12 Reasons Why Christians Should Pursue Racial Justice & Social Change

i cant breathe
Image via Jonathan Merritt

One of the most contentious debates in white evangelical churches regards the role of Christ’s people in advocacy for the poor and the marginalized, and witness-bearing against systematic injustice and oppression. Does the Church have a “spiritual mission,” prescribed narrowly as worship and evangelism? Or does her commission from Christ her King also encompass concerns of “social justice,” and racial justice in particular?

I will argue that the pursuit of racial justice, far from being a distraction to the Church’s mission, is actually mission-critical; and that it flows logically from what we believe about Jesus, what we believe about humanity, and what we believe about the Bible.

That the church can and must advocate for fair laws, equitable treatment of all divine image-bearers, and the dismantling of racist and abusive systems is not lost on the black church, which fueled the Civil Rights movement and continues to model faithful witness and activism. For many white evangelicals, concerns of racial justice and its intersection with Christian practice have taken on renewed urgency following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. 

So, then: Christian, why must we pursue a broad ecclesial vision of racial justice in the name of Christ our King?

1) Because God loves justice

The laws of God are a gift to us because they tell us what God is like. He commands us not to lie because he is a God who delights in truth; he commands us not to steal because he relishes in giving us good gifts, supplying everything we need. So what are we to make of the laws of God as they pertain to treatment of the poor and the marginalized? How God exhorts his people (for example) to seek justice on behalf of immigrants and orphans (Deut. 24:17), or how he mandates that the needs of the poor be met from the resources of the community (Lev. 23:22)? God does not generate rules because he loves the paperwork, or because he wishes to make our lives as cumbersome as possible. Rather, his statutes reveal his heart, and thus provide us a way of being close to him: By caring about what he cares about and loving what he loves. Specifically, the laws of God show us that he delights in justice and is steadfast in his compassion for the disenfranchised. ¹

2) God commands us to love justice, too

Of course, we might also advocate for justice for the reason many of us learn in Sunday School: Because the Bible tells us so. Throughout the Bible, we see that advocacy for justice in a social context provides us the rules of the road, the code of behavior for our life as citizens in Christ’s Kingdom. “Learn to do good,” God instructs us through his prophet Isaiah. “Seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). In Proverbs, we are called upon to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). While white evangelicals may sometimes pick and choose pet sins and moral crusades based on political affiliation or cultural preference, substituting their priorities for God’s, the Old Testament prophets offer a clear and consistent witness that God’s wrath has been kindled by his people’s failure to act justly toward the oppressed. Amos 5:11-15 finds God rebuking his people in devastating terms, beginning with the phrase “because you trample on the poor” and ending with an admonishment to “establish justice.” Christ himself instructed those who’d follow him to foreground the interests of the marginalized (Matthew 25:31-46, among others). Given the acute perils faced by African-Americans, including violence-based policing, we can surely list them among those for whom Jesus advocates special concern.

3) Justice is essential for worship

We do not have to choose between a robust vision of corporate worship and a robust advocacy for justice; in fact, this false dichotomy is unmoored from the witness of the Bible, which teaches us that the work of justice is the only context in which godly worship can happen. In Amos 5:21-24, God’s people come to him in song, prayer, and sacrifice; but because they have neglected the poor in their midst, God rejects their worship completely! Our King offers no quarter for sanctuaries full of piety when we’re neglectful in cultivating the surrounding streets and neighborhoods. Such is not the pure, undefiled religion of James 1:27, but rather it is pointless vanity. Justice doesn’t take us away from worship; instead, it makes our worship pleasing and acceptable to God.

4) Justice flows from our anger, lament, and repentance

There is only one Christian response to the murder of George Floyd, the continuation of unchecked police brutality, and the other issues being litigated by the Black Lives Matter movement: A combination of holy indignation and lament as we see what’s become of our Father’s good and beautiful world, and as we consider the descrecration of those children he has made in his image. This might lead us to a posture of repentance ² for our own complicity in what’s happened to God’s very good world, and toward the ways in which we have allowed the idols of white supremacy to proliferate in our lives and our churches. The work of justice provides a channel for all of this, a place for us to direct our anger, our lament, and our repentance as we show that we are serious about mortifying sin. In recognition of the evil and inequity in our culture and in our own hearts, the pursuit of justice is how we “go and sin no more.”

