In 2018, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour was the album that pretty much everyone loved. It was the kind of all-across-the-board something-for-everybody hit record that happens quite rarely in our deeply fractured marketplace. It was mainstream in the best possible way. Musgraves represents a new generation of performers who are taking back country music from the death-grip of socially conservative old men in hats, updating genre tropes in fresh ways that appeal to younger listeners but remain recognizable enough to still appeal to traditionalists. It’s nice to hear a record that cuts across demographics without pandering to the lowest common denominator.
This could almost be a long-lost Judy Collins song, with its vision of romantic bohemian living and Florence Welch’s unearthly high vibrato. Collins, however, would never call for percussion heavy enough for riding into battle. That is where Welch distinguishes herself from everyone else critics would like to compare her to. She likes peasant blouses, but she’s no demure folksinger. Her South London may be a bohemian paradise for ‘boys in bands’ but it’s still shot through with angst, like walking through picture pretty streets just makes the rage inside feel worse. Hence, the pounding drums.
Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt was one of my favorite records from last year, and I think that it’s going to be a keeper. You can say, derisively, that Moby’s records all kind of sound the same, which, well… yeah. Nobody wants him to make a hardcore punk rock album. We want him to keep making atmospheric dreampop about aesthetically pleasing lite sadness. Because I really honestly cannot get enough of this ethereal moodiness.
Stardom and success has made many a creative get all meta about the how, the why, and the who for of their work. Where does the successful artist stand, in the world, when they no longer have to define themselves by their struggle to be seen? What kind of symbiosis does the artist develop with the fans who consume his artwork? It is all too, too existential. This kind of self-deprecating angst is exactly Father John Misty’s bread and butter, and he may be a slight bit ironic as he ponders these questions, but also he’ll have you know that these questions do weigh heavy upon his brow. He knows it’s what his fans expect. He’s carved out a place for himself as one of the now-rare ‘serious songwriter’ types whose work invites heavy pondering. He knows, too, that ‘take me seriously’ poetic posturing by rock singers is kind of absurd and just really can’t be taken seriously. Thus, pondering about who is he to be in his place and who we are to have put him there. And so on in an indefinite loop.
I can easily imagine Lissie as a folksinger in the 1960’s, singing at sit-ins and protest marches. She has a big voice, an ability to write big choruses, a tendency towards earnestness, and a prairie-girl sense of style. All of which would have put her right at home at Newport Folk Festival or a beat cafe in the Village. But Lissie is right at home right where she is. She’s comfortable enough strumming her guitar, but not afraid of some synths either. What I like about Lissie as an artist is that she doesn’t lean too heavily on any one thing. Yes, she can be earnest, but she can be witty and irreverent too. She can go all country and write something that sounds like a Faith Hill demo, but she can also turn around and do something that sounds more like Sylvan Esso. She can write a catchy-as-all-hell, stadium-ready chorus but then underplays it so it’s not all bombastic. Even her cowgirl vibes she comes by honestly: she’s from Iowa. She could probably sell a lot more records if she chose to squeeze herself entirely into one the many boxes that fit her, but she chooses to not choose a box. That’s really what makes her such an real and refreshing voice.
I’m tempted to go back and retroactively add Neneh Cherry’s Broken Politics to my list of the best records of 2018. But I didn’t discover this record until pretty recently, so I’ll just say that this year it’s one of my favorite new discoveries. ‘New’ is all relative, of course; Cherry is 55 and used to be a member of the trailblazing female punk band The Slits. If she sounds like she sprang fully formed from the digital whirlpool of right now, it’s a testament to her hear for what ‘right now’ is.
Elle King got famous in 2015 for having the rollicking slut-pride anthem of the year. Then she found out, as many before her have done, that sudden fame exacerbates one’s worst impulses to the thousandth degree. King went on the rookie pop star roller-coaster of self-destruction: heavy drinking, burned bridges, self-recrimination, another bender, rinse, repeat, rehab. It took the steam out of her career, but it did give her material for a more mature second album. Facing down demons has always been a songwriter’s right of passage, and Elle King is working to ascend the pinnacles of blue-eyed soul. She may not be up there with Joplin and Winehouse, and if she wants to continue being alive, she shouldn’t aspire to it. But she did make a really good confessional rock album, and hopefully she’ll be able to mine more from her journey.