Best Conventional Worship – Citizens: The Joy of Being
Citizens blend the worship elements of their earlier releases with some of the more artisan elements of their more recent project for a result that is undeniably worship but distinctively refined all the same. It’s an album that feels humble, if not wounded, at times. But there are a few poppier moments mixed in as well, leaving a bit for fans of any of their releases.
Highlight lyric: Through our joys and in our griefs / You have led us to believe / The wisdom of Your ways
Best Commentary – Former Ruins: Large Startling
There are plenty of reasons to love this record, be it the blend of post-punk and folk, the looming epic of “Slow Embrace (When Dylan Dies)”, Matt Berninger-esque vocals, or the causal use of negative space. But the most striking element of Former Ruins’ debut is the lyrical commentary. The self-described post-cynical project delves into equal parts WWJD critique and Augustinian confession. The lyrics are so thought-out they are accompanied by an annotation booklet, and there’s a lot to appreciate in the subtleties. Yet even on the surface, the record deals with weighty topics of deconstruction and the beacon call of the Cross.
Highlight lyric: But something said in Gethsemane / It’s never left me / It’s something I haven’t found easy to shake / When I was caught in adultery / I saw him drawing me into / A large startling figure 8
Best Concept Record – Dens: Taming Tongues
One of the things that surprised me time and time again this year was how albums written over several years spoke so well into the events we’ve seen. In this way, they were less predictive and more of a timeless challenge against the cyclical patterns of human nature. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there’s nothing new under the sun. It would seem that the sun shone a bit bright this year. Naturally, an album about the power of language and the destructive capacity they hold has a particular relevance to a year defined by people demonizing one another, countless attacks against the first amendment by both parties, and an even greater distortion of the meaning of words themselves. It is frankly a confusing time to be alive in many respects. But it’s also a challenge for us to take every motive and word captive. Dens reminds us that the Word of God was the origin of existence, and if we are to take part in His redemptive story, our words matter too.
Highlight lyric: If our actions always contradict / Every word flowing from our lips / Who are we then? Who are we then?
Best New Artist – Trulah: Prologue
You may curse streaming all you want, but it’s consistently the way I discover new artists. Trulah is one such new discovery, and I cannot say enough about this release. The songs themselves are adorned in Scripture; the interludes provide ample context and point listeners to Christ. This description might give you a picture of a worship album, and in some ways it is. But at its core is a soulful, big-band sound with Trulah’s soaring voice at the center of it all. These are songs of hope, pain, and endurance. These are songs about loving the Lord, not just the things He provides. These are songs about the futility of our efforts and the mercy of trials. All of these themes are adorned in brass and captivating grooves. This is certainly a rare release that you’ll need to check out.
Highlight lyric: Seasons come with meanings, though sometimes we just don’t know / Too much sun could dry up everything that’s found below
Best Legacy Artist – Emery: White Line Fever
I described White Line Fever as Emery’s most “adult contemporary” release. That probably says more about me than them, to be honest. The album is more piano-driven than many other releases, and that’s exciting to me. The lyrics tackle the band’s early days, including their move to Seattle, relational struggles, tour mishaps, and more – and these personal sentiments only feel more powerful with some sad keys behind them. Rest assured, the band still knows how to rock when needed, and there are a few more standard Emery tracks here. But much of the screaming is gone this time around. Maybe I just enjoy it because I’m getting old? I’ve lost a bit of interest in Emery over the past albums, but this one certainly stands out.
Highlight lyric: A triumph and a tragedy, the scars remind but they will never heal
Best Singer-Songwriter – Benjamin Daniel: Shaping Season
Growing up with a penchant for punk music, the singer-songwriter label always conjured connotations of boring, soulless songs and painful open mics. That’s simply not the case for most of the genre, and Benjamin Daniel certainly exemplifies this. This is the first part of an astonishing two-disk release, and it’s filled with heart-wrenching moments, reminders of God’s providence, and accounts of ordinary life in a broken world. It’s painfully-vulnerable, but the title track remains one of the most beautiful records of grace I’ve seen this year.
Highlight lyric: Life’s a middle chapter / Break for what’s before / Ache for what’s after
Best Rock Band – American Arson: A Line In The Sand
This Detroit duo’s first full-length can only be described as “highly-anticipated”. Following four EPs and a few covers after their inception, the band finally released a proper album – and it’s their most expansive work to date. It’s certainly a bit of a change of pace from earlier releases, seeing the group add in screaming, synthesizers, and production nuances to round off their sound. It’s a solid release with plenty of energy and a fair bit of socio-political commentary the band is known for.
Highlight lyric: Lately / I’ve felt those apparitions try to take me / But I know when you wrap your love around me / The sky might crack, the sun may fade away / But I’m gonna stay / Unbreakable
Best Late Entry – Wade Walker: The Harrow
Okay, I made up a category to include this release – but I find it very important that I do so. Although I discovered this release fairly recently, it’s certainly special in many of the same ways other albums on this list are. It’s rife with poetry and praise. It’s genuine, catchy, fun, and worshipful all at once. If you’re looking for a blue collar take on a genre typically subordinate to corporate purposes, this will serve as a proper respite for you.
Highlight lyric: You’re so much more than religion to me / You’re the bread and the wine and the currency
Best Instrumental – Solae: Origins
Naturally, instrumental music is not my go-to. There’s a reason I’m calling out lyrics from each release. I think and live in language. Listening to instrumental music tends to be more stressful as a result – my brain wants to fill in the missing parts. However, I recognize I’m an anomaly in some sense here and there’s definitely a reason “chill beats to study to” has been trending lately. Enter Solae, a lofi Christian project from the UK. Their debut release is based off the days of creation described in Genesis, and each track has production elements tied to its corresponding day. If you’re looking for something a little different to chill out to, check this out for yourself.
Best Single – Andy Squyres: Dead Horse
In total, I’ve listened to Andy Squyres probably more than any other artist this year (much of that has been via an old device called a CD admittedly). “Dead Horse” is a painful confession of hope. It’s a plea for endurance in trials. Its lyrics are, dare I say, startling – miscarriages and liquor aisles are far from standard themes in Christian music. But it’s this level of reality that makes the lyrics here so compelling.
Highlight lyric: Still praise is the song that I’m singing / Even though sorrow’s my tune / My love is only a whisper now / But nothing is wasted with you