I'm looking for interesting music whose theme is spirituality.
February 3, 2004 2:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for interesting music whose theme is spirituality. Whether it's Jim Nabors singing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" or Tibetan throat singers chanting "Om Mani Padme Hum", I want to know about it. [more inside]
posted by vraxoin to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Goodbye, Babylon"
posted by skwm at 2:20 PM on February 3, 2004

Response by poster: Ideally, I'm looking for music that is truly spiritual, that makes you feel closer to God/Buddha/Krishna/higher power as you envision same. I'm especially looking for Christian music that is different and engaging and off the beaten path, but not to the exclusion of anything else. Whatever magnifies your soul, baby.
posted by vraxoin at 2:23 PM on February 3, 2004

i like the anonymous4's recordings of medieval liturgical polyphony and chant (like the english ladymass).

they worked with richard einhorn to put music to the silent film the passion of joan of arc and it's brilliant.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:30 PM on February 3, 2004

"Music for the Soul" a compilation CD by Thomas Moore is one of my favorites.
posted by azul at 2:36 PM on February 3, 2004

two suggestions:

1) every year, there's a pretty incredible festival of sacred music in morocco. see the festival site for more details.

2) wnyc runs a fantastic program called new sounds that frequently runs this sort of music. host john schaefer also curated a disc of all sorts of sacred music, called invocation. highly recommended.
posted by judith at 3:04 PM on February 3, 2004

You may be interested in the music of the Taizé community. Many of their songs are just a single line (or just a few lines) repeated, sung in beautiful four-part harmony.

Several CDs are available; Wait for the Lord has some of my personal favorites on it.

Also, I don't know how familiar you are with classical music, but there's more religion-based classical music than you can shake a stick at. Of course, not all religion-based classical music will fit your definition of "spiritual," but a lot of it will. I'd recommend seeking out Mozart's short piece "Ave Verum Corpus," if you're not already familiar with that--I think that fits the bill nicely. Also, Mahler's 2nd Symphony ("Resurrection"), although that's not everyone's cup of tea. The resurrection referred to is not the resurrection of Jesus, but the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. I tend to lean somewhat agnostic, but Mahler's 2nd does a better job of persuading me that there must be life after death than any rational argument does.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:27 PM on February 3, 2004

Bobby McFerrin does a lovely version of the 23rd Psalm. It's on an album called "Medicine Music". Or if you just want the single, it is on itunes.

Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares sounds a little like god to me, that is, if god were a chorus of Bulgarian women. Most of their lyrics are secular, I think, but the songs are ominous and beautiful like a lot of old school choir pieces.
posted by whatnot at 3:35 PM on February 3, 2004

The most stunning piece of music I've ever heard was produced by Gavin Bryars and features Tom Waits. It takes an old homeless man's sing-song ramblings and turns them into a koan that becomes a prayer, then turns into a chant and finally is just a beautiful mantra. You can get it on Amazon. I recommend it to anyone who believes music can take you to a higher place.

Poi Dog Pondering has a side project called 8FatFat8. They do an amazing version of "This Little Light of Mine" - all dj'ed beats and Charlette Wortham singing her little heart out, it can't help but make you smile. I don't know how to get a copy except by asking directly, but they're great and will sell you one if they've got it in the can somewhere.
posted by pomegranate at 3:40 PM on February 3, 2004

I'm especially looking for Christian music that is different and engaging and off the beaten path...

You must must must pursue Sufjan Stevens - last year's Michigan is superb, but I really recommend (given your focus) that you hold off for Seven Swans, which will be released on March 16. (Web pre-orders will be available at Sounds Familyre in mid-February, or so the website says.) It's soft-spoken, string-filled, semichoral avant-folk music: beautiful.
posted by Marquis at 4:02 PM on February 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Don't forget Elvis' love was gospel, if that will help you.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:11 PM on February 3, 2004

Morningstar Ministries (Out of Charlottte NC) puts out some stuff that just simply rocks. Here you can check out some samples. One of my favorites is from an CD called Fly Me Like the Wind- Come Let's Go Up to the Mountain(scroll down a little.)

Anyhow, you don't get much more off the beaten path than this stuff.

