When Bach was writing his cantatas and suites some 300 years ago, it was always clear what kind of music was being presented: there was church music, and then there was everything else. Today, the musical landscape is a lot less divided. Plenty of what some call “secular” music confronts themes of religion and spirituality, yet calling that music “religious” might be unfounded.
We’re doing it anyway. This week, we asked various friends and colleagues to name their favorite non-religious religious albums. The results don’t add up to a strict category — the genres, themes, sounds, and styles range as widely as the contributors’ tastes — but the music compiled here shares one characteristic: an ability to affect listeners in profound and unknowable ways.
And for your listening pleasure, we’ve created a Spotify playlist that includes selections from the list below. — Jamison Pfeifer
Paul Simon // Graceland
Lilit Marcus: “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar….” The opening lyrics of “Graceland” still rank among the finest in the English language. As Paul Simon has explained, his Grammy-winning album began with the music first, then the lyrics. Graceland, you see, is not actually about Elvis Presley’s house. It’s about a white American Jewish man going to apartheid-era South Africa to work with black musicians. It’s about drums and rhythms and voices. Graceland is not about Graceland — not the one in Memphis, Tennessee, anyway, despite being name-dropped in the lyrics. It’s about the place beyond the present, the place after your messy divorce is done and dealt with, the place where we all can be received and redeemed.
Jeff Buckley // Grace
Paul Elie: Not because it’s called Grace, or because “Hallelujah” is its centerpiece, or because in interviews Jeff Buckley name-checked Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, but because the record is super-abundantly infused with the qualities these elements hint at: inwardness, yearning, a recognition that reality is so much richer than our apprehension of it and yet that this truth shouldn’t deter us from going at reality head on. That such qualities should come through in a throaty, guitar-heavy, sexually frank, strutting-young-male rock record makes its wide-band inwardness all the more powerful. On my Georgetown website, I post a weekly feature called Our Kind of Spirituals — songs of all kinds where a spiritual dimension comes through — but the spirituality of Grace strands through the whole record, nearly an hour in all. The glory of God is the human person fully alive: that is Irenaeus, I think, and every time I hear Grace (never partially, always all the way through) I know and regret that when I was in New York City in my twenties, haunting bookstores and churches, I wasn’t as fully alive as Jeff Buckley was in New York in his twenties — those same years — writing and playing and singing the music that became this record.
INXS // Listen Like Thieves
David Dark: Like a revivalist preacher who’s stumbled upon a block-rocking beat, Michael Hutchence opens INXS’s Listen Like Thieves asserting that, contrary to all appearances, we haven’t reached the end of love and that, within and beyond the journey we’ve now begun with him, there is a rhythm that will take us where we really need to be. While many are unaccustomed to crediting INXS with the sociopolitical heft we lavish upon the lyrics of, say, the folk-rock outfit called U2, believe me when I say that it’s all there on this album, especially in “Shine Like It Does,” an unsubtle elaboration of Jesus’ call to love the alleged righteous and unrighteous alike in the way the sun shines without discrimination, in witness to a righteous future: “There will come a day when we will know.”
Damien Jurado // Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
Gregory Thornbury: This record catches the golden snitch of spirituality — a welcome change from the dreary, droning, cynical records which characterize the mp3 era. The results on Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son are astonishing. Working in tandem with producer Richard Swift, we find Jurado “not experimenting, but finding what he’s always wanted,” says After Dark host Sean Cannon. Jurado says: “This album is the sound of me waking up.” Influenced by The Twilight Zone, Jack Kerouac, Larry Norman, and John Coltrane, Jurado soars. Who would have thought that what the world needs right now was a psychedelic Jesus record?
Gregory Thornbury is President of the King’s College in New York City.
Josh Ritter // So Runs the World Away
Lesleigh Cushing: According to iTunes, the album I listen to most is Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away. Some evenings, I listen to it beside my daughter as she falls asleep, both of us singing “Long Shadows” quietly to each other: “If a long shadow/ Falls across your heart/ I’ll be right here with you/ I’m not afraid of the dark.” Some afternoons, on a long trip into town, my son and I will join in on “Folk Bloodbath,” lamenting the death of poor Delia, as “the angels laid her away/ laid her six feet under the clay.” And we talk a little about dying, and about my father who died before my son was born, and we know well that “that’s the sad thing with life/ people always leaving just as other folks arrive.” But So Runs… won’t let us wallow: “Lantern” enjoins us to “throw away those lamentations/ we both know them all too well/ if there’s a book of jubilation we’ll have to write it for ourselves./ So come and lie beside me darling/ and let’s write it while we still got time.” Some nights, very late, after a long or harried day, when I can only get myself so far as the lying down and not the writing of jubilation, I put on “Lark” and fall asleep to a private prayer: “I am assured, yes, I am assured, yes/ I am assured that peace will come to me/ A peace that can, yes, surpass the speed, yes/ Of my understanding and my need.” And the peace does come. Yes.
