Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Top 5 Songs With Religious Subject Matter

I went through a lot of possible titles for this post: Top 5 Songs That Are At Least Vaguely About Christianity [rolls right off the tongue, right?], Top 5 Songs About Christianity, Top 5 Songs With Christian Subject Matter.  I came up with this idea after seeing the song "Jesus is Just Alright" by The Doobie Brothers on XM.  In essence, here's how I'm applying the ground rules for myself: songs that include Christian subject matter, with a little more importance in the song than just a throwaway line.  This excludes songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" by The Smiths, as it just includes the word "heaven" and nothing else.

Go with me on this one.

Ryan's Top 5:

1. John Lennon - "God" - The song that really solidified his split from The Beatles.  In that context, this song can be really depressing to listen to, but it is, still, perfect in my mind.  Key religious lyric: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."

2. The Rolling Stones - "Sympathy for the Devil" - I'm pretty firm on this being my favorite Rolling Stones song.  Key religious lyric: "And I was 'round when Jesus Christ / Had his moment of doubt and pain / Made damn sure that Pilate / Washed his hands and sealed his fate."

3. Morrissey - "I Have Forgiven Jesus" - I still feel vaguely sacrilegious listening to this song.  Key religious lyric: "I have forgiven Jesus / For all the desire / He placed in my heart when there's nothing I can do / With this desire" [this among many lines].

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco [lyrics by Woody Guthrie] - "Christ for President" - Satire at its finest.  I might try teaching this next year...every discussion I have with kids seems to get onto the subject of religious hypocrisy and the need for socialism, so it'd fit.  Key religious lyric: Well, all of it.  But my favorite is: "The only way we can ever beat / These crooked politician men / Is to run the money changers out of the temple / Put the Carpenter in."

5. Kanye West - "Jesus Walks" - This narrowly edged out Neutral Milk Hotel, mainly because it very definitely fits the criteria.  Anyway, this song kicks ass, and modern raps that actually have social/religious relevance are rare indeed.  (I'm sorry, there aren't nearly as many good popular rappers now.  It's okay, there are probably fewer good mainstream rockers.)  Favorite lyric [they're all religious]: "To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers / (Jesus walks with them)."

Honorable Mentions - Number 6 is "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2" by Neutral Milk Hotel, Number 7 is probably "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden, number 8 is "Big Sky" by The Kinks, and the rest I considered in no order are: "Spirit in the Sky," Norman Greenbaum, "Highway to Hell," AC/DC, "Devil Went Down to Georgia," Charlie Daniels Band, "Straight to Hell," The Clash, "God Knows I'm Good" and "Modern Love," Bowie, "Imagine," Lennon, "Vicar in a Tutu," The Smiths (bit of a stretch), "My Sweet Lord," George Harrison, "Personal Jesus," Depeche Mode.

Ashley’s Top 5: 

1. Norman Greenbaum – “Spirit in the Sky” – I’m a sucker for handclaps.  For all of the hokey lyrics and goofy rhymes in this song, it’s still so awesome.  I love the guitar, the handclaps, the background singers, and every time I hear it I get a huge smile on my face. Greenbaum is apparently a practicing Jew (strange, considering the Jesus references abound) and this song is almost enough to convert me.

2. The Clash – “Death or Glory” – One of my favorite songs by The Clash, this one makes the list mostly because it’s awesome and because it contains one of the best biting commentaries about religion: “And I believe in this—and it’s been tested by research—he who fucks nuns will later join the Church!”

3. Violent Femmes – “Jesus Walking On The Water” – Penned by devout Baptist (and son of a Baptist minister) Gordon Gano (who knew?) this song is such a jam by such a great band.

4. Modest Mouse – “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright” – This is the song that made me want to learn the banjo years ago.  From The Lonesome Crowded West, this song is apparently a crowd pleaser, according to YouTube, which I guess I never realized, and when I saw Modest Mouse in 2003 I really wanted them to play this jam but Isaac Brock was too drunk and too busy yelling at sailors at The Norva in Norfolk (they did play my other favorite, “Trailer Trash”).  It’s filled with religious references (feet floating like Christ’s, Saint Peter, etc.) and it segues into its companion song, which is also great.

