There’s a part in Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), Jeff Tweedy’s excellent memoir released last year, where he discusses Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue albums, a trilogy of records featuring the two artists playing the unrecorded music and lyrics of Woody Guthrie. Apparently, Bragg told the press that he chose Wilco for the project because he thought they were the “ultimate Midwest Americana red-dirt-band,” and, according to Tweedy, he never would have agreed to take part if he had heard that comment at the time.
It’s probably not fair to think of Jenny Lewis as a “child star turned musician” anymore. After all, she made that pivot over twenty years ago when she formed Rilo Kiley, a perennially underrated indie band responsible for one of my favorite songs of all time, and proved she had real staying power as she transitioned gracefully into one-shot duo Jenny and Johnny with then-beau Johnathan Rice (a pairing that penned one of the best songs about the recession) and eventually her own well-regarded solo career. And yet, I couldn’t help but think of her thespian past, and how it must inform a lot of the artistic choices on her new album On the Line.
Do a quick Google Images search of Julia Jacklin and you’ll find an Aussie in her late twenties, frizzy-haired, and dressed in plaid mini skirts. She’s often captured staring blankly into the camera, stationed sometimes before flora, sometimes in tackily furnished living rooms, but always in the softly faded film style authentic to the 90s and now artificially reproduced for budding indie artists across the late 2010s. But don’t let the fashionable aesthetic fool you into writing Jacklin off as yet another sad-eyed, guitar-bearing kid posting their Sadboi™ tracks to Bandcamp. Her twee appearance is but the sugar that helps her unique brand of aching honesty go down. Well, that, and her angelic musicality, of course.
I know that there’s supposed to be an infinite number of universes containing an infinite number of possibilities, but I refuse to believe that there is any timeline in which Sharon Van Etten is not a rock star. There’s no way you could look at the impossibly willowy singer-songwriter and not assume she does anything other than belt out songs while strumming a ruby red hollow bodied guitar. That’s the image Van Etten cut when I saw her at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday, February 6, adorned in a long tweed jacket, flared leather pants, and uncannily matching boots– one of a readymade icon and perfect rock and roll idea. Although she looked like some kind of early Millennial re-imagining of Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde, her effortlessly cool exterior is just a front for her intimate and vulnerable songwriting — each one of her songs lets the listener see their own reflection in the shards of Van Etten’s broken heart, and you feel the blood, sweat, and tears that go into every note. To use a music criticism cliche, she doesn’t sound like she wants to write and perform her songs so much as she seems like she has to, lest her emotions go unsaid and slowly kill her from the inside out.
As is the case with most live televised events these days, last year’s Grammys were met with a combination of disappointment and outrage. The disappointment came from the generally underwhelming nature of the night, which featured too many performances by artists no one really cared about (let’s just agree to never talk about that Sting and Shaggy collaboration ever again), and the outrage came from the reasons why certain artists didn’t perform, and who ended up winning the awards themselves. Bruno Mars swept Album, Song, and Record of the Year, shutting out more deserving candidates like Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, and Lorde. The outrage was further exacerbated by the fact that those latter two artists weren’t even given a opportunity to perform. Jay Z apparently declined an invitation to do so, and Lorde backed out after they wouldn’t let her perform solo, and wanted to fold her into a Tom Petty tribute. Neil Portnow, the infinitely smug president of the Recording Academy, responded to the controversy surrounding Lorde’s absence and the dearth of televised awards going to female artists by calling on women to “step up,” comments that weren’t received warmly and may have lead to his decision to step down after his current contract expires.
I know what you’re thinking: it’s almost February, isn’t it a little late for another best of 2018 list? And you’re right! Pitchfork, Stereogum, and all of those other big outlets beat me to the punch by almost three months. But, in fairness to me, they had entire teams of writers vote on and write blurbs for their list, I had to do write ups on all 25 of these albums all by my lonesome (with some editorial oversight from the rest of the Postrider team, of course), and, oh my, was it work. Listening to hours of great music and then thinking and writing about it — I mean, how did I even do it? There was a time when I thought about abandoning this project — I’d already finished my “Best 30 Songs of 2018” list after all — but I put on a brave face and soldiered on. This is the Internet: I have obligation, nay a duty, to not only tell you what I thought the best records of the year are, put expound upon them as well. It’s my cross to bear, but I’ll do so gladly.