Joanne McPhatter is someone else you should take a listen to.

posted by konolia at 4:24 PM on February 3, 2004

Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) did it for this hardened old materialist many years ago:
Like virtually all of his works, it combines the striking technical achievement of Messiaen’s rich and attractive musical style with a deeply felt theological inspiration - in this case from the apocalyptic events described in the Book of Revelation, leading to the end of Time itself. Composed while Messiaen was a prisoner-of-war and premiered under extraordinary conditions in Stalag VIIIA in 1941, the work retains a powerful immediacy that has made it a favourite of performers and audiences alike.
posted by languagehat at 4:56 PM on February 3, 2004

Elvis won only three Grammys. Two of them were for his magnificent gospel album, How Great Thou Art. Andy Griffith has recorded several gospel albums. A Turkish friend gave me some Dervish CDs that feature the reed flute called a "Ney." Hauntingly spiritual.
posted by planetkyoto at 5:35 PM on February 3, 2004

I've lately become a big fan of Stevie Wonder's albums from the seventies. A wide variety of religious themes permeate his work, and musically it's a feast for the ears and the heart. I began my exploration with Wilson and Alroy's four and five star reviews. I haven't been able to find the Syreeta albums or the one about the plants, but I otherwise recommend everything from Music of My Mind through Songs in the Key of Life.

I'm particularly fond of Fulfillingness' First Finale and Talking Book but my playlist is all these albums all the way through. There's greatness on every one.
posted by wobh at 5:45 PM on February 3, 2004

these are all songs I find uplifting/spiritual in some sense or another:
The Only Way is Up by Yazz
Caravan of Love by either the Isley Brothers/Housemartins (my favorite version)/Flying Pickets
People Get Ready by either Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck(?) or whoever did the original or Eva Cassidy
Galileo by Indigo Girls
Harvest for the World by Isley Brothers or Paul Carrack
Sing Your Life by Morrissey
It Doesn't Have to Be by Erasure
One Small Day by Ultravox
Love Resurrection by Alison Moyet
Ooh Ooh Child by 5 Stairsteps
She Brakes for Rainbows by B52s
No One Is Alone from Into the Woods
(and a lot of Style Council, Housemartins, and Beautiful South songs)
posted by amberglow at 6:09 PM on February 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Don't neglect Blake's "Jerusalem." It's an amazing hymn, and I'm not the least bit religious.

(I love Billy Bragg, but don't hear his version first.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:18 PM on February 3, 2004

I simply cannot overstate my adorance the massive collaboration that is "The Prayer Cycle" Just amazing mesh of many many voices and languages and talents, intensely spiritual without having any particular religion or even culture attached.
posted by nelleish at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2004

These are fairly obvious ones, mostly from the jazz world:

1. Charlie Haden & Hank Jones - Steal Away [1995]
2. Nusrat Fatah Ali Kahn - Devotional & Love Songs [1993]
3. Any of John Zorn's Masada records. I particularly like "Jair" off Masada Alef.
4. Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity [1964]
5. Charles Mingus - Oh Yeah! [1961], "Oh, Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me"
6. Roland Kirk - Blacknuss [1971] which always does it for me, even if it's less immediately apparent.

and the alpha and the omega:
7. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme [1964]
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:19 PM on February 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'll probably get smacked for mentioning the Grateful Dead, or dare I say, Phish. When it comes down to it, all music can serve as spiritual practice. Like breathing.
posted by muckster at 7:34 PM on February 3, 2004

Tibetan chant CD's Grammy hope
posted by homunculus at 7:58 PM on February 3, 2004

Emmylou Harris - "Every Grain of Sand" from Wrecking Ball and "The Pearl" (unbelievable) from Red Dirt Girl.
posted by UKnowForKids at 9:03 PM on February 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

vraxoin - this was one of those questions which simply stopped me cold.......and for that, I thank you. I haven't paid nearly enough attention, lately, to music as a tool which can reinforce or even engineer specific states of consciousness.

When I think of music which is specifically spiritual, I parse that into two grand streams : the quietistic, and the exultative. These are merely two poles in the worship of the divine, certainly , but they are quite distinct.

The quietistic tradition is really the predominant expression of mystical spirituality, whether within the Christian tradition or within Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or - for that matter - pantheistic and shamanistic traditions : all would emphasize the importance of stilling the spirit, body and mind.

