likes of Post Malone and Lil Nas X. Because of this, he’s trying to cash in on the growing success, and this album really feels like it.

Baby’s flow is often mocked for his tendency to fill every available second with a bar, and that is certainly frustrating on this LP as none of the tracks have a chance to breath. However, there’s a much larger problem in that there’s just no breathing to be done by these instrumentals. Nearly beat on this album is clunky, poorly produced, and entirely uninspired. There are bizarre choices like using church bells and other strange instruments, and these certainly drag the tracks down, as does DaBaby’s weak lyricism and repetitive flow, but the fact of the matter is that the melodies and rhythms on these tracks are thoughtless and lazy, and there’s just no salvaging that.

3/10

OpethIn Cauda Venenum

A staple of the mid-90’s metal scene, Opeth was often lumped in with prog-metal acts like Tool and Nine Inch Nails. Unlike like these contemporaries, however, the Swedish four piece pulled in heavy influences from death metal as well as folk, jazz, and classical music later in their career. This wide array of influence, along with their excellent technical ability has gained the band a cult following among prog metal fans who are more than happy to dive into every longwinded, conceptual LP they drop. In Cauda Venenum is no different.

Coming in at over an hour long, this LP really carries that time quite well. Every track feels well fleshed out and nothing seems to drag. Even tracks I didn’t care for didn’t seem to overstay their welcome. The album employs of a wide instrumental pallet spanning from the traditional electric guitars to orchestral strings, folksy guitars, and a full choir which appears several times. There are plenty of experiments that just don’t quite pan out and the overly long opening feels a bit pretentious, but the power of cuts like “Continuum,” make this well worth a listen. I would’ve liked to hear a heavier album, as much of the instrumentation is either acoustic or orchestral, but what we get is certainly listenable.

5/10

Herb AlbertOver the Rainbow

Herb Albert debuted all the way back in 1962 with his unique blend of swing jazz and latin percussion and instrumentation. Albums like Going Places and the infamous Whipped Cream & Other Delights brought Albert’s danceable sound to the forefront of a jazz boom in the mid to late 60’s. Long after the crash of that jazz wave, however, Herb Albert continues to make thoroughly enjoyable records thanks to his tasteful latin flare and genuine skill on the trumpet. Now, at the age of 84, he drops this collection of cover tracks.

The album itself is much more subdued than the 60’s albums that put him on the map. Herb works his way through a collection of covers with one original thrown into the mix, each performed with soul and very creative instrumentation. He also utilizes newer technologies like electronic drums and sound effects remarkably well. There are a few pacing problems and some of the tracks come off a bit corny, but to hear new music from a national treasure like Herb Albert is nothing short of a treat.

5/10

KornThe Nothing

The turn of the century was an odd time for rock music. On the one hand, metal was at, perhaps the most commercially successful period in its history. On the other, the nu-metal wave was fairly controversial for hardcore metal fans and certainly hasn’t aged as well as it’s predecessors in the 80’s and 90’s. Nevertheless, staples of the short-lived genre like Korn and Slipknot are fairly well respected within the community. Korn’s particularly thrashy form of nu-metal and solid ear for melody has led them to a long career, even after the metal boom of the era. Their newest album, The Nothing, is surprisingly lively for a band in their 25th year.

This yet another singable, hook-heavy metal record from the California five-piece. Brian Welch and James Shaffer’s guitars are especially fantastic, adding excellent melody writing to an absolutely brutal tone. Jonathan Davis’ vocals do fall short quite often, particularly in the softer moments, but most importantly, the band is still more than capable of bringing the pain. Tracks like “Cold,” chug along with the same power that brought Korn to the forefront during their heyday. Unfortunately, they do get bogged down far too often in quieter moments that just don’t quite work and the experimental opener and closer are frustrating and unnecessary. Overall, though, this is a solid release that should excite nu-metal fans the world over.

