22 songs that are great despite being pro-Jesus

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22 songs that are great despite being pro-Jesus

Even though the birth of Christ is over for another year, there’s still plenty of Christ-centered music to keep you going for another 12 months. Although there are entire genres dedicated to celebrating the big JC—some of them truly terrible (Christian rock) and some of them totally awesome (gospel)—for this Inventory, we picked some of the best pop and rock songs that celebrate, one way or another, Jesus Christ. You don’t need to be a believer to sing (along to) these praises.

1. Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus” (1989)

In its ode to obsessive love, Depeche Mode taught us that your own personal Jesus is surprisingly easy to come by—it’s just a matter of deifying the object of your affection. Songwriter Martin Gore was inspired by Priscilla Presley’s book, Elvis And Me, and her exaltation of her legendary-musician husband. Gore viewed that kind of admiration as a little lopsided and even unfair to the person being revered, even if they do enjoy veneration. But he also accepted its prevalence, given how far away (and potentially nonexistent) the other guy is. Although the band courted controversy by offering to pinch-hit for Christ, it avoided sacrilege by limiting the purview of this personal Jesus. No miracles were performed or offered, aside from excellent listening skills (which probably amounts more to the band subbing for a priest than the son of God). And this more earthly Jesus was accompanied by a synth-pop beat, tremolos, and a bluesy riff that served as a nice nod to the old Hound Dog. [Danette Chavez]

2. Neutral Milk Hotel, “King Of Carrot Flowers Pts Two & Three” (1998)

Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum delivers, “I love you Jesus Christ / Jesus Christ I love you” as one of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’s boldest, least oblique lines. It’s so bold and direct, in fact, that he felt the need to explain right in the liner notes that his words are not intended to pledge any sort of allegiance to The Man or Christianity: “…the theme of endlessness on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white light within them.” So it’s about Jesus and white light and loving Jesus, but also not at all. Makes sense. [Josh Modell]

3. The Doobie Brothers, “Jesus Is Just Alright” (1972)

Although The Doobie Brothers are the band most associated with this composition by songwriter Arthur Reid Reynolds, due to the Doobies pulling a Top 40 hit with it, Reynolds actually recorded it first with his band, the Art Reynolds Singers. The Byrds also recorded a version for their 1969 album, Ballad Of Easy Rider, and even issued it as a single, but Patrick Simmons’ preaching in the middle of the Doobies’ version (“Jesus, he’s my friend…”) helped result in the Brothers doing the best business with the track. Indeed, Simmons apparently convinced more than a few concertgoers that the band was a bunch of Bible thumpers, which was in no way the case, according to lead singer Tom Johnston. “We weren’t anything,” Johnston told SongFacts. “We were just musicians out playing a gig. We didn’t think about that kind of stuff very often.” [Will Harris]

4. The Band, “Christmas Must Be Tonight” (1977)

The subject matter of “Christmas Must Be Tonight” isn’t different from any other song about the birth of Jesus—lest there are any atheists in the foxhole, Rick Danko describes the event in unambiguously holy terms. But because Robbie Robertson’s lyrics frame the tale from a shepherd’s point of view, the mysticism takes on the same kind of everyman realism as the drunkard’s love letter in “Up On Cripple Creek” and the Confederate soldier’s lament in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Danko’s croak—increasingly reminiscent of Disney’s animated Sheriff Of Nottingham—assists with the rootsiness. As a result, this is working-class spirituality; a backwoods church; a Christmas song that, thanks to The Band’s down-home nature, sounds nothing like a Christmas song. [Dan Caffrey]

5. Spacemen 3, “Walkin’ With Jesus” (1986)

As the singer behind the smacked-out gospel-blues of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, Jason Pierce regularly peppers his songs with appeals to the Lord—though as he’s taken pains to explain, he’s not at all religious. His conversations with God all come from a place of save-a-wretch-like-me desperation (It’s no coincidence he named one Spiritualized album Amazing Grace.), beginning with the first one he ever wrote. Spacemen 3’s “Walkin’ With Jesus” finds the Messiah meting out both pity and punishment for Pierce’s “poor child,” lamenting, “You found heaven on Earth, gonna burn for your sin.” But of course, Pierce doesn’t particularly mind. Heaven on Earth isn’t such a bad place to be, after all, so he may as well resolve to have fun in the “long, long time between now and my death”—and besides, when he does go to hell, “I think I’ll be in good company down there with all my friends.” So while he begs Jesus’ forgiveness, he’s already resolved to asking, “Jesus, please meet me at the center of the Earth,” where he can accept his damnation willingly and with a smile on his face. [Sean O’Neal]