Lesleigh Cushing is an associate professor of religion at Colgate University.
Wye Oak // Civilian
Lisa Ann Cockrel: “Holy, Holy, Holy / There is no other story.” If I were to get another tattoo, it would be of these lyrics from Wye Oak’s song “Holy, Holy” off their 2011 album Civilian (Merge). That conviction is a lodestar for me as I seek to live well with others in this turbulent, astounding, grace-soaked world. The phrase also suggests a frame through which to understand Wye Oak’s lyrics about the ineffability of love and loneliness — the mysteries that lie within and in the hearts of those we want to love. As an album, Civilian is about yearning to know and be known truly, faults and all. And someone somewhere whispers, holy, holy holy…
Lisa Ann Cockrel is an editor for Brazos Press. She also writes and DJs for her local community radio station.
The Beach Boys // Pet Sounds
Mary Valle: The 1966 album Pet Sounds was written by 23-year-old Brian Wilson and recorded by the Beach Boys and scores of musicians. Pet Sounds contains the following: A cathedral in the woods. The loneliness of trains, heard at night. The ache of imperfect union. Our little selves, sparking briefly as a firefly’s glow. Home, wanting to leave, wanting to return. Hair that smells of the sun. Being a child and having a child. Kaleidoscopes, heliotropes, playful goats. The memory of eternity. Something glimmering just out of reach. A quiver in the twilight. Everything rising and falling. The pain of life and the joy of living it.
Jane’s Addiction // Nothing’s Shocking
Peter Manseau: From its jaded title and lyrics to its NSFW cover art, Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking is an album determined to offend. Yet it has always struck me also as a collection of songs groping toward the sacred. Perry Farrell wails alternately like a Tuvan throat singer and a psychotic nun, but that isn’t the key to unlocking its hidden religiosity. It’s the album’s second track, “Ocean Size,” that captures it: “Wish I was ocean size,” Farrell sings. “They cannot move you, no one tries.” With its crashing-wave rhythm and immersive wall of sound, the song calls to mind the “oceanic feeling” described in theories of religion as the sensation of being connected to all things, the desire for which can present itself alternately as a deep experience of belonging and a stinging awareness of isolation. This same tension ties together the album’s competing spiritual perspectives: the shrugging rejection of the divine in “Had a Dad” (“Got that funny feeling, God is dead”), the cryptic koan of “Pigs in Zen,” the heartbreaking nihilistic hymn “Jane Says.” In the last, when Farrell sings of a doomed junkie, “Jane says, I’ve never been in love / I don’t know what it is,” it is the unstated longing to know that lingers. More than most “religious” music, the song evokes rather than merely describes the urgency of that longing, the sense that the elusive search for the “oceanic feeling” — sought by some in God, by others in heroin — can be a matter of life and death.
W. A. Mozart // String Quartet No. 5 in D Major, K. 593
Erik Tarloff: For me, spirituality and faith are antagonistic concepts. Faith requires certainty, willed or spontaneous, whereas spirituality evokes a sense of wonder, an awed astonishment at the immensity of existence and our own minuscule place within it. There is no composer more at home with ambiguity than Mozart. For all his elegant musical manners, an uncertain undertone suffuses almost every bar he wrote. And no piece of his is so characterized by those equivocal qualities as his string quintet in D major, K. 593. Just consider the opening of the Larghetto movement: The cello plays a simple ascending arpeggio. Is it an assertion or a question? The other four strings respond with a beautifully harmonized legato phrase. Are they answering the cello or ignoring it? Are they offering consolation or indifference? There is no way of knowing; something significant is occurring, but we can only guess at the meaning. Our relationship with the infinite should be characterized by perplexity. With Mozart, that perplexity equates to wisdom and supernal beauty.
Erik Tarloff’s most recent novel is called All Our Yesterdays, and his new play, Cedars, premieres this summer at the Berkshire Theater Festival.
The Hold Steady // Stay Positive
Thomas Ryan Coughlin: “Constructive Summer,” the first song on Stay Positive, ends with a cry of faith distilled by faithlessness, and resolve: “We are our only saviors / We’re gonna build somethin’ this summer.” Rousing that faith and resolve are “the drums on ‘Lust for Life’” and “double-whiskey-coke-no-ice” and the blood and muscle of kids who “raise up a giant ladder…to drink on top of water towers/ With love and trust and shows all summer (Get Hammered!)…” Their bliss is that they are “like” the things they consume, by hearing and drinking; that they might become what they do, embracing heat, the sum of their sweat.Through pharisaical hypocrisy and greed and miseducation; through tired, forgetful age, “St. Joe Strummer” emerges to teach a new, acute faith, cued to the Epistle of James: if faith without sweat is dead, rock-n-roll will never die.
