The Best Music of 2018

Josh Larsen

Neko Case, Hell-On

“God is not a contract or a guy / God is an unspecified tide / You cannot time its tables / It sets no glass or gables / God is a lusty tire fire.”

The first words Neko Case utters on her latest record set the temperature for everything to come. Perhaps the veteran singer-songwriter’s description of God favors fury over grace. Maybe it sounds like an exercise in deconstruction. Still, Case harmonizes with the biblical image of God as a consuming fire, of holy wildness expressing deeper mercies. She imitates her icon throughout, setting righteous lyrical blazes that threaten to raze people and structures who lie, cheat, belittle, or prove themselves complicit in matters of abuse and injustice. Case’s music, always richly textured and presented in a spirit of catharsis, moves over, around, and through straight-ahead rock, atmospheric pop, and a sort of genreless, modern folk. Gliding guitars, skronky saxophone, layered vocals, 1980s synths, and unorthodox melodies push and pull on one another to memorable effect. If you make it to the ending embers of “Pitch or Honey,” you’ll likely take a deep, cleansing breath, exhausted in the best sort of way. Hell-On reminds us that healing is part of justice, and that the same fire which destroys also refines and purifies. (Aarik Danielsen)

Chance the Rapper, “I Might Need Security

When I first wrote about Chance the Rapper’s “I Might Need Security,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—whom Chance demands step down in the song for his handling of police misconduct—was firmly in office. Since then, he decided not to run for re-election. I’m not saying there is a one-to-one correlation, but it certainly speaks to one biblical quality of Chance’s music: its prophetic nature, in this case in the speaking-truth-to-power tradition of Moses. The other biblical trait that defines Chance’s music is its sense of joyous hope, which is something “I Might Need Security” also manages to incorporate. The protesting chorus uses harsh language—“F*** you,” taken from a musical bit in Jamie Foxx’s 2002 stand-up special—but Chance manipulates the sample so that it has a soothing, trickling, melodic sway, one that imagines the goodness that will come when the world’s corruption is swept away. The result is a reminder that joining God in the restoration of his kingdom is a beautiful thing, even when it means you have to disturb the peace. (Josh Larsen)

Jon Hopkins, Singularity

I agree with Pitchfork's observation that Hopkins' hauntingly beautiful ambient electronic album Singularity "thrums with spiritual resonance." It's undeniably transcendent, a musical mosaic of heartbeat-thumping dance rhythms and contemplative hums and drones in the vein of Brian Eno. Whether in the driving tempo of the 10-minute "Everything Connected" or the piano-tinged atmospheric melodies of "Feel First Life," Hopkins has crafted something that sounds at once nostalgic and futuristic, somber yet hopeful. Yet in a Christian tradition rightly focused on "the Word," can we find theology in a wordless piece of music? The classical symphonies of Bach and Mozart have long been celebrated for their theological richness and beauty. Might we draw similar conclusions with something like Singularity? A theology of revelation must encompass both the Word and the silence, both the singing and dancing of Psalm 149 and the "gentle whisper" of 1 Kings 19. Gregory of Nyssa once described creation as being in a cosmic harmony created and orchestrated by God, with human existence intended to be in sync with God's heart. With its thrumming rhythms and polyphony of harmonious ambient sounds, Singularity suggests that this divine song might be experienced even electronically. (Joel Mayward)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Live from the Ryman

Jason Isbell is rapidly convincing those paying attention that he is one of the most important American songwriters working right now. The funny thing is, he’s not even trying. Live from the Ryman captures Isbell and his flawless band, the 400 Unit, in top form, playing music that unselfconsciously melds rock and roll, roots country, folk, and blues, with lyrics that are deeply self-aware yet never preachy. Isbell’s public recovery from alcoholism, coupled with his observations about marriage and fatherhood, give his songs a unique level of resonance. His frequent exploration of spiritual ideas is especially refreshing—and challenging. He questions the eternal the way many recovering addicts do; like someone who’s been there. “I still have faith but I don’t know why,” Isbell sings on the deeply confessional “White Man’s World.” He may not have the answers, but he seems to sense that they do exist. That shred of faith in something bigger than the pain and decay he so beautifully chronicles is one of the things that makes his work so special. Established Isbell fans will appreciate this set for the way it adds value to songs we already know, while newcomers will find an excellent introduction to an artist that could very well be on his way to becoming this generation’s Neil Young, John Prine, or even Bruce Springsteen. He’s that good. (John J. Thompson)

Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

I hate country music. I say this to illustrate the magnitude of Kacey Musgraves’ triumph on Golden Hour. Not only has she crafted a country album that I actually like, but one that I would rank among the best of 2018. With lilting, singable melodies that strut (“Velvet Elvis”) and bend with melancholy twang (“Space Cowboy”), Golden Hour is a slow burn of tracks that call us to see the beauty of a changing world. Some of us cling to the past. Others want to control the future. Musgraves’ clear, unassuming voice calls out in the storm: “If you could see what I see, you’d be blinded by the colors...” (“Rainbow”). We are all so white-knuckled, holding on for dear life through the trials of school, family, career, and relationships. Golden Hour is a quiet invitation to let go: “When a horse wants to run, there ain’t no sense in closin’ the gate” (“Space Cowboy”). We can enjoy the golden hour that spans our short lives—a collision of past and future, of “happy and sad,” of loss and discovery—only when we are willing to live in the present. Here, in this moment, is where we savor the sovereign God who makes the sun rise and set and fills it all with the golden hue of his grace. (Chad Ashby)

Simple Minds, Walk Between Worlds

Still best known for “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”—one of the only songs the band did not write—2018 marked 40 years of “big music” for the Scottish band Simple Minds. They marked the occasion with a rousing world tour and a collection of brand new material: Walk Between Worlds. Still committed to the inner journey that makes life worth living and the communal experience that makes concerts worth attending, Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr has more to say to this fractured, fearful world. With production that harkens back to the days of big studios, layers of sound, and attention to detail, Kerr and original guitarist Charlie Burchill capture everything that has made Simple Minds so special for so long. There’s an aspirational quality to Simple Minds’ music that beckons the listener to imagine a bigger, more loving, more hopeful reality than the one seen with human eyes. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, faith is having confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see. Paul tells us that we live by faith, not by sight. Though their lyrics carefully avoid dogmatic specificity, this spiritual yearning has always been a big part of Simple Minds’ appeal, and has never been stronger than it is on Walk Between Worlds. (John J. Thompson)

The Tallest Man on Earth, When the Bird Sees the Solid Ground

Seeing our moments the way God sees them is a difficult task, but Kristian Matsson (also known as The Tallest Man on Earth) is giving it a go. The Swedish troubadour's latest project, When the Bird Sees the Solid Ground, is a five-song music video cycle that was created, directed, written, mastered, and shot by Matsson himself. The goal of the series is to push aside the time between writing songs and sharing them. The close framing and informal settings lend a sense of timeless immediacy to the project, as every song is experienced fresh off the strings. This level of unplugged intimacy is a refreshing change of pace from much of 2018's fine-tuned production and high-concept albums. The theme of the collection is clear, and echoes Ecclesiastes: there is a startling amount of beauty in each moment. When we slow down to recognize this, we see the God who holds our lives as precious and perfectly timed. Matsson's ode to vulnerability and presence is a striking digital artifact that is absolutely worth an hour away from the frantic thoughtlessness of our modern age. (Chris Wheeler)

Topics: Music