The Best Music of 2019

The Avett Brothers, Closer Than Together

The Avett Brothers may not have made the kind of music most critics swoon for on their 10th studio album, Closer Than Together, but its combination of diverse Americana sounds, relentlessly introspective and honest lyrics, and richly holistic spirituality is more than enough to land it at the top of my list for 2019. Though the raw rock energy of “Bleeding White” and the pure pop brilliance of “Tell The Truth” and “High Steppin’” make them go-tos for playlists of all stripes, the plaintive and theologically apt “We Americans” just won’t leave me alone. Its impossibly balanced combination of reverence, lament, hopefulness, confession, and rebuke place it squarely amongst the great protest spirituals of the folk and civil rights era. The Avetts’ ethos is one of expansive grace that makes more than enough room for a wide-angle view on humor, pain, faith, anger, loneliness, and the awkward proximity of family. Thus, even when the melody gets bouncy and childlike, as on the cheeky “C Sections and Railway Trestles,” it never comes off as saccharine sweet. This is honest, human music in all of its imperfect, optimistic glory. (John J. Thompson)

Bon Iver, i,i

Glory and humility: two words Christians regularly invoke, yet struggle to reconcile. How do we approach the former while preserving the latter? Justin Vernon poses an answer on the latest offering from his Bon Iver project. i,i (pronounced “I comma I”) expresses awe at the enormity and intricacy of the world, then converts that awe into wonder that we are allowed to take and make meaning from all this goodness. The album sounds exactly like the natural phenomenon it describes: electronic and acoustic sounds replicate hard ground thawing beneath the sun’s kindness, or imitate fronts colliding to create a sweet and satisfying storm. Things on earth might not be quite as they are in heaven, but it sounds as though the divine is breaking through. In recognizing that which is bigger—and smaller—than himself, Vernon echoes Psalm 8: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” With Vernon and Bon Iver, we feel all the strangeness of our status in the world. We sing along to songs that revel in complicated, beautiful truths. We were made to create and recreate, yet we are never in control, not even for a moment. (Aarik Danielsen)

HeeSun Lee, Flying Cars

From its sci-fi cover art to its title, Flying Cars, HeeSun Lee’s new album, casts a vision for a future in which Asian-American Christians are centered, seen, and thriving. This new EP is intensely personal and chronicles much of Lee’s own story. Put up for adoption in her native country of Korea at the age of four months, she was brought to America and raised by Chinese parents on Staten Island. Throughout her life, she’s wrestled with everything from cultural identity and faith to what it looks like to be a “mommy rapper.” Flying Cars packs a punch with strong rhymes, catchy beats, and personal lyrics. At times, Lee even flows in and out of Korean. Right from the opening song, “Future,” she says, “Here’s a female rapper doin’ it right.” But HeeSun’s bristling bars throughout the first single are proof that while she clearly dreams for a better future, there’s still work to be done. This is her bold proclamation that the struggle is real, but it’s worth it. Flying Cars is both accessible and inspiring, and an important addition to Christian hip hop. (Michelle Reyes)

Lizzo, Cuz I Love You

Lizzo is having the best year of her musical life. She has been nominated for eight Grammys, while “Truth Hurts,” from Cuz I Love You, spent seven weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100. Like Lizzo herself, Cuz I Love You defies easy categorization. Lizzo sings, raps, and plays the flute. The album is pop, hip-hop, and R&B. It is self-reflective and celebratory, irreverent and important. Songs like “Truth Hurts” and “Soulmate” preach self-love and acceptance. In a recent interview in British Vogue, Lizzo stated she isn’t trying to sell herself, but is “trying to sell you, you.” Perhaps that is really the secret of her success: telling her fans they do not need to lose weight, buy the latest fashions or skincare products, or have the perfect boyfriend to be beautiful and worthy of their place in the world. Cuz I Love You should remind the church that all of those who are saved by grace are not just to be tolerated, but actually have a place of belonging in the household of faith. Women, singles, the differently abled, people of color, and the working class are not junior varsity Christians. We are all God’s workmanship, and through him we are enough. (Kathryn Freeman)

Solange, When I Get Home

In 2016, Solange released A Seat at the Table, an album that was stunning in its reflections on the anger, exhaustion, and sorrow of the African-American experience. When I Get Home presents the flip side of that experience: the joy and hope of our triumphs. “Binz” is a lighthearted song about the “sun in Saint Laurent” and “big spendin.” The life Solange celebrates here bears little resemblance to the portrayals of black poverty that often populate the media. While the racial wealth gap should be addressed and black poverty is real, it is not the only story of black life in America. Houston’s Almeda Road is a good analogy for the ongoing legacy of Jim Crow on black life in the United States; the road separated the Third Ward, a black neighborhood, from Houston's white neighborhoods. Yet on “Almeda,” Solange celebrates the distinctive culture that arose along that road: chopped and screwed hip hop, “black skin, black braids ... black-owned things.” For African-American Christians, When I Get Home is an exhortation that in this world we may have trouble, but we are not without hope. As Solange reminds us on “Almeda,” “black faith still can’t be washed away.” It is possible to experience the joy of the Lord in the midst of suffering; in fact, that may be how we recognize it as from the Lord, as it defies human understanding. (Kathryn Freeman)

Vampire Weekend, Father of the Bride

In the chorus of "This Life," on Vampire Weekend's Father of the Bride, lead singer Ezra Koenig repeatedly belts out a question as the drums build to a driving crescendo: "I've been cheating through this life and all its suffering / Oh Christ, am I good for nothing?" The meaning of "Christ" in the question is unclear. Is this a curse word or a prayerful plea, blasphemy or reverence? This intentional spiritual ambiguity permeates the whole of Father of the Bride—it's a recognition of the world's brokenness and a longing for hope and redemption, yet all sung with a smirk and twinkle in Koenig's eye. At once effervescent and existential, Father of the Bride is Vampire Weekend's most mature album to date in its willingness to embrace paradox and mystery with bright summery tones. (Joel Mayward)

Kanye West, Sunday Services

The curious conversion of Kanye West kicked into high gear in 2019. His album, Jesus Is King, marked the rap superstar’s full foray into gospel music. Since its release, Ye has embarked on a rebranding tour that has included performing for prison inmates, speaking at megachurches, composing an original opera inspired by the Book of Daniel, and recording clean renditions of his earlier hits. This new Kanye notably debuted in earnest at this year’s Coachella, where he hosted an Easter morning worship service to cap the otherwise secular music festival. Accompanied by a band, a sizeable gospel choir, and a collection of praise dancers, Kanye provided the 50,000 in attendance (and the countless watching the livestream from home) a taste of the traveling Sunday Services he’d been leading for several weeks prior. Like those services, the Coachella performance showcased a spiritual and relatively humble Kanye—more choir director than MC—who dressed down, stepped aside, and allowed the music and its message to take center stage. For many, the motives behind these shows remain suspect, especially when there’s money to be made. For others, the services promote a joyful glorification of God and provide an outlet for genuine Christian fellowship. If nothing else, they ensure that, whatever your stance on Kanye’s conversion, Jesus remains in the conversation. (D. Marquel)

Topics: Music