6. ZZ Top, “Jesus Just Left Chicago” (1973)

The second track on ZZ Top’s third album, Tres Hombres, “Jesus Just Left Chicago” borrowed its title from an utterance by one of lead guitarist Billy Gibbons’ friends when Gibbons was a teenager, but the song itself tells the tale of the son of God taking a road trip across the U.S, heading from Chicago to New Orleans with an eventual plan to go to California. All told, Jesus comes across as a cool guy who’s “working from one end to the other and all points in between,” and while the lyrics don’t detail much of that work, it’s at least confirmed that Jesus “took a jump through Mississippi,” at which point “muddy water turned to wine.” As ever, it’s a cool trick, and it clearly leaves ZZ Top in awe: At one point, Gibbons exclaims, “Ah, take me with you, Jesus!” [Will Harris]

7. Black Sabbath, “After Forever” (1971)

With a band name like “Black Sabbath,” of course people are going to assume you spend your weekends sacrificing virgins and dedicating goblets of their blood to Satan. That’s what horrified parents and titillated adolescents assumed about Ozzy Osbourne and his bandmates, causing bassist Geezer Butler, who was raised strictly Catholic, to pen the lyrics to “After Forever” in response. Released as the lead single off of the band’s Master Of Reality album, “After Forever” rides on a typically heavy, head-nodding Sabbath groove, with nimble guitar work and crashing cymbals propelling the song forward. The lyrics address long-haired kids carving pentagrams into their school desks—wearing Black Sabbath T-shirts, no doubt—in an attempt to look cool, asking them, “Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say / If they knew you believe in God above? / They should realize before they criticize/ that God is the only way to love.” It’s a direct appeal for metalheads to come back into the loving arms of the Church, meaning that all those years when anti-rock crusaders decried Black Sabbath as Satanic, they were actually alienating their best missionaries. [Katie Rife]

8. Roxy Music, “Psalm” (1973)

One of the first songs ever written by Bryan Ferry, “Psalm” didn’t turn up until Roxy Music’s third album, likely because Stranded was the band’s first full-length studio effort after the departure of Brian Eno from their ranks, putting Ferry in a position where he needed all of the songs he could find. The music finds Roxy Music taking a shot at gospel or some approximation thereof, but the lyrics treat religion seriously and with a tinge of realism, with Ferry singing, “‘Believe in me’ once seemed a good line / Now belief in Jesus is faith more sublime.” Having sung that, however, Ferry is quick to underline that his faith remains strong, first clarifying, “He’s gonna take you by the hand, he’s gonna make you feel good / Open up your eyes and then you’ll see all that you should,” then definitively stating, “He’s all that you need, he’s your everything.” [Will Harris]

9-10. Sufjan Stevens, “To Be Alone With You” and “The Transfiguration” (2004)

Though he’s always steadfastly resisted the label of a religious artist, Sufjan Stevens does identify as a Christian, and his music is brimming with Christian themes, motifs, and references. Jesus himself has made more than a few cameos in the singer’s discography; setting aside the big guy’s obvious starring role in the hours and hours of Christmas music Stevens has made, his most prominent appearances are probably on Sufjan’s Biblically inspired folk record, Seven Swans. On “To Be Alone With You,” Stevens has a direct conversation with Christ, expressing awe and admiration for his sacrifice; on “The Transfiguration,” he retells the titular New Testament episode through a proto-Illinois flush of banjo, horns, and repeated refrains. The two songs—one an intimate devotional, the other a busy and celebratory gospel adaptation—demonstrate the artist’s ability to go both big and small in his investigations of faith, and to invest traditional Sunday-school material with real emotional urgency. However Sufjan chooses to define it himself, this is religious music with grace. [A.A. Dowd]

11. Craig Finn, “New Friend Jesus” (2012)

As a guy who feels “Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers,” Craig Finn has made an entire career out of infusing loserdom with sacredness. The strung-out scenesters in his lyrics—whether part of The Hold Steady or solo song—are just as deserving of the divine as any saint or martyr. Why else would they run into each other at parties so often? “New Friend Jesus” finds one such fuck-up getting chummy with the messiah himself, giving into JC’s grace while also taking advantage of it by asking him to play in his band. But even Jesus has his flaws in the modern world, especially when it comes to playing sports. As Finn sighs, “It’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands.” Suddenly, the holy feels more human than ever. [Dan Caffrey]