6/10

MudhoneyMorning in America

One of the most under-appreciated bands in music history, Mudhoney was an early pioneer of the grunge rock sound that would launch the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam to superstardom. Their popularity, on the other hand, remained largely underground and still does now, 30 years and ten albums after their 1989 self-titled debut. Over this time, they’ve been quietly plugging away on Sub-Pop records and they returned this year with a quasi-LP followup to last year’s Digital Garbage.

The project is a blast to listen to. Many of the punk influences which have defined Mudhoney’s sound for the past three decades return in a big way with fast, thrashing guitars and a sardonic lyrical and vocal style that brings quite a few laughs and memorable one-liners. That being said, there’s also some significant growth on the LP as the band dives into some of the psychedelic, garage rock elements which have had a recent reemergence thanks to acts like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Overall, it’s yet another fun, raucous release from a hardworking group of rock legends.

7/10

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Blink-182 is Stiff and Out of Touch on Ninth Album

Nine is an unfortunate and out of touch entry into a once legendary catalog.

Blink-182 is a pop/punk three-piece from Poway, California. Their debut, Cheshire Cat in 1995 and it’s follow up, Dude Ranch found significant success with the latter going platinum, but it was their 1999 classic, Enema of the State which placed the band at the very top of the rising pop/punk wave and remains to this day one of the most iconic rock albums of the late 90’s. The success continued through the turn of the century as 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and 2003’s self-titled LP sold over three million copies combined and solidified Blink’s legend status, despite the drop in quality as they turned from goofy, immature comedy to weak attempts at thoughtful lyricism. Since this successful trio, the band broke an eight year silence with 2011’s  Neighborhoods and another five year break with 2016’s California. Both records received middling reviews and commercial success. Now, they’ve returned with Nine.

The problems with this album are fairly apparent from the first track, “The First Time,” as Mark Hoppus struggles in vain to keep up, vocally, with the rest of the band. That carefree, whining lead that brought such a comedic layer to the band’s sound is just gone as cuts like “Hungover You,” sound completely out of touch.

Lyrically, the record also leaves quite a bit to be desired as well. Blink hasn’t had the juvenile edge in many years, but this album is especially bland. Tracks like “Happy Days,” and “On Some Emo Shit,” verge on meaningless and lack any of the snarky wit that fans have come to expect. There is genuinely not a single memorable line on the LP, and the pacing suffers greatly for it.

In fairness, there are a handful of interesting tracks. Travis Barker’s drumming is, as always, a highlight as cuts like “Pin the Grenade,” and “No Heart to Speak Of,” which make the second half of the record somewhat bearable, and “Blame It On My Youth,” which is maybe the most exciting track on the LP, hinge almost entirely on Barker’s lightning fast fills and creative rhythms. These are some of the few moments when the magic of the old Blink seems to be alive, but they’re quickly snuffed out.

The drums are often dragged down by atrocious production. Tracks like “Heaven,” and “Darkside,” are some of the worst as the vocals hiss almost to a painful extent and the drums and guitars are often soaked in an ill-advised comb-filter effect which makes them sound like they’re coming from a playstation game.

Additionally, the instrumentals themselves are often boring and uninspired. Cuts like “Run Away,” and the closer, “Remember to Forget Me,” feature almost nothing of note and feel almost like musical wallpaper. The mixture of lazy songwriting and repetitive arrangement seriously hurts the pacing and leaves none of the tracks with any lasting impact.

Some of the best tracks on the album are the two, “Generational Divide,” and “Ransom,” which come in with a runtime under 90 seconds. Oddly enough, this shorter format seems to ignite some songwriting fire in the band as Barker’s drums and even some of the vocal hooks are punchy and exciting. These tracks don’t overstay their welcome and, though the entire album couldn’t be made up of cuts like this, they’re some of the only exciting moments across the bloated runtime.

