Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Top Ten Christian-and/or-Biblically-Themed Songs That Are So Good That They Call My Agnosticism Into Question.

10. Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “I’ll Fly Away.” Some bright morning when this life is over... A gospel standard, originally a hymn. Your basic Southern Baptist doctrine, set to song. Never really gets old, though, whether it’s sung or merely instrumental. The DDBB take is a great jazzy-gospel hybrid.

9. Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In The Sky.” Gotta have a friend in Gee-ZUSS! Appropriately enough for this list, this classic Jesus rock song was penned and performed by a Jew looking to either appeal to Christians or to mock them to their faces. With its high-distortion guitar chords, infectious clapping, and cheesy back-up girls, it nears pop perfection.

8. Regina Spektor, “Samson.” I cut his hair myself one night/Pair of dull scissors in the yellow light. Like “Hallelujah,” (below), this song channels the raw sexuality of the Samson story, although Spektor tells it from a seemingly innocent Delilah perspective. Her characteristic whimsy and silky vocals makes this somewhat tired trope fresh and enticing.

7. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Undertaker, Undertaker, please drive slow/For this body you are hauling, Lord, I hate to see her go. A touching folk-hymnal dirge that can still have some bounce and life. The NGDB cover has excellent use of fife, fiddle, and bango to give it an authentic rolled-in-corn-meal-and-deep-fried feel. You could thump a bible in time to it.

6. Jeff Buckley (Leonard Cohen), “Hallelujah.” Maybe there’s a god above/But all I ever learned from love/Was how to shoot someone who outdrew you. Everyone’s favorite Old Testament break-up song. Despite the fact that this song has been soundtracked to death (from The OC to The West Wing to, my god, Shrek), it remains powerful thanks to its epic scale and its potent mix of cynicism and eroticism. I favor the Buckley take most of all, but enjoy the Rufus Wainwright and Imogen Heap versions as well. And while I regret to knock the man who gave us “Chelsea Hotel,” it must be said that compared to these excellent covers, Cohen’s original comes off as overproduced and horribly dated.

5. Bruce Springsteen, “Reason To Believe.” Still at the end of every hard-earned day/People find some reason to believe. Perhaps this is the unrepentant agnostic speaking, but I find some of the best songs about faith are the ones that question it. It’s hard to tell if the Boss admires or pities the blindly faithful; although familiarity with his work (and the increasingly ecumenical spirituality of later albums like The Rising) would suggest that he identifies with them, even if their unwavering hope also mystifies him. After all, it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

4. Ralph Stanley, “Rank Stranger.” Some beautiful day (Some beautiful day)/I'll meet 'em in heaven/Where no one will be/A stranger to me. A bluegrass standard on kinship and faith. If the mountain mentality had a singular anthem, it would be this song. There’s a lot of fine covers out there, including a Dylan one, but Stanley’s is definitive. His voice is craggy as an App’a’latchan ridge line. The man’s breath must be made of moonshine vapors and coaldust.

3. Sufjan Stevens, “The Seer’s Tower.” Seven miles above the Earth/There is Emmanuel of mothers/With his sword, with his robe/He comes dividing man from brothers. There’s a millenarian streak in Stevens’ work, perhaps best explored in this song, “They Are Night Zombies!,” and “Seven Swans.” Like in “Night Zombies,” Stevens imagines the Illinois landscape as the setting of the Apocalypse. This song is ethereal and perhaps too churchy for some tastes. I find I enjoy it for its unflinching sense of doom and judgment.

2. Johnny Cash, “Man in Black.” I wear the black for the poor and beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town. A direct statement of faith in action, in which Cash casts himself as kind of badass Christ figure. There’s also a pretty pointed critique of secular, materialistic America. That’s right, you douchebags with your streak-of-lightning cars and fancy clothes. Johnny here would love to sport some rainbow duds, but you’re so fucking selfish that he has to wear this here suit of black. On his back, like a fucking cross. Just to remind you panty-waisted cocksuckers of those who are left back.

1. Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl.” Blessed Savior, make me willing/Walk beside me ‘till I’m with them. A gorgeous song about a lonely orphan who takes solace in the love of Jesus. It seldom fails to raise the hair on my arms. It can make me tear up if I’ve had a bit to drink. And it’s possible proof that there is a benevolent, sentient creator who takes great pleasure in sending foul-mouthed heathen like me straight to hell.


Pete said...

Excellent list, I'd add "Down There by the Train," Waits by way of Cash.

"Tom Ame's Prayer" by Steve Earle is another great one.

Matt K said...

How could you leave off the Doobies' "Jesus Is Just Alright"? Or do you interpret the lyrics as in fact advancing a subtle critique of evangelical religion -- as in, Jesus is "just alright," and therefore nothing to get excited about? What delicious ambiguity!

Seriously, the half of these that I know are great songs. I'd nominate the Stanley Brothers' "Angel Band," another O Brother tune...

John said...

Matt - do you prefer the Doobies' cover of "Jesus Is Just Alright" over the Byrds' original?

I will add that the video for "Spirit in the Sky" is incredibly awesome.

John said...

I also notice a distinct lack of black people on this list - ten religious type songs and only one by an African American artist? What about, I dunno, Sam Cooke's gospel stuff, or, you know "God Is Love" or one of those other religious songs from What's Going On?

Drew said...

Well, apparently my personal taste in music is racist. Now I'm going to hell for sure.

Paul Morton said...

Besides "Down There by the Train," I can name two other Waits songs that would fit neatly onto the list. First there's "Take Care of All of My Children." The best version of "Way Down in the Hole" which provided the theme for "The Wire," is on the concert album Big Time. That's where you get the full nature of the sexual innuendo courtesy of Waits' spoken monologue: "We got to get in there with our hydraulic system and blast [the devil] out."

Dylan's Christian phase - which involved a little too much Fallwell-esque, fundamentalist Muslim-bashing - never did it for me, but I can't get enough of Elvis' gospel tunes. I love his version of "Working on a Building."

Really, Drew: Blacks already have to deal with the fact that our culture celebrates Astaire over Bojangles, Elvis over Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and Gershwin over Louis Armstrong. But it is considerably bizarre that a list like this so thoroughly ignores the great pop gospel acts of the last 30 years. Donnie McClurkin's version of "Let's Go Back to God" was the best part of the wonderful Ladykillers soundtrack. Aretha Franklin did my all-time favorite version of Amazing Grace. And how the hell did you ignore The Staple Singers? Pray On, My Child. Pray On.

Akshay said...

I love "People Get Ready," the Curtis Mayfield song. "That's Heaven to Me" is also wonderful (Cooke and the Soul Stirrers) - as are the Hank Williams songs "I Saw the Light" and "Angel of Death" (the latter in particular). And four or five songs by Blind Willie Johnson. I've always like the Dylan quote about his relationship to spirituality and these songs:

'Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light"--that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.'

Sarah said...

I know I'm pretty late on this post but I agree with Akshay - I've always found much more religion in music than in church or anywhere else.

We've got an old, slightly scratchy Mahalia Jackson record and listening to that on an old turntable is about the most spritual thing to me.

Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life) by Bobby Bare is pretty great too.