Best Albums of 2018

Every year I take some time to reflect back over my favorite new music from the past twelve months. (For a look at my favorite albums from previous years, click here.) Streaming giants like Spotify and Apple Music make the listening experience easier than ever — even if such services pay most artists a pittance to stream their songs. (See below.)

These are problems that can’t be solved here. But it’s a start to at least acknowledge them.

At any rate, the music of 2018 was mostly “meh” for me. For much of the year, nothing really grabbed me. I latched on to the new CHVRCHES when it came out in late spring; I discovered interesting artists like Khruangbin and Israel Nash; but I kept waiting for that one new album to really grab me from start to finish.

But in the final few months of the year, two albums emerged as favorites: one from a Fort Worth soul singer who performs in vintage clothing from the 1960s; the other from a Grammy-nominated CCM artist.

Best Albums of 2018

  1. Lauren Daigle, Look Up Child. Like many fans, “You Say” was my first introduction to Lauren Daigle. Admittedly, I don’t listen to much CCM, but I was bowled over by both the strength of her vocals and the depth of her lyrics. I heard “You Say” while I was preaching through a series on guilt and shame and her confessional lyrics — I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough — became something of a soundtrack as I reflected on those themes. But the song became deeply personal for me, too, prompting me to reflect deeply about my own inadequacies and shortcomings and the enormity of God’s sufficient love toward me anyway. When the full album was released in September, I did the full “deep dive” and discovered a treasure trove of similarly elegant ballads: “Rescue,” a promise of divine deliverance (I hear your S.O.S.); “Remember,” a declaration of God’s enduring faithfulness; and “Love Like This,” another rumination on the ineffable love of God. “Still Rolling Stones” is one of the few upbeat songs found here, reminiscent of 21-era Adele. But song pentameter aside, Daigle’s thesis is both hopeful and transcendent, communicated in both the album’s artwork and title: Look Up Child, a fitting message in these bleak times. Look Up Child is an incredible recording, my favorite album of 2018.
  2. Leon Bridges, Good Thing. Leon Bridges is more than a nostalgia artist. This seems to be the theme of his fantastic sophomore album, Good Thing, a fitting moniker for an LP chock full of earworm tunes like “Bad Bad News”, “Forgive You”, and “Beyond.” Sure, the Sam Cooke throwback sound is still there, but it is augmented by additional flourishes: the updated 70s funk/soul of “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be); the disco haze of “You Don’t Know”; and the modern R&B texture woven throughout the entire album. This is more than paying homage to the bygone days of Cooke and Redding; this is more of an update to those sounds, freshly rendered for the eclectic tastes of today’s playlists. Rarely has popular level music sounded so bright and vital. If you’re unfamiliar with Bridges, do yourself a favor and put this one on repeat. You won’t be disappointed.
  3. Israel Nash, Lifted. One reviewer used the term “folkadelic” to describe Nash’s sound, curated over his 10-year recording career. That’s an appropriate designation for Nash, a Texan singer-songwriter…only more Austin than Fort Worth. Nash’s website hails Lifted as a “modern day hippie-spiritual”, which also sounds about right. This album swings for the fences with anthemic choruses, orchestral backgrounds, and decidedly ambiguous lyrics. It mostly works, except for the occasional sunbeam reference. To get a feel for Lifted‘s aspirations, check out “Sweet Springs,” a delightfully beautiful song that sounds just like a summer day drenched in sunlight. What is the song about? I have no idea. But it sounds great.
  4. CHVRCHES, Love Is Dead. CHVRCHES have made their most accessible music to date, a synth-jam smorgasbord that my youngest son and I kept on repeat throughout the summer. Check out “Graffiti”, “Miracle” and “Get Out.”
  5. Jeff Tweedy, WARM. Between this album and Springsteen on Broadway, I’m up to my ears in late season confessionals from middle-aged rock stars. WARM is basically a Wilco album and I mean that as a compliment. Best track: “I Know What It’s Like.”
  6. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour. Since I don’t listen to any “mainstream” country music anymore, I have no idea if the bozos in Nashville are playing anything off of this album. (I want to believe there has been sufficient “bro country” pushback to warrant a sea change. But then I remember that Florida / Georgia Line is still a thing and my hopes are dashed.) No matter; I will fully own this next comment. This is, hands down, the best country music album of 2018.
  7. Khruangbin, Con Todo El Mundo. Psychedelic, soul funk, instrumental rock. Those are the genres listed on Khruangbin’s Wikipedia page. And they all fit. I know it sounds weird, but trust me: it works. This has been one of my go-to albums in my office this year.
  8. Wild Pink, Yolk in the Fur. My favorite ambient rock album of the year.
  9. Hush Kids, Hush Kids. If you’re like me and you still grieve the loss of The Civil Wars, you should really check out Hush Kids. They’re phenomenal. I came across this album late in the year, so it may rate even higher after I live with it for another few months.
  10. St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Young Sick Camellia. I love the soul sound St. Paul & the Broken Bones continue to cultivate. I thought this album would have benefited from tighter editing, but overall, a solid effort.
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An Interesting Take on the Lauren Daigle Controversy

