What a crazy year 2018 turned out to be! I spent most of the year stressed and wrestling with life as I re-evaluated what I considered important and navigated my first full year as a father. As such, the music that stood out to me as the best of the year tends to lean into the messy areas of life and faith. How do we keep relationships with others and God vibrant? How do I navigate doubt? What should I do with my life? These albums and songs stood out for the way they came alongside me in my journey and even administered comfort and wisdom.
Top 10 Albums
1. The Choir—Bloodshot
What a beautifully heartbreaking album! It sounds like what The Choir has been putting out in recent years and yet different. There’s a rawness running through it that hooks the listener and won’t let go as it navigates the ups and downs of a marriage falling to pieces. For me it serves as a cautionary tale of what to avoid in my own marriage and areas of weakness to be aware of. Its angst also mirrored my own with life outside of marriage and that aspect connected deeply with me. It may not be a “fun” album to sit down and chill for an afternoon, but if you’re feeling moody it’s a perfect companion.
2. Matthew Perryman Jones--The Waking Hours
Ever since his masterpiece album Land of the Living, I’ve been in love with Jones’ knack for beautiful song craft and storytelling. The Waking Hours effectively serves as an answer to his previous Cold Answer EP. Wherein that EP saw a relationship on the rocks, his latest album shows a concerted effort at reconciliation. The songs work well together and the music leaves you with a haunted feeling. It’s not his new masterpiece, but it’s a great work in its own right.
3. Sandra McCracken--Songs from the Valley
This short collection has given me much to think about. Is it about a divorce? Or is it simply about the messiness of life? No matter how you spin it, no one interpretation sticks to it perfectly. The songs feel ethereal in sound and weighty in message and the listener feels like he/she is peeking in on McCracken’s personal diary. Also probably not to be considered for its “fun” factor, but it is artistic and thoughtful and worthy of more attention than what it’s received.
4. Stryper--Gosh Dern Evil
Yes, this album is controversial with its title (and title track), but it is also a rollicking good throw-back rock record. Once Stryper hits the gas, they don’t let up making for an exhilarating experience. The songs have timely messages and overall the band feels like they’re playing with more purpose than they’ve had in a while.
5. Jason Upton--A Table Full of Strangers Vol. 2
I checked this one out after reading JFH’s Alex Caldwell’s glowing review. The album did not disappoint! Jason Upton’s soothing vocals and melodies, mixed with their encouraging messages, brought much peace to a troubled mind through various stressful circumstances. Throughout the year different parts of the album stood out and showed their relevance. It’s meditative and worshipful in a way that many praise bands these days only dream about producing.
6. Cameron Moore—Alpenglow
This album was perhaps the biggest surprise for me this year. The layered music and lyrics struck me at a time when I could relate to its complexity. The story it tells of moving through a “dark night of the soul” is compelling, nuanced, and hopeful with fleshed out imagery and metaphors running the length of the album. It may not be the greatest at what it’s striving for, but the ambition is noteworthy.
7. Adam Watts--When a Heart Wakes Up
Another album I checked out thanks to buzz it received on JFH and also did not disappoint. The way Watts crafts interesting music to backdrop honest lyrics is mesmerizing. Each song has its own flavor and keeps things fresh from start to finish. Watts’ years of experience in the music industry shines through the tracks and his heartfelt lyricism gives the listener an emotional touchstone.
8. Andrew Peterson--Rez Letters: Prologue
I find that I enjoy Andrew Peterson’s music more when he explores the darker side of life and so I think that’s why Resurrection Letters: Prologue stood out to me over Vol. 1. The full album is good in its own right, but the EP is a thing of beauty. Its quiet reflections on Jesus’ death and what that means for Christians gives a fresh spin on meditating on Good Friday. But even beyond the Easter season, this EP is good to listen to all year round.
9. Matthew Thiessen and the Earthquakes--Wind Up Bird
Thiessen’s first solo effort in some ways feels like a natural extension of Relient K’s last album, Air for Free, and, considering I enjoyed that record, it’s no surprise that this one made it on my list. Thiessen seems to be wrestling with what it means to grow up and be an adult while still pursuing creative avenues. I can relate to that. The music also keeps things loose without letting anyone get too despondent. It’s a strong debut and makes me wish for more from this corner of Theissen’s mind.
10. The Gray Havens--She Waits
I struggled with which album should take the tenth spot. Though I was largely disappointed with the Gray Havens’ latest album, I can’t deny that it was thoroughly and artfully crafted. They may be heading in a musical/lyrical direction that I don’t care for as much, but they still do it well. Repeat listens generally raise the record in my mind some. Perhaps a few more listens and I’ll be won over to their new path.
Top 10 Songs
1. "Coming Back to Me,"
This song encapsulates much of this year for me. It’s been a lot of thinking about life and having old values and feelings “come back to me”. It’s also a beautifully poetic tune, perfect for self-reflection.
In talking about where we were at in life, my wife and I concluded we were merely surviving. We realized that wasn’t healthy and started striving to rectify that. This anthem wrestles with similar thoughts and also became something of a theme song for 2018.
3. "Three Birds in Babylon,"
Undoubtedly the best song of She Waits, in my opinion. It tells a story on a haunting backdrop full of rich truth. It’s what the Gray Havens do best.
It’s good to be reminded of the gospel and this song does it in a fresh, energetic way. Sometimes you just need truth spoken to you in a firm manner and Zealand does just that with this tune.
5. "Bridges Burn,"
Another song that reflected some of my feelings about this year. There are things in life—whether good or bad—that you must move on from in order to move forward. This song encapsulates that sentiment perfectly.
6. "God Rested,"
A song stands out in my mind when it takes something I’ve heard a million times and presents it in a unique way I never considered before. “God Rested” combines the Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath with Jesus’ burial in a way that surprised me. The concept is backed by brilliant lyrics and contemplative music.
7. "Only a Holy God,"
Most worship songs I hear tend to flit in and out of my brain without leaving anything tangible to chew on. This lesser-known tune was different. It combines theology with emotion in a manner where neither is trampled. This song should be bigger than it is for it could easily play in any church context.
I initially thought this was a metaphorical song to God. I may be able to see it that way, but it’s actually about friendship. As this year closes out, I’m realizing in a new way the value of kind friends and how refreshing such people are.
9. "Mountain to Valley,"
“I don’t know what steps to take/And I don’t know what moves to make.” So begins the song. Such thoughts often run parallel in my mind. But as Upton sings in the bridge, “What a journey walking with You, God!” Life with God is an up and down adventure, and I’m slowly learning the lesson.
10. "Like Your Father Does," Rhett Walker Band
I’m a father now and I’m a sucker for songs like this one. The way Rhett Walker blends together his love for his child and God’s love for His children is sweet and the melody is memorable.