As we near the end of our 100 Greatest Women feature, we take a look at what the women are up to in 2018. Part One features the latest albums from Brandi Carlile, Ashley McBryde, Kylie Minogue, Kacey Musgraves, and Lindi Ortega.
By the Way, I Forgive You
Fans and critics alike have known Carlile is a vocal powerhouse since her debut, but she finally seems to have embraced that facet of her artistry on By the Way, I Forgive You. The album’s songwriting is every bit as empathetic and sharply-observed as ever– single “The Joke” is the rare anthem of empowerment that is actually empowering in its message while sounding like a sing-along anthem, while “The Mother” impresses for the specificity of its images— but it’s the power and conviction in Carlile’s performances make for a career-best album. Even when she’s going for pure populist uplift on second single “Hold Out Your Hand” (which, it’s worth mentioning, is a divisive track among Carlile’s dedicated fans), she belts and wails as though countless lives depend on it.
Girl Going Nowhere
The most exciting new artist to emerge from a major label in Nashville in ages, Ashley McBryde immediately announces herself as talent worth following on Girl Going Nowhere. The album’s production surprises for its adventurous streak, particularly for a debut: The title track is a quiet, finger-plucked masterclass, while “El Dorado” is driven by propulsive percussion and heavily distorted guitars. McBryde’s throaty contralto and world-wise POV are what hold the album together through its tales of illicit love affairs (“American Scandal”), drug-dealing neighbors (“Livin’ Next to Leroy”), and aspirational dreams (“A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” “Radioland”).
As with the most recent albums by Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, and Kesha, Golden has been billed as global superstar Kylie Minogue’s foray into country music, but that’s a gross overstatement of the country signifiers or influence on the album. The most direct points of comparison are to Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me,” which still sounds a good couple of decades ahead of Nashville’s view of dance music, and Kacey Musgraves’ “High Horse,” which drops country idioms into what’s ostensibly a disco song. That style works fine on a track-by-track basis—lead single “Dancing” and the understated “Radio On” are both solid additions to Minogue’s catalogue— but Golden’s 16 tracks clock in at just under an hour, and its repetitiveness make it seem several days long.
On Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves leans into two of her talents that often go unremarked upon: Her facility with melody and her knowledge of country music conventions. The reason why Golden Hour emphasizes these aspects of her songwriting and her aesthetic choices is that the album’s songwriting— which, thanks to her wit and her willingness to flaunt mainstream country’s norms, especially when it comes to what women have historically been allowed to sing about— is not as consistent as it was on her two prior albums. There’s something to be said for narrative simplicity and the economic use of language as keys to country songwriting, but “Lonely Weekend,” “Love Is A Wild Thing,” and “Happy & Sad” are simply thin. The album’s best tracks— don’t-call-it-a-single “Space Cowboy” and inspirational “Rainbow”— are among Musgraves’ absolute finest. But Golden Hour works best as a mood piece: A frankly gorgeous-sounding album about finding silver linings.
A fully-realized concept album, Lindi Ortega’s extraordinary Liberty traces its narrator’s journey from disillusionment to something that at least approximates peace of mind. Ortega filters her frustration with the trajectory of her recording career through the lens of a spaghetti western— the similarities between the album’s aesthetic and Ennio Morricone’s score for the Kill Bill films are no accident, which puts Liberty in the company of Tami Neilson’s SASSAFRASS! for its use of that style to tell a tale of a woman’s empowerment. And, like Neilson’s album, Ortega’s is one of 2018’s absolute finest, impressing most for her ability to create a single coherent narrative arc while simultaneously writing songs that stand fully on their own merits.