Thomas Ryan Coughlin grew up in Gloucester County, Virginia.
Rod Stewart // As Time Goes By
Sally Quinn: When Rod Stewart came out with his golden oldies album As Time Goes By it was at a time when I needed to be reminded that “the fundamental things apply”: love, romance, joy, sadness, loss, grief, exhilaration, magic, mystery, resilience. So many of the lyrics of those wonderful songs invoke heaven, the stars above, the moon, that it can’t be anything but spiritual. “Heaven is in your eyes, bright as the stars we’re under”, or “we have met before, laughed before, loved before but who knows where or when?,” and the greatest life lesson of all: “Smile though you’re heart is aching – through your tears and sorrow. Life is still worthwhile if you just smile.”
Sally Quinn is the founding editor of OnFaith.
Daniel Rossen // Silent Hour / Golden Mile
Cameron Schaefer: While not a full-length album, the solo EP from Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen feels more complete in five songs than most albums do in twelve. Written during a year in self-imposed exile, Rossen grapples with the larger questions of life that always seem to surface when one ceases the hustle and is met with silence. “Saint Nothing” finds Rossen alone in an old church gazing on the angles and saints and searching for some sort of revelation while confessing ignorance & doubt: “Saint/ I don’t know your name/ But your voice so strong/ Speaks through the glass/ Speaks through the ground…” There’s a strong link between humility and reverence for mystery in Rossen’s work that highlights an important part of humanity, like the guards standing watch over the tomb of the unknown solider, or sacrifices being offered to the unknown God; that part of the spirit that hopes, even if faintly, that there might be more there than meets the eye.
Nina Simone // “Feeling Good”
Charles Michener: If religion is about having the courage to get out of bed in the morning, then I can’t think of a better wake-up than Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” There’s no melody, no message. Simone mutters her way into your synapses with “Birds flying high you know how I feel/ Sun in the sky you know how I feel…” Then her tough piano kicks in and she’s singing to the fish in the sea and the river running free. She ends with a triumphant shout-out to heaven — “I’m feeling goooooooood” — that seems to go on forever.
Charles Michener is an author and journalist. He is a former senior editor for cultural affairs at Newsweek and a former senior editor at The New Yorker.
Kanye West // The College Dropout
Jamison Pfeifer: Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” from his debut effort The College Dropout, is many things at once: a credo without a dogma; an affirmation of faith intermit with moments of self-doubt; a self-narrative of strife and striving. “Jesus Walks” reveals West as religious monologist, professing belief even as he betrays apprehension. West raps a descant atop a sample of a traditional gospel tune sung by the choir of Harlem’s Addiction Rehabilitation Center. In comparing his home Chicago to the “valley of death,” he considers the violence that surrounds him, his upbringing, the “victims of welfare,” and a “trunk full of coke.” In the chorus, he openly discloses, “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid ‘cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” Situated somewhere between belief, ambiguity, and the mania of modernity, West has given us the closest thing to a twenty-first century religious anthem.
Jamison Pfeifer is a student who usually lives in Chicago.
Giacomo Puccini // La Bohème [1965 Decca]
Warren Hoge: I find great music transporting. When I hear it, I instinctively clasp myself and cast my eyes upwards. It’s quite simply rapture. Among the artists that have led me on that journey to the heavens are soprano Renata Tebaldi and tenor Carlo Bergonzi, on my first opera album, the 1965 Decca recording of Puccini’s La Bohème. The characters, Rodolfo and Mimi, inhabit the crepuscular world of a Paris artist’s garret, but rise from it to clarity and passion in one of the most sublime duets ever written. The music lifts them, and me. I struggle, always unsuccessfully, to listen dry-eyed.
Warren Hoge, a former editor and foreign correspondent at The New York Times, is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute in New York.
Marc Cohn // Marc Cohn (1991)
Mark Steele: Perhaps it’s the ghostly atmospherics or the subtle twinges of gospel, but Marc Cohn’s eponymous debut album (Marc Cohn, 1991 – Atlantic Records) knocks the wind out of me in all the best ways. Known primarily for the Grammy-nominated “Walking in Memphis,” this Great American Novel of tunesmithery (which I recently procured on vinyl) is not to be missed by anyone craving ruminations about his/her difficult, complex, and damn beautiful existence. Depending upon the track, Cohn utilizes allusions to the hereafter as both yin and yang: either a salvation worth yearning for or a delusion that distracts too much from today.