5) Christians are pro-life

Tim Keller has noted that the early church was perceived as radically counter-cultural for five different reasons: It was radically multi-ethnic; it was radically anti-abortion and anti-infanticide; it was radical in its commitment to monogamous, consensual sexual ethics; it was radical in its advocacy for the poor among us; and it was radical in its commitment to non-retaliation. These are not five unrelated values, but rather reflect a consistent worldview that seeks at every turn to honor divine image bearers, make human flourishing the guiding principle, and reflect the love of our Father at every stage of life, including our treatment of the unborn, our treatment of those who sin against us, and our treatment of those of a different gender or a different race. You cannot say that your anti-abortion position alone qualifies you as pro-life, any more than your stance against racism qualifies you as an advocate for justice; Christians must consistently esteem human life from the womb to the tomb, and advocate for the dignity of image-bearers through protections of the unborn, through access to equitable healthcare, through a rebuke of punitive or retaliatory criminal justice systems, and through clear witness against state-sanctioned violence and abuse.

6) We believe in the Imago Dei

Can we make a distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy; between having a correct theology and behaving righteously in our worldly interactions? No, we cannot, for a right theology about humans being made in God’s image (the Imago Dei ³) and being precious in his sight is precisely what compels us into advocacy on behalf of the oppressed. Our pursuit of racial justice is what tells the unbelieving world where Christians stand with regard to the inherent beauty and dignity of our neighbors, and about the loveliness bestowed on us by our Creator. It is an expression of our most central doctrinal beliefs. Those who would take a stance against ‘social justice’ are not acting from a place of heightened theological awareness or purity, but rather they are operating from a theological deficiency: They either do not believe rightly about the Imago Dei, or they do not believe it at all.

7) We believe in corporate sin

American culture’s elevation of individualism has discipled many of us into thinking that sin is strictly a personal matter; that we are responsible for our own breaches of God’s holiness, but not the breaches of our neighbors. The Bible paints a very different picture, reminding us throughout its pages that we can be complicit and culpable in national, generational, or corporate sins, and that we can incur God’s judgment for the wrongdoing of those who have gone before us. (Consider such passages as Leviticus 26:39, Psalm 106:6, Jeremiah 14:20, and the entireties of both Ezekiel and Nehemiah, prophetic narratives that center on ancestral sin.) Likewise, Christians affirm that sin has impacted all aspects of our life and our world, not just our personal actions but also our civic institutions, our bodies, and the environment itself; there is nothing that is untainted by death and decay. Thus, white evangelicals who deny their personal culpability in racial injustice are making an argument that the Bible doesn’t allow for, and those who deny the reality of systematic or institutionalized sin betray a very soft view of sin in general. The Bible holds us responsible for repenting of the sins of our fathers, our churches, and our nation (surely an abusive criminal justice system qualifies), and true repentance means much more than saying sorry: It means fleeing from sin, seeking restitution, and killing whatever lingering traces of evil we find in our shared life together. Perhaps this is a helpful way to think about racial justice: Fundamentally, it is an act of repentance. A serious view of sin requires it.

8) Our witness depends on justice

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, our world has become engulfed in protests, riots, anger, fear, and division; as if the rocks and trees cry out for justice, and the world itself groans for some sense of hope. The story of Christianity provides these things! As deputized emissaries of King Jesus, and as faithful ambassadors of his Kingdom’s values, we are duty bound to bear witness: Jesus has won the victory over sin and death (including white supremacy); he sits on the throne even now, where he sees and cares about all the atrocities currently unfolding; he was the first to weep for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; he will return in glory to set all things right, and to restore perfect justice and peace to the beautiful ruin of his creation. How can we bear witness to any of this if we are aloof or uncaring about racial inequity, an abusive police system, or institutionalized oppression? We risk our unbelieving neighbors assuming that we are “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good,” but our Father rejects such false religion outright. Credible Christian witness requires that we hold ourselves to a higher standard of just living, gospel neighboring, and holy rebuke of institutional or systemic sins.