Perhaps the worst tracks on the album, though, fall in the middle where the band just seems to be desperately searching for a sound. “Black Rain,” sees a more metal approach with heavier instrumentation while “I Really Wish I Hated You,” attempts to use sharp vocal melodies and witty lyricism to tell a story. Unfortunately, both fail, not for lack of trying, but because the band is just far too stiff and out of touch to pull off these new sounds. At best, these tracks sound like an older band having fun trying out some new styles, and at worst they sound like cheap mimicry of the dynamism that made them legends in the first place. Add in the constant trap drums and hip-hop instrumental elements, and you have a recipe for a very out of touch LP.

Ultimately, I don’t know that I can call this album a disappointment. I haven’t cared much for anything Blink has done since their heyday in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. But this album is especially frustrating for a number of reasons. The bloated runtime and lack of creativity certainly spring to mind, but most of all, I have to wonder as to the purpose of the album in the first place. None of these tracks appear to have been worked on all that much and if you don’t feel like working hard on new music, why put out a new record at all?

Nine is an unfortunate and out of touch entry into a once legendary catalog.

3/10

Charli XCX Drops Exciting Third LP

Charli is a massive step forward for Charli XCX and yet another great record in modern pop music.

Charli XCX is a dance-pop singer/songwriter from Cambridge, England. Her first LP in 2013, True Romance was relatively well received by critics, though it found little commercial success. Nevertheless, she was able to try her hand at a second release on 2014’s Sucker, her first LP to enter the billboard charts. The album spawned two hit singles in the platinum “Break the Rules,” and the triple platinum smash hit, “Boom Clap.” Quickly, Charli found herself with significant clout as a rising star in the dance-pop genre with a couple of hits under her belt and a fair amount of critical respect to boot. Now, she’s back with her third LP, and her first release in five years, Charli.

Easily the largest improvement for Charli comes in her vocal. This is obvious from the opener, “Next Level Charli,” as well as in later cuts like “White Mercedes,” where stays in her upper register and belts out one impressive hook after another. This vocal skill was present on earlier works, but the sound of this LP is far more demanding, and so her improvements shine brightly.

This is helped by the simply fantastic melody writing across the entire album. Tracks like “Gone,” or “Official,” are some of the most catchy pop songs of the year thanks to dynamic hooks and genuinely interesting vocal lines. Even on the handful of tracks with structural or lyrical issues, these are easily ignored in favor of the singable melodies.

There are also more than a few strong features. Fellow dance pop artist, Yaeji, sings an intriguing, almost childish closing verse in Korean on “February 2017,” Troye Sivan pops up twice on the tracklist, both times showcasing great chemistry with Charli. None stand out quite as powerfully, though, as Lizzo’s powerful and hilarious verse on “Blame It on Your Love,” which features lines like “my body like a swisher just roll it,” and “I’m tryna catch millions, I ain’t tryna catch feelings,” just to mention a few.

Beyond this, the instrumentation is quite strong. Much of this has to do with unique choices in percussion as in “1999,” which ranges from classic trap snares to toned basses and creative natural sounds and samples. On the other hand, cuts like “Click,” feature active melodic instrumentation, mostly synths, which are daringly abrasive and distorted along with surprising samples from what sounds like 80’s video games. The instrumentation, on the whole, is lush, and challenging in a way that I certainly didn’t expect.

This is helmed by a grand, hands on production style which really brings the entire album together. This style is present from the rich mixes on cuts like “Warm,” to the overwhelming synths on “Thoughts,” which are reminiscent of vintage sci-fi soundtracks, or the powerful reverb and vocal effects on “I Don’t Wanna Know.” Each and every track is extremely well mixed and has an entirely unique, yet each bare the stamp of the album’s production style.

All of these elements come to a head near the end of the LP with some of the strongest, most experimental tracks. “2099,” is a great closer which sees the return of Troye Sivan and a handful of interesting instrumental choices. The most daring track on the album, however, is “Shake It,” which features howling synths, mind-bending vocal effects, and excellent stereo image. It’s these cuts which impress me the most on this album as the effort to add experimental flair to a traditional pop album is not only much appreciated, but extremely well executed.

