There’s just no way you can edit the shadow from the shine
You see it’s all so perfectly intertwined
– Pam Tillis, “Which Five Years”
Count on Pam Tillis (via the pens of Craig Wiseman and Lisa Drew) to convey a stone cold truth: light and darkness are forever linked in everyday life. The connection between “the shadow and the shine” plays an integral role in shaping our character as multifaceted human beings. Without adversity it’s highly unlikely we would ever be able to truly appreciate the depths of joyfulness. Fortitude can be found in the midst of our fears while unease can be unearthed alongside our elation.
Below you’ll discover thirteen selections that spoke to my heart this year. New voices and industry veterans converge on this list, yet they all embraced elements of shadow and shine in their work.
In a different world, the British singer-songwriter might already be enjoying the same chart-topping success as some of her peers. Nonetheless, as fans wait for a breakthrough, they will continue to trumpet the confessional compositions that won their hearts. “Heal Me” is part rafter-rattling empowerment anthem and part scathing rebuke of parental neglect, but the song’s true potency lies in Carter’s expressions of vulnerability. “I happened, I matter,” she poignantly informs her absentee father before resolutely vowing not to let animosity consume her soul: “Now the tables are turning/Our bridges are burning, it’s too late/Though the tears are still coming out/I found the courage, there’s no hate.”
“Stay There” – Laboum
Album: Two of Us
Five years into a career marked with peaks and valleys, the South Korean quintet can finally celebrate a new high point: the release of the group’s first full-length Korean album. Two of Us emphasizes both teamwork and individuality; the women all played a role in shaping their maturing sound by contributing to the songwriting of both group and solo tracks. Leader Kim Yujeong’s impassioned performance highlights a woman staring down impending heartache. As her layered vocals reach a feverish crescendo, she almost seems to be crying out both to her love and herself. Although the pain is palpable, Yujeong’s voice winds around listeners like a welcome embrace.
There is perhaps no better representation of RuthAnne Cunningham’s long-awaited debut album than vocal tour de force “Take What I Can Get.” The Irish singer-songwriter’s powerhouse pipes elevate the tension of lyrics that are alternately anguished and hopeful. “Am I to get burned/’Cause you light fires/Then you turn a 180?” she questions an indecisive prospective beau before unleashing her secret desires in torrents of soulful abandon. There’s no need for RuthAnne to settle; a talent like this deserves the world.
On her third EP, Hackett’s astute songwriting takes center stage alongside her rich vocals. “Quit Overthinking” sympathetically portrays the plight of a mistress through clear-eyed observation. Hackett wisely places emphasis on the mundane details of the affair rather than illicit passion in order to capture the other woman’s discontent with her circumstances. While the narrator wants her lover to remain following a rendezvous (“Fold up these thoughts like the sheets on this bed”), she knows he has no intention of ending his marriage. As her hopes go unspoken the morning after, she address the concerns of the man’s suspicious spouse: “You know that he’s your man/So girl what are you worryin’ about?” she wonders, recognizing the dissatisfying cycle in which both women are trapped.
2019 was a banner year for Karli Chayne and James Sinclair Stott’s creative and personal partnership. Not only did the Nashville-based duo release debut EP Beginnings, the pair also married in September. The newlyweds premiered stand alone single “Everybody’s Looking For Love” prior to their wedding, and while not everyone may be fortunate enough to meet their life partner, all can relate ardent yearning expressed in the song. End results may not always be ideal, but the journey binds people together.
Appalachian poet Rose may have delivered my favorite debut of this year. There’s a timeless feel to her rootsy sound, anchored by her distinctive croon. The title track off her album is about appreciating love before it grows cold, but hopefully public recognition of Rose will only continue to catch fire.
If the English family band’s (sisters Beth and Emilie Key and cousin Meghann Loney) 2017 debut Turning Tides heralded the group’s bright potential, the trio’s self-titled sophomore album fulfills that promise by showcasing a mix of angelic vocals and robust instrumentation that continues to turn heads. The women tackle a range of topics on their latest work including depression, isolation, self-worth, and injustice. While “The Crown” specifically takes aim at gutless politicians, the song could just as easily apply to all who become corrupted by delusions of self-importance. They ponder what will happen when kingdoms inevitably crumble: “When the levee breaks/Will you watch and wait/And let it drown you?” In the eyes of Wildwood Kin, those who fail to live by their own morals or defend others from inequality are destined for harsh and damning judgement.
For over two decades Moorer has created affecting art with candor and grace. Released in association with the memoir of the same name, Blood addresses the singer-songwriter’s hardscrabble upbringing and the murder-suicide of her mother and father when she was only fourteen years old. The album movingly chronicles not only Moorer’s (and sister Shelby Lynne’s) despair and eventual healing, but gives voice to her parents as well. Fittingly, the ominous skies detailed in opening track “Bad Weather” foreshadow the horrific tragedy on the horizon. “I’m stuck here in between/The harrow and the harvest/And what the phantom’s whispering,” Moorer reflectively concedes, well aware that she cannot escape the emotional onslaught of the coming storm.
“Diary” – Heize
Album: Late Autumn
South Korean r&b singer Jang Dahye (Heize) is particularly beloved for her stirring ballads. Many of her songs have a cinematic scope, providing the perfect soundtrack for both the adored and the spurned. On her fifth EP the arresting “Diary” centers around gradually stripping away all memories of a departed love. If time and distance are a kindness for the heartbroken, Heize’s voice is a balm for bruised souls.
“Accountability” – Hadley Kennary
Compelling pop music is always worth the wait. Thankfully, the blend of ear-catching lyrics and gorgeous melodies on Habits arrived just on time. Kennary is no stranger to a killer turn of phrase (“I’m a virgin to aversion” caused me to sit up straight), but it’s her heartfelt conviction that allows her songs to resonate in the minds of listeners long after the final notes fade.
“Better Off” – Katie
When Katie Kim released her debut EP earlier this year, most of the headlines trumpeted her collaboration with Ty Dolla Sign on r&b track “Remember.” However, arguably the most charming performance on the album occurs when Kim flies solo. She taps into her jazz roots for the final cut on Log, the bubbly break-up tune “Better Off.” The narrator is decidedly upbeat even when she sweetly shades a former flame: “Ever since you took my love/And messed me up/I guess I’ve been just fine,” Kim chirps. Nobody is going to ruin the protagonist’s newfound sense of serenity now that she’s shed the baggage of a dead-end relationship. “Got nothing else left to lose,” she cheerfully shrugs on a spirited tune that showcases Kim’s winning appeal.
“I can’t help but hear you laughing/Dancing with me even after the end of the song/Baby, that’s just how you linger on,” Bannen confesses on the final track off her much-anticipated full length debut. Bannen’s smart mix of pop and country will surely reside in the memories of fans as well.
Acclaimed songwriter Whitters has been perfecting her craft for over a decade in Nashville. Unsurprisingly, she’s accumulated plenty of hard won wisdom. She shares her plainspoken knowledge on The Days, an excellent EP that makes up the first half of Whitters’ upcoming full-length album The Dream, which is slated for a 2020 release. On the sharp affirmation “Dream, Girl,” Whitters easily slips into the role of mentor to a young woman coming to terms with disappointment. “Part of you know don’t know what you’re worth/’Nother part of you knows just what you’re worth,” she shrewdly observes, acknowledging that people sometimes abandon their self-respect to please others. Ultimately, she buoyantly advises her protegee to keep on keepin’ on: “Don’t ever lose sight of your dream, girl/Never settle for less than you need, girl.” It’s a welcome lesson from a woman who’s survived – and thrived – in the midst of highs and lows.