All we’ve ever asked for as independent music proponents is an equal opportunity for every artist, every song, and every album to be judged beside their peers in any given year, and allow the best and brightest to be ferreted out via public sentiment and celebrated, instead of a very small and exclusive crop of mainstream performers receiving the lion’s share of attention from mass media and awards institutions. If artists who happen to not be signed to major labels are given fair treatment and don’t pass muster with the public, fair enough. But under the current system, they’re never even given a proper chance.
It should be the imperative in every sector of society that the most skilled, the most resonant, and the most inspiring works are hoisted to the forefront, not to turn society into some sort of endless skills competition, including between creative types, but to celebrate examples of human achievement to motivate us all in mining the best within ourselves, finding our most righteous paths and callings in life, and pursuing them with passion and confidence. Imagine sports teams who didn’t consider the athletic acumen of its players, or leagues where the worst teams always won. This is too often the current state of entertainment and popular media.
Of course with music, measurements of achievement are a bit more nebulous, and every individual or institution carries a certain level of bias and personal taste. If Saving Country Music had any personal bias, it probably would be in favor of an artist such as Sarah Shook, since she was first championed here way before she even signed to Bloodshot Records to re-release her debut record, Sidelong, when she was still an unknown local musician and bartender in North Carolina, struggling for any kind of attention at all.
In this politically-charged time, other periodicals may show bias towards someone like Sarah Shook because she is a woman, or a member of the LBGT community, or perhaps because she’s vegan, or for some other non-musical attribute in an effort tip the scales towards a marginalized population, or someone they’re more aligned with politically.
But after exercising every effort to show impartiality by attempting to rid any and all personal biases from the conclusion, and querying the population of country music fans themselves, in Saving Country Music’s esteemed estimation, Years by Sarah Shook and the Disarmers was the greatest, most important release in all of country music, mainstream or independent, traditional or contemporary, from an artist who is young or old, man or woman, or along any other particular gradient one can choose to assign, in all of 2018. And it’s not just because her music is traditionally bent, staunchly independent, or because of who she is beyond the studio and stage. It’s because in 2018, nobody tapped better, and deeper into the universal sentiments of heartbreak and sorrow than Sarah Shook and the Disarmers.
It’s what we all do, no matter who we vote for, who we sleep with, how we choose to worship (or don’t), who we are, where we’re from, or even what we listen to as music fans. We all feel pain, and country music has always been the place on the radio dial, or the spot in the record collection, where you turn whenever heartbreak sets in, or you simply want to hearken back to the most potent emotional recesses of your mind to feel something profound. Happiness has it’s place in music too. And who knows, it may even have a future in Sarah Shook’s music. But for now sadness is the medium she works in, and with more effortlessness, and more effectiveness, and more brilliance than any of her peers this calendar year.
It’s not just the songwriting that puts Sarah Shook at the top of the heap in 2018, or the playing or production. If Sarah Shook had one specific skill or talent that dramatically separated her from the incredibly crowded field of quality country musicians, it would be in the lost art of melody construction, which like tapping a deep well of sweetwater, allows the most guarded of emotions to rise to the surface, exposing not just the feelings iterated in the verses, but those left unsung, those that can’t be put into words, but are felt so despondently that no phrase has yet found the authority to convey it as acutely as it’s felt.
In the fragmented society we all face whenever we walk out the front door, or cue up our phones, there will never be a political leader, or a specific ideology that will unite us in the manner American or Western society has enjoyed in the past. Tribalism was the most expressed societal trend in 2018. We revel in being different from each other, and dogging those who are different from us at every turn. Some of this is probably healthy, as bad ideas and philosophies are being rebuked like never before, and as they should be. But music still has power to bring good people together, as long as we respect its ability to do so; as long as we don’t let this fragmented society interfere with music’s power to break all those bullshit barriers down, and feel the pain of another, see their perspective, and walk a mile in their shoes.
Once we understand how similar we all are, only then will we be able to respect our inherent differences. Slogans and propaganda will never will be able to accomplish this. But music can, and in 2018, Sarah Shook, The Disarmers, and their cumulative effort called Years did this better than anything else in country music.
And for those reasons, and the fact that it’s just so damn enjoyable to listen to, Years is the Saving Country Music Album of the Year in 2018.
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Congratulations to all of the other Album of the Year nominees, including Mike and the Moonpies, who pound for pound released the best true country honky-tonk record of 2018 in Steak Night at the Prairie Rose, American Aquarium who released a songwriting tour-de-force in Things Change, as did Jamie Lin Wilson with Jumping Over Rocks. Caitlyn Smith probably released the best country pop record in recent memory in Starfire, Jason Eady may have released the best record of his career with I Travel On, and Dillon Carmichael was the breakout artist of 2018 with Hell On An Angel. They are all worthy of their own distinction, and in a less-crowded year probably would have won.
And thanks to everyone who chimed in on who they felt had the best record in 2018. This is just one opinion, but everyone’s opinion matters.