And, in the spirit of this first :

Watazumido - Shuso, The Mysterious sounds of the Japanese Bamboo flute - this is from the Zen tradition, a sole Shakahachi flute ( a very large bamboo flute ) by a Zen monk. It has a wild, stark purity which is all spirit - it burns through ego.

Paul Horn's Inside the Taj Mahal and Inside the Taj Mahal 2 provide a natural companion to Zen flute - Sometime around the late 70's, the young and scruffy flutist Paul Horn managed to talk the guards or the management in charge of the Taj Mahal into allowing him to perform and record a solo flute performance within that magnificent structure (which served to commemorate lovers torn apart by fate). This first recording became legendary, and so Horn had full license, for his second session, to deploy high quality recording technology. As with the previous bamboo flute music, Horn's flute playing stills the mind and being. But - while Shuso's art is ephemerally and viscerally haunting, Horn's flute work is less spiritually disturbing : undiluted Shuso is, perhaps for some, too concentrated. Horn's playing, by contrast, is more accessible to Western sensibilities and, further through the echoes within the enourmous Taj Mahal dome and also Horn's use of this natural reverberation, has an ephemeral quality which cuts through the passions like the vision of a vista of distant and snowy mountain peaks.

Homunculus' Tibetan chanting is from this tradition as well.

I also like the recent recordings from the Bulgarian Women's Choir.

There is a vast amount of music of this sort - that which stills the mind and calms the passions - which is available from outside of the Christian tradition but is completely congruent with Christian values. [ For a comparison of the different mystical traditions of the major world religions, see Huston Smith's The Religions of Man ]

Sometimes, I like to listen to recordings of rain, or ocean surf.


OK, that's one musical pole. But - it's late and I need to go to sleep.
posted by troutfishing at 10:49 PM on February 3, 2004

I always thought that Leonard Cohen's song "If It Be Your Will" was a beautiful, reasonably non-denominational song about absolute devotion on a spiritual level. Simple but profound, yada yada. Jewish-raised Canadian Buddhist poet with a lifelong fascination with the image of Christ. Same old, same old.
posted by Hildago at 10:51 PM on February 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Anton Bruckner, who I see as the Hopkins of music. People talk of how you lose all sense of time listening to his hour long pieces.
posted by ifjuly at 11:15 PM on February 3, 2004

Vince Gill - Go Rest High On That Mountain. I'm not Christian, but that song gives me shivers. Ave Maria is another (you'll have to find a version that's right for you, some are wonderful, other versions suck). And as corny as it may sound (and please, don't hurt me), Amazing Grace on bagpipes is wonderful.
posted by deborah at 11:38 PM on February 3, 2004

Magnatune has a few classical albums featuring Eastern Orthodox music, which I find to be supremely moving. You can preview the music on the site.

I can highly recommend Chants of the Russian Orthodox Church and Ancient Church Singing of Byzantine Georgia and Rus. It's soul-shaking stuff.
posted by Ljubljana at 11:48 PM on February 3, 2004

Ladysmith Black Mambazo African acapela, sometimes specifically Christian.

Enigma: French, often with gregorian chants in the background. deliberately intended to invoke spirituality

Deuter Instrumental music intended to be spiritual.

The links are example albums, anything by these artists may qualify. If you want more instrumental, just ask. Its a specialty of mine.

From Rick Wakeman's "No Earthly Connection":
"Let music evolve to guide man to his soul."
posted by Goofyy at 12:22 AM on February 4, 2004

black sabbath : after forever.
posted by sgt.serenity at 12:55 AM on February 4, 2004

Further to Ljubljana's suggestions of Eastern Orthodox music, you might like to sample Sergei Rachmaninov's 'Vespers', a setting for unaccompanied chorus of the Russian/Ukrainian all-night vigil service - it's beautiful. Even more striking, to my ears, is a setting by the composer Einojuhani Rautavaara of the Finnish Orthodox version of the same service: Vigilia.
posted by misteraitch at 1:08 AM on February 4, 2004

I'm not much of one for religion, but the main reason that I lost my strong resentment of Christians is albums like Prince's Lovesexy and Rainbow Children, both of which are album-length ruminations on his spirituality.
posted by anildash at 2:45 AM on February 4, 2004

A second vote for skwm's Goodbye, Babylon. Simply the best box set ever. Five discs of music (gospel themed country, blues, mountain music, and everything else) and one disc of sermons (with the much noted "Death Might Be your Santa Claus" by Rev J.M. Gates and His Congregation). The accompanying book is superb as well. Good post, vraxoin.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 5:45 AM on February 4, 2004

I'm not spiritual (much less Christian), but Uncloudy Day by the Staple Singers is haunting and wonderful. Highly recommended.