12. King Missile, “Jesus Was Way Cool” (1990)

King Missile frontman John S. Hall has claimed on more than one occasion that “Jesus got me signed to Atlantic Records,” and although he was probably joking, it’s not entirely untrue: It was indeed the band’s single, “Jesus Was Way Cool,” that raised King Missile’s profile to a point where major labels were scoping them out. One can’t help but wonder how many confused young kids found their way into Christianity after hearing Hall talking up all the hypothetical accomplishments Jesus could’ve pulled off, like playing guitar better than Jimi Hendrix to turning sugar into cocaine or vitamin pills into amphetamines. [Will Harris]

13. Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit In The Sky” (1969)

One does not immediately associate a jaunty song about befriending Jesus to ensure a good spot in the afterlife with a Jewish hippie named Norman Greenbaum. But “Spirit In The Sky” remains near-ubiquitous 46 years after its release. The lyrics are simple, but decidedly pro-Jesus. You want to make it to heaven, so be buds with Jesus and he’ll give you a good reference once you croak. (“Prepare yourself you know it’s a must / Gotta have a friend in Jesus / So you know that when you die / He’s gonna recommend you / To the spirit in the sky.”) But what’s so great about “Spirit In The Sky” is its words-to-live-by message paired with the fuzzed-out chugging guitars and that fleeting beeping sound that gives the song a decidedly more modern (for the time, anyway) feel. It’s a gospel message with a blues-based, psychedelic beat. While Norman Greenbaum may sound like a name that’s more likely to be your kindly optometrist than a guy who defined his career by signing about the son of God, it’s a good thing he found a friend in Jesus. [Molly Eichel]

14. Violent Femmes, “Jesus Walking On The Water” (1984)

Given the the angsty, borderline testy, sometimes emotionally fraught content of Violent Femmes hits like “Blister In The Sun” and “Kiss Off,” it’s not immediately clear what to make of “Jesus Walking On The Water”—is singer Gordon Gano singing with his tongue in cheek, covering an old folk song with a Violent Femmes spin, or using Jesus as a metaphor for angrily crying while masturbating or something? But no, none of the above: “Jesus Walking On The Water” is a Gano original, and it’s sung with genuine awe about the miracles of Christ. Gano was raised Christian and his Jesus song, while as urgent and catchy as other Violent Femmes tunes, has the simplicity of an old-fashioned devotional song. That such devotion could wind up on a hits compilation right before “36-24-36” must say something about the power of Christ. [Jesse Hassenger]

15. Kelley Stoltz, “If You Ever Thought Of Coming Back” (2006)

Stoltz addresses this song directly to the man from Nazareth, opening up with, “Jesus Christ, what you been doing all this time?” Then he gently nudging his Lord and Savior with a chorus of, “if you ever thought of coming back, well, now is the time.” But even a die-hard atheist can love the song because of the other beatific longhair with a message of love Stoltz worships—Brian Wilson. From the opening “Be My Baby” drumbeat and wordless harmonies that lead into that first line, Stoltz managed to recreate the buoyant, sunny melodies of the Beach Boys in their prime. Given how many other artists have tried and failed, recapturing that magic might be more impressive than the old water-into-wine trick. [Mike Vago]

16. Tom Waits, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” (1992)

Tom Waits would get much more subversive when talking about the son of God on 1999’s Mule Variations, which contains both “Chocolate Jesus” and “Come On Up To The House.” But seven years earlier, he made his death-is-coming-to-get-me record with Bone Machine. The album’s obsession with fatalism perhaps explains why he sounds so sincere and resigned on “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” As skeletal guitar dances with a stomp box, Waits eagerly anticipates the Lord coming to take him away. An alcoholic in life, his narrator believes he’ll be much better off after he’s gone, and judging from the defeatist slump in his bastardized gospel wail, so will the world. [Dan Caffrey]

17. Velvet Underground, “Jesus” (1969)

While Lou Reed’s songwriting with the Velvet Underground is hailed as groundbreaking for the grittiness of songs like “I’m Waiting For The Man,” “Heroin,” and “Venus In Furs,” Reed’s greatest gift as a songwriter may be the quiet vulnerability he shows in this simple, affecting song. The only lyrics, beyond the title are two simple pleas: “Help me find my proper place,” and “Help me in my weakness, ’cause I’m falling out of grace.” While Jesus would surely appreciate those words, as Reed humbly acknowledges his faults and asks for guidance and forgiveness, the song creates a powerfully human moment that you don’t have to believe in the divine to be moved by. [Mike Vago]

18. The Promise Ring, “B Is For Bethlehem” (1997)

It’s not altogether clear what the meaning behind “B Is For Bethlehem” is, but one thing’s for sure: It’s definitely at least sort of about Jesus. The second-to-last track on 2007’s Nothing Feels Good, the song elliptically plays with the idea of Jesus as a savior, the concept of what it means to have a role in the life of those who live and die with only the most tangential relation to this figure who supposedly gave his life for them. There are references to muscles, blood—tangibles indicators of life, compared to the wholly intangible notion of a Christ figure sent long ago to save us. “Jesus was a fisherman, fishing men from the devil’s hand,” goes the refrain, and singer Davey Von Bohlen’s plaintive croon is the ideal vehicle for such an ambiguous expression of religious notions. He makes Jesus sound earnestly secular, especially because the song fucking rocks—something we know Christian rock never does. [Alex McCown]

19. The Flaming Lips, “Shine On Sweet Jesus” (1990)

The Flaming Lips were on an evangelical trip as the band entered the ’90s. The title of the album that kicked off the decade, In A Priest Driven Ambulance, reveals a lot, as did that record’s leadoff track. After a few church-organ chords, “Shine On Sweet Jesus” kicks in, as resounding and inspiring as any revivalist hymn. Wayne Coyne at his loud, nasally best is watching the water rise, getting lost in the tide, as Jesus floats by. The proclamation of the song title interjects the verses, anchored by a deep, spiritually authoritative vocal. Coyne tosses off possibly the perfect definition of faith when he sings, “While I’m still myself / Your blankets covered me / Covered me while I was still asleep.” This is far from the only religious-themed song on the album, as it also features “God Walks Among Us Now,” and even ends with a sweet cover of “What A Wonderful World.’ But “Shine On Sweet Jesus” immediately lets the listener know that the priest is actually driving the ambulance. [Gwen Ihnat]

20. Bruce Springsteen, “Jesus Was An Only Son” (2005)

Leave it to the boss to make a song about Jesus all about his relationship with his mom. Finding the all-too-human in the religious icon, his song from Devils & Dust takes a step away from the son of God to focus on the son of Mary, his mother. It’s about our connection to humanity housing whatever trace of divinity we may have within us, and how the choices that children make have to stand apart from whatever hopes and dreams (and fears) the parent might hold for them. In this case, death—Jesus’ ultimate destiny—is revealed as something he couldn’t help but think about trying to avoid, and how that relationship with his earthly mother manifests all the basic human desires that can threaten a path. Springsteen explains the song in detail on his episode of VH1’s Storytellers, but it’s not half as insightful as the song itself. [Alex McCown]

21. Soundgarden, “Jesus Christ Pose” (1991)

Okay, so Chris Cornell might not be explicitly talking about the son of God here, but the song doesn’t make any sense unless you know the story of the crucifixion. Much more about the bullshit posturing of public figures who see themselves as self-sacrificial martyrs on the altars of their own beatification, “Jesus Christ Pose” is a takedown of the culture of idolatry that characterizes so much of our popular culture. Set to a breakneck pace of frenzied rhythm, paired with Kim Thayil’s wailing guitar riff, it’s an angry, sneering middle finger to celebrity worship and the ego-stroking ways of everyone trying to extend their 15 minutes of fame. Plus, you can’t beat the opening text crawl of the music video: “And God so loved Soundgarden he gave them his only song.” Amen. [Alex McCown]

22. Big Star, “Jesus Christ” (1978)

If only we heard this song as much as “Wonderful Christmastime” during the holiday season. Big Star’s Third (a.k.a. Sister Lovers) is known mostly as an Alex Chilton solo album, with some collaboration from drummer Jody Stephens (and the two were in fact dating sisters at the time). Many point to the eerie tracks that fill the record as evidence of Chilton’s fast-fading mental state while recording (recorded in 1974, the record wasn’t released until 1978). But in the midst of the haunting “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust” stands an affecting ode to the actual birth of Christ. A nostalgic-sounding keyboard leads into a clean guitar sound, which Chilton leads by describing “Angels from the realms of glory.” He draws from standard hymns as he crafts lines like, “Lo, they did rejoice / Fine and pure of voice,” leading up to the simple chorus “Jesus Christ was born today /Jesus Christ was born,” augmented by sleigh bells. Even a sax solo can’t ruin this religious carol with Big Star’s pop sensibility: It needs to be on many more Christmas playlists. [Gwen Ihnat]