Why are there so many lists compiling the ‘worst Christian songs’? It’s simple. ‘Christian Rock’ is overwhelmingly awful music. There’s no real reason why this should be the case, though. We have countless beautiful paintings, sculptures, and architecture directly inspired by religion. Why should music be any different?
As an atheist, and as a music junkie, I compiled this list to document the existence of Christian music that doesn’t suck – for the benefit of those who may think such a thing is impossible.
6. White Fence
White Fence channel 60’s brit-psych, with cascading layers of sound. The effect is as often blissful as it is challenging. This band would probably not appreciate being labeled ‘Christian Music’. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a stretch. Their self-titled debut didn’t suggest ‘religion’ to me. They ended that album on this glorious note.
But then something happened. I saw the next LP at a record store, and I noticed some stickers professing some great ‘faith’ exploration. I thought to myself, ‘uh oh… they drank the kool-aid.’ Then I knew I had to buy it. I was rewarded with a dazzling faith-scape. Perhaps not really ‘Christian’ in nature, but decidedly more than just ‘Spiritual’. This was faith-based rock and roll, channeling the Kinks, LSD, and religion.
White Fence Growing Faith
White Fence Sticky Fruitman Has Faith
I still haven’t digested the three (!) albums they’ve released since then (in a single year). I listened on the way to Fort Jackson, SC – but my daughter Zoe decided to dance and ‘sing’ along. No chance of deciphering the lyrics. Maybe they’re off the faith thing now.
5. Daniel Johnston
Obviously, Christianity has taken a serious toll on the delicate mental health of underground singer / songwriter, Daniel Johnston. His parents clearly meant well, and were perhaps shocked when he referenced them in his songs as great oppressors. His obsession with the Devil was undoubtedly nourished by his parents’ religious fanaticism. Religious mania unfortunately pushed him beyond the edge. 2005’s ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ is one of the best rockumentaries of all time, and one of my favorite movies, period.
Daniel Johnston I Had Lost My Mind
I had lost my mind.
I lost my head for a while was off my rocker outta line, outta wack.
See I had this tiny crack in my head
That slowly split open and my brain snoozed out,
Lyin’ on the sidewalk and I didn’t even know it.
I had lost my mind.
Why, i was sitting in the basement when I first realized it was gone.
Got I my car rushed right over to the lost and found.
I said “pardon me but I seem to have lost my mind.”
She said “Well can you identify it please?”
I said “Why sure its a cute little bugger
About yea big a little warped from the rain”
She said “Well then sir this must be your brain”
I said “Thank you ma’am I’m always losin’ that dang thing.”
Daniel Johnston Devil Town
It really brings me down.
4. Vernon Wray
Like his brother and rock and roll pioneer, Link, Vernon Wray chiseled his own path. It was mostly forgotten until a few crate diggers unearthed his early 70’s material.
Vernon Wray –
God Is Color Blind
Fellow atheist and Rock Beyond Belief festival performer, Jeffrey Lewis, lamented that he too was looking for this record. We had been discussing our mutual love of obscure vinyl records and he bluntly asked me what modern music I was into. I stumbled, and delivered a half-assed assessment. I segued into this album by saying, “I always keep my ear to the ground for something crazy or inspiring coming out of the Christian sphere.” I think he feels the same way. I forgot to send him copies of the impy threes, but I hope he tracked down the LP!
3. Spacemen 3
Girls, Jesus, and heroin.
Those are the three subjects that nearly every Spacemen 3 song revolved around. A similar lyrical trifecta can be extrapolated from underground heroes Brian Jonestown Massacre, and to a lesser extent, the Velvet Underground.
Spacemen 3 –
Walkin’ With Jesus
Amazing lyrics are amazing:
I walked with jesus and he would say
Oh you poor child you ain’t coming with me, no way
He found heaven on earth, he’s gonna burn for your sins
But I think I’ll be good company down there with all of my friends
Spacemen 3Ode to Street Hassle
“I’ve been some far out places, I’ve read the writing on the wall. Today I walked with Jesus, and together, we walked tall.”
Lyrics like that coupled with druggie space rock are irresistible to me. It’s a goddamn shame that they split up over disagreements stemming from the release of a cover of the Troggs 1965 hit ‘Anyway That You Want Me’.