9) Justice is necessary for unity

One of the most pernicious excuses made to avoid the pursuit of racial justice is that doing so can be divisive. Actually, what’s divisive is racism! The Bible likens Christ’s people to a body. Of course, if your right arm was sore or bleeding, you wouldn’t simply ignore it. The injured appendage demands attention, and the health of the entire body depends on it. In the same way, when our black brothers and sisters come to us in fear, trauma, and heartbreak, we must not ignore their witness; doing so imperils the whole of Christ’s body. True Christian unity depends on us refusing the false peace that we achieve when we accommodate, minimize, or excuse white supremacy; real peace means showing our co-laborers in the kingdom of God that we take their plight seriously, share in their grief, and work with them toward justice and restoration. (The And Campaign’s Justin Giboney is helpful here. Addressing the protests that arose following George Floyd’s death, Giboney tweeted: “The problem isn’t that the protesters disrupted the peace. The ‘peace’ was fraudulent, it never really existed. The problem is that too many Americans are at peace with racialized violence. They’re comfortable with injustice, especially when it helps maintain their advantages.”)

10) We have the story of Jesus

Christians are uniquely well-positioned to offer hope to the oppressed, precisely because we serve a God who has entered into the world of human suffering. God became man so that he might endure oppression, torture, affliction, and brutality on our behalf. White evangelicals can never truly understand the trauma or fear faced by our black brothers and sisters, but our God can; for indeed, our Lord was lynched, he was oppressed, and he was killed in an act of state-sanctioned violence. There is no other God who has entered into human suffering in this way. We worship a deity in whose life we can find uncanny parallels to the black American experience, and who stands ever with the disinherited and the oppressed. As Christians seek faithful engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement and the issues it calls to light, we can look to the story of Jesus for all the resources we need for offering meaningful lamentation and hope. We can say in confidence: “Jesus understands. And Jesus stands with you.” (Indeed, equipped as we are with the light of Christ’s story, we should be leading the movement, not bringing up the rear.)

11) Justice is a picture of the Gospel

The Bible is full of pictures and stories. For example, the Bible is full of liberation stories; the Exodus of the Hebrew people is a picture of the true and final freedom that Christ has won for us in delivering us from sin and the Devil. In a similar way, Christian marriage is a picture of the Gospel; as two completely different/alien people enter into union with one another, we are reminded of how Jesus entered into union with sinners. So, too, is the work of justice a picture of the Gospel, illustrating how Jesus came ultimately as a reconciler. As the liturgy reminds us: “Because we have peace with God, we can and we  must have peace with one another.” The reconciling work of Christ makes the pursuit of justice and peacemaking possible, and also calls us into action mirroring the work of our Savior, providing the world with another picture of gospel love.

12) Justice is coming!

It is sometimes suggested that the pursuit of racial peace is a fool’s errand, for true peace won’t come until the return of Christ. The fact that Christ will bring perfect peace is actually a compelling reason for us to seek justice now, and to do so in confidence. As Christians, we know that Jesus is making all things right, restoring order and holiness to our world, reversing the curse of sin. In the language of the Jesus Storybook Bible, he is “making all the bad things come untrue.” God in his kindness has invited us to participate in this work: We know that perfect justice and peace have been won by the Cross of Christ, and though it may be difficult to see it, we know that he’s making all things well even now. As his faithful disciples, we can stand on the sidelines and watch his redemptive purposes unfold… or we can join him in inaugurating the values of his kingdom, as codified in Revelation 7:9.

***

1 A critical implication of the Cross of Christ is that God does not believe in sweeping sin under the rug, or in agreeing to simply forgive, forget, and move on. A Christian view of justice involves more than just the forgiveness of sins; it also encompasses reparation, making things right. So, we see that simply saying we’re very sorry about past injustice is not enough; it does not rise to God’s standard of holiness. Restitution is imperative. A sound doctrine of the atonement teaches us as much. (See: Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion.) 

2 It is often said that, if we don’t kill the sin in our lives, our sin will surely kill us. How strange it is to consider the excuses and deflections that white evangelicals (including me) make when confronted with the sins of internalized white supremacy: A spirit of pride causes us to temporarily forget that we believe in original sin and total depravity, and to come up with a million reasons why racism either doesn’t exist or isn’t our fault. The spirit of repentance does not make excuses, or seek to minimize the weight of sin; may we know this repentance in our own hearts. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

3 The Imago Dei is what allows us to recognize that the phrase “Black lives matter” is a biblical truth, and that Christians needn’t be afraid in adopting it as a mantra. In doing so, we are not taking cues from secularism or progressivism, but merely advocating for a view of mankind that is biblical through-and-through. If anything, we could critique BLM for not going far enough; black life doesn’t just “matter,” but is beautiful, sacred, and inherently worthy. 