As much as I love moments on this album, however, it does have a few weak points. Perhaps the biggest sin comes in the extremely repetitive lyrics and melodies on tracks like “Cross You Out,” and “Silver Cross.” Additionally, the lyrics leave a bit to be desired, touching quite a bit on similar subject matter and lacking in any interesting rhyme schemes or storytelling.

All together, though, Charli is an impressive record. With the five year gap between releases, Charli seems to have matured significantly, now ready to join the growing stable of creative artists who are quickly pushing pop music to its most intriguing point in decades.

Charli is a massive step forward for Charli XCX and yet another great record in modern pop music.

8/10

JPEGMAFIA’s Third LP is His Best and Most Daring to Date

All My Heroes Are Cornballs is a powerful and disorienting LP and an exciting addition to one of the best catalogs in the game.

JPEGMAFIA is a hip-hop artist from New York City. His debut LP, Black Ben Carson released in 2016 to critical acclaim and was quickly followed by a collaborative effort with fellow Baltimore artist, Freaky, entitled The Second Amendment. Peggy immediately became a staple of the buzzing experimental hip-hop scene and, with his 2018 LP Veteran, he established himself as one of the most formidable forces in that movement. Now, just over a year later, Peggy returns with one of the most daring projects I’ve heard in years, All My Heroes Are Cornballs.

Without a doubt, this is the most experimental record in Peggy’s catalog, and that’s clear across nearly every second of the LP. Certainly the most experimental moments come on shorter interludes like “JPEGMAFIA TYPE BEAT,” or the later “BUTTERMILK JESUS TYPE BEAT.” These short moments are bursts of near chaos which do stand out, but the entirety of the LP is laced with explosive periods of noise, but these are balanced against tracks like “Life’s Hard, Here’s A Song About Sorrel,” which are so sparse and disconnected that it seems the album could easily just fall to silence at any moments.

JPEG is at his best here when he finds a way to mix these two tendencies. On cuts like “PTSD,” and “Prone!,” he dynamically bounces from calm, grooving moments into overwhelming madness and back again. Often, the album seems just one strange sound away from falling apart before catchy hook or commanding flow pulls it back into reality. The disconnect and lack of concern for traditional structure is jarring to say the least.

Because of these constant switches, the record is almost perfectly paced. Even later tracks like “DOTS FREESTYLE REMIX,” and the closer “Papi I Missed You,” feel exciting and interesting. There’s never a moment that seems to drag or run long and, in fact, at times it feels almost a bit too fast despite the near 50 minute runtime. 

Large portions of this album, though, are fairly low-key and atmospheric. Tracks like “Beta Male Strategies,” achieve this with creative instrumentals and simple melodies. On the other hand, tracks like “Free the Frail,” or the title track build their atmosphere with a wide array of soundbites and spoken sections which are genuinely fascinating. The entire LP is covered in these well placed sound bites with everything from a dinner order at a drive through to a young girl joking about a “weed song.” It builds a world around the listener that you can’t help but want to sit in for a long time.

On the other hand, there are a handful of accessible and well written hooks. Take a cut like the opener, “Jesus Forgive Me, I Am A Thot,” or the later, equally well named “Grimy Waifu.” Here, JPEG’s ear for melody comes through with killer sung hooks which, though they often don’t repeat or stay around for long, leave a lasting effect on the listener.

Beyond this, his vocal performance is simply excellent. This is true for well-sung lines on “Kenan Vs. Kel,” as well as the bombastic flow on “Thot Tactics.” It’s also true in terms of the hilarious lyrics and professional wrestling references on tracks like “Rap Grow Old & Die x No Child Left Behind,” or “Post Verified Lifestyle.” Peggy brings an intensity and a dynamic range on this record that is just intoxicating. It may take a couple listens to even notice the strong instrumentals or production as JPEG’s lead steals the spotlight at every opportunity.

All of this is helmed wonderfully by Peggy’s wonderful production. Throughout the LP, he mixes muted percussion with explosive synths, plays with peaking and cut-outs, and crafts a near disorienting project by stacking layers of raw sound and pealing them back to reveal simple, minimalistic soundscapes. Tracks like “BBW,” and his cover of  TLC’s “No Scrubs,” which is entitled “BasicBitchTearGas,” stand out, but this is the case across the album.