2. Half-Handed Cloud
John Ringhofer’s solo project, Half-Handed Cloud, takes its name from an Old Testament verse. John is another example of a person who couldn’t possibly do anything else but make music. He lives in a Church rent-free in exchange for cleaning up the place.
John’s DIY approach oscillates between lofi bedroom chamber pop, and rapid-fire grandiose layering akin to a righteous Electric Light Orchestra song. Parts of Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ are screaming through in a one-man, four-part harmony. The real magic is in his lyrics, though. There is an unmistakably honest and genuine character at play. On this song from 2006’s Halos and Lassos, he’s downright jealous of non-believers!
Half-Handed Cloud –
Tongues That Possess The Earth Instead
Many of his songs are extremely short like that. While every Half-Handed Cloud song is ‘catchy’, some of the songs are dangerously catchy. I’m serious.
Half-Handed Cloud –
He’s Not The Swindler, We Are
The only thing holding back this Sufjan Stevens acolyte from breaking through to a bigger audience is, well… the dumbed-down nature of modern music itself. The radio-rock audience has been sold repackaged and uninspired swill for so long that when a challenger appears, it sounds ‘too weird’.
1. Lift To Experience
Lift To Experience released ‘The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads’ in 2001, a 2xLP that would end up being their only album. You can tell that lead singer, Josh T. Pearson is absolutely convinced he is about to be raptured… any second. It’s a hard way to live, and it engenders a sense of urgency not displayed by other contemporary ‘indie rockers’.
The album received moderate critical acclaim, fetching a 7.8 / 10 on the hipster-bible known as Pitchfork.
The first single, “These Are the Days,” is easily the strongest track on The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads: somehow catchy, bluesy and full of wrath. It’s constructed around jangly loops of guitar, and for the first time, Pearson’s loose and hyperbolic lyricism functions as an asset instead of a liability. So, as to preempt any comparisons to Europe’s “The Final Countdown” (even though Pearson does, at one point, actually start counting down to apocalypse), the band takes a jab at “all you haircut bands doing headstands thinking you’ll turn the world upside down.” Why, you ask? “Because we’re simply the best band in the whole damn land… and Texas is the reason.”
Lift To Experience –
These Are The Days
Despite the high-praise for that song, Pitchfork’s review of the Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads summarized the album as a whole in a less forgiving, but entirely appropriate way.
In the end (of the album, not the world), the parade of self-references, such as the above and, “Just a stupid ranch hand in a Texas rock band trying to understand God’s master plan” grows cumbersome. And unfortunately, “angels with crippled wings” and “God’s terrible swift sword” do not lighten the load. The music is supple, and often absolutely inspiring; however, the lyrics, frequent spoken-word passages, and hymns are often deadening. Lift to Experience simply sprawl like prairies, and maybe like Texas: there’s simply too much of it. There’s no question that The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads is built solid. But the second coming? Not quite yet.
That’s a pretty accurate way to describe Josh T. Pearson’s recent solo-work as well. Personally, I find it breathtaking, but I may be an idiot trying to appreciate a recording of a discarded plastic bag fluttering in the wind a la American Beauty’s art-school in-joke supporting role. See for yourself as Josh literally wanders the streets of Paris singing “Sweethart I Aint Your Christ | Thou Art Loosed | A Take Away Show”.
To be considered for this list, the band had to be relatively obscure. That leaves out tracks like Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky‘, or Edwin Hawkins Singers’ ‘Oh Happy Day’, which otherwise would definitely fit on this list. They were omitted because it is assumed that you already knew them.
More recent bands like Creed, P.O.D., and MxPx were excluded because their music is terrible. It’s a continuation of the typical goal of converting kids to Christianity by creating bland ‘sounds like what the kids like’ uninspired drivel. It’s not real music. These types are not artists, they are safe boy-bands for the Walmart consumer. Feel free to leave your suggestions, but don’t include shit like this. Similarly, don’t bother with so-called Christian alt-rockers like DC Talk, Third Day, Skillet, etc. Those are the wannabes that simply didn’t quite cross-over. Equally useless and uninspired. On the other hand, do feel free to include songs like Spirit in the Sky – I’m sure I missed a few.
I know I left out critically acclaimed David Bazan / Pedro the Lion. That was simply because I’m unfamiliar. I’m hoping that a reader can leave a link to a good tune to start with. I know he’s an atheist now, but I’d like to hear the ‘Jesus stuff’.
What Christian bands / songs give you goosebumps?