I’ve Mined That Song Forever, Part 2: Further reflections on the music of 2019

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Like I was saying: It was a great year for records. My list of annotated favorites includes several titles I’d qualify as masterpieces, and plenty more that come close enough. 

The just-the-facts version, expanded to a full top 50, is as follows, along with a few additional loose ends. I’ll be back in 2020 with some best-of-decade reflections, then on to new albums!

Thanks as ever to all of you who join me on these adventures in listening. I do not take for granted the gifts of your time and attention, and remain hopeful that I’ve honored them by turning you on to something good.

50 Favorite Albums from 2019

  1. The Gospel According to Water| Joe Henry
  2. Ghosteen | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  3. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods
  4. Lover | Taylor Swift
  5. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens
  6. Wildcard | Miranda Lambert
  7. Breakdown on 20th Ave. South | Buddy & Julie Miller
  8. Father of the Bride | Vampire Weekend
  9. My Finest Work Yet | Andrew Bird
  10. Songs of Our Native Daughters | Our Native Daughters
  11. Love and Revelation | Over the Rhine
  12. Patty Griffin | Patty Griffin
  13. Silences | Adia Victoria
  14. Blood | Allison Moorer
  15. Open Book | Kalie Shorr
  16. The Center Won’t Hold | Sleater-Kinney
  17. Western Stars | Bruce Springsteen
  18. Amidst the Chaos | Sara Bareilles
  19. Canterbury Girls | Lily & Madeleine
  20. Absolute Zero | Bruce Hornsby
  21. Crushing | Julia Jacklin
  22. Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3 | Todd Snider
  23. The Highwomen | The Highwomen
  24. To Myself | Baby Rose
  25. Walk Through Fire | Yola
  26. Fever Breaks | Josh Ritter
  27. Amadjar | Tinariwen
  28. The Hurting Kind | John Paul White
  29. Giants of All Sizes | Elbow
  30. Jaime | Brittany Howard
  31. Internationally Unknown | Rat Boy
  32. TEXAS | Rodney Crowell
  33. Let’s Rock | The Black Keys
  34. Love and Liberation | Jazzmeia Horn
  35. On the Line | Jenny Lewis
  36. Aventurine | Linda May Han Oh
  37. By Blood | Shovels & Rope
  38. Two Hands | Big Thief
  39. Magdalene | FKA twigs
  40. What it Is | Hayes Carll
  41. Diatom Ribbons | Kris Davis
  42. Love Hurts | Julian Lage
  43. i,i | Bon Iver
  44. Sunshine Rock | Bob Mould
  45. Hurts 2B Human | P!nk
  46. Anthropocosmic Nest | The Messthetics
  47. Crowing Ignites | Bruce Cockburn
  48. While I’m Livin’ | Tanya Tucker
  49. 2019 | Lucy Dacus
  50. Finding Gabriel | Brad Mehldau

Disappointments

I don’t especially enjoy dismembering anyone else’s creative output, but in the interest of candor, I’ll take a moment to register just a few albums that left me cold this year, by artists I typically enjoy. As ever, your mileage may vary.

The Big Day | Chance the Rapper
The Black Album | Weezer
The Teal Album | Weezer
Jesus is King | Kanye West
Sound and Fury | Sturgill Simpson

I have half a mind to include Willie Nelson’s Ride Me Back Home on this short list, a largely pleasant and agreeable album that falls just a bit short of recent standouts like Last Man Standing and My Way. And, I’ll confess to enjoying Maren Morris’ GIRL quite a bit less than I enjoyed HERO, though between her role in The Highwomen and her uproarious duet with Miranda Lambert, she is still one of this year’s MVPs. (And, “The Bones” is an excellent single.)

Re-Issues and Older Music

A commitment to new releases means that it’s sometimes difficult finding time for re-issues. One of my hopes for the holiday break is to catch up with some of the lavish reappraisals of classics like Abbey Road and The Band. The one re-issue that I can vouch for here is the 25th Anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Monster, which dials back some of the guitar effects in favor of greater crispness and clarity. It remains a singularly moving document of a band that’s hurting, and trying anything and everything not to be fully seen.