I love Lauren Daigle’s music; her latest album, Look Up Child, is my favorite recording of the year. Daigle sparked a bit of a controversy recently by making an appearance on Ellen, hosted by Ellen Degeneres. A portion of her fanbase was appalled that Daigle would perform on a talk show hosted by an openly gay celebrity, leaving me to wonder if these same fans would express similar outrage if Daigle had performed on a program hosted by a famous heterosexual adulterer. Daigle’s answer to a direction question about the sinfulness of homosexuality has produced even more consternation among her fan base. 

I’m not going to be critical of Daigle for performing on Ellen. And even though it is easy to pick apart her statement in the Domenick Nati interview, I understand the fine line she is trying to walk. With this controversy taking on a life of its own, I found this New Wineskins article to be particularly thoughtful and gracious. If you’re following this story, you might benefit from Josh Daffern’s take here.

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Welcome to the fold, Paul Goldschmidt

Cardinals brass finally captured their white whale. About this time last offseason, the Cards were spurned in their efforts to acquire the current NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton, fresh off a 59 homer campaign in Miami. As a consolation prize, they settled for Marcell Ozuna, who had just wrapped up a career year himself. At the time, Cardinal fans believed the team had acquired the middle-of-the-order bat they coveted. 

But Ozuna’s wonky shoulder depressed his 2018 power numbers, leaving the team desperate to acquire yet ANOTHER big bat, either on the free agent market (thus those Harper rumors) or through trade. 

In Goldschmidt, the Cardinals have finally found their man, inarguably their most dynamic offensive centerpiece since Albert Pujols. Of course, caveats abound. The Cardinals surrendered a promising young 25-year-old hurler in Luke Weaver, “catcher of the future” Carson Kelly, a high-upside minor league infielder and a future draft pick. That’s more than a decade worth of controllable pieces in exchange for one year of Paul Goldschmidt. Goldy’s acquisition, while improving the team’s power and infield defense, does nothing to break up the glut of right-handed bats in the lineup. It also sets up a doozy of an offseason after the 2019 season — when both Goldschmidt and Ozuna can test the open market. The Cardinals are gambling that Goldschmidt will go the way of Mark McGwire and Matt Holliday by signing a long-term deal after becoming enamored of the team’s culture and tradition. Of course, that doesn’t always work out. 

Regardless, Christmas has seemingly come early for this Cardinal fan. If the Cardinals make no further upgrades to the lineup this offseason, they already have a formidable heart of the order in Goldschmidt / Ozuna / Matt Carpenter (36HR, .523SLG) / Jose Martinez (assuming Martinez isn’t a defensive nightmare in RF). They still need to add a couple of bullpen arms and you can never have enough starting pitching, but this is a mighty fine way to kickstart the offseason. 

Welcome to the fold, Paul Goldschmidt. 

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Happy Thanksgiving 2018

2018 Turkey Trot at UAH

This morning I ran the Turkey Trot with my daughter. Just a few months ago, she was confined to a walking boot after surgery on her right foot. Today we ran / walked / ran some more / walked some more our first 5K together — the Turkey Trot on the campus of the University of Alabama Huntsville. I’ve been running this race for years — it’s a great way to burn off some calories before our annual feast. But today was the start of what we hope is a new father-daughter tradition. We agreed that this would be “our thing” together. I’m so proud of this little girl who is growing into a beautiful young woman. I’m looking forward to the day when she’s the one encouraging this old man as he limps to the finish line (see that grey in the beard there! HA!). 

