5 Holy Holy Holy – Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan Stevens’ version of Holy HolyHoly is a sorrowful, mournful, almost pleadingly brilliant take on a typical religious hymn. One of the downfalls of religious music is that it often times is sung without any passion (ironic, if you ask me). Passion, however, is in no lack in this version of Holy HolyHoly. Again, while Sufjan Stevens are talking about god as interpreted by Christianity, the song instantly becomes accessible to those of any religion, or of no religion. Anyone in touch with a sense of spirituality is able to understand what it means for something to be holy, and the ability to connect to that meaning is what Sufjan Stevens provides us. The dichotomy of the male vs. female voices and the perfectly plucked guitar is slow and sorrowful, yet there is a hope in the lyrics as expressed by Sufjan Stevens that is impeccably, and perfectly, soft.
4 Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing– Mumford and Sons
While Mumford and Sons talk extensively about the spiritual nature of their music, Come Thou Fount is actually a “straight up” religious song. Funny to be covered by a folk band whose breakthrough song’s chorus features the phrase “I really f*cked it up this time”. What this cover shows us is that music is something that is truly universally accessible. Whether or not you’re singing about Jesus, or god, or Muhammad, the message behind the music – and especially of this song – is a virtue of humankind. Mumford and Sons evoke this message perfectly in their beautiful harmonizing abilities and nostalgic folk guitar. It doesn’t so matter what you seek, so long as you seek something to awake a blessing, and a peace, within you.
3 Down To The River to Pray – Alison Krauss
Featured in the brilliant film “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” this version of Down to the River to Pray is soulful and simplistically beautiful. Krauss’ voice touches your soul in a way that few are able to do. The harmonies featured on the soundtrack are undeniably powerful. There’s a desperation in the lyrics that makes its way out of the speakers and into your heart. There is a slight contradiction to the fact that a song about giving all up for the lord is being used for a blockbuster film, but that point is moot when you consider the beautiful artistry of Alison Krauss & co.’s vocal abilities. It makes you want to cry, whether you believe in god or not. There is a unity present in the harmonies, and in the lyrics, that we all strive towards, and this song makes you feel like it might just be reachable.
2 Tell It On The Mountain – Peter, Paul & Mary
Peter, Paul, and Mary’s cover of Tell it on the Mountain is truly touching. Through the perfectly strummed guitar, or the melodically soothing harmonies (an inimitable aspect of what makes Peter, Paul, & Mary so brilliant) we are brought into the world of the African-American spirituality. As champions of the civil rights movement, it is apt that Peter, Paul, & Mary would chose to sing this song. It has been adapted by your prototypical Caucasian Christian religions as a song celebrating Jesus, due to the line “go tell it on the mountain/that Jesus Christ is born”. However, the overriding theme is “go tell it on the mountain/to let my people go”. Peter, Paul, & Mary manage to evoke a deep visceral reaction in the listener. Whether you are religious or not, anyone with a decent soul is opposed to racial intolerance, and this song reminds us all that while we have come quite a far way, there is still plenty more to go.
1 That Lonesome Valley – Pete Seeger
You wouldn’t expect one of the grandfathers of folk music, a self-declared communist, and environmental activist to cover a song whose main lines are about Daniel, a bible hero, and John the Baptist. However, when Seeger covers That Lonesome Valley, he aptly converges the old and new in a brilliant moment of folk genius. Taking a typical, beautiful gospel song and infusing it with the overtones of what the folk movement means. What Seeger is able to do in his absolute genius is to bring together all types of people through a love of music. His exceptional guitar playing combined with his amazing folksy voice makes the song all the more touching, even if you don’t ascribe to the bible’s version of religion. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you believe – you are going to have to walk that lonesome valley by yourself, but as long as you’ve got the music in your heart you’ll never truly be alone – and that can be enough of a spiritual guide than any religious figure. It is that message that Seeger manages to espouse in his cover of this prototypical gospel song.