A Year Ago

These end-of-year lists are always intended to be snapshots, and it would be foolish for me to assume my rankings would ever remain static or unmoving. Looking back at last year’s list, I can safely say that I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for any of my selections. I will note that it took me a few months to catch up with Universal Beings, from the great drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven, which provides an immersive set of grooves and textures even as it persuasively bridges the gap between jazz performance and hip-hop production. It probably would have made my top 10, had I only heard it in time. An album that did make my top 10 is Love in Wartime, by the mighty Birds of Chicago, yet in hindsight I still think I underrated it: I have returned to its durable humanity and hopefulness again and again this year, and found it to be deeply nourishing each time.

Classics in the Right Way, Part 2: Further recommendations from 2018

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I have been writing about records since I was 13, and have never enjoyed it more than I have this year. Love and gratitude to all who have encouraged me in these weekly, deep-dive reviews. I hope you’ve found it even half as worthwhile as I have.

I’ll be back with more in 2019, after a brief Christmas sabbatical. But first, a few closing remarks on this past year’s new releases. For those who want a long list of albums without my annotations, here are 50 albums I cherish and whole-heartedly recommend. (Of course you can find the commentary track here.) You’ll note that some of these I never reviewed, but only due to time restrictions—not a dearth of enthusiasm. 

50 Favorite Albums from 2018

  1. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
  2. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies
  3. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
  4. Honey | Robyn
  5. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
  6. Historian | Lucy Dacus
  7. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
  8. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
  9. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
  10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
  11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
  12. Time & Space | Turnstile
  13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
  14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
  15. Dirty Pictures Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
  16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
  17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
  18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
  19. See You Around | I’m With Her
  20. Cusp | Alela Diane
  21. Room 25 | Noname
  22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
  23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
  24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
  25. Beyondless | Iceage
  26. Desperate Man | Eric Church
  27. Whistle Down the Wind | Joan Baez
  28. Tree of Forgiveness | John Prine
  29. Hell-On | Neko Case
  30. My Way | Willie Nelson
  31. Out of Nowhere | Steep Canyon Rangers
  32. Vanished Gardens | Charles Lloyd and the Marvels with Lucinda Williams
  33. Full Circle | Eddie Palmieri
  34. Sun on the Square | The Innocence Mission
  35. The Messthetics | The Messthetics
  36. Currents, Constellations | Nels Cline 4
  37. Seymour Reads the Constitution | Brad Mehldau Trio
  38. Last Man Standing | Willie Nelson
  39. Heaven and Earth | Kamasi Washington
  40. Port Saint Joe | Brothers Osborne
  41. Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides | Sophie
  42. Broken Politics | Nenah Cherry
  43. Wanderer | Cat Power
  44. The Prodigal Son | Ry Cooder
  45. Whack World | Tierra Whack
  46. Still Dreaming | Joshua Redman
  47. Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas | Bugge Wesseltroft & Prins Thomas
  48. Cry Pretty | Carrie Underwood
  49. boygenius | boygenius
  50. The Window | Cécile McLorin Salvant

Disappointments

The most important decision a critic makes is on what he or she chooses to cover, and for me that means curating records that are worth the listener’s time and attention. There were, however, a few 2018 albums I ended up liking far less than expected; the following are all albums I had intended to write about but ultimately didn’t justify the effort, for one reason or another.

Ye | Kanye West
Man of the Woods | Justin Timberlake
Nasir | Nas
Colagically Speaking | R+R=Now
August Greene | August Greene
The Now Now | Gorillaz
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino | Arctic Monkeys

I will also register some mild disappointment with Teyana Taylor’s album, KTSE—though it’s not disappointment with the album’s quality so much as its brevity and its botched roll-out. She deserved much better.

Re-Issues and Older Music

Deep immersion in new music means I haven’t yet gotten to all of the year’s big archival roll-outs—not to the anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet nor even to Bob Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks. (I will confess to some mild Bootleg fatigue.) I have listened to the deluxe edition of The Beatles, a joyous revelation not necessarily for the bonus material so much as the chance to hear such richly imaginative and playful material come spilling out of my speakers in clarion sound. A couple of other new/old releases to note include John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once—a transitional album that nevertheless sounds sure-footed—and a sublime anthology called Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa, so indelible that my six-year-old son has requested it on more than one occasion.

