Religious Music

October 18, 2012 | 12 comments
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I’m a big fan of religious music. Some, at least.1

The religious albums currently in heavy rotation in my house:

Dave Douglas Quintet, Be Still. Dave Douglas is a jazz trumpeter. Be Still includes several songs his mother picked for him to play at her funeral, including “Be Still My Soul” and “God Be With You,” both found in our hymnbook. This album, though, isn’t exactly jazz; it’s got its jazz roots, of course, but also folk and bluegrass and Americana and other influences. Aoife O’ Donovan (singer in the bluegrass band Crooked Stills) sings on a number of the songs. And it has a beautiful, floating, ethereal sound. The band is wonderful, and coalesces around beautiful melodies and improvisations, but it never feels like it belongs on earth, and it never feels weighed down by earthly concerns. It took a few listens to fall in love, but, between the backstory, the song choice, and the execution, it may be the most powerful album of religious music I own.

The Sabre Rattlers, Twixt Me and the Peaceful Rest. In the late ’90s, early 2000s, all the rage at BYU seemed to be pop-punk bands covering hymns and (especially) Primary songs.2 Man, was that annoying. Mark Abernathy and his The Sabre Rattlers are a perfect counterpoint to that. Mark arranges and sings several songs from the LDS hymnbook in a number of Americana styles, from piano-based boogie to classic country. And it works. It doesn’t sound like he’s trying to shoehorn songs into a genre because he knows that particular genre; instead, the album feels like he picked the songs, tore them apart to discover their essence, and rebuilt them focusing on that. Plus, the album just rocks. The arrangements, the musicians, his voice. Except when my iPod dies, this is the soundtrack of Sunday mornings driving to church.

Why Not Sea Monsters? Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures and Songs from the New Testament. I’ve mentioned before that I love Justin Roberts. He’s a great kindie rock musician, creating worlds that combine a kid’s imagination with an indie/punk rock aesthetic. It turns out that Roberts discovered his gifts as a kid’s musician as he did graduate work at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he studied the philosophy of religion. Most of his music is secular (and awesome), but he has released two albums of music based on scriptural stories. The melodies are catchy and Roberts is a master wordsmith. And, for my money, his songs capture the essence of scriptural stories way better than almost any other religious music I’ve heard.

So what do you listen to when you want to listen to religious music?3

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Back in high school, I’d watch BET just about every Sunday night because every Sunday night BET played two hours of gospel choirs, which I really and truly enjoyed.
  2. Unless I’m misremembering my final year or so of college.
  3. Note that I’m talking deliberately religious music here; I’m not interested in uplifting, whatever that is. I would argue that Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” with its pure joy, is one of the most uplifting songs ever written, but it is not religious.

12 Responses to Religious Music

  1. H. Bob on October 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Mahalia Jackson, The Power and the Glory. The Sunday music of my youth (and yes, I’m a born-n-bred Utah Mormon, though not a typical one). I’m going to have to check out those three, though. Sound like the kind of stuff I’d like, religious or not.

  2. Tim on October 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I don’t listen to a whole lot of religious music, but I do enjoy a lot of what Neal Morse has done as a solo artist, in particular his “One” album. It’s progressive Christian rock.

    I like good Christmas music, particularly if it’s religious instead of pop. Trans-Siberian Orchestra puts a heavier, more bombastic twist on their Christmas albums, and they’re definitely religious in nature. (Most of their stuff I’ve heard on the radio leans towards the lighter, more traditional side, but their albums are filled with heavier songs, many of them entirely original).

    I also respect bands that aren’t “Christian” but still find time to address faith, doubt, and other religious themes every once in a while.

  3. Ben S. on October 18, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Divna- The Glory of Byzantium; The Soul of Orthodox Chant; Au Theatre des Abessees

    Chorovaya Akademia- Ancient Echoes (Russian Liturgical Music)

    Chanticleer0 Magnificat; Mysteria; (And selected non-English Christmas music)

    John Tavener- Svyati; AS one who has slept.

  4. Hansel on October 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Two favorites that play in our house every Sunday are: Brett Rayond’s “Primarily for Grown-Ups” (the first one), and Kenneth Cope’s “Stories From Eden’s Garden”. They’re both over 15 years old, but we never grow tired of them.

    I had given up on finding a new copy of “Primarily for Grown-Ups” when I recently found it for download on Deseret Book’s website. The other is available on iTunes.

  5. Mark B. on October 18, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Bach’s Mass in B Minor and the St. Matthew Passion, Verdi’s and Mozart’s Requiems, Handel’s Messiah–by the right “band.” And this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUhU0HgTq94

  6. Rachel Whipple on October 18, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    I like Greg Brown. He did an album of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience put to music. I count that as religious music.

  7. Alex on October 18, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    My favorite religious group is bluegrass Utah locals The Lower Lights. I put their first album on our mission office computer and pretty soon it spread to every companionship (pretty rare when most missionaries weren’t branching out past their stale old EFY CDs).

    The first album, A Hymn Revival, is my favorite. Their takes on “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” and “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy” are beautiful.

  8. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 22, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Blind Boys of Alabama singing Amazing Grace to the melody from House of the Rising Sun.

  9. Cameron N on October 24, 2012 at 2:25 am

    Alex – Thanks for sharing! I love this style of folksy hymn. I’ve been on a simple gifts kick lately and was just called as ward music chairman. Surely this validates every personal musical taste I have, right?!?

  10. Steve Smith on October 24, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Indian classical music is my preference for religious music.

  11. Hinged on October 24, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    They Might Be Giants, “Here Comes Science.” “Science is Real” is a favorite song of ours that helps us keep our kids grounded. And we listen to Neil Young With Crazy Horse. Country music is the genre we switch to for special Sundays. Oh, and Marty Robbins Gunfighter Ballads.

  12. Allen on October 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Ben S.,
    Good taste! Divna Ljuboevic is wonderful.
    I also enjoy a lot of Isihia’s folkish renditions of Bulgarian liturgy.
    Optina Pustyn’s website has a lot of music listenable for free. http://www.optina.ru/audio/songs/