All in all, this is a fantastic album. Peggy’s punk influences and carefree style is distilled into a daring collection of tracks which range wildly from white hot chaos to smooth, atmospheric beats, often within the same song. For my money, this album surpasses earlier works like Veteran and sees JPEG finding his niche in a brilliant way.

All My Heroes Are Cornballs is a powerful and disorienting LP and an exciting addition to one of the best catalogs in the game.

9/10

“Rap Isn’t Music,” and Other Nonsense

Ben Shapiro says Rap isn’t music. I firmly disagree.

Twitter exploded yesterday as clip made the rounds which featured conservative commentator Ben Shapiro taking aim at one of his favorite punching bags, rap music. During an episode of his new “Sunday Special,” Shapiro said the following: “In my view, and in the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody and there is rhythm. Rap only fulfills one of these, the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, effectively, it is basically spoken rhythm. It’s not actually a form of music. It’s a form of rhythmic speaking. Thus, beyond the objectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is that rap is not music.” Twitter did what Twitter does, memeing the statement to death and launching Ben to the top of the trending page, but was he right? No. No he wasn’t.

First of all, the claim that rap lacks melody and harmony is plainly false. Rapping is not purely speaking, as every single artist in the history of the genre has added some form of melody, though often rudimentary, to their vocal. But far more importantly, Shapiro is making the false implication that “melody,” and “harmony,” must come from the lead vocal, which is plainly false. Rap music often features some of the most intricate and creative instrumentals in the entire music industry, from the magnificent jazz influence on a record like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to the luscious beats of the 90’s West Coast scene.

That being said, if this was simply a story about Ben Shapiro’s failure to appreciate hip-hop instrumentals, it wouldn’t be worth writing about. I’m far more irritated by his rather dry definition of music itself. In fairness, what he’s referring to is an over simplified form of what many hardline music theorists and philosophers of music may claim as a definition of music itself, but one must distinguish between a purely intellectual definition of music and the colloquial form which Ben is attempting to appeal to. The intellectualized definition is essentially useful in narrowing one’s scope to that of Western classical music in order to study its form and style. On the other hand, the colloquial definition of what is and isn’t “music,” has far more to do with cultural influence and a seat at the table in the ongoing conversation that is modern music.

In this more useful definition, rap music is not only “music,” but perhaps the most lively and important genre in all of modern music. In contrast to a genre like country music, which has its own form of royalty in the form of long running musical families and grandiose events, rap is far more anarchic.

Rap has, from its earliest days, been an outlet for social and political statements, and because of its relatively small production cost compared to genres with full bands, nearly anyone could be a part of this conversation. Because of this, icons of the genre like Tupac Shakur and N.W.A. were able to rise to prominence with bold and often offensive statements from the very beginning of their careers. Thanks to this lower cost and the open minds of rap fans, artists like these and newer artists like Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike are able to boldly speak their minds without censorship from their label or fear of losing their income.

Most importantly, rap music has long been the most culturally recognized outlet for the conversations and opinions of an oppressed minority in America. Unlike the more personal focus of rock or pop music, rap has always been largely political and socially conscious, and it has provided a massively lucrative outlet for African Americans to assert their place in society and shine a light on their struggles. To hear this incredibly important social conversation play out over the airwaves is not only fascinating, but one of the brilliant examples imaginable of music’s power and prescience in modern society.

Still don’t believe me? I’d suggest anyone who is still skeptical about rap music and it’s magnificent cultural impact simple take a listen to Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 LP To Pimp a Butterfly. The album is a daring commentary on race in America with instrumentals which runs the gamut of traditionally black genres like jazz and soul, and lyrics that provide an unflinching picture of fame, discrimination, class, and family. It’s a brilliant work of art and it’s exactly the kind of album which could only be accomplished within the rap genre.