Classics in the Right Way: 25 favorite albums from 2018

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A few things you’ll see on my list of 25 favorite records from 2018: Roughly 16 selections by women, depending on how you want to classify husband-wife duos. Four official debuts, but also a number of accomplished works by seasoned pros. Numerous albums that carve out a space between tradition and progression, upholding lineage while pointing to the future. And, in these fractious times, several albums that embrace joy as a matter of intention—choosing a hopeful countenance even when circumstances point in the opposite direction.

Some critics have posited that the album format is in its dying days, to be replaced by playlists and data dumps. Maybe so, but all 25 albums on this list exist as cohesive, self-contained bodies of work, their songs in dialogue with each other, their sequencing precise and important.

I could have listed as few as 10 or as many as 100—and next week, I’ll augment this core 25 with some honorable mentions, some favorite re-issues and archival music, and more. For now, these are all albums that I’ve enjoyed enormously and recommend whole-heartedly.

25. Beyondless | Iceage
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Majestic and menacing, Beyondless reckons with the legacy of rock and roll’s golden era without anything resembling slavish devotion. Packed to the gills with riffs, rhythms, sound effects, and gallows humor, it’s the year’s most unpredictable rock album. The songs chronicle depravity, but from the abattoir of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s imagination there springs florid storytelling and impressionistic poetry.

24. Between Two Shores | Glen Hansard
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For his strongest solo collection yet, the erstwhile Frames/Swell Season frontman casually intermingles autumnal folk, heartland rock, and luminous jazz for an album as familiar and comforting as a favorite afghan—or perhaps a favorite Nick Drake record. It takes the tone of a consoling friend, promising us that time will sort out all our grief eventually—and until then, there’s nothing wrong with having a good, long cry.

23. Ventriloquism | Meshell Ndegeocello
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On Ventriloquism, a jukebox record of 80s and 90s R&B hits, Meshell Ndegeocello offers a multi-layered treatise on personal canon. Playing songs largely penned by women and/or people of color, Ndegeocello swaps featherweight synths for rustic folk flourishes and live-band funk—signifiers of respectability for songs that warranted our respect all along. They refract deeper issues of genre, gender, and identity—a covers record as aesthetic argument and stylistic manifesto.

 22. Invasion of Privacy | Cardi B
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“Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” asks Cardi B on a debut album that suggests she’s all these things and more, an envelope-pusher and category-killer whose identity can only ever be all of the above. The big surprises here are how rooted she is in hip-hop orthodoxy, but also how much room to roam she finds within traditional frameworks: Invasion of Privacy bursts at the seams with flows, beats, jokes, vulgarity, empowerment, and defiant autobiography. A rags-to-riches blockbuster for the ages.

21. Room 25 | Noname
room 25
Poet-turned-rapper Fatimah Warner—aka Noname—pours forth speech, joking and tongue-twisting and free-associating a dense web of language where everything, including her black life, matters. Her proper debut, following the radiant Telefone mixtape, is sleek and assured, an album that’s at once precise and all-encompassing.

20. Cusp | Alela Diane
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You wouldn’t even need the fingers on two hands to count the great albums about motherhood, a list to which Cusp immediately belongs. But that’s not the only thing singer/songwriter Alela Diane has on her mind: She uses the particulars of being a mom to wrestle with the broader topic of becoming, how a day or a season in our life can be a threshold for personal change, a catalyst for transformation. Her songs are presented in warm, clean arrangements, their straight lines contrasting with the deep mysteries contained within.

19. See You Around | I’m With Her
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A trio comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, I’m With Her is about the super-est group imaginable in today’s acoustic scene, and they betray subtle virtuosity throughout their debut album. See You Around reflects a worldview that’s respectful of folk and bluegrass traditions without ever being beholden to them, and the songs are similarly restless, full of characters seeking solid ground through seasons of tumult and transition.

18. Be the Cowboy | Mitski
be the cowboy
Mitski’s songs sparkle with clean pop perfection; her easeful way with melody may remind you of Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello, or even Paul McCartney. She spikes those buoyant tunes with lyrics of quiet desperation. Each song on Be the Cowboy glimpses either an unattainable future or an irretrievable past—alternate realities where, for all these characters know, everything worked out just fine.

