Do you believe in God? Which one? What else but faith has the power to define people, divide a country, or even start a war? No matter what your denomination or faith of choice, religion’s effect on music is undeniable. These ten songs examine the subject of personal beliefs with unique perspectives, all shedding new light upon such an age-old topic.
Dear God - XTC (1986) | Framed as a letter to God, XTC songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Andy Partridge addresses a host of questions to the man upstairs, ultimately determining the notion of God to be nothing more than man’s creation: “Did you make disease and the diamond blue? /Did you make mankind after we made you?” Upon its initial release, several record-shop owners who feared religious retaliation blacklisted “Dear God.” Despite this, it has come to be one of XTC’s most potent and unforgettable songs, not to mention one that has been covered by artists as diverse as Sarah McLachlan and Tricky.
Jesus Walks - Kanye West (2004) | Never one to shy away from controversy, the oft-outspoken Kanye West takes on the media with “Jesus Walks,” confronting their readiness to embrace songs about “guns, sex, lies, [and] videotapes” before a song that discusses one’s faith. But “Jesus Walks” is more than just an attack on the media, it also finds Kanye not only seeking solace from “racism, terrorism,” and “war with ourselves,” but uncovering that solace in the knowledge that Jesus walks amongst everyone, including “killers,” “victims of welfare,” and “even strippers.”
Blasphemous Rumours - Depeche Mode (1984) | Depeche Mode’s 1984 single “Blasphemous Rumours,” is based on the reportedly true story of a sixteen-year-old girl who attempted suicide only to live, find God, and soon afterwards be struck by a car, where she met her untimely fate. It was the perverse irony of this story that inspired chief Depeche Mode songwriter Martin Gore to pen the universally felt chorus “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor, and when I die I expect to find him laughing.”
One of Us - Joan Osborne (1995) |You know the song. We all know the song… but thirteen years after its initial release, the idea of God being “just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home” hasn’t become any less potent. Written by Eric Bazilian of The Hooters while working on Osborne’s album Relish, “One of Us” sparked controversy amongst The Catholic League who claimed it came “awfully close to the line of Catholic baiting.” Talk about missing the point.
Hope there’s someone - Antony and the Johnsons (2005) | Antony Hegarty, androgynous front man and super-brain behind Antony and the Johnsons, truly takes himself to the darkest trenches of his being when he examins mortality and the after life in this epic quest for love. In “Hope There’s Someone,” Antony reveals that he is “scared of that middle place between light and nowhere,” and that only love can set his heart free from “the seal’s watershed.”
Heaven - Talking Heads (1979) | Talking Heads’s avant-innovator David Byrne sings about a bar named Heaven in this 1979 track from their third album Fear of Music, where “it’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting and so much fun.” But it doesn’t take long before it becomes evident that this “bar” is a clever analogy for the real thing. And what’s Byrne’s consensus on heaven?” That it’s a “place where nothing ever happens.”
God - Tori Amos (1994) | Here, Amos takes on the notion of God as man by suggesting he needs a “woman to look after” him. References to “witches burning” and a quote from Proverbs 31:3 that begs of God to “give not thy strength unto women” challenge the patriarchy and its secondary placement of women in society. It was also a Modern Rock number-one hit for Ms. Amos back in 1994.
Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen (1984) | Cohen’s immense lyrical talents have been highly influential to countless songwriters and performers over the course of his fifty-year-plus career, but his most covered song is 1984’s “Hallelujah,” which has been given a go by more than 120 artists, most notably Jeff Buckley. Chockfull of religious imagery ranging from Samson and Delilah (“she broke your throne and she cut your hair”) to David’s affair with Bathsheba (“You saw her bathing on the roof”), “Hallelujah” is a cathedral-sized ode to the heavenly highs and hellish lows of love and sex.
All the Trees In the Field Will Clap Their Hands - Sufjan Stevens (2004) | Christian music and the indie scene are far from synonymous, that is unless you plug the name Sufjan Stevens into the equation. His 2004 album Seven Swans is a breathtaking exploration of his deep-rooted Christian faith, and borrows heavily from the bible. In “All the Trees In the Field Will Clap Their Hands,” Stevens earnestly prepares himself for the afterlife by giving himself completely to God.
Dirt in the Ground - Tom Waits (1992) | Nobody does dark quite like Tom Waits. Having examined religion in great depth on prior albums, Waits takes a more practical approach in understanding the afterlife with “Dirt in the Ground.” Here, Waits suggests that wanton dreams of a heavenly eternity are all in vain. Instead, “your spirit don’t leave knowing your face or your name” and “we’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”