The Roches do a great rendition of Hallelujah.

For me, Stevie Ray Vaughan's cover of Little Wing is probably the closest I get to a religious experience through music.
posted by adamrice at 7:00 AM on February 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

i also find lisa gerard (an australian mezzo-soprano/composer who is something of an ethnomusicologist) to be very spiritual--less in a specifically religious experience way and more in a music is profound without expressing something in particular words sort of way. in particular, sanvean (which will eventually be available as a video on her site) moves me deeply in the way mio babbino caro does. a friend of mine calls is a song of infinite longing, but it seems, to me, to have more fulfillment in it than that.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:44 AM on February 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

Lots of good suggestions here. Might I add:

The Pure Moods compilations (I-IV) are a great place to start. Several of the artists above are featured.

Deva Premal's music is eastern/Indian inspired - chants and sitar and that kind of stuff, but not too over the top for western ears (IMO).

Kirtana might be exactly what you're looking for. Very spiritual, very beautiful, non-denominational. She sings about her connection with God and the universe in a deeply stirring way. Her album This Embrace has honestly brought tears to the eyes of most people I've played it for.

I personally find George Winston to be just the right blend of soothing and thought-provoking.

Eva Cassidy's voice is so easy and evocative that she might fit your bill. Her songs are a wide blend of covers of jazz, folk, rock and gospel, and she herself had a strong belief in God. As noted above, her cover of People Get Ready is hauntingly beautiful.

I have an incredible version of Om Mani Padme Hum by some obscure singer whose name I can't remember, unfortunately. I think his last name is Jones, and the name of the album is The Power of I. The rest of the album is so-so, but man - that song sends shivers down my back every time. He received special permission to perform a sacred version by a certain sect of Tibetan monks, and he had several hundred people chanting the back-up. Email me if you're interested and I'll have a look through my CDs.
posted by widdershins at 7:45 AM on February 4, 2004

Over The Rhine
We grew up with the musical mingling common to many of us who were raised in "the church." There were the old hymns that seeped into our souls via our mothers' milk, and then there was the allure of the music we were finding on our radio dials and on our friends' records. In small town America, many of us do grow up in a surreal musical world where Elvis is King, Jesus is Lord.

The records we ended up making document in part our attempts to unravel the tangle of religion we inherited. It's unsettling when someone named Jesus keeps turning up in unexpected places on a double album, but we're by no means the first songwriters to be Christ-haunted.
Innocence Mission
Beauty is still free
Beauty is not exclusive
Beauty is ours to touch and to know
To touch and know

Don't you think there's more?
I really have to know
Don't you think there's more to life?
Don't you think there's more to life?
posted by grabbingsand at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

Vraxion, now you're going to have to tell us what you want it for, and maybe send us CDs of the finished product.
posted by pomegranate at 8:13 AM on February 4, 2004

I fell asleep last night before I got to the "exultative" pole of religious/sacred music.

Oliver Mtukudzi - An outspoken critic of social and political oppression - conveys deep religious and social justice convictions in his music. His Tuku Music is a must-hear classic, with it's bright, upbeat melodies underscored by heart wrenching themes.

I'd second ladysmith Black Mambazo and add, emphatically -

Sweet Honey in the Rock - "Founded in 1973 by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey In The Rock is a Grammy Award-winning African American female a cappella ensemble with deep musical roots in the sacred music of the black church - spirituals, hymns, gospel - as well as jazz and blues."

African Head Charge is a genre bending fusion group whose 5th album, for example, offers : "Songs Of Praise -
A masterpiece two years in the making, the fifth album from African Head Charge features religious chants from all four corners of the Earth. This is bastardized dub with African and Nyabinghi percussion. The esteemed participants on this disc include Bonjo I, Prisoner, Crocodile, Junior Moses, Sunny Akpan, Skip MacDonald of Tackhead and Style Scott of Roots Radics/ New Age Steppers"
- This is enigmatic and atmospheric beat driven fusion which can come close to defying description.