17. 13 Rivers | Richard Thompson
13 Rivers
One of our top-tier shredders makes a blessed return to electric mayhem on an album that’s as muscular and direct as any in his corpus. Thompson’s songs don’t so much rage at the dying light as they wrestle with the darkness in his own soul—“the rattle within,” as one song memorably phrases it. The result is a prickly masterwork, a discontented opus from a guru working at his peak.

16. Isolation | Kali Uchis
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On her luminous debut, the Brazilian singer flits from steely hip-hop to dingy New Wave to coy bossa nova; a couple of retro R&B numbers show how easy it would have been for her to fashion this album as a diva’s showcase and a soul revue, but Uchis is far too restless to live in the past. So she’s given us a pancultural pop showstopper that functions as a declaration of independence; her lyrics, about the cost of freedom, remind us that independence and isolation can be two sides of the same coin.

15. Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 | Low Cut Connie
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Listen beyond the buzz saw guitars, the pounding pianos, and the relentless kick drums and you’ll hear a bar band of startling sophistication, their brashness and bravado belying depth and sturdy craftsmanship. Or, just pump your fist in the air and get swept along in their crackling, unostentatious energy. A near-perfect jolt of pure rock and roll, Dirty Pictures, Pt. 2 is by turns wounded, vulgar, earnest, and hysterical.

14. SASSAFRASS! | Tami Neilson
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One of the year’s most classicist country albums also happens to be one of its most colorful—at times bordering on being outright bonkers. Neilson tucks into haunted Appalachian ballads, brassy R&B, swaying nightclub reveries, even Vegas-style showstoppers; sometimes she plays it straight, sometimes she revels in double entendres and caustic humor. Throughout, she proves herself a singer of redoubtable power and control, and a writer whose wit is eclipsed only by her compassion.

13. World on Sticks | Sam Phillips
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Sam Phillips is one of pop’s most daring and resilient excavators; she’s made a career off of digging deep for truth and beauty, and on World on Sticks she rummages through the trash and ephemera of a culture given over to hollow materialism. Fortunately, she is also one of our most gifted melodists, and here powers her elastic tunes with thunderous drums, luxuriant string arrangements, and thrumming electric guitars.

12. Time & Space | Turnstile
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A document of bruising physicality but also big ideas, Time & Space is a galvanizing punk album that jostles with riffs, banshee wails, and headbanging fury. It also nods at Chess Records, branches into pure pop, and augments its hardcore wails with sophisticated harmonies. Diplo shows up to add weird keyboard effects, and it’s not even one of the top 10 most surprising moments on the album. Which is, incidentally, just 23 minutes long, every second packed with white-knuckled exhilaration.

11. Sparrow | Ashley Monroe
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Monroe, a country singer from Knoxville, Tennessee, has a legitimate claim to 2018’s MVP title; look for her name to show up again on an even higher entry. For Sparrow, Monroe proves once again that she’s unequaled at reimagining country roots and traditions for the present day. Awash with strings, it’s a colorful update on the classic “countrypolitan” sound, its lush orchestrations illuminating the contours of her internal monologues and emotional remembrances.

10. Love in Wartime | Birds of Chicago
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The warmest, most humanistic of bands cranks up the electricity for this rangy and roaming opus, jolting their gospel harmonies and brambly folk with punchy rock and roll vigor. While their previous album presaged “real midnight,” this one supposes that it’s already come and gone, and beckons us to pick up the pieces. The whole record plays out like a swift kick in the ass for anyone who thinks they have the luxury of complacency; in a dispiriting year, it was a lighthouse, an oasis, and a life preserver.

09. Thelonious Sphere Monk | MAST
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The worst possible way to celebrate the skewed genius of Thelonious Monk would be with an overly reverent tribute album—and this songbook record by Tim Conley, aka MAST, never even comes close. Instead, he chops, screws, and bedazzles beloved Monk classics, dressing them up with bells and whistles, augmenting them with lurching hip-hop beats, kicking them down a flight of stairs and then ultimately setting fire to them via a crackling live band. The result qualifies as the year’s most bewitching jazz and its most immersive electronica—an album that uses the past as a jumping off point for boundless imagination.

08. This Too Shall Light | Amy Helm
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An exercise in community and a testament to the redemptive act of singing, This Too Shall Light features songs of joy and sorrow, lifted up in smudged harmony by Helm and her troupe of harmony singers, Birds of Chicago among them. The songs come from disparate sources—Allen Toussaint, T-Bone Burnett, The Milk Carton Kids, even Rod Stewart’s immortal “Mandolin Wind” is here—and Helm brings confidence and grace to each one. She is one of our great soul singers, and here she proves herself to be both a keeper of the flame for her father’s legacy and an able blazer of her own new trails.