Post Malone Enlists SZA, Ozzy, and More for Third LP

Hollywood’s Bleeding is a fun listen that doesn’t quite meet it’s full potential.

Post Malone’s rise to the higher tiers of the hip-hop world has been relatively quick. From his 2015 breakout single, “White Iverson,” to his subsequent major label debut, Stoney in 2016, Malone quickly made a name for himself as a reliable producer of atmospheric, beat-centric tracks which make a perfect soundtrack for late night driving, or late night drinking, depending on your preference. Some have criticized his approach as being quantity over quality, and his music as “sonic wallpaper,” that isn’t meant to be listened to as much as played in the background. This reputation was crushed by 2018’s Beerbong’s & Bentley’s, one of the best rap albums of the year, which put Post on the map as serious hitmaker and a reliable producer of fun, danceable bangers. Now, with just a year for turnaround, we have yet another nearly hour long project in Hollywood’s Bleeding which, for the most part, lives up to its predecessor. 

Definitely the most significant improvement on this LP comes in the form of the strong and varied instrumentals. From the unpredictable switches on the opening title track to the genuine rock and pop influences on cuts like “Allergic,” and my favorite track, “Circles.” Post has often discussed his wide base of influences and has incorporated them into his music with a mixture of success, but his blend of pop rock and hip-hop is genuinely brilliant and provides an excellent variety over the long album.

Speaking of rock influences, the feature list on this LP has a few surprising names, to say the least. Future and Halsey turn in solid verses on “Die for Me,” and SZA is impeccable as usual on “Staring At The Sun,” but it’s Ozzy Osbourne’s appearance on “Take What You Want,” which has captivated listeners in the days since the album’s release, and for good reason: It works far better than anyone would’ve imagined. Ozzy sounds fantastic and his hook, though short, is commanding and powerful. This is all not to mention the roaring guitar solo that closes the track.

Beyond his features, Malone proves once again on this album that he’s one of the better vocalists in all of hip-hop. His warbling vibrato is here in spades on tracks like “I’m Gonna Be,” but I found myself far more impressed by the powerful belts on tracks like “Enemies,” and “On The Road.” Again, those rock influences rear their heads as he digs into his vocal cords a bit more to achieve a gritty, dynamic tone.

As one would expect, however, this album hinges quite a bit on Post’s status as one of the best hook writers in the business and, thankfully, this record is packed with singable ear-worms. “Saint-Tropez,” and “A Thousand Times,” feature some of the catchiest choruses of the year and virtually every second of the closer, “Wow,” is nothing short of addictive.

Sadly, this album really dives off of a cliff in the latter half. Easily the worst issue comes in the lyrics. The writing on tracks like “Internet,” and “I Know,” just feels lazy and uninventive, while the lyrics on “Myself,” are just bizarre and relatively meaningless, which doesn’t help a track which is already on shaky ground, sonically.

Additionally, there are some terrible features. I’ve never personally been a fan of Swae Lee’s work on “Sunflower,” despite it’s success as a single, as his voice is as bland and uninteresting as ever. This doesn’t compare, however, to Young Thug dropping yet another unlistenable verse on  “Goodbyes.” I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a verse from Young Thug, and his unnerving howl is completely out of place on the otherwise inoffensive effort.

Ultimately, this album is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Post has developed several elements which peaked out on the last release. He’s taking his wide-ranging influences more seriously, successfully incorporating rock and folk in a brilliant way. He also has lost a step in his talent for writing excellent hooks and working with strong features, for the most part.

Unfortunately, he’s still failed to learn from the mistake which has plagued every single release in his catalog: his insistence on including seemingly every idea that comes to his mind on the final album line-up. Because of this, the record is far too long with poor pacing, and the entire last third, with the exception of the closer, feels entirely half baked and underdeveloped.

Despite this, the album is a blast. Its shining moments are blinding and its weak points can easily be ignored. It’s just a shame that poor pacing and a few annoying features keep the LP from living up to its predecessors.

Hollywood’s Bleeding is a fun listen that doesn’t quite meet it’s full potential.

6/10

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