A friend of mine told me, back in about '96, that the group members were Coptic Christians, but I can't Google anything up and now suspect that was a myth.

Ali Farka Toure's music - in a sense blues migrated back to Africa - is considered very spiritual by some. I wouldn't insult him however, with the slightly diminutive "African John lee Hooker" appellation. He is Ali Farka Toure, and he says : ""For some people, when you say 'Timbuktu,' it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world." His album "The Source" is a classic.

I'd venture to call Drum Hat Buddha a type of religious music . "Dave Carter has established himself as a brilliant songwriter. He has been compared to people like Richard Thompson and Towns Van Zandt. Raised in Oklahoma and Texas, his influences came from a music-fearing engineer/mathematician father and a charismatic Christian mother. He spent time working as a psychologist where he practiced meditation and studied dreams. These gave Dave some unique perspectives when it came to songwriting. His songs explore mythic themes of dislocation and love and loss, tales of the hard edge of living in the American heartland. ...The songs on Drum Hat Buddha range from beautiful metaphysical ballads to a good truck-driving song. They are filled with beautiful haunting melodies combined with well-crafted lyrics and beautiful vocal harmonies. Dave plays guitar and banjo and Tracy plays mandolin and fiddle. Tracy's vocals are more prominently featured on this CD than in the past. "

Dave Carter died quite abruptly and unexpectedly about a year ago.

John McLaughlin's Shakti recordings are certainly devotional music - with McLoughlin's wunderkind fire-eating prodigious acoustic guitar , tablas-faster-than-the-speed-of-sound , and violin. Having been a disciple of a famous Indian yogi Shri Chinmoy and delving into Indian philosophy for years, John did what any genius would do: he mastered the classical Indian style. Along with virtuoso tabla player Zakir Hussain, gifted L. Shankar, and master ghatam player T.H. Vinyakaram, John gave life to a style of music that had basked in virtuosity and intensity secretly for centuries. This CD alone changed the way that a whole lot of people listened to music.

I'd second Lisa Gerrard, especially her Duality. defies easy description, but here is one writer's attempt : "A low, dusty drone is soon overcome by Gerrard's "melismatic" wails, wordlessly intensifying, with string accompaniment... then in a rush, flavorful Middle Eastern percussion and flute join her call... Shadow Magnet grows even stronger. (This opener is also the long running track at 7:54.) ......Forcefully pounding drums are counterpointed by Gerrard's initially calm intonations in Tempest......A capella pitches shift and interweave to form the short (1:26), but serene, The Comforter, a chorus of almost monastic quality. Similarly, The Unfolding layers multiple voice tracks, at first without instrumental backing; midway through, orchestral strings swell and rise as does Gerrard's operatically oscillating voice. Depending on the listener's mood, this track could be perceived as being absolutely sorrowful, or resoundingly joyous... or both. "

Also, I've always enjoyed Bach's Brandenburg Concertos quite a bit.

That's my 2 cents.
posted by troutfishing at 8:16 AM on February 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

Stuart Davis "Post-apocalyptic punk monk."

Bhagavan Das. An American who lived in India and now performs kirtans at yoga places.

Krishna Das. Ditto.
posted by goethean at 8:48 AM on February 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

As you probably know, Byrne/Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has several cuts whose source material is "spiritual," but it's up to you whether the final product could be called the same.
posted by soyjoy at 8:55 AM on February 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'm agnostic, but I dig Pedro the Lion and concious dub and reggae. When hit with a proper bassline, I feel Jah!
posted by black8 at 10:21 AM on February 4, 2004

Response by poster: Wow, thanks to everyone (especially troutfishing) for taking time to answer and really coming through with wonderful recommendations.

pomegranate, it's for a course that I'm putting together to teach in church; something about spirit and music. Maybe a historical/geographical overview of sacred music, or something structured on a theme, haven't really gotten that far yet. But I know I want it to be really inclusive and full of things that nobody in attendance had ever heard before.
posted by vraxoin at 12:34 PM on February 4, 2004

I have a soft spot for Willie Nelson's The Troublemaker, which has lapsed into undeserved obscurity.
posted by frykitty at 12:48 AM on February 7, 2004

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