07. Streams of Thought Vol. 2 | Black Thought & Salaam Remi
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In 2018, no rapper had harder bars than Black Thought, an all-timer who’s just beginning to get his due. For his second solo joint of the year, he offers a head-spinning and endlessly quotable feast of language, nimbly pivoting from self-aggrandizement to sociopolitical arguments to stirring endorsements of the steel-driving work ethic he embodies. Producer Salaam Remi creates warm, funky environments, drawn largely form blaxploitation tropes, giving this GOAT candidate the regal adornment he’s always deserved. Old-head rap executed with such flair, it sounds less like the past than a whole new wave.

06. Historian | Lucy Dacus
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For her second solo album, singer/songwriter/shredder/boygenius member Lucy Dacus writes about romantic dissolution and human frailty—but always from a therapeutic remove: It’s not a break-up album or a death album so much as an album about the stories we tell, the way we make sense of tragedies, the role we play in curating one another’s history. These masterful songs—pitched between emotional acuity and writerly sophistication—are paired to sleek rock arrangements that soar, grind, and erupt as needed.

05. All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do | The Milk Carton Kids
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On their first album to feature outside musicians, the folksy duo conjures a loose, borderless Americana that recalls such inclusionary classics as The Basement Tapes and Willie Nelson’s Stardust—all the while retaining the whimsy, melancholy, and close harmonies that make them The Milk Carton Kids. The songs reflect dissolution: Sometimes they’re about wayward nations, sometimes they’re about faithless lovers, and sometimes it seems like it might be a little of both. Like Amy Helm’s record, it was produced by Joe Henry, enjoying a banner year.

04. Honey | Robyn
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In her alluring new suite of songs, recalcitrant Swedish pop star Robyn journeys through heartache, memory, self-inventory, and in the end, defiant hope. She’s always walked a fine line between steeliness and vulnerability, but none of her albums tremble quite like Honey, which features some of her most cracked vocals, her most porous song structures, and her most lovelorn lyrics. It adds up to an immersive song cycle that washes over you, waves of sorrow followed by waves of cathartic joy.

03. Look Now | Elvis Costello & The Imposters
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Has everything you might want in an Elvis Costello album—unless all you want is loud guitars and paranoid songs about girls, in which case there’s just no helping you. Intricate and tuneful, ornate and direct, Look Now consolidates decades of tutelage in pop songcraft; it has the confidence of a master but the exuberance of a young buck. Its songs—all richly empathetic, most about or from the perspective of women—make it the year’s most rewarding album by a dude.

02. Interstate Gospel | Pistol Annies

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Finding solidarity in songs of divorce, depression, and quiet desperation, the Pistol Annies emerge with their wisest and funniest album yet. The one thing Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley don’t know how to do is sugarcoat, and Interstate Gospel is bracing for its candor—yet its emotional directness is channeled through childhood remembrances, archetypes, saloon soliloquies, and randy rock and roll; meanwhile, the outlaw dreams of their first couple of albums have blossomed into a more sophisticated American roots milieu, one that’s grounded in tradition but refracted through modernity. In the middle of the worst of it, they’ve made an album that reflects the best in each of them.

01. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
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Festooned though it may be with disco balls and kaleidoscopic sound effects, Golden Hour is a country album through and through. You can hear it in the air, the empty space between Musgraves’ words; and you can hear it in the words themselves, plainspoken even when they’re clever. They’re not clever quite as often as they were on Musgraves’ fine earlier albums—which, it turns out, is perfectly fine. She’s toned down her impish wit for songs of disarming sincerity, perfectly wed to a colorful production palette so visceral, you can almost feel this music on your skin. Musgraves is still enough of a cynic to question her own right to be happy and to wonder when the other shoe’s gonna drop, yet what dazzles the most about Golden Hour is its sense of awe: Inspired by her new marriage, Musgraves is seduced by hope, surprised by joy, and bowled over by a world of marvels beyond anything she could have imagined. It’s an album about grown-up love and childlike wonder, and a vision of country music as something timeless, borderless, consoling, and fun.