Most Christians I know tend to shy away from the musical genre known as “Christian music.” partly, it’s because much of the theology points to an understanding of God and faith to which they don’t relate, but it’s also often because much of Christian music has been of a notoriously poor quality.
So I asked my readers which albums we Christians should listen to, regardless of musical style or sacred-secular distinction. The recordings listed below are packed with great music, as well as with themes and messages that delve into everything from faith and profound doubt to activism, politics and personal spiritual exploration and struggle.
Given that I don’t know all of these albums well enough to comment on them, some of the blurbs following each listing are compiled form reviews found elsewhere online. In general, I think each deserves its due attention as a work of art in its own right, regardless of any spiritual themes found within.
The Joshua Tree by U2 – The album is influenced by American and Irish roots music, and depicts the band’s love–hate relationship with the United States, with socially and politically conscious lyrics embellished with spiritual imagery.
The Heist by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – This is the album that inspired the creation of this list. Includes tracks like “Same Love,” “Thrift Shop” and others well worth the time and $$$ to download.
Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash – Great example of a less-than-perfect Christian trying (and sometimes failing) to get it right, while also living out one of Christ’s charges to visit those in prison…and in a big way.
A Love Supreme by John Coltrane – An album inspired by Coltrane’s spiritual awakening, meant to be a thematic tribute to God through Jazz. A Love Supreme is a suite about redemption, a work of pure spirit and song, that encapsulates all the struggles and aspirations of the 1960s.
Babel by Mumford & Sons – The follow up to Mumford & Sons 2009 debut album Sigh No More, produced by Markus Dravs. It conjures religious imagery and nudges one subtly to ponder faith. It’s moving. Powerful. And has a way of bringing one to a place of deep inner reflection and wonder. Leaves the wanderer’s questions unresolved but infuses the unknown with a sense of hope.
Exodus by Bob Marley and the Wailers – Bob Marley is one of our most important and influential artists. Recorded in London after an assassination attempt on his life sent Marley into exile from Jamaica, Exodus is the most lasting testament to his social conscience. Named by Time magazine as “Album of the Century,” Exodus is reggae superstar Bob Marley’s masterpiece of spiritual exploration.
Jars of Clay by Jars of Clay – One of the most successful “Christian albums” to break out into the mainstream, Jars of Clay is adept at being nuanced about matters of faith without lapsing into preachiness or cliches. Breaks with typical Christian musical formulas and lyrics.
Grace by Jeff Buckley – Despite the obvious drug reference and sensational rumors to the contrary, Jeff’s personal life was never corrupted by addiction of any kind (except to music). Jeff was focused on his spiritual goals, developing his inner self and simply enjoying his life. He planned to make music for a long time, for all of his life.
Downtown Church by Patty Griffin – Patty has a voice and a lyrical sense that both resonate with me on the very deepest levels. The songs on this album
Zooropa by U2 – “I have no religion” sings Bono, a front man usually synonymous with lyrics of a spiritual nature, “And I don’t know what’s what.” The normally overly confident Bono sings happily of his own self-doubt. Yet the song is not a dreary lament of a rock idol lost in his own grandeur, it’s a celebration of the absurdity and surrealism of fame, as Bono exclaims that “uncertainty can be your guiding light.”
Jesus Record by Rich Mullins – From start to finish, every song is very moving and has spiritual depth, which, unfortunately, most Christian musicians have not been able to replicate or even come close to.
Tracy Chapman by Tracy Chapman – Chapman is regularly associated with Amnesty International, the American Foundation for Aids Research, Free Tibet and the anti-war lobby.
Live at Stubb’s by Matisyahu – A musical and religious anomaly, Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller) brings his own brand of Hasidic Hip Hop. FResh spiritual themes, delivered in ways you’ve probably never heard before.
Scenic Routes by Lost Dogs – They didn’t beat you over the head so much as they let their point slowly sink in. Most of their songs were religious rather than political. But that first album was, if you looked closely at it, a powerfully political album; an album whose politics came from a deep-seated humanity and a love of the Gospel.
3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of… by Arrested Development – filled with pleas for black unity and brotherly compassion, as well as a devotion to the struggle for equality. All of that is grounded in a simple, upbeat spirituality that also results in tributes to the homeless (the hit “Mr. Wendal”), black women of all shapes and sizes, and the natural world.
Rattle & Hum by U2 – “Don’t believe in excess / Success is to give / Don’t believe in riches / But you should see where I live / I…I believe in love.” Great examination of the contradictions of life.
Along Came a Spider by Alice Cooper – An album about a sinner (i.e. all of us) finding God’s grace and salvation.
In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel – possibly about Anne Frank, this album (one of the most influential of the 90s) explores deep Christian themes on songs like King of Carrot Flowers, Part 2.
The Fray by The Fray – This group walks the line between a Christian rock group and popular rock very well. Writing music of hope and challenge.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill – The majority of The Miseducation‘s lyrics were written in Hill’s attic during her first pregnancy, with much of the content dealing with motherhood, the Fugees, reminiscence, love, heartbreak, and God. Commenting on the album’s gospel content, Hill stated “Gospel music is music inspired by the gospels. In a huge respect, a lot of this music turned out to be just that. During this album, I turned to the Bible and wrote songs that I drew comfort from.”
Curse Your Branches by David Bazan – One of the most honest portrayals of wrestling with faith in recent years set to incredibly powerful and music.
The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky – Explosions in the Sky taught me something through their music. After listening, I somehow realized that there’s always something to look forward to, that no matter how bad your job, life, even your world seems, there’s always the possibility of something better. Through euphonious guitar riffs and sonic orchestrated collisions, this EITS album has renewed, or rather improved, my conception of hope.
Control by Pedro the Lion – A concept album about a businessman who is having an affair on his wife, who kills him. It covers such subject matter as infidelity, parenthood, greed, vengeance, and fear of death.
The Carpenter by the Avett Brothers – While the Avett Brothers have songs on other albums with spiritual overtones, I think this is their best work in that regard.
So Beautiful or So What by Paul Simon – One of the most beautiful albums ever, deeply spiritual. Intriguingly Christian work from a non Christian.