2018 is coming to a close and with that comes year-end reviews and ratings of albums. Here I’m going to be listing LPs and EPs in three categories: My Favourites in Christian music from this year, Other Notable Releases that will probably top other people’s lists, and finally Most Disappointing Releases. These ratings are, of course, subjective and reflect a lot of my own personal opinions, but that’s what you are usually getting in these kinds of lists. If you disagree, that’s what the comment section is there for.
These are in no particular order!
EDIT: Also feel free to enjoy songs from each of these releases via this Spotify playlist!
My Favourite Christian Music of 2018
Elevation Collective – “Evidence”
NEXT STEPS: Young Adult Ministry Training
While culture wars between CCM and Gospel are peppered across the Christian landscape, Elevation Collective managed to bring together big Gospel music names to put genre-bending spins on some of the most popular Elevation Worship songs, to phenomenal effect. These progressive arrangements travel through styles seamlessly and create a really cross-cultural statement without shortchanging either side of the equation.
Tori Kelly – “Hiding Place”
It’s a great Tori Kelly album and a really good Kirk Franklin album. Vocal chops, songwriting, instrumentation that seamlessly blends gospel and pop with hip hop production styles. Good revival of some classic gospel music tropes without sounding dated. Musicianship is impressive at every turn.
Jonathan McReynolds – “Make Room”
We’ve recently seen a spike in people crossing over between the “acoustic singer songwriting” and gospel genres, and Jonathan McReynolds might be one of the best among them. His vocal performances are absolutely soaring and crystal clear, and the songwriting is as thoughtful as we would come to expect from McReynolds.
Silent Planet – “When The End Began“
I don’t think that anyone ten years ago would have guessed that the most socially conscious voice in metalcore would be a Christian spoken word poet, but Garret Russel and company have made this a reality. Who would have guessed that breakdowns and lyrics with footnotes would be such a winning combination? While not being a Christian market band, faith, scripture, and Jesus are the clear reference points across all of these songs. The atmospheric, ambient passages are as haunting as ever, and the heavy sections are delivering everything the moshpit could want. This is also the strongest album for Silent Planet vocally – with both sung and screamed vocals sounding mature and well-developed.
Hillsong Young & Free – “III”
Y&F is the most underrated Hillsong group and their songwriting is top tier. It’s amazing that they get written off by worship leaders, since they have way more than just their turn up anthems. Their slower paced worship songs sometimes outshine the output of United, and they even re-did “Jesus Loves Me” in a way that actually added something valuable to a classic and successfully modernized it. That is a tall order, but Y&F did it. And they’re maybe the only “worship” group right now that is still intentionally and purposefully writing congregational fast songs.
Fit For A King – “Dark Skies”
This band has come a long way and delivered their best album since Slave To Nothing, sometimes even coming close to surpassing it, which is saying a lot. Dark Skies sees FFAK achieving new levels of heaviness and new melodic highlights. That might be a generic set of goals for a metalcore band, but it does mean that they do excel at what they set out to do.
Koryn Hawthorne – “Unstoppable”
In my initial review of this album I was really warm towards it. Repeat listens have revealed that overall the album is a little on the short side and has a lot of room for growth. But the content that is there is good. It’s enjoyable, represents a forward-looking take on gospel music that integrates seamlessly with current hip-hop production techniques, and of course has one of the biggest Christian hit songs of this decade – Won’t He Do It. With one song, Koryn Hawthorne has managed to bridge together worship and a meme into a song so darn good that it still manages to outside its downright awful music video.
Thrice – “Palms”
This is a solid rock release with post-hardcore trappings, and the songwriting is social conscious, spiritual, introspective, honest, and poetic. The best thing that Dustin Kensrue and his bandmates have done with this album is write every last musical detail in service of the needs of each song. There is very little room for superfluity. To use a line from the album, “everything belongs.” It might not be the most ambitious album of the year, but it is honest and fresh.