Johnny Cash // American IV: The Man Comes Around
Russell D. Moore: This is a hard call, but I’d have to choose Johnny Cash’s 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash, of course, has always been, in the words Kris Kristofferson used of his “Pilgrim,” a “walking contradiction…a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned.” His music has ranged from the laments of a guilty conscience (“Folsom Prison Blues”) to testimonies of the pull of temptation (“Ring of Fire”) to straightforward Christian themes (“Belshazzar”). This album was different though. The title track isn’t just a biblical exposition but a weaving together of biblical imagery and typology. In that sense, The Man Comes Around is similar to its primary canonical influence, the Book of Revelation. The primary power of this album is the closeness of the Man in Black to death. This is true in the haunting scratchiness of his voice, especially in the spoken word intro and outro of the title track, “And, behold, I saw a pale horse…” But this death-awareness is most audibly evident in his cover of Trent Razor’s “Hurt,” which Cash re-purposes from a grunge nihilist sound to the feel of a Southern Baptist revival meeting made up of those who know they are about to face judgment. As such, he sings of loss and about the meaninglessness in the face of death of such things as fame and finance. “You can have it all,” he sings. “My empire of dirt.” The younger Cash sang about being a “Man in Black,” who wore darkness as a sign of solidarity with the “poor and beaten down.” The Man Comes Around made that instinct into a reality. Cash sang as one who knew that his next black suit wasn’t being fitted for a performance but for his own funeral. And, in light of that, he pointed us to the Cross and to the eastern skies where he expected a Man to come around.
Russell D. Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Lianne La Havas // Is Your Love Big Enough?
Katherine McClintic: The title track is a question I have demanded of my parents, examined in potential lovers, and a question the whole world screams at the heavens. Lianne La Havas’s album, Is Your Love Big Enough, is a heartfelt confession of her own humanity. My six month obsession with her album began when I latched onto this question in the upbeat title track about losing and finding your passion in cities and second-hand guitars. “Lost&Found” is a lamentation of personal brokenness and the disappointment of the shanty pedestals you build for other people or goals — it sings like a preamble to the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” Lianne looks for love in all the wrong places, or at least one particularly bad relationship, and honestly who hasn’t? I’ve known people were “Empty” and asked them to fill my cup, just like in “Tease me” I’ve been tempted by others and left to deal with the consequence of my sin. I’ve investigated friends and belief systems wanting “No room for doubt”, and when I’ve gotten too hot in the city, forgotten what I was looking for and screamed to God “Is your love big enough?” His answer has always been, in one way or another, yes. Any song, painting, or dance performance that points out the faulty human that I am and points me back to Christ with a renewed thankfulness and reverence is worship to me. Without the honest confessions of others that I resonate with I would surely “Forget” exactly what is worthy of praise.
Katherine McClintic partners with churches at FaithStreet and is a dancer in New York City.
Radiohead // OK Computer
Rob Stennett: It was the fall of 1997 when my friend ran into my dorm room and said, “You’ve got to listen to this.” What he played didn’t sound like music it all. This sounded more like JOSHUA from War Games, a chilling robotic voice telling me to be “fitter, happier, and more productive.” In the last 25 years there is no album that cares more deeply about the state of our souls than Radiohead’s OK Computer. It’s an album with 12 tracks that warn we are not losing ourselves to lust and anger, but numbing our lives to subtler vices like suburban comfort and corporate greed. “Karma Police” says we’ve turned the spiritual principle of causality into a weapon, while “No Suprsies” has perhaps the most damning lyric about our compromise: “I’ll take a quiet life; a handshake of carbon monoxide.”
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis // “Wing$”
Quinn Bradlee: “Wing$,” a song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, is about the American consumer: how we will buy anything just to fit in. When we see some type of ubiquitous clothing, we will go out and buy it or even murder for it. We are walking advertisements for clothing stores. Nowadays, we don’t even think before we go and buy something. Sometimes if we only have one store in our neighborhood we will just have to make do and be made fun of for it, or even shot and killed, because that’s all we could afford. It’s all about fitting in and trying the best way we can to be just like everybody else. We want what we can’t have. Sometimes I ask myself, are we all children of God, or are we all consumers of propaganda?
Quinn Bradlee is the founder of Friends of Quinn, an online community for young people with learning differences.
Vampire Weekend // Modern Vampires of the City
Patton Dodd: It’s hard to be lazy with your body when listening to Vampire Weekend’s bouncy jams, but I confess to some mental laziness in my first 10 or 20 turns through their 2013 Modern Vampires of the City. I dug it like crazy, but wasn’t yet paying attention to its lyrics — whose most explicit concern, track after track, is with the condition of the individual in a modern world that is still way more drenched in religion than most people care to notice. Had I read just about any album review — or, heck, the list of track titles — I would been clued in earlier, but I got there a lovelier way: via Matthew Houck/Phospherescent’s sparse, gorgeous cover of “Ya Hey,” which foregrounds the song’s — and the album’s — grappling with a god who may or may not be there.
Patton Dodd is the editor in chief of OnFaith.