Lots to be thankful for tonight. Happy Thanksgiving 2018. 

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Eugene Peterson

Last week, the church said goodbye to one of her most important contemporary voices. Eugene Peterson — pastor, professor, and author of The Message — passed away at the age of 85. 

I would count Peterson as one of my favorite authors — and one of my greatest influences. His pastoral theology series continues to be a source of wisdom just as his spiritual theology series continues to inspire. I have an open note in Evernote for my favorite Peterson quotes. Here are a few: 

The most important question we ask as we read is not “What does it mean?” but “How can I live it?” 

This is the hermeneutic Peterson always puts before us. He’s as well schooled as anybody when it comes to “What does it mean?” And his scholarship has helped more than a few young seminarians like me come up with some important answers to that question. But this question is always in service to the second question, the “How can I live it?” question. In one of his later works, Peterson writes about his Pentecostal upbringing. Although he has a few critiques of the tradition of his youth, he notes that Pentecostals are fiercely devoted to the idea that every last detail of the Book is intended to be lived. And with that simple stroke of his pen, I gained a deeper understanding. How can I live it? 

When God forms a church, he starts with the nobodies. 

There’s an underdog quality to some of Peterson’s writing. He’s a pastor for people who don’t like pastors. And I love that he’s always reminding us of the renegade nature of Jesus. 

Salvation is not a one-night stand. It is an all-encompassing commitment. 

Earlier this year, I read Peterson’s autobiography, “The Pastor.” I think anyone would benefit greatly from reading it, but I found it to be a profound statement on the state of the North American church from one who spent a lifetime holding her up. Rather than being a crowd, the church is a community. Peterson’s wisdom will be sorely missed, at least by this young minister. 

At his memorial service, Eugene’s son, Leif, noted that his father only had one sermon. 

They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling something fresh and making them think it was just for them. They didn’t know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret. For 50 years you steal into my room at night and whispered softly to my sleeping head. It’s the same message over and over: “God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless.” 

Leif Peterson, at Eugene’s memorial service

What a fitting epitaph: God loves you. He’s on your side. He’s coming after you. He’s relentless. 


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My Birthday Gift

I have the coolest family. Now to start building up my vinyl collection a little more. 

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MLB 2018 In Review

We’ve entered into the dark night of the sports calendar for me — the long winter the precedes that February date when pitchers and catchers report for next season. With no baseball to watch and no substantive free-agent signing rumors to digest, it’s time for a look back on the MLB season that was. Way back on Opening Day, I made my predictions for the upcoming season. (For the original article, go here.) In the AL, I pegged the Yankees, Indians, and Astros to win their respective divisions with Boston and Minnesota emerging as Wild Card winners. I was wrong about Minnesota — and I sure didn’t see the A’s winning 97 games — but I nailed the other playoff teams. Sure, I had the Yankees winning their division — I also didn’t see this particular Red Sox team becoming one of the best teams we’ve ever seen — but overall, this looks pretty good in hindsight. In the National League, I prognosticated the Nats, Cubs, and Dodgers as division winners with St. Louis and Arizona as your wild card teams. Only the Cubs and Dodgers made the playoffs and only L.A. won their division as I predicted. In the East, I expected the Braves to still be a year away — as did most folks, Braves fans included. But their young talent played up early and the Nationals were inconsistent all season long. Out West, I erroneously marked Colorado down as a 2017 one-hit wonder. Of course, all they did was go out and win a wild card spot and oust the Cubs from the playoffs. I truly thought the Cardinals would contend and they were in it until the final week of the season, but Milwaukee filled that spot and looks poised to contend for the next several seasons. Here are my hardware previews. These are the guys I would vote for if I had a vote in the upcoming MLB honors.