Other notable releases you might have liked:
Andy Mineo – “II: The Sword”
It’s far from Mineo’s greatest release, but it has lots of fun moments and plenty of the sincerity and humor that he has become known for. Mineo’s creativity hasn’t dried up yet, and he managed to make a stronger release by wisely limiting himself to an EP, instead of over-stretching his creative output like Lecrae did.
For King & Country “Burn The Ships”
This is fun, plays with current electronic production styles and is a very up to date take on more experimental pop. It’s definitely staying safely within the confines of trends, but those trends happen to be sonically cutting edge which makes for a generally unpredictable listen.
Hillsong Worship “There Is More”
It’s Hillsong. If they know how to do one thing, it’s consistency. They’re good at what they do and they delivered some worship hits, whatever that means. You’ll probably find yourself singing the opening track at church at some point. Predictably good.
Jonathan Nelson “Declarations”
This is a solid gospel album. It feels slightly more traditional – which is probably a good thing when compared against some of the less successful experimentations other artists in the genre have been trying this decade. The arrangements for each song keep the record feeling fresh and lively throughout the whole run time, and in general each song has a unique flavour.
Francesca Battistelli – “Own It”
It’s a good pop record! She treads some stereotypical territory but she manages to mix up genres and have her own sound. The songwriting and vocal performances are solid overall, and the subject matter is varied enough to feel multi-dimensional. Battistelli manages to slot in some contemporary worship songs between very current sounding upbeat pop anthems.
Most Disappointing Christian Music of 2018
P.O.D – “Circles”
When “Murdered Love” dropped a few years ago I was left with high hopes that the post-Jason Truby era of P.O.D would continue making great records, returning to Marcos Curiel’s guitar styles that made them popular in the first place. Instead, we got 2015’s “The Awakening” – a jumbled and confusing record with half-formed ideas, only to be followed by “Circles” this year. This album is admittedly better than the Awakening, but it ends up being too much of a pop record to really measure up to great albums like Satellite or Testify. The guitars are especially minimalistic, in the least meaningful way. From the very opening, they undersell the intensity of the songs they’re meant to serve. The choruses on these songs are lackluster. Stylistically, everything here feels like retreating to territory the band has already covered, except for their more adventurous, genre-bending moments. It revisits everything that was safe about their previous material. Panic Attack and Listening For The Silence are standout songs that manage to rise to the level of previous P.O.D classics, but the pop cuts on this fall short of their best radio singles.
Lauren Daigle – “Look Up Child”
I understand that for many people, Christian Adele’s latest release might be “album of the year” material, but this album was pretty boring to me. Incredibly predictable pop songwriting littered with lyrical clichés at every turn, and very blatantly Adele-coded sonic soundscapes that turn the whole record into 50% musical statement and 50% marketing ploy. You cannot listen to Still Rolling (!!!!) and not immediately recognize that it is just Rolling In The Deep rewritten for a vaguely Christian audience. I have no doubt that Daigle herself is 100% sincere about her art, but that sincerity has been capitalized on to create the kind of disappointing hyper-commercial copy-cat pop that makes Christian music often so cringe-inducing, sanitized, and unoriginal.
Lecrae x Zaytoven – “Let The Trap Say Amen”
I’ve already expressed this, but this album is really weak coming up so quickly on the tail of All Things Work Together. Lecrae followed one of his strongest albums immediately with one of his weakest. Individual songs from the former album like Facts and Hammer Time managed to go harder than an entire album dedicated to being as Trap as possible. Lecrae managed to do an album that was weaker than his mixtapes (which, admittedly, are unreasonably and disrespectfully good). There were some fun songs on it, but as a whole project it falls a bit flat. Anthony Fantano already asked in 2017 if we had reached “peak trap” – and it’s quite likely that we’re near the point of subgenre over-saturation.
That’s it for me. What were some of your favorite albums of 2018?