5. Brian Jonestown Massacre – “The Ballad of Jim Jones” – The first time I watched Dig! I fell in love with this song, which has a dope harmonica and really gorgeous lyrics.  It’s a bit of a downer (compared to the rest of the list, I guess) but it’s been one of my favorites for years.

Honorable mentions: I was committed to putting my favorite gospel song on the list but decided against it at the last minute because it wasn’t quite fair to pull something from that genre; anyway, it is this version of “I Can't Feel At Home In This World Anymore,” by Edith & Sherman Collins (“This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through, my treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue...”) Other runners-up are: Neutral Milk Hotel–“King of Carrot Flowers pt. 2,” and The Vaselines–“Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam”.

Tim's Top Five:

1) I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For - U2 - the song is entirely about Jesus, but you don't really even think about it that way. That's a feat in and of itself that warrants its placement atop the list. But most of all, it was the ship that launched a thousand good songs -- the first two reputable albums I ever owned were U2 - The Joshua Tree and R.E.M. - Out of Time (though I will defend my choice to buy the Spin Doctors - Pocketful of Kryptonite to the day I die). It's simple, it's quiet, and it's powerful stuff, and it's songs like this that make U2's concerts almost as spiritual as Springsteen's -- and when this one's absent, you feel you've lost something.

2) O Mary Don't You Weep - Bruce Springsteen (or Pete Seeger, if you prefer) - this song epitomizes just how phenomenal an achievement Springsteen's Seeger Sessions album was. I had never considered buying it, why would I? Then you hear the kind of fun they're having on the album, a real big band sound, and the fact that it's "Seeger Sessions" that sound like the exact opposite of Pete Seeger -- explosive and potent.

3) Jesus Christ - Big Star - One of the real revelations of the mostly unnecessary Big Star box set was the stereo version of this song, which completely reinvents it and makes it the kind of perfect power pop that laced their first two albums that is lost in the brooding and haunting nature of Third. It gleams brand new, like the last thing Alex Chilton ever recorded. The original (which is captured on youtube here) is still fantastic (though marred by the circus intro for 20 seconds), but the song really makes the best use of an echo chamber I've heard post-Buddy Holly without being Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes-level indulgent.

4) She Left Me For Jesus - Hayes Carll - Well, ignore the cheesy music video that interrupts the song repeatedly, but this is what country music should be, alcohol-soaked, bitter and funny from start to finish.

The chorus really does it justice: She left me for Jesus/And that just ain't fair/She says that he's perfect/How could I compare/She says I should find him./and I'll know peace at last/But if I ever find Jesus/I'm kickin' his ass.

5) Spooky Mormon Hell Dream - Book of Mormon - Well, congratulations, Ryan. You've made me look like I'm a touch flamboyant, since this is my second straight list involving Broadway musicals. For those unfortunate enough to have not seen The Book of Mormon, there are at least a couple songs worthy of mention here, but Spooky Mormon Hell Dream is the winner here for its inclusion of Johnny Cochran. You lose most of it when you don't actually see it on stage, particularly Jesus telling Elder Price that he's a dick, but it's fantastic.

Honorable Mention: Gotta Serve Somebody - Bob Dylan - really the highlight of his brief born-again period, Tears In Heaven - Eric Clapton, Knockin on Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan, Light Up Ahead - Further Seems Forever, Living Proof - Bruce Springsteen, I Believe - Book of Mormon - it's not as good a song as Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, but it has the greatest line in musical theater history -- all I will say is that it refers to 1978; All-American Prophet - Book of Mormon; Spirit in the Sky - Norman Greenbaum - loses points because I spend my time wondering why Norman has a friend in Jesus, given that he's Jewish?

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