American League MVP

Throughout the postseason, broadcasters hailed Boston’s Mookie Betts as the likely A.L. MVP. For good reason: he led the majors in batting average and slugging percentage. He was tied for the lead in runs scored. He had a 30-30 season for one of the best teams in MLB history. So he’ll probably win the award. But if I had a vote, I’d cast it for Mike Trout. Simply put, he’s the best player in the game and it feels wrong to give this award to anyone else. Trout actually edges out Betts to lead the majors in OBP, thanks to being intentionally walked more than any player in the game. He also leads the majors in OPS, the single-metric most sabermatricians use to gauge a hitter’s true value. He put up his own power-speed combo numbers (39HR, 24SB) to boot. In fact, his WAR is comparable to Betts’ while accruing 50 fewer at-bats. Take Betts out of the Boston lineup and they still score plenty. Take Trout out of the Angels lineup and they’re the worst team in baseball. Honorable mention also goes to Jose Ramirez for a fantastic season in Cleveland, but if I had a vote, I would cast it for Trout.

American League Cy Young

Before he missed a few weeks down the stretch, I thought this was an easy vote for Chris Sale. But the time he missed in August and September really impacted his season totals: only 158 IP, which seems a little light for a Cy Young winner. That essentially makes this a four-man race: Sale, Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, and Blake Snell. Verlander and Kluber are the volume producers here. Both aces threw over 200 innings. Both allowed less than one baserunner per inning. Verlander struck out 290 batters in his first full season in Houston while Kluber went 20-7 for the Indians. Both hurlers have ERAs under 3.00. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the two — they were both truly excellent all season long. Then there’s Sale, who struck out more batters per 9 innings than any pitcher in baseball. Despite pitching 60 fewer innings than either Verlander or Kluber, Sale’s WAR is actually higher, due to the fact that his ratio statistics are so much better. His 0.86 WHIP would have led the league and his 2.11 ERA would have been second if he had amassed enough innings to qualify. Sale didn’t pitch as much as some other aces this year but when he took the mound, he was dominant. And then there’s Blake Snell, Tampa’s seemingly out-of-nowhere wunderkind ace. Snell led the majors in wins with 21 — and yes, that still ought to count for something, even if it was an overvalued statistic when I was growing up. Anyone who can win 20+ ball games on THAT team deserves some hardware consideration. Snell’s 1.89 ERA led the league and he recorded over 200 strikeouts in 180 innings. Snell’s season was superb and, in the wake of Sale’s late season DL stint, I think he pitched well enough to win this award. He’d get my vote.

American League Rookie of the Year

Shohei Ohtani. What he did was really, really special. It’s a shame his elbow injury will keep him off the mound for the next year or so. Not since Babe Ruth has a player been this kind of two-way threat.

National League MVP

In early September, I would have argued for Matt Carpenter in this space due to two factors. One, there was no clearcut favorite among the NL contenders. But just as importantly, Carpenter was the catalyst for the Cardinals’ second half sprint back into contention. After being left for dead midseason, the Cardinals caught fire in July and August and were in Wild Card contention until the last week of the season. But that last week still counts and St. Louis completely disappeared while the Brewers stormed their way to the top of the division, earning the #1 seed in the NL playoff bracket. And they were led by Christian Yelich, who led the league in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. He scored 118 runs and stole 22 bases. Honorable mention goes to Javier Baez and Freddie Freeman for great seasons on contending clubs. But this award deservedly goes to Yelich.

National League Cy Young

Jacob DeGrom. Max Scherzer. Aaron Nola. You could really make an argument for any of the three. Scherzer won 18 games and led the majors with 300 strikeouts. Nola won 17 games for a contending Phillies squad and led the majors in WAR for pitchers with 10.5. And DeGrom compiled a sparkling 1.70 ERA. How he only won 10 games is a testament to the complete ineptitude of the Mets lineup all year long. So I have no idea who wins this one. Scherzer has already won three of these awards, which may help him or may hurt him. All three hurlers topped the 200 innings threshold (something only seven NL pitchers accomplished in this era of the bullpen) and all three surpassed 200 strikeouts. If I had a vote, I’d cast it for DeGrom. But I wouldn’t argue if any of the three were to win.

National League Rookie of the Year

It’s a shame we can’t recognize the greatness of both Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Juan Soto, because both of these young outfielders really deserve to be praised. Both of them had AMAZING rookie seasons. Awards like this were created to honor this kind of greatness. But unless something fluky happens and they happen to tie, only one will walk away with the award. In that case, I’d have to give it to Acuna. Not only do his counting stats speak for themselves, but he served as a sparkplug atop the Atlanta lineup, leading them back to the playoffs. Expect both of these outfielders to be fixtures in the National League East for the next decade.
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