The release of Spotify Wrapped every year has become an occasion for an informal examen of the past year. As I flip through my most listened to songs, artists, and genres, I consider why they caught my ear. Alongside my predictable heavy rotation of indie rock, still mostly recognizable as a product of my years as a college radio DJ, there are always some songs that stand out. Among these are usually a handful of songs grappling with God, made by secular artists who are more or less ambivalent about the metaphysical, much less the religious. For a while I have been asking myself why.
There is a lot of ecstatic praise and solemn reverence in our hymnals and missalettes, but not a lot of the heavier aspects of religious practice—doubt, anxiety, anger—even though scripture is full of lament, confusion, and heartbreak. Music can be a way into prayer, as the Psalmist knows well, and prayer does not have to be worship. So where can we go with the things we want to sing about that never seem to be in the opening hymn at 9 o’clock Sunday mass?
As we enter the season of Advent, these songs released in the past year have helped remind me about the divine breaking into the brokenness of the world.
What It Is – Amber Mark
Want to be free, so God tell me please, is it in the stars?
Feel it bones, oh I’ve got to know, tell me what it is
Amber Mark yearns her way through this track, trying to name an elusive feeling that is both deep in her bones and on the tip of her tongue. Her voice is tender and the whole song feels like it is being sung in low light. Ethereal background vocals and a soft R&B groove sit back in the shadows. The song builds, not to some great epiphany, but to a ripping guitar solo that concludes the song in a flash of catharsis. Amber Mark is not interested in answers—far more compelling is the desire that comes first.
Wretched – Bartees Strange
I said to God what I said
On “Wretched,” Bartees Strange proclaims that he is only interested in being who he is, as mysterious as that prospect remains. He is honest with God in a matter-of-fact way, without regret or even a second thought. Still, his upbeat indie pop is haunted by the image on the album’s cover—Jesus, seated at table with His hands resting in front of Him, His pixelated face rendered anonymous. The divine is at once so close to us and yet completely enigmatic.
Stonecatcher – Marcus Mumford
Will I give out only that which I myself was given once?
Where is all the mercy that was promised us?
Perhaps we ask too much
Marcus Mumford places himself in the Gospel of John, imagining himself as the woman caught in adultery, uncertain and afraid. “Who would trace their finger through the dust?” he wonders aloud, stopping short of naming Jesus. Hope for mercy seems equally difficult to find. In a world where retribution and justice are too often the same thing, forgiveness is a heavy task. This isn’t the triumphant folk rock of his previous project, Mumford and Sons. Rather, this is plaintive pop at its best, ably assisted by a master of the genre, Phoebe Bridgers. If this song is a prayer, Mumford isn’t seeking mercy for himself as much as he is longing to be merciful when the time is right.
Head in the Clouds – The Beths
But there’s no soft white light
No one listening to me at night
Like a lot of power pop, underneath the bouncy drive of this earworm is a lot of angst. In this case, it is the story of a relationship on the rocks, two people who are not able to talk to each other, much less God. When everything is falling apart, prayer seems to be both a last ditch effort and a fool’s errand. Still, confronted with her own fickleness, the protagonist realizes that there might not be much else to fall back on, even if it feels like God takes most weekends off. Praying in the dark and wondering if her prayers are heard is still praying.
Oh My God – Shannen Moser
I was working on that farm when I thought that I met God
It was just the sunset setting—watch those colors run
There is something of St. Augustine in this song from Shannen Moser, a tension between finding the Creator in the beauty of creation and mistaking the beauty of creation for the Creator. These experiences of beauty and freedom are confusing, even frustrating, in the midst of lives that are mostly mundane and lonely. Any sliver of the sublime might be a glimpse of the divine. Moser belts “Oh my God” on the song’s chorus and her voice swells over a cinematic accompaniment, filling the horizon with a kind of holy longing.
Lydia Wears a Cross – Julia Jacklin
I’d be a believer if it was all just song and dance
I’d be a believer if I thought we had a chance.
In this song Julia Jacklin reminisces about her childhood surrounded by earnestly religious peers while she was skeptical. At an evangelical church camp or a Wednesday night worship service, the ritual appeals but faith itself does not. So much of it seems to be the function of nostalgia, another artifact of the 90s. Still, something seems to capture her all these years later. Reminiscence brings her back to the scene where, for perhaps only a moment, faith in God seemed like a real thing to have.
Mother I Sober – Kendrick Lamar (feat. Beth Gibbons)
Where’s my faith? Told you I was Christian but just not today
I transformed, praying to the trees, God is taking shape
Kendrick Lamar displays a deep vulnerability on “Mother I Sober.” Rapping softly over a beat that is little more than gently pulsing piano, he digs in. He unearths hard questions and harder truths about addiction, abuse, Blackness, belonging, God. Remembering all this trauma is not for nothing. Kendrick Lamar brings the hard things into the light to turn them over in his hands, hopeful for healing, longing for freedom.
No Body – King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
What was the lesson God?
Are you real or not?
Psych rock and trippy experiences were made for each other, and in “No Body” one of the scene’s best-loved bands takes on the story of a Dante-esque out of body experience. The song feels full of contradictions, a metaphysical jumble of words tangled like the cords between the amp and the pedal board. A reminder, perhaps, that religious experience is not something to be figured out, a neat lesson with learning goals laid out at the beginning of the chapter. Sometimes the most vivid encounters with the divine can leave us more bewildered than we were to begin with.
It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody – Weyes Blood
It’s not just me, it’s everybody
Mercy is the only cure for being so lonely
It is only right and just that a band named for Flannery O’Connor’s best-known novel would write music as Christ-haunted as her work. With a quiet allusion to stigmata, Weyes Blood considers woundedness that is both obvious and easy to hide. In ornamented chamber pop, they muse about the experience of being alone in a crowded room, of feeling one’s own vulnerability so intensely while everyone else around them seems to carry on. As violins softly undulate like the polite conversations of strangers, the listener is invited to consider what might actually need to be said.
Miracles – Alex G
Some things from my past make me feel powerless, well
Baby, I pray for the children and the sinners and the animals too
And I, I pray for you
“Miracles” is perhaps the most religious song on this playlist, despite whatever the critics at Pitchfork think. Alex G is completely sincere—the “miracles and crosses” that lie on his horizon are not easy metaphors but the real thing. He still wrestles with apathy and uncertainty, but he is so in love that these are somehow less looming. Lacking the heavy synthesizer and vocal distortion that feature prominently on the rest of the album, his acoustic guitar here feels like a throwback to something of the teenage innocence on his early demos. In this second naivete, God is not only plausible but real. Alex G prays for everything he can think of and means it.
This is not a definitive list of 2022’s best songs about searching for God, like the periodic “Best Indie Rock of the 2010s” or “Top 100 Albums of All Time” articles that are now a mainstay of music writing online. It’s only an invitation to keep your ears open for God’s voice. They’re hardly church musicians, but music from the likes of Julien Baker, Marvin Gaye, Sufjan Stevens, John Coltrane has at different points made